What’s at Stake in Recommendation D (Part 2)
Written By Craig Hoekema
“That synod declare that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extra-marital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status.” - Recommendation D of the Human Sexuality Report, Agenda for Synod 2022, pg. 461
In Part 1 of this article, I articulated my love for the CRC’s confessional commitment to one another, and I explained part of why I believe that voting down recommendation D of the Human Sexuality Report (HSR) could do irreparable damage to that aspect of our covenantal life. I focused on the need for consistent principles for interpreting the meaning of the words in our confessions. Here I’ll turn to some of the arguments offered by those who disagree with me and say we should not affirm recommendation D. As previously noted, far from mitigating my concern, some of them only exacerbate the problem.
My hope is to push our thinking beyond the question of what these overtures mean simply for Synod 2022 and to consider as well what precedent some of these arguments would set if Synod were to consider them legitimate grounds for rejecting the report’s recommendation. Let me acknowledge that I am not trying to summarize or address every argument in each of the dozens of overtures that speak against recommendation D. Rather, for the sake of brevity, I’ve tried to select a few of the most recurring arguments as illustrations of what I believe would deeply undermine our confessional life together.
Is the Report Itself Confessional?
Let me begin with a misunderstanding that recurred in a few overtures. Synod is not being asked to give the HSR confessional status, nor is Synod being asked to elevate one sin to confessional status at the exclusion of others. Recommendation D is specifically asking Synod to acknowledge that Lord’s Day 41’s condemnation of “unchastity” includes the six behaviours listed there. This in no way makes the report itself confessional…it simply affirms the meaning of what the confessions themselves say. And far from being unique to sexual sin, the catechism’s entire explanation of the 10 commandments is confessional. A preacher who believed and taught that it’s OK to cheat on one’s taxes would also be in violation of his/her confessional commitment (e.g. LD 39, 42, 43), even though that sin isn’t specifically listed in the catechism.
Isn’t It Just “Pastoral Advice?”
One of the most recurring arguments against recommendation D is the fact that Synod ‘73 listed the church’s position on homosexuality under the description "statements of pastoral advice,” thereby explicitly limiting its authority beneath that of the confessions. My colleague, Cedric Parsels, has dealt with this objection in far more detail in his three part series. As he observes, one significant problem with this argument is that the report on “The Nature and Extend of Biblical Authority” from Synod ‘72 does the exact same thing with the divine authority of scripture. Point B.1 under its "pastoral advice to the churches" is that “scripture addresses us with full divine authority as the saving revelation of God in Jesus Christ.” If our precedent is to determine the authority of a particular teaching exclusively according to whether or not Synod has ever listed it under the description of “pastoral advice,” then the divine authority of scripture itself only has the authority of “pastoral advice.” Even if that were a coherent statement, once the divine authority of scripture is so demoted, the possibility of remaining a confessional denomination vanishes.
It’s a far more accurate reading of these reports to recognize that Synod sometimes includes confessional (and Biblical) teaching in its pastoral advice without changing the authority of such teaching. It’s far better to determine what teachings have confessional status by reading the confessions themselves according to the principles of interpretation suggested in part 1 of this article.
What About the Implications for Those Who Disagree?
Another often-repeated argument against recommendation D is the impact it will have on officebearers who disagree with this definition of unchastity. This is not a small matter and not a reality that gives any one of us any joy. Yet it needs to be pointed out that, while this may be the sad reality we’re facing, used as a ground against recommendation D, it’s deeply problematic. If the existence of and impact on officebearers who disagree is a sufficient reason to conclude that these matters are not confessional, why wouldn’t that precedent apply to any and all other teaching? Intentionally or not, this would set a precedent that puts the convictions of officebearers in authority over the confessions rather than the other way around. Again, it’s far better to determine what does or doesn’t have confessional status by reading the confessions according to a consistent set of interpretive principles, not by the implications for those who disagree. Though this is a serious and painful reality that lies before us, if it’s allowed to be determinative of what is or isn’t confessional, it would spell the eventual end of the CRC as a confessional denomination.
Can We Accept Both Positions?
Lastly, there is an argument put forth against recommendation D that could affirm the three principles of interpretation I outlined in part 1. It’s the argument of those who say we should strike another committee that would examine arguments for and against same-sex marriage and come to a conclusion that allows both positions in the CRC. That would, as noted in part 1, be a situation where Synod has revised the original intent of the catechism’s author, for which there is plenty of precedent. We adopted a similar position with women in office, so could this be a way forward that doesn’t undermine our confessional life together? I submit that it’s not—that the lack of integrity in such an approach would significantly erode our confessional foundations. And it would be a lack of integrity on both sides of the issue.
For those who affirm same-sex marriage, consider how many overtures talk about the harm the HSR’s position, if affirmed, would visit upon those who identify as LGBT+. The very same Classis (i.e. Grand Rapids East) which calls for this ‘both positions approach’ (Overture #55) also says that “The fruit of this report’s position and pastoral care approach will be…despair related to low self-esteem and self-loathing, clinical depression, increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors, spiritual turmoil over whether God loves them, rejection of Christian faith altogether, and a deeper sense of shame” (Overture #40). If that’s the case, what integrity does it have to allow churches the option of affirming that very position and approach? The only way to remain in the same denominational structure with such churches would be to adopt a radically diminished understanding of our covenantal commitment to one another (e.g. “I think your beliefs are causing such harm, but what you do in your church is not my business.”)
For those, like myself, who affirm the HSR’s historic Christian position on marriage and sexuality, the integrity issue is just as significant. If same-sex sex is sexually immoral, regardless of the context in which it’s practiced, then the severe warnings of scripture about sexual immorality necessarily apply (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Eph. 5:5-7, Gal. 5:19-21). (Scripture offers no such warnings to those who do or do not ordain women, which is one key reason why the issues are not parallel.) Asking officebearers who share my conviction to stand by silently while those who are supposed to be in confessional covenant with us promote and affirm what we believe to be sexual immorality, is asking us to profoundly violate our obligations as ordained servants in the CRC. Either that or it’s asking us to adopt a drastically diminished understanding of our relationship to one another as churches: “Teach what you want in your congregation about things scripture says bear direct relevance upon entrance to the Kingdom of God, it’s none of my business.” Either way, our existing confessional life together won’t survive the compromise.
I’ll conclude as I began. I love being a part of a confessional denomination. It is, in my opinion, among the best parts of the Christian Reformed Church. Having done my best to listen closely to those who disagree with recommendation D, I’ve yet to encounter an argument that I don’t think would set the stage for irreparable damage to our confessional covenant with one another. Though I wish it weren’t so, I believe that’s precisely what’s at stake. Your Kingdom come, Lord Jesus…keep your church strong.
Craig Hoekema was ordained in 2008 and has served Calvin CRC in Ottawa, Ontario for 6 years.