In the days after Synod 2022, as I and many others were processing what had just happened, I wrote to a few friends:
“We just witnessed the broader culture war play out in the Christian Reformed Church. This is Trudeau vs. truckers. Trump vs. Biden. Vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers. Republican vs. Democrat. White nationalism vs. Black Lives Matter. Secular humanism vs. civil religion—all the things that divide us, playing out in an ecclesiastical arena.”
I wasn’t referring so much to the actual decisions of synod (which, full disclosure, I largely agreed with). Nor was I referring to the deliberations themselves (though any time delegates start shouting each other down, the culture war has reared its ugly head). Instead, I was referring to the tone and tenor of the denomination-wide discussion that led up to and surrounded synod and, I assumed, would continue after synod.
In other words, the conflict over sexuality in the CRC is a symptom of deeper cultural divisions and disagreements and the way we do (or, more accurately, don’t) talk about them.
The Strategies of the Broader Culture
I highly doubt there was ever a CRC “golden age.”
I’ve learned over the years to distrust narratives of “golden ages” and “good ol’ days,” first, because “good ol’ days” are often “good” only for those in power and, second, because such eras are often more imagined than actual.
That said, there does seem to have been a time when the CRC functioned as a counterweight to the broader culture. At times aligning with one perspective, at others another, we were a thoughtful, countercultural bunch who prided ourselves on being beholden to no one but Christ. Some might say that, given our historical penchant for nuance and depth, CRC folks might be able to make a real difference for the kingdom of Christ if we ever woke up and went beyond simply appointing multi-year study committees and making synodical pronouncements.
Given our current trajectory, though, I doubt we’ll ever reach that full potential. The fact is that, far from functioning as a countercultural critic of the forces militating against Christ and his kingdom, we’ve instead adopted the strategies of those forces and, like so many others, become pawns in the broader culture war instead of serving as the thoughtful, prophetic critics we’re called to be.
Our tactics prove this. It’s not hard to see how we’ve increasingly imported the strategies of the broader culture war into our denominational conflicts: Might-makes-right aggression, character defamation, cancel culture, relativized truth, “telling it like it is”—none of which are biblical—are now the methods we use to disparage, denigrate, and defeat each other, all in the name of winning whatever battle we think we need to win.
A Post on Prayer
A little over a year ago I was invited to pray with Colin Watson, who at the time was the CRC’s executive director. We were in the run-up to Synod 2022, and, as a way of fostering trust, understanding, and unity, Watson had invited all the classes of the CRC, a few at a time, to join him in a weekly Zoom prayer meeting.
My call went fine. I don’t remember which other classes participated in this meeting, but a few of us from Classis Grandville joined and had a great experience.
I mentioned that to one of the organizers afterward and thanked him for helping to put the call together. He responded by asking me if I would consider posting about it in the “Pastors of the Christian Reformed Church” Facebook group (yes, that’s a thing) to encourage other pastors to attend. I told him I would, but I also told him how it would go.
You see, like posts everywhere else on the internet, posts in that group seem to follow a pattern:
Step One: Someone posts a thoughtful, nuanced question, comment, or idea, looking for advice, insight, feedback, or simply good conversation.
Step Two: Three or four people like the comment, engage constructively, and contribute to the discussion.
Step Three: A new person comments. They post some sort of non sequitur, ad hominem attack, or semi-aggressive pushback that hijacks the conversation and takes it in an entirely new direction unrelated to the original post.
Step Four: Everything goes off the rails, the initial post gets lost in the mire, and the whole thing devolves into debating, attacking, and keyboard-yelling for the next two days.
That’s what I told the guy who asked me to post would happen—and that’s exactly what happened.
Here’s my original post:
“Full disclosure: I rarely visit this page and almost never post, so I don’t really have chips to cash in here (feel free to ignore this post), but, for what it's worth, I would highly encourage you all to take part in the weekly prayer time with Colin Watson when it's your turn (they're inviting a couple classes each week). We might not all agree as CRC pastors (as is often evidenced on this page), but we should at least be able to pray together (even with those we don't like or agree with). If we can't do that, then I humbly think there's little else we'll be able to do as a church either.” —Posted Feb. 7, 2022
It took two comments—two—before the devolution started.
Of the next 19 comments, only three had to do with the original post. All the rest turned into a debate over if and when people who disagree can pray together, what biblical texts might justify not praying together, and how many “false prophets” we have for pastors in the CRC.
