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On why I'm not a deconstructionist
LGBTQ and the CRC, 2023 edition
Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church and attending a CRC-connected college, I didn’t know a single person who was LGBTQ+.
Of course I did, I just didn’t know they were. Because they left quietly. The young man with the beautiful voice and quick smile who went on to be an opera singer. The person a few years older than me who always seemed to “march to the beat of their own drum.” The cute little towheaded boy who grew up to break his parents’ hearts when he came out.
I haven’t seen any of these folks in decades. Because they haven’t come back. Most if not all haven’t just left the CRC, they’ve left the faith entirely. I know there are many on both sides of the affirming/non-affirming debates who think this is a good thing.
But as the CRC synod is under way, I’ve been pondering Ryan Struyk’s words. A child of the CRC, Ryan graduated from Calvin University nearly a decade ago. Back in the day he was a news correspondent for the Banner, the official publication of the CRC. Now he works as a TV producer in Washington, D.C.
Unlike everyone I knew growing up, Ryan didn’t leave when he came out. He’s stuck around, and it hasn’t always been easy:
Less than 72 hours after I came out, an office bearer in the Christian Reformed Church, standing in the church lobby after worship, compared me to a child rapist….A former teacher abruptly messaged me years after graduation to accuse me of attacking the church because I’m gay….After two decades of Christian education, I still spend some days trying to convince myself of the refrain, “Jesus loves me.” And I am still working to reverse the shame and self-hate that stems from the ultimate message from the institutions that raised me: “You don’t belong.”
I know this is uncomfortable to read. It’s uncomfortable to share. But I tell you this because I want you to hear a real, candid view—not sanitized—of my experience over the last decade as a gay son of the denomination into which I was baptized and raised.
As CRC delegates gather this week to discuss the future of people like him in the denomination, Ryan is acutely aware that many who will be voting on this decision have had (by design) little contact with members like him.
When I listen to the debate across our denomination, I’m angry that virtually all, if not all, of the voices I hear are straight. The actual, real lives of LGBTQ individuals in our denomination are often not even mentioned in conservative calls for clarity or moderate demands for good manners. Do you realize we have chased away most of the people who are actually affected by our church’s position? You have nearly chased me away, too. When is the last time you heard an LGBTQ voice in the CRCNA conversation on same-sex marriage?
Are you listening to what we are saying?
Four in 10 LGBTQ young people want to kill themselves. I have been there. When their lives hang in the balance—when my life hangs in the balance—what are you going to tell them? What will you tell me?
No questions. That’s confessional status.
A young person in your congregation might someday come to you, tears in their eyes, to reveal that they are LGBTQ—perhaps your own child. Are we really prepared to tell them that they aren’t allowed to go back to Scripture and wonder whether God might allow them the loving, monogamous relationship into which they feel so deeply called?
No questions. That’s confessional status….
We are so much better than this embarrassment that has unleashed procedural chaos in our denomination, forced hundreds of office bearers underground, sparked witch hunts among pastors and denominational employees, and, most importantly, driven LGBTQ individuals like me away from Christ’s love and toward despair and isolation.
We cannot let our LGBTQ children in CRCNA congregations become casualties in a culture war fought by church leaders for whom our same-sex relationship debate is little more than a fun hobby or a way to get subscribers on YouTube. It’s a disgrace that some ordained ministers in our denomination treat my belonging in my church like a football game that demands their color commentary. Our LGBTQ children will not have the luxury of traveling home from synodical summits and resuming day-to-day life with virtually no meaningful change.
That’s why it’s not enough to share empty platitudes about dialogue when the denomination has shown more interest in excommunicating me than listening to anything I have to say. It’s not enough to pat each other on the back for playing nice during conversations about whether to kick me out of the church. And it’s not enough to lament the spirit of our disagreement when LGBTQ people like me aren’t even allowed a seat at the table to try to make it better.
For decades, Synod has repeatedly passed resolutions repenting for its treatment of LGBTQ people. When I think about my own experience and our denomination today, I find it hard to believe they were anything but perfunctory. We can do better.
