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As part of Black History Month, my wife and I attended a church-sponsored theatre showing of Origin, a movie based on the story of Isabel Wilkerson as she wrote the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. In the film, Wilkerson traveled throughout India, Germany, and the United States to research the caste systems in each country’s history.

A credible case was made for the similarities in systemic support of the lowest caste in India, the extermination of Jews in Germany, and the centuries-long enslavement of Africans in the United States. Our host concluded the film’s showing reading Ephesians 2:12-22, about the division between Gentiles and Jews. There have been so many forms of oppression, past and present: disabled and abled, poor and rich, female and male, and just as certainly, genderqueer and heterosexual. 

Although I have long studied and advocated for diversity, equity, and inclusion, I had not read Caste. In my recent reading of it, I was especially intrigued by Part III: The Foundations of Caste (pages 97-164). In the reflections that follow, I attempt to illustrate how these “pillars of caste” also are at work in the Christian Reformed Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Specifically, Synod 2022 declared that ‘unchastity’ in Heidelberg Catechism Q. and A. 108 includes “homosexual sex” (inside and/or outside of marriage) and therefore is a violation of the seventh commandment. Other forms of sexual sin also are named, but only same-sex marriage is a matter of contention.

It puzzles me when CRC congregations firmly committed to racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion at the same time officially embrace discrimination and oppression of sexual minority populations. This inconsistency characterizes many majority white and multi-racial congregations, as well as many racial and ethnic minority congregations.  

I respectfully ask that you prayerfully consider these reflections with openness to promptings of the Spirit.

The Pillars: “These are the historic origins, the pillars upholding a belief system, the piers beneath the surface of a caste hierarchy” (page 99).

One: Divine Will and Laws of Nature

When Noah learned that his son Ham told his brothers about Noah’s nakedness in his drunken stupor, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen 9:25). “From the time of the Middle Ages, some interpreters of the Old Testament described Ham as bearing black skin and translated Noah’s curse against him as a curse against the descendants of Ham, against all humans with dark skin, the people who the Europeans told themselves had been condemned to enslavement by God’s emissary, Noah himself” (page 103).

Just as caste societies have used a dubious reading of Genesis 9 to support their system, the CRC Synod has interpreted the Genesis creation narrative of not only as a description of the first man and woman’s complementarity and antidote for aloneness, but also as a definition and prescription for marriage for all human beings for all time. This interpretation openly disregards scientific evidence of a sexuality and gender spectrum more diverse than simply heterosexual male and female. Based in part on this creation order interpretation,same-sex oriented persons are not allowed to marry in keeping with their sexual orientation, and consequently also are denied the attending gifts and responsibilities of marriage.

Two: Heritability

“You were born to a certain caste and remained in that caste, subject to the high status or low stigma it conferred, for the rest of your days.” “Like the Hindu caste system, the white-black distinction in the United States has supplied a social hierarchy determined at birth, and arguably immutable, even by achievement.” (page 106).

In 1973, the CRC Synod declared that “Homosexuality is a condition in which a person is sexually orientated toward persons of the same sex, and for which the person may bear only a minimal responsibility” (italics added). In essence, the CRC came very close to agreeing with the prevailing scientific position that same-sex orientation is determined in utero, and that same-sex orientated persons have no more control over determining their sexual orientation than heterosexual persons.

Three: Endogamy and The Control of Marriage and Mating

“Endogamy enforces caste boundaries by forbidding marriage outside of one’s group and going so far as to prohibit sexual relations, or even the appearance of romantic interest, across caste lines” (page 109).

Synod 1973 also declared that “Homosexualism (explicit homosexual practice), however, is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.” With this statement, the CRC erected a sturdy version of this pillar with the unkind twist that same-sex oriented persons must either marry contrary to their orientation or not marry at all. In context, the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex activity refers exclusively to sexual activity outside of marriage and has no imagination of committed same-sex marriage. Synod, nevertheless, also applies these texts to same-sex marriage. In effect, God’s declaration that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) applies only to heterosexuals.

