Synod 2023 received several overtures related to the discipline of officebearers, councils, and classes regarding their implementation of Synod 2022’s decisions about unchastity and same-sex sex. In response, synod instructed that all classes “guide into compliance the officebearers of their constituent churches who publicly reject the biblical guidelines affirmed by Synod 2022 regarding same-sex relationships” (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 1029).
Synod 2023 provided two grounds. First, Synod 2023 noted that Synod 2022 clarified the requirements regarding the CRC’s position on human sexuality (see Question 6 above). Second, Synod 2023 based this direction on Church Order Art. 27. Art. 27-a states that “Each assembly exercises . . . the ecclesiastical authority entrusted to the church by Christ; the authority of councils being original, that of major assemblies being delegated.” Synod 2023 noted that Church Order Article 27-b “assigns the classis [delegated] authority over the councils of its constituent churches” (p. 1030).
What does “guide into compliance” mean, and how would that be done? First, let’s consider what “compliance” and “noncompliance” mean for officebearers in this context. In the Covenant for Officebearers (Church Order Supplement, Art. 5) officebearers promise to “be formed and governed” by the confessions, stating, “We heartily believe and will promote and defend their doctrines faithfully, conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving, and living to them.” Therefore, compliance for officebearers means encouraging believers “to live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108).
Synods have lamented the overall lack of discussion and teaching on healthy and God-honoring sexuality in the CRC. However, the 2022 Human Sexuality Report contains extensive sections on pastoral care and teaching for issues of sexuality (see Agenda for Synod 2022, pp. 362-70 on pornography; pp. 396-403 on gender identity; pp. 426-38 on homosexuality; and pp. 439-51 on other sexuality-related issues). It is important to note that demonstrating care, love, engagement, and concern for LGBTQ+ people is in compliance and required by the positions and declarations of the synods of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
The Church Order does address the possibility that officebearers might disagree with a confessional position (such as the interpretation of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108). When officebearers present a confessional-difficulty gravamen to their councils, they must continue to “submit to the church’s judgment and authority” in their ministry (Church Order Supplement, Art. 5). Since the CRC’s interpretation of “unchastity” in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 has confessional status, teaching, preaching, acting, and publicly advocating against this particular position (i.e., that “adultery, premarital sex, extramarital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex . . . violate the seventh commandment”) would be considered noncompliance. Furthermore, solemnizing a same-sex marriage would be considered noncompliance (Church Order Art. 69-c and Supplement).
How would classes guide officebearers into compliance? Classes that face this issue will each develop their own process that will be informed by prayer. Here are some suggestions based on our Christian Reformed Church Order:
- Scripture teaches that the first step of guidance happens between believers: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). If this first step fails, Synod 2023’s decision quoted above assumes that guidance will take the form of discipline (Church Order Art. 78-84).
- The council and consistory must have the first opportunity to exercise guidance, since the normal path for the discipline of officebearers (Art. 82) is through the consistory (i.e., general discipline in Art. 79-80) and council (i.e., special discipline in Art. 82-84). The discipline of the council and consistory must be consistent with Church Order Articles 78-84 and their supplements.
- Classes have a role in guiding into compliance if the efforts of the consistory and council are not successful. Quoting Synod 1980, Synod 2023 declared that “‘it is indeed proper according to Reformed Church polity for either classis or synod to intervene in the affairs of a local congregation, if the welfare of that congregation is at stake’ (Acts of Synod 1982, p. 55).” Like the discipline of the council and consistory, so too must the discipline of classes be consistent with Church Order Articles 78-84 and their supplements.
- Discipline conforming to Church Order Articles 78-84 has the following characteristics: It is restorative (Art. 78). It is based on investigation and not hearsay (Supplement, Art. 78-81). It is done in love and openness to the Spirit (Art. 79-c). It is confidential (Supplement, Art. 78-81). In short, discipline of officebearers is pastoral. Classes should be patient in their application of discipline, and extremely cautious about using the threat of deposition. The Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government (rev. 2019) notes, “Synod 1991 reminded a classis that in matters of discipline great care should be taken to exhaust all other avenues to resolve the dispute prior to ordering the suspension of a council or officebearers. In such matters the assembly exercising the authority should err on the side of caution, permitting full opportunity for other pastoral efforts to take effect (Acts of Synod 1991, p. 771)” (p. 271).
- Church visitors should be involved. Synod 2023 reminded “all church visitors throughout the CRCNA of their authority and responsibility to, in a spirit of love and grace, guide officebearers into alignment with the biblical guidelines, including but not limited to all areas of human sexuality” (Acts of Synod 2023, p. 1030). The Church Order requires the appointing of church visitors and their regular engagement with congregations. The task of church visitors is “to ascertain whether the officebearers of the church faithfully perform their duties, adhere to sound doctrine, observe the provisions of the Church Order, and promote the building up of the body of Christ and the extension of God’s kingdom” (Art. 42-b). Church visitors are resources to all congregations, but especially to those who are facing “serious challenges” and could benefit from sound advice. More information about supporting church visitors can be found at https://www.crcna.org/classis/church-visitors.