Synod 2023 of the Christian Reformed Church in North America rejected an appeal by the council of Neland Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., of a Synod 2022 order that called for the congregation to rescind its decision to ordain a deacon who is in a same-sex marriage.
The appeal was defeated by a vote of 124 to 47 with six delegates abstaining.
Synod 2023’s decision followed a review of the situation by an in loco committee that had been mandated to act on behalf of Synod 2022, as well as deliberation by a Synod 2023 advisory committee and passionate debate from delegates for and against the Neland council’s action.
“This has been heavy, heavy for everyone, including our committee. … I spent lots of nights weeping. Last night, I spent time weeping with a close friend. This has been hard,” said Jason Ruis of Classis Wisconsin, who chaired the advisory committee.
“There’s no desire to cause pain. Part of the heaviness of our committee is recognizing that no matter what decision we made, there would be grief and pain.”
In May 2020, the Neland Avenue council elected a person who was in a same-sex marriage to the office of deacon. Several church councils and classes (regional bodies of churches) sent communications to the Neland council, with most calling on the council to remove the deacon. Officebearers are meant to uphold the confessions and teachings of the church. Since its explicit articulation in 1973, the Christian Reformed Church has held the position that homosexual sex is contrary to the will of God as revealed in scripture.
In its appeal, Neland asserted that Church Order (articles 3 and 4) leaves “the final judgment as to who is qualified to serve” to the local council alone and that synod (in 1980) has previously identified “the local council or consistory as the appropriate body for decision making in complex pastoral situations.” Regardless, committee reporter Todd Kuperus said that neither CRC Church Order nor the Acts of Synod 1980 provided necessary grounds for Neland’s appeal.
“The church order clearly stipulates that only those who meet the biblical requirements are eligible to serve as officebearers in the Christian Reformed Church,” Kuperus said. “Thus, while local congregations have the responsibility to elect their own officebearers, they do not have the right to elect anyone who does not meet biblical requirements. … Synod has the authority to declare the biblical requirements for officebearers.”
Michael Van Denend, a delegate from Classis Grand Rapids East and an elder at Neland Avenue, defended the congregation’s position as well as the deacon, who has since completed her term and is no longer on the church council.
“You know one thing about our deacon. You know one thing,” Van Denend said. “You don’t know her. How could you? She’s a member of our congregation, our church, and it has always been the council and the congregation that makes these decisions. How can you know this person? We do, and every single fruit of the Spirit is evident (in her). … Everybody in our congregation knows this. That’s why our deacon was elected.”
Marilyn McLaughlin of Classis Lake Erie agreed.
“This week, as I participated in and listened to all these conversations, I’ve often found myself wondering whether in some cases we’re so deeply attached to the trees (that) we fail to see the forest,” McLaughlin said. “Neland Avenue evidences the work of the Spirit. They are alive, they are growing. Their life and vision is bearing good fruit. How can we deny them?”
Michael Jager, Classis North Cascades, said the action against Neland Avenue is not intended to shut out the church or its members.
“We are calling them into repentance in line with what we passed,” Jager said—meaning the synod’s decision the day before to uphold the confessional status of the interpretation that ‘unchastity’ includes homosexual sex. “We are not saying they (Neland) can’t stay with us. We are saying they must return to our faith, to our confessions.”
Jager cited a portion of Hebrews 12 about discipline: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
Edward Yoon of Classis Ko-Am, said he had noticed in discussions on the LGBTQ+ issue a shift in ways of interpreting Scripture that depart from what he called a “conventional and common-sense approach that uphold the historic Reformed stance.”
“I have observed new and unfamiliar attempts to interpret the Bible, not based upon the already-approved or common-sense approach, but rather on each individual’s presupposed agenda,” Yoon said. “The Bible is the absolute and objective revelation of God … without fault or error from within.”
Steve deBoer, of Classis Niagara, attended Neland Avenue while he was a student at Calvin University and voiced support for the church council’s appeal. He considers the church to be “a mother church” when it came to shaping his faith.
“(This synod) is no shining city on a hill—far from it,” deBoer said. “We’re a microcosm of our wider culture, right here, deeply divided, politically maneuvered and maneuvering. We’re stuck in our own echo chambers. As a gathered assembly, I’m concerned that we have grace on our lips and contempt in our hearts. We’re not listening.” DeBoer would later be one of several delegates to turn in their credentials before the end of proceedings and walk out of Synod 2023.
Bob Boersma, of Classis Grand Rapids South, who served on the advisory committee, said he struggled with his decision, citing Neland Avenue’s posture in handling the situation. Ultimately, he supported the decision to deny the appeal.
“My heart wanted to say ‘we’re going to let Neland go (on with what they’re doing)’ because they are doing great work,” Boersma said. “They’re doing better than most of us when it comes to offering grace. … The issue here is did they serve the church best by saying ‘we’re going to go ahead and do what we did?’”
In a separate action, synod voted to instruct Neland Avenue to refrain from ordaining any officebearers in the future who are in a same-sex marriage or relationship. It also calls for Classis Grand Rapids East, the regional body to which Neland Avenue belongs, to guide the congregation “into alignment with the biblical guidelines affirmed by Synod 2022.”
However, delegates voted down a motion calling for Neland Avenue to issue a letter of repentance to the churches of the CRCNA “acknowledging their breaking of covenant, and seeking reconciliation.” It also voted against establishing a new in loco committee to continue oversight of Neland Avenue and Classis Grand Rapids East, with the possibility that classis could have lost sending a delegation to Synod 2024 if it did not adequately respond to the proposed directives of the new committee. Some delegates spoke against leaving the matter with no further followup, but Paul DeVries, Classis Thornapple Valley, called the motion to appoint another committee “a mistake.”
“It is clearly punitive, and the goal is, it seems to me, to remove the church,” DeVries said. “I served on the first in loco committee. That’s what the result of this will be (if this new committee was created)—we will remove them. Classis (Grand Rapids) East and Neland is only learning today, hours ago, that (their appeal) was not sustained. And now we’re going to go ahead and outline the procedure for removing them. It’s a mistake.” DeVries was president for Synod 2023, but he did not chair the portion of the meeting dealing with the in loco committee’s work, which is why he was able to speak to it.
Synod 2023 is meeting June 9-15 at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Find daily coverage from The Banner news team 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.
About the Author
Greg Chandler is a freelance news correspondent for The Banner. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.