If Synod 2022 of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has done anything at all, it has popularized an obscure Latin-based word, “gravamen.” The word is used in the law to mean the weighty part of a complaint, from gravis, “heavy.” But that’s not how it is used in the CRC church order. In the CRC universe, a gravamen is a formal declaration by someone holding office in the church putting the church on notice that she or he has difficulty with some part of the confessions.
Those who hold office in the CRC—pastors (ministers of the Word and commissioned pastors), professors at Calvin University and Calvin Seminary, elders, and deacons—are asked to sign a “Covenant for Officebearers.” For many years, a scarier version of this document was known as the “Form of Subscription.” In the Covenant, those who sign subscribe to, among other things, “three confessions—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort—as historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God.” The Covenant adds, “These confessions continue to define the way we understand Scripture, direct the way we live in response to the gospel, and locate us within the larger body of Christ.”
Note that the three confessions are said to “fully agree with the Word of God.” The “fully” might seem a bit much, and in its official guidance for those who sign the covenant, the denomination acknowledges as much. The CRC church order informs signers that, “The signatory does not by affirming the confessions declare that these doctrines are all stated in the best possible manner, or that the standards of our church cover all that the Scriptures teach on the matters confessed. Nor does the signatory declare that every teaching of the Scriptures is set forth in our confessions, or that every heresy is rejected and refuted by them.” They add that “The signatory is bound only to those doctrines that are confessed and is not bound to the references, allusions, and remarks that are incidental to the formulation of these doctrines, nor to the theological deductions that some may draw from the doctrines” (Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, Supplement, Article 5).
Quite a lot of room for interpretation there, I would judge, but suppose you are an office holder in the church, and you come up against something in the creeds that gives you pause. Can you still sign? The answer is a qualified yes. You can submit a “gravamen.” And if the gravamen is accepted, you can sign the Covenant for Officebearers in good conscience.
Such a gravamen can be quite informal. It can be as simple as an elder, say, telling her council that she has problems with infant baptism. Doing so is like putting an asterisk on your signature: *Elder so-and-so signs the Covenant of Officebearers but with mental reservations about infant baptism. The elder is permitted to serve on the council so long as she does not publicly oppose the teachings and practices of the church. The mental reservation stays, well, mental. No one but the Council need know about it.
There is another kind of gravamen that asks the council or another church body, a classis, say, or a synod, to change the doctrine. In that case, the elder would have submit what’s called a “confessional-revision gravamen” to the council asking the council to change the policy of the church from infant baptism to, perhaps, infant dedication and believer’s baptism.
If the council receives that kind of gravamen, it would be forced to make an official ruling one way or the other. If it says, yes, we agree, the doctrine should be changed, then it would have to submit that request for change to the classis, the regional judicatory, and if the classis agreed, the classis would have to submit it to synod, and synod would decide yes or no. If the council decides no, we don’t want to change the doctrine, the elder who submitted the gravamen could appeal, and on it would go up the chain of church assemblies. In either case, it ends up at synod.
I mention all of this—many of my readers are already well-acquainted with this process—because gravamina (the plural of “gravamen”) have suddenly become relevant in the CRC. For years, no one paid much attention to the church order provisions for gravamina. The informal, confessional-difficulty, sort of gravamina, like the one I described above, were not usually even called “gravamina.” They were not that formal. It was just an elder or a deacon or, in rarer cases, a pastor saying, “I have some problems with this teaching,” and after acknowledging the difficulty, the council or other church body saying in response, “Yeah, but we need you to serve anyway.” And on everyone goes.
The other kind of gravamen, the kind that asks for a revision of the doctrine, has only been used a couple of times in the history of the CRC. In the first case, the person submitting the gravamen died before it could be adjudicated; in the second, a committee was formed to study the issue, and the committee decided that the person submitting the gravamen had misunderstood the confession (the Canons of Dort). It didn’t say what he thought it said so no gravamen was necessary. His interpretation of the creed was okay.