This year will mark 50 years since the Christian Reformed Church last opened itself to the possibility of any new biblical interpretations on same-sex marriage. But the legacy of our denomination is courageous, thoughtful engagement with culture—not dropping the ecclesial hammer on anyone who disagrees.
Our denomination has some of the most brilliant academic Christian minds in the world. Why are we so afraid to take another real look at this?
Martin Luther and John Calvin emphatically opposed forced celibacy for priests, not only on theological grounds, but because it realistically just doesn’t work. Luther called it “simply impossible” and said it “inevitably” results in “secret sin.” Calvin wrote that it “plunged many souls into the gulf of despair.” Is our position doing the same thing now?
I believe we can love God, love Scripture, and support same-sex marriage. Marriage is an overarching theme of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation. I find it entirely insufficient to quote any of the seven so-called “clobber passages” and assert a “clear” traditional position. But I also find it insufficient to play whack-a-mole with those same passages and claim victory if we are able to find a way to sidestep all of them. We need a more robust hermeneutic.
In the old covenant, God’s family grew through procreation. Now, in the new covenant, God’s family grows through the Great Commission. So what significance does procreation have now in a world that has been redeemed through the incarnate birth of Jesus Christ? What is the importance of sexual difference when Christ’s death and resurrection have revealed to us the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church? Can we wonder whether the work of Jesus Christ turns the page from the “fall” section of Romans 1 into the “redemption” section of Romans 3—and God’s promise of free justification through grace?
Our eschatological direction does not point us toward creation, but new creation. We are not headed back to Genesis. Can we take Christ’s creation-fall-redemption rubric from Matthew 19 and Paul’s inclusive, unitive vision in Galatians 3:28, and wonder whether sexual difference might no longer play an essential role in the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s redemptive work in the world? Could the power of Christ’s resurrection be enough to redeem all of creation—even loving, covenantal relationships that look different than Adam and Eve did?
On January 12, 1992, a CRCNA congregation made a promise to me: “Do you promise to love, encourage, and support Ryan by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service?” “We do, God helping us.”
Even more importantly, with omniscient knowledge of my sexual orientation and the events of my life from birth to death, God sealed that promise to adopt me into God’s family, too. Nineteen years ago today, I accepted those promises in my own profession of faith.
Was there an asterisk?
I read Ryan’s words just before heading to church yesterday morning. My church is one of the host churches for Synod this year and because our own pastors were engaged there, one of our members, retired CRC pastor Len Vander Zee, stepped in. Len was my pastor at South Bend Christian Reformed Church two decades ago when I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, and as Len began to preach on Matthew 11:28-30 (“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…”), I settled in and listened to his familiar cadence.
As one might expect of a Christian Reformed minister, Len started with the biblical context. John the Baptist is in prison and wondering if he misunderstood: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus confirms that he is the one, pointing to his acts of healing and deliverance. But what happens next?
Then he looks at religious authorities, and denounces them for their blindness to what is really going on. “If the people or Sodom had seen the powerful deeds I’ve done before you, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes.”
And then, right in the middle of all this, Jesus suddenly stops to pray a strange and absolutely extraordinary prayer. It’s as though we are getting a peek into the very life of the Triune God.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
What does that even mean? It seems to mean something like this. It’s our human tendency to think that we have things figured out. We think we know how the world works. We know how to discern the truth. We even pretend to know what God is all about.
But Jesus says it’s not the wise and intelligent who really know what God is all about. As Martin Luther once said, “Those who think they have God by the toe have the Devil by the fist.”
No, Jesus says, it’s the babies who get it. Think of a baby at a mother’s breast with its fist wrapped around the momma’s pinky. That’s where we are.
Babies are empty vessels who are ready to be filled. Babies are those who don’t have it all figured out already. They know one thing, trust one thing, and that’s the mother’s love and care.
And that’s where we need to be with the God who reveals himself to infants
And then Jesus says the most astounding thing in this whole chapter. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The wise and intelligent think they know who God is and what God is all about. They can expound on God’s ways and explain God’s laws.
The spiritual babies perceive one thing. This man, this flesh and blood human being Jesus of Nazareth is the only thing you need to know about God.
