The short answer is: a lot. Some of it was incredibly heartening–making new friends with some dear brothers and sisters, laughing with old friends, and having sweet times of prayer and fellowship outside of Synod. Some of Synod was goofy, like putting sticky notes on paper cubes and walking by the massage tent (no joke). It was an exhausting week, one from which I still have not recovered. I’m glad I don’t have to go back for five years.

But while there are many experiences and frustrations to share, let me cut to the chase and summarize the two biggest issues. Both items are not being described entirely accurately in the outside press.

Homosexuality

The RCA has been embroiled in the homosexuality issue since 1978. Since that time the General Synod has consistently said that homosexuality is a sin according to the word of God. Increasingly, this understanding has being challenged and sometimes outright ignored. The denomination is clearly divided.

This spring several classes (think: presbyteries) sent overtures to the General Synod urging the Synod to restate and strengthen its position on homosexuality. One of those overtures came from our church, through our classis (South Grand Rapids). Overtures do not automatically make it to the floor of Synod. Instead, they go to an overtures committee, and then that committee makes a recommendation to approve or deny the overture, or they can recommend something else. In this case, they essentially denied the overtures from the classes and offered a new recommendation. On Monday morning, the Advisory Committee on Overtures and New Business put the following R-56 before the Synod:

To instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a study group of up to twelve members, representative of the diverse views of the denomination, and including at least two members of the Commission on Theology, and one General Synod professor, to prepare a paper and study guide that provide a biblical, theological, ethical, and pastoral perspective on homosexual persons and relationships, and to recommend next steps in the church’s ongoing discernment, for report to the 2014 General Synod; and further,

during this time of study and discernment, the General Synod calls upon members of the church to regard one another with the love of Christ, and that the church’s office bearers and assemblies exercise mutual forbearance by refraining from:

  • ordaining or accepting the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships
  • performing same-sex marriages, civil unions, or blessing ceremonies
  • disciplinary actions against persons in same-sex relationships
  • disciplinary actions against office bearers and assemblies that support the ordination and union of persons in same-sex relationships
  • deliberative debate and policy decisions relating to persons in same-sex relationships.

Reasons:

1.   The RCA is committed to careful, comprehensive study of all matters that impact the life and ministry of the church. The most recent studies concerning homosexual persons and the church were received by General Synod in 1978 and 1979, thirty-four and thirty-three years ago. During this time, our socio-cultural and ecclesial contexts have changed:

  • In the U.S., some states have legalized civil unions and same-sex marriages.
  • In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act defined marriage, for civil purposes, as the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others, thus legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide, while also protecting the right of the church not to perform such marriages.
  • In some contexts, God is drawing large numbers of homosexual Christians into RCA congregations.
  • The General Synod has received and heard a request for help and guidance as we respond to our changed situations.

2.   Restating the interpretive position of the General Synod by resolution is unnecessary, and asking the General Synod by resolution to direct classes concerning the discipline of their members is a violation of the church’s order.

3.   As the body of Christ, we are called to mutual love and accountability and to make manifest the unity of the church which is both gift and obligation.

This recommendation was a major disappointment to conservatives in the denomination. We argued that we do not need another study committee or more dialogue. We know what the Bible says and two more years from a study group like this will only muddy the waters. More importantly, we felt we were being asked to suspend the third mark of the church by refraining from disciplining in the situations outlined above. Had this recommendation passed, it would have been disastrous for the RCA and could have precipitated a number of departures from the denomination. This recommendation did NOT pass.

Instead, we offered a substitute motion:

While compassion, patience, and loving support should be shown to all those who struggle with same-sex desires, the General Synod reaffirms our official position that homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures, therefore any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.

And further, the General Synod Council shall oversee the creation of an eight member committee made up of representatives appointed by each of the regional synods to pray and work together to present a way forward for our denomination given the disagreement in our body relative to homosexuality. The purpose of the committee is not to revisit our stated position, but shall operate with the understanding expressed earlier in this recommendation and issue a report with practical recommendations to the General Synod of 2013.