I’m not making this up. The culture war couldn’t even leave a simple post about prayer alone.
The results of this culture war-ification are hardly good (to say nothing of not being Christlike).
First, we’ve lost trust in each other.
That’s what happens when you turn a church into a war zone. Everyone devolves into picking sides, virtue signaling, and litmus-testing each other into oblivion. Instead of seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve chosen to give skeptical side-eyes to each other in congregation, council, classis, and synod meetings. Who’s on our side? Who isn’t? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whom can we rely on? Whom can’t we? That’s our attitude toward each other, and, as a result, we’ve lost trust in all but a select few.
Second, we’re splintering apart along ideological fault lines at an alarmingly fast pace.
The truth is we’re fast becoming more allied to our respective interest groups and personal positions than we are to each other or to Christ. For instance, the formation of All One Body a decade ago, The Abide Project a few years ago, the more recent Hesed Project, and the most recent Better Together group are a few such examples. Their stated goals (depending on your perspective) are good, even admirable. But the result has been anything but. As each one publishes, posts, and podcasts, recruits members, and tries to convince others of their positions, we’re becoming more and more divided, more and more angry, and more and more incapable of sitting across the table (or Calvin University’s Covenant Fine Arts Center) from those we disagree with.
Finally, we seem to care more about winning than about people.
I’ll be honest: in the wake of Synod 2022, a part of me was hopeful. I was hopeful we could finally start doing what we said we’d do in 1973, when synod said we must do better at ministering to people in the LGBTQ+ community. I was hopeful that, even as a non-affirming denomination with a traditional perspective on the Bible, we could begin the process of becoming the radically inclusive, hospitable, gracious, kind, loving denomination we said we’d become 50 years ago.
Unfortunately, in the time since, I’ve instead watched multiple people, groups, classes, and overtures seek to open up more fronts of the battle. “The fight continues, and we will fight on,” seems to be the mantra, and, along the way we’ve completely forgotten the people—the image-bearers of God—we’ve left in our wake as collateral. In other words, we’re so focused on winning that people no longer seem to matter.
So what do we do? Where do we go? How do we start to roll back the tide and fix this?
Well, none of these possible solutions is new. I know that. I also know from personal experience that none of them is easy. But if at least a few of us will try, we might at least be able to do some good.
First, we need to stop seeing each other as opponents or enemies to be defeated and instead as brothers and sisters in Christ. How do we do that? One way is to be curious. Check out the Colossian Forum. Stream Monica Guzman’s excellent January Series talk. Or just watch that one amazing scene from Ted Lasso (yes, I know there’s an f-bomb, but it’s worth it). They all say the same thing: we need to be willing to sit down with those we disagree with, ask questions, and try—really try—to understand them. In a world as polarized and angry as ours is, curiosity is a balm for the soul, a force for healing, and a winsome witness for Christ. It might not bring us or keep us all together, but at least it can offer the dignity, value, and respect we all deserve.
Second, pray. Pray for our church. Pray for each other. Pray for those you agree with. Pray for those you disagree with. And regardless of what the “Pastors of the Christian Reformed Church” think, pray with them too. After all, if we really believe what we say we do—that God is sovereign and all-powerful and that the Holy Spirit changes hearts—then prayer is our best strategy for healing, hope, and transformation.
Finally, don’t lose the forest for the trees. We are a gospel-centered denomination. We exist to point people to Jesus. And we are called to love them in the process. The discussions and debates we’re currently having matter. I’ll be the first to say they do. There is much at stake for people on all sides, and I understand that. But if we come to a point where we care more about winning an encounter, a battle, or a war than we do our mission, we’ve lost something. If, in the process of being “right,” we engage in unChristlike or unbiblical tactics, harm or hurt others, or make it so that others can’t believe in God or his church, then we’re wrong.
My friends, it’s time to lay down our arms. It’s time to call a ceasefire. It’s time to end the war.
After all, that’s what our Savior did. He didn’t hammer the nails. He took them. And I humbly believe that, following in the way of our Savior, it’s time we do the same.
- How do you view the “Culture War” in the United States?
- Have you witnessed similar incidents on social media, or in person, where conversations on seemingly innocent topics devolve into a “culture war” argument? How did it devolve? How did you feel?
- Do you agree that these days, we in the CRC are more focused on winning than on caring for people? Why or why not?
- What tangible thing can you do in the coming week to be more curious about a different viewpoint?