Statements of General Synod

The Reformed Church in America’s General Synod often speaks on important topics that face the church today. Careful and prayerful biblical and theological reflection shapes the church’s response. “Reformed and always reforming,” the church seeks to know the mind of Christ as it strives to be faithful in a changing, complex world.

General Synod papers provide guidance to the members of the church and are a part of the church’s witness in society.

These reports and study papers were originally presented at General Synod, the RCA’s annual church-wide assembly. Many were produced by commissions, task groups, and church agencies in response to a request by synod to study an issue in greater depth, often for a year or longer, so a future General Synod could make informed decisions.

Abortion

In 1973, the General Synod adopted a statement which read:

We believe the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life. [We] are given the precious gift of life from God and are created in the image of God. Therefore, we believe, in principle, that abortion ought not to be practiced at all. However, in this complex society, where many times one form of evil is pitted against another form of evil, there could be exceptions. It is our Christian conviction that abortion performed for personal reasons to insure individual convenience ought not to be permitted.

We call on all who counsel those with problem pregnancies, especially youth workers, campus pastors and staff members of our church colleges, to uphold the Christian alternatives to abortion.

We call on our churches to expand their efforts to support agencies providing a ministry of mercy to those seeking alternatives to abortion.

We call on our members to support efforts for constitutional changes to provide legal protection for the unborn. (MSG 1973: 106)

In 1984, the General Synod voted to deny an overture to urge federal and state governments, in complying with the Roe v. Wade decision, to allow the use of public funds for abortions. In denying the motion, the synod stated that

In light of prior General Synod decisions, the committee believes it is inappropriate for the Reformed Church in America to advocate any kind of governmental support for abortion. (MGS 1984: 257-258)

In a report from the Commission on Theology, the 1984 General Synod further noted that

although a society may accept abortion legally, abortion is not thereby morally responsible…Only in theory and in science-fiction can one imagine human life so totally individualistic that child-bearing can be a matter of parental convenience. (MGS 1984: 247)

In 1990, a report by the Commission on Christian Action stated that:

One way for the church to respond to the tragedy of abortion is to address those forces to which women are especially vulnerable: poverty, a lack of support services, the demands of the work place upon the family. Women should not be forced to choose between living in poverty or giving birth, between caring for their newborn or losing their job. They should not feel pressure to abort an unborn child because they have nowhere to turn for support. (MGS 1990: 101)

Abortion was also discussed briefly in the 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, and 2005 General Synods; the synod voted to uphold its 1973 and 1984 positions.

Abuse

In 2018, General Synod approved a recommendation to affirm the RCA’s #wearespeaking statement. It also voted:

To encourage that this statement and the subject of harassment, abuse, and sexual violence be used to inform services of worship; to encourage pastors to preach on this topic as well as to care for victims of harassment, abuse, and sexual violence; and to encourage congregations to form study groups to explore and reflect upon this topic. (W 18-1, MGS 2018: 316)

In addition, General Synod adopted two recommendations:

To instruct the GSC to develop and implement a sexual harassment policy and procedures for reporting and responding to incidents; and furthermore ensure that investigations into such allegations will result in protection and non-retaliatory behaviors toward the reporters; and

To enact denomination-wide education and training to include boards, institutions, agencies, commissions, regional synods, classes, consistories, and congregations, reporting back to General Synod 2019 its progress and details of implementation. (W 18-2, MGS 2018: 317)

To urge every classis to have a sexual harassment training in place by General Synod 2019 and to have a plan for sustained accountability through continued education. (W 18-3, MGS 2018: 317)

Alcohol

Alcohol and its abuse have been discussed at meetings of the General Synod since the 1940s. The 1985 General Synod adopted four resolutions pertaining to alcohol abuse:

  • To request RCA members to urge their state legislatures to adopt 21 years as the legal drinking age.
  • To instruct the Office of Social Witness to urge and facilitate local congregations to correspond with television networks and television personalities in order to discourage the endorsement of alcoholic beverages.
  • To encourage RCA members to promote legislation within their communities to ban the “Happy Hour,” i.e., the reduced price of alcoholic drinks during specified periods.
  • To instruct the Office of Education and Faith Development to provide to local congregations educational materials pertaining to the abuse of alcohol. (MGS 1985: 64-65)