Four: Purity versus Pollution

“The fourth pillar of caste rests upon the fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it” (page 115). The historic white versus black divide in the United States required separation to the extreme – separate water fountains, bathrooms, motels, restaurants, swimming pools, neighborhoods, schools, churches, hospital wards, cemeteries, and even separate courtroom Bibles for whites and blacks (cf. pages 115-130).

The CRC position on human sexuality rightly regards sexual relations within male/female marriage as potentially beautiful, holy, and pure, and symbolic of the relationship between Christ and his church. Also, there is general agreement that the Bible condemns all sexual activity outside of marriage. However, and here is the crux of the disagreement in biblical interpretation, the CRC argues that all physical intimacy within a committed relationship of same-sex marriage as “unchaste,” sexually immoral, impure, and contrary to God’s revealed will.

Five: Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill

When a house is being built, the single most important piece of the framework is the first wood beam hammered into place to anchor the foundation. That piece is called the mudsill.” In a caste system, the mudsill is the bottom caste. In the Indian caste system, an elaborate system of Jatis determines which occupations someone may hold. “A southern politician declared this central doctrine from the floor of the U.S. Senate in March, 1858: ‘In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life’” (page 131). “In 1890, ‘85 percent of black men and 96 percent of black women were employed in just two occupational categories, agriculture and domestic or personal service’” (page 135). Although presented as a matter of belief, caste is actually more a means to consolidate and hold power.

In North America, recent decades have seen a growing acceptance of sexual minorities, supported by law. In education, sports, the military, the arts, public office, and more, there is broadening access to occupational roles across the spectrum. However, under separation of church and state, many churches and other religious organizations, including the CRC, legally continue to discriminate against sexual minorities in access to services, membership, and employment.

Six: Dehumanization and Stigma

“Dehumanization is a standard component in the manufacture of an out-group against which to pit an in-group, and it is a monumental task…. It is a war against truth.…. It is a process, a programming. It takes energy and reinforcement to deny what is self-evident in another member of one’s own species…. It is harder to dehumanize a single individual that you have gotten the chance to know…. Dehumanize the group, and you have completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it” (page 141).

Primary examples given in Caste are the degradation of untouchables in India, the extermination of Jews in Germany, and generational enslavement of people of African descent in the United States. However, examples of dehumanization also abound in attitudes and actions against physically, mentally, and emotionally impaired persons, immigrant populations, the poor, and sexual minorities. Consider the prevalence of insulting comments and caricatures—around family tables, on school playgrounds, and in other ‘private’ conversation. Officially the CRC condemns such dehumanizing and stigmatizing actions, yet simultaneously insists that God himself views sexual minorities as “different” to the point of requiring them to live by a different standard when it comes to marriage.

Seven: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control

“The only way to keep an entire group of sentient (capable of feeling) beings in an artificially fixed place, beneath all others and beneath their own talents, is with violence and terror, psychological and physical, to preempt resistance before it can be imagined. Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing” (page 151).

If it seems a stretch to link this pillar of “terror” and “cruelty” to rejection of same-sex marriage, we are ignoring the physical, emotional, and mental damage inflicted by dehumanizing and stigmatizing any person or group. Insisting that sexual minority persons are different from heterosexual (normal) people and that God has different rules for their social lives is insulting at best and cruel at worst. Yet, the CRC Synod ruled that sexual minorities are welcome in churches only if they live by these special rules. If they do not, they cannot join us, they cannot remain with us, and they certainly cannot lead us. Enforcement and control apply to heterosexual members and leaders as well. Prospective members who disagree with the CRC position on this matter may be denied membership. Candidates for ministry and other ordained roles are to be rejected for consideration. Also, ordained leaders and ‘ordinary’ members who disagree with the CRC on this matter, and do not “repent” of their convictions, are subject to discipline, and can be removed from office and excluded from membership.

