Sexuality Report Released to Churches, Suggests Historical Position is Already Confessional

Sexuality Report Released to Churches
The human sexuality committee’s interim report was released ahead of Synod 2019. Delegates to that synod discussed it and offered the committee feedback.
Karen Huttenga
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Editor's note: This article was published online Nov. 25, 2020. The Christian Reformed Church's Council of Delegates has since canceled Synod 2021 and postponed synodical discussion of the human sexuality report.

A newly released report affirms the Christian Reformed Church’s historical position on homosexuality and offers scriptural and pastoral guidance on a range of sexual matters. The report is one of three coming to Synod 2021, the annual general assembly of the CRC. Four years in the making, it’s expected to dominate much of the June meeting’s agenda.

The committee behind the report was mandated by Synod 2016 to articulate a “biblical theology of human sexuality.” That synod decided that pastors may not officiate same-sex weddings. To further address the topic more broadly, Synod 2016 formed the study committee and asked it to report to Synod 2021.

The 175-page report has now been released for local churches to review and provide feedback (overtures or communications) to synod if they choose.

The report’s overall stance is, to use its own language, traditionalist. It reaffirms the CRC’s 1973 position on homosexuality: that same-sex attraction is not a sin but acting on that attraction is.

The report is notable for recommending that Synod decline to take previously discussed actions. At past synods, some suggested the CRC adopt an official confession about gender and sexuality. According to the new report, the denomination does not need such a confession. The Bible is clear, the report states, that any sexual activity outside of a male-female marriage is sinful. The report points to the Heidelberg Catechism, which in its explanation of the biblical commandment against adultery says that “God condemns all unchastity.” (Written in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism is an official confession of the CRC and many other denominations.)

“The church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status,” the report asserts, recommending that synod adopt that statement (p. 149). The report raises questions of the consequences of that action on current and future office bearers of the church but does not offer synod any answers.

No Change to Church Order

The report allows that a future synod could adopt a statement on human embodiment and sexuality such as the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality, written for the Reformed Church in America in 2018. However, the report advised against appointing a committee to devise such a “quasi-confessional” statement because it would involve duplicating the work already done in the report.

In the same vein, the committee recommends that synod make no change to Article 69-c of the denomination’s Church Order, which reads, “Ministers shall not solemnize marriages which would be in conflict with the Word of God.” Adding specific wording about same-sex marriages is unnecessary, the committee says, because Article 69-c should be interpreted “in light of the biblical evidence laid out in this report.” Synod 2016 already added a supplement to Article 69-c identifying same-sex marriage as one example of a marriage considered to be in conflict with the Word of God. (Adding supplemental material to an article of Church Order is not the same as altering the order itself, which requires changes be proposed by one synod to be adopted by another.) 

Committee Makeup

Eleven people, mostly seminary professors, pastors, and college professors in the CRC, were appointed to the committee. As the committee members met over the past four years, they interviewed churchgoers who represent sexual minorities. Their stories—with identities protected by pseudonyms—pepper the report.

Two of the appointed members withdrew from the work of the committee, one in February 2018 because of a move to South Korea, and the committee’s reporter, Matthew Tuininga, more recently. The introduction to the report notes that while Tuininga affirms the biblical teaching sections of the report, “he believes the pastoral care sections fail to provide the church with much-needed guidance on how to discipline erring members with love and grace and incorporate them into the sacramental community of the body of Christ” (p. 4).

Biblical Framework

The report includes a 22-page biblical theology of human sexuality that pays particular attention to the creation-fall-redemption arc of Scripture, specifically noting Matthew 19, Genesis 1-2, and passages from the wisdom literature, letters to the Corinthians, and the gospels. Under particular subject headings, the report often returns to the same Scriptures.

“Genesis 1-2 are paradigmatic texts,” the report reads. “They describe God’s purposes for creation in a way that is not simply descriptive, but normative—that is, the way God intended. Scripture itself teaches us to interpret these texts in this way.”

A later section of the report gives an in-depth analysis of Song of Songs, holding it up as a biblical example of good sex between two equally valued partners.

The committee’s mandate included “dialogue with, and potential critique of ... conclusions arising from scientific and social scientific studies.” The committee did this, it said, “through the lens of Scripture,” noting a warning from the Acts of Synod 1972 against “giving science as much weight as Scripture” (pp. 37-38).

