Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, summer comes slowly, often not arriving until the end of June. Today, June 24, is the first real summer day of the year. We have the windows open. A gentle breeze blows across the waters of the sound. The waves sparkle in the late afternoon sun. On a day like this everything seems possible.
I have come lately from the synod of the Christian Reformed Church—the denomination in which I have spent my whole life. If I have a people, these are my people. In the 1980s, when I was encouraged to leave the denomination, after I was initially rejected as a candidate for the ministry because of how I read the early chapters of Genesis, I stayed. I stayed and doors opened for me. But now the doors appear to be closing once again, not for me but for others.
Literally. Synod 2022, the first synod in three years, decided to close its doors. The major issue before the synod was human sexuality. All of it. The list of issues included pornography, polyamory, gender (euphoria and dysphoria), homosexuality, and more. Especially homosexuality. The agenda for the synod was filled with hundreds of pages on human sexuality, beginning with a 175-page study committee report from the “Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.”
To this study committee report came responses for and against its recommendations, scores of them. Hundreds more pages. Delegates were selected from the 49 classes—the regional judicatories of the Christian Reformed Church—and sent to Grand Rapids, to the Calvin University campus, to debate and decide the issues. Publicly. But the debate was not public.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, synod closed its doors, not just for matters that by the synod rules require executive session, but for a debate on the issues. No gallery. No gathering of people to watch and pray and respond to the speeches made by the delegates.
Years ago, the gallery frequently was packed for important debates. The crowds were mostly polite, enthusiastic, and involved. Occasionally the synod chair would have to sternly instruct them not to cheer or otherwise respond, and they would comply. Mostly. They were that kind of people.
They were the kind of people who gathered outside the auditorium where the synod was meeting on a steamy afternoon. When I reached them, after the synod had been dismissed for dinner, they were singing, “Jesus Loves Me” and “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”
Moments before, the synod had been instructed that they would be escorted across the parking lot. Campus police, guns bulging at their sides, were hanging around the building. Why all this heightened security for people singing the songs of the faith? Would not it have been better—not only better, but the Jesus way—to simply let the people in the auditorium to testify by their presence to how much they care about the issues and how much they love the church?
Why were the doors locked? Colin Watson, Interim Executive Director of the Christian Reformed Church, said, “We want to make sure that delegates are able to listen to the Holy Spirit and to each other and are not listening to outside voices.” Outside voices? When I reached the protesters, I recognized some of them. They were, those I recognized, lifelong members of the Christian Reformed Church. Insiders, not outsiders.
Was there perhaps another, unstated reason? Some credible threat of violence sent to synod officials or posted on social media? If so, no one said so in my hearing. In this day of easy access to assault rifles perhaps even synods need to take account of the potential for violence, but were that the concern, there were other ways to deal with it. The crowd of protesters locked out of the building hardly seemed a threat.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the synod locked people out of the building because they were in the process of locking people out of the church. They were busy closing doors, doors that had been left a bit ajar.
Neland Avenue Church in Grand Rapids was one such door, left slightly ajar. The church had elected and installed as deacon a woman in a same-sex marriage. The synod ruled that the church must bar this woman from church office and start disciplinary proceedings against her and her partner. To enforce the synod decision, the synod set up a committee empowered with synodical authority to see that the will of synod is carried out.
The same for the classis that supported Neland Avenue, Classis Grand Rapids East. Best shut that door, too. The synod also ruled that their conclusions on human sexuality—including a firm stance against same-sex marriage—had confessional status. This means that those who hold office in the church are barred from publicly speaking or writing against the synod’s ruling at the penalty of “special discipline”: being suspended or removed from office.
The same for their ruling on penal substitutionary atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement is a Reformation-era doctrine that portrays the death of Jesus on the cross as payment to appease the wrath of an angry God. It was clear that for some, perhaps many delegates this view of the atonement should be considered the authoritative view. Other views of the atonement, taught by the church for far longer than penal substitutionary atonement, are, in this way of thinking, only supplementary, illustrative, not actual. The real stuff is in an angry God and a threat of eternal conscious torment in hell with plenty of sinners to fill it. Shut that door, the door to hell, especially tight.
