For the second year in a row, synod—the 2023 synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC)—ended ugly. This may be an omen for the life of the denomination. The synod clock ticked towards 3:00 in the afternoon, 3:00 PM being the deadline for adjourning synod. There were flights to catch, schedules to keep. And synod had not finished its agenda. One of the most important items was still before it. It had to do with freedom of conscience. Would synod allow those who differed from its findings to remain as pastors, professors, elders, and deacons? Or would they be required to leave?
By this time, some had already lost patience with this synod that voted down the line to support the decisions of the previous synod to declare same-sex relationships, even in marriage, to be wrong and, not only that, but to declare their 2022 declarations to be creedal, meaning that all who bear office in the church must sign on to them. By this time delegates to this new synod had begun to take off their badges and walk off in protest.
But synod went on. As the delegates queued up to speak on the measures being proposed, the chair looked increasingly frustrated at the pace of things. At last, about an hour into the session, he declared, quite suddenly, it seemed, that he was calling the question, ceasing debate. The synod would vote without having talked much at all about one of most important matters before it. His ruling to cease debate was quickly challenged by several delegates, and he now, even more frustrated, put it to a vote. There was little risk in doing so. The body would and did vote with him.
But the vote did not stop the voices. The minority was stunned. One, Cara DeHaan, chair of the minority report on the matter before synod, said, “What you have done here by ceasing debate is incredibly harmful to whatever sense of trust that the minority has in this body.” Trust shattered, she began to weep.
With chaos quickly descending on the synod, the officers huddled. They emerged from their huddle to declare that they were ruling—no putting this to the vote—that the items left before the synod would be deferred to Synod 2024. No vote on the matters before the synod. The crisis was averted. For now.
A Thin Patina of Normalcy
There remained one more thing for synod to finish: the ballot—a ballot for electing or appointing members of denomination committees and boards. These ballots are a bit silly; few delegates know anything about the people they are voting for, and so they vote randomly or by some system they devise or at the recommendation of someone else. But vote they must, the president of the synod insisted. “We have to do this.”
And so they did. Zachary King, General Secretary, read out the names and the delegates voted. At that point it seemed like a game of pretend: pretend that things go on as they have always gone on in the denomination. But everyone knew, delegates and observers alike, that things cannot go on as they have always gone on. And perhaps that is the story here.
Conscience and Control
Let me back up a bit to the issue under debate at the time that Synod 2023 finally came apart. The issue was, rather, is freedom of conscience. In CRC church order-speak, this involves gravamen.
“Gravamen” is an odd word. It goes back to the same root as our word, “grave,” meaning that something or someone is serious. It comes from Latin gravare, “to weigh down.” In the law, it’s used for the weightiest part of a complaint or a lawsuit. In the polity of the CRC, it was originally used for a sort of ecclesiastical lawsuit alleging that a particular creedal teaching—a teaching contained in one of the confessions—is not biblical and should therefore be changed. The number of such gravamina (the plural of gravamen) has been vanishingly small over the history of the denomination. It was a weighty matter to file a gravamen.
The last of these gravamina to come before the synod was a claim by Dr. Harry Boer that the Canons of Dort, one of the CRC confessions, had gotten the doctrine of election wrong, making God the author of sin (on this see my earlier piece, “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Confessions II”). In the beginning, Boer’s approach to the synod was not a gravamen but simply a question: What is the Bible evidence for what the Canons teach about reprobation? This was 1975. Synods don’t typically answer questions of that sort, and so before synod could act, it appointed a committee to figure out how to handle Boer’s inquiry. It was out of the work of this committee that the CRC changed the understanding of what constitutes a gravamen in ways that have affected the current debate over human sexuality.
The committee distinguished two kinds of gravamina. One they called a “confessional-difficulty gravamen;” the other a “confessional-revision gravamen.” The first requires no action. As explained in a supplement to Article 5 of the CRC Church Order, it “expresses personal difficulty with the confession but does not call for revision of the confessions. . ..” The second is a sort of ecclesiastical lawsuit claiming that one or more of the confessions must be changed that Harry Boer filed in 1977 and that was finally settled in 1980.
As Synod 2023 drew to its unceremonious close, it was the first kind of gravamen, the confessional-difficulty type, that was under discussion. For most part, these gravamen, if indeed they are even gravamen, are handled informally. A council, say, is looking for new members. Their eyes fall on Jill or Jack. Jill and Jack joined the congregation some time back. They had previously been Baptists. When they joined they made it known that while they were in full agreement with most of what the church taught and loved the fellowship, they were still dubious about infant baptism. They have not been disruptive about their differences with the doctrine of the church. And they are willing to serve on council so long as the council recognizes that as a matter of conscience when they sign the Covenant for Officebearers, the covenant that binds them to the teachings of the CRC confessions, they still hold reservations about infant baptism. The council simply acknowledges their convictions in this matter, and reserving their convictions about baptism, they sign the Covenant and become part of the council. Happens all the time.
