Status Confessionis

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I have thoroughly read the Study Committee's report to be presented to Synod 2021.

I have this challenge: Please show us the decision of a synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America that interprets the word "unchastity" so as to include what is currently called homosexual sex in a committed same-sex relationship. Only if a CRCNA synod has thus interpreted Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism can this be called a confessional issue in our denomination. It is not enough for a study committee to quote Ursinus or do anything else to argue that it is "already" a confessional issue. The synod must have decided it. I am not saying anything here about what I believe the Bible says to us with regard to this activity. That's not what's at stake in the challenge I bring. My concern is that the committee makes a church political statement that simply doesn't hold water. All previous synodical actions on the matter are explicitly and tellingly characterized as "pastoral advice."

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Should 'pastoral advice' be understood as 'prophetic advice' also?

The fact that the question of homosexual marriage has been addressed negatively in the past is no reason not to address it now.  The same could have been said of slavery and women's equality.

Community Builder

Dan,

That is not my premise.

My premise is that no synod thus far in CRC history has insisted that officebearers at the local level apply discipline.

I am currently serving as a deacon at my local CRC church. Let's say I start sharing my idea that God is going to save ALL human beings, even those who deny Christ. I bring it up at Council meetings. I promote it during my deacon visits. I post all kinds of things on social media about it.

Are you saying I should not expect or accept any discipline from my fellow office-bearers for that?

Community Builder

No, Dan, I'm not saying that at all.

If you believe and express the belief that all people are saved, your belief would be in conflict with our confessions, namely, the Canons of Dort (e.g. II, 6) and the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 20) and thus would no longer be affirming our Covenant for Officebearers.  The only exception would be for you to file a "confessional difficulty gravamen" and ask your council and the broader assemblies to allow you not to believe in limited atonement and be granted that privilege.  That request would almost certainly not get a positive response.  So if you persisted in this you would have to be suspended and/or deposed from office.

Agreed.

And if a deacon (such as at Neland Ave CRC) promotes the belief that sexual immorality should be affirmed and celebrated within the church, in conflict with our confessions, they would no longer be affirming our Covenant for Officebearers. They would need to file a confessional difficulty gravamen and ask their council and the broader assemblies to allow them to continue to promote sexual immorality.

Community Builder

Yes, Dan, but only if a synod of the CRCNA has made this a confessional issue.  Currently it is a position that we have adopted and synod has called that "pastoral advice" to the churches.  So the signing of the Covenant for Officebearers by said deacon did not involve confessional status.  If, however, Synod 2021 were minded to interpret our confession by insisting that "unchastity" includes same gender sexual relations, that deacon might have to send such a confessional difficulty gravamen unless they are both chaste in their marriage.  And if that is sent, I doubt that the broader assemblies would grant the request.  In that case she would likely have to resign.

And yet, even matters of pastoral advice are still considered settled and binding. Synod 2004 urged a church in Classis Toronto to act according to the 1973 report. Wasn’t that decision evidence that synod has interpreted this matter as binding? Classis Toronto passed a statement saying that the church’s actions were breaking with the denominational covenant. Synod 2006 approved the work of the In Loco committee that said the same. From what I understand from your Commentary on this, Henry – p. 167 – a delegate can record their negative vote on a decision, but they “must still respect the decision made by the majority and thus the assembly as a whole.” When you speak about avenues of appeal on p. 169, you say this: “Obviously, the proving must not be done to oneself, or to one’s council, or to one’s classis, but to synod. If it were otherwise, we would once again be left with ‘autonomous individuals’ or ‘autonomous local churches.’” Doesn’t this mean that Neland should have first appealed to synod? It’s one thing for a council or individual to disagree with a decision, but that does not mean they have the right to disregard it. Where is the proof that this decision is not in accordance with Scripture?