In 1990, the General Synod affirmed that:

Guidelines for responsible use of alcohol are vague, perhaps in the recognition that church members differ in their views on whether abstinence is the best expression of Christian faithfulness. Several emphases are clear, however: Societal portrayals of alcohol use contribute to the negative consequences of alcohol consumption. This is especially problematic when drinking and driving are combined. The high incidence of alcoholism and its high correlation with other social problems is also noted. In order to address these concerns, recommendations include a broad range of measures: education, formation of alternative values, support for legislation and law enforcement, treatment of alcoholism, development of alternative forms of recreation. (MGS 1990: 77)

Capital Punishment

During the 2000 General Synod, seven reasons were given to explain the church’s opposition to capital punishment.

  • Capital punishment is incompatible with the Spirit of Christ and the ethic of love. The law of love does not negate justice, but it does nullify the motives of vengeance and retribution by forcing us to think in terms of redemption, rehabilitation, and reclamation. The Christ who refused to endorse the stoning of the woman taken in adultery would have us speak to the world of compassion, not vengeance.
  • Capital punishment is of doubtful value as a deterrent. The capital punishment as a deterrent argument assumes a criminal will engage in a kind of rational, cost-benefit analysis before he or she commits murder. Most murders, however, are crimes of passion or are committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This does not excuse the perpetrator of responsibility for the crime, but it does show that in most cases capital punishment as a deterrent won’t work.
  • Capital punishment results in inequities of application. Numerous studies since 1965 have shown that racial factors play a significant role in determining whether or not a person receives a sentence of death.
  • Capital punishment is a method open to irremediable mistakes. The increasing number of innocent defendants being found on death row is a clear sign that the process for sentencing people to death is fraught with fundamental errors—errors which cannot be remedied once an execution occurs.
  • Capital punishment ignores corporate and community guilt. Such factors may diminish but certainly do not destroy the responsibility of the individual. Yet society also bears some responsibility for directing efforts and resources toward correcting those conditions that may foster such behavior.
  • Capital punishment perpetuates the concepts of vengeance and retaliation. As an agency of society, the state should not become an avenger for individuals; it should not presume the authority to satisfy divine justice by vengeful methods.
  • Capital punishment ignores the entire concept of rehabilitation. The Christian faith should be concerned not with retribution, but with redemption. Any method which closes the door to all forgiveness, and to any hope of redemption, cannot stand the test of our faith.

The 2000 General Synod passed a resolution “to urge members of the Reformed Church in America to contact their elected officials, urging them to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and to call for an immediate moratorium on executions.” (MGS 2000: 450-455)

The synod had previously addressed the issue of capital punishment in 1965 and 1966.

Christian Zionism

In 2004, the Commission on Christian Action presented a paper to the General Synod entitled “Addressing Christian Zionism for the Sake of a Just Peace.” The paper stated:

Christian Zionists utilize a narrow, distinctive, and recently developed interpretation of Scripture that puts particular emphasis on parts of Scripture rather than on broad scriptural revelation with Jesus Christ at the center. Through this interpretive lens they understand history as unfolding in seven epochs or periods, called “dispensations.” The sixth dispensation is the one in which God’s chosen people, the Jews, return to Zion. The seventh dispensation is the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ, a dispensation that will only start when the Jews have returned to the land that was given to them…The establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, the seemingly “miraculous” military victories won in the decades after nationhood, and the possession of the Temple Mount in 1967’s Six-Day War, are all taken as literal examples of the fact that the sixth dispensation is underway.