But now suddenly, as they say in the metaverse, gravamina are trending. Look at the advice given post-Synod 2022 by the CRC staff to officeholders in the CRC, posted on the www.crcna.org webpage under: “Frequently Asked Questions about Synod 2022 and the Human Sexuality Report” (https://www.crcna.org/synod/hsr-faq). (This, by the way, had never been done before. For no previous synod did the staff feel it necessary to put out advice about how to deal with the decisions made by the synod.) The advice is broken down into 33 questions, the last of which is, ominously, “How can a CRC member leave the CRC?” Of these, by my count, at least 14 have to do with the gravamen process. The central office staff is apparently bracing for a raft of gravamina, whether of the informal confessional-difficult kind, or the formal confessional-revision kind.
The problem that the staff is trying to address in their posted advice is that many officeholders in the Christian Reformed Church profoundly disagree with Synod 2022 and its declaration that in all circumstances sex between same-sex partners is “unchaste” and thereby condemned in the confessions, specifically Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108.
A word about Q&A 108. it’s an interpretation of the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18). To the question, “What is God’s will for us in the seventh commandment?” the catechism says, “God condemns all unchastity. We should therefore thoroughly detest it and, married or single, live decent and chaste lives.”
This statement occasions no difficulty. (Almost) everyone condemns unchastity. The catechism does a similar thing for others of the Ten Commandments. For the Eighth Commandment, for example, “You shall not steal,” it says, “[God] forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law. But in God’s sight theft also includes cheating and swindling our neighbor by schemes made to appear legitimate. . ..” The problem comes with defining what “unchastity” means in the case of the Seventh Commandment or, for the Eighth Commandment, what “cheating and swindling our neighbor” might look like. (Does it, for example, include the sort of pyramid schemes that have so enriched some prominent CRC donors?)
Synod 2022 decided not to leave the interpretation of Q&A 108 open. They made a list, declaring “that ‘unchastity’ in Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 108 encompasses adultery, premarital sex, extramarital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex, all of which violate the seventh commandment” (Acts of Synod 2022:910). They added in a crucial and unprecedented statement, “In doing so, synod declares this affirmation ‘an interpretation of [a] confession,” citing the Acts of Synod 1975:603 (on this, see below) and saying, “Therefore, this interpretation has confessional status.”
Synod 2022 took this action even though they knew that many people, including delegates to the synod itself, do not regard sex within the bounds of marriage, whether of the opposite-sex or the same-sex variety, as inherently unchaste. By declaring sex in a same-sex marriage as unchaste by definition and then declaring that declaration to be confessional, Synod 2022 suddenly put many holders of office in the CRC on the wrong side of ecclesiastical law. It would be as if the authorities suddenly declared it illegal to teach any version of American history except the officially approved one (this is not a far-fetched example; something like this is happening in several states in the US). Suddenly, if your take on American history is not the official one, you have to decide whether you can be a teacher anymore in that state. Many office holders in the CRC are now cast into a similar situation. They have to decide if they can any longer serve in the CRC. Some have already decided to leave.
So, what should you do, if you are one of those who believe that Synod 2022 was wrong? The official advice given on the denominational website is to file a gravamen; file a gravamen, I might add, and then shut up. Stay quiet. Get yourself into the ecclesiastical closet and hunker down.
That may be the best advice for you. These are not easy decisions. Jobs and lives are at stake. I will not presume to decide for you. But before you sign that gravamen, let me suggest two reasons why a gravamen may not be the appropriate action under the current circumstances. The first hangs on the definition of a gravamen; the second, on the nature of the decision made by Synod 2022.
First, the nature of a gravamen. As I pointed out above, a gravamen is a way to inform the church that you have a principled objection to something in one of confessions. You don’t file a gravamen about a synodical decision. Gravamina are only appropriate when the matter is confessional.
What this means is that by filing a gravamen in the case of the human sexuality decision of Synod 2022, you are acknowledging that this decision is, in fact, confessional. But why would you think that? Because synod said so? But can a synod do that?