The debate on this substitute motion was, according to many long time observers, the most torturous they had ever seen. The Synod had to vote to substitute the motion and then vote to approve the motion itself. Along the way, more liberal voices challenged that the motion was out of order. The chair ruled in their favor. Each time, we had to appeal the ruling of the chair and put it to a vote before the house. At one point in the parliamentary confusion, the motion survived by a vote of 109-108. All told, there were four votes taken just to overturn the ruling of the President. Several good men and women spoke articulately and courageously in favor of the motion. In the end, despite opposition on the floor from the a seminary president, a General Synod Professor of Theology, the Past-President of Synod, and the two previous General Secretaries, the motion PASSED by a vote of 120-91.

I’ve seen it reported that what we mainly did was appoint another committee. This is not accurate. The discussion centered around the first paragraph, especially the language about a “disciplinable offense.” And the committee, it should be noted, is not an open ended study committee, but one that is to make recommendation for a way forward in our denomination given our established position and the continuing diversity of theological opinion.

Women’s Ordination

In 1980, the Synod approved a set of amendments to the Book of Church Order (BCO) which have become known as the “conscience clauses.” These clauses, later adopted by more than two-thirds of the classes, were designed to protect women seeking ordination as well as those in support or in opposition to women’s ordination. On a number of occasions, various commissions or classes have wanted to remove the conscience clauses. At this Synod several different bodies were aiming for their removal, most directly the Commission for Women.

After about an hour of debate on Monday night the Synod, by a margin of roughly 2-1, voted to remove the consciences clauses from the BCO. This does not mean the clauses have been officially removed. The change still needs approval from two-thirds of the RCA’s 45 classes. Last time the Synod voted to remove the conscience clauses (2004), the classis vote was 28-17 in favor of removal, just short of the two-thirds necessary for approval.

If the clauses are finally removed–and we won’t know that until next spring–it’s unclear what all would change for complementarians in the denomination, but at the very least it would make it difficult for them to continue in the denomination and to continue to raise up men with similar convictions for ministry in the RCA. And given the fact that complementarians are the ones on the front lines laboring to maintain a biblical stance on homosexuality, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of the RCA rests on razor’s edge.

NOTE: There has been some confusion about the so-called conscience clauses and what they do. The clauses refer to a series of amendments added to the BCO in 1980 to “maintain peace in diversity in the RCA concerning women as church officers.” The conscience clauses were designed (a) to protect women by prohibiting classes from obstructing their ordination which would now be legal, and (b) to protect those who did not agree with women’s ordination by not forcing them to participate in the ordination of women. One key section reads:

Ministers shall not be pressured in such a way as to lead either one who supports or one who opposes, on scriptural grounds, the ordination of women to church offices to offend against one’s conscience; nor shall any minister be penalized for conscientious objection to or support of the ordination of women to church offices; nor shall any minister obstruct by unconstitutional means the election, ordination, or installation of a woman to church offices. (BCO Chapter 1, Part II, Article 12, Section 15)

Although the clauses were designed to protect both sides, as the denomination has become more thoroughly egalitarian, the clauses are now seen chiefly as a protection for those opposed to women’s ordination. Many egalitarians see the clauses as inconsistent and demeaning to women. Complementarians see the clauses as giving them a home in the RCA.

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32 thoughts on “What Happened at the RCA General Synod?”

  1. Jason says:

    Kevin,
    Thank you for taking on these difficult issues. Part of me is left wondering why conservatives in the RCA stay and why they don’t join with CRC or something along those lines? Admittedly, I do not entirely know the current political battles between these groups. I also appreciate the willingness to engage in debate to seek denominational unity, but at what point must you break unity when truth is threatened.

    I grew up in the RCA, living in Oostburg. I went to Northwestern, an RCA college. I always thought the CRC (and OPC) folks were entirely too conservative as far as I was concerned, but as I began studying the Bible, it seems they were right more often than I realized.

    Anyway, thanks for taking on the issues with a clear biblical stance.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I was disappointed when I read the news reports on the RCA. They left no impression that the RCA was remaining committed to the Biblical stance. The question is, will those of a more liberal bent choose to remove themselves? If so, then the women’s ordination issue can be resolved. If not, I don’t see how a person staying true to the Word could stay long in the RCA.

