Recommendation D & Confessional Status Part 1
Revisionist Church Polity Objections
Of all the recommendations contained in the human sexuality report (HSR), recommendation D is the one that most directly challenges the denominational status quo. In this recommendation, the HSR committee asks Synod “to declare that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status” (Agenda 2021, p.149).
If adopted, this recommendation would require revisionist clergy as well as revisionist lay members to either affirm the church’s teaching on these issues or withdraw from the CRC.
Given how high the stakes are for revisionists, it is not surprising that advocates for the revisionist cause are seeking to persuade synodical delegates to vote against recommendation D. Currently, nine congregations and two classes (Grand Rapids East and Toronto) have submitted a total of ten overtures taking direct aim at the recommendation. And the revisionist advocacy group All One Body has published a number of short videos attempting to showcase the recommendation’s short-comings.
Classis Grand Rapids East (GRE) has helpfully put revisionist criticisms of recommendation D into four categories: (a) pastoral criticisms, (b) theological criticisms, (c) church polity criticisms, and (d) criticisms pertaining to the HSR’s perceived “lack of clarity.” Of these categories, however, the most relevant set of criticisms are those having to do with church polity (see, Agenda 2021, p.426). This is because, regardless of the pastoral and theological problems that the CRC’s teaching on sexuality might have, if the CRC’s teaching already has confessional status, then it is simply a matter of honesty for Synod 2022 to say so.
So, when it comes to church polity, what is the problem with recommendation D? The problem, Classis GRE explains, is that “the committee [has gone] beyond its mandate [in two ways]...” First, the committee was supposed to advise Synod 2022 on whether some future Synod should give confessional status to the church’s teaching on homosexual sex. But the committee did not do this. Instead, it is asking Synod 2022 to declare that the church’s teaching already has that status.
Second, Classis GRE argues that “the committee went beyond its mandate...[by] wrongly claiming on its own authority that [the church’s teaching on homosexual sex] already [has confessional status].” According to Classis GRE, the reason Synod 2016 asked the committee for its advice on whether some future synod should give confessional status to the church’s teaching was because Synod 2016 assumed that the church’s teaching did not have confessional status. Recommendation D, however, contradicts this implicit assumption by claiming that the church’s teaching already has confessional status. Therefore, recommendation D represents an attempt to usurp Synod’s authority to determine which doctrines have confessional status and which do not.
I think that both of Classis GRE’s criticisms are unfounded. With regard to the first criticism, it is important to note that Synod 2016 specifically asked the committee to provide Synod with advice. The question, then, is whether the committee has broken any of the unspoken rules that go along with people giving good advice to one another. And I don’t see how it has.
Suppose, for example, that my wife asks me to advise her on whether we should restock our supply of pickles. Since I want to give my wife good advice, it is only common sense that I should first look in the pantry to see whether we already have pickles. If there are pickles already in the pantry, then my advice to my wife would be that we do not need to buy pickles. And I suspect that my wife would appreciate this advice especially if she had thought that we didn’t have pickles. Why should we waste our time making a special trip to the store to buy something that we already have?
Similarly, Synod 2016 asked the HSR committee to give advice on whether the church’s teaching should have confessional status. It is only common sense that that the committee should have investigate whether the church’s teaching already has that status. And, having discovered that the church’s teaching does have that status, the committee is completely within its right to advise that Synod should recognize that reality. With any other topic, I suspect that synodical delegates would appreciate this advice. Why should Synod waste its time making a special effort to give confessional status to something that already has it?
But, Classis GRE will object, we know that the church’s teaching on homosexual sex does not have confessional status. Since 1973 Synod has repeatedly presented its teaching to us on homosexual sex in the form of ‘pastoral advice.’ And Synod 1975 made it clear that synodical statements presented under the form of pastoral advice “are subordinate to the confessions” (Agenda 1975, p.603 emphasis added). The church’s teaching on homosexual sex, therefore, does not have confessional status.
As plausible as this objection at first appears, it is fatally flawed. And it is flawed for the simple reason that it wrongly assumes that Synod cannot present a confessional teaching under the form of ‘pastoral advice’. But it can and it has. For example, in giving its ‘pastoral advice’ regarding the nature and authority of Scripture, Synod 1972 called upon the churches to wholeheartedly recognize “that Scripture addresses us with full divine authority...” (Agenda 1972, p.411).
Now, it should be obvious that the above piece of ‘pastoral advice’ clearly articulates a teaching that already has confessional status (see, Belgic Confession, Articles 2-7). So, how are we to interpret what Synod 1972 did in giving this advice? Did Synod give the churches its tacit permission to not believe that “Scripture addresses us with full divine authority”? Did Synod ‘demote’ the status of the church’s teaching on Scripture from ‘confessional’ to that of simply ‘pastoral advice’? Of course not! It follows, then, that Synod sometimes utilizes confessional teachings in giving pastoral advice.
Accordingly, when seeking to determine whether some teaching has confessional status, it is not sufficient to examine the non-confessional forms under which Synod has presented that teaching. Instead, we must investigate whether the teaching is already contained in our confessions or whether Synod has given that teaching confessional status elsewhere. If the teaching meets either of those criteria, then it does not matter under what other forms Synod has presented it. The form of Synod’s presentation does not affect that teaching’s underlying confessional status – unless, of course, Synod says so.
Accordingly, I do not believe that Classis GRE has shown that the committee has gone beyond its mandate by not advising that a future Synod should give the church’s teaching on homosexual sex confessional status. If the committee is correct that the church’s teaching already has that status, then the advice that the committee should give is for Synod to recognize that truth. And that is what the committee has done.
But what about Classis GRE’s second criticism? Has the committee in effect usurped Synod’s authority to determine which doctrines have confessional status and which do not? Again, I don’t see how this is true.
As I have already argued, the committee was within its rights to conclude that the church’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status. Of course, the committee does not have the authority to come to this conclusion on behalf of the entire church. CRC church polity clearly says that, “no one is free to decide for oneself or for the church what is and what is not a doctrine confessed in the standards” (C.O., Suppl., Art.5, A-3). But the committee hasn’t decided this for the entire church. All that the committee has said is that, in its opinion, the church’s teaching on homosexual sex already has confessional status. And having formed that opinion, it has done the very thing that the church order says it should do when there is potential for disagreement over what the confessions teach, namely: seek “the decision of the assemblies of the church” (C.O., Suppl., Art.5, A-3). There is, therefore, no basis for Classis GRE’s charge that the committee is attempting to usurp Synod’s authority.
As a result, Classis GRE has not made its case that recommendation D runs afoul of CRC church polity. The simple fact is that the status of the church’s teaching on homosexual sex has become ambiguous within our denomination. Both traditionalists and revisionists should, therefore, be glad for recommendation D, because it gives Synod 2022 the opportunity to make it clear to everyone just where we stand.
Stay Tuned for: “Recommendation D & Confessional Status, Part II: The Hermeneutics of Confessional Subscription