Safety, Sexuality, and Synod
by Eric Van Dyken
One does not need to look far today to see “safety” used in ways that are different than what we might have expected historically. Specifically, the concept of safety is commonly used today to refer to psychological safety, often referring to the need or desire to be free from all forms of rejection or disapproval.
It is important early on in this article to explicitly state that all forms of abuse, including those of a physical, spiritual, sexual, and emotional nature are abhorrent and contrary to the will of God. Abuse violates the ultimate law of love, and when done from a position of authority also violates a sacred trust. A notion of safety that seeks to protect, honor, and preserve each other in Christian love is good and right.
But we are naïve to believe that this is the only, or perhaps even the most popular, notion of safety in common use today. In the broader culture, in the church in North America, and indeed in the CRC we see an increasingly common use of safety as a cudgel against the straightforward application of God’s moral law to the lives of his people.
Post-Synod 2022 one did not have to look far to see allegations of Synod and the CRC being an unsafe place for people described as LGBTQ+. The sentiment is captured succinctly in a public posting from a Doctor from Grand Rapids, who asserts that the CRC “is not a safe space for #LGBTQIA folks”.
The narrative is that if the CRC refuses to affirm people fully as to their sex, gender, marriage, and lifestyle choices and identities then the CRC has done damage to the person. Some even hold that withholding such affirmation is so damaging as to be culpable for the ultimate lacking in psychological safety, namely the propensity to suicide. Popularly stated this translates to the CRC having “blood on our hands”.
Into this cultural and ecclesiastical mix arrives the proposed CRC Code of Conduct for Ministry Leaders (hereinafter “Code”). The Code has a section on “Safety” that includes the following vow: “I will actively promote a safe environment where all persons are respected and valued, where any form of abuse, bullying, or harassment is neither tolerated nor allowed to take place .”
It is a fraught proposition to speak against any statement that includes the affirmation of respecting and valuing all people and the denunciation of abuse, bullying, and harassment. But the inclusion of an undefined notion of safety illustrates the fact that there is not universal agreement in the broader culture or the CRC as to what constitutes abuse, bullying, and harassment or what it looks like to respect and value all persons. One person’s tender love and care is another person’s license to make accusations of culpability for self-loathing and death. How can a Code with such language operate coherently in such an environment?
Scripture knows nothing of a standard of love, care, or safety that is entirely affirming. There is a reason the eminently pastoral and personal Heidelberg Catechism begins by addressing guilt before moving to grace and gratitude: God’s Word skewers our self-affirmation and places us in the position of needing grace.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12
Synod 2022 determined that the proposed code should go out to the churches for consideration and comment before being brought back to Synod 2023. As officebearers, churches, and classes prepare for Synod 2023, they will do well to consider what place is appropriate for a Code in the life of the church and will also do well to oppose any Code language such as undefined notions of safety that are ripe for abuse and false accusation.
We long for the safety that is spoken of in Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” To be sure, we rely on God for our earthly safety, but even in that we know that earthly safety is not guaranteed. No, our ultimate and true safety and security is found in our eternal security, guaranteed by Christ.
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I Cor. 15:19
This is the safety we desire for ourselves and others – eternal safety. In seeking this notion, this version, of safety for ourselves and others, we do not start from a position of complete affirmation, but complete surrender. Jesus says in Luke 18 that it was the surrendering tax collector, not the self-affirming Pharisee that went home justified. May we as a church know the only true safety that comes from complete surrender to Christ.