Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series of responses to the Christian Reformed Church Synod of 2023.
Leonard Vander Zee
As a child growing up on the west side of Grand Rapids, there were four Christian Reformed Churches, all within a mile of each other. It was a cultural and religious bubble. We all attended West Side Christian School where I recall some beloved and effective teachers. But all my friends and acquaintances were embedded in this closely knit ethnic and religious community, and I knew little else. In Catechism, I remember the minister explaining how the Reformed doctrine we were learning was the purest and most perfect expression of Christianity, and our Roman Catholic neighbors were probably headed for hell for the idolatry of the Mass.
Still, I can truthfully say that I am in many ways thankful for all this. It gave me a strong sense of identity which I can now question with understanding and integrity. Most important, I met Jesus as my Savior and Lord, even amid all these distractions.
In seminary, I was exposed to a different CRC Professors like Henry Stob, John Stek, Baas VanElderen, and John Kromminga, opened the doors and windows of the Reformed faith I had found so stultifying. I studied Barth and Bonhoeffer alongside Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. In the seminary coffee shop, we hotly debated theology as well as the events of the sixties that were swirling all around us. That was the CRC in which I happily served as Minister of Word and Sacrament for now 53 years.
I know the past always looks better in hindsight than it really was, but still, I think of this as the golden age of the CRC. Of course, there were the warring factions championed by opposing publications like the Reformed Journal on one side and the Torch and Trumpet on the other, but “they” were all still one of “us;” distinct voices in an increasingly diverse denomination.
Starting with the women in office issue in the 90’s, which led to a sizable schism, this CRC ethos began to change. It cannot be an accident that this is taking place alongside the deep tears in our national fabric and our increasing tribalism.
The idea of a perfect, closed confessional system has gradually resurfaced, alongside belief in an utterly perspicuous and inerrant Bible. And, with our present discussion on LGBTQ issues, these are now weaponized to exclude any doubters or questioners.
I have now been told to sign on the bottom line of our new synodically approved confessional reinterpretations, or leave. If I must leave, I refuse to leave with bitterness. Part of me understands this turn inward in a world that is changing so fast and frighteningly. But I will leave with immense sadness. The CRC, my church home for 53 years, has closed the doors and windows to me and many others. My question to my CRC siblings is simply this: what happens to a thick-walled house without ventilation?
Ordained in in the CRC in 1970 at the ridiculous age of 25, I served churches in Iowa, New York, Michigan and Indiana as I gradually learned to be a pastor. Along the way I married, had four kids and 12 grands, wrote some books on sacraments and funerals, and fell ever more deeper in love with Christ and his church. After retirement I play mediocre golf, pickleball, and tennis, haul a trailer around camping, and served as an Interim Pastor three times and am about to begin my fourth.
It will take time to untangle the effects of the Christian Reformed Church Synod 2023 on my body and soul, my church, and beyond. There have been too many empty words of lament. Too much “love” in the name of Jesus, and barely-restrained glee from those in power. “Brood of vipers” and the whole of Matthew 12 keeps coming to mind.
My heart is broken for so many. For the LGBTQ+ young people growing up in homes, schools, and churches that don’t see the image of a creative God in them. For the gifts and talents in LGBTQ+ members squandered instead of activated. For the pastors, ministry leaders, and Christian school teachers who are affirming of LGBTQ+ relationships and identities, who feel silenced for fear of losing their jobs and livelihood. For those who are boldly voicing their beliefs, and are being forced out of their roles and churches. For churches and families being split. My heart even breaks for those defending Synod’s position – they’re missing out on a vibrant, expansive vision of God and creation, not to mention relationships that could give them so much joy. A tree is recognized by its fruit, and this is just a taste of the bad fruit that Synod’s decisions are bringing forth.
It appears the denomination I’ve been part of my entire life can no longer be home. Perhaps it’s a mutual breakup: my (Bible- and Spirit-driven) beliefs aren’t welcome in the CRC, and its unflinching certainty and harmful religious piety aren’t welcome in my life. I’m grateful for my church – Bethany CRC – which has anchored a street corner in downtown Muskegon, Michigan, since 1903. It’s a place of inclusion and many, many wonderful kindred spirits, as are my workplace and my community. So many others are not so fortunate, which drives me to speak boldly, since I can.
