SYNOD 2022 ONCE AGAIN: Is there a hole in the center of the decision on confessional status?


Dear readers, a short preface for the post that follows is in order. I am publishing this post (as also the one that preceded it) in an effort to understand and respond to an action taken by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church declaring the position of the denomination on sex between members of the same biological sex to be “confessional.” This means that persons holding church office may not, on penalty of church discipline, teach anything contrary to this position. It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of “Don’t say gay.” The ruling is novel and unsettling.

While my blog is and has always had a Christian Reformed slant—I am, after all, a retired Christian Reformed pastor—I have tried to address a broader audience, keeping denomination references to a minimum. Not so in this post. In this post, I get deeper in the weeds on matters of church order and synodical process. If that’s not your cup of church coffee, I quite understand. Bear with me. What I have to say here, while dripping with procedural questions, is important—not least for those who fear that their voice in the church has been forever silenced.

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It has been widely reported—including several reports under my own byline in the denominational magazine The Banner—that Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church declared, against precedent, that the synod’s interpretation of a confession has itself confessional status, effectively extending the authority of the confession to the words of synod. 

It did so by adding interpretative language to Question and Answer (Q&A) 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church (and of many other Reformed churches). Q&A 108 is about the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18). The catechism asks, “What is God’s will for us in the seventh commandment?” The answer begins, “God condemns all unchastity.” 

A question before synod was whether the word “unchastity” in Q&A 108 contains a condemnation of sex between same-sex partners. The authors of a study committee report on human sexuality that reported to Synod 2022 claimed that it did, citing a commentary on the catechism by Zacharias Ursinus, one and perhaps the principal author of the catechism. Ursinus mentions homosexuality in his exposition of what Q&A 108 means. Several churches and classes (region judicatories) objected to this conclusion, noting that Ursinus’s commentary does not have confessional status and that neither the catechism nor Ursinus in his commentary could have answered or even contemplated the issue: whether sex between same-sex partners is to considered unchaste when the partners are married to each other.

Synod 2022 declared itself on the side of those who believe that marriage makes no difference in this case. The synod said that sex between partners of the same sex was “unchaste” regardless of whether it is within the boundaries of marriage or not. 

But the synod was not satisfied with simply declaring sex between partners of the same sex unchaste in all circumstances. A synodical declaration only goes so far. Even if a synodical decision is considered under church order, “settled and binding” (CRC Church Order Article 30) one is free to disagree with it. One can write articles about the synodical decision, suggesting that it should be reconsidered. One can send overtures to the next synod asking the ruling to be changed. But Synod wanted none of this. It wanted to nail down the decision by making it confessional. If it’s confessional, those who hold office in the church must subscribe to it and may not, on penalty of church discipline, speak against it.

At least, that was what synod seemed to want to do. But did they in fact accomplish what they—those who voted in favor of the motion on making their interpretation of “unchastity in the Heidelberg Catechism confessional—meant to accomplish? Or did the motion they passed have a huge hole in the center of it, making the ruling less than clear? Let’s look at the motion itself.

The motion passed by Synod 2022 reads as I have it below. It included several grounds of which I’ll quote only the first, which has immediate relevance for our discussion here. Grounds are not properly part of the motion, but for the other grounds, see the entire synodical report at https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/Advisory%20Committee%208B%20Majority%20-%20Synod%202022.pdf.  The motion adopted by synod is as follows:

That synod affirm 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. In so doing, synod declares this affirmation “an interpretation of [a] confession” (Acts of Synod 1975, p. 603). Therefore, this interpretation has confessional status.

Grounds:

a. “When a synodical pronouncement is set forth as an interpretation of the confession, this is its use and function” (Acts of Synod 1975, p. 603).

You will notice the crucial role that the word “therefore” plays in this motion. Citing Synod 1975, the motion argues that, first, the synodical affirmation about “unchastity” in Q&A 108 is “an interpretation of [a] confession,” and that because it is so, it “therefore” has confessional status. This argument makes no sense. It makes no sense because Synod 1975 did not say that an interpretation of a confession makes a synodical ruling confessional. It said just the opposite.

Let’s look at what Synod 1975 did. The Synod had before it a report from a study committee bearing the title, “Synodical Decisions and the Confessions.” The committee had been appointed by Synod 1973 to “”to study the use and function of synodical pronouncements on doctrinal and ethical matters, and their relation to the confessions.” Clearly this report should be relevant for what Synod 2022 was trying to do: declare the interpretation of a confession to have confessional status.

What did the report say? The study proposed a simple formula: “. . . as the confessions are subordinate to the Word, so in a similar way synodical decisions are subordinate to the confessions” (Agenda and Acts of Synod 1975:597). They repeat this formulation in various ways throughout their study. The Bible above all; the confessions subject to the Bible; synodical pronouncement subject to the confessions.

