CRC Takes on Same-Sex Marriage

The Christian Reformed Church Synod 2013 forms a study committee to expand on its current stance on homosexuality

The study committee’s mandate is to guide churches, pastors and members on how to apply the biblical view of the 1973 report regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, how to communicate this view with truth and grace in this society; address the legal, ethical and spiritual ramifications; and identify resources and best practices to facilitate ministry under these conditions.

 

Synod 2013 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) voted to form a study committee to expand on its current stance on homosexuality. The committee will address how churches, pastors and believers are to respond to new situations created by the legality of same-sex marriage. Finding ways to communicate the traditional Christian stance will also be part of the committee mandate to a society that has shifted its view on marriage and same-sex relationships.

The CRC’s official stance on homosexuality was outlined in 1973. That report states that having homosexual attraction is not itself sinful but homosexual practice – called “homosexualism” in the report – is sinful according to the Bible. The report has been reaffirmed by at least ten synods, including Synod 2002 when a detailed report was adopted on pastoral care for homosexuals based on the 1973 position. Most recently, the 1973 stance was reaffirmed by Synod 2011. Classis Grand Rapids East brought an overture to Synod 2011 calling for a new study on the grounds that the 1973 statement is dated and, “There have been significant biblical and theological consideration of these issues since then.” After a significant debate, Synod 2011 voted to not revisit the issue by a narrow margin (93 to 81).

“The 1973 report thoroughly studied the issue from a biblical and theological perspective, and the 2002 report addressed the pastoral issues well. These reports are still relevant today,” states the report adopted by Synod 2011. This year the request to study homosexuality came from the more conservative Classis Zeeland (Michigan), except request was not to revisit the biblical teachings on homosexuality but to expand on the current stance to cover matters raised by legal same-sex marriage and how to communicate the CRC position when the view is becoming the minority. Classis Pacific Northwest also sent a similar overture that was more broadly stated, simply requesting “pastoral advice” on responding to legality of same-sex marriage.

“We do not wish to challenge or replace the 1973 report in any way,” Zeeland’s overture reads. Instead, the concern is over the spreading legality of same-sex marriage and a society. “Public opinion is shifting on homosexuality so that the biblical view articulated in the 1973 report is increasingly in the minority.”

Classis Zeeland’s overture requested a study committee to provide “guidance on how to apply the [1973] report’s conclusions in these new situations.”

On the Synod Floor

On June 12, 2013 the matter came before Synod. The advisory committee handling the two overtures brought recommendations to the floor that were faithful to the Zeeland specifications to expand on, not replace, the 1973 report.

Speakers lined up quickly. President William Koopmans had to cut off the list of speakers, noting that there are 13-14 people already in the queue. But it was only a short time before synod voted 135-43 in favor of the recommendation to form a study committee.

Forming the mandate for the committee was another matter, bringing nearly two hours of discussion. The President cut off the speakers when the number reached 26. Some delegates made attempts to expand the mandate to reexamine biblical teachings on homosexuality. They mentioned new biblical scholarship, as well as new biological and psychological research done since 1973. Some of the Young Adult Representatives asked for the expanded mandate, saying this was a critical topic for their generation.

Young Adult Representative, Chadd Huizenga said the 1973 report’s language is “offensive” because it refers to homosexuality as a “disorder.” The American Psychiatric Association no longer classifies homosexuality as a “disorder,” voting to remove it as such from its manual in December of the same year Synod 1973 adopted the report.

The most memorable moment of discussion came when Joseph Bowman, elder delegate from Classis Toronto, admitted that he tried therapy for 20 years but could not change his feelings.

“I stand before you as a 40-year-old, single, celibate and chaste yet openly gay man,” Bowman said.

Delegates gave Bowman a standing ovation when he said, “I want to thank this denomination for being affirming of somebody like me.”

Other delegates stood at the microphone and bluntly stated that this issue is the line in the sand. In particular, two Korean delegates spoke during the debate and suggested there would be a Korean exodus if the CRC compromised on homosexuality.

“Korean pastors talked together over dinner about this issue,” said minister delegate Jason Jun. “[I can say] with considerable certainty we would have to leave the denomination. I hope and am confident that the study committee does not go that way.”

Koreans are the largest minority group in the CRC and the classis with the most congregations is the all-Korean speaking Classis Pacific Hanmi.

“When I hear this kind of thing again and again I cannot help but think of what it says in Genesis 3, ‘Did God really say so?’” concluded Jun.

Joseph Byun, another Korean minister delegate said he was “afraid sooner or later this synod will vote to embrace Korean church or kick them out. Please, I love the CRC, the Reformed church and conservative church. Please don’t kick me out.”

Despite efforts to expand the study committee mandate, synod rejected moves to restudy the biblical view. They voted down the amendment to expand the committee’s mandate 140 to 39.

