Our denomination, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, recently gathered in our broadest assembly called Synod. At Synod, representatives from our binational (U.S. and Canada) denomination all gather to conduct the business of the church. After two years of cancelled synods due to COVID, this year covered a lot of important conversations that have been delayed. Synod includes some wonderful celebrations like new candidates for pastoral ministry, examining new seminary professors and denominational leaders and hearing amazing reports of what God is doing through some of our denominational ministries. Also, for the first time, a Latino delegate served as chair of Synod for the very first time. There are also some important voting matters that needed to be discussed. What were some of the biggest decisions and what does that mean for our church?
Human Sexuality Report—Over the past several years, an appointed committee developed a thorough report on a biblical and Reformed understanding of human sexuality. Their research covered a wide range of topics including several examples of sexual brokenness. Most of their recommendations to reaffirm our traditional theological positions were voted on and passed on Synod, including interpreting our Catechism’s teaching on the Seventh Commandment requires us to flee from all unchastity including pornography, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, and homosexual sex.
Abuse of Power—Our denomination continues to work through how we can best deal with and prevent abuse of power in our churches to protect the image bearers of God. When we live and serve in the local church, no one should fear physical or emotional abuse. Delegates received power and privilege training and we can look forward to more resources available to churches to make sure we create safe environments in our ministries.
Heresy—All churches have unique “accents” when discussing the most important matters of the Christian faith, like how we talk about the gospel and how we are brought into right relationship with God. For example in Reformed churches, our accent includes a lot of talk about God’s sovereignty, God’s kingdom, and God’s covenant. In our understanding of the gospel, we are made right with God because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross, exchanging his perfect righteousness for the condemnation we deserved. Through faith in Jesus, his work as our substitute is how we are made righteous before God. What happens when believers reject this description? Do we call them heretics? Heresy is a strong word. Synod decided no, but we do acknowledge that’s a deviation from our Reformed understanding of Scripture summarized in our confessions. Not using the word heresy here can help us can live with Christians from other perspectives while maintaining our beautiful way of explaining the gospel.
Particularly in the conversations around the Human Sexuality Report there was passionate disagreement between differing points of view. Many people wanted to celebrate decisions made as God-honoring while others lamented that our decisions were going to cause harm. What a challenging position to be in! What grieved me most after the decisions were made were some of the responses. In Synod itself, the conversations were passionate but mostly gracious. While there were some unfortunate and insensitive remarks which weren’t handled perfectly, conversations were not allowed to drift into attacks on people or become combative. Some follow-up tweets, posts, comments, etc. were not as gracious. Some of them became dismissive, mischaracterizing (sometimes villainizing) people for different views. Instead of responding to the arguments themselves with thoughtful rebuttals, assumptions were made about others’ character. This is an environment that breeds bitterness and pain and only succeeds in pushing us farther apart from one another.
What can we learn? As we seek to follow Jesus, we do so in God’s family. His family includes the broad, universal family—true believers in Jesus through all times and all places—the local family in specific congregations, but also our brothers and sisters in a denomination. In this family, we may disagree on important matters and have passionate disagreements. However, the manner in which we disagree is most telling. What happens when we disagree in the body of Christ, particularly on issues we are passionate about like human sexuality? I believe it’s incredibly important to see our disagreements as a spiritual exercise. It’s a reason to dive into scripture, pray together, listen to God’s voice and empathize with the other person. It’s a chance to give the best account we can of the other person’s perspective and empathize with their feelings—even if we disagree with their conclusions. In the body of Christ, we navigate God’s love and truth. When they seem in tension, it’s easy to pick one and drop the other. “Well, we just need to love everyone” and then make excuses for wrongdoing, or “well, that’s what the Bible says and that settles it” then using the Bible as an excuse to bully people into submission. Let’s consider to which we are most prone, and learn from Jesus how to speak the truth in love. In our disagreements, let’s remember Paul’s instructions to the Colossians in 4:6. “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” I look forward to having more in-depth conversations surrounding some of these issues. May the grace on our tongues be our witness to each other and to the world of God’s love and truth.