Eight: Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

“Beneath each pillar of caste was the presumption and continual reminder of the inborn superiority of the dominant caste and the inherent inferiority of the subordinate…. At every turn, the caste system drilled into people under its spell the deference due those born to the upper caste and the degradation befitting the subordinate caste” (page 160).

Discrimination damages the psyche, of those who oppress and those who are oppressed. In the recent past, CORE (a Western-Michigan based anti-racism training program) teaches about “internalized racist superiority” and “internalized racist oppression.” CORE further defines these ‘conditions’ as resulting from a complex multi-generational process that teaches a person to accept and live out a superior or oppressed (inferior) societal role. Given the deeply enculturated negativity toward sexual minorities over many generations, no sexual majority person should be surprised by internalized feelings of superiority toward sexual minorities. Similarly, it should surprise no one that same-sex oriented young people may agonize for years before “outing” themselves. Part of their struggle is internal and personal, dealing with questions of identity and personal worth. Another major struggle is with relational concerns: fear of losing respect, friendship, and love from their family, peers, fellow congregants, and church leaders – or worse, the fear of outright condemnation and rejection.

My continuing prayer is that Synod as the “ruling body” of the CRC and local church councils with “original authority” will discontinue their official opposition to same-sex marriage. I also pray that the CRC will honor Bible-believing Christian leaders and members who conscientiously interpret God’s word and will differently on this matter, and that together we will learn to better live in love and unity under Christ.  

Al Mulder

Al Mulder is a retired CRC minister who served as a pastor in Kansas, a missionary pastor in Utah and New Mexico, in staff roles with CRC mission agencies, and as stated clerk for Classis Grand Rapids East. Al and his wife Jo Meyer are life-long members of the CRC. Their combined families include 9 children, 19 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren.


  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thanks, Al. I appreciate the case you’ve made for the Christian Reformed Church being its own caste system with respect to same-sex marriage. I am always puzzled by people who are highly sensitive to racism but indifferent to the same kind of discrimination, marginalization and pain that the church inflicts on same-sex married folks. And saying the Bible condemns one but not the other only begs the question of how we are interpreting the Bible. Maybe we should have a synod where we just read the book of Ephesians outloud. Again, and again, and again.

    • George Bruins says:

      Thanks to Al and Duane for your insights.
      Duane, the synodical reading should include also Genesis 1 and 2, read over and over. “Proof” texts are not helpful, but both Genesis and Ephesians contain themes repeated throughout scripture..Synodical delegates will need to grapple with these themes.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Wilkerson’s book Caste is rich and incredible, as is her previous book The Warmth of Other Suns, and thank you for the in-depth review. I’m a bit skeptical though, of your statement of CRC congregations being “firmly committed to racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion” while at the same time “officially embracing discrimination and oppression of sexual minority populations.” That first firm commitment may be on paper via Synodical statement, but I have attended classical meetings where delegates challenge the work and reports of the classis Racial Reconciliation Committee, with statements such as “that’s past history—our parents and grandparents had to deal with that issue—we need to move on,” and “we don’t have a race issue in our congregation / in our church-plant area,” and “you’re making an idol out of Unity.” Those statements were from pastors, not just by lay leadership; you’d rightly imagine the conversation turned to whether support of committed same-sex relationships / marriages was to be deemed heretical or not (see Synod 2024 agenda).

    • Al Mulder says:

      Your “a bit skeptical” is well taken, Jeff. Writing in More Than Equals (1993), Spencer Perkins opined that while people of color tend to see racism under every rock, whites tend not to see racism unless the rock falls on them. This is still true, 31 years after Spencer wrote this. People see their churches through own experiential lens. Nevertheless, I know more than handful of multiracial churches that have been working hard at “diversity, equity, and inclusion” for decades and are giving it a pretty good shot. AM

    • Jeff, what you fail to mention is that I was at that meeting. I am a person of color living in a dominantly African American part of the city. I may be the most vocal person against the work of the Racial Reconciliation Committee. At that meeting, several other voices advocating against the work of the Racial Reconciliation Committee were also people of color. And those voices were either ignored or forcefully degraded by several older white men. It really seemed like they were saying older white men living in the mostly white suburbs know more about racial reconciliation than poor people of color living in the rougher parts of the city. It is weird to me that you would mention this story but leave out that several of those pastors were actually people of color being derided by older white men. I am curious, Jeff, as one who knows you, likes you, and has much respect for your contribution to my church plant. And I really mean that. I have enjoyed every encounter we’ve had and you were NOT one of those people I felt attacked by at the meeting. So my questions are genuine. Did you just not notice the ethnic differences on the different sides? Do you think it’s an insignificant factor?