Community Builder

Josh,

It looks like we will need to agree on what "respecting" a decision means.  It does not mean obeying what a synod has declared.  If it did, our having a negative vote recorded means very little.  Let me give you an example out of my own past.  I was interviewed by Synod 1988 after the Calvin Seminary board nominated me to serve as an assistant professor of church polity.  The delegates already knew, by way of prior overtures and the public press, that I favored the nomination of women to serve as ordained officebearers.  So a number of delegates wondered how I could possibly hold that view and yet respect the synodical decisions not to allow it.  My response was that seminary students were adults and clever enough to be able to distinguish between what the CRC held as its position on the matter and my own views on it.  So in all the years I taught church polity I always presented what the CRC held and why, and I also presented what those who didn't agree with that position held and why so that said students could make up their own minds.  The same is true of synodical delegates who had their negative vote on a decision recorded.  They went back to their classis, reported on what synod decided (respectfully) and why they voted against it.  There's no problem with that in our system.  Of course, no synod allows a negative vote on a matter that is obviously a confessional issue.  Women in office, as Synod 1987 declared, was and is not a confessional issue.

As for Classis Toronto, I have enough awareness of their actions to know that not only did the council of that congregation respectfully differ on a matter that was at that point not a confessional issue, but that the council also held their belief so forcefully that it didn't leave much of a choice for classis to act as it did.  Those actions reflected a response to one council's approach.  There were many other councils that dealt pastorally with those who professed to be homosexual in orientation and sought to help them live with the synodical decisions of 1973.  Elders may even have differed with synod's position, but respecting synod's decisions means that they would be obliged to accurately report what its position was and is.

 

 

 

Henry, 
    I am not persuaded by your understanding of what "respecting" a Synodical decision means. Instead, I think that your commentary has it exactly right. If Synod makes a decision which (a) is of non-confessional nature and which (b) does not imply that people have a choice in the matter (i.e., it doesn't use terms like may, might, or can), then churches, classes, and individuals are not allowed to act contrary to those decisions. As you rightly state, "If it were otherwise, we would once again be left with ‘autonomous individuals’ or ‘autonomous local churches’” (DeMoor, Commentary, 169). 

Your argument about "negative/protest votes" does not support your (new?) understanding of what "respecting" a decision means. All that "protest votes" indicate is that people in our denomination are allowed to speak and write against a synodical decision. They do not imply that the protestor, their classis, or their local congregation are thereby freed to act contrary to Synod's decision. "If it were otherwise, we would once again be left with ‘autonomous individuals’ or ‘autonomous local churches’” (DeMoor, Commentary, 169). 

Your example from your time teaching at the seminary is a perfect example of how our denomination has understood what it means to "respect" a decision of Synod. In class, you represented the denomination's position fairly, then you represented your own view. And you let the adults in the room decide for themselves what they were going to do with that information (e.g., write overtures to Synod or not). What you did not do is actively participate in a woman's ordination or advise a council to go forward with a woman's ordination. If you had, then you would clearly have been disrespecting Synod's decision. 

If a member, congregation, or classis wants to act contrary to something Synod has taught, then they should either submit a gravamen or submit an overture. If Synod declines to adopt their recommendation, then the respectful thing to do is either to (a) abide by the decision or (b) submit a new overture with different grounds or (c) leave for a denomination that allows them to act according to their conscience.   

Much as I love the Heidelberg Catechism, and much as I respect the help I've received from Henry over the years, it seems that for years the CRC has been using the confessions as a loophole to avoid following explicit biblical directives (which in theory are our primary authority). The Heidelberg Catechism etc. don't deal with abortion, pornography or a host of other issues that have become lightning rods in our society. It's not that these issues didn't exist back then, but they weren't legally and societally approved, and so were not addressed. To avoid biblical teaching by saying it's not in the confession or catechism is casuistry of the highest order. There's also an implied judgment that those of us who take the "traditional" view on same-sex marriage are not compassionate and would not deal pastorally with specific cases. That may be true for some, but it's an unwarranted assumption to make in general. I agree that church splits are painful and have often been unbiblical. That's why I second the suggestion that, rather than form yet another denomination, the respective parties in the RCA and CRC realign...although I recognize that to be a faint hope. I find it ironic that on issues like baptism that have divided the Christian church for years, we want to make it a primary confessional issue, but on issues relating to homosexuality on which the church has been united until recently (and most evangelicals still are) we want to make them secondary or "pastoral" rather than confessional.