The questions are everywhere, though, for me and for Bethany, from inside the church and out. “So…you’re a member of a CRC, eh? Are they going to kick you out?” “What’s Bethany going to do?” “Shall we slide over to the RCA?” “Can’t we just keep our heads down and keep loving people?” So many questions, and no easy answers. For all the calls for clarity, it feels like the waters have gotten muddier. At Bethany we’ve been on an “LGBTQ+ and our faith” learning journey since Synod 2022. While there are still differing views, many have moved to a greater understanding, and around seventy-five percent of us believe same-sex marriage should be considered a faithful option for gay Christians. We’re not trying to answer all of the questions right now, but are instead working to do “the next right thing,” and trying to do it together. My hope is that we soon publicly declare that everyone is welcome to full participation in the life of Bethany as we seek to be a faithful presence of Christ in core city Muskegon.
The eventual destination is unclear. But if we keep taking the next right steps, I trust that the path will unfold. Together we will keep loving and learning and growing, following the example and words of Jesus.
Heidi Sytsema is a lifelong member of the Christian Reformed Church, currently serving as a deacon and council president at Bethany CRC in Muskegon, Michigan. As Vice President of Development at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, she works with donors and nonprofits to build a culture of giving and a vibrant community for all. A “recovering CPA,” Heidi spent 13 years in public accounting before moving to the nonprofit sector in 2006. Her B.S. in Accountancy from Calvin College has served her well in both fields. Heidi is lucky to live in downtown Muskegon in a big old house with her husband, two dogs, and one or two of their three grown-ish kids, depending on the day.
In my job as a therapist, I frequently help clients with problems in their relationships with friends, family members, or romantic partners. These are some of the questions I might ask to assess the health of the relationship in question:
● Does your partner treat you as an equal?
● Does your partner respect your freedom to be your own person, accepting differences in life experience, perspective, and choices?
● Does your partner value your thoughts and feelings enough to listen carefully to what you have to say?
● Does your partner fight fairly, seeking mutually agreeable or win-win resolutions that preserve the health of the relationship?
● Does your partner care when you say “that hurts” and accept accountability for their part in the inevitable problems in the relationship?
I never thought that I’d have to use questions like these to evaluate my relationship with my church. As I watched the livestream of the deliberations of the Synod 2023 of the Christian Reformed Church about human sexuality, I found myself thrashing in waves of anger, hurt, and sadness. The intensity of the initial emotions have waned, but I am left with an enduring sense that I am no longer welcome in the denomination that I’ve called home for 46 years.
I was baptized into the denomination in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1977, made a profession of faith in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1988, and have been blessed to be a member of the Washington, DC, Christian Reformed Church since 2004. Both of my parents were ordained in the CRC. I hold deep admiration for my mother’s advocacy for women to be able to share their gifts in leadership positions in the church. The CRC has been formative in shaping my beliefs, values, and sense of vocation.
But as an affirming Christian serving as an Elder in an affirming church, I fear that a relationship with the denomination is no longer healthy for me or my church, not to mention the LGBTQ Christians who seek belonging in a CRC congregation.
The decisions of Synods 2022 and 2023 set up a relational dynamic in which the majority is assumed to be right, not so much based on a nuanced understanding of scripture and science, but because the majority has whipped more votes.
The view that affirming CRC members or churches are to repent of their deeply and sincerely-held beliefs is paternalistic and unhealthy. We cannot repent of attitudes and beliefs that we have arrived at through the study of scripture, prayer, and in relationship with same-sex attracted people. Affirming churches and Christians believe, with all of our hearts and minds, that God and scripture bless the faithfulness, love, and beauty that is thriving in so many committed same-sex relationships.
The distressing feelings that many LGBTQ affirming members have experienced in response to the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report and Synod’s decisions are a red flag that something is wrong with the relationship. It makes sense that those of us in the CRC who want to welcome LGBTQ people into full membership are feeling unheard, disrespected, and devalued.
I would welcome conversations with members, groups, and governing bodies in the CRC about the topic of Christian faith and human sexuality. I would welcome conversations that are seasoned with mutual curiosity and respect for the other’s position. We could approach these conversations with a commitment to reflect the spirit of the “most excellent way.”
