The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Yonat Shimron was published on religionnews.com July 5, 2023. Edits were made, including the addition of the 9th,10th, and final paragraphs, to be more precise about the actions of synod and of the Neland congregation, for the Christian Reformed readership of The Banner.
To many in Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., last month’s synod (general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church in North America) was the showdown that wasn’t.
The denominational meeting June 9-15 on the campus of Calvin University did not remove the congregation for failing to rescind the ordination of a deacon who’s in a same-sex marriage. (In fact, the denomination has no clear provision for removing a church.)
But neither did the synod make any change to its doctrinal stand that homosexual sex is a sin. A majority of delegates to the CRCNA synod reaffirmed for the second year in a row that this teaching has confessional status—meaning officebearers in the member churches (pastors, elders, and deacons) must uphold and defend it as part of their commitment to the confessions of the church.
Synod 2023 rejected Neland’s appeal and once again called on the church to rescind the appointment of “any and all” officeholders in same-sex relationships—even though the lesbian deacon ordained by the church has completed her three-year term and is no longer serving. She declined to be identified, citing her safety; the church remains unapologetic about her ministry and refused to rescind her appointment.
“This leaves us in a spot of, well, what do we do now?” said Joel DeMoor, one of Neland Avenue’s two pastors.
“Do we hang in there and faithfully witness to biblical inclusion that we really believe is biblical and Spirit-led? Or do we say, OK, time to pack it in?”
Faced with an ongoing clash of wills and the almost certain likelihood of more disciplinary measures, the congregation of about 650 members must now make a decision.
It’s not the first time a church has been faced with this choice. Just last year, 43 conservative congregations broke away from the Reformed Church in America over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church is now splitting into multiple groups, largely on how they view ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members. Every liberal Protestant denomination has already fractured over the issue.
In considering a way forward, the Neland Avenue congregation is doing “what we have always done at Neland: listen to all of our members and respect every voice,” Michael Van Denend, an elder and vice chair of the church’s council, told The Banner. “Immediately after synod, we hosted our traditional ‘fire-pit conversations,’ opportunities to meet around fire pits hosted by members on their properties to pray, to share, to support one another. These are examples, with more to come, of how we journey together at Neland.”
Van Denend said they hosted a congregational forum after the church’s July 9 worship service “to gain insights from our faith family on the events of Synod 2023. It was part of our early dialogue together about Neland's future.”
For the past eight years, this mostly white, middle-class congregation has found a way to extend and enlarge its embrace of LGBTQ+ people. Though it has only a small number of queer-identifying members—likely fewer than a dozen—they have become valued and cherished members.
Now some of those members have said they’ve seen enough.
Mary Jane Pories, an LGBTQ+ identifying member at Neland, said she loves her church but after this synod she cannot see a way forward with the CRC.
“I want to continue to be part of a congregation that reflects my values, which are being open and hospitable and welcoming to everybody,” she said. “But I can’t be part of a denomination that does not feel that way.”
At the June synod, a yearly gathering of members from some 1,000 CRC churches across the U.S. and Canada to make governance decisions, delegates made clear they do not intend to alter the church-taught understanding that homosexual sex is sin.
The synod even considered limiting a traditional method of dealing with dissent. In the past, the denomination has allowed officebearers who disagree with a particular church teaching to submit a statement of confessional difficulty, called a “gravamen,” in order to seek guidance on the teaching. This year, the synod considered shortening to six months the length of time a person may disagree with church doctrine. Synod 2023 did not take final action but questions about altering or clarifying the gravamen process were deferred to next year.
The synod’s recent hard-line approach to sexuality might be a result of social pressures.
“I think it’s because of the culture wars in the United States that the synod has decided that they’re going to push this issue,” said Henry DeMoor, a professor emeritus of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary who has watched the unfolding clash and belongs to another Christian Reformed church in Grand Rapids. “It seems like we have divided the church, the way the Republicans and the Democrats divide politically.”
Neland is not the only Christian Reformed church in the Grand Rapids region open to the full inclusion of LBGTQ members. Close to half of the 19 congregations in its geographic region, called Classis Grand Rapids East, are open and affirming.
Disturbed at the unwillingness of the classis to discipline Neland Avenue, delegates to Synod 2023 considered a proposal to disband the classis and divide its churches among more theologically conservative regions. While that didn’t pass, other measures of discipline might come next year.
At the end of June, Classis Grand Rapids East formed a committee to consider how to move ahead in the face of the denomination’s insistence to bring both Neland and the classis into compliance with its theological stand on homosexuality.
Many of those affirming churches will be looking at Neland and to the classis to see how it responds. About 700 people attended a town hall meeting hosted at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids on June 29, where the classis committee was announced.
A decision to break away from the denomination might not be easy. Neland has a 106-year history with the CRC, rooted in the evangelicalism of members whose families immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands.
But eight years since Neland first considered the full participation of LGBTQ members, some are feeling frustrated and weary with the years-long struggle.
Some people are in a “wait and see” mode, said Larry Louters, a church member.
“They’re not transferring or officially joining Neland until they see what Neland does because they’re quite uncomfortable joining any CRC church because of the official stance that the denomination reaffirmed this summer,” he said.
That leaves a lot of people hanging. Ryan Struyk, a gay man who grew up in another Christian Reformed church in Grand Rapids, said he hasn’t decided if he wants to stick with the denomination.
“Despite the denomination’s perfunctory resolutions about welcoming LGBTQ people and continuing the conversation, it’s hard to see any daylight for LGBTQ people or their supporters to belong in a church that says even a ‘settled and binding’ interpretation of a confession is not enough, and instead demands that the consciences of all straight office bearers and members must be forced to oppose same-sex marriage or risk church discipline,” Struyk said.
There’s also the question of whether Neland should continue contributing financially to various denominational ministries. DeMoor said the congregation might consider stepping back from those commitments, at least temporarily.
However the church decides, one thing is clear:
“We have always done things at Neland prayerfully and carefully,” said Van Denend. “We don’t make quick decisions. It’s going to take time.
“Our church is full on Sunday mornings with new people attending each week. Some are waiting to see what we conclude; others are joining now. Neland's ministry to its neighborhood is vibrant and weekly worship is positive, buoyant, and points all who attend to Jesus.”
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