What this means, they go on to say, is that “No synodical decision involving doctrinal or ethical pronouncements is to be considered on a par with the confessions.” Ever, no matter what kind of synodical pronouncement it might be, it’s not “on a par with the confessions.” Synodical rulings do not have confessional status.

Synod 2022 seems to be proposing that there is an exception to this blanket ruling: that when a synodical ruling is “an interpretation of a confession,” then it has the same authority as the creed itself. But this is not what the 1975 study committee said. Not at all. The study committee goes out of its way to say the opposite. Citing several synodical pronouncements that are, the committee says, interpretations of the confessions, the committee doubles down on its basic position, saying, “This use does not elevate them to the status of the confessions” (598).  

What about the statement from Synod 1975 cited as the first ground in the Synod 2022 decision: “’When a synodical pronouncement is set forth as an interpretation of the confession, this is its use and function’ (Acts of Synod 1975, p. 603)”. Synod 2022 appears to have read that statement to mean that when a synodical pronouncement is set forth as an interpretation of a confession, it has the same status as the confession. But that is not what it means in the 1975 report.

The 1975 report observes what is patently the case: that synodical pronouncements have a variety of uses and functions. Some are extensions of the confessions and creeds to new areas, some are pastoral advice, some adjudicate a particular issue for a particular time, some propose guidelines for future study, and some, yes, are interpretations of a confession (Agenda and Acts of Synod 1975:603-4). The designated use or function of a synodical pronouncement determines how it is to be applied in the church. It does not, however, as the report makes abundantly clear, give to any of these pronouncements confessional authority. The pronouncements have the authority of synod, not of the confessions.

What this means is that there is no therefore in the “therefore.” The conclusion drawn by Synod 2022, that their interpretation of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 has confessional status, does not follow from anything that Synod 1975 said or did. The opposite is true. The ruling of Synod 2022 violates the spirit and letter of the decisions of Synod 1975. (While I’m on this, I should note that Synod 2022 cites Synod 1975 incorrectly. They cite the study report; study reports do not have synodical authority unless they are declared to have such by synod. They should have cited the actions of Synod 1975 taken on the basis of the report. The proper reference is to the Agenda and Acts of Synod 1975:44.)

So what do we do with this? At the very least, clarification is needed. Which ruling stands? The ruling of Synod 1975 that clearly distinguishes between the authority of the confessions and the authority of synod? Or that of 2022 that makes its interpretation of a confession itself confessional? A future synod will have to weigh in on that matter, it seems to me. I would hope that Synod 2023 would be flooded with overtures asking for such clarification.

And what does this mean in the meantime for people who have already expressed their disagreement with the conclusions of Synod 2022? And not just people, but for churches and classes that sent overtures to synod arguing that the word “unchastity” in Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism does not apply to people in same-sex marriages? What does it mean for those delegates who registered their negative votes at synod, thereby declaring themselves at odds with the decision? Or for those who have written in favor of same-sex marriage? None of these questions were adequately answered by the synod.

A relatively brief look at the decision of Synod 2022 has indicated how sloppy it was. Synods make errors, and when they do, it not only damages the reputation of synod but damages people—those on whom the weight of the decision falls.

What would be best would be to wait until some of these matters are reconsidered at Synod 2023, which they surely will be. Take a pause outside the hothouse environment of a closed-door synod while cooler heads sort through the meaning and implications of the decision. Sort through what Synod 1975 intended and whether a misreading of the 1975 report informs and vitiates the Synod 2022 decision.

The church order has a rule that for substantive changes in the creeds, the church order, and the principles and elements of worship two synods are required. The first synod proposes a given change and a subsequent synod decides whether the change should be adopted (Article 47 and supplement). With something as important as this decision, which in effect changes a confession, surely something like this procedure should followed.

Wait. Pause. Consider and consider again. The wisdom, as the scriptures counsel, is often in the waiting.

Clay


16 responses to “SYNOD 2022 ONCE AGAIN: Is there a hole in the center of the decision on confessional status?”

  1. As one of very many who are discerning “What next?”, your analysis is valuable and welcome. Thanks, Clay!

    • Thanks Clay: I appreciate what you’re driving at here. As a negative vote register-er from synod, it’s worth noting that I asked this very question to our parliamentarian–having also read the 1975 report afresh before this discussion came to the floor–and the response was that there is really no meaningful daylight between the two clauses (“an interpretation of a confession” and “therefore this interpretation has confessional status”). I was asking to discern whether to go forward with a motion to amend that “therefore” clause out of the motion (which likely would not have passed the body as it stood anyway). I think it would still be a good and interesting question to test with the next synod, but it may be a fruitless errand. Whatever space the motion itself may leave open on technicality, the church order would seem to close. The Supplement to CO Art. 5 (pertaining to the Covenant for Officebearers) states, in part: “However, no one is free to decide for oneself or for the church what is and what is not a doctrine confessed in the standards. In the event that such a question should arise, the decision of the assemblies of the church shall be sought and acquiesced in.” It seems to me that this is precisely the character and function of synod’s decision–with or without the “therefore” clause (and even admitting that the process by which this decision came was not technically congruent procedure-wise to what this supplementary statement lays out). That said: I would love to be wrong! I have appreciated your writing, and will look forward to whatever you’ve got next!

