CRC leaders wrestle with same-sex marriage: a look at Synod 2016
This year’s Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) received a report from the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance Regarding Same-Sex Marriage, which was chartered by Synod 2013.
The committee’s reporter was Julia Smith, director of the Sexuality Series at Calvin College, and 2014 Calvin graduate Ryan Struyk was also a committee member.
Synod charged the committee with giving “guidance and clarification on how members, clergy and churches can apply the biblical teachings reflected in the [1973 report] … as well as how to communicate these teachings in a truthful and gracious way within North America.”
The CRC’s official position on homosexuality, approved by Synod 1973, states that having a same-sex orientation is not sinful, but same-sex sexual behavior (termed “homosexualism” by the 1973 report) is. According to the CRC, being same-sex oriented is not a choice, but is a condition of “disordered sexuality,” a result of the fallenness of humanity. It also recognizes the difficult situation of many same-sex oriented believers and enjoins churches to fully include them in the life of the church.
Another study committee, which reported to Synod 2002, found that the recommendations of the 1973 report had not been carried out effectively by most CRC churches. Same-sex oriented churchgoers often felt shame for their orientation, and the committee offered advice to the CRC about how to make churches safer for same-sex oriented people.
Between Synods 2002 and 2016, the legal situation regarding same-sex marriage changed in both Canada and the US. In 2005, Canada passed the Civil Marriage Act, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country, and the 2015 “Obergefell v. Hodges” Supreme Court decision did the same in the US.
The 2016 committee’s report notes that not all of its members “were in complete agreement with the 1973 and 2002 reports on every point.” They were mandated to “work within the teachings given in those reports,” regardless of their personal beliefs about the issues involved.
The committee’s report was signed by all nine committee members, and Synod decided to receive it for information. However, the only portion of the committee’s work recommended to the churches was the minority report’s supplementary pastoral advice.
The opening section of the report contrasts religious marriage with civil marriage, explaining that they “function differently” and carry different marks. Among many other things, civil marriages provide legal benefits, while religious marriages “demarcate appropriate sexual relations.” The report affirms the previous CRC position that religious same-sex marriage is incompatible with the CRC’s theology of marriage and identifies its tasking as advising churches on issues regarding civil same-sex marriage.
The pastoral advice section of the report provides few definitive rules and leaves many decisions up to individuals’ consciences. Regarding whether CRC members should attend same-sex weddings, the report states that these situations are often extremely personal and nuanced, so there is “no perfect solution” and “conscience deserves respect.”
Pastors and church office-bearers are a slightly different case, since “the presence of a pastor or church leader at a public event carries symbolic as well as personal meaning.” The report’s advice again leaves the decision to the individual, but recommends that they consult with their council.
Although pastors usually solemnize religious marriages, the report says the committee was not of one mind on the question of whether there might ever be a scenario in which an office-bearer could officiate a civil wedding if it is in accordance with the denomination’s theological understanding of marriage. The people getting a civil marriage would need to remain celibate in order for the wedding not to violate the CRC’s understanding of biblical marriage. The wedding would also need to lack the marks of a religious marriage, which include a declaration of marriage that includes mention of the “church of Jesus Christ,” liturgical elements that invoke God and acknowledgement that the marriage is occurring “before the face of God.”
The report offers the following example of a hypothetical case in which a CRC pastor officiating a civil same-sex wedding may be appropriate:
“Two older men have developed a deep friendship over the years. Neither has married. They share a house, friends and business interests. As they age, they realize the vulnerability of their legal, medical and personal situation. Having a longstanding relationship with the CRC pastor, they approach the pastor and ask if [they] will marry them in a civil ceremony.”
Such cases would be extremely rare, however, and since requests for officiating a wedding usually include “an implicit request for a religious as well as civil marriage ceremony,” officiating a same-sex wedding would almost always be prohibited.
Use of church space for same-sex weddings is a matter left for individual churches to decide based on their building use policy for members of the general public. There is also no single guideline given for individuals participating in weddings.
In a separate section, the report recommends updating the language of the 1973 report, especially avoiding the word “homosexualism” and phrases like “the problem of the homosexual.” It also warns against using the phrases “gay lifestyle” and “homosexual/gay agenda.”
Since reparative (or conversion) therapy for same-sex attracted people has been found ineffective and often harmful since the 1973 report was published, this committee also stated the need for an official CRC position against the practice.
Two members of the study committee, Jessica Driesenga and John M. Rottman, agreed with the main report on all but a few points, and they wrote a minority report that offered different pastoral advice in those areas.
During the first weekend of Synod, advisory committees of about 25 people each are tasked with tackling each of the major issues on the agenda and recommending a course of action to the full body. The advisory committee assigned this report recommended that Synod only recommend to the churches the pastoral advice from the minority report.
The minority report eliminates the possibility of any exception, however rare or unusual, to the prohibition on a minister officiating a same-sex ceremony. On the distinction between religious and civil understandings of marriage the minority report takes the view that a marriage solemnized by a pastor is by definition a religious marriage and cannot be solely civil.
Guidelines about playing roles in weddings are also stricter in the minority report — CRC office-bearers (pastors and elders) should not “participate” in same-sex weddings at all. The minority report is also much stricter about people in same-sex marriages becoming or remaining members of the CRC. According to CRC polity these decisions are still ultimately up to church councils, who have pastoral oversight of the people involved.
The advisory committee given the same-sex marriage report also had to deal with overtures (requests for action) from 24 classes (groups of churches). Most of these overtures asked Synod to either accept the minority report or reject both reports for various reasons.
On the night in June when Synod discussed these reports, both the study committee chair and the minority report representative stated that the minority report was not supposed to stand on its own, but only as a supplement to the main report. Everything in the main report that was not contradicted in the minority report was agreed upon by all nine members of the study committee.
When discussion opened on the floor of synod Synod, it was forestalled early on by a delegate “calling the question” and asking for a vote. Synod proceeded to accept all of the advisory committee’s recommendations, including recommending only the pastoral advice of the minority report.
Synod also accepted the advisory committee’s recommendation a new committee to “articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality that pays particular attention to to biblical conceptions of gender and sexuality.” Unlike the committee that reported in 2016, this committee’s focus will be broader than homosexuality or same-sex marriage, including a wide-ranging biblical understanding of sexuality and gender.
Members of the new committee must personally “adhere to” the CRC’s position on homosexuality and same-sex relationships as articulated in 1973.
In a separate action, Classis Grand Rapids East submitted a report to Synod entitled “Biblical and Theological Support Currently Offered by Christian Proponents of Same-Sex Marriage.” In previous years Classis GR East had twice asked Synod to form a committee to study this topic, but both requests were rejected, so the classis appointed its own committee in May 2014.
Calvin professors Loren Haarsma (physics and astronomy) and Linda Naranjo-Huebl (English) were among the members of the Classis GR East committee.
The GR East report includes 11 categories of justification used by Christians who support same-sex marriage, including recent scientific discoveries, reinterpretation of scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, social and psychological goods offered by marriage and personal stories of LGBT Christians.
A summary of the report was included in the Agenda for Synod 2016 as a communication, which means it didn’t receive any discussion or a vote of any kind.
Nicholas Wolterstorff has followed many of these arguments in his recent defense of same-sex marriage. During his talk at Neland Avenue CRC, Wolterstorff mentioned that the Synod decision, which was more conservative than he hoped, was one factor in his decision to publicly state his current beliefs about the issue of same-sex marriage.