A group of undergraduate and graduate students—possibly for the first time—is among those voicing their responses to the Christian Reformed Church’s human sexuality report, requested by Synod 2016 and released to the churches last fall.
Any time a report is to come before synod (the general assembly of the CRC), members can respond by way of overtures (requests) or communications — but they don’t do so directly, they first take their requests to local church councils and then to classis (a regional group of churches). On rare occasions—usually “in a year when a significant matter appears on synod's agenda,” said director of synodical services Dee Recker—a duplicate overture might come from more than one assembly.
That is the case with an overture originating with a group of 26 university students. It was submitted by three different assemblies, and because synod’s deliberation over the human sexuality report has been delayed until Synod 2022 (due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), two classes have delayed discussion of that same request.
Classis Toronto submitted an amended version of the student overture and two congregations—The Road CRC, Calgary, Alta., and First CRC, Toronto, Ont.—sent the entire overture to synod.
Report Insufficient, New Committee Needed
Printed as Overture 20 in the Agenda for Synod 2021, the students’ overture calls the human sexuality report insufficient and calls for a new committee to reexamine sexuality and gender issues. The writers critique the current report for not including the perspective of young people and CRC members who approve of same-sex marriage (21% do, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the denomination, as do 14% of CRC pastors). The report, they claim, “lacks constructive suggestions or guidance for how our denomination might move forward in unity … while respecting the lack of consensus on human sexuality issues” and that some of its teaching might “increase divisiveness within the church.”
“We experience this as a flawed process,” the students’ overture states, “with the resulting report falling short of our Reformed heritage and values of fairness, perspicacity, and thorough biblical scholarship as well as deeply hurtful for its exclusion of the Godly voices and perspectives of LGBTQIA+ family members and allies among us.” (The acronym LGBTQ and its variations refers to a collection of sexual minorities: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual.)
The overture asks for actions to open conversation on gender issues, including hiring a new senior denominational leader to tackle gender-related issues, considering “gender/ sexual minority” advisers at synod, and offering resources for churches to begin “LBGTQIA+ support groups.”
Local Option, A Recommendation Too Strong for Classis Toronto
The student overture also requests a local option—a green light for church councils who want to allow same-sex marriage while the denomination actively studies “the fruit of this decision to inform further dialogue.” After first approving the entire overture, Classis Toronto later separated out the recommendation on the local option in the suggested overture and voted it down.
Richard Bodini, stated clerk of Classis Toronto, shared some of the observations made at the meeting. “There was a majority of delegates that believe same-sex marriage is a sin, thus to allow it now is to allow a sin to take place. Same-sex marriage is not the same as women in office, which the denomination was able to provide a dual thought on. Same-sex marriage is either a sin or it is not. … So you can’t have local options.” That was the kind of thinking shared, Bodini said. He said the vote over adopting or not adopting the overture was very close.
The local option is needed, said Jessica Andrews, a lead author of the student overture, because the non-heterosexual community has already been waiting so long for the CRC to become more inclusive of them. The student group “tried to be as bold and plain as we could,” Andrews said. “Some other groups, maybe less young and naïve, have asked less boldly, have asked for little side things. We said, let’s just ask plainly and boldly for what we think would be helpful.”
A student at the Toronto School of Theology, Andrews is working toward ordination in the CRC. Three years ago, she reexamined her “uninspected, inherited theology” on same-sex relationships: “I changed my mind to become affirming (of same-sex marriage) because I felt compelled to do so by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”
When she first read the human sexuality report, Andrews said she felt “dismay and incredulity”: “(I and others) were surprised that the report felt like its mandate was to be a foundation-laying document, but basically voices that are more affirming of LGBT people were not included,” she said. “It felt not foundation-laying but more one-sided.” Moreover, Andrews said she realized that if the report were to be adopted, she and many others who share her convictions could not hold office in the CRC.
Feeling compelled to act, she began to reach out to other students with CRC connections. “It became apparent that writing an overture was the best thing we could do, because it would be the most official and respectful way of inviting church polity channels,” Andrews explained.
Jodi VanWingerden, 45, is a student at Calvin Theological Seminary and the oldest of the student overture writers. “I was excited for the opportunity to be part of this student group. I think the denomination needs to know that there are differing views on this topic among faculty and students at the seminary,” VanWingerden said.
“Most of the other students (who signed the overture) are undergrads,” she added. “I have been so impressed and blessed by their passion for speaking into this conversation. The church needs to take notice of what younger people are telling us.”
The students’ overture includes 13 “personal impact statements,” in which students introduce themselves and relate their own experiences with the church’s teaching on sexuality.
The students’ overture has been critiqued for having inadequate Scriptural support for its arguments—but that’s because the students “didn’t have time or expertise to do biblical and theological research ... the timing felt so rushed,” said Andrews. She said an anchoring verse for the overture was Ephesians 1:8-10, which refers to seeking unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Three Classes Communicate Support for Report
There are 14 overtures (requests) and three communications in the 2021 Agenda related to the human sexuality report. On the other side of the issue from the student overture, Classis Holland, Classis Minnkota, and Classis Northern Michigan express support for the committee’s report, with Holland (Overture 18) and Minnkota (Overture 19) requesting it be adopted in full. Northern Michigan’s communication is Communication 3.
LeRoy Christoffels, stated clerk for Classis Minnkota, praised the report for providing a solid biblical framework for matters of human sexuality going forward. “While the report would have served the church even better had it set forth the implications of our confession concerning discipline and how this would be carried out, we understand this is only a beginning,” he said.
When asked if the human sexuality report will increase divisiveness in the church, as the students’ overture suggests, Christoffels responded, “The real division in the church already exists.”
Seven requests (Overtures 24-30), with their own grounds and sometimes appendices and more personal stories, all ask synod to not accede to most of the human sexuality report’s recommendations—particularly its assertion of confessional status for the church’s teaching on various forms of sexual immorality. Some assemblies (Classis Toronto, Classis Grand Rapids East, and individual church councils) submitted more than one request with similar desired outcomes. Two requests (Overtures 22 and 23) reject the whole report. One church asks for clarity on what is to have confessional status (Overture 21), and one church asks synod to consider its previous decisions in engaging in challenging conversations like the deliberation over this report (Overture 17).
A lengthy communication submitted by River Park CRC, Calgary, Alta., asserts that given the report writers’ view “that teaching anything other than its own conclusions about human sexuality would be ‘false teaching’ by ‘false teachers’ acting like the ‘false church’ … it behooves us to evaluate their biblical research carefully and meticulously. Their conclusions need to be indisputable.” The communication offers synod an examination of the committee’s exegetical work on three passages: Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Matthew 19.
While all the received requests and communications are now published, they won’t be heard by synod until 2022. The Council of Delegates decided in February that deliberation over the human sexuality report would be deferred until then. The Council will convene a special meeting June 11-12 and 16-17 to process any part of the Agenda that cannot wait.
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