From a Reformed perspective, Christian Zionism and dispensationalism are not only faulty readings of Scripture, they have proven to be great hindrances to a just peace and stability in the Middle East. The Reformed Church in America has consistently called for a “two-state” solution in Israel/Palestine—strongly recognizing the right of Israel to exist and to have security, as well as strongly affirming the Palestinian desire for a secure and independent homeland of their own. (MGS 2004: 307-308)

The 2004 General Synod voted to adopt the following recommendations:

  • To declare the ideology of Christian Zionism and the extreme form of dispensationalism that undergirds it to be a distortion of the biblical message noting the impediment it represents to achieving a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
  • To urge pastors, consistories, and congregations to study [the 2004 report to General Synod on Christian Zionism] and the paper “Christian Zionism: A Historical Analysis and Critique” in order to develop a more Reformed response to Christian Zionism.
  • To direct the general secretary and all RCA staff to continue working with the Middle East Council of Churches, Churches for Middle East Peace, and other ecumenical groups that seek to address Christian Zionism. (MGS 2004: 311)

Environment

In 1982 the Christian Action Commission sent a major report to General Synod entitled “Care for the Earth: Theology and Practice.” The paper asserted that “the Church’s care for the earth and its concern over environmental peril needs to be global.” In response, General Synod passed several resolutions urging the vigilant protection of the earth’s resources. These resolutions included:

  • To affirm the vocation of farming, commend farming as a career choice and as a way of life for our young men and women, and encourage those within our denomination who are already farming to be steadfast in their calling and aware of its great potential as a way of Christian service in a hungry world.
  • To call on Reformed Church members to support the adoption and implementation of measures designed to preserve agricultural land.
  • To encourage Reformed Church farmers to use agricultural methods which care for and preserve the earth entrusted to them, and to support both private and government programs of research into soil-conserving agricultural techniques.
  • To oppose any weakening of the Clean Air Act, and to urge that provisions of that act be expanded to control the human causes of acid rain and to place limits on fine particulates and toxic chemicals in our atmosphere.
  • To encourage Reformed Church members to be involved locally in the protection and enhancement of the quality of water used in their communities, working to assure that government standards for safe water be upheld.
  • To urge the Environmental Protection Agency to be active, in cooperation with the states, to prevent further contamination of groundwater resources.
  • To urge Reformed Church members to begin taking practical steps to conserve their individual and household use of water.
  • To urge our governmental officials and agencies to treat nuclear waste disposal as an urgent and critical concern, and to curtail the production of nuclear waste until satisfactory disposal methods are developed. (MGS 1982: 65-69)

In 1994, a report to the General Synod stated that:

Responsible Christian witness in light of the environmental crisis is becoming increasingly important and urgent…the Reformed tradition offers a theology which neither merges God with creation nor denigrates creation as beyond the realm of God’s continuing interest, care, and promised redemption…Humankind has been given a special responsibility to care for creation…The degradation of creation not only imperils life, including human life on this planet, it is also a sin against God. (MGS 1994: 95)

The Commission on Theology presented the paper “Globalization, Ethics, and the Earth” to the 2005 General Synod. The synod decided to offer the paper to the church for study. (MGS 2005: 344)

In 2019, General Synod passed a recommendation that urged the RCA to take steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption and work to transition to renewable energy.

The recommendation also instructed the Commission on Christian Action to prepare a “preliminary assessment of the effects of projected climate change” on RCA congregations, mission facilities, and programs and to suggest measures for addressing those challenges. The recommendation further instructed the Commission on Christian Action to review reports to synod on climate change from 1993 and 1999 and to report to General Synod 2020 with additional recommendations for creation care.

Fair Trade Coffee

The 2004 General Synod adopted a resolution “to encourage RCA congregations to use fair trade and/or organic coffee and encourage individual members to do the same in their homes.” They affirmed that:

Of course, churches do not want to intentionally participate in the destruction of God’s creation or the abuse of the poor. In the face of these discouraging realities, what can a church do? There are simple steps that can be taken, which make a big difference. Churches can be intentional about which coffee they purchase and use. Alternative coffees that keep the poor and the environment in mind are becoming more available.

