I Dissent

I am a Reformed theologian ordained as a Minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) and my heart is grieving. The recent synodical decision to denounce homosexuality as a sin at a confessional level has rocked our church with implications that will ripple out through the years in our denomination, in our churches, and in individual lives—including my own as an affirming pastor. Hear me clearly articulate: I believe that the queer community represents a facet of God’s diverse plan for humanity’s creation and not only have a place within the church in full expression of their identity, but offer invaluable contributions to the church on a whole. As iron sharpens iron, we as the body of Christ reflect God’s glory brighter when we all are fully free to express how the Holy Spirit works and shines within us.

As a confessional denomination, the CRC has a process for dealing with difficulties and disagreements, involving filing a gravamena—a serious and heavy grievance—with the church who holds the ordination of an office bearer and accepted gravamen do not usually go further than the local church.1 However, the public implications of this decision calls for those of us who have the ability to publicly assert their own stance do so in a similar fashion.2 Part of the (weak) argument which stood ground in synodical deliberations asserted that interpreting homosexual sex as sinful “already has confessional status” due to widely held theological interpretation inside and outside our denominational body. (See the foundational document for discussion: the Human Sexuality Report, pages 144-148, particularly 148)

But didn’t our very tradition start with a challenge to the majority and its theological interpretive rulings? And when we read scripture, don’t we find Christ as the fringes declaring: here is the kingdom of God! This interpretation does NOT represent all faithful interpretations of scripture and we will not be silenced by a majority with threats against our jobs, ministries, or very callings ordained to us by God.

And so I humbly offer a public gravamen here, a confession that both asserts belief alongside repentance in testimony form, sharing my own story of lament, hope, and joy from a non-affirming to affirming theologian. I vulnerably share to show the path of one person raised in the CRC, committed to its traditions, who vehemently denies the definitions created at synod pertaining to our confessions regarding the queer community. This is not meant to be a theological argument as others smarter than I have done that better elsewhere. This not able to cover all the emotional or spiritual nuances in all its messiness. But I pray that it offers affirmation to some, challenge to others, and a path forward for those who find that their steps echo my own as we run this race together.

My Story:

As most testimonial stories do, mine begins with the people and places who originally shaped me. I grew up in a small rural farming town in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Drayton had a population of roughly 1000 people during my childhood and I remember the installation of its first (and to date only) red-yellow-green stoplight. Still, despite the town’s small size, my home CRC had several hundred members as farming families drove into town every Sunday morning to stream through the church’s doors. We were not entirely homogeneous, but in general we were very rural, white, Dutch (many immigrants and 1st gens), and very conservatively Christian.

I don’t remember my church actively teaching against homosexuality as I grew up. Even in the years leading up to the official Canadian Parliamentary legalization of same-sex marriage, my church did not seem overly concerned.3 My indoctrination into anti-queer theology came through the more overt teaching of complementarian theology—men and women were divinely created to hold different and specific roles. So the childhood CRC that taught me about Jesus also taught me that God created humanity in hierarchical gendered differences. The church where I felt the first nudge of the Holy Spirit also told me that it was my biblical responsibility as a woman to submit to the men in my life. For my church, homosexuality was just an extended corruption of these divinely ordained roles.4 So my faith—a faith that felt so immediate and real—a faith that connected me to God, who I desperately love—came entangled with other gendered messaging that my young brain merged together…

…I get why some people fear theological change—because untangling these interwoven lines of belief is exceptionally scary with the question: “Will the tug on that one thread unravel all that I hold so dear?”…

In some ways the theology of the body that raised me didn’t trouble me. As a cis-gendered heterosexual person, I benefited from the privilege of fitting into these norm. I didn’t need to follow lines of queer thinking back to my own personhood—my heart breaks for those in my community who did—but I chafed against the interconnected theological paradigm of gender. I tried to adopt the roles assigned to women within my world, desperately wanting to be faithful…but I never fit. Now hear me firmly say: these roles are not inherently bad, but the misogyny that determines who and how they should be worn is! Thankfully God gave me moments of identity formation that planted seeds for future questions:

  • I remember the night that E came to the door to ask me to join his worship team, pulling me onto a path that led me into ministry.
  • I remember trying to answer a question in my profession of faith class and being cut off by a boy sitting on the other side of the table. But the pastor stopped him and said, “I want to hear what Katrina has to say.”
  • I remember my mom working to have women represented on our church’s governing body. There was little success, but I remember the fight.