Community Builder

My how this thread has grown since I last read it!  Thank you Henry, for initiating this important conversation.  You have blessed our denomination with much wise counsel over the years.

Regrettably, I cannot see your way forward on this issue--namely, receive the report as pastoral advice, and make every effort to stay together by leaving local Council's to decide on what's permitted, and what's disciplined with respect to SSM--as being tenable or wise.

This is not an interpretive issue, its a matter of orthodoxy. As John Cooper has stated, the revisionist view employs a new hermeneutic, a way of reading Scripture that opens up all kinds of novel interpretations on any number of issues, including the issue of whether a biological male can decide to become female (I raise that because mostly what we are talking about in this thread is SSM....the culture has moved way past that issue and if the Bible allows us to remove the male/female binary out of marriage, it surely allows us to remove it from personhood as well).  Years ago John Stott predicted this would become the benchmark between orthodoxy and heresy. NT Wright sees this as evidence of the unraveling of culture under idolatry.   

Many people in the CRC, myself included, are deeply convinced that what these esteemed folks have stated is true. That's not too mention the countless others over the millennia of church history and in global church today that hold this view!   In fact, historically, it's hard to think of a teaching / position of the global church that has had more agreement than the definition of marriage as being between and man and a woman.

It is untenable to believe that a denomination can meaningfully stay together in the presence of such strong disagreement.  And I don't think any denomination to date that has tried has shown us it can. They've all experienced a significant exodus.

I agree with Henry, church "splits" have been / are deeply painful.  

Let's think of a way forward that first changes the vocabulary. Avoid the language and spirit of "split" or "schism" and use a more gracious term, like "realignment".  Imagine the powerful witness it would be to the watching world if two denominations like the RCA and CRC amicably negotiated a gracious realignment of churches, classes?, schools?, for the sake of avoiding a schism and working towards a solution that allowed both sides to move forward in their understanding of Biblical faithfulness.  

Admittedly, where this realignment will be most difficult is in Classis GRE; a mostly "big tent" Classis where many of our denominational employees are located (CRCNA, Calvin College).  It will take lots of  prayerful discussion / negotiation to work through all the politics and logistics. 

We have reached an impasse. The CRC needs to take a clear Biblical (traditional) position. Hopefully the RCA will adopt the "big tent" or affirming position (Part of me cringes when I read what I just wrote. How can I hope a denomination adopts heresy? I suppose I've resigned myself to the fact that we are at an impasse and realignment feels more like a cooperative option than a divisive one.)

We'll need lots of clever minds like yours Henry, to help the churches see how this realignment could happen!

BTW, if the RCA maintained the tradition and the CRC went progressive, I'd still be in favour of the realignment. My RCA friends make me think that's a lot less likely.

 

Not only did John Stott predict this would happen. At the height of the women in office controversy, David Feddes wrote in "Calvin Forum" that the hermeneutic being used would lead to this. Neal Plantinga responded that this was "unlovely" and Feddes might as well have suggested women in office would lead to an approval of stealing (a total non-sequetor). Feddes replied that, unlike other denominations, like Pentecostals that have had women preachers from the start, the hermeneutic being used in the CRC (i.e. cultural accommodation that undermines the authority of Scripture) was following the trajectory of the then mother church, the GKN who had moved past women in office to a reconsideration of homosexuality. Others who made the same point at Synod were booed, like they were making an unfair and unimaginable comparison.                             

Clearly, there are differences between the two issues, not least the Scriptures' positive statements on women's ministry. The point is Feddes was right about the underlying hermeneutic being used. It's time to admit that.

Further on church unity, it's clear that both the CRC and the former GKN in the Netherlands were far too quick to enforce discipline on secondary issues of conscience and biblical interpretation, resulting in church splits. The solution is not to go to the other extreme and avoid discipline altogether. This is clearly not biblical. Interesting that it's those who seek to promote the purity and orthodoxy of the church (albeit sometimes harshly and unlovingly) who are now accused of being divisive...not those who push for change and reinterpretations of Scripture that amount to accommodating rather than transforming culture.

