The Christian Reformed Church: The Pressing Need for Doctrinal Clarity
It is becoming increasingly impossible for churches and denominations to remain noncommittal on the moral issues of the day. On this point, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) offers a particularly intriguing case study.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America is a denomination consisting of approximately 275,000 members in more than 1,000 churches in the United States and Canada. Founded in 1857, the CRCNA derives much of its theological identity from theologian John Calvin, particularly Calvin’s articulation of predestination and election. The theology of CRCNA churches was significantly shaped by the vision of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, whose vision of Christ’s lordship continues to exert influence in the denomination.
In recent years, CRCNA churches, like many other Western churches, have debated homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and abortion. Last summer, the denomination made news when it voted to accept a 175-page report that clarified and upheld the church’s historic teaching on sexuality. The report was accepted despite nearly 150 professors and staff at Calvin University, the denomination’s flagship school that exercises outsized influence in American evangelicalism, signing a letter in opposition. Delegates at Synod 2022 also instructed Neland Avenue CRC to void their appointment of a deacon in a same-sex marriage.
Although Synod 2022 produced positive developments within the CRCNA, there are questions on whether the denomination will see these commitments through. Neland Avenue is appealing the decision. Additionally, a story in World Magazine raised the question of whether CRCNA denominational leaders are willing to hold their churches accountable on the issue of abortion.
For example, in her unsuccessful run for Congress in 2020, Hillary Scholten ran on a strong pro-abortion message. Despite her outspoken support for abortion, her home church, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, elected her as a deacon in 2021. In her successful campaign in 2022, Scholten once again focused on abortion. In one interview, Scholten admitted, “I don’t know when life begins,” even as she advocated for expanding abortion access.
As noted by Leah Savas at the time of the 2022 election, the denomination’s leaders, including Zach King (CRCNA general secretary) and Shiao Chong (editor-in-chief-of the CRCNA publication The Banner), had little to say about Scholten’s pro-abortion campaign even as the candidate publicly highlighted her church membership on the campaign trail. Although King and Chong reiterated the denomination’s official teaching when asked about Scholten and other candidates, they referred questions about specific campaigns to local churches.
Another recent example of CRCNA members in the political spotlight includes Winnie Brinks (D), who was named majority leader in the Michigan State Senate. Brinks, who became Senate leader in January, is a member of Sherman Street CRC, a church that has openly flaunted the denomination’s teaching on sexuality. In March, Brinks supported the passage of legislation that expanded Michigan’s civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Michigan lawmakers rejected a provision to include protections for religious liberty, meaning institutions that adhere to a biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality will be susceptible to charges of discrimination.
The hesitancy of denominational leaders to publicly correct church members who are flagrantly violating church teaching risks undermining the denomination’s official statements and doctrinal commitments. For example, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, CRCNA officially celebrated the court’s decision for the resulting “increased protection” for “unborn babies.” This statement was in line with the denomination’s official statement that opposes abortion. CRCNA’s official statement on homosexuality is also biblically faithful, explaining that homosexual practice is “incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.”
Despite these clear statements, CRCNA churches such as Sherman Avenue have publicly announced that those who identify as LGBTQ+ will be able to “receive the Lord’s Supper, be ordained to all offices of the church, preach, be married, have their children baptized, and fill all leadership roles.” Moreover, there appears to have been no official response from denominational leaders when Congresswoman Scholten, while debating the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in January 2023, invoked Jeremiah 1:5 (which provides strong biblical evidence of the personhood of the unborn) to denounce the legislation. Scholten’s misuse of Scripture was particularly shocking because the bill in question does not even pertain to abortion itself; it would simply enforce legal protections for newborn babies who survive botched abortion procedures.
As Sarah Zylstra noted last year, decisions made at the 2022 Synod provided a glimmer of hope. Once a denomination begins the slide into theological liberalism, it is incredibly difficult to reclaim it. Votes taken at last year’s synod were certainly steps in the right direction for the denomination.
But questions remain about how CRCNA leaders will deal with recalcitrant churches such as Neland and Sherman Avenue that appear unwilling to abide by the denomination’s official positions. There are also questions about faculty at Calvin University who have asked for a statement that defines marriage between a man and a woman to be removed from the staff handbook. And, of course, denominational leaders appear reluctant to publicly push back on Scholten, who regularly invokes her faith in the name of pro-abortion policies.
Thus, although the denomination has taken steps toward affirming orthodox biblical teaching on some of the key moral issues of our day, courage is still needed. The moral revolution is not slowing down. If anything, recent developments in law and culture show that pressure to conform to views contrary to the Bible is only increasing. In short, having orthodox confessional statements on the books is not enough. Faithful churches and denominations need to act on their convictions. Allowing a difference of opinion to go unchecked — or, in some cases, outright denial of the church’s teaching — will inevitably result in the gradual loss of biblical orthodoxy within a church or denomination.
Billy Graham is often quoted as having said, “When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.” Unfortunately, across many churches and denominations today, courage is in short supply. But courage is the virtue many church leaders, including those in the Christian Reformed Church, need now more than ever.
Sooner or later — and it will be sooner for most of us — the velocity of the moral revolution will force us to take a stand. Thankfully, recent examples in Kigali, Rwanda (Anglican) and Knoxville, Tennessee (United Methodist) show that many Christians are still willing to stand for the Bible’s clear teaching on issues like human sexuality. May we follow their example in our own contexts and encourage others to do likewise.
David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.