Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando and the Christian Reformed Synod

         While perusing Facebook today I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of both love and hatred that attended the massacre of forty-nine gay people in Orlando. We all feel like President Obama, I suppose. We feel like we’ve seen this sort of tragedy too many times. We fear that powerful forces beyond our control, from Congress to mental illness to guns to xenophobia conspire together to make change impossible. 
         But that’s not all I saw on Facebook, though I’m going to get back to what happened in Orlando. I also noted that yesterday, a sermon at the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church’s (CRC) annual synod was titled, “Maintain the Bond of Peace.”

Delegates at the CRC Synod, 2016
        The text was Ephesians 4:15, but it could just have easily John 17:23, where Jesus prays, “May they brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.”

         Of course, Jesus’ prayer to God was not answered in the affirmative. Through the ages, the church has not maintained anything like the bond of peace. When not persecuting minorities or heretics, the church has been torn apart by schism—often violent ones. The reality of Christendom, today, say most experts, is division into tens of thousands of denominations. Fortunately, (or not), early theologians came up with a notional fix for this problem, the “one holy catholic church,” that is, an “invisible” church of true believers divided among the world’s true and false denominations. Are you in or out?

         The preacher at synod said, “As our part of the church faces storms of the present day, God’s Spirit animates and guides us as we speak the truth to each other in love with the power of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” With such an anchor, he added, “How can we possibly go wrong?”

         Well, a lot actually. If the church’s track record on the bond of peace doesn’t worry you, then the reality of this year’s synod agenda should. What’s that?

         Gays. What do we do about those gays?

         Of course, the CRC doesn’t put it that plainly—denominations, like most institutions, are not known for plain speak. The report is actually titled, “Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same Sex Marriage.” This report is supposed to explain how Christians can be pastorally sensitive to gay people while nevertheless insisting that gay relationships are sinful--evil. It doesn’t make any practical sense, of course. It is sort of like asking someone with a pair of lungs not to breathe, or someone who is healthy to break a leg.

         Many people in the Christian Reformed Church, including many pastors and leaders, know this. After I wrote a book—while a CRC pastor—that argued it was past time for the CRC to open its doors to gays, I heard from many, many such leaders who agreed. At the same time many wrote to say they dared not make their convictions public. People—their people, their tribe, not gays—wouldn’t understand.

         On the other hand, many people don’t agree with changing the church’s stance. And given the raw emotion (rather than enlightened exegesis or just plain common sense) that attends this issue, it will be hard for the CRC to maintain that bond of unity no matter what it decides, exactly.

         In fact, is it even possible? I don't think so, ultimately. Especially since the peace the CRC wants to keep is denominational peace.

        In spite of all the energy put into founding denominations (usually through schism) and keeping denominations true and pure, they have no real Biblical warrant. When the Bible was written there were churches in different geographical areas, like Rome or Jerusalem. There were churches that met in different homes and there were churches founded by different apostles. But, perhaps naively, perhaps because of the positive outcome of the first Synod of Jerusalem, there is an underlying sense in scripture that there is only one church.

         I don’t know for sure how long this lasted. We know from many sources that there were what we now consider heretical sects early on. Several heresies are identified in scripture, and each surely had its own party within congregations, and throughout the empire.

         In scripture, there are basically only two kinds of churches—the one church that Jesus prayed (unsuccessfully, it would seem) would remain one; and individual congregations.

         After having moved from one denomination to another, and after having served (briefly) on an ecumenical committee of the CRC, and after having worked at an ecumenical seminary and been president of a Christian Graduate School at the ecumenical Toronto School of Theology, my observation about denominations is that they may be more trouble than they’re worth.

         Have you been part of a denomination where people in the pew are asking regularly what’s going on at headquarters? Have you been part of a denomination where excitement for the shared mission means donations are going up? Have you ever belonged to a denomination where its doctrinal confessions have lived in most people’s hearts, just needing to find expression on their lips (rather than in a catechism book rarely opened and poorly understood)? Have you been part of a denomination that isn’t tearing itself apart or trying to lasso and throw out some undesirable minority?

