The Council of Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church, meeting this week by video conference, narrowly decided to communicate with Neland Avenue CRC, grieving Neland's decision to ordain a deacon who is actively involved in a same-sex relationship.
Neland Avenue, a CRC congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich., nominated and installed a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage this spring. News of that action became known to other member churches of the denomination after Neland’s council sent a letter in August to its congregation describing how it arrived at that decision. Classis Grand Rapids East (the regional group of churches to which Neland Avenue belongs) received that letter as well and took no action at its recent meeting.
Classis Minnkota, a group of Christian Reformed congregations mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, and the council of Cottonwood Church, a Christian Reformed congregation in Jenison, Mich., sent letters of concern over that action to the Council of Delegates as well as to Neland’s council and to Classis Grand Rapids East.
The Minnkota letter reads: “Classis Minnkota appeals to the Council of Delegates to speak into this situation by instructing Classis Grand Rapids East and the Council of Neland Avenue CRC to comply with Scripture, our Reformed confessions, our Church Order, and synodical decisions on sexuality (1973, 2002, 2016). All synodical decisions are settled and binding unless proven they conflict with God’s Word or the Church Order (Art. 29). This is in part what it means to be in covenant with other churches.”
The Council of Delegates considered responding to Minnkota and Cottonwood with an open letter that would be made available to all CRC congregations. The letter was drafted by the Council’s executive committee. But several delegates were not comfortable with the letter.
Lora Copely, Classis Red Mesa, noted, “Neland broke covenant with the congregations, but (with this letter) it feels like protestors (of that action) are getting chastised. I would ask that the executive committee write a letter to Neland, reproving them,” she said.
Bruce DeKam, Classis Northern Michigan, also didn’t like the letter. “It’s not forceful enough. It skirts too much around an issue that really has potential to split the church and cause a lot of pain.”
Roger Sparks, Classis Minnkota, also spoke against a response that would ask concerned churches to wait through the process of congregational, classical, and synodical accountability, without addressing Neland on its action. “There is a challenge (to churches) to be patient,” Sparks said. “I can be patient, but if you’re telling us to be patient without addressing the impatience of Neland, that’s not going to fly very well.”
The delegates decided to table the letter and ask the executive committee to reconsider it.
And then the council chose, by a narrow margin, to communicate directly with Neland Avenue CRC.
In a vote of 24 yes votes, 20 no votes, and one delegate abstaining, the council decided to “send a letter to Neland Avenue CRC grieving Neland's decision to break covenant with the CRC and ordain a deacon who is actively involved in a same-sex relationship before Synod 2021 has addressed the Report on Human Sexuality.” The executive committee was tasked with writing that letter.
Aaljte Van Grootheest, Canadian delegate at large, spoke against sending the letter to Neland, because she felt it exceeded the mandate of the Council. “We are overstepping,” she said. “We have to be very, very careful here. We shouldn’t take sides with synod going to be looking at this not too far down the road.” Synod 2021 is to receive the final report of the human sexuality committee struck by Synod 2016. “There are many churches that would welcome something along this line (of Neland’s action). Procedurally, this is not our role,” Van Grootheest said.
Sam Sutter, Classis Atlantic Northeast, said he has mixed feelings. “I appreciate how carefully the executive committee avoided overstep,” he said, but he wished the Council to speak clearly. “After so much feedback, we have to make sure the perception is that we are unhappy with Neland’s actions. Neland put a gauntlet down. Silence is tacit approval.”
Fifteen delegates registered their negative votes on sending a letter to Neland: Van Grootheest, Peter DeVries (Classis Yellowstone), Wayne Brower (Classis Holland), Heather Cowie (Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan), Dave Struyk (Classis Grand Rapids South), Michelle Kool (Classis Alberta North), Sam Cooper (Classis Toronto), Laurie Harkema (Classis Lake Erie), Gary Bos (Classis Columbia), Melissa VanDyk (at large delegate, Canada), Adrian deLange (Classis Rocky Mountain), Theodore Lim (Classis Ko-Am), Elsa Fennema (at large, U.S.), Jeanne Engelhard (Classis Grand Rapids East), and Arie Vander Zouwen (Classis North Cascades).