  3. Trish Jones says:

    Thank you so much for this article. As a Baptist (SBC) who was “introduced” to Reformed Theology (as a “category”) three years ago (via Challies.Com) – and thus read books & blogs & watch/listen to sermons by many Presbyterians – I have wondered where some of my Presbyterian teachers (you, the Sprouls, etc.) stand on the very public and liberal stances of the denomination regarding homosexuality, ordination of women, etc. I’ve been a Bible student and teacher for decades and thus have been “reformed” long before I even knew the word. My father was a Baptist minister (American Baptist) but no theologian – I don’t remember even hearing the name John Calvin, or of any of the Puritans, or the doctrines of grace, or covenant theology, etc. When I was introduced to the theological terms and teachings, it was like coming home. It wasn’t that I was convinced by what you and the others have said/written – it was that you expressed what I have always believed because it’s what the Word teaches. I am eternally grateful to the Lord for answering my prayers and taking me even deeper into the Gospel. However, as noted, I have had questions and some concerns about where my “new” teachers stood on some of these issues. I haven’t studied paedobaptism or the preternist view on the end times enough yet to comment – but those are secondary issues and certainly not enough to break fellowship or discard what I have learned from so many of you. The liberal stance of the denomination, however, has been a cause of rather deep concern to me. Therefore, I appreciate you addressing the issues and explaining them so clearly to those of us who are not part of the Presbyterian church.

  4. Can you please help me understand the women’s ordination results? What is the RCA’s current position? How does the vote on the conscience clause affect that position going forward? I am confused as to what the RCA and what you specifically observe as being the Biblical precedent for the ordination of women in pastoral ministry. I would appreciate your clarification as I am a bit slow to understand.

  5. Tony De La Rosa says:

    Thank you for your leadership

  6. Dave Sarafolean says:

    Trish,

    A slight correction to your post. Kevin is part of a Dutch denomination – Reformed Church in America. R.C. Sproul is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). That denomination has spoken clearly on the issue of homosexuality:

    http://www.pcaac.org/WCF/2011%20PCA%20on%20Sexuality%20and%20Ordination.pdf

  7. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Todd, I believe God gifts all people for ministry but that he has reserved the teaching-authoritative offices of elder and pastor (and deacon in some church polity) for qualified men. I do not support the ordination of women as pastors. All of the offices have been open to women in the RCA for over thirty years. At the same time, our Book of Church order includes these “conscience clauses” which allows for a diversity of opinion on the subject. If the clauses are removed it would make it much more difficult for people like me to serve in the RCA.

  8. Stacey Midge says:

    I realize that our reactions to these two actions of Synod are pretty much opposite, but wanted to thank you for accurately representing what happened and what will happen next, and writing about all of this in a way that is honest to your own perspective without being derogatory toward others. I appreciated our conversation and pray for clarity about how the RCA ought to proceed.

  9. Katie Young says:

    Thank you Kevin for summarizing the outcome and for your service. The Lord reminded me several times during the week to pray for you as I knew it was going to be a trying and mentally draining week. We appreciate you doing this important work and pray you will feel refreshed and supported now that you are back at home.

  10. John Tilstra says:

    Thank you for your comments on the RCA General Synod. As a Reformed Church pastor, I struggle to understand what is happening. Words escape me.

  11. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Pastor DeYoung, if I may be so bold, you and the leadership team at your church have to fervently pray (if you haven’t already started) about when/if your church should biblically depart from the RCA. And to plan accordingly.

  12. Peter Jones says:

    Pastor DeYoung, It has been fascinating following the developments in the RCA as they deal with two major issues in American culture: sodomy and women’s issues. Though the conservatives won a small victory with at least being able to discipline offenders, still it seems that wind is blowing in the opposite direction. I would also expect the vote by the classes to be more than the 2/3 necessary to remove the conscience clauses.

    I have appreciated your strong, clear, and gracious voice on both of these issues. What is the path forward for churches like yours, which remain moored to Biblical teaching? Realistically do you think the RCA will reverse course on these two issues? Finally, how will the stance of the seminaries affect where the denomination goes? You mentioned opposition from a seminary president to the substitute motion. Reading between the lines, this says that the seminaries are leading the future pastors of the RCA away from the Scriptural teaching.