What “confessional-difficulty gravamen” means in cases like this is that the church recognizes that not everyone believes in exactly the same way. No one can come to the Covenant for Officebearers without reservations. It’s the nature of those reservations and how one handles them that is at stake in the supplement to Church Order Article 5, which among other things defines what a gravamen is.
This supplement is frequently misunderstood. Under “Guidelines as to the meaning of affirming the confessions by means of the Covenant for Officebearers,” it states as a first principle that, “The person signing the Covenant for Officebearers affirms without reservation all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church as being doctrines that are taught in the Word of God.” This is frequently to mean that you have to be able to sign the Covenant without any reservations at all. But who can do this? No one, I think, who has ever thought about what the Bible teaches and what the confessions say.
The confessions are 16th century documents. Synod 2023 was asked to change the Belgic Confession because it makes claimes about Anabaptists (Mennonites and the like) that are no longer true, if they ever were true. Synod 2023 refused to change the confession, because, they said, quoting Synod 2002, “Historically, synod has opted for a historical-textual, rather than a ‘too literalistic approach to the Confessions’ in the hope that we would avoid making so many changes to these documents that we end up with confessions that are ‘a barely recognizable polyglot of emendations.’” They go on to characterize what this sort reading of the confessions comes to: “Our confessions were born in a certain climate of theological debate and can be best understood in light of that history.” In other words, you have to read the confessions in the light of their times. Some things they get right; some not so much.
So what does it mean to affirm “without reservation all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church as being doctrines that are taught in the Word of God”? The church order supplement tells us that it does not mean that one affirms everything in the confessions. The supplement mentions that one need not affirm in the confessions “references, allusions, and remarks that are incidental to the formulation of these doctrines, [or] . . . the theological deductions that some may draw from the doctrines set forth in the confessions.” Also according to the supplement, signing does not mean that you believe that the doctrines are given the best statement in confessions or that they cover everything the Bible covers. Lots of space for conscience in those guidelines.
If you read the statement carefully, what one is asked to affirm “without reservation” is not that the confessions get everything right but that what they teach is responsible to the Bible and to the broad Christian teaching. By “responsible,” I mean that the confessions belong in the long biblical conversation of the church. They are not heterodox. They provide a reading of scripture. Take election, a doctrine taught by the Belgic Confession and, of course, the Canons of Dort. The particular way that the confessions construes election belong firmly to the 16th and 17th centuries. Much of how the doctrine is stated should be jettisoned. But the idea that God chooses us is deeply biblical. It’s in the conversation between the 16th and 17th century texts of the confessions, the text of the Bible, and our own insights that we come to truth—always allowing that the truth we come to is partial and time-bound.
And so one must come to these confessions humbly, embracing them as testimonies to the faith, reading them in the light of the scriptures, the tradition, and the church. And one must always come to these documents with a desire to learn and to understand more deeply the truth of Jesus Christ. It is to unreservedly embrace these documents as our own that I take to be the burden of the instructions about how to read confessions in the supplement to Article 5.
But that is not at all what Synod 2023 seemed to have in mind. What it had in mind was strict conformity to one reading of the confessions. And in particular to the reading of one issue, an issue never raised in the confessions but, rather, claimed to be confessional by a single synod. The issue is human sexuality, and the teaching claimed to be confessional is that any sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage is always sinful.
This is not reading the confessions as to deepen our understanding of the faith. Or to bring us together. Or to mark our confessions as important markers in the history of the Reformation church. This is using the confessions as a hammer. It’s not truth that’s being sought, which requires reflection and openness, but conformity. And so it was, at the end of Synod 2023, the hammer was in the air, about to come down, to come down on those who had filed gravamina. Too many gravamina, the synod majority thought. Too many people saying that they could not in good conscience sign on to what Synod 2022 had done.
Those Proliferating Gravamina One More Time
When Synod 2022 ended, declaring (against church order and precedent) that its interpretation of a confession was itself confessional—no end of uses for that synodical move—the reporter for the committee that proposed this move was asked, What now? What happens to all those people who don’t believe the way that you claim they ought to believe? His rather cheeky answer was, “Follow the church order.” What he meant was follow the gravamen process. And so people did. How many, I do not know. But for some at Synod 2023, far too many.
A little background: Synod 2022 had declared that the word “unchastity” in Q&A 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism included “homosexual sex.” The catechism declares that in Q&A 108, “God condemns all unchastity.” Who could doubt that? It leaves the definition of unchastity up to the interpreter. Each one should examine one’s own heart. But Synod 2022, seeking a hammer to use against those who have a different view of human sexuality, decided to define unchastity once and for all, and having defined it to include homosexual sex among other things, then to declare that this interpretation should now be read as part of the catechism, in short, as confessional. This means that if you sign the Covenant of Officebearers, you agree that God condemns homosexual sex.
