I’ve been reading many criticisms of Synod 2022. I was a delegate to that synod. I have tried to read these criticisms with an open mind. And I do sympathize with the disappointment of some who disagreed with our decisions, and with their feelings that synod ignored the convictions of their consciences. I also can understand that some are frustrated because they think their Biblical, theological, and/ or scientific expertise was ignored. And I’m sad that some who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community and their family and friends were deeply hurt. Yet, I do wonder whether these dear brothers and sisters understand why some of us did what we did.
I would like to give an account of what I did and why I did it, with hope that others will also afford me the courtesy of listening sympathetically. Let me be clear at the outset. I have long held “traditional views” on marriage and have always been supportive of the 1973 decision of Synod with regard to homosexuality and homosexual behavior. I thought that we should revisit and change our positive stance on sex-change therapies and that the language of 1973 should have been updated to fit modern parlance, but basically I agreed with it.
In spite of that, I really had no desire to go to synod and to get involved with this decision, and I thought that others were far more capable than I of doing so. Yet, after I was chosen, I read the Human Sexuality Report and all the overtures and communiqués on all sides. I thought that it was my duty to try to understand the position of those who disagreed with me.
I had already been exposed to differing opinions years ago when, as part of my training with the Seminary Consortium on Urban Pastoral Education, I read James B. Nelson’s book Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. I was challenged by professors and pastors who were highly supportive of an affirming position. I have also tried keep informed on this and related issues by reading articles and books by authors of differing points of view. Yet, before synod, I took the extra step of reading and rereading James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. I did so because I truly desired to consider both sides.
I also did so because those who desired that synod allow for a more open position did not present very convincing arguments, but rather wanted to focus on our meeting church members who had different sexual orientations and hearing their stories. As a pastor with 29 years of experience in different congregations, as one who has counseled such people, befriended them, prayed with them, and even presided over their funerals, I found this approach very unconvincing. I, too, have relatives and friends who have different sexual orientations.
This approach was also weak because showing love and justice to LGBTQ members did not necessarily mean that we should change our position. I know Christian brothers and sisters who have different sexual orientations but who still hold Biblical positions similar to that of Western Theological Seminary’s New Testament professor, Dr. Wesley Hill.
In spite of his orientation, he defends the traditional understanding that homosexual sex is sin. (To understand his reasons, consult his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality). Christians who hold this position need the church to support them in their struggle to be true God’s Word as they understand it. If synod decided to affirm the sexual behavior of same-sex partners, or even give an ambiguous answer on this matter, would we not discourage these brothers and sisters in their struggle to live godly lives? Should the Christian Reformed Church only be concerned about only being loving and just to some members of the LGBTQ community and not to these others?
Furthermore, if our denomination is presently correct that homosexual sex is sin, we would be very unloving to encourage fellow believers to continue in such sin. In one of my Bibles, I have a lock of hair from a homeless man who struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse until he died. I spent much time with him listening and praying. I loved him as a brother, and he loved me. Yet, I still believed that his drunkenness was a sin that hurt him and those he loved. So I still always encouraged him to seek help for his alcoholism and his PTSD, which was caused by his service in the Vietnam War. I think we would all agree that in this case my advice was loving. And he respected me for it, so much that he gave me what he did before he went back home to die from cancer.
And yet I knew that despite the weak arguments given by those on the affirming side, I still could be wrong. So, for me to make the best decision I could on this, I needed to do my homework. I read and reread the HSR and I read and reread materials from those who disagreed. And after doing so, I concluded that HSR was closest to my understanding of what Scripture teaches. I certainly could still be wrong, and more importantly so could the HSR, Synod 2022, and our denomination. Because we care about the scriptures and about LGBTQ+ people and all people, I hope we can continue to discuss and pray about these matters.
Nonetheless, we must do so remembering that changing our position on what constitutes sexual sin involves more than deciding whether or not Synod 1973 and Synod 2022 were correct. As the HSR informed us, the church universal for millennia has understood homosexual sexual acts to be sinful. Furthermore, most Christian churches in the world today still have this understanding, especially those growing churches in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This should at least give us some pause in seeking to change our position, unless we still have the ethnocentric and racist conviction that we in the West are the great teachers and that nonwestern churches must follow what we say.
As I prepared for synod, I was also troubled by Calvin University Professor Kuilema’s performing a same-sex wedding and by Neland Avenue Church’s ordaining as a deacon a woman who married another woman. And I was further troubled that Neland was not disciplined by Classis Grand Rapids East and seemed to receive support from many within that classis. Before, during, and after synod some have written and spoken about our need for unity. Dr. Larry Louters, an elder from Neland who served as the elder delegate from Classis Grand Rapids East, spoke eloquently that all of us in the Christian Reformed Church, no matter what our views on this issue, need one another. I was blessed to sit with him at the supper table one evening. He’s a warm brother in Christ and a fine teacher. Nonetheless, what his church did and what Dr. Kuilema did fostered disunity. As result of this, I strongly supported and voted in favor of our decision regarding Neland Avenue Church.
