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.
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.