…That simple thing is the heart of the gospel and yet we miss it over and over. Again, Martin Luther says it with his characteristic bluntness, “Stop...climbing into heaven to see who or what God is; hold on to this man Jesus, he is the only God we’ve got.”
We don’t have to climb to heaven because God has revealed his heart in Jesus. And he says, “All things have been handed over to me
Absolutely everything is now in Jesus’ hands. Jesus is all we need to know about God, and Jesus holds the whole world and it’s future in his hands.
The Bible and all the theology books and all the Synodical Reports finally come down to this. All we can know about God is revealed to us in this man Jesus. That’s the gospel for babies, and that’s where we all have to begin.
Now, maybe, we are ready to hear Jesus call, “Come to me.”
If God has bares his heart in this man, Jesus of Nazareth, then what is God like? “I am gentle and humble in heart.” That’s not typically the first thing that comes to mind when we think of God.
Many of us have been taught to think of God as an uncompromising judge and lawgiver. As the God who looks at us and our pitiful lives with a frown of divine disapproval.
No, says Jesus, come to me, I am the Father’s human face. In me and in me alone you can know what God is like. And I am gentle and humble of heart.
And what does it mean when Jesus says “Come to me and share my yoke”?
That’s Jesus picture of his relationship with you and me. He willingly takes up the yoke of our humanity. He walks with each one of us along the road of life.
When we stumble or fall, he gently and patiently waits and helps us get up again. When we struggle with the pressures and demands of life, he understands.
When we are spiritually weary, filled with doubts and questions, he invites us to just look at him and walk with him one step at a time.
When we wonder about what road to follow, what is true and right, he asks us to follow his way, and look at what he pays attention to who he’s concerned about.
If we are reading the Bible and find it all too confusing with different interpretations and competing claims, he says just understand it’s all about me. That’s the key.
Does that sound too easy and simple? Well, in one way it is. He does call us to do this one simple thing. Look to him alone.
But in another sense it’s not so easy. If are yoked to Jesus we are also walking on the road he’s on. The road to the cross.
It’s a road that involves suffering and sometimes painful self-giving love. It’s a road that goes in the opposite direction from the Interstate highways the rest of the world cruises along.
It means learning from Jesus not to live just for ourselves, but to live for others.
It means we will not submit ourselves to the kingdoms and empires that dominate the world, but swear allegiance to a king who died on a cross.
And it will mean living at cross-currents with the dominant culture of the world or sometimes even of the church.
Being yoked to Jesus means being an outsider, maybe even an outcast. It means identifying with, yoking ourselves to the very people the world despises or pushes to the margins. It means sometimes being misunderstood like Jesus was, even by the religious authorities we look to for guidance.
Being yoked to Jesus we find him to be humble and gentle at our side, but uncompromisingly at odds with the ways of the world.
Being yoked to Jesus means he will stick with us. Sometimes we will have choices to make about what it means to follow him, and we will not know for sure what way to go. But we can be sure of one thing. Even if our choices turn out to be the wrong ones, he remains at our side and will tug us back to the right path.
As I heard these words, I leaned over to my husband and whispered: “This is how I ended up where I am today.”
As I heard these words, I leaned over to my husband and whispered: “This is how I ended up where I am today.”
For five formative years, I sat under this preaching. It resonated deeply with the faith I had been taught as a child. It didn’t draw me away from the faith I confessed, it drew me deeper into it. It made my footsteps firm. This is why I haven’t been able to locate myself as part of the “deconstruction” movement. Like Ryan, I remember the promises of my baptism and my own profession of faith and I continue to strive to grow in the love of Christ in community with those gathered in this tradition.
As Synod meets this week to decide the future of our denomination and probably also the terms of my employment, I’ll be watching things unfold with Ryan’s and Len’s words close at heart.
*Note: A video of Len’s sermon will soon be available here. (But last week’s by Karen Campbell is equally inspiring.)
**As promised, I’ll be hosting an Ask Me Anything Zoom session for paid subscribers this week! Stay tuned for details…
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