RCA and Human Sexuality

Recently, a Special Council of leaders and members of the Reformed Church in America met to discuss the issue of human sexuality.  This meeting took place as a result of the actions of RCA General Synod 2015.  Specifically, this council was tasked with discerning a “way forward” in the denomination as it pertains to human sexuality, marriage, and ordination.  The council met on the dates of April 15-18 in Chicago.

The Reformed Church in America has been addressing the issue of human sexuality for several decades now.  However, this discussion has become much more prominent in RCA meetings at all levels as the issue of human sexuality has taken the center stage of cultural relevance.  There has been, in my opinion, the general consensus from those on both sides is that it is time for the RCA to settle this matter.  Therefore, the purpose, at least on some level, for the “Special Council” was to discern and recommend a way to do so within the denomination.

While the council itself was not open to the public, a report from the council’s leaders has been made available for those who wish to read it.  I have made copies of the full report available in here: 2016SpecialCouncilReport and also the mailboxes underneath the staff mailboxes at church.  You are welcome to take one for your reading if you would like.

The council made several recommendations to General Synod that will go before that meeting for a vote.  General Synod meets from June 9 to June 14.  Below you will find these recommendations and some of my thoughts on them.  My thoughts come both from my study of Scripture, my beliefs, and my understanding of what has happened/been happening within the RCA over the past several years.  I also want to encourage you to pray diligently for the RCA right now as this will likely be a crossroads for us as a denomination.  In many ways, we need to get past this issue so that we can return to the mission of the church, rather than quarreling among ourselves.  I firmly believe that both sides want this and the “Special Council’s” work reflects that.  The time for a decision has come and I believe (and hope) that the question will be called this year, whatever the repercussions are.

Please note: in talking about this subject it is important for us to be hospitable and loving toward those who may be struggling with this in their lives, whether personally or through close family or friends.  It is my goal, always, to show this love and understanding in my words, actions, and even preaching, while maintaining what I believe to be Biblical Truth regarding this matter.

On the following page you will see a list of recommendations and commentary that will be in the following format:

Recommendations for General Synod (to be voted on this year)

Commentary from the “Group of 5,” the past 5 presidents of General Synod and the leaders of the Special Council

Commentary from Pastor Jon.

I will be available after church on June 5 and again after General Synod on June 26 for open discussions regarding this subject and what is or may be coming at General Synod next month.  I welcome your thoughts and questions.

 

RECOMMENDED ACTION OF GENERAL SYNOD: To reaffirm:

 

  • That authority and responsibility on ordination of ministers of Word and sacrament rests with the classis by adding clarifying words to the BCO.
  • That authority and responsibility on marriage rests with the consistory and classis by adding clarifying words to the BCO.

 

Observation from the Group of Five: This recommendation appears to have a higher level of consensus from among the ten groups. Nine groups mention this recommendation and seven mention the liturgy changes below. The difference is slight, but should be noted.

Classis authority on matters of oversight and judicial matters with both churches and its ordained member pastors has always been part of the governance of the RCA.  We currently work under the authority of the Southwest Michigan Classis, a body that helped to oversee the transition of this church over the past several years.  This is, in fact, how the denomination has been operating for many years in regards to the issue of human sexuality.  This has presented a problem for some as some RCA churches have married same-sex couples and ordained openly homosexual pastors.  As there is no way to bring charges against those in other Classes who violate what they (and I) consider to be the Biblical definition of marriage between one man and one women, and the current RCA marriage liturgy affirms, this creates a rift in the RCA where as a denomination, matters of “Biblical Truth” are subjective to the classis in which they are interpreted.

There are options here, given some of the structures that are in place where, if a church found itself in a Classis affirming something they disagreed with, they could petition to move to a different Classis.  The problem, however, still remains, that elements of the denomination that a church is affiliated with are still disparate from what that church believes.  Is it possible to still “do ministry” in such an environment?  I think so.  Could it cause potential problems?  I think so.

Ultimately, according to our polity (the way our governmental structures are set up in the RCA), the decision of which services of worship are allowed and not allowed within a particular church rests with the Elders of that church.  As far as I know, the Classis cannot determine this for a church except in the case that they deem the consistory, the elders, and/or its pastor to be supporting and/or promoting doctrine that was heretical in nature.

 

RECOMMENDED ACTION OF GENERAL SYNOD: To change the constitution through amendments to the liturgy.

