(RNS) — To many in this beleaguered church, last month’s synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America was the showdown that wasn’t.
The small Dutch Calvinist denominational meeting June 9-15 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, did not kick out Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church for refusing to rescind the ordination of a deacon who’s in a same-sex marriage. (In fact, the denomination has no clear provision for kicking out a church.)
But neither did the denomination show any sign it would relent from its new doctrinal stand that homosexual sex is a sin. If anything, a majority of delegates to the CRC synod reaffirmed for the second year in a row that this teaching is now part of the denomination’s confessional statement of faith and that churches such as Neland Avenue must uphold it.
The synod rejected Neland’s appeal and once again called on the church to rescind the appointment of “any and all” officeholders in same-sex relationships — even though the lesbian deacon ordained by the church has completed her three-year term and is no longer serving. She declined to be identified, citing her safety; the church remains unapologetic about her ministry and refused to rescind her appointment.
“This leaves us in a spot of, well, what do we do now?” said Joel DeMoor, one of Neland Avenue’s two pastors.
“Do we hang in there and faithfully witness to biblical inclusion that we really believe is biblical and spirit-led? Or do we say, OK, time to pack it in?”
Faced with an ongoing clash of wills and the almost certain likelihood of more disciplinary measures, the congregation of about 650 members must now make a decision.
It’s not the first time a church has been faced with this choice. Just last year, 43 conservative congregations broke away from the more liberal Reformed Church in America over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church is now splitting into multiple groups, largely on how they view ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members. Every liberal Protestant denomination has already fractured over the issue.
The first inkling of what comes next will be this Sunday when Neland Avenue congregants meet to consider a way forward. It is expected to be the first of several meetings.
For the past eight years, this mostly white, middle-class congregation has found a way to extend and enlarge its embrace of LGBTQ people. Though it has only a small number of queer-identifying members — likely less than a dozen — they have become valued and cherished members.
Now some of those members have said they’ve seen enough.
Mary Jane Pories, an LGBTQ+ identifying member at Neland, said she loves her church but after this synod she cannot see a way forward with the CRC.
“I want to continue to be part of a congregation that reflects my values, which are being open and hospitable and welcoming to everybody,” she said. “But I can’t be part of a denomination that does not feel that way.”
At last month’s synod, a yearly gathering of members from some 1,000 CRC churches across the U.S. and Canada to make governance decisions, delegates made clear they do not intend to back down from the majority view that homosexual sex is sin.
The synod even considered limiting a traditional method of dissent. In the past, the denomination has allowed members to disagree with a particular church teaching by submitting a statement of confessional difficulty, called a “gravamen.” This year, the synod considered shortening to six months the length of time a person may disagree with church doctrine. It did not take final action but will likely consider the measure again next year.
The synod’s recent hard-line approach to sexuality may be a result of social pressures.
“I think it’s because of the culture wars in the United States that the synod has decided that they’re going to push this issue,” said Henry DeMoor, a professor emeritus of church polity at Calvin Seminary who has watched the unfolding clash and belongs to another Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. “It seems like we have divided the church, the way the Republicans and the Democrats divide politically.”
Neland is not the only CRC church in the Grand Rapids region open to the full inclusion of LBGTQ members. Close to half of the 19 congregations in its geographic region, called the Classis Grand Rapids East, are open and affirming.
Disturbed at the unwillingness of the classis to discipline Neland Avenue, delegates to the synod considered a proposal to disband the classis and divide its churches among more theologically conservative regions. While that didn’t pass this year, other punitive measures may come next year.
Last week, the classis formed a committee to consider how to move ahead in the face of the denomination’s insistence to bring both Neland and the classis into compliance with its theological stand on homosexuality.
Many of those affirming churches will be looking at Neland and to the classis to see how it responds.
A decision to break away from the denomination may not be easy. Neland has a 106-year history with the CRC, rooted in the evangelicalism of members whose families immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands.
But eight years since it first considered the full participation of LGBTQ members, time may not be on its side. Some LGBTQ members are feeling frustrated and weary with the yearslong struggle. And the stalemate may be holding back growth of new members.
Younger people are in a “wait and see” mode, said Larry Louters, a church member.
“They’re not transferring or officially joining Neland until they see what Neland does because they’re quite uncomfortable joining any CRC church because of the official stance that the denomination reaffirmed this summer,” he said.
That leaves a lot of people hanging. Ryan Struyk, a gay man who grew up in another Christian Reformed church in Grand Rapids, said he hasn’t decided if he wants to stick with the denomination.
“Despite the denomination’s perfunctory resolutions about welcoming LGBTQ people and continuing the conversation, it’s hard to see any daylight for LGBTQ people or their supporters to belong in a church that says even a ‘settled and binding’ interpretation of a confession is not enough, and instead demands that the consciences of all straight office bearers and members must be forced to oppose same-sex marriage or risk church discipline,” Struyk said.
There’s also the question of whether Neland should continue contributing financially to various denominational ministries. DeMoor said the congregation may consider stepping back from those commitments, at least temporarily.
However the church decides, one thing is clear:
“We have always done things at Neland prayerfully and carefully,” said Michael Van Denend, a church elder and the vice chair of its church council. “We don’t make quick decisions. It’s going to take time.”