Clay Libolt’s blog is one of the more important things to track in the ongoing conversation about the Christian Reformed Church and same sex marriage. He recently posted this piece. This is a repost of a posting of mine on CRC-Voices which can be found here. https://groups.io/g/crc-voices. Some of the names in the posting refer to the conversation within CRC-Voices.
David keeps asking where the CRC is finding their leadership. I think this post is offering false hope to the affirming camp imagining that they can simply ignore Synod 2022. This is not good leadership. The confessional system only gets applied when councils, classes and Synod decides what to enforce and what we saw last year is that it is likely that future Synods will have the stomach to enforce the decision on the HC as will classes and councils.
I suspect a number of CRC council members in non-affirming congregations will take a silent gravamen, meaning they will simply keep their thoughts about SSM quiet because they are a part of a church they know is overwhelmingly traditional on marriage.
Clay’s argument has some technical merit in that writing a gravamen will implicitly recognize CRC’s assemblies authority to enforce confessional status but as a whole the strategy is disastrous for the affirming camp because in effect it basically doubles down on their old strategy which is a combination of wait for the tide of cultural progressivism to change the minds of a sufficient number of CRC members so that votes in assemblies will no longer have the stomach to enforce confessionality and what Synod 2022 demonstrated is that this is a false hope. Unlike the RCA, CRC polity will not protect Classes and congregations that wish to represent the rainbow flag. Clay’s strategy will be a disaster for churches and classes that wish to follow it because it will mean that they are losing precious time they need now to prepare their local membership for what will be a painful expulsion from the denomination.
I’ll reiterate the realities.
- Synod 2022 started a process of discipline against Neland and Classis GRE that subsequent Synods are likely to finish. While each synod is of course a new mix of delegates and that can change the numbers slightly overall Synod 2022 manifested what subsequent Synods and studies have consistently shown: the CRC is not moving in the direction of tolerating affirming churches and classes and overall the direction is going in the opposite way. However one feels about this reality it is a reality and to deny it only means that leaders who continue to perpetuate the idea that they have a path forward to their congregations are setting up those churches for a very painful moment when they are proven wrong.
1a. The polling done for the 2016 report (which set up the 2022 report) suggested that 16% of CRC clergy were affirming. Even if you up that to 20% you’re still WAY short of what you need to move future Synods.
1b. Just like the RCA denominational efforts to promoted ethnic diversity and multi-culturalism (soon to be followed by multi-nationalism as Classis Cal South moves to enfold pastors and congregations from Venezuela and Columbia) the numbers are only getting worse for the affirming hopefuls. Already at this Synod it was clear that young Asian, Hispanic and Asian clergy, elders and deacons were the most vocal against changing the definition of marriage in the CRC. The affirming camp is looking increasingly white as compared to the growing diversity of the CRC as the CRC evolves into a conservative American evangelical denomination.
1c. Likewise CRC Dutch/anglo clergy are increasingly conservative increasingly open to influence from neo-puritanism. The young white men MOST likely to be motivated to make professional church leadership their vocational church ARE more conservative than average in the denomination. For probably 40 years now this trend has been true and it is only accelerating. While some women who may be more progressive have been entering the ministry their numbers are small compared to the men and they have much more difficulty finding senior pastor positions than men in the CRC. Even after decades of toleration of WICO only half of CRC churches have women deacons, less than 25% have women elders and something like 15% have women clergy.
- Classis GRE is an anomaly for the CRC in the USA. CRC churches in urban areas are disappearing faster than arctic ice. CRC churches in LA, NY/NJ, SF Bay, and Chicago are changing as compared to what they were in the 1960s. MANY of the large Dutch/White CRC churches are fractions of what they were then. Some have been split by the URC a generation ago. Most have had their colonies hollowed out by housing increases moving their kids to more affordable places like West Michigan or areas without CRCs. Many of the CRCs that were vanguards of progressives in the WICO wars are a shell of what they were 30 years ago: Palo Alto CRC in the SF Bay, Ridgewood CRC in New Jersey are two examples I can name. The left-leaking of the CRC has hollowed out what used to be a base of people who wanted to mirror broaders social/urban changes in America. In many cases they are replaced in these classes by ethnic congregations which are, again, traditional on marriage issues. Grand Rapids is different partly because they have been buoyed by people my generation and my parent’s generation who moved to GR for cheaper housing and CRC institutions that were thriving because of the migration and the money. But when it comes to numbers at Synod this move is just a disaster. Classes that had more diversity on some of these issues are more conservative because urban white churches are gone or diminished and rural/ag congregations hold the hegemony. Few ethnic congregations or pastors show much interest in classis but they will show up for cultural war issues “at the top” and because of the ongoing denominational pressure to send “diverse” leaders to Synod will go there and vote traditional which suits the conservative white churches in their sending classes just fine. Affirming CRCs can’t fight the race issue and the gender issue at the same time and there is zero imagination that they can signal to classes to start prioritizing white delegates for the sake of LGBTQ support.
- CRC affirming leaders have STILL not taken up the challenge of addressing confessionalism for their followers. Clay’s article on the surface tries to defend confessionalism against Synod but it really waters it down. They are wasting time on the old, failed strategy of trying to change the mind of a CRC base that is no longer listening to them. Clay is a key leader for the affirming camp and he’s still not getting it. He’s fighting the WICO war but the CRCNA is a very different church than it was even in the 1990s. What the election of Synod officers demonstrated was that the conservatives have leaders that are connected with their base and they have the numbers. The woman pastor of Calvin CRC GR in previous years SHOULD have been handily elected to office but instead she was defeated at every vote, the needed woman delegate elected in her place was a conservative from Alameda CRC. So the conservatives could celebrate the first election of a Hispanic president of Synod but Jose Reyes is a conservative and always has been having made a video on the Abide channel.
CRC affirming camp continues to fight the last war. They can post progressive pieces in the online domains that replaced the Reformed Journal but they are preaching to the choir and that choir no longer has the power it used to have to change minds in the CRC. The problem they have is NOT what CRC moderates think in suburban and rural churches, the problem they have is the moderates in their own congregation that will feel betrayed when they discover they are being slowly forced out of their denominational institutions. What happens when Synod 2023 makes the second move to discipline Classis GRE and Neland Ave?
Clay and others can write all the blogs they want about how this is “illegal” and violates CRC rules, but it won’t matter. CRC Synods make up the rules as Eric noted. Neland reported to have 40% affirming, 40% traditional and 20% on the fence. It wasn’t too hard to have the fence sitters and traditionalists go along with tolerating a beloved member of their church in being the first publicized lesbian deacon in a SSM. She’s one of them. That won’t help save them from Synod 2023 because she’s NOT one of Synod 2023. They have no personal relationship with her. This is the side of identity politics that will work against the affirming. If you promote her “identity” along particular lines in order to hoist the rainbow flag you will draw the fire of those who only know the flag and again, as noted above, there are more guns in the CRC pointed at the rainbow flag than those defending it. What do CRC leaders in GRE and local churches say to the 60% of traditional and fence sitting members when their church is suddenly no longer CRC? What do they say when Calvin increasingly is pressured to enforce confessionality on faculty sidestepping Clay’s argument because the administration is demanding they write a gravamen?
Clay is offering false hope and he is wasting the time of those who wish to practice an affirming model locally. He is squandering CRC affirming leadership capital fighting the old war. If they want to prepare for what’s next for the CRC affirming camp they should be preparing their local churches and institutions for what comes next and to figure out how to keep their flock together when the day comes that the CRC is no longer a viable denominational home for their church or classis. They should start building their preferred future rather than living in denial based on wars of the past. pvk