Fair trade coffee may cost more, but churches and individual Christians can see their coffee purchasing as a missional opportunity, gladly paying more for a product that benefits the poor. (MGS 2004: 314-315)

Gambling

In 1976, the General Synod’s Commission on Christian Action called state lotteries “a costly free lunch.” The report stated that the claim that state lotteries would bring millions of dollars into the public’s purse at virtually no cost to the public is not true. On the contrary, the cost would be immeasurable when gauged in terms of community life and Christian principles rather than in terms of dollars and cents. The report asserted that gambling elevates money to the status of a god. (MGS 1976: 185-187)

In 1981, the General Synod called on the church to oppose casino gambling. It stated:

Casino gambling is detrimental to our society. Most prominent is the corresponding increase in crime, both against the individual (robbery, murder, rape) and in the form of organized crime (prostitution, drug traffic, corruption of public officials). More hidden has been the harm done to the elderly and poor. The casino industry has few jobs for the unskilled, and the poor and elderly are displaced as their low-income housing in destroyed to make room for new casinos. Further, it is often the poor who gamble the little they have in hopes of “hitting it big”…casino gambling has a documented detrimental effect on our social, economic, and political system, and it contradicts basic aspects of our faith. (MGS 1981: 64-65)

The 1997 General Synod affirmed the statements of the 1976 and 1981 synods.

Gambling has become an addictive and detrimental part of this culture, as people seek easy answers and easy money instead of hard work and community responsibility. Too many individuals and too many governments have become addicted to the false promises of gambling. It is time to renew the call for RCA congregations and individuals to work against this scourge of society…Gambling distorts one’s view of the sovereignty and providence of God, it encourages greed and covetousness, it reflects a deficient perspective on work, and it promotes poor stewardship of resources. (MGS 1997: 87)

The 1997 Synod adopted four resolutions concerning gambling:

  • To encourage regional synods, classes, and RCA congregations to write letters to national, provincial, state, and local officials in support of policies that restrict gambling and in opposition of the expansion of gambling.
  • To establish an RCA policy which prohibits the investment of denominational funds in gambling-related companies.
  • To instruct the Office of Social Witness to keep the issue of gambling and its negative social consequences before the RCA.
  • To call upon RCA congregations to show love to individuals who are struggling with a gambling problem, and to ensure the needs of their families are met. (MGS 1997: 88-89)

The 2004 and 2005 General Synods reaffirmed this position. The 2005 General Synod also called for further research into 1) ways the RCA can lobby against the building of new casinos, and 2) resources congregations can use to help those who are addicted to gambling and seeking help.

Genetic Engineering

Human Cloning to Produce Children

At this time, human reproductive cloning is morally and theologically unacceptable. The risks of harm outweigh possible benefits of the technology. Cloning threatens to diminish genetic diversity…A number of dubious motivations seem to inspire human cloning. A perspective that increasingly seeks to control and manage life in a way that distances humanity from its Creator makes for a decisive verdict against this technology. The church must faithfully resist participation in and support of human reproductive cloning. (MGS 2004: 295)

Stem Cell Research

The 2002 General Synod concluded that “the questions surrounding stem cell technology are complex and clouded. There are a variety of views within the Christian community. The various sources of embryonic stem cells warrant different moral evaluations.” There are four major sources of stem cells:

  • From miscarriages: There is some possibility of developing stem cells from miscarried fetuses. With parental consent, this source for stem cells seems the least ethically ambiguous.
  • Existing lines of stem cells: United States federal funding is currently restricted to the roughly 60 lines of stem cells already in existence; the intention of the restriction is to discourage the destruction of additional embryos while still allowing research on the existing lines. The RCA’s Commission on Christian Action generally supported the continued use of existing stem cell lines for research.
  • Disposal and freezing of surplus embryos: Declining to view embryos, even those that are to be discarded, as a source for stem cells may inhibit the development of an outlook that views human beings as things and spare parts. Resisting the use of embryonic stem cells could greatly encourage research to focus on developing stem cells from alternate sources, such as adult bone marrow.
  • Production of embryos for stem cells: Creating embryos solely for scientific purposes, such as cloning and developing stem cells, promotes a perspective that views embryos and potentially all life as a commodity or resource. The RCA’s Commission on Christian Action strongly opposed any production of embryos solely for stem cell research. (MGS 2002: 98-99)

Genetic Testing and Screening

Genetic testing and screening provide us with increased information. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18, NIV). Increased knowledge inevitably brings increased moral responsibility. Genetic testing is never a neutral act. Once information from genetic testing is acquired, there is no avoiding some response. Inaction is no less a response than action. The church needs to stand with, support, and share the love of Christ with our brothers and sisters responding to information received from genetic testing.