Then I left for the University of Western Ontario (UWO) to get a music degree and moved into a dormitory that housed more students than people populated my hometown. I left my very homogeneous enclave and was suddenly surrounded with different ideas, conversations, and ways of life that felt very foreign. On the one hand loved exploring this new world, but on the other I felt extremely disoriented and exceptionally lonely. Then I met K—a blessing to anyone who is fortunate enough to find themselves in her orbit. Kind and giving, K immediately invited me into her family, her church, and her life which felt familiar and comfortable. Here I some relief form the exciting but uncomfortable newness at school.

K brought me to her non-denominational church with strong roots in the Plymouth Brethren, a beautiful community that had a passion for their faith and who embraced me wholeheartedly. But their theological interpretations regarding gender and sexuality became even more of an issue for me in their midst. The church not only reflected the same complimentary stance I was used to, but aggressively taught it much more regularly. Paul’s household codes were preached more than the Christmas story, as if the church elders needed to constantly reinforce the misogynistic hierarchy they interpreted there.  Those sermons became increasingly frustrating for me because the roles I learned in my childhood began to sound more ludicrous in my ear, especially with such an emphasis and expanded interpretation on how they should literally be worn. But I stayed…

…I get why some people avoid theological change—because it feels like home. I tolerated the parts that frustrated me because the rest felt comfortable and loving…

These were the two worlds at the beginning of my university career: my university life and my church family. Thankfully I had K who was also trying to bring them together. She was a conversation partner to sort out the dissonance that occurred in the overlap, especially as my own questions around gender extended beyond my own person. I began to meet and become friends with out-queer people around me and now had to directly contend with theology that had been operating on autopilot in the background. I regret how I acted then—the words that I thought and spoke. I did not preach hellfire to those around me, but I was far from an ally and became adversarial when directly confronted about what I believed at that time—that homosexuality was a sin and “queer Christian” was an oxymoron.

I remember one conversation in particular I had with P, who had come over for dinner one night. While cleaning up, he directly asked me: what did I think about him as a gay man in connection to my faith. I usually dealt with internal theological dissonance by bifurcating my faith from the friendships I made at school, but here P was, forcing me to bring them together. I was honest and I was apologetic in speaking the truth I believed—but it doesn’t matter how kind or loving your words are when you say them, it’s condemnation. I tried to soften what I was saying with claims of love from me, from God and I still hear my tones ringing hollow and desperate in that tiny apartment. But P stayed and pushed me with questions that challenged me to go deeper than the simple response “because the Bible says so.” I grew tired even with my own refrains, not even able to explain why I read the scriptures the way that I did. I just wanted P to leave but he persisted for hours and I felt bare and raw…

… I get why some people disregard theological change—because we don’t always have the capability of perceiving the interpretive lens we inherit, thinking everyone sees the words and hear them ring into the world the same way we do…

A few nights later my bible study group gathered to study Galatians 6 and we came upon the verse that talked about not becoming weary when doing what is right in the Spirit. In that moment I felt compelled to share what had happed with P and how I still felt lingering pain, trouble, and exhaustion from our conversation. I remember asking, “If I’m sowing the gospel from the Spirit, why did I struggle, why did I grow so weary?” The awkward pause that hung in the air after my emotional purge felt like it would crush me, but I also felt relief in speaking those questions out loud. I don’t remember the response from the bible study leader, who broke the tension with a short response so we could move on, but I do remember feeling a Holy Spirit nudge of an answer: perhaps I grew weary because my answers to P’s questions were not of the Spirit like I thought.

I lament how I saw and treated people in the queer community while at UWO and beyond, both externally and internally ascribing condemnation so easily from no real foundation. Part of my motivation for being such a vehement ally now is sourced in repentance for the harm I caused during my own process of change. We have to stop looking to those we marginalize to change our minds for us. That being said, I am profoundly grateful for those who are willing to do the painful work of change. I am particularly thankful for the queer-folk in my life, people like P who sat with me through my harmful attitude and words to push back…

…I get why some people don’t think theological change is necessary—because they haven’t accepted the gift of a different story or a difficult question by letting it change them, even a little…

As I began to unwind these theological paradigms the activity came into contact with my own call into ministry. The tipping point happened one Saturday morning during a worship team rehearsal for the following day. Almost every member of the team was earning a Bachelor of Music but because we were all women we needed to have a man “lead” our group. Despite collective decades of experience, our gender prevented us from planning, speaking, or leading worship in any way. The male leader that day paired his cluelessness with aggressive bossiness and some sharp words that pushed me to the edge. I almost quit on the spot and drove away asking myself: Hadn’t I led worship well in past? Didn’t God gift me particularly with the ability to lead in this way? Why was my gender the problem?