But Synod 2023 did not open space for constructive conversations about differences in hermeneutics, beliefs, matters of conscience, or church practices. It ignored the thoughtful and heart-felt voices that pleaded to reverse the declaration of confessional status.
So where does that leave affirming members and affirming churches? If a relationship causes repeated harm, a relational partner ignores expressions of hurt, and no intention to repair the relationship is expressed, it may be healthy to assertively disengage from the relationship.
I believe that it is time for affirming individuals and churches in the CRC to work together, with grace and respect, to disaffiliate from the denomination. And I trust that we will find new institutional relationships, ones that allow us to thrive in God’s beloved community.
Justin Sybenga is a therapist at the University of Maryland. He taught English and composition for nearly two decades at private, public, and charter schools in Michigan, Maryland, and DC. He lives with his wife and two kids in a friendly neighborhood in Washington DC and is an avid follower of sports and politics.
Dear Christian Reformed Church Choir
I remember the first time it happened – and it baffled me speechless. We stood there in formation on those pop-up risers, singing through a familiar piece for the 10th time that day. And all of a sudden our conductor stepped down from her podium and started walking past us, through us, beside us slowly. And it was as if you could actually see her ear at work listening. She pulled out a singer in the back row, pulled one from the right side, displaced a bass, tapped an alto on the shoulder, and motioned them to the front. As we sang on wondering whether we should be sad or relieved we didn’t get raptured, she kept walking in deep concentration, moving us from one location to another like a chess master going for checkmate. The holes gradually filled. We shuffled to the left. We stood shoulder to shoulder with new voices. The displaced were re-placed. She took a step back, and then another step, and another until she paced the middle of the auditorium lost in her listening. Then, a quick nod of the head, a snap back to reality, and back up on the podium to continue rehearsal.
A seasoned choral conductor knows the art of pointing voices. They take any number of singers from 10-100 and know how to strategically move them in such a way that each voice is made better, and each section is made stronger, and the whole of the ensemble is made more harmonious by their particular location within the whole. The beauty of choral singing is that everyone brings something slightly different to the table (or the risers). Some have been gifted with deep and resonating vibrato that helps set an unshakable foundation at the bottom. Some have clarity in pitch and precision, piercing through the cacophony to ring like freedom. Some have volume that can fill a hall, some have perfect ears and can correct an erring pitch. Each voice is beautifully unique – expressed for the very first time immediately after drawing their first breath, well-trained throughout life from countless mornings in the shower and belting sessions in the car. These are voices that have learned to sing through every season of life, in languages familiar and not. They sing when they can’t help it, and sing when they have to because there is no other way to deal with emotions like THAT. The beauty and the mystery of choral singing is that these voices all come together to create something glorious that, in my opinion, is the closest glimpse we get of the heavenly realms.
But there is a reason why conductors make these subtle shifts and move people even one spot over. It’s because who you are standing next to matters. The voice you are standing next to matters. You might be next to the voice that blends perfectly with yours to make clear and precise unison. You might be next to the voice that is in every way oppositional to your own – disrupting and unsettling the singing you have known for years. You might be placed in a location to temper your volume. Or a location that necessitates your strength and leadership. These movings and promptings are not done in vain.
From my vantage point on the piano bench at Synod 2023, I heard all the voices – all the singing, all the impassioned voices at the mic, all the side conversations in the hallways outside. It will take a while to unpack and process that week, and that work has just begun. But I find myself continuing to return to this image of choral singing and the very real, very urgent need for the skilled work of our Conductor. Our collective voices as a denomination need to be repointed. We need to have the courage to allow ourselves to be displaced momentarily from the comfort of our own spot, so that we might be repositioned in a place that better serves the whole. The listening ear of the Conductor wants to move us – hearing undertones and overtones in our own voices that we cannot hear for ourselves, but knowing that even uncomfortable spaces are exactly where your particular voice is needed. We need our Conductor – to quiet loud soloists, to return us all to a steady tempo, to find an impossible unison in a discordant harmony. Without this, I fear for our future. I fear for the permanent damage to our voices, and the silencing of our song. So come, Fount of every blessing. Tune our hearts to sing your praise.
Katie Ritsema-Roelofs is a commissioned pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of North America and serves in the denomination’s new ministry called “Thrive” as a worship consultant. She is the former Minister of Music and Worship at the Washington DC Christian Reformed Church and still lives in the greater DC area with her family.