Community Builder

Everyone,

On this Thanksgiving weekend I want to express to all of you my gratitude for your insightful contributions responding to my "challenge."

I believe that what we need from synod now is clarity.  People differ on how we understand "pastoral advice."  Some say it's just a matter of allowing elders to do their own thing, even with a denominational "position" in place.  Others think it means that synod is asking us to minister in a specific way, i.e., we are not to go outside of the bounds that synodical decisions have put in place, and we should be telling those with homosexual orientation to be chaste.  But we also need synod to affirm our church political history.  As a matter of fact, nobody has thus far demonstrated that synod has wanted to raise this issue to a confessional status, i.e., it has never specifically indicated what in today's world and culture the word "chaste" in the Heidelberg Catechism actually condemns.

So what I believe should happen is that Synod 2021 should consider a declaration that with the increasing pressure of our culture we believe that sexual activity among persons of the same gender has now brought us to a "status confessionis."  Synod should then deliberate on that proposal.  If it winds up then, secondly, approving it, synod should make clear what is expected of the churches.  Specific answers to questions like: may we ordain homosexual persons? Only if they are chaste?  Should we then expect chastity in the lives of all persons who experience this orientation?  Should we ask them not to marry since their doing so shows a lack of repentance for sexual activity among persons of the same gender?  If, on the other hand, synod does not approve of such a declaration, it should indicate why it is not a confessional issue and make it clear that officebearers at the local level are free to minister to their members with that in mind.  It should then also make it clear whether persons with a homosexual orientation may be nominated for office in spite of our 1973 decision ("incompatible with the will of God").

So rather than framing everything in the context of "pastoral advice," it is now time to decide one way or the other even though this may well sow division among us and force possible loss of membership or even our denominational makeup.

I wish it didn't have to be this way because I feel like we should be uniting around even this issue.  But I find that no amount of new hermeneutic can convince us that the Scriptures are actually quite tolerant of homosexual acts, and, as opposed to the women in office issue, doesn't speak in favorable terms about it, whatever the cultural expression of this was at the time, different from ours or not.  (I suspect not, but will trust good exegetes.)

In any case, to boil it right down to the basis of my "challenge," I win that one and synod should not declare that this is already a "confessional issue" as the study committee proposes.  That's simply not speaking truth.

May God bless our delegates in preparation and, hopefully, Spirit-filled deliberation in June (if we're out of the woods of Covid-19).

Blessings, everyone!  And thanks again.

 

Henry,

This issue is in its own way a referendum on the 1975 synodical statement and the categories that it laid out. Though that statement noted that Synod's pronouncements are equally authoritative, though differing in use and function, the term "pastoral advice" seems to have taken on a different meaning as the years have gone on. (Similarly, unfortunately, to how many people interpret our own "pastoral advice"--as something they can take or leave.)

My question is, were these categories meant to be mutually exclusive? Simply because something was originally stated as pastoral advice, can't it occupy more than one category?  And doesn't a Synod have the authority to declare that something that we already hold as authoritative and biding in one category, may function as well in another category? And isn't that essentially what will happen if the study report is adopted by Synod?

Community Builder

Jeff,

No, I don't believe that was the point in 1975.  The point was that whatever authority synod claims on a particular issue, the wording of the decision should speak for itself.  So it's not as if something has to be in any one of the specific categories mentioned and as if it can only be in one.  I think Synod 1975 was just "exemplifying" options that synods have in making sometimes difficult decisions.

In asserting that all decisions in 1973 were framed as "pastoral advice" synod deliberately avoided "principial stance" or "confessional status," call it what you will.  But because we disagree on what that essentially means and because we seem to be drifting in a congregationalist approach again, Synod 2020 should probably discuss the issues now in terms of the "interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism" to clarify its relevance for the day.  Any such interpretation, of course, then becomes part of the confessional binding for all who sign the Covenant for Officebearers.

I do not know where that will lead, but I have what is typical of those in their mid-seventies: some anxiety about losing each other.