      • Lena says:

        Perhaps Jeff Carpenter and other leaders at both the CRC Network and The Banner would let Moises and his like minded colleagues have a voice in their respective publications. I think many in the church would like to hear what they have to say about Racial Reconciliation and other topics.

      • Jeff Carpenter says:

        Hi, Moises: Good to hear from you and thanks for the dialogue. It was my perspective that the RRC was being challenged, attacked even, for the work they were commissioned to do. Other than yours, Mo, the challenges were not from the two city congregations, both of which hosted the past two classis meetings where RRC was discussed, but the challenges came from suburban pastors. Perhaps as you say, older white men, might think they know about racism and race reconciliation, probably stuck in their idealistic liberal passion from the 1980’s and 1990’s and beyond, even those who had careers in urban institutions; but the RRC includes men and women of color, not just oldish white men. With you as friend I couldn’t help but notice ethnic differences on the different sides (!)—and I appreciate your person, your passion, your voice, your call to be salt & light where you serve–but as an oldish white guy living 40 years in the burbs, I have also as a CRC member, 4-term council member of my local church, and career teacher in a suburban Christian h.s. have witnessed racism, heard racist conversations, observed attempts at race-related policy decisions, from old white guys and their successive generations over that 40-year time period. I had hoped that young men and women serving churches both established and new, would feel heartened and supported by RRC, not threatened. Old white sociologists, ministers, and philosophy professors may not meet a standard of authenticity, but getting beyond who presented, was the message of reconciliation and a call for unity misconceived and disingenuous for our area churches and for the CRC at large? Best wishes and prayers for you in your ministry—

        • Moises Pacheco says:

          Jeff, there’s a lot here and many issues can be conflated. What happened at that specific meeting was older white guys dismissing the concerns of people of color for the sake of other people of color. It does not matter if those people of color were from suburban churches or urban. Would my voice matter less if I started working at a suburban church? There were other people of color present from the urban churches that did not speak. Oddly enough their advocates didn’t even ask them to speak up. Now I must clarify, that I don’t care if you’re an old white guy. It doesn’t make your opinion and/or observations invalid. That would be racist. Your perspective (especially as an older man) is important. You have seen and experienced many aspects of this life that we younger men have not. But a conversation involves two parties. I also have witnessed (and have had my life drastically altered) by the racism of whites. I have also witnessed the racism of blacks, Latinos, and Asians. These are important aspects of the conversation that doesn’t even seem to be on the radar of the RRC.

  • Kathy Vandergrift says:

    Thanks and appreciation for this insightful comparison. As an active participant in the struggle for justice for women in the CRC, the struggle with the Belhar Confession, and the struggle for justice for Indigenous people around the report on the Doctrine of Discovery, I recognized common threads when I read the book and resonate with your clear articulation of common elements in the current struggle over human sexuality. What I wonder about is how to dismantle the common pillars you rightly identify. Can it happen through making a different choice this time, as you suggest? Do they come down one at a time or all together? Through erosion over time or a more dramatic break, or both?

    • Al Mulder says:

      Kathy, I welcome your thanks and appreciation! Yes, I too have seen “Pillar” dynamics in too many social contexts,, cetainly including indigenous peoples in Canada and the U.S. where I was first immersed in cross-cultural ministry. Also, I love your strategic questions, which I can only entrust to others to ponder and pursue. For me, it is past time in my career, deep into my “afterglow” phase, and late in my day. Al

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Such thoughtfulness on the page. Thank you for your light-bearing work; I could feel my spine strengthening as I read. Yes, this is the Always Re-Forming Tradition that schooled me to be ongoingly learning in good-faith conversation with others. Thank goodness for the work of Isabel Wilkerson & your informed use of it as it applies to the CRC. May the mutuality of learning & teaching shape our humanity for the widest good. Saluting your scholarship with respect & appreciation. May this piece be circulated widely!