I could go on, but I’m not sure that another rant coming from the likes of Clay Libolt does anyone any good, especially yours truly. I’m not even sure what I can say and what I can’t say anymore. In another post, I would like to explore the exact language that synod adopted with reference to Heidelberg Catechism 108 and what that means for confessional status, but that’s for another time. Perhaps they didn’t get the door shut quite as tight as they thought.
But, for now, all I can do is pose the question: what is permitted and not permitted? Can one say that, even if the decision is the decision, the decision was poorly decided? Can one say that synod took insufficient notice of scripture says in its ruling? Can one say that synod took insufficient notice of the arguments of the dissenting overtures published in the agenda? What can one say? The reporter for the advisory committee said that “now the conversation begins.” Really? It seems to me that synod was trying hard to slam the door shut and keep it shut.
But as I said, going on about what synod did is a losing game. Instead of trying to pry open shut doors, perhaps we can better spend our time opening a few windows. It’s summertime. Let’s let the breezes in. They may just be the gentle zephyrs of the Spirit of God.
Bible. The windows I have in mind have names. The first is scripture. The Bible. It may surprise some of you, but I don’t remember the Bible being much talked about in the debate about human sexuality at synod. Texts were often thrown about, especially texts on discipline. Hebrews 12:11 seemed to come up often: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Those who cited it seemed not to have noticed that the passage isn’t about church discipline but about persecution. God’s “discipline” in the theology of Hebrews, not ours.
When the texts on homosexuality did come up, many delegates seemed to assume that they could only be interpreted in one way. Some delegates slipped easily between their interpretation of the Bible and the mind of God. Instead of saying, “the Bible says. . .,” or, better, “I believe the Bible says. . .,” they claimed, “God says. . ..” It was the old fundamentalist mentality: God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, never noticing that when you look carefully at these texts they are not as they are often assumed to be. They are not straightforward condemnations of homosexual sex between married partners, for example. But none of that surfaced because there was no substantive debate on the texts themselves.
Worse, there was no engagement with the Bible as the Bible. The Bible was used mostly as a book of rules. In this view, biblical interpretation—articulating the “foundation-laying biblical theology” of whatever—is mostly hunting for rules that can be applied to present day culture, especially in the interest of shutting doors. But the Bible is much more than rules. It’s a book that invites us to ask fundamental questions about human life. In opening up questions, it invites us into conversation. And to those questions, it rarely delivers a shut-the-door, throw-away-the-key kind of answer.
If the committee that studied human sexuality had actually wished to explore what the Bible says about the topic it would have been a much wider ranging and more interesting report. They might have looked at the way marriage changes over the course the Bible and how it has changed since the Bible was written. And the implications of these changes. They might have looked at the way Jesus and Paul qualify marriage, not as a way to lay the requirement of celibacy on the heads of same-sex oriented people, but as a way to explore a deeper spirituality. And so forth. It could have been fun. We might have discovered something about the breadth of human experience.
Church. If the first window to be thrown open is the wonderful world of the Bible, the second is the world of the church. Not just the church since the Reformation. Not just the church narrowly defined by what happened at the Synod of Dort. No, the church that includes women and men across the ages and across the world who have pondered what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s the church that has pondered and continues to ponder what it means for God to be revealed in a singular human being named Jesus and to be revealed in all human beings. It’s the church that reaches out for insight into all of nature and all of culture.
There are two fundamentally different ways to establish identity. One—the way chosen by Synod 2022—is to define identity from the edge. Those who find their identity—both churches and people—by setting boundaries, the “this is me and that’s you” sort of boundaries, have an endless task. They will be forever quarreling about what’s in and what’s not. They will need to be forever policing the edges. The other and better way to establish identity is from the center. If one knows who one is at the center, then one can be flexible about the edges. “Strong at the core,” I used to say to my congregation, “flexible at the edges.”
