(RNS) — By all accounts, Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church is doing well.
This past year, the church completed a $4.4 million renovation, adding a street-level lobby encased in glass, with a new kitchen and new bathrooms. It renovated the sanctuary and installed a wheelchair ramp and a new stage. It added an elevator.
But this Grand Rapids, Michigan, congregation, with a membership of about 650, is at the center of a maelstrom sweeping the denomination to which it belongs, the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Like so many other congregations across the country, Neland Avenue took a step too far for the denomination of about 200,000 members when it ordained as a deacon a woman in a same-sex marriage.
Last June, delegates to the Christian Reformed Church’s annual meeting — called a synod — ordered the congregation to immediately rescind the ordination.
The church refused.
On Friday (June 9), as it begins its 2023 Synod, 184 delegates from the United States and Canada will convene on the campus of Calvin University, the denomination’s flagship school, less than four miles from the church, to decide what steps to take in response to Neland Avenue’s intransigence.
The synod meets amid a growing backlash to LGBTQ gains across the nation and ongoing decadeslong divisions among theologically conservative denominations over sexuality.
Last year, the synod tightened its teachings on human sexuality, voting to declare sexually active gays and lesbians “unchaste” and to elevate its ban on gay sex to the status of confession, or proclamation of faith.
The vote, following hours of debate, was contentious. This year’s synod, which concludes on June 15, is expected to revisit the issue. About 50 of the 76 overtures, or requests, submitted to the synod ask either that delegates undo last year’s actions or build on them and go further in disciplining churches that dissent.
The synod will also consider Neland Avenue’s appeal of last year’s directive to recall the deacon as well as a recommendation from a committee that met with Neland Avenue to require the church to immediately “rescind” and “nullify” any current or future office bearers in a same-sex relationship.
“We believe that the actions of Neland Avenue CRC have disrespected and disregarded the deliberation and decisions of our corporate body and therefore are a breaking of covenant,” the committee’s report said.
In one way, the issue is moot. The deacon, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety, completed her three-year term earlier this month. She and her wife are still members of the church, but she is no longer serving in the office of deacon.
“We will most definitely stay involved and engaged with Neland even though our official duties are finished for now,” the deacon said in an email. “Neland is our family and it’s so exciting to see many new people are joining our church because they see how supportive and welcoming the people there are.”
The church currently has no LGBTQ members serving in an official leadership role.
But that doesn’t mean the synod will let the matter slide.
“If the conservative party prevails, the hammer must come down in some way, shape or form,” said James Bratt, professor emeritus at Calvin University, who has written widely on Dutch Calvinism. “In their terms, just because you stopped committing the sin doesn’t mean you don’t have to repent of the sin you did commit.”
Bratt is a member of another Christian Reformed Church that is also open to full inclusion of LBGTQ members — Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
About a dozen Christian Reformed churches in favor the full participation of LGBTQ members. At least one other church in Classis Grand Rapids East, a geographical grouping of 19 congregations, has baptized the child of a same-sex couple.
For that reason, one of the 76 overtures submitted to the synod asks to dissolve Classis Grand Rapids East and divide its churches among other, presumably more theologically conservative, classes. Some delegates to the synod are disturbed at the unwillingness of the classis to discipline Neland Avenue.
“What I think (Grand Rapids) East understands is that churches like mine (on the affirming side) aren’t just succumbing to the ‘gay agenda’ (whatever that means),” wrote Jen Holmes Curran, co-pastor of Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids in a blogpost for the website, Reformed Journal. “What happened for us is that we started to see the harm that we were causing by excluding certain people from full participation in the life of the church.”
Joel DeMoor, one of Neland Avenue’s two full-time pastors, wouldn’t speculate what would happen if the synod denied the church’s appeal and demanded it agree to never ordain a gay deacon.
He pointed to the church’s mission, listed on its website: “Neland Church seeks to be a community of hope where all will experience and extend the deep welcome of Christ.”
He added: “‘All’ is an important word for us. It transcends race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and so on. We really believe the gospel does that, too.”