Pornography

The report covers potentially uncomfortable and divisive topics—including pornography, gender identity, homosexuality, and disorders of sexual development—in exacting detail.

The 20-page pornography section discusses the prevalence of porn and its negative effects on porn users, their families, and those exploited to create porn. Because pornography involves violence, exploitation of the poor, racism, sexual sin, and broken relationships, the report says that it is condemned by Scripture. “Although porn usage is a deeply personal issue, as churches we can no longer allow it to be a private issue,” it states. The report includes pastoral care suggestions and many resources to help those affected by pornography.

Gender Identity

The report devotes 33 pages to gender identity. Gender dysphoria and disorders of sexual development “are to be interpreted as a result of the fall, which in many ways has distorted God’s good creation,” it states. “Of course, this does not in any way mean that the people suffering from these conditions are personally responsible for them. Rather they suffer the consequences of the post-fall groaning of creation (Rom. 8:22; John 9:1-12). The church must therefore reach out to them in compassion and love” (p. 76).

The report counters an interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis that would understand the possibilities of sexual biology as a spectrum. “Genesis 1-2 clearly and explicitly describes pre-fall human beings as created in only two forms: male/man (Adam) and female/woman (Eve). Unlike the degrees between dark and light which are found frequently in Scripture, nowhere does Scripture suggest that there is a spectrum of normative biological manifestations of humanity beyond male and female” (p. 76).

The idea of transitioning to one’s true inner gender stems from an unbiblical belief that body and soul are separate, the authors purport: “We cannot claim that a person’s true identity resides in their subjective sense of self as distinct from the body with which they were born” (p. 81).

The report does encourage Christians to reconsider traditional gender stereotypes because they can alienate gender-nonconforming people in an unbiblical way. “Although he made us with important sexual differences, God does not dictate masculine or feminine traits that ought to accompany these differences,” it states. “Biblical teaching is not nearly as specific or dogmatic as Christians have typically made it out to be. In many cases, we owe one another greater freedom than we have given in the past” (p. 82).

Citing 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, the report notes that “in its mission and pastoral care, the church should demonstrate great openness to people who experience gender dysphoria or who are gender nonconforming, and should be cautious in any pronouncements and policy making,” (p. 83).

The church can become stronger by better including “members of your congregation who see themselves as gender nonconforming, who experience gender dysphoria, or who are attracted to the same sex,” the report says. Encourage them “to advise or help give leadership to any outreach. Not only will this further their own discipleship, but the church will also benefit from the personal advocacy and compassion they will bring” (p. 90).

Singleness

Throughout the report there is pastoral advice aimed at fostering better inclusion of people in the church who are single (for any reason) and outside of traditional family structures. In fact, the report recommends referring to the church as a family and elevating the church family over the traditional family unit. Single people, it urges, should be invited into fellowship in deep, meaningful ways, such as in intentional communities.

Homosexuality

The 34-page section on homosexuality includes subsections for cultural context, Scripture, and pastoral care. While noting the conclusion of the 1973 synodical report on homosexuality that “homosexuality is not the result of any conscious choice or decision on the part of the person,” the 2020 report cites recent studies that question whether same-sex attraction is a genetic predisposition (p. 93). (It also includes an appendix titled “What Can Science Tell Us about the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation?”) In the same section, though, the report acknowledges, “The church has also harmed people who are attracted to the same sex by promoting the false expectation of orientation change” and points out that “the sin of homosexual practice is often singled out for condemnation while other sexual sins (such as cohabitation, pornography use, adultery, and divorce without legitimate cause) are ignored or minimized” (p. 95). The report calls this hypocrisy that requires repentance.

In reviewing “biblical texts that are typically cited in any discussion of Scripture’s view of homosexual activity,” the report defends “traditional” interpretations against “revisionist” interpretations that allow for committed homosexual partnerships. It spends 16 pages (pp. 97-113) reviewing these texts and countering arguments by those whom the report terms “revisionist scholars.”

To the question of whether “the Holy Spirit is prompting a reexamination of Scripture” as suggested in the Classis Grand Rapids East study report on “Biblical and Theological Support Currently Offered by Christian Proponents of Same-Sex Marriage” (January 2016), the report responds: “It is one thing to reexamine Scripture, but it is quite another thing to ignore the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture in order to reach an alternative reading of the key texts and then claim that this all happened through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Is it not equally possible that all this happened through the guidance of another “spirit”—the “spirit” of our secular age and contemporary culture (1 John 4:1-3)?” (p. 111).

