Where Have They Gone?

Sometimes when I visit my parents, I browse through their copy of The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Over the past half year, the magazine has echoed discussions going on within that church with respect to LGBT issues. This is not an easy issue for CRC members, and the Banner should be commended for publishing opinion pieces sympathetic to their LGBT members.

Before continuing, some disclosure on my part. I belong to a Unitarian church. Furthermore, I am a member of its board of directors, although I don’t speak on behalf of the church or the board. Over the past few decades, Unitarian congregations (or Unitarian-Universalist in the United States) have been on the forefront of promoting progressive policies towards LGBT rights. Unitarian churches were among the first to bless same-sex unions well before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada and other jurisdictions.

An article in a recent issue of the Banner caught my attention, called Where Have They Gone, written by an anonymous gay Christian. In the article, the author describes his own struggles with coming out, echoing the experiences of many others in the Christian Reformed Church, as well as other conservative Christian denominations. He points out that many gays end up leaving their church, and even their home towns, after learning how their beloved church deals with them after coming out.

Where do they go? Some of them find a welcome in more progressive churches. Within my own church, there are a couple of people with similar experiences, people who actively contribute to the vibrancy of church life. To us Unitarians, there’s no controversy. Indeed, the first principle of our religious faith explicitly states that we affirm and promote “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”. The third principle also applies: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. These principles are true for everyone regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.

Will the Christian Reformed Church adopt more progressive policies, and accept all LGBT people without any reservations? And will the CRC ever allow LGBT pastors? Judging by past experience, any change will almost certainly be very slow in coming. Only a few decades ago did the CRC allow women to become ministers. This progressive advance (among a few others) did not come without struggle, and even resulted in schism. Many CRC churches couldn’t accept the changes, and split. Twenty years ago, many of these joined the United Reformed Churches. (Not to be confused with the United Church of Canada, a progressive Christian denomination). Recently, my mother’s church hired a woman pastor, and I’ve been told that three families left in protest.

To get back to the questions posed in the previous paragraph, I don’t expect any progressive policies any time soon in the Christian Reformed Church, which bases its theology on the teachings of John Calvin. Compare the first principle of Unitarianism (that is, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”) with the first of the five points of Calvinism: “Total depravity”. That is, Calvinists believe that every person is infused with sin. As the Calvinist Corner website puts it:

“Sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but are completely affected by sin.”

To many of us Unitarians, this doctrine is absolutely abhorrent and unthinkable. Given that doctrine, it’s not surprising that reformed Christians judge anyone not conforming with their high standards as immoral and unwelcome. But it gets worse. Calvinists believe that all of us are “fallen” not because of any explicit sin, but rather because God wills it. The contradiction is glaring: Gays are shunned, but they were created that way because that’s God’s will.

If the Christian Reformed Church is to become more progressive, it has to do something that’s almost certainly unthinkable to them: They must move away from strict Calvinism. As a start, they must understand why Thomas Jefferson wrote the following words in a letter to John Adams:

“I can never join Calvin in addressing his god… his religion was Daemonsism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin”.

Harsh words, indeed.

To end this essay, LGBT people must know that they don’t have to put up with the regressive attitudes and policies of their conservative Christian church. There are progressive congregations where they will be welcomed unconditionally. If there’s not enough emphasis on God and Jesus in your local Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist congregation, check out the Progressive Christianity movement.

Cheers! Hans