Is The CRC Recovering A Reformed Identity?

As described in R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) has been a borderline denomination that appears to have been moving in the direction of the mainline.1 A large concentration of CRC churches, institutions such as Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary, and the denominational headquarters are centered in Grand Rapids, MI. This mainline-leaning establishment has been accepting of same-sex marriage and practice. A question then arises: Is the CRC recovering a Reformed identity?

Fits and Starts

The past three post-covid Synods have been described by some as a Lord-of-the-Rings-like trilogy towards confessionalism. In 2022 a “Fellowship” called The Abide Project came together to promote and defend the confessional position of the denomination.2 Synod 2022 received a Human Sexuality Report that was a faithful articulation of the biblical teachings on sexuality. The Synod affirmed that the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on unchastity found in Q&A 108 includes homosexual sex, and that this interpretation of the confession has confessional status. Neland Avenue CRC, a church that had installed to office a deacon living in a same-sex marriage, was admonished to come into line with the denominational position.

Heading towards Synod 2023, those opposed to our confessional position regrouped. They found a loophole in the Church Order which said that as long as an office-bearer had filed a confessional-difficulty gravamen with their Council and their Council accepted it, they would be free to continue serving even though their beliefs were against our confessional positions. Synod 2023 was asked by many churches to overturn the confessional position we had made in 2022. Despite a difficult discussion on the floor of Synod, Synod held fast to the previous decision on confessional status. Synod also instructed church visitors to guide the office-bearers of their Classes into compliance with what Synod had decided. A Synod advisory committee majority report made clear that a gravamen was not to be used as an exception, and that office-bearers needed to resolve their difficulties through a process that helped them to come in line with the confessions. Unfortunately, Synod 2023 was not able to finish its work due to time constraints. The issues of gravamen and further discipline were deferred to Synod 2024.

Meanwhile, before the start of Synod 2024 on June 14, about twenty CRC churches had publicly stated they were affirming of same-sex relationships. Most of those stated that they were willing to marry same-sex couples, ordain them to office, or allow them to partake of the sacraments. Several other churches communicated to Synod that they were opposed to further restrictions in the gravamen process and that they had placed themselves into a status of a protesting church, qualifying their own membership in the denomination. Though disheartened, in the words of Sam Gamgee, the confessional CRC believed that there was yet some good left to hold onto that was worth fighting for.

Synod 2024: The Return of Confessionality

The first step of Synod 2024 that was evidence of confessional recovery came about on June 17 and 18 when decisions were made about the gravamen process. By God’s grace, a unified report came to the Synod floor.3 The report embraced the confessional posture of the CRC’s Covenant for Office-bearers where office-bearers promise to affirm and heartily believe that the confessions “fully agree with the Word of God” (Advisory Committee, 1).4 Synod approved the recommendation that “confessional-difficulty gravamina are not meant, nor should be used as an exception to the confessions” (Advisory Committee, 2). The false narrative that office-bearers could maintain a settled conviction contrary to the confessions was no longer recognized as valid. Those that have questions and uncertainty would be brought into a process of discipleship which moved the office-bearer toward full alignment with the confessions. If the office-bearer is in this process of discipleship, they promise not to teach against our confessional positions and cannot be delegated to broader assemblies. Synod even called to the attention of the churches “the need to continually equip their members regarding our confessions, and their office-bearers regarding church order” (Advisory Committee, 8).

The next evidence of a recovering confessional church was found when Synod approved a process of discipline for the churches that had public statements that conflicted with our confessions. The primary desire expressed by Synod was that this discipline would lead towards repentance and restoration. Office-bearers that came from these non-compliant churches would immediately be placed on limited suspension unless they demonstrated their repentance. This suspension includes a loss of ability to send delegates to Classis, Synod, or denominational boards. Churches that are on this limited suspension are given up to a year to move towards either repentance and restoration or disaffiliation from the denomination. If churches refuse to engage in the process, the Classis is then instructed to initiate special discipline of the Council. If neither restoration nor disaffiliation are completed after the time of limited suspension, the Classis is instructed to remove the Council of the church and revert it to emerging status under the authority of a neighboring Council. The grounds include historical precedent from Synod 1926 that gave broader assemblies the right to take this action. Classis Hudson in 1992 had even recognized one of its churches as disfellowshipped (readers might recognize the name Steve Schlissel who was the pastor of the church).

On the final day of Synod, June 20, Synod declared that churches and members that had declared themselves to be in the status of one in protest with ecclesiastical intent had also entered into this same discipline process. In other decisions, Synod instructed the board of Calvin University to report back to next year’s Synod about how they are bringing their confessional commitment for professors back into line with what Synod decided. We will also be awaiting a report from the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee about concerns about the CRC’s relationship with the Reformed Church in America. Finally, Synod instructed each Classis to re-sign the Covenant for Office-bearers on a yearly basis as it confirms and is a witness to what we believe.

Aftermath

What will the CRC look like after all of this dust is settled? The long-term implications have yet to play out. Classis Grand Rapids East has an especially high concentration of affirming churches. Of the fifteen non-emerging congregations of Classis Grand Rapids East, eight of them have statements affirming of same-sex marriage. Three more have communicated that they are in the status of a protesting church. If none of them repent, that means only four of the congregations will not be on limited suspension, and the Classis would not be able to establish a quorum to hold an official meeting. For about a year now, Classis Grand Rapids East has had a Next Steps Committee to explore creative next steps in light of recent decisions of Synod. Since Synod met, some have communicated that they intend to organize together to think about the possibilities of disaffiliating and creating a new structure beyond the CRC.

Please pray for us as the church is commanded by the Lord to “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer 6:16). Based on all of this, I cannot help but think that the CRC is indeed recovering her Reformed confessional identity.

Notes

  1. R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 2.
  2. The Abide Project, Abideproject.org.
  3. In-text citations from the “Advisory Committee 9, Gravaman,” Acts of Synod 2024.
  4. For more on confessional posture, see Josh Christoffels, “What it Means to be Confessional,” Heidelblog, January 10, 2023.

©Josh Christoffels. All Rights Reserved.


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    Post authored by:

  • Josh Christoffels
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    Rev. Josh Christoffels is an alumnus of Westminster Seminary California (2014). He has taught English to university students in China, served as a pastor in Chandler, MN, and currently serves as the pastor of the Hammond Christian Reformed Church in Hammond, IN.

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2 comments

  1. I remember attending a family member’s wedding a few years ago in East GR and being astonished at how many historic, “Reformed” churches were flying ‘pride’ flags. I was greatly disheartened by it then, but I thank God that He has caused His Spirit to move upon those men and women who constitute the CRC and are moving it back to a confessional identity. I will be praying for CRC and you as well, brother. May the LORD bless you and keep you.

  2. Actually, I don’t think there are any CRC churches in East Grand Rapids, which is a city separate from Grand Rapids. You are thinking of Classis Grand Rapids East.

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