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Al. Your personal and communal reading of Wilkerson through CRC eyes is the way we should engage with all kinds of writing. Not surprisingly, our “kinda queer” (her words) daughter has expressed similar thoughts to yours, though not in relation necessarily to Wilkerson, rather from lifelong experience in the CRC from her self-outing till the time in June, 2016 when she read the decisions of synod (I no longer capitalize it) to appoint to the HSR committee only those fully endorsing the 1973 study committee’s conclusions. At that moment she burst into tears and decided the CRC was no longer her church.

  • Jim Lucas says:

    Oh, Al! Thank you, thank you, thank you! When I read Caste, I made similar connections related to my experience as a gay man in the Christian community. The book gave me language to identify the oppression I have experienced. As you pointed out, the way that many Christians treat gay people is cruel and dehumanizing. I also want to express my gratitude for the growing number of churches, including Christian Reformed and Reformed congregations, that now genuinely affirm and include gay people. I am personally experiencing that now at Eastern Avenue CRC (and other nearby churches) here in Grand Rapids. The Holy Spirit is powerfully transforming individuals and communities. And articles like yours are a valuable contribution to this journey of transformation.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I echo Emily Jane’s comment. May it indeed be circulated widely, though I have to try harder to swallow my doubts about its reception among those who are convinced they must turn a deaf ear to any contrary interpretation.

  • Ken Baker says:

    Thanks for your valuable contribution, Al!

  • Paul Kortenhoven says:

    Thank you Al. I have known you for many years and your life has been a living example of biblical compassion. Countless pastors and colleagues have been helped by you gentle wisdom and exemplary ministry. I can only say thank you.

  • Twila Finkelstein says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. I read Caste, and lead a 16 week Sunday School course on the book, shortly after reading Sex Differences in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza so I made many of the same connections as you articulate so well. I was raised to believe the gay lifestyle was wrong in God’s sight, however when I worked as a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care in a large teaching hospital I had patients that were neither male nor female, my mind was opened. As kids we were also taught that God doesn’t make mistakes. So, there are more than 2 sexes. Jews agree. The church must reevaluate based on the truths you will read in DeFranza’s book.

  • Theo says:

    What I find particularly concerning is that despite this being a extreme minority position not only within the CRC but also within evangelical Christianity writ large, not a single commenter has offered a single rejoinder to anything expressed, nor does the author appear to grapple with potential counterpoints. So, allow me to offer one.

    One of the most notable conceits of the article appears to be this: “In context, the Bible’s condemnation of same-sex activity refers exclusively to sexual activity outside of marriage and has no imagination of committed same-sex marriage.” In other words, there is an acknowledgement that the Bible does, in fact, condemn same-sex sexual activity. However, the claim is that this prohibition does not apply within the bounds of marriage, since there was no such thing. In other words, it might be said, neither the Bible nor anyone else for the first 2000 years or so of Christendom was bright enough to come up with a cloak by which desires for same-sex relations might be sanctified. I’ve long found it rather difficult to believe that a Scripturally prohibited activity can be permitted merely by putting it a new wrapper.

    While the author acknowledges that “there is general agreement that the Bible condemns all sexual activity outside of marriage,” little is done to grapple with the fact that the Bible also *separately* condemns same-sex activity, apart from using marriage as a box with which to sanctify it. Why expressly mention separately something which, at the time out, *always* would have occurred outside of marriage and thus been condemned? Contextually, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why does Paul, in Romans 1, go out of his way to spend a solid paragraph amount men and woman abandoning normal relations for relations with each other, when (according to this author) the real problem was that they were simply having sex outside of marriage? Why, in 1 Cor 6, does Paul yet again spell out a list which includes both adultery and homosexuality, when if the real problem were a lack of marriage, this is effectively redundant?

