Gravamina And the Curious Case of The Reformed Baptist
Written by Patrick Anthony
The Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) allows for what is called a confessional difficulty gravamen (CDG). A gravamen is for an officebearer in the CRC who has a difficulty with a doctrine articulated in the confessional standards of the denomination. Prior to synod 2022’s decision to affirm that the word ‘unchastity’ in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 has always included same sex behavior. It is likely that many officebearers spent little time thinking about gravamina. However, following synod 2022’s decision the denomination published an FAQ explaining that a gravamen could be used by officebearers who disagreed with synod’s decision. If their council judged the gravamen acceptable, the council would have no obligation to share the officebearer’s difficulty with classis. This understanding of the nature and use of gravamen essentially allows officebearers to take exception to a doctrine taught in the CRC’s confessions.
This portrayal of gravamen has been challenged. According to this alternative view of the history, development, and use of gravamina, they were never intended to be used for taking exceptions. The understanding of gravamina articulated in the denominational FAQ developed by officially recognizing the way gravamina were being used instead of how they were intended to be used. They were originally intended to provide a way for officebearers who develop difficulties about a doctrine to receive the information and clarification necessary to resolve their difficulty while continuing to serve with integrity and in good conscience. If an officebearer has a settled conviction in opposition to a doctrine contained in the confessions, the proper resolution would be to resign or seek to change the confessions by filing a confessional revision gravamen. The CRC is and always has been a denomination that follows strict subscription, which means its officebearers must affirm every doctrine contained in the confessions without exception.
Synod 2023 was set to decide the nature and use of gravamina; however, the clock ran out and the decision was deferred to synod 2024.
The Reformed Baptist1 Dilemma
If gravamina are as they’re described in the denominational FAQ a council could hypothetically ordain a qualified, theologically astute Reformed Baptist if he files a gravamen and if his council judges his gravamen acceptable. This would allow churches to ordain elders and deacons in situations where it is difficult to find qualified officebearers like with church plants, and churches that find themselves in increasingly post-Christian contexts in need of discipleship. But what if a church wanting to ordain a Reformed Baptist held to a traditional view of human sexuality? And what if they believe gravamina are being used by revisionists to take exception to the catechism’s teaching on human sexuality? Should these churches support maintaining the understanding of gravamina recently articulated by the denominational FAQ so they could continue to ordain Reformed Baptists even if that means revisionists can circumvent the catechisms teaching as well? Or should they support the alternative understanding of gravamina even if that means it will become difficult, if not impossible to find officebearers? Or is there some other solution that could remove the technicality for revisionists but still allow otherwise orthodox Reformed Baptists to serve?
The Current State of the Debate
At this point there are only two options laying claim to the definition of gravamen. The question to be answered by synod 2024 is, what is a gravamen? Yes, there are very real implications for whatever definition wins the day. Those implications are lurking and may color one’s ability to be objective, but right now synod 2024 is charged with clarifying the nature and use of gravamina. Will the delegates find the denomination's FAQ and their version of the historical development of gravamina persuasive, or the alternative view articulated in the challenge to the FAQ? Ideally, everyone would lay aside their interest in a particular outcome and objectively seek to determine what a gravamen is according to the language of the Church Order and the intention of synod 1976. If the alternative view is adopted, it is likely beyond the scope of Synod 2024 to also come up with a way to allow officebearers to take legitimate exceptions to the confessions as that would require significant revisions to the Covenant for Officebearers, the Church Order, as well as layering in additional policies and procedures. Those questions will need to be answered at a subsequent synod.
Some Potential Options Moving Forward
If the view of gravamina recently articulated by the denomination prevails at synod 2024, the only dilemma for the traditional churches looking to ordain Reformed Baptist officebearers would be whether they would remain in a denomination that allows revisionists to serve as officebearers. But if the alternative view prevails, what options are left for those churches? They might choose to leave a denomination that does not allow Reformed Baptists to serve as officebearers. They could overture synod to revise the Heidelberg Catechism to support both views of baptism. Another option would be to define a set of allowable exceptions for officebearers. Or there could be an allowance for exceptions in the case of elders and deacons only provided they were not able to be delegated to higher assemblies. Perhaps they could also be examined by classis to ensure they were otherwise orthodox allowing them to serve in their local context under the supervision of classis. The point to be made here is that there are valid options to consider in the future should synod 2024 decide a definition of gravamina that prevents Reformed Baptists from serving as officebearers in the CRC.
The Reason This Matters Now
I write this as an appeal to my fellow brothers and sisters in the CRC who would struggle to find qualified officebearers should synod 2024 clarify that the alternative view of gravamina is what the Church Order teaches and what synod 1976 intended. I know the outcome of that decision might place incredible strains within your congregations. I want to offer you hope that there is plenty of room to discuss alleviating those strains within Christian orthodoxy, and through discussing potential changes to our polity. But we must not maintain the current status quo with respect to gravamina as they have been interpreted by the current denominational leaders. Not primarily because their interpretation allows revisionists to continue to serve, but because it is simply not how gravamina were intended to be used. We must interpret synodical decisions and the Church Order as we would any text, with the original meaning and intent of its author(s). To interpret a text because we prefer a certain outcome would be to commit the same error that got us into this position in the first place.
One Final Bit of Food for Thought
I have a friend who is a Reformed Baptist pastor. If a paedobaptist began attending his church, although he would agree it’s a debatable matter within Christian orthodoxy, his elders wouldn’t even let the paedobaptist become a member unless he submitted to believer’s baptism let alone call him to serve as an officebearer. This is because, for them, paedobaptism is not baptism. It’s simply a nice ceremony where some Christians put water on their children. The reason the CRC can be a bit more welcoming is because, unlike my Baptist friend, we consider their baptisms valid. But I mention my friend because he would rather preserve his theology and his denomination as it is than make allowances to welcome someone with a significantly different view into his church membership, regardless of whether it is historically orthodox. He believes someone baptized as an infant only is disobeying Christ by not being baptized. I’m not saying it would be categorically wrong for the CRC to entertain options for how to let people with Reformed Baptist convictions serve as officebearers, but we must recognize that it would fundamentally change our denomination. By doing so we would locate ourselves elsewhere in the larger body of Christ than we have ever been before. A decision like that would be a significant change to our identity.
Therefore, if we do make a change like that in the future, we should be theologically driven to do so. We should all be just as convinced that it is okay for Reformed Baptists to serve as officebearers as my friend is that paedobaptists should not even be members at his church. Being a part of the CRC means sharing our theological identity. We are free to broaden our identity if we are all convinced that is who we are and that is what the Scriptures teach, but we must not let pragmatism and expediency dictate our theological positions. At least this is a conversation we can have among fellow believers within Christian orthodoxy whereas all officebearers in the CRC should agree that revisionist teaching places one outside of the faith once and for all handed down to the saints.
“Reformed Baptist” is a stand-in for anyone who has an historically orthodox theological position that differs from the CRC’s confessional standards.
Patrick Anthony completed his MDiv at Talbot School of Theology. He was ordained in 2017 and pastors Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Ripon, CA.