      • Clay and Anthony: At Synod, I also was fresh from reviewing the 1975 decision on the authority of the differing Synodical pronouncements. I, too, saw what you did about the use of the 1975 decision distinguishing synodical decisions from the confessions and hoped to amend the motion to remove the “Therefore” clause on that basis. Later, I asked Doug Fakkema, the committee reporter, about this. Doug noted that if the statement “this ‘interpretation of the confessions’ is ‘therefore confessional’” was removed or defeated, Recommendation D from the HSR report would come to the floor, by our rules of procedure. D stated stated that the above mentioned interpretation of the confessions “already has confessional status.” I think he was correct about that and helped explain what looked to me to lack logic.
        However, with you, I wondered whether a subsequent Synod may need to address this problem; if so, at least they wouldn’t have a study committee recommendation weighing on them.

  2. Thanks for this Clay; my former Pastor and still friend said, “whenever you see the word therefore, you gotta ask yourself – what’s it there for”. So thankful you did!

  3. In 1958, when learning to drive a very old clutch-and-shift Ford on gravel covered “washboard” country roads, my foster Dad ‘s, “Not so fast, you’ll be in the ditch before you know it. (Pause) It’s a mile hike home through muskeg bush to get a tractor.”
    Full throttle speed on a gravel road! … . Clearly, you should not be driving.
    “Accidents” come – are triggered – within the details of an ill considered chorus of “eye”!

    Much of what you write … appropriately probes the ethical details of past and present overlaping Synodical processes/formats/decisions.

  4. Clay, good article, makes a good point. Especially about taking a more thoughtful patient approach to the whole thing rather than jamming a decision through behind closed doors.

    On the bottom of page 601 of Report 47 in the Acts of Synod 1975, it states: “Full agreement with the confessions is expected from all members of the church and subscription to the confessions is required of all office bearers by signing the form of subscription. While synodical decisions are settled and binding, subscription to synodical decisions is not required. registering a negative vote with regard to a synodical decision is permissible, although this is not tolerated with respect to confessions.”.

    Wouldn’t this allow new or existing council or consistory members the right to sign the form of subscription but register a negative vote with regard to the synodical decision of 2022?

    • Thanks, Arlyn. I suspect that I’m going to have to do a piece with a title something like, “Ways to Respond to Synod 2022.” it would take up the many suggestions I’ve heard from you and others.

  5. Clay,
    As usual, your cognitive presentations about what happened at Synod 2022 are impeccable. The emotional factors that influenced delegates to this Synod must also be addressed, however, if we would together offer a full discussion of this significant decision. How much apprehension about the decline in membership in the CRC play a role here, for example? Are not the majority of those who bear the financial burdens of the denomination strong promotors of what they view as ‘traditional’ family values? Permitting or even tolerating equal status for members with alternate sexual orientations is easily viewed as threatening to those who nurture long-held beliefs about bedrock CRC customs on marriage and sexual chastity, just to name two. Thank you for addressing historical inconsistencies in the actions of this Synod. Perhaps another might speak to emotion-based factors that significantly influenced the delegates’ decision as well.
    Henry(Hank) R. Post

  6. 1) Clay loses a lot of credibility when he repeats the “Don’t say gay” lie of the Democrat Party.

    2) Synod 22 did nothing “novel” or “unsettling.” Is it Clay’s assertion that homosexual sex has been considered anything other than sinful for the entire existence of the CRC? Of the Church itself?

    3) Clay asserts: “Synod 2022…declared, against precedent, that the synod’s interpretation of a confession has itself confessional status, effectively extending the authority of the confession to the words of synod.” Well…yes and no. This is not rocket science. Synod 2022 obviously did not say that EVERYTHING synod says is confessional. That would be silly. What Synod 2022 said is that if there is disagreement in the CRC as to what the word “unchastity” means in the Heidelberg Confession, Synod gets to settle the disagreement over the meaning of that word in the Confession. That is common sense. Who would you rather have the authority to settle a disagreement over the meaning of a word in the Confession? Shouldn’t it be settle by the broadest assembly?