At the end, Synod decided in favor of the mandate proposed by the advisory committee by a larger margin (154-24) than that to form the study committee in the beginning.

The study committee’s mandate is to guide churches, pastors and members on how to apply the biblical view of the 1973 report regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, how to communicate this view with truth and grace in this society; address the legal, ethical and spiritual ramifications; and identify resources and best practices to facilitate ministry under these conditions.

During its work, the study committee will follow the “shepherding model,” which means that it will engage with churches and classes throughout its study, reporting to synod yearly on its progress, with a final report scheduled for 2016.

Choosing the committee

The next matter was choosing the members of the study committee. The advisory committee asked delegates for nominations. On Friday, June 14, the advisory committee produced a list of names to form the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage. Synod appointed Joseph Bowman, Rev. Shaio Chong, Jessica Driesenga, Rev. Wendy Gritter, Andrew Miedema, Dr. Robert VanNoord, Rev. Karl Van Harn, Kurt Witte, and Dr. John Witvliet.

The selection of names included some notable left-leaning leaders. Rev. Wendy Gritter is the Executive Director of New Direction Ministries of Canada, an organization dedicated to reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people who have been disenfranchised from Christianity by “nurturing generous spaciousness in the church.” In explaining this concept she says, “Generous spaciousness costs us our security in our exegesis, our hermeneutics, our interpretations (especially when such exegesis and hermeneutics result in prohibitions for others that do not personally affect ourselves).”

Gritter was also the main speaker at a seminar for ministers and seminarians put on by All One Body (A1B), a group that is more or less the gay lobby within the CRC. Gritter chimed in on A1B page the next day: “My prayer is that through the shepherding model the study committee will be able to open dialogue rather than narrowly seek to answer such closed ended questions.”

Also on the study committee is Joseph Bowman, the delegate who stood up during the June 12 synod debate and admitted to being a celibate but openly gay man. His June 13 comment on the group page also suggested a slant: “I made a specific point to say that both sides of this issue (i.e, “full inclusion/welcoming” and “celibacy only”) need to talk to each other. ALL OUR STORIES need to be told.”

Young Adult Representative, Cedric Parsels, noticed an agenda at work. “When I was at Synod a couple of weeks ago, a number of the more ‘liberal’ delegates at Synod came up to my table to re-assure some of us young adult representatives that the mandate for the new study committee on same-sex marriage was broad enough to permit a wholesale re-evaluation of the denomination’s position on homosexual behavior.”

Will conservatives be sorry?

Will Classis Zeeland be sorry it had opened up this issue? All indications suggest that challenging the 1973 report was not a question of “if” but “when.” The 1973 wording suggests the document is disconnected from present circumstances. How many people use “homosexualism” for the practice of homosexuality? Even those with the traditional view do not often refer to homosexuality as a “disorder.” Added to this the “significant biblical and theological consideration of these issues since then,” as well as the increasing social pressure to be more “open and affirming,” and reconsidering the 40-year-old report was virtually inevitable. The Christian Reformed segment that leans toward traditional positions has generally been on the passive side after the brutal women in office wars of the 1990s.

On the day after the mandate was passed by synod, the A1B Facebook page post read: “Last night at Synod did not go well for updating the denominations 1973 response to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

Perhaps starting the discussion will prove to more firmly root the classic biblical values into the policies and practices of the denomination.

Time Will Tell

Parsels expressed confidence that the liberal agenda would not prevail. His June 30 posting of the CRC Executive Director’s response to the June 26 Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, Parsels continued his comment: “I am glad that a number of people, such as in this article, make it clear that the Synod was explicitly opposed to such a re-evaluation. These public re-statements of the Synod’s intent will prevent the study committee from falsifying the historical record when it comes to interpreting the intention behind their mandate.”

Rev. Chad Steenwyk was also at Synod 2013 as a minister delegate from Classis Holland. His analysis was also optimistic in his July 1 post to the Returning Church page: “Synod 2013 was very clear on its support of the biblical study of 1973 (and reaffirmation in 2002). There was attempt on the floor to open that up again, but it was soundly defeated.”

Steenwyk finished on a cautious note. “We will have to watch the recommendations coming out of the study committee. It was approved that the study committee follow the ‘shepherding model’ – a la ‘Faith Formation.’ It could mean small recommendations coming out bit by bit. Certainly be in prayer for this committee’s integrity.”

Time will tell how balanced the study committee is in its perspective and applications of its mandate. The CRC Synods have sent back committee work and reconstituted committees many times in the past. So even if the study committee does take liberties beyond its mandate, getting Synod to adopt their work is another matter. No matter one’s position on homosexuality, many CRC eyes will be on the study committee’s work in the coming years.

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is Pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.