A strong core church knows a few things well: Jesus, the way of the cross, the power of resurrection, the long tradition stretching back to Abraham and Sarah, grace, faith, hope, and love, to take a quick stab at creating a list. It can live with differences—not only live with but learn from differences—and still be itself. We need to open the window to those who think differently than we do. Doubling down on penal substitutionary atonement seems like boundary-setting, marking the edge, not living out of the core of the faith. Declaring an interpretation of Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 108 to be confessional similarly seems like putting up a wall, not something that belongs to the core of faith.
Spirit. The third window that needs opening is to the Spirit. The Spirit was often mentioned at Synod 2022. It was frequently claimed by delegates that the synod was being led by the Spirit. Remember Colin Watson’s comment that the doors need to shut so that the delegates could listen to the Spirit? But for all the talk of the Spirit, nothing was said about how this was supposed to work. Is the Spirit better heard if dissenting voices are excluded from the hall? Will the voice of the Spirit be drowned out by too much noise from the gallery? Might not the Spirit be moving among the protesters instead of the delegates? And how does one know what is the Spirit and not just one’s own opinion?
The Bible has some suggestions that help us to answer those questions, at least provisionally. This is important work. The life of the church could be described as pursuit of the question: where is the Spirit moving in our time? One could frame the debate at synod as a question about whether the Spirit is leading the church in a new direction and, if so, what direction? The answer to those questions will not be decided in the course of a single synod but over a long period of time, as the church comes slowly to consensus in these matters. It’s not there yet.
In the meantime, we might note two things about the Spirit in the New Testament. One is that the Spirit wears the face of Jesus. The presence of the Spirit and the presence of the Risen Lord coalesce. Both Paul and John say this (see 2 Corinthians 3 and John 14).. So, if we wonder whether something is a movement of the Spirit, we might ask, “Does it look like Jesus?” If you have questions about what the face of Jesus looks like, try Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-3.
The second is that the Spirit is generally out ahead of the church. We have this in Acts 15, where the apostles consider whether gentiles can become Christians without keeping Torah. In the debate, Peter as well as Paul and Barnabas say to the gathering just that: the Spirit is already out there in the lives of gentiles. The Spirit is ahead of the church. The letter sent by the apostles explaining their decision recognizes this: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you. . ..” First Spirit, then our belated recognition of what the Spirit is doing.
We have this also in the words of Jesus in John 16 where he says that the Spirit will lead them (and us) into all truth. Opening the window of the Spirit means asking ourselves what new thing the Spirit is doing among us.
Practice. And last, we should open the window of practice—the practice of the faith. Somehow in our little branch of the faith (Reformed Christianity) we got the idea that the faith is mostly about ideas. At Synod 2022, it was often suggested that once we get our ideas right, everything and everybody will fall into line. Not so, as we well know.
Better we start with the practice of the faith. When Jesus tells his disciples what will mark them as his disciples, he doesn’t say, “Get the doctrine of the Trinity right.” Or, “make sure that you canonize the rule against gay sex. That’s crucial.” What he says is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Paul comes to the same conclusion in his First Letter to the Corinthians. After discussing the controversy that was then roiling the church—the spiritual gifts—he says, “But now I’ll show you a more excellent way” (! Corinthians 12:31). What follows is his famous chapter on love. In this chapter, “love” (‘agapē) is shorthand for the Christian life.
If we in the Christian Reformed Church could throw open these four windows—the Bible, the church, the Spirit, and Christian practice—we would begin to dream the dream of God’s people, never voiced so eloquently as in Isaiah 11: “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Or in a contextualized version: Minnkota will lie down with Grand Rapids East, and the children of Neland Avenue will lead them.
Or so I hope.