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Neland Avenue: Council Defers Action, Sends Communication to Synod 2022

Neland Avenue: Council Defers Action
Roger Sparks (Classis Minnkota) and Lora Copley (Classis Red Mesa) were two of several delegates to the Council who spoke in favor of sending clear communication on “a matter that is affecting and continues to affect our whole denomination.”

The Christian Reformed Church’s Council of Delegates deferred any action on requests for discipline of Neland Avenue CRC to Synod 2022. (The Council was meeting in lieu of Synod 2021, the church’s normally annual leadership meeting, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Neland Avenue, located in Grand Rapids, Mich., ordained a deacon who is living in a same-sex marriage in 2020. The CRC’s position on homosexuality, written in 1973 and upheld by subsequent synods, states that homosexual attraction is not sinful but acting on those attractions is. 

In a lengthy communication, Neland’s local church council said it believes its action did not cross any lines of orthodoxy because Synod 1973’s statement was delivered by that synod as pastoral advice, not as an interpretation of the confessions. 

Pastoral guidance adopted by Synod 2016 and added as a supplement to Church Order article 69-c cites same-sex marriage as an example of a marriage considered to be in conflict with the Word of God. The Church Order contains the regulations and parameters that all the churches in the denomination have covenanted together to uphold.

When Neland’s action became public in the fall of 2020, it generated reaction from many congregations and classes (regional groups of churches) . The Council sent a letter to Neland grieving its decision. Seven overtures (requests) were also sent to Synod 2021 asking that Neland’s council be admonished and subject to disciplinary action, citing cases from previous synods when a synod did impose discipline on a local church. 

In its discussion of those overtures, the Council described acting in place of synod as uncharted territory. “It is a delicate balance between overstepping the reach of the Council of Delegates and failing to act on significant and timely matters for the wellbeing of the denomination,” it said. 

Neland said in its statement that neither the Council nor even synod, can impose discipline on a church council. That view was affirmed by Kathy Smith, the CRC’s Church Order expert. “In this situation the [Council] cannot discipline a local council,” she told the Council. “Synod cannot do this either unless there is an appeal.” To date, no one has appealed Neland’s decision. 

Several delegates disagreed. Roger Sparks (Classis Minnkota) said the Council should take action. “We should plead with Neland to cease and desist their covenant breaking.” Tyler Wagenmaker (Classis Zeeland) said, “We’ve pleaded enough. When do we start to enforce the standards of previous synods? If we aren’t going to do anything, are we upholding our fiduciary responsibility?”

On the other hand, Elsa Fennema, U.S. delegate at-large, said “God doesn’t stop pleading with us. If God works with us in love should we not do the same?”

The Council opted to err on the side of not overstepping and deferred all requests asking for discipline of Neland to Synod 2022. Nine delegates registered their negative vote. 

For Lora Copley (Classis Red Mesa) deferring was not enough. “Real people are affected when God’s truths are relativised. I cannot, and our denomination must not minimize the clear teaching of Scripture,” she said. “Just because the Council defers all disciplinary action to Synod 2022, it doesn’t mean that we defer our responsibility to, at this juncture, speak into a matter that is affecting and continues to affect our whole denomination.”

Michael Ten Haken, Classis Lake Superior, agreed. “This strikes a balance between not overstepping but also our desire to communicate something.”

As a result, the Council voted to send a communication to Synod 2022 reaffirming its grave concern to Neland and to urge Synod 2022 “to be mindful of the three marks of the true and vital church,” noting specifically that it is incumbent on the Council to reaffirm denominational commitments “in hopes of prevention of other churches taking independent action which bypass Church Order.” Council did not accede to a request from Classis Grand Rapids East that Council’s October 2020 letter be rescinded. 

In addition to matters related to Neland Avenue, Synod 2022 will take up a major report on human sexuality. That report asserts that the 1973 position is the only one compatible with Scripture. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches and classes were unable to meet to properly process that report, which was released in November 2020. So the Council decided in February to defer all consideration of the report and related materials to Synod 2022, especially since Synod 2021 was canceled. (See also “Reaction to Human Sexuality Report Includes Responses From a Group of Students,” April 16, 2021.)

Editor's note: The names of delegates who registered a negative vote were not included when this story was first posted. They are: Bruce De Kam (Classis Northern Michigan), Drew Sweetman (Muskegon), George Young (Hudson), Mark Vande Zande (Heartland) Ralph Wigboldus (Huron), Roger Sparks (Minnkota), Sherry Fakkema (Pacific Northwest) Tony Lara (Arizona), Tyler Wagenmaker, (Zeeland), and Wendell Davelaar (Northcentral Iowa).

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