This also influenced me to vote with the majority of delegates “that ‘unchastity’ in the Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 108 encompasses adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography and homosexual sex, all of which violate the Seventh Commandment.” The HSR had strong arguments for why homosexual sex should be included.
But I might have entertained allowing another study committee to look further into this matter had Neland Avenue followed Synod 1973’s interpretation of scripture regarding homosexuality and its pastoral advice. All subsequent synods had reaffirmed it. This clearly was the stand of our denomination. It does not foster unity when office bearers, Calvin University professors, and congregations ignore our denomination’s long held positions and decide that their consciences are more important than the consciences of their brothers and sisters.
Because Neland Avenue argued that the 1973 position was simply synod’s advice to the churches (which they because of their consciences were free to ignore), they probably would also have done so with the Human Sexuality Report. Since they argued that Synod had no authority to discipline classes and congregations, they probably would have continued to ignore synod’s decisions rather than do the hard work of convincing synod and the rest of the denomination that their position was correct.
In my view, this is unacceptable and the unity of our denomination is not well served by such behavior. In spite of their pleadings that we all need each other, it is these members and churches who are dividing us. So, in my mind, it was crucial to the unity of our denomination that I voted to make this matter confessional.
I do wonder if we can remain united as one denomination. All of us who truly believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord are part of the one true church. But in this broken world, we have divided into denominations that roughly reflect our understandings of Biblical truth. These divisions were often marked with bitterness, mixed with politics, and sometimes even resulted in wars in which Christians killed other Christians.
While I certainly do not think we will have a war over this, I have witnessed bitterness by individuals on both sides. And the politics that each side has played is very evident to those on the other side. Is this perhaps not inevitable when one side views as sin what those who disagree celebrate? Is this not perhaps inevitable when what one side views as prophetically standing for justice for the oppressed is what the other side views as giving-in to the sexual immorality of our culture? Perhaps we can hope that with continual discussion we will reach a consensus and remain united. That implies that the strong advocates on each side would entertain the notion that they might be wrong. Yet, when both sides are already acting as if they are completely correct, that seems unlikely to me.
We would do well to reflect on what Paul’s says in 1 Corinthians 10:22-33 about honoring one other’s consciences. Here the Holy Spirit through Paul calls on us even to honor the consciences of unbelievers. Unlike eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, the issues regarding sexuality are not adiaphora. Nonetheless, they are matters of conscience. Unless some can in good conscience submit to the consciences of those who disagree, perhaps the only way we can honor one another’s consciences may be to divide into two denominations until we can agree, if that day comes.
But if unity without achieving uniformity of understanding on this matter is the goal, then it strikes me that those who want change must be the ones to wait patiently for it. So far, most of the cries for unity have come from those who expect those who agree with the HSR to allow affirming churches, members, and office bearers to freely act according to their consciences. If someone truly believes that homosexual sex is unchastity that is impossible. The ONLY reason I oppose our congregations blessing intimate acts between homosexual partners is that in my heart and conscience I truly believe that in doing so I am showing my love for God and for these people.
And so, paraphrasing Martin Luther, I would simply say, “Going against my conscience on this is neither right nor safe.” If my desire for unity within our small denomination was greater than my love for God or these people, I could not live with myself. And taking into account the recent experiences of the Reformed Church in America and the United Methodist Church, if a majority at synod, despite their convictions, would have allowed freedom within the churches on this issue, they would achieved neither peace in their consciences nor unity in the denomination.
I fail to understand why those who want to affirm the lifestyles of brothers and sisters, whom they believe have different sexual identities, would desire to continue to be part of the Christian Reformed denomination. It is a denomination in which one half to three quarters of the leaders and membership believe such lifestyles are sin against God. Are those in Neland Church really being supportive of their deacon by remaining one with a denomination that views her and her partner’s marriage as contrary to God’s established order, and that views that her holding her office to be encouraging others to sin? The only reason I can understand for their desire to be part of the Christian Reformed Church is that they believe that someday they and others will convince their fellow members that they were right all along.
Many of these of these affirming people are in (or have held) positions of leadership in the church. And perhaps that is one reason why they believe they will be successful. But I would offer a word of caution. If they use those positions to influence our denomination into accepting what most of us believe is sin, they will only succeed (if they can) politically. Then it will undoubtedly be perceived by many in our denomination that they prevailed not because they had the strongest Biblical arguments, but because they used their positions to manipulate rather persuade. And that will lead to the very messy split they claim they are attempting to avoid. I know that some of these brothers and sisters have sacrificed much to hold the positions they have, and that giving them up is very difficult. Yet, if they truly believe what they do, perhaps that sacrifice may give them the peace they seek.
My lengthy article is my attempt to awaken those who desire change to the reality that their efforts to change the Christian Reformed Church on this matter will probably not be successful. Judging from those with whom I spoke at synod, their arguments were not persuasive to most of us. We voted the way we did because of the dictates of our own consciences and out of a concern for unity in the church.
I could be wrong, but at this point I think that Synod 2023 will probably affirm what we decided. If this is the case, then the attempts of some on the affirming side to use church order and other means to keep doing what synod has forbidden will only result in further division and unnecessary grief for those on all sides including those LBGTQ+ brothers and sisters we all say we love.