I followed these questions back to the CRC and in the larger city found a community that both resembled my childhood church but also had some important differences, primarily, a female pastor. I was twenty years old the first time I heard a woman preach. It rocked my world—not only because W is a great preacher, but because it presented a type of belonging I didn’t know was possible. Although she didn’t name it as such, W introduced me to feminist theology. I learned as much as I could as she patiently walked with me through the theological reconstruction around gender, identity, and faith. She was the first to name my call and her mentorship sent me down a path that showed me how to honor my faith by wrestling with it, deconstructing and reconstructing the human paradigms around it, and deepening it with a relational God who is not offended by my questions but meets me in them. This theological reworking was a long, painful, and ongoing process…

…I get why people feel anxious in connection to theological change—because our identity is often woven throughout it in a way that makes this type of reconstruction hard and painful, forcing us to look honestly at ourselves…

By the time I started my first ministry job after university, I had firmly rejected the complementarian interpretation of scripture in favor of an egalitarian one, believing that we are all equally created with callings based in giftedness rather than gender. However, as I began work in my first ministerial position at a mid-sized CRC in west Michigan my exploration narrowed in scope, becoming extremely personal and practical. Even though I worked for an egalitarian church there was little urgency to reach the equality we proclaimed. Women sat on our governing council but never occupied the president’s spot. Woman preached in our pulpit but were never considered as permanent ordained hires. The non-ordained men on staff were paid more than me and invited onto the council despite having the same experience (in some cases less.) I remember talking about the lack of equality with a female pastor at a different church in our classis, hoping to find some camaraderie and another conversation partner. But she dismissed my concerns with: “You’re only worried about finding a call. Once you do, you won’t be that concerned anymore.”

Do not misunderstand me, I cherish my time with this part of the body of Christ. These beautiful people empowered me to learn and lean into my calling and loved me through it all.  But hypocrisy is one of those things that usually surprises us all in hindsight and the insidiousness of misogyny—like racism or classism or ableism or homophobia or any oppressive value hierarchy—requires a great deal of intentionality to untangle from it…

…I get why people feel overwhelmed by theological change—because it requires so much introspection and readjustment in every aspect of our lives…

My theological reconstruction around gender and sexuality really gained traction when I returned to school to pursue theological education part-time at Western Theological Seminary. I thought I chose Western for its Reformed roots and excellent Distance Learning program so I could continue working in ministry. I found out God chose it for me to connect me with queer affirming theologians and the scholarship of Jim Brownson (intentionally named so you can buy his book!) Dr. Brownson did for queer theology what W did for feminist theology in my journey, pointing me down a path of new possible thought faithful to God and the scriptures. Western was not a fully affirming school—but at least they were willing to have the conversation and for me, working through my own theological readjustments, it was a conversation I desperately needed to have. Western gave me an environment to wrestle with and flesh out my thoughts, ultimately concluding that queer folks had a fully embodied place in the church and its leadership. Here I started untangling the particular threads of homophobia within gender paradigms.

Then I transferred to Calvin Theological Seminary, the theological seat of the CRC. Please hear me say: I learned a great deal while at Calvin and deeply value its institutional history, learning from many of my professors, and connecting with peers who became friends. I had many reasons to transfer and believe that God led me to walk into this institution—but honestly, I am currently a little ashamed that my path journeyed through Calvin. In a denomination that has a paucity of women leadership and still teaches complementarian theology widely, a seminary which practices light egalitarianism becomes dangerous. Women are tolerated in certain spaces when they behave a certain way. Sexism ranged from light jokes to outright rejection of my presence based on my gender. Feminism was the more offensive “f-word” in several of my classes–particularly in theological and biblical interpretation conversations. And forget queer theology—it was not only unwelcome, but it was seen as not possible. Once, in a class on the Bible letters, someone dared to suggest that the Romans 1 text refer to problems of sexual power. The idea was quickly shut down, dismissed as if it were ludicrous to even consider it. I quickly learned that if I wanted to succeed in these particular classes, I needed to withdraw into myself and just robotically regurgitate what the professors in those classes wanted to hear—themselves. The Human Sexuality Report that guided decision making was not a surprise because it mimicked a great deal of my theological paradigm building experience at Calvin. The only voices included in its pages were ones that reaffirmed the original stance…5

…I get why theological change is slow coming in the CRC—because we as leaders were taught how to reinforce existing theological paradigms rather than critically build them together…