In the conclusion of the biblical evidence section, the report asserts, “In the world’s eyes, it is outrageous to expect those who are attracted to the same sex not to express those desires in a sexual relationship, just as it is outrageous to refuse to use pornography or to refuse to have sex outside of marriage. This is why Jesus explains that in order to enter the kingdom of God a person must be born from above” (p. 113).

The pastoral care section on homosexuality calls congregations to “honestly examine their attitudes and actions toward people who are attracted to the same sex and … to repent when such attitudes and actions are sinful.” Further, “congregations need to be clearly taught or reminded that the experience of attraction to the same sex is not sinful in itself.” It adds that “the church needs more godly people who are attracted to the same sex to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons.” The report includes special sections of guidance directed to church leaders and to same-sex attracted church members.

Other matters discussed in specific sections of the report include singleness, premarital sex and cohabitation, polyamory (sexual relationships with multiple participants), and divorce.

Difficult Conversations

Given the scope of the report and the varying contexts of ministry of Christian Reformed congregations, members of the study committee worked with the CRC’s Pastor Church Resources ministry to produce a toolkit to help churches and small groups “discuss aspects of the committee’s report which may be controversial.”

Synod 2021 is expected to convene June 11-17 in Sioux Center, Iowa. This report is one of three study committee reports to be addressed. All three are available online from CRCNA synodical services, and summaries are published there in English, Korean, and Spanish.

Editor's note: On Nov. 30, 2020 one sentence was added to paragraph six of this story to mention questions raised and not answered in this report. A slight change was made to paragraph 22, removing words that introduced a quoted portion of the report.

About the Author

Roxanne Van Farowe is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. She has reported on synod, the annual decision-making gathering of the CRC, for many years.

See comments (3)

Comments

The lack of true engagement with the lives of LGBTQ Christians in the report is really unfortunate. The report includes unrealistic anecdotes and ignores the lives of many LGBTQ CRC members - past and present - who have been hurt by the church and its exclusionary message. The report also does not engage with the breadth of Christian thought on this issue. By tying the hands of the committee and restricting them to studying only traditional views, the report does not explore valuable Christian scholarship - including excellent work in the Reformed tradition - that affirms and welcomes the LGBTQ community. This oversight is a true disservice to all members of the CRC, whatever their view on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The limited focus of the committee was a mistake, the content of the report ignores the lives of many within the CRC, and the result will be disastrous for the church if it is not soundly rejected by Synod 2021. Back to the drawing board!

Thanks, Ian, for sharing how this report brings pain to the LGBTQ community in the CRCNA.  And thanks Roxanne, Chong, and others at The Banner.  I believe this article accurately represents what the Committee has written.

Unfortunately, I believe the Committee’s report displays deep misunderstanding of the CRCNA and a carelessness with their recommendations regarding church order/confessional status.

For instance, as reported above, the Committee says (and recommends for adoption) this statement: “The church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status.” This statement is deeply problematic.

First, given the mandate of the committee, this is a deeply confusing conclusion.  The Committee was asked to consider if “it will be advisable for future synods to consider … declaring a status confessionis.” Also, it was given extra time because the ‘consideration of status confessionis is a weighty matter that requires extended and careful deliberation.’ I would assume it is clear from both of these parts of the mandate that Synod 2016 believed that ‘confessional status’ was not yet decided in the CRCNA.  So for the Committee to say that the church’s teaching ‘already has confessional status’ seems contradictory to their mandate.  That itself should be a signal to the Committee that perhaps they are misunderstanding something.

Second, given that the Committee should have noted the dissonance in their mandate and their own conclusions, did they consult some of those that would know best?  To me, it seems unlikely that they consulted those who know best in the CRCNA.  An easy example to demonstrate this would be that Emeritus Professor of Church Order and the Doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology), Dr. Henry DeMoor, seems to deeply disagree that the church’s teaching ‘already has confessional status.’  Here is a recent Network post where Dr. DeMoor challenges the Committee (and anyone else) to ‘show us….’ (https://network.crcna.org/church-order/status-confessionis). Did the Committee honestly understand what ‘status confessionis’ or ‘confessional status’ actually means?  Did they consult anyone with expertise?