         Many denominations hold their doctrines not so much out of conviction anymore, but rather, out of a sense that tribal unity is paramount. There is safety in numbers, in shared customs, in family interactions and connections. Ethical stances, more visceral than intellectual, tend to become the actual rallying points for experiencing tribal unity over time and space.

         And right now, it's the gays on the receiving end.

         I’m not sure what the answer is. In my heart, I guess I’m a Congregationalist. In the United Church I should be in good company on the score, since the Congregationalists were one of the founding branches of my current denomination.

         But that also merely kicks the problem down one step of the ladder. My intuition, though, is that these sorts of issues are better handled on the local level.

         Perhaps a better answer is losing our sense of tribal belonging so that we as individuals feel freer to join a local congregation that matches our hopes, dreams, and convictions. But then you’d expect someone with a history of changing denominations to say such a thing!

         In the meantime, the Synod of the CRC—and any other synods meeting this summer—will meet under the pall of 49 murders of gay people in Orlando. And I think the CRC is going to have a very hard time figuring this one out. 

         Because ultimately, one cannot be pastorally sensitive to gay people in Orlando or anywhere when what you really want to say is that what they do is evil.


  1. Most Christians find themselves in a denominational structure. At the same time we know that Christ brought a message of hope and the people that he spent much of his time with were those who were marginalized, who society had turned their back on, who had no hope. That's what we need to live out.

  2. Dorothy HenneveldJune 17, 2016 at 12:20 AM

    I stumbled across synods decision today because i have a few family and friends in the CRC still. Several decades ago the CRC church left me. As a part of a diaspora of left or excommunicated or unwelcomed what i feel the most is a profound sadness in the loss of diversity, of otherness for those left in the crc. A community of increasingly boring homogonous sameness.... And im sad for the lack of allies for the kids and adults who experience themselves in an othering way but i am most grieved at the loss for those left behind. It is such a profound waste ... Like a mono crop culture of only one crop, lacking diversity, resilience, breeding ill health. The risk is for the queer and others, but most profoundly also for those that can pass or live comfortably within the stricture of acceptable. Theirs I believe is the biggest loss. My challenge I suppose is that I believe it is the wrong question or statement to grieve that there is no welcome or "pastoring" for queer and wierd and misfits. The pastoring is needed for those left behind.

  3. John, like you (and the previous writers)I couldn't stop myself from following synod even though I have come to think of myself as "emeritus in exile" When I read that the opening address was about keeping unity...well, my experience in my delegations to synod and service on boards is that unity is its own idol. I wish I had been wrong in the 3 areas that concerned me personally both in the orbit of family and friends and an activist: the "pastoral care" issue, the Belhar confession, and the report on Doctrine of Discovery. "Unity" is a powerful voice that can grind things to a halt, and demand that those who see need for change (and repentance) keep this denomination as the primary focus of their lives and central arena for action and keep coming back again and again. Synod confronted opportunities to counter forces of hate and injustice--but unity won. Stan VerHeul

  4. Good piece. Your mention of "tribalism" is, for me, the most compelling point in my own efforts to understand faith. What really strikes me about religion is the extent to which faith is tribal.

    To me, it just seems such a man-made phenomenon. And if it's God-made and the Christian story is true, then that's a struggle for me too, because that means that He intentionally created a set of rules that were so unclear and ambiguous, that even people within a single denomination are miles apart in their understanding of what it all means, never mind the different understandings that come from different tribes throughout the world. And the result is ultimately violence and people killing each other like Orlando.

  5. Paul, I've always struggled with the Tribalism of my home denomination the most. There is less of it in my new denomination. And, to give the CRC credit, they are trying their best, even structurally, to be a more diverse denomination. That said, congregations are often tribal too. The ambiguity of scripture, rooted in its diversity, is perhaps a telling alternative to the Tribalism of so many Christian expressions. We're all trying to get the main things right. If we could only learn to do this with a bit more grace, and without insisting on our interpretation, we'd be much better off.


What do you think?