    4) Clay’s key argument is self-defeating. Here is how. He says that Synod 2022 is bound by Synod 1975. He does not say why, but we must assume it is because one Synod may not change or alter a previous Synod’s decision. Thus, since Synod 1975 pronounced that Synodical pronouncements can never have confessional authority, Synod 2022 is bound by that pronouncement. And therefore…Synod 2023 must change or alter the pronouncement of Synod 2022. Wait a minute! If Synod 2022 is bound by Synod 1975, wouldn’t Synod 2023 also be bound by Synod 2022?

    5) In truth, Synod 2022 did NOT change, alter, or disagree with Synod 1975. Synod 2022 simply settled a disagreement about what the words of the Catechism mean. A small group within the CRC has been trying to change the meaning of the Catechism, by teaching that gay sex is not sinful. Confessionalists in the CRC pointed out that this should not be done. Revisionists pushed the envelope by intentionally installing an officebearer, outside the CRC church order. The disagreement was properly elevated to Synod. And then Synod properly made a ruling. Synod 2022 did not make an extra-Confessional statement. They settled a disagreement about what the Confession says.

    6) Clay’s fundamental assertion is that a Synod does NOT have the authority to settle a disagreement about the meaning of a word in the Catechism. “But,” he seems to be saying, “we should kick the can down the road to Synod 2023 to see what they say.”

    RESPONSE TO CLAY: Since Synod 2022 did not change the teaching of the CRC, it merely reaffirmed it, it seems like a stall tactic to ask for Synod 2023 to re-re-affirm the teaching. Will Clay then ask Synod 2024 to re-re-re-affirm the teaching?

    • Thanks for your reply, Dan. I didn’t actually say what you say I said. What I said was simpler: 2022 misinterpreted 1975 (if you don’t believe this, read the report), and they used their misinterpretation to argue for their conclusion (the “therefore”). I suppose that synods don’t have to get their arguments right. They can make pronouncements on the basis of a misreading of a prior decision. But one would hope that Synod 2023 might at least look at this. And, no, 2022’s reading of the Heidelberg Catechism wasn’t “confessional” all along. One could and several churches and classes did disagree with that reading of “unchastity.” But you are right, calling the synod action a “Don’t say gay” move was a bit of cheap shot. On target, I think, but a little too easy -:).

      • Thanks, Clay

        Has the CRC always taught that homosexual behavior is sinful?

      • Dear Dan, the answer is yes–and no. For many years, homosexual behavior simply didn’t come up. The first official pronouncement on homosexuality was in 1973. The 1973 report was in many ways ahead of its time. It’s still worth reading. The authors entertain the idea of a civil union between same-sex partners, ultimately dismissing it, but giving it serious consideration. They also wonder if Paul in Romans 1 is talking mostly about temple prostitution. And, of course, they distinguish between the act and the orientation, a distinction that has since been challenged many times. In short, for its time, it was well done. That said, I think the authors, several of whom I knew, would now be sad that reflection on same sex relationships has not been advanced in the years following.

        So has the CRC always taught that homosexual behavior is sinful? The key word is “taught.” For years, it was assumed by all–not just in the CRC but in society generally–that homosexuality was wrong. It was criminalized. But “taught?” Not really. It was not taught because no one thought there was an alternative way of thinking. It was the rise of alternative points of view that led the CRC in 1973 and since to begin developing a position on gay sex.

  7. It’s amazing what one can come to the conclusion that one wants if given enough space and words to say it! Obviously you think you are smarter than most! Given enough words one can interpret the Bible as one wants !!

  8. Mr Libolt…Are you even aware of what the “don’t say gay” legislation actually says and does?

    That you would even use the term in the manner you did speaks loudly about your knowledge and your humility, effectively demonstrating your own sense of superiority and pride.

    • Steve (and Cal), you both have accused me of arrogance. If I have projected arrogance in my writing (or in any other way), I repent of it. My goal is not to widen the gap between those who agree with me and those who disagree. My goal is to serve the church and the savior who, in the words of Book of Common prayer, opens his arms wide on the cross to embrace all who come.

  9. Thanks, Clay, for naming and opening discussion on important themes for our future. Two observations:

    1. I have long thought our problem may be too few confessions. What if we formulated new confessions more frequently than 400 years – not every decade, but often enough to avoid ossification and regularly engage in deeper interpretation of Scripture in relation to context and culture. Might the energy spent fighting over how to interpret ancient teachings in very different contexts be better spent in direct engagement, as those who wrote the first confessions were doing. We might honour God and our ancestors more by repeating their practice of serious engagement with significant questions than fighting over what they meant in a much different context.

    2. Suppose we applied the approach of Synod 2022 to all previous Synod interpretations of specific elements in the confessions – giving them confessional status, adding them as amendments, and disciplining anyone who does not fully comply. We might quickly appreciate the different levels of authority given to the Bible, confessions and Synodical decisions.

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