In the end, it would have been much more clear and helpful if the Committee simply recommended that their conclusions become confessional in status.  At least this would have been a clear recommendation for Synod to consider.  As it is, they seem to misunderstand how confessional status is decided in the CRCNA.

I also feel that the committee’s recommendations are careless.

For instance, what are the consequences of their recommendation that their conclusions ‘already’ are confessional?  They themselves ask some very clear questions. On page 145, the report asks, "Will those who have already signed [the Covenant for Officebearers/CFO] need to accept this new item as having confessional status?  What happens if they don't?  Will those who subsequently sign the CFO need to accept this new item?"  Unfortunately, the Committee never answers these questions they themselves ask.  So Synod 2021 has no clear indication of what it may mean to adopt the recommendation that their conclusions ‘already’ have confessional status.  Will it mean that hundreds of elders, deacons and pastors in the CRCNA will need to step down from their role as officebearers if they do not agree with the Committee’s conclusions?  We do not know.  It seems deeply careless to ask the question, make the recommendation, but never answer the question they themselves ask.  As for Dr. DeMoor, he writes, “Every officebearer would then be bound by a synodical approval of the interpretation of two words in the Heidelberg Catechism.”  So…how many council members would be forced to step down?  Do we know?  Did we know this is the result of adopting their recommendation?  Did they know this?  If they did, why would they not say this clearly?

A second example is the Committee’s recommendation E.  As the article above notes, the Committee is not asking for a change in the Church Order, but they are asking that ‘Church Order Article 69-c be interpreted in the light of the biblical evidence laid out in this report.’  Here’s the question though: ‘what will that mean about what marriages a CRCNA pastor cannot officiate?’  Again, they do not answer that question.  Here’s what I would guess it could mean.  Article 69-c is about what marriages a pastor can officiate.  The biblical evidence of this report says (among other things) that pre-marital sex and pornography are against God's desire for us as sexual beings.  While I agree with this biblical evidence, what does it mean when appended to Church Order?  Can I as a pastor officiate a wedding where I know they've had premarital sex?  Can I officiate a wedding where the couple has been co-habitating (living together)?  Many of us pastors make those hard decisions at the local level (with councils, etc) - but is this local discernment possible anymore, once we've said that 69-c needs to be interpreted by the 'biblical evidence" presented?  And what about divorces?  While this report echoes the 1980 report on divorce and remarriage, it focuses on the 'dangers' of divorce and remarriage, without echoing much of the gracious tone (and local discernment-focus) of the 1980 report.  So...if this report is now appended to article 69-c, what affect does that have for pastors who are officiating marriages where one or more persons have gone through a divorce?  Again, while I appreciate the assertion that divorce/ending a marriage has become quite culturally acceptable (for just about any reason), and that the church should resist following this ‘don’t worry about it’ path, this recommendation E leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to how adopting it will affect changes in what weddings a minister in the CRCNA will actually be allowed to officiate. 

For both of these reasons (and more), I feel like this Committee has been careless in their recommendations, not delving deeply into the consequences of their recommendations (or at least not clarifying to the reader what they envision those consequences to be).

This report is a great blessing to the CRCNA!

The Committee here has done a fantastic job of authoritatively laying out the Biblical and Theological framework for God's standards of human sexuality. Thank you very much.

I thank the Lord for these people and their willingness to stand firm on God's Word and the clear truth it speaks about these issues. It's sad that the CRC is increasingly seen as a denomination that is moving away from Biblical truth, but this report is a breath of fresh (holy) air!

Like others, I also wish that there were stronger suggestions included in the area of discipline. Practicing church discipline is required for all churches that, like the CRC, hold to the Belgic Confession (Article 29). It is completely appropriate to carefully administer restorative discipline all the way up to the removal of pastors or council members who continue to disagree with the Biblical teaching that this report merely summarizes. The report is correct when it states that these teachings already have Confessional Status, as the Bible is binding for CRCNA churches. The truth is that we never should have got to this point. Discipline should have been applied much earlier.

I pray that Synod 2021 will officially adopt this report, including its statement that these teachings already have confessional status, thus removing any uncertainty on whether these beliefs are confessional or not.

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