    Arguments about the applicability of the Levitical law can be made, but arguments about the Pauline prohibitions run into a substantially more significant problem. Granted, there have been a few rebuttals, but most of them involve some sort of waiving away Paul’s words as not carrying full Scriptural weight, putting some gloss on them as not being properly informed by modern science and gender understanding, or more lately trying to claim they no longer hold sway inside of a “covenantal marriage”. The “covenantal marriage” and “science” arguments seem to be incredibly riddled with problems. The latter harkens back to treating the Bible as a science textbook, and the former as discussed above requires assuming Paul was a border illiterate prone to needless redundancy.

    The “best” argument to support married homosexual relationships was and is, in my view, that Paul was not Christ, and he was wrong. But at that point, you’ve gone down the road of Christian anarchism and removed yourself not just from Reformed theology, but from the theology of virtually every Christian denomination. Outside of limited academic circles though, I suspect in the long run that it is the only thing that will make sense to most people (and I have heard it more than once from non-Christian or unchurched acquaintance that Paul was not Christ), and I suspect a lot of mainline denominations will eventually have to go down that road or nearly die off. Preaching on Romans or Corinthians becomes virtually impossible without hopelessly confusing most of the congregation, who just read words on the page that the pastor is not telling them do not actually mean what they say. It’s a horrible spot to be in, and perhaps not a small part of why so many mainline denominations are shrinking. The kids hear this stuff, and don’t come back, because they don’t buy the attempts to hand-waive Paul away. Rejecting Paul entirely solves the obvious problem. How long will this take to happen? I don’t know, but I don’t know how your reconcile condoning homosexuality in the church and a congregation that does not eventually dissipate in any other way.

    I drive to be “accepting” of others is certainly compelling. In the process, though, one must serious questions whether all we are doing is “inventing new ways of doing evil” as Paul also cautions against. These justifications of homosexuality being acceptable in a marriage are really hard to sell to so-called “Bible believing Christian” who do not care to twist themselves into a theological Gordian knot. And that’s a problem that all of the analogizing the caste systems or discriminatory this or that or “minority” status will never solve. The Bible condemns all sorts of behavior, behavior which might be ingrained in the DNA of many people given advancing scientific understandings. Such is a sinful world. Attempting to justify that which was viewed as sinful for millenia seems a dangerous and snarled path, however well someone’s intentions may be. We’re playing with souls here, and “sin wrapped in a new wrapper probably sanctifies the sin” is argument that I personally find a bit perilous, albeit an interesting theological exercise.

    • Jim VanderMolen says:

      Theo, the longevity of a conviction does not in and of itself justify the conviction. Tradition can be both a blindfold and a gag, hindering the work of the Spirit and leading us away from the way of grace. If, as I trust we both believe, the Spirit remains active in revealing to our hearts and minds the will of God, then that it is only now that blindfolds and gags are slipping and falling regarding long-held convictions should neither surprise nor cause suspicions. Rather, we ought to open ourselves to new understanding, graciously and patiently together discerning the Spirit.

      Thanks to Al Mulder for his contribution to the work of discernment.

    • Marie says:

      According to Pew Research, 28% of Evangelical Protestants favor or strong favor gay marriage. This is not an extreme minority.

      • Theo says:

        How small is an extreme minority? That’s 70% of your church potentially gone, right there! But that wasn’t even my point, although it is related. My point is that even that 28% can hardly understand the theology. I’ve heard the sermons preached by well-meaning preachers, and afterwards literally heard congregants comments along the lines of, “the pastor doesn’t really seem to believe the Bible is right on this”–from people who generally support gay marriage in society at large. So even if 28% favor gay marriage, how many of that 28% will agree the Bible condones it? Probably even fewer. High minded exercised like this on ReformedJournal are great, but how in the world do you ever get it to play in the pews without losing significant numbers?