 

  • General Synod would approve an amendment to our marriage liturgy defining marriage as “between a man and a woman” and send it to the classes for ratification.
  • General Synod would approve an amendment to our marriage liturgy defining marriage as “between two persons” and send it to the classes for ratification.
  • Candidates for ordination will affirm and embody the RCA’s constitutional marriage liturgy in ministry and practice.

 

Observation from the Group of Five: We believe the council was aware that the first two liturgy recommendations might appear to be contradictory. However, by offering both of them, the General Synod and the church, through its classes, will either declare marriage is “between a man and a woman” or “between two persons.” If neither receives the necessary 2/3 support of the classes, the RCA is not prepared to constitutionally mandate either.

The first two options of this may indeed seem contradictory, but I think it is the Council’s way of “calling the question” as it pertains to this subject.  However, the process for this is long and complicated.  If either one of these amendments to the RCA marriage liturgy are approved at General Synod 2016, the amendment then it sent for the classes of the RCA for ratification.  Two thirds of the Classes must approve it to be ratified.  So, even if General Synod is packed with people that lean one way or the other, it is not a done deal until General Synod 2017, if at all.  This may come as some form of comfort or will be a source of considerable angst for many.

The fact that candidates for ordination will be required to “affirm and embody” the RCA’s constitutional marriage liturgy is also important.  It means that anyone seeking ordination within the RCA must abide by this decision, whatever one (if any) is made.  

Also important to note here is that already ordained pastors have pledged to uphold the constitution of the RCA.  This may present a problem for me in the future should I be “forced” to uphold something I cannot in good conscience, or as a matter of faith, agree with.

One other thing that bears mentioning is what happens if neither of these amendments gets passed.  If that is the case, we continue to live in a place of indecision.  Sadly, I forsee this being yet another way that the enemy will work within the denomination to divide and deter us from ministry.  Whatever the outcome, I think this needs to be defined here in our bylaws.

 

RECOMMENDED ACTION OF GENERAL SYNOD: That Synod establish at least one affinity classis that includes people and congregations regardless of their perspective on human sexuality to ensure and allow relationship and mission together.

Observation from the Group of Five: This recommendation did not receive the frequency of mention as the others above. However, it might provide a way for those with differing interpretations of Scripture to remain in the RCA. While we do not see it as having the level of consensus of the others, the idea was frequently mentioned throughout the meeting of the council. We believe it worthy of General Synod attention and would suggest it may also be seen as an issue of implementation.

While I am not entirely sure what an “affinity classis” would look like, this idea is not a new one for the RCA.  There have been Classes formed based largely on similar demographics and mission.  The “City Classis” is one example being a Classis formed by RCA churches in urban settings.  As we often experience here, the needs of churches in Kalamazoo are drastically different from our out here in Hopkins.  Thus, affinity Classes like City Classis are beneficial for the mission of the church.

Having an affinity Classis based on different church’s interpretation of Scripture when it comes to human sexuality, though, is troublesome at best for me.  Would it be a place of inclusion?  Certainly.  However, would it also be a place of division within the denomination?  I think so.  An argument could be made for a number of other Biblical issues that may not yet be solved too.  Should we have an affinity Classis for those who read that the next great cultural issue is either for or against Scripture?  Rather than embracing our brothers and sisters in the midst of disagreement, keeping the unity of the Spirit, we would be dividing ourselves up based on what we “like” and what we “dislike.”  I’m not sure if I can see the wisdom in this.

 

RECOMMENDED ACTION OF GENERAL SYNOD: That Synod instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a task force to explore and articulate the options and consequences within the RCA for grace-filled and orderly separation over time, should the different perspectives regarding human sexuality keep us from remaining as one, for report back to the 2017 General Synod.

This is an Additional Recommendation from the Group of Five: In addition to the constitutional recommendations listed above, it was clear to the Group of Five that there was another implementation concern that was voiced by many of the participants and needed to be dealt with in a timely manner. Implicit in the recommendations from the ten assigned small groups was a common concern that if it were not possible for some congregations and classes to stay together with the RCA after whatever actions are taken, there would be a way for grace-filled, orderly separation over time from the RCA. Therefore, believing that we speak to the spirit and intent of the special council participants, the Group of Five offers this additional recommendation.

I think that this is the most obvious recommendation that would have come out of the Special Council.  Whatever the outcome here, there will be people and churches that are unhappy and desire to leave the denomination.  What is actually important about this is not the fact that there could be separation, but that the council hopes for one that is orderly and full of grace.  There are a lot of things wrapped up in the issue of human sexuality, but I believe the hope of the RCA is that, no matter what the course, our actions stand as a testimony to who we are in Christ and that we can indeed love each other through our differences.