Clarifying Synod 2016’s Decisions on Pastoral Advice Regarding Same-Sex Marriage

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It’s been several months since Synod 2016 made decisions about the reports from the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance Regarding Same-Sex Marriage. (Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.)

In that time, there has been considerable confusion regarding what synod did when it recommended the more restrictive advice from the minority of the committee. Did synod make binding decisions or were the decisions simply recommendations?

What follows is an interview with Rev. Peter Hoytema, pastor of Westmount CRC in Strathroy, Ont., who was the reporter for the synod committee that dealt with the report.

The Banner (TB): Why is there such confusion about what Synod 2016 decided?

Hoytema: Synod received both the majority and minority reports from the study committee. It’s the phrase “recommend to the churches the pastoral guidance of the minority report” that has led some to wonder whether synod adopted official policy that churches must follow, or if it simply recommended guidance that is pastoral and non-regulatory in nature. (See Agenda for Synod 2016, pp. 436-43.)

TB: So is what Synod 2016 decided binding or not?

Hoytema: In fact, it is both. It decided that officebearers in the CRC are prohibited from solemnizing same-sex marriages, based on the minority report’s determination that such marriages are in conflict with the Word of God. To reinforce the binding nature of what it adopted, synod placed a reference to this decision in the Supplement to Article 69-c of the Church Order.

However, it should be remembered that while a pastor who solemnizes a same sex marriage may be disciplined for doing so, this new Supplement to Article 69-c indicates that a same-sex marriage is one example of how synod has determined that a marriage is considered to be in conflict with the Word of God. Discipline ought not to be given to that pastor any more eagerly or severely than it is given to one who solemnizes a marriage that is contrary to the Word of God for completely different reasons, examples of which are numerous.

TB: What parts of Synod 2016’s decision are not binding?

Hoytema: The advice recommended by synod indicates that “participating” in a same-sex wedding ceremony is something officebearers should avoid. It does not specify exactly what such participation entails, nor does it prohibit it outright. It conveys a tone that is more cautionary than rigid. Nothing about the prospect of officebearers being disciplined for even participating at a same-sex wedding ceremony was ever recommended or adopted.

TB: What does this decision say to churches regarding enfolding those who are same-sex attracted?

Hoytema: This was not the focus of synod’s work. The focus of this synod’s work was on determining the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and on providing pastoral guidance in that specific context.
The question you raise is something previous synods have considered. It is also something the newly appointed Committee to Articulate a Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality will address.

TB: What are your hopes for the report from that committee?

Hoytema: It is my personal hope that the subject of homosexuality will actually occupy a small place in that committee’s report.

It has become clear to me that committee reports and the adoption of denominational code are not the most effective strategies in dealing with this issue. What’s more, there are other aspects of human sexuality that are deeply pastoral in nature (e.g. pornography), which I believe we have ignored for too long and therefore require more urgent attention.

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (7)


Thanks for this, Peter.  It's helpful.  I am confused by the answer you give to the question about enfolding those who are same-sex attracted.  You say this was not the focus of this synod's work.  I don't get that.  The pastoral advice of Synod 2016 is to put same-sex married people under discipline.  The same-sex married people in the church of which I'm a member feel that this synod had all kinds of things to say about their (non) enfolding, and that the tone of this year's synod was very different from the enfolding tone of 1973 and 2002. I wish it were true that this synod didn't address matters of enfolding same-sex folks.  Unfortunately, that's not the message I get from the Membership section of the Minority Report.

The point that Duane brings up is a pretty big one. There are people in our congregations (baptized & professing, as well as attending) who consider the 2016 decision “against them.” While this may not be solved in an “open and affirming” position for the CRC theologically, this idea of “enfolding” relates to marriage, but has a lot of deep levels to it.

Thanks for your comments, Duane.  What I was attempting to convey was that the task of enfolding those who are same-sex attracted into the life and ministries of congregations is much broader than the specific matter of affirming same-sex marriage, though the two are obviously related.  While you are correct in your reading of the Minority report's advice regarding discipline, I personally would find it most regretable if local church leaders interpreted synod's recommendation of pastoral guidance as validation for a campaign that seeks to discipline individuals in one specific target group.        