  13. Tony Chapman says:

    Kevin,

    Do you believe that R56S outlaws RFA? As you will remember I strongly supported the flooring of the substitute. I now look forward to the committee work of smoothing the rough edges. I have exercised several amendments in my head since it’s passage. Most with a defined application to leadership.

  14. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Stacey, thanks for your comments. I also appreciate that you try hard to be fair and honest in how you talk about these things. Even though we disagree, I thought your post on the RCA site about not taking things too personally (which, I understand, is often hard to do) was very helpful and well-stated.

  15. jeff Baxter says:

    Thank you for sharing the results…or continuation Kevin.

  16. Robert W. Fretz says:

    Dear Kevin;
    Just to be clear… The initial finding from the 1978 General Synod condemning all homosexual behavior and the subsequent action of the General Synod based on the 1978 report is not Biblically based.

    “Scripture does not refer to the problem of homosexual acts which emerge in accord with one’s conscious, sexual orientation and not against it. As Jesus remained silent on the entire subject, so the biblical writers did not address the human condition now known as homosexual inversion.” Theological Commission Report1978 General Synod

    This becomes abundantly clear after spending an hour or so studying exactly what is recorded in the Hebrew and Greek texts. All references deal with very specific immoral actions which are homosexual in nature. These same actions would be immoral if they were committed between a man and a woman. In fact, many of the offenders mentioned would have been heterosexual.

    What the 1978 Synod took a view based upon tradition and then uses Biblical citations to back it up – proof texting. It interprets the specific scriptures with intent (eisegesis) rather than allowing the scriptures lead (exegesis). This process of eisegesis can be seen in doctrines such as purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
    Not that the Reformed Church is immune to such writings.

    At the 1856 General Synod, The Rev. Samuel B. How, pastor of the prestigious 1st Reformed Church in New Brunswick delivered a speech, “Slave Holding Not Sinful.” It is a remarkable piece of work, well written, and citing scripture throughout. The main premise being that being a slave was part of the punishment God placed upon a fallen world. Proof of his position was that slavery is permitted in the Ten Commandments and the patriarchs along with many New Testament saints owned slaves. Good Christian slave owners were to be kind, share the Gospel, and save the slaves from hell. The institution will and should be with us until the Second Coming of Jesus.

    We have yet to deal with our RCA LGBT members who wish to follow the Biblical standard of intimate Christian relationships based upon lifelong commitment, fidelity, and love. However, when it begins, it needs to be done with the Reformed understanding that Scripture is not a literal mechanics manual demanding that we return to some sainted time when we were doing it “right.” Rather it is God’s revelation of the Living Word of God intended to guide us into the future as the Body of Christ.

  17. Tony Chapman says:

    Robert
    “As Jesus remained silent on the entire subject” ??? Mk7:21 How and where (Biblically) would you define “sexual immorality”/”pornia” where homosexual is not included?

    “RCA LGBT members” your label. Describe a sanctified Bi relationship?

    Where might we find a biblical model of a same sex marriage?

  18. Robert W. Fretz says:

    Dear Tony;
    Just a few comments:
    “As Jesus remained silent on the entire subject” ???
    This is the quote from the 1978 Report.

    “Mk7:21 How and where (Biblically) would you define “sexual immorality”/”pornia” where homosexual is not included?”
    This is a perfect example of paragraph 4. Because you identify all homosexuality as sexual immorality, you believe when Jesus is condemning sexual immorality he is condemning all homosexuals. That is eisegesis.

    “RCA LGBT members” your label. Describe a sanctified Bi relationship?”
    That question is worth the conversation Kevin and others have attempted to stop with R56.

    “Where might we find a biblical model of a same sex marriage?”
    Where might we find a biblical model of driving a car? Before you think that is too cute, I would point to part of my family line in Lancaster County, PA. The Amish use your logic not to drive cars or have electricity in their homes.

    My point is Tony; we have never taken the time to deal with these issues for our RCA LGBT members. As baptized members of our congregations in good standing, they deserve our serious consideration – not bumper sticker conclusions or snappy book titles… or decisions made in an hour and 1/2.