I went from CTS to Vanderbilt University for my PhD and my experiences could not have been more different. Whereas CTS required silent theological obedience, Vanderbilt proudly claimed to be the school of the prophets, welcoming the iconoclasm that often comes with such a role. This is not to say that Vanderbilt Divinity School or the Department of Religion didn’t have problems—they absolutely did!—but for a theologian who was reconstructing her own identity in conjunction with gender theology, my time at Vanderbilt was like reaching the edge of the desert and finally coming upon a rushing river. God knew I needed this place, and particularly my advisor who challenged me to grow into my education and call without ego or indoctrination. It was harder than I could have ever anticipated, but my PhD was sojourn of reconstruction through experience inside and outside Vanderbilt.

  • Through my classes, qualifying exams, and dissertation research I not only got to read feminist, womanist, mujerista, and queer theology, but I got to engage with the theologians writing it.
  • I met inspiring queer homileticians and liturgists in my academic guilds and saw their passion for practical theology, the church, and theological education.
  • Through my fellowship, I was placed at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where I rejoiced in finding a rigorous Reformed affirmation of queer theology both taught and practiced on campus. Here I was given the professorial privilege of investing into queer students with beautiful calls of their own to serve the church. I learned so much from them and they gifted me by thickening my own theology. Through them I got to see how God calls those within the queer community to fully serve within the church.

My time at Vanderbilt allowed me to lean into my theological claims and experience incorporating them into practice. It gave me to room to find my legs to stand alongside queer Christians and proclaim that they fully belong within the church. Their sexual and gendered identity is not erroneous or sinful—but beautifully created! Even more, their difference adds multifaceted dimension to our humanity, enabling us to grow closer to the One in whose image we are created: our multifaceted God…

…I get why people resist theological change because I experienced its process as challenging and painful—but in our resistance, we lose out on the richness that comes with rigorous wrestling of God’s beautiful truth…

I am not surprised that the scriptural interpretation of the HSR and its positions was accepted—this past Synod was the most hegemonic we have had in years. We celebrated twenty-five years of women in leadership by sending fewer representatives and marginalizing the voices of those who did attend. The committee who addressed the HSR was split down the gender line except one—and a majority of men pushed through their agenda with no discussion around the minority report that most of the women on the committee created. The committee’s prayer of lament before discussion rang empty in my ears—because how can you lament with no intention to repent?

I am not sure what’s next for me. I love the CRC—this church made covenantal promises over me as an infant and I treasure the faith it invested into me. However, I also feel like I am being pushed out. I didn’t expect that we would become an affirming church, but I am disappointed that synodical decisions shut down conversations so severely that many have already decided to leave. I also recognize that the next steps for those in power will be to bring people like me into confessional line with words like “accountability for sin” and “broken covenant.” I have begun to ask myself: Do I stay and remind my siblings in Christ that there is no confessional unity here? How do I fight for the queer kids in the pews? Can I do anything? Is it time to shake the dust from my feet and move on to a place that welcomes my work?

Only God knows where my call will lead and I will continue to faithfully follow—because my call is from God and not the men (yes, men) and their systems who seek to push me out.

And if I err, may I err on the side of loving grace.

——

1 For more information on CRC polity and the processes regarding gravamen, see our church order here in the supplement to Article 5 beginning on page 13.

2 I know many Ministers of the Word who must hide their affirming position out of fear that their non-affirming congregations will take action against them such as stripping them of their ordination and firing them.

3 This is an interesting contrast to my experience in the United States when I immigrated in 2006 where many in churches seemed to fear the eventual supreme court decision in 2015.

4 Of course there are egalitarian theologians who do read texts regarding homosexuality separately and conclude that gender parity is possible while also condemning homosexuality as sinful. This is a careful and important distinction because the two should not be completely conflated. That being said, the social systems that read meaning onto sex and gender are deeply related and I experienced that connection in learning about gendered roles in the church.

5 I acknowledge that this is entirely my experience. Some of my peers, mostly the white men who mimicked the faculty and leadership, had largely enjoyable experiences with little dissonance. However, I also know others whose experiences echoed mine around issues of not only gender but other forms of discrimination to the point severe trauma that they are still healing from. As someone who cares deeply for CTS as an alumna, an office bearer, and now a theological educator, I have been disappointed in some of its recent decisions, including but not exclusively regarding the HSR. I know that there are good, brilliant scholars on its faculty and pray that the institution embraces some significant change, going deeper than the veneer it currently presents.

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