Council of Delegates Discusses Neland Avenue CRC

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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).

About the Author

Alissa Vernon is the news editor for The Banner.

See comments (5)


Alissa - thank you for your journalism! This was a complicated discussion made more awkward by the zoom format. (I'm not sure that anyone was really happy about the outcome- and the discussion is just getting started)  But you did an outstanding job at capturing it. - Not an easy task - but you rocked it without getting sensational or divisive. THANK YOU!

Alissa - I want to thank you as well for this little glimpse into what was clearly both a complicated conversation and a significantly divided decision.  Just for clarification, is there still ALSO an open letter sent to Minnkota and Cottonwood?  Or is the only letter the one sent to Neland Ave CRC?  And will the letter to Neland Ave be open/available for all to see?  I've read the article - but the answer to those questions still seem unclear to me.

Samuel - I see you are quoted above as a COD member and also entered a comment below.  I'm interested in the comment you made above where you said, "After so much feedback..."  Can you help me understand that comment?  Is there more feedback than listed above?  Or was COD considering additional 'unofficial' feedback? 

In general, I find this conversation very complicated.

I think I understand Lora Copely's sense - that sending a response letter to Minnkota/Cottonwood saying, "You're doing this wrong; COD does not administer discipline; please overture Synod" might feel like slapping them on the wrist for reaching out.  And turning it into an open letter might feel like shaming them in a public way.  I would hope there's a better way to respond to their concerns.

But addressing a letter to Neland Ave, when they did not initiate correspondence with the COD (instead, they initiated correspondence with Classis GRE, as mentioned above) - that seems like COD has just created a new pathway to 'discipline' or a round-about path of accountability?

I'd be helped with a little more explanation of HOW this letter functions. Is Neland Ave asked to 'write back' to the COD? Or was there any representative from Neland Ave at the meeting to provide some explanation in person?  Does Neland Ave feel like they 'broke covenant'? 

From my reading of their letter to the congregation (and also sent to classis GRE; and posted on some social network), it seems to me that Neland Ave sees themselves as trying very hard to understand what it means to 'be in covenant together' and how our Synodical decisions function. They've been in conversation with their classis, with their church visitors, with the best people regarding Church order. Maybe after all that work, they are wrong in how the history of our covenant together reads - but that should probably be an open conversation that welcomes all voices to the table (including Neland's).

And did COD also write a letter to Classis Grand Rapids East?  Did the COD invite multiple members of classis GRE into the conversation, asking why they chose NOT to respond in any way to the letter Neland Ave sent to them?  Did COD say decide to tell classis GRE that they also broke covenant with the CRCNA?  I ask partly because the Minnkota letter above asks COD to not only correspond with Neland, but also to correspond with Classis GRE. If COD did not do that, COD's actions seem inconsistent to me. (I myself think both a letter to Neland Ave and to Classis GRE would be over-reaching the COD's covenanted authority; but at least the COD would be consistent.)

If Neland installed a practicing same-sex person after prayer, discussion and in good conscious as "unto thr Lord", there is no breaking of covenant. We go astray when 'breaking of covenant' is deemed to be a violation of a rule or regulation governing behavior. Paul says (Rom 14) our unity depends on our love to Jesus Christ, not adherence to a code of conduct, it is about the heart not about outward observance. Mutual discipline should focus on the motivation of the heart, not adherence to a code of conduct. As soon as COD decided that Neland has 'broken covenant' someone should have asked, on what basis, are we using the right yardstick? 

re:Paul Verhoef

I was referencing personal feedback. Neland and the posibility of churches following in her footsteps and the fall out with/for other churches was a topic I got feedback from during our Classis meeting and some personal email and phone calls. Basically.. "Is this what CRC churches are doing now?" I wanted to be able to answer "no" clearly.  And the COD action is one (admittedly awkward way) of saying that. 

Thank you Alissa, for good reporting on this. I agree with Sam Sutter, "silence is tacit approval". There seems to be some hesitancy with addressing Neland church with a letter or otherwise. Does this mean some delegates agree with what Neland is doing? I read the article in the Banner (Nov. issue) and it sounds like this church has been going down this wayward path for many years. How did the local classis let it get so far? We need to follow God's Word rather than the cultural norms. Please steer this church back onto the right path for her own good and give glory to God for restoration. God Willing, that can happen.