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CRC Tells LGBTQ-Affirming Congregations to Retract and Repent

Congregations that don’t comply with its traditional stance have a year to enter a process of discipline and restoration.
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CRC Tells LGBTQ-Affirming Congregations to Retract and Repent
Image: Steven Herppich for The Banner / CRC
Synod president Derek Buikema and vice president Stephen Terpstra during the annual meeting of the Christian Reformed Church in North America

Two years ago, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) clarified its stance against homosexuality. Last week, the denomination clarified its expectations for churches whose LGBTQ-affirming teachings contradict that stance.

At its 2024 Synod, the CRC instructed affirming congregations to repent, retract any divergent public statements, and comply with the denomination’s beliefs on sexuality going forward. Pastors, elders, and deacons at affected churches have been placed on a limited suspension.

The move was recommended by an advisory committee and approved by synod delegates in a 134–50 vote last Thursday.

Many saw the discipline as an opportunity to restore affirming churches back into compliance with CRC teachings and confessions, which hold that all same-sex sexual activity is sinful.

Yet at least 28 churches—including some of the denomination’s most historic—may opt to leave instead. They have a year to submit to discipline or disaffiliate.

“There was no desire for anybody to be removed from office or disaffiliated from the denomination,” said Stephen Terpstra, senior pastor of Borculo CRC in Zeeland, Michigan, and vice president for this year’s synod. “The desire, always, is discipleship, that we would be reunified, that we would see repentance.”

The Christian Reformed Church includes 230,000 members at more than 1,000 churches in the US and Canada. The denomination has roots in Dutch Calvinism, and its synod takes place at affiliated Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which welcomes LGBTQ students but officially upholds CRC teachings on sexuality in its policies.

After experiencing tensions within their own body and watching divides strike fellow denominations, leaders deliberately tried to avoid acrimonious debate.

Synod president Derek Buikema, lead pastor at Orland Park CRC in Illinois, concluded the six-day gathering with a “humble plea that we might be gentle with each other” in a sermon on the strength of gentleness.

The theme also came up in the remarks of leaders who find themselves out of line with the CRC on this issue. Buikema’s voice cracked when he introduced Trish Borgdorff, a member of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, to “speak for those who feel like they must go.”

“I don’t come to you with a spirit of ‘us versus them’ but more to highlight the reality that here we are together, serving the same God, loving God’s people, in our desire to further his kingdom,” said Borgdorff, whose congregation became LGBTQ affirming in 2022 and plans to leave the denomination. “And somehow we see it all very differently.”

Borgdorff, like many leaders on both sides of this issue, has deep roots in the CRC: Her church dates back nearly 150 years, and her father, a Netherlands-born Calvin grad and CRC pastor, was once executive director of the denomination. Yet faced with the decision of the synod, Borgdorff said her church could not “repent from a call of God,” which “puts us in a very difficult situation.”

The CRC does have a process for those who believe something in its confessions contradicts Scripture. CRC leaders sign three Reformed confessions—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort—and in 2022, the denomination clarified in a footnote that the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching that “God condemns all unchastity” includes homosexual sex, as well as adultery, premarital sex, extramarital sex, polyamory, and pornography.

At least 18 churches publicized their disagreement by declaring themselves “in protest” of that teaching. They argued the CRC should allow differences in biblical interpretation of unchastity.

Last week, however, the synod decided that churches who adopted the “in protest” status would also fall under the discipline process and be required to comply with the confessions.

“It’s okay to send a protest. The issue is when you say our whole church, our whole council, is going to take exception to the confessions,” said Cedric Parsels, reporting from the synod for the Abide Project, a group that upholds the CRC’s historic view on sexuality. “‘We are going to put an asterisk next to our name of CRC. We can only be CRC basically on our terms .’ That’s a significantly different approach.”

Parsels worries that allowing churches to remain in protest would damage the CRC’s unity around the confessions. But he still sees quite a bit of theological and confessional agreement within the CRC.

“We’ve had three synods in a row where a supermajority has charted a particular course. We are a confessionally Reformed denomination, and we want to embrace that, we want to pursue that,” he said.

Paul VanderKlay, a CRC pastor in California with a sizable YouTube following, similarly recognized the difficulty over the issue as well as the denomination’s direction forward.

“As is true for many Protestants denominations,” he told thousands of viewers, “questions about same-sex marriage and these kinds of things have hit the Christian Reformed Church hard. Unlike many denominations, at this point the Christian Reformed Church seems to be maintaining a traditional track.”

The discipline process is directed at “churches who have made public statements, by their actions or in any form of media, which directly contradict the synod’s decision on unchastity.” While openly affirming churches are a small part of the denomination overall, their disaffiliation could mean the loss of $1 million in giving to the CRC, according to one estimate.

Churches that have violated the CRC’s LGBTQ stance but want to go through the process to stay must “publicly declare repentance to the classis and retract all public statements and instructional materials that contradict CRC teachings on chastity” and “commit to abstain from ordaining individuals in same-sex marriages or relationships inconsistent with traditional Christian sexual ethics.”

Their leaders are prohibited from advocating against the CRC’s teachings regarding same-sex relations, even in a personal capacity.

May/June
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