Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
As the synod of the Christian Reformed Church meets this week, delegates will discuss whether to adopt the recommendations of the 2021 Human Sexuality Report (HSR). Many fellow members of the CRC have already expressed their opinions on this report, both for and against. I disagree with much of the report. However, I also don’t doubt that the creators of the report did their work in good faith.
With limited space, my “two cents” here mostly have to do with semantics. But when it comes to a moment like the one in which the CRC finds itself—semantics matter.
By far the most contested recommendation of the HSR is Recommendation D, which advises:
“That synod declare that the church’s teaching on premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex already has confessional status.”
“Confessional status.” The HSR does not define the term straight out, but allows it to be defined in its context.
“To raise the question of confessional status is to wonder whether some teaching or ecclesiastical practice, if adopted, would violate the teachings of the confessions of the church.”
It seems that, in the minds of the writers, the phrase “confessional status” means the authoritative status of the teachings laid out in our confessions. The question they are asking is whether contemporary efforts for LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation violate these teachings. Their answer, obviously, is that they do.
But why “confessional status”?
This turn of phrase appears in response to one of the HSR committee’s assignments upon its commission in 2016. The committee was asked by synod to report whether it would be advisable for future synods to consider “declaring a status confessionis” in regard to “same-sex behavior and other issues identified in the study.”
This assignment resulted from a 2016 overture to synod asking the CRC “to declare a status confessionis in response to contemporary errors concerning human sexual behaviors and how the church is called to respond to them.”
What is a “status confessionis”?
Classis Arizona, in that 2016 overture, define it this way:
“A status confessionis is a situation in history when all Christians are called to unite and confess together the gospel when it is under attack from errors emerging from within its own ranks.”
Though I might have said it differently myself, I think this brief definition is more or less accurate. I take a status confessionis to be a certain time, a situation, when the church is called to confess our faith anew, bringing the gospel to bear on a situation in need of truth.
Status confessionis refers not to the “status” of this or that teaching, but rather to the church’s time and place—its present “state.”
The question at hand in the committee’s assignment is not whether our confessions are being “violated,” but whether we need to say something new in our present context.
The HSR’s answer to this question seems to be “no.” Recommendation F advises:
“That synod not appoint a team of individuals to draft a statement of faith on human embodiment and sexuality that reflects and secures the conclusion of the present report.”
The grounds for this recommendation include the true observation that,
“It seems unwise to give the conclusions of the present report the quasi-confessional authority of a statement of faith.”
Although its own conclusions should not be given “quasi-confessional authority,” the report claims that the church’s past teaching on sexuality, as laid out in previous synodical acts and reports, “already has confessional status.” The stated grounds for this “confessional status” are that the Heidelberg Catechism forbids homosexual sex when it addresses “unchastity” (Q&A 108). So although the HSR shirks the “confessional” label itself, it believes that its interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism’s meaning retroactively gives “confessional status” to past teachings (that were not understood to be “confessions” at the time of their writing) because they comport with the message of the Catechism.
And here again is a different understanding of “confessional” from how it is understood in the committee’s assignment. The word “confessional,” for the writers of the HSR, refers not to a context that calls for confession, but rather to a certain kind of authority given to a document to shape the doctrine of the church.
I don’t have the space here to explore all the implications of the HSR’s understanding of what it is to be “confessional.” But I do find it to be worrisome. “Confess” is a verb, and as Christians we confess because we hear the Holy Spirit still speaking to us through the Word of God. The HSR states, “Confessions are statements that identify who we are within the larger body of the universal church.” This is true. But first and foremost, they are outpourings of the truth of who God is and, more specifically, what God is doing at a given moment.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. After five years on the East Coast, he now lives in Grand Rapids, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.