What I’d Appreciate from My Colleagues Who Disagree
Written by Craig Hoekema
It’s a contentious time in the CRC, and for some, a down-right acrimonious time. I believe the stand the denomination has taken with regard to human sexuality is a necessary one. But that doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to the grief many are experiencing as a result. I also recognize that we don’t always communicate well in times of stress and disagreement, and that holds true for me too. I’ve had occasions where I’ve needed to apologize for saying things poorly or in anger, and though I’m striving to learn from my mistakes, I expect I may need to apologize again in the future.
In the interest of mutual understanding, I’d like to do two things in this article. In the first half, I’d like to say a few things that I think some of my colleagues who disagree with Synod’s recent decisions might appreciate hearing from someone like myself. In the latter half, I’d like to share what I’d appreciate hearing from my colleagues who disagree.
What Those Who Disagree Might Appreciate
First, to those who disagree with Synod’s decisions—your frustration and your grief is understandable. It’s painful to feel yourself to be at the edges of a denomination that is profoundly precious to you. When speaking of the church, John Calvin used the metaphor of a mother—which captures not only the nurturing role the church plays in our lives but also the warmth and affection with which we get attached to the church. To feel yourself to be on the edges of the church—local and/or denominational—is understandably hard. For those of you in paid ministry, this grief is also tied up in questions about your vocation, your call, your livelihood, and the care of your family. Those are precious and weighty matters to have thrown out-of-balance. When I imagine myself in that situation, the feelings that rise up in my chest are fear and anger. If that’s how you’re feeling, I get it.
Second, like many of you, I too serve a church that has had some sharp and painful disagreements about what Synod decided. I understand the feeling that a giant wrench has been thrown into the gears of your ministry context. And it isn’t just that this matter has demanded an abnormal amount of your time, energy, and perhaps even emotional health—it’s that you’ve seen painful fractures within your church family. Some of you are even wondering about the viability of your congregations going forward. Particularly for my fellow pastors and officebearers, I know how much all of us want to see that our labours on behalf of our congregations are somehow leading to growth and blessing. To see what looks and feels like the opposite is deeply deflating. I empathize with that and can understand the variety of emotions it evokes.
Lastly, I want to tell those of you who disagree with Synod’s decisions that I admire your genuine concern for those who are gay or same-sex attracted. I understand that a big piece of what motivates you in this debate is the pain and neglect of vulnerable people that you’ve witnessed…some of them family members…some of them church family members (or formerly so). We all need to remember the deeply personal and pastoral center to this conversation, and I know that’s something about which you care deeply. I also know that some of you are convicted that the CRC’s position is inherently destructive and harmful, and given that conviction, I understand the accompanying feelings of dismay.
I’m sure there’s more you’d like those of my persuasion to understand, but hopefully this is at least a start. In short, though we have serious disagreements, you’re not an alien to me. For whatever is left of this debate in our denomination, I will do my best to be understanding when intense emotion may lead to less than ideal communication.
What I’d Appreciate from Those Who Disagree
Now I’d like to flip the conversation and share a few things that I’d appreciate hearing from my colleagues who disagree with me.
To begin with, at the risk of sounding antagonistic (which I don’t intend), what I’d most like to hear from those who disagree with Synod is that you’ve changed your mind—that you see the compelling nature of the historic Christian interpretation of scripture on these matters, that you see how much is at stake in this moment, and that you’d like to join the CRC in pursuing faithfulness to Christ, his word, and his people. While such an aspiration on my part may come across as arrogant or triumphalistic, I hope those who disagree will at least understand it as an expression of my desire to remain together with you in meaningful and God-honouring unity. I don’t believe we can remain under the same confessional umbrella while advocating conflicting convictions on same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t mean I want you gone. I’d much rather be restored together in the truth.
However, even if you roll your eyes at the previous paragraph, allow me to share a few other things that I’d appreciate hearing from those who disagree.
First, I’d appreciate your understanding as to why so many of us believe this is not a disputable matter on which Christ-honouring churches can simply agree to disagree. Scripture teaches with unmistakable clarity that there are many moral matters on which the church simply must take a stand, and sexual immorality is one of those matters. Of course we all agree that if a behaviour is not sexually immoral, the church ought not insist that it is. But the inverse is equally true: if a behaviour is sexually immoral, a Christ-honouring church must insist that it is. On this the New Testament is sharply and repeatedly unambiguous (e.g. Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 5:11, 6:9-10,18; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5-6; Heb. 12:16; Rev. 2:20-23; 21:8). I’d appreciate your understanding that, from a New Testament perspective, convictions on sexual morality must be a part of our doctrinal accountability as a denomination (even more urgently so than some of the other teachings in our confessions). Unless and until we are convinced from scripture that same-sex marriage is morally permissible, integrity requires us to take the stand we’re taking—we’d be hypocrites and/or cowards not to do so. In short, I’d appreciate hearing that you understand the moral obligation inherent in our conviction.
Secondly, I’d appreciate your understanding that this is not a debate about whether or not to love people—it’s a debate about what love requires. If agape love means seeking the true good of another person, the debate we’re having in the CRC is about what is the ‘true good’ of someone who is gay or same-sex attracted. You would be right to point out that forbidding what God has permitted is not seeking the true good of another person. I trust we can further agree that condoning what God has forbidden also fails to seek the true good of another person (even if we struggle to see how or why God would require what he does). Rather than being accused of homophobia or indifference, I’d much rather respond to arguments that I have misunderstood the ‘true good’ that God has revealed in his word. That’s the real debate.
Lastly, I’d appreciate hearing that you understand our concern about the much deeper and longer-term implications of the debate we’re having right now…implications that go way beyond questions of sexual morality. The trajectory of denominations that have softened the church’s prohibition against same-sex marriage is, to put it mildly, disheartening. (Aaron Vriesman has chronicled how attempts to stay together have fared in the UMC [with update], the PCUSA, and the MC USA). I’d appreciate hearing that, though you don’t think the CRC is on such a trajectory, you see that there are long-range concerns to be talked about in terms of the role scripture ought to play in this conversation. In the past few years, I have witnessed a striking preponderance of non-scriptural arguments put forth against the conclusions of the Human Sexuality Report (in conversations, in articles, and in overtures1). I’d appreciate hearing that you understand why we see this as an alarmingly unhealthy symptom with much bigger-picture stakes.
In the end, I recognize that for some of us, there isn’t a way forward that involves remaining in the same denomination. Some have already parted. I don’t imagine an article like this will do anything to change that. But perhaps it can do some good toward trying to keep our hearts a little softer toward one another in the midst of a painful disagreement, and even in the midst of parting.
To see what I mean, comb through the overtures against the HSR in the 2022 and 2023 Synodical Agendas. Keep track of how many overtures attempt to demonstrate that the Human Sexuality Report has misinterpreted scripture versus how many give some other reason(s) for rejecting the report’s conclusions.
Craig Hoekema was ordained in 2008 and has served Calvin CRC in Ottawa, Ontario for 6 years.