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Synod 2022: In Person, But Not Together

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Delegates and participants to Synod 2022, the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.
Delegates and participants to Synod 2022, the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.
Photo by Steven Herppich

In Our View

For the first time in three years, the Christian Reformed Church’s synod was finally able to meet face to face. Synod 2022 was an event covered in prayer, from devotions focused on the Lord’s prayer to frequent pauses in proceedings for more prayer. Throughout—with those prayers, tears, and apologies for harsh words—delegates strove to be gracious with each other. 

But in the end, debates on the floor of synod on issues around human sexuality showed a deeply divided denomination. 

Human Sexuality and Neland Avenue CRC

Of most interest and perhaps anxiety to synod observers was what Synod 2022 would do with the report on human sexuality. The webcast of those deliberations, on a 20-minute delay, had upward of 1,050 viewers (a record for synod). Deliberation was intense and at times heated. In a rare move, one delegate was censured.

Synod did adopt almost all the recommendations of the report, commissioned by Synod 2016. It affirmed the CRC’s position that homosexual sex is inconsistent with Scripture and went a step further to declare that this position is taught in the church’s confessions. Officebearers in local churches and faculty at church-owned schools are subject to church discipline if they preach or teach contrary to the confessions. “There might be one-third of the people in this room who would be subject to special discipline if this passes,” said Anthony Elenbaas, Classis Hamilton.

But discussion became more intense, more personal, and more rending when synod had to decide what to do about Neland Avenue CRC, a church that ordained a deacon living in a same-sex  marriage, which is not consistent with the church’s position on homosexuality. Synod appointed a committee to help bring Neland Avenue into compliance with that position, including immediately ending the deacon’s term in office. 

Larry Louters, chair of Neland’s council, told delegates that they will take it seriously, but “we're not likely to initiate discipline against this couple. … I don't know if we'll have the stomach to do that.” To which Blake Campbell, Classis Illiana, responded angrily, “We have just made a decision, and you have the gall to say that you are not going to abide by it. Please stop.”

Even as delegates struggled inside, in first-time closed but not executive sessions, outside was a group that gathered and sang and lamented the decisions of synod. 

Some had hoped Synod 2022 would declare decisions on homosexual relationships a local matter to be decided by congregations, in the way that the matter of women in ecclesiastical office was settled. But 27 years after that decision, the compromise made to try to maintain unity with those two positions is wearing thin.

For members, churches, and classes of the CRC who hoped for room to continue including LGBTQ people, including those who are married, what now? Zachary King, the CRC’s new general secretary didn’t have a good answer for a delegate who asked that same question. “I recognize that there is a real sense of pain and loss. … I don’t have an easy answer,” King said.

Fred Harvey, a commissioned pastor from Classis Hackensack, was frank about the reality facing the CRC: “Some of us are questioning if we still have a home, and some are celebrating that the defense of the Word has been accomplished.” 

Heresy

In another confessional matter, synod received a report from the Council of Delegates about how to recognize and when to call out heresy, urging caution without shrinking back from using the term when necessary. And on the Reformed view of the work of the cross— penal substitutionary atonement—synod stopped short of calling denials of it heresy, but declared “that it is a serious deviation from the teaching of the confessions.”

Abuse of Power

Synod 2022 did take some steps in the CRC’s quest to prevent abuse of power in churches and broader church assemblies. Changes were made to how churches deal with allegations of abuse made against local church leaders, giving more latitude to the local church council, but also more accountability to classis. At the opening of synod (as with all future synods) delegates took part in power and privilege training

One of the recommendations made to Synod 2022 was to implement a code of conduct that all officebearers, faculty of CRC-owned schools, and employees of the denomination would be required to sign. Synod 2022 decided that the churches need more time to study it, so it will come back to Synod 2023.

Restructuring

While it passed easily on the floor of synod, plans to change the denomination’s governance and leadership structure took up a great deal of time and patience in the past three years. The changes bring the structure in line with Canadian tax rules and are hoped to help solve historical struggles over contextualizing ministry in Canada, but they have not been accomplished painlessly. Council of Delegates president Andy de Ruyter told delegates he couldn’t count the sleepless nights he had. John Lee, who chaired the structure and leadership task force that drafted the basis of the new structure, said the structure alone won’t accomplish what’s needed. “Don't trust that this new structure will do the work that we have to do” to heal past hurts, he said.

Highlights

Synod did have times of joy—recognizing retirements, approving candidates for minister of the Word, hearing ministry reports and greetings from ecumenical guests—though this year there were fewer from afar. 

Synod welcomed Yudha Thianto, appointed as professor of history of Christianity and Reformed theology, and Wilson de angelo Cunha, appointed professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. It also changed some of the academic requirements for future candidates studying at the seminary or elsewhere . 

Synod recognized the 60th anniversary of World Renew and celebrated the exemplary service of two well-loved executives, chief financial officer John Bolt and executive director Colin Watson Sr., both retiring June 30, 2022. And synod bade farewell to Michael Le Roy, retiring from his position as president of Calvin University for the past 10 years.

Even though the CRC continues to struggle to address racism and took more steps toward dealing with it, Synod 2022 had historic moments. In addition to approving two non-anglo professors to the seminary, Synod 2022 had its first-ever non-white president and a delegate, Evelyn Bennally, who is the first Native American woman to be a commissioned pastor. Harold Caicedo, California South, told delegates, “Something historical is happening at this synod.”

Despite all the turmoil of two and a half years of COVID-19 restrictions, two canceled synods, and the intense emotions at this synod, Watson told delegates the CRC needs to continue to follow God’s lead into the new land into which he is taking us.

“We have been through the valley—we have been tested—and God has continued to prove faithful,” Watson said.

Indeed God will always be faithful, but the CRC might be in the valley for quite some time ahead.

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