Synod 2023 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America left many stunned and, it seemed to me, none happy.
Several unhappy delegates left the assembly before it could be concluded—removing their credentials and walking out. I caught the voice of one of the walk-out delegates, speaking in a circle outside with first-clerk Henry Kranenburg: “I stand by what I said yesterday. If God is for this, it will stand. If he’s not in it, it will fail.”
Inside, Paul DeVries, the synod president, spoke similar words of reassurance to the incomplete and “broken” assembly: “God is still in heaven. Christ is still the Lord of the church.”
DeVries didn’t ask the worship team to come and close the session with singing—as they had in opening the sessions 11 times throughout the week. “Given the time constraints and some of the great difficulties with which we ended,” DeVries said, “I don’t want to in any way manipulate this group, to force you into places that are perhaps difficult for you or don’t feel too comfortable.” Instead he recited from the third verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which the assembly had sung together on Monday: “Holy, holy, holy, though the darkness hide thee; though the eye made blind by sin, thy glory may not see. Only thou art holy, perfect in love, in power, and in purity.”
“We have seen a lot of the eye made blind by human sin amongst us these last several days,” DeVries said. “God is still holy—perfect in love and power and purity.”
Adrian de Lange, Classis Alberta South/Saskatchewan, and a few other delegates left in protest of a truncated debate on how the CRC should deal with formal expressions of concern (or uncertainty) with any part of a confession. Classes and churches had sent 20 overtures (formal requests) on these matters, and the committee processing them presented majority and minority reports in response. After less than 15 minutes discussing the majority report, with 30 minutes left until the scheduled close of synod, the body voted to cease debate.
DeVries prayed for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom ahead of the vote on the matter. Then, Cara DeHaan, Classis Hamilton, expressed deep disappointment with synod’s decision to cease debate. DeHaan was chair of the minority report. “What you have done here in ceasing debate is incredibly harmful to whatever sense of trust that the minority has in this body. … Could you please give at least a few people the chance to voice their disagreement on what the body apparently is already going to vote on?” DeHaan asked.
De Lange walked out after that plea: “I have lost confidence in this body to deliberate and to seek the will of the Holy Spirit. As a result I can no longer be seated as a delegate.” But he wasn’t the first delegate to leave. Just after morning worship on synod’s final day, Dave Struyk, Classis Grand Rapids South, told delegates: “Because of the message we sent to many LGBTQ+ people—including my son—I will be leaving synod in protest.” Struyk was referring to decisions of the previous day, to uphold Synod 2022’s interpretation that “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism includes “homosexual sex” and to uphold the “confessional status” of that interpretation.
Twenty minutes before Synod 2023 was scheduled to close, the officers of synod determined that synod was unable to completely process what it had left to do—which included that vote on how to deal with confessional difficulties (gravamina) and the officebearers who file them. Out of time, the officers of synod determined to defer to Synod 2024 the 20 gravamina-related overtures and another overture asking synod to “shepherd congregations into another denomination.” (These are committee reports 8D and 8E-majority and minority, if you’re keeping track for next year.) One delegate challenged the officers’ decision to defer, but it wasn’t sustained. DeVries told synod: “Even if we were to act on this motion, we have several more to go. There’s no tenable way that we could get through it in a good and healthy way. That’s the collective judgment of four officers.”
Seeking to ‘Lead With Grace’
Before its incomplete and broken ending, Synod 2023 did try to hold the edges of a clearly divided church together. Sean Baker, a pastor-church ministry consultant with Thrive, the CRC’s new congregational ministry agency, encouraged delegates at the very beginning to “find ways to treat the people around you as the very essential parts of the body that the apostle Paul describes.” Baker called for a “measured pace,” not too fast or too slow but so that the process would be as clear as possible and no one would feel “swept along or left out.”
DeVries announced that the galleries around the perimeter of the Calvin University chapel meeting space would remain open through all discussions. “We think transparency is important,” he said.
Synod made a compromise on reading what one overture described as “repetitious notes” that protest the seating of women delegates. Delegates of classes that understand from Scripture that women are not to serve as elders, deacons, or pastors can attach such notes to their credentials. Church Order does not require the protests to be read aloud, but the president of synod has always done so. Synod 2023 adopted a new practice: “If a notice on credentials present a protest about seating female delegates, the president of synod would name the individual or classis” and read aloud an acknowledgement of the CRC’s two biblical views on women serving the church.
Synod 2023 adopted a Code of Conduct for ministry leaders, which was first presented to Synod 2022. The adopted version has a new introduction that positions the code as subservient to Scripture and the confessions and notes that “the implementation of the Code of Conduct is the responsibility of the local council.”
Synod urged congregations to “be places of belonging for LGBTQ+ members seeking to follow Christ” and instructed churches “to show love to all people groups including our LGBTQ+ members and neighbors by condemning hateful or demeaning speech and violent or demeaning actions.” Those statements came after synod decided to stay with Synod 2022’s confessional status declaration on the definition of “unchastity” and before synod ruled to reject the appeal of Neland Avenue CRC. Neland had asked Synod 2023 to repeal a Synod 2022 order that called for the congregation to rescind its decision to ordain a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage.
Left to Wait
While an earlier vote showed synod’s desire was not to delay acting on implications of the human sexuality report, up against the clock and with confidence in the body lost for some members, more time is exactly what the CRC will have—breathing space—as it waits for Synod 2024 to take up what Synod 2023 left undone.
“May we, even as we leave this place with much of the brokenness we came in with still all broke,” DeVries implored, “let’s leave with rejoicing on our lips, because that’s always directed toward God.”
Synod 2023 met June 9-15 at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Banner news team provided daily coverage at thebanner.org/synod. Visit crcna.org/synod for the synod schedule, webcast, recordings, photos, committee reports, and liveblog. Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.