It seems to me that the advisory committee bypassed the main issue of the study committee mandate and report which was, in effect, "Given what previous synods have affirmed in its reports, how do we enfold same-sex married people in our congregations?"

The study committee dealt extensively with enfolding. The minority report agreed with the majority of the report but offered qualifications on the matter of office bearers participating in same-sex marriages.

Synod completely ignored the enfolding and focused only on the office-bearer participation. In doing so it took a huge step backward from the previous reports which emphasised enfolding but did not give any guidance for how to do it. That was the task of this most recent study committee and report. They did a superb job of threading the narrow path synod gave them. Synod 2016 saw the ramifications of what had been previously affirmed and panicked.

Yes, same-sex attracted and married people in our congregations have good reason for seeing synod's decisions as against them.

Steve, I appreciate the way you highlight the pastoral breadth and sensitivity conveyed in earlier synodical reports.  But your description of the most recent study committee's mandate as "given what previous synods have affirmed in its reports, how do we enfold same-sex married people in our congregations" is incorrect.  For the sake of clarity, here is the precise mandate given to the study committee back in 2013:  "to give guidance and clarification on how members, clergy, and churches can apply the biblical teachings reflected in the Acts of Synod 1973 Report 42 (cf. also the report to Synod 2002) in light of the legality of same-sex marriage in certain jurisdictions, as well as how to communicate these teachings in a truthful and gracious way within North America."  I mention this not because the task of enfolding same-sex attracted individuals in our congregations is unimportant.  I believe it is very important and that generally speaking the CRC has failed to implement the pastoral guidance affirmed by previous synods.  But the main focus of Synod 2016 was on applying previously agreed upon Biblical teaching to the specific context of same-sex marriage.  So no, synod did not panic when it considered "the ramifications of what had been previously affirmed."  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  It is precisely because previous synods have determined that same-sex sexual behavior is sinful that this year's synod agreed with the Minority Report's assessment that same-sex marriage, with the exception of a celibate same-sex marriage, is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.  I hope you understand that my purpose in commenting is strictly related to conveying the work of synod accurately.           

So what we have here is the Banner attempting to clarify, via the Synodical Study Committee reporter what their work meant by offering interpretation and application. It's not unusual for Synods to leave us with muddled and garbled policies. Assemblies by their nature are biased towards compromise and equivocation. Our polity doesn't really lend itself towards policy and enforcement. What really governs in our post-discipline age is will of councils and classes to voluntarily submit and conform. 

A look around at other denominations reveals that what really determines a denominational stance on this issue is the willingness of an assembly or a church officer (like a bishop) to discipline a violator. In the RCA the affirming churches persist because their classes shield them from an increasingly conservative RCA General Synod. The UMC has been in the midst of that battle for a long time now. The same sex marriage revolution has been waged from below daring church officials to get the rust off long neglected discipline machinery. In many cases churches would rather affirm than discipline. That then becomes the test. 

What does this mean for the CRC?

A now "dismissed with thanks" Advisory committee may help shine light on "what were they thinking" but they really can't say "this is the way it is in the CRC from now on". If it's a mist in the Acts of Synod it will be a fog in the churches. 

The irony of all of this is that the place to watch will be the Classes, the most neglected, under-funded and haphazard level of our polity.  We've got 5 years before Synod will likely speak again. Given the speed at which these issues are moving in our broader cultural environment it seems hard to imagine things on the ground in a thousand churches can be put on ice. 

Does our system of church government really lend itself to leadership? Where, how and will the CRC find leadership on this issue? Where does leadership come from and how it it exerted in our system? We seem to have no idea. 

"Minority Report's assessment that same-sex marriage, with the exception of a celibate same-sex marriage, is contrary to the teaching of Scripture" . 

How do you square this with  "that marriage is between one and one woman"?