The church has an important role to play in providing a biblical perspective on disease, suffering, and wholeness. A deeper, more holistic perspective will offer a word of caution to society, which seems so eager to seize on the hope of perfection through technology. We must remind our fellow humanity that technological advances, no matter how marvelous, will not save us. Salvation and wholeness finally come only through Jesus Christ.

The church is always predisposed toward efforts both to alleviate suffering and value life, although neither is finally our ultimate loyalty. As we encounter issues surrounding genetic testing and screening, we proceed with caution, with accurate scientific information, and as prayerful, humble creatures. (MGS 2001: 381)

Gun Control

In 1977, the General Synod spoke out in favor of gun control. It adopted three resolutions, including:

  • To request the Congress of the U.S. to ban the manufacture and sale of handguns for civilian ownership.
  • To urge the members of the Reformed Church in America to render the handguns in their homes inoperable and/or enact stringent safety precautions for all weapons.
  • To urge the constituency of the Reformed Church in America to seek refinement and strict enforcement of present laws regulating gun ownership and use (MGS 1977: 200-201).

The 1988 General Synod reaffirmed the position taken in 1977 and resolved to share that position again with all RCA congregations, saying that:

In 1977 the General Synod took strong stands on gun control. The constituency of the RCA needs again to become aware of and speak out on this problem of our society.

There is a growing concern among those committed to the sacredness of human life that the U.S. is becoming an increasingly violent society. The proliferation of handguns is contributing to this violence. New factors are making the issue even more urgent. Some of our present laws are being diluted. The development of non-detectable handguns reduces the effectiveness of safety procedures on airlines and of overall detection of potential problems. (MGS 1988: 109).

In 2013 and 2014, overtures in favor of gun control came to General Synod and were not adopted (MGS 2013, pp. 169-170; MGS 2014, pp. 124-127).

In 2018, the General Synod, in response to school shootings in the United States, directed the general secretary to write to the president of the United States, supporting strategies to reduce gun violence. It also urged churches to contact local politicians to promote common-sense actions to reduce gun violence. (CA 18-5, MGS 2018: 239)

Hunger

In 1975, the General Synod voted to adopt a statement on hunger entitled “Holy Living in Time of Famine.” Among other things, the statement asserts:

The imperative of sharing and acts of mercy is close to the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic as expounded in the Bible, but it is not only an ethical concern. It bears directly on the credibility of our witness to the world and the integrity of our worship and prayer.

The Bible is replete with injunctions upon the affluent making it quite clear that God views redress of this imbalance as being the responsibility of His worshippers who have more than enough of the world’s goods…Indeed, an argument can be made that in the teaching of Jesus the principle mark of discipleship was the renunciation of the affluent life style and the sharing of the risks of the poor, for whom there is no assurance of a secure future of shelter and a full stomach.

It is the responsibility of Christians to multiply their efforts to aid the hungry of the world both by immediate short term aid and long range development assistance, and to reject as guides for our lives arguments which are morally unacceptable in the light of Scriptural teaching. (MGS 1975: 194-199)

In 1990, the General Synod adopted a resolution “to request RCA congregations to continue to increase contributions toward the RCA hunger program.” (MGS 1990: 125)

The 1991 through 2001 General Synods adopted resolutions promoting various hunger advocacy and education programs, and encouraging RCA congregations to contribute to areas around the world where hunger remains a serious issue.

In accordance with the General Synod’s position that it is the responsibility of the church to care for the hungry and needy, the RCA responds to hunger in four ways:

1. Relief for emergency needs
Relief for emergency hunger needs and development of long-term solutions to hunger are two primary goals of RCA Global Mission. Funds are collected through Partnership-in-Mission shares and special emergency appeals.