Many people in the denomination do not believe this. They do not believe that their friends and family living in same-sex marriages are condemned by God. They also do not believe that they should be condemned by the church. This group of people included many at the synod itself. The votes at the synod, as I recall, perhaps imperfectly, were about 70% in favor of condemning queer people and about 30% voting against that sort of blanket condemnation. What of the 30%? It was to them that the reporter of the committee at Synod 2022 said, “Follow the church order.” Which meant availing themselves of the confessional-difficulty gravamen process or similar processes at Calvin University and the denominational Council of Delegates. As a consequence, gravamina proliferated.
Which is not at all what some in the denomination had in mind. If your intent is to hammer down dissent, then these proliferating gravamina can come as something of an affront. And so at Synod 2023 there appeared a group of overtures from conservative classes asking synod to limit confessional-difficulty gravamina. There should be, these overtures said, no get out of jail free card.
These overtures against the proliferation of gravamina were assigned to Advisory Committee 8 at Synod 2023. The committee split on this matter into a majority and a minority. In synodical practice, the committee majority has primacy. Only if the synod votes to take up the minority proposals are they debated and voted on. Otherwise, the minority report is merely read, and the synod moves on to what the majority proposals.
As synod came to closing time, the Committee 8 majority held the floor. They proposed that confessional-difficulty gravamina should be time-limited. In their introduction, they said:
“Since 1) “no one is free to decide for themselves or for the church what is and what is not a doctrine confessed in the standards” (Church Order Supplement, Art. 5, A, 3), and 2) the person signing the Covenant for Officebearers must affirm “without reservation all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church as being doctrines that are taught in the Word of God” (Church Order Supplement, Art. 5, A, 1), the process initiated by a subscriber submitting a CDG, should be time-bound and time-sensitive and should result in a final decision whereby some terminal action takes place.”
By “terminal, they had in mind one of three outcomes: (1) the person expressing difficulty with a statement of the confessions will change their mind and sign the Covenant “without reservation,” or (2) they will resign their position in the church, or (3) they will be disciplined by the church, likely resulting in their being deposed. You can wrestle with an issue for six months, the majority proposed, and then you have to decide: in or out, our way or the highway.
It was this proposal along with other provisions to put the proposal into effect (setting, for example, the deadline for people who disagree about whether unchastity includes same-sex marriage to the end of 2023) that was before the delegates when Chad Steenwyk, Vice President of Synod 2023 and, not incidentally, chair of The Abide Project, a right-wing advocacy group, announced to the synod that he was going to cut off debate and move to a vote. For those who wanted to bring down the ecclesiastical hammer, there was little risk in this. The votes were surely there. The synod had with only one exception approved every measure taken to shut the door on same-sex marriage and a variety of other sexual expressions. The proposal to limit the bit freedom of conscience still left in this matter to six months was about to be enacted without further discussion. Until, that is, in the face of protests from the minority and under the pressure of time, the officers of synod relented. No vote. Until 2024.
Freedom of Conscience
What was and still is at stake is freedom of conscience. This does not mean that one is free to say anything or do anything in the church. The church has boundaries. But these boundaries have themselves always been a matter of discussion. One can’t simply impose boundaries by fiat from the floor of a synod. Or one can, but those boundaries are unlikely to hold. The church is not the synod.
What counts as the boundaries of belief in the church is a matter not only of what synods say but—more so in CRC polity than in many Reformed denominations—what the people in the churches say and believe. And there are many people in the CRC who believe deeply as a matter of Christian conscience that what Synod 2022 did and what Synod 2023 affirmed is wrong. Unbiblical. Unchristian. We should be welcoming queer people to our congregations.
Those who currently hold power in the synod would like people who believe such things to leave. Well, they have a choice: either change their minds or leave. But they believe, these people among whom I count myself, that this church is not just the church of The Abide Project and of the synodical majority but their church, too. And they are willing to keep fighting for it and for what they see as the gospel truth in all this.
There seems to be a fragility in the stance of those who condemn homosexuality. They believe that they cannot live in the same denomination with those who oppose their ideas. Too dangerous, it would seem. They fear that openness might be contagious, likely to infect the whole. Unless these ideas of openness and inclusion along with those who hold them are excluded, the ideas will spread. Who knows, the church might become open and affirming.
At one point in the proceedings, the chair of one of the advisory committees was asked about a point of church order. He admitted that he knew little of church order—it wasn’t his thing—but he believed that we in the church are in an apocalyptic time, the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, and so we should use all means at our disposal to beat back the enemy, even when those means are not strictly-speaking according to church order. Fear is a powerful motivator.
Some in synod were afraid; others, perhaps, nostalgic, clinging to a culture they remember. But not all, I think. What I caught wind of at Synod 2023 was not only fear and nostalgia, but a lust for power. And perhaps for revenge. The mood was that we are in power now, and while we are in power we intend to remake the CRC in our image.
And so they have begun. There’s more to say, but until then,