We Need to Focus on Pastoral Care - Part 1
by Brandon Haan
This is the first in a series of articles about pastoral care for LGBTQ+ people.
In 1973 our denomination adopted what, at the time, was a groundbreaking position on care and inclusion for lesbian and gay people in the Christian Church.
After articulating the Christian Reformed Church’s traditional Biblical and theological position on what it called “homosexuality (male and female),” Synod 1973 recommended (among other things) the following items be served to the churches of the CRC as “pastoral advice”:
2. The homosexual may not, on the sole ground of his sexual disorder, be denied community acceptance, and if he is a Christian he is to be wholeheartedly embraced by the church as a person for whom Christ died.
4. The church must exercise the same patient understanding of and compassion for the homosexual in his sins as for all other sinners. The gospel of God's grace in Christ is to be proclaimed to him as the basis of his forgiveness, the power of his renewal, and the source of his strength to lead a sanctified life. As all Christians in their weaknesses, the homosexual must be admonished and encouraged not to allow himself to be defeated by lapses in chastity, but rather, to repent and thereafter to depend in fervent prayer upon the means of grace for power to withstand temptation.
5. In order to live a life of chastity in obedience to God's will the homosexual needs the loving support and encouragement of the church. The church should therefore so include him in its fellowship that he is not tempted by rejection and loneliness to seek companionship in a “gay world” whose immoral lifestyle is alien to a Christian.
7. Christians who are homosexual in their orientation are like all Christians called to discipleship and to the employment of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. They should recognize that their sexuality is subordinate to their obligation to live in wholehearted surrender to Christ.
By the same token, churches should recognize that their homosexual members are fellow-servants of Christ who are to be given opportunity to render within the offices and structures of the congregation the same service that is expected from heterosexuals. The homosexual member must not be supposed to have less the gift of self-control in the face of sexual temptation than does the heterosexual. The relationship of love and trust within the congregation should be such that in instances where a member's sexual propensity does create a problem; the problem can be dealt with in the same way as are problems caused by the limitations and disorders of any other member.
Finally (at least for our purposes here), and most applicable to those of us who serve as pastors (including myself):
8. It is the duty of pastors to be informed about the condition of homosexuality and the particular problems of the homosexual in order that the pastor may minister to his need and to the needs of others, such as parents, who may be intimately involved in the problems of homosexuality. The pastor is also in a position to instruct his congregation in appropriate ways about homosexuality and to alert members and office holders to the responsibility they bear toward homosexuals in the fellowship. He can encourage an understanding of and compassion for persons who live with this handicap, and dispel the prejudices under which they suffer.
Dated language and terminology aside, there are a number of things that strike me in those recommendations:
First, the report states that LGBTQ+ people should not on the basis of their sexuality be denied community acceptance. Instead, if they are Christians, they should “be wholeheartedly embraced by the church as a person for whom Christ died.”
Second, the report encourages churches to “exercise the same patient understanding of and compassion for the homosexual in his sins as for all other sinners” and not allow LGBTQ+ Christians to become defeated by “lapses in chastity,” but rather, after such lapses, to restore them to their status in the Christian community through repentance and prayer.
Third, the report acknowledges the centrality of the Christian community in the lives of LGBTQ+ persons, so that they, like all other Christians, can faithfully and fruitfully live in obedience to God’s revealed will.
Fourth, the report recognizes the gifts of LGBTQ+ persons and encourages them to use them “in the cause of [Christ’s] kingdom.”
Fifth, the report encourages churches to “recognize that their homosexual members are fellow-servants of Christ” and give them opportunity to serve and use their gifts in “the offices and structures of the congregation,” just as heterosexuals do.
Sixth, the report states that “it is the duty of pastors” to be informed about the conditions of LGBTQ+ persons and the particular challenges they face, so that we can provide pastoral care both to them as well as those who know and love them, such as their parents.
And, finally, the report calls on pastors to instruct their congregations “in appropriate ways about homosexuality,” “to alert members and office holders to the responsibility they bear towards homosexuals in the fellowship,” and to “dispel the prejudices under which [LGBTQ+ people] suffer.”
Missing the Boat
Here’s why those things stand out to me:
We haven’t done them.
At the very least, we haven’t done them consistently or well.
In fact, truth be told (and I’m a lifelong member of the CRC with ten years of professional pastoral ministry under my belt), I don’t know of more than a handful of churches in our denomination that seem like they even tried to do those things.
Instead, it seems that, by and large, Synod 1973 came and went; we articulated a groundbreaking statement about how our denomination would, even as we maintained a traditional Biblical and theological sexual ethic, move forward into inclusion and care of LGBTQ+ people; and then, once Synod was past, the majority of CRC congregations simply continued with business as usual when it came to LGBTQ+ people (meaning we either ignored them; subtly hinted to them they weren’t welcome in our churches; or, most regrettably of all, overtly told them so).
Missing the Boat…Again?
My concern now, in the wake of Synod 2022 (and on the doorstep of Synod 2023), is that we’re in danger of repeating that same mistake. We are in danger, yet again, of failing to focus on pastoral care for LGBTQ+ people.
But we can’t make that mistake again. It’s been fifty years, five decades, half a century (however you want to count it). The time has come for us to make good on our promise, put in the work, do what we said, and become the kind of church we said we would be.
We’ve talked a lot the last few years (at least, those of us in traditionalist circles have) about holding fully affirming members, officebearers, congregations, and classes accountable to the 1973 report. But have we held ourselves accountable? Have we done what we said we would do? Have we followed that report’s recommendations? Have we embodied the Christ-like, Gospel-centered, grace-filled posture towards LGBTQ+ people we said we would?
I think the honest truth is that we’ve spent so much time fighting over the position of the 1973 report that we’ve never really taken the time to adopt its posture. And that’s wrong. It’s hypocritical. And it’s left people who are in desperate need of the Church outside its doors.
But we have a second chance. We have a second chance to do what we said we would do fifty years ago. We have a second chance to make good on our promises. We have a second chance to become the kind of church we said we would be, and I, for one, would humbly like to suggest we take it.
That’s what I would like to explore in this series of articles: What it could look like for the Christian Reformed Church of North America to finally become the kind of church we said we’d become in 1973.