 

I read through the comments again this morning to see if anyone had touched on this and I was surprised when I saw that no one had. But one data point that none of us seems to have addressed is Synod 2016's adding a supplement to Church Order, 69-c.

According to Church Order, 69-c, "Ministers shall not solemnize marriages which would be in conflict with the Word of God." And Church Order Supplement, 69-c, states that "The pastoral guidance recommended to the churches by Synod 2016, found in the minority report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-sex Marriage (Agenda for Synod 2016, pp. 436-43), represents one example of how synod has determined that a marriage is considered to be in conflict with the Word of God. (cf. Acts of Synod 2016, p. 918)." 

If someone goes back and reads the "pastoral guidance recommended to the churches," it is obvious that the specific example of "a marriage...considered to be in conflict with the Word of God" is a same-sex marriage. So, according to Synod 2016, one type of marriage that ministers may not solemnize, because it is in conflict with the Word of God, is a same-sex marriage. This seems to go well beyond the broad and permissive construal of "pastoral advice" that Henry has advocated for earlier in this thread.

It is arguable, then, that Synod has already moved its views on the ethics of homosexual sex outside of the realm of "pastoral advice." It now clearly teaches that same-sex marriages are "in conflict with the Word of God" and forbids its ministers from solemnizing said marriages. This seems to signal an important shift in Synod's position re: same-sex relationships. For, if same-sex marriages are in conflict with the Word of God and if all sexual intercourse outside of marriage is in conflict with the Word of God, then homosexual sex is in conflict with the Word of God. That is, according to the straightforward implication of Synod 2016's decisions, the CRCNA officially holds that homosexual sex is an instance of 'unchastity.' And, thus, someone could reasonably argue that the CRCNA regards homosexual sex to be in conflict with what it confesses regarding the seventh commandment (see, HC, Q/A, 108-109).

In any case, as this thread has demonstrated, the situation requires clarification. The Committee's recommendation D provides that clarification. 

Hey Dr. DeMoor,

I remember fondly our church polity discussions and debates from seminary days.  Though I often struggled to come up with a good argument against the church order, as you challenged us to do, I did find that to be a really engaging pedagogical approach.  I see that approach continues here on the network. :) 

I'm obviously quite late to this discussion.  I stumbled upon this only recently.  So it could be that my thoughts are already represented in the comment section above.

Firstly, I think the whole notion of "pastoral advice" is being misconstrued in some of these conversations.  Synod did not say, "It's our pastoral advice that this is what scripture says."  No, what is pastoral advice is how we live out scripture's clear teaching with regard to specific pastoral situations.  So yes, there's more room for flexibility in terms of determining just what we do in a given pastoral situation (just as there is when dealing with someone wrestling with any other sin or sinful inclination), but Synod has never invited flexibility on the question of whether same-sex sex is unchaste. 

As such, I have difficulty with the premise of your question: namely, that if Synod has not officially declared something to have confessional status, then that matter / behaviour does not already have confessional status.  Driven to its logical conclusion, it would mean that Synod would then have to give exhaustive definitions of just about everything in our confessions and then declare those definitions to have confessional status before the confessions could have any binding meaning for the local church.

In addition, if it's indeed the case that something doesn't have confessional status until Synod explicitly says so, that would functionally serve to elevate Synodical proclamations above scripture and the confessions.  You're correct that Synod has never explicitly declared that homosexual sex is included in the definition of unchastity in LD 41.  It's actually said something even more authoritative and binding than that...it has said that scripture itself is clear on the unchaste nature of same-sex sex.  So it would seem to me that far from needing to show where Synod has declared this to be confessional, it's up to those who don't think it's binding on the local churches to show where Synod is wrong in its statement of scriptural clarity.  If one concurs that scripture is clear but says we can't make that view binding upon the church unless Synod explicitly says so...that de facto makes Synodical statements more authoritative than scripture itself.

I would argue that unless the 2021 report is wrong about the clarity with which scripture speaks, then the logic of saying this is already confessional is inescapable.

Sorry for being late to the conversation.  Hope you're well. Dr. DeMoor.

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