Synods do adopt confessions (Church Order Article 47), although the closest any synod has come to adopting a new confession is the approval of two “testimonies,” “Our World Belongs to God” and the Belhar Confession. Even though the last has “Confession” in its name, it was adopted by the CRC as a testimony. Testimonies do not hold confessional authority.
Synods can also change the confessions. For example, in 1958 the synod took out of the Belgic Confession language to the effect that it was the responsibility of the government to promote the church. Similarly, Synod 1985 decided to put language about “detesting the Anabaptists” in a footnote. And Synod 2010 added a footnote for Q&A 80, which declares the Roman Catholic mass to be “nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.” The footnote points out that this question and answer were not found in the first edition of the catechism but were added later—a sort of ecclesiastical “never mind.”
All of these are changes in the confessions made by synods. But this is not what Synod 2022 did. It didn’t claim it was changing anything in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108; it claimed that it was merely explaining what the catechism had always meant and that its interpretation of catechism answer was confessional. It did so on the basis of a decision about the authority of synod made in 1975.
Here’s the problem with all that. Synod 1975 did not say what Synod 2022 says it says. Quite the opposite, Synod 1975 said that a synodical decision never has the authority of a confession. So, Synod 2022 declared its interpretation of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 to be confessional on the basis of an egregious misreading of an earlier synodical decision.
Synodical decisions deserve respect, but when they are wrong, they are wrong. Synods make mistakes. Under the pressure of the moment, trying to figure out how to make the right decision, synods not infrequently end up going down rabbit trails that conclude not in great wisdom but in a kind of collective foolishness.
I think I understand how they got there. They were trying to find a way to declare the church’s wholesale condemnation of intimate relations between people of the same sex to be confessional. They wanted to end the discussion, cut off the debate: “There, we’ve decided it. Done.” It had been pointed out in several overtures to synod that going down this path was a fool’s errand. What’s confessional in the catechism, as in the other confessions, are the words, not the interpretation. The same is true of the Bible. When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we are saying that God speaks through these words. Not the words of some commentator, even if we think that commentator is correct in her or his interpretation. So, the committee—the committee of delegates advising the synod in this matter—looked for some earlier ruling that would make their interpretation confessional. They thought they had found it in the decision of Synod 1975, which, on a quick read-through, seemed to say what they wanted it to say. But they were wrong. The 1975 decision does not say that a synodical interpretation of a confession is itself confessional. It says that a synodical interpretation of a confession is just that: a synodical interpretation. It comes with the authority of the synod, not the authority of the confession it interprets.
So, what ought we to do—those of us who believe that same-sex marriage is, indeed, marriage and that sex within it does not fit the catechism definition of unchastity? As I said earlier, I can’t answer that question for you. But, I think, regardless of what you do, gravamen or no, we should insist on our right to criticize the decision of synod. CRC people have always insisted on this right. Respecting synod and agreeing with it are not the same thing. Not at all.
There is deep reason why this is so, a reason that has to do with the nature of confessions. Confessions work not because of synodical rulings but because they in fact speak for us. The “us” is important. Synods don’t so much approve confessions as recognize them. They say for us, in effect, that, that in the confession speaks for all of us.
Take the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, especially the first few lines of it: “What is your comfort in life and death? That I am not my own but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” For Reformed Christians everywhere and perhaps even for those who do not identity as Reformed, that speaks for us. It’s our deepest confession. No synod needs to say so.
But what happens if a synod takes a part of a confession and narrows it down to specific and controversial interpretation. The “us” is gone. It no longer speaks for us; it speaks for some of us and not for others. It drives a wedge into denominational life.
Synod 1975 recognized that decisions of that kind are not actually confessional. They don’t express our joint faith. They are, well, synodical rulings. They have the authority of the synod, but not of the confessions. It’s important in this time that we observe this difference between what a synod does and what’s actually confessional.
So perhaps for this time hold your gravamina. And turn your attention instead to the confessions themselves. Ask yourself not how the confessions divide us but how they hold us together. The proof of what’s confessional is that it if its not already it becomes the glue that holds us together. Wait and see if the decisions of Synod 2022 can meet that test.