LGBTQ in the CRC
A reflection on this week's Synod decision
Since Jesus and John Wayne published two years ago, I’ve been asked many times if I was going to lose my job over it.
“I don’t think so,” I’d answer, but then I’d add that if I were to lose my job it probably wouldn’t be over J&JW. I was looking to the summer of 2022, when my denomination’s governing body would determine the status of the church’s deeply flawed Human Sexuality Report. Since Calvin University, where I work, is owned by the Christian Reformed Church and we’re bound by their theological decisions, for the past two years I’ve been meeting with Calvin adminstrators, members of my BOT, and members of my local church to discuss the problematic report and its potential consequences. This past week, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church not only affirmed the HSR but elevated its findings on LGBTQ to confessional status.
And so we wait and see.
I’m not yet fired, and I’m also not alone. The fate of many churches and members of the CRC and of the Calvin community is currently uncertain. We hope to have more clarity on that in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, I want to share a few reflections that might help people understand the complexities and the gravity of the situation currently unfolding.
The “mainstream media” often gets a bad rap from Christians, but I want to start off with an incredibly perceptive and nuanced piece that published today at HuffPost. Jonathan Cohn spent several weeks working to understand Calvin’s culture (it’s definitely not Liberty University, he realized early on) and the intricacies of the Christian Reformed Church, and it shows. I urge you to take some time to read this thoughtful profile of my colleague Joe Kuilema, situated in terms of the longer history of this contentious issue at Calvin and in the CRC.
The careful reporting on this issue in the national media, I should note, is built on the stellar coverage provided by recent grad Harm Venhuizen at Calvin Chimes. (Full disclosure: Harm is a former student of mine.)
This week has been filled with conversations among members of the CRC and Calvin faculty, staff, and students. Beautiful and heavy conversations. I’ve wept with parents of LGBTQ kids who are heartbroken and distraught that there is no place for them in our church. I’ve thought of the Calvin history student who was queer, who took her own life two years ago. I think of her often, and of others I can name, and for whom I fear. I’ve checked in with colleagues to see who is staying (for now) and who is planning to go. I’ve listened to current students discuss the possibilities of getting out of their leases for the coming year so they can transfer. I’ve listened to the struggles of a celibate gay pastor in our denomination who feels he belongs nowhere in all of this. I’ve watched the gloating of some in the denomination who have gotten their way who cannot disguise their eagerness to purge the church and the college of their fellow believers. I’ve watched others who also got their way struggling to come to terms with what they’ve accomplished.
For a sense of what has been done, I suggest reading the poignant words of my good friend Heidi De Jonge. (We’ve been friends since our flannel-shirt-and-baggy-jean-wearing days at Dordt College back in the 90s.)
This is who they are purging. This is what they have accomplished.
My own local Christian Reformed Church offers a glimpse at what this looks like on the ground. We have LGBTQ members who worship with us and who minister among us. We have many LGBTQ children, our covenant children, whom we’ve promised to guide in their faith as part of their baptismal vows. We have members who hold to traditional views of sexuality, particularly among our many immigrant members who attend our Basic English service.
These differences, however, have not interfered with the unity we have found in Christ—through the Word and the sacrament, through our common confession of faith across many languages, through our love for each other and ministry to one another. And so it is with great grief that our church now faces the possibility of this rare and beautiful thing unraveling.
Earlier this week our youth director sent a beautiful email to our young people. I’ll include a portion here (with permission):
"I love the reformed faith. I love how it captures God’s invitation to each of us as individuals and to us as His body…I love that when many of those in the reformed tradition hear God’s call to do justice and to love mercy, this gets translated into actions like fighting against climate change and caring for the immigrant and elevating the oppressed. To me it feels like there is an ‘ABUNDANCE MENTALITY’ that is captured in the reformed faith. There is NOTHING that falls outside of God’s care and God’s grace pours out over EVERYTHING.”
After reflecting on how Synod seemed to be operating instead out of a scarcity mentality, she closed with these words to our LGBTQ youth and allies:
I want you to know that there will always be a place for you at the foosball table, the pool table, the ping pong table, and my dinner table. Additionally, there are many other adult members of COS who love you and are standing with you as we seek ways to ensure you will always have a place at the Table. We are on this faith journey together.”
There are those of us who feel called to walk alongside these kids. Our kids. Wherever the journey may take us.
This morning, our Epistle reading was from Galatians 3:23-29:
“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
The tears flowed freely.
Often, I hear traditionalists claim that LGBTQ inclusion is a slippery slope to abandoning gospel truth. Or that by opening our churches to LGBTQ believers, we have already abandoned the gospel. I’ve heard enough debates on the subject to know where that argument comes from. But…what if they’re wrong? Because LGBTQ Christians in my orbit are some of the most resilient in their faith of anyone I’ve met, and they’ve ministered to me.
Similarly, from the other side, I hear people question why on earth LGBTQ folks would stay in places where they’re not welcome.
Why would someone who is not straight even attend a college like Calvin?
Granted, for some it’s because it’s the only college their parents will pay for. But for many, it’s because they are drawn to the mission: to think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world. They want a Christian education. Some are there for the disctinctively Reformed Christian education. I’ve known students whose parents not only kick them out of their homes when they come out, but also cut off tuition payments. But these students are so committed to their Reformed Christian education that they find ways to stay, sometimes going deep into personal debt to do so.
And that’s why so many of us stay. Because they stay, and at great cost.
Those who come to our Christian Reformed congregations, too, are there because of the gospel. There are certainly flashier churches to attend, and certainly more progressive ones, but they come for the confessional teaching and the Reformed tradition.
Tonight, at a special service of prayer and lament, my friend C. G. Clarke shared her story, telling how harsh behaviors and judgmental actions of churchgoers had pushed her away from the church earlier in life. Against all odds, she was drawn back to the faith, to the beautiful promises of the gospel. “This is the best news ever!” she exclaimed. But because her joy is so great, so is her grief: “Why did I have to run such a hard gauntlet to get here? Why are we keeping people away?!”
The openness to LGBTQ believers that I’ve seen is not primarily the first step on a slippery slope, nor is it an embrace of therapeutic individualism, as critics like to claim.
It is, much more simply, an open invitation: “Come and see!”
1 Cor 2:9
**This was a heavier post. I hope to lighten things up in the next one, DV. I’m planning to write my first update post on my next book, Live Laugh Love. Forewarning, for privacy reasons and as a special thank you to supporters, that one will be limited to paid subscribers. Any general interest posts, however, will remain open to everyone!