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Neland Avenue CRC Ordered to Comply with Denominational Position on Same-Sex Marriage

Matthew Vanden Heuvel, Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan: The goal of discipline must always be restoration.
Photo by Steven Herppich

Synod 2022 (general assembly of the denomination) put in place a committee in loco, which is empowered to act on behalf of synod, to see that Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, a Grand Rapids, Mich., congregation, complies with synod’s rulings on same-sex marriage. 

In May 2020, Neland Avenue elected a person in a same-sex marriage to the office of deacon. Several councils and classes (regional bodies of churches) sent communications to the Neland council, most asking Neland to depose the deacon. Officebearers are meant to uphold the confessions and teachings of the church. Since 1973 the CRC’s position on homosexuality has been that homosexual sex, though not the orientation, is incompatible with God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Neland said the position was based on pastoral advice to the churches and that its council was within the bounds of orthodoxy to appoint a deacon of its choosing, as guided by discernment.

Communications also were sent to Classis Grand Rapids East, the classis of which Neland is a member, for not bringing Neland Avenue back into covenant. When Grand Rapids East took no action, other classes and councils asked synod to step in. 

Many delegates supported synod taking direct action. 

David Bosscher, Classis Thornapple Valley, asked whether synodical actions were “preferences or positions.” If they are only preferences, he said, then the churches can do as they please; if they are positions, churches must be held to account.

William Wilton, Classis Columbia, spoke the need for “biblical mutual accountability.” He said accountability requires making judgments: “We do judgment at every level, and we should.”

Jason Ruis, Classis Wisconsin, framed the question in terms of discipline, citing Hebrews 12:8: “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children.” 

Matthew Vanden Heuvel, Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan, agreed, saying that the goal of discipline must always be restoration.

Should Synod Step In?

Synods rarely step into the affairs of local congregations. A basic principle of Reformed church order is that local councils have original authority, which they delegate to broader assemblies like synods and classes. Local councils have freedom to act as they believe wise for their ministry, but what to do when a church council breaks covenant with the denomination? What should synods do?

Synod found a precedent for bringing Neland Avenue into compliance by citing an action of Synod 2005, which appointed a committee in loco to force compliance by the council of First CRC in Toronto when it announced they intended to ordain actively gay members of their congregation to church office. Faced with the synodical action, the First CRC Toronto council decided to rescind their action. 

Lynette van de Hoef Meyers, Classis Ontario Southwest, questioned the wisdom of this precedent. She said, “First CRC Toronto is still dealing with the pain of what we did to them more than a decade ago.”

Others wondered if the synod stepping in was wise or loving. Miguel Randall, Classis Central Plains, said that synod “is sending a dangerous signal.” Peter Hoytema, Classis Ontario Southwest pleaded for more time: “We need more time. Let’s pause, wait.”

Anthony Elenbaas, Classis Hamilton, said in the case of First CRC of Toronto, Synod 2005 appointed an in loco committee because someone in Classis Toronto had appealed to synod. In the Neland Avenue case, synod is taking direct action without an appeal. He said, “This is not how we want to do church in the future. Neland has listened well, biblically and faithfully.”

After a deliberation that was passionate and emotional, Synod 2022 voted to appoint the committee in loco and empower it to begin conversations with the Neland Avenue and Classis Grand Rapids East 134-43.

Controversy Not Over

Synod was not yet done with the matter. After the vote had been taken, synod president Jose Rayas granted Larry Louters, delegate from Classis Grand Rapids East and the chair of the Neland Avenue council, time to address synod. Louters expressed gratitude to the delegates for the grace they had shown him and others at synod—a grace he said was not always found in the written communications they had received before synod. He also expressed the determination of Neland Avenue to remain in conversation with the other churches of the denomination. He said, “We need you, but you also need us.”

He then reflected on how this decision would play out at Neland. He said the deacon in the same-sex marriage had received strong support from the congregation. The couple, he said, are regarded at Neland as members in good standing. "We're going to take this seriously," he said. They will have hard conversations as a council, but "we're not likely to initiate discipline against this couple. … I don't know if we'll have the stomach to do that." 

As he was saying this, Blake Campbell, Classis Illiana, called for a point of order and said to Louters, “We have just made a decision, and you have the gall to say that you are not going to abide by it. Please stop.”

Louters did stop, looking to synod president Rayas for direction. Rayas explained why he chose to allow Louters to speak. "Yes we have made the decision, and I think it's important to just give the opportunity to hear some of the things that he's got (to say)." Rayas granted Louters the floor to continue.

Afterwards, with a trembling voice, Rayas said “If I have offended anyone, I ask forgiveness.” He continued, “This has been one of the most difficult synods I have been part of,” and he asked for the delegates’ patience. Saying he still does feel hopeful, Rayas asked executive director Colin Watson Sr. to pray.

When Watson had concluded his prayer, Chad Werkhoven, Classis Minnkota, stood and “with sorrow” asked that disciplinary proceedings against Louters be started. Naming Louters is itself a violation of confidentiality rules for any matters of church discipline. His motion was ruled out of order. (See also "Recording of Synod 2022 Session Restored.")

Editor's note:
This story was published June 16, 2022. On June 21, a new final paragraph was added and details were added to the three preceding paragraphs, which were initially less specific.

Synod 2022 is meeting at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 10-16. Find daily coverage from The Banner news team at thebanner.org/synod, download the Banner app on your mobile device, or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook. On Twitter follow #crcsynod or twitter.com/crcna. Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church (it did not gather in 2020 or 2021). Connect to the meeting’s livestream, read advisory committee reports, and find other resources at crcna.org/synod

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