  19. Nate Archer says:

    Robert, a major flaw in your analogy is that while cars had not been invented in Biblical times, homosexual sex certainly had been.

  20. Adam Marshall says:

    Kevin,
    Why do you stay in the denomination if it is having such a hard time drawing a line on these topics that seem to be biblically clear?

  21. Tony Chapman says:

    Robert
    “This is a perfect example of paragraph 4. Because you identify all homosexuality as sexual immorality, you believe when Jesus is condemning sexual immorality he is condemning all homosexuals. That is eisegesis.”
    I did not define sexual immorality. I am saying Jesus spoke of it and when one investigates “so what is it” the lists of the bible include acts of homosexuality.

    “That question is worth the conversation” What say you? Start us off?

    “biblical model of driving a car” Num 22 Balaam’s Ass, My car keeps talking to me too. :)
    Seriously “drive a car” is not found in lists of admonitions to avoid, there may be a question of it’s fruitfulness, so Amish wait.

    “we have never taken the time to deal with these issues” So organized PROMOTION is in order?
    R56S I feel was an act of frustration, an organized response to a preserved treat.

  22. Robert W. Fretz says:

    Dear Folks,
    This will be short. I have to get to the office for a pre-marriage counseling session.

    Kevin, all of your points are worthy of discussion and I would be glad to respond. I am not sure I understand what you mean by organized promotion… promoting what?

    However, according to R56 I am now a Disciplinable Offender. It speaks to the weakness of a side or position when they need to take an authoritarian action to stop the conversation of a different perception and (perhaps) revelation from God’s Word. Do you doubt such revelation from scripture is within God’s power? I do not… it happened to me… on this issue in 1972.

    Nate, regarding the car… A car could have been constructed. Karl Benz would have had every element needed to build his first automobile (with steel wheels – no rubber yet) in the days of Jesus. The only difference between the 1st and 19th Century was the application of human knowledge. Although it would be interesting to know how many olives per mile he would have been able to achieve?

    And my truck is too old to talk to me… it just makes rude noises.

    Peace… and now it is up to you to continue the conversation.

  23. Robert Fretz says:

    Sorry, I meant Tony, not Kevin. Kevin has not been part of this discussion.

  24. Juno says:

    What a mess. I for one look forward to the day when my grandchildren will say “what happened back then” and the side of the issue that you represent will be such a non-issue to them that they will say “why was Kevin such an angry guy anyway”? It’s funny that you bring up Hitler and yet do/say/act an awful lot like him in that you rally a group of people to sit in the wings who look remarkably like you and you together try to purge the RCA of everything different from you or else you threaten to leave like children. I’m glad you don’t have to go back for five years too.

  25. Ted Bigelow says:

    Dear Kevin,

    My heart breaks for you as a shepherd and as one who cares deeply for the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ in His Church. I wonder how it feels – watching those you submit to embracing such positions.

    God is so very very clear. Darkness and light have no fellowship. There will be a split in form, but there is already a split in fellowship.

    “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

    My question for you is: with many in your church voting to affirm a position that essentially affirms homosexuality and rebellion – why do you and others not discipline them?

    You want them to agree with you on the matter of disciplining sin, right?

    Yet they don’t honor Jesus Christ. They trample on His holy Word. And they lead people to hell by affirming that those who live in pernicious sin are pleasing to God.

    How will they repent unless the power of godly church discipline is brought to bear on them?

    Jesus said to go to them (Mat. 18:15ff).

  26. mel says:

    I’m so glad I go to a non-denominational church where the dissenters from the bible can just put on their shoes and go to another church.

  27. G S says:

    “despite opposition on the floor from the a seminary president, a General Synod Professor of Theology, the Past-President of Synod, and the two previous General Secretaries,”. Sadly, I guess we can figure out the source of the decline in the RCA!

  28. Mark says:

    Great regarding same-sex sin, too bad regarding your stance on women’s ordination, Kevin. The complementarian position is so wildly off.

  29. Steve With says:

    Kevin,

    Thank you so much for your work and insight. You are a blessing to our denomination. It was great to serve the Lord together with you. I appreciated the way our entire table stood up for what needed to be done.

    Be Blessed,

    Steve With

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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