2. Development of long-term solutions
To develop long-term solutions to hunger, the denomination distributes funds through RCA missionaries and mission partners and through partner agencies.

3. Education about the root causes of hunger
The RCA encourages congregations to participate in a hunger awareness program.

4. Advocacy on behalf of hungry and needy people
Bread for the World is a nationwide Christian grassroots organization that works for justice for hungry people by lobbying U.S. decision-makers. It does this by encouraging Christians to give an offering of their citizenship to God by writing elected officials to support the needs of the hungry.

Immigration

In 1987, following the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the General Synod encouraged pastors to “provide counseling and urge persons who seek to change their status under the provisions of the bill to obtain legal counseling.” (MGS 1987: 79)

In 1993, the General Synod’s Commission on Christian Action stated that

One of the most powerful themes of Scripture is God’s special love for resident aliens, “strangers within the gate.” They were rescued by God, healed, and held up as examples of faith and models of profound love…Just as God reached out in Christ to draw estranged humanity into God’s family, Scripture teaches Christians to treat the strangers they encounter as neighbors and family. (MGS 1993: 86)

The scriptural mandate includes provisions for strangers in Old Testament law, along with accounts of love, faith, hospitality, courage, and repentance embodied in foreigners within the nation of Israel. Jesus’ healing ministry touched several foreigners. In fact, Scripture shows us that strangers are often central to God’s work and witness.

Remembering how we came to be adopted into God’s family, we can never turn our own backs on the strangers among us. Jesus promises that when we take in strangers, we welcome him (Matt. 25.35)…Christians should never let strangers remain “across the tracks.” They should never be away from the core of our lives, never farther than the other side of our own table…The first tables to which all strangers should be welcome are those in the homes of Christian families.

What does this mean, and how can it be done? Churches have often served as sponsors for refugee families…Some churches have provided refuge to undocumented persons. This they have done because God’s commandment to “love the stranger as yourself” is not qualified by any requirement of citizenship. In fact, it was precisely because resident aliens were not citizens of Israel, and were therefore vulnerable, that the Old Testament law made special provision for their protection and commanded that they be loved like family (Lev. 19.34).

Guided by the law of God, we should not be party to the exploitation of workers; we should be eager to speak in the defense of foreigners who are cheated, abused, or denied justice in any way. Through a multitude of channels, our efforts should aim to imitate the restorative work of God by assuring strangers a secure place, a dignified life, blessings in present crises, and hope for the future. This model suggests Christian participation in programs to provide legal assistance and emergency relief, as well as access to housing, education, and jobs for strangers.

The scriptural call is clear: we must receive strangers with open hands and hearts…The challenge for the RCA is to remember our roots as strangers in a new land, to heed Scripture’s teaching, and to energetically set out to realize God’s vision for family. We must start noticing the strangers in our midst: foreign students and their families, new, and even third-generation immigrants; migrant workers; foreign entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, and government representatives; and refugees.(MGS 1993: 88-89, 96)

In 1995, the General Synod instructed the general secretary to communicate to the President of the United States the RCA’s support of the rights of immigrants to access public services. (MGS 1995: 90)

The 2007 General Synod affirmed that

The wellness and safety of immigrants in the United States, legal and illegal, is an issue of the kingdom of God and it matters to the RCA and to Reformed churches…As public policy continues to be debated and citizens weigh in, may the scriptural witness of the RCA and its members continue to consistently advocate for the rights of the poor and oppressed…As the church continues to embrace the vision of being a multiracial and multiethnic community, may the RCA faithfully and hospitably extend the welcome and love of Christ to the illegal immigrant populations in the United States and advocate for legislation that will protect and serve them. (MGS 2007: 252-253)

The 2018 General Synod voted:

To direct the general secretary to write a letter to the president of the United States condemning the separation of immigrant children from their families and strongly supporting immigration reform and DACA; and further,

To urge congregations to encourage their local politicians to enact legislation that supports immigration reform and DACA. (CA 18-4, MGS 2018: 236-237)

Mass Incarceration

In 2014, the General Synod’s Commission on Christian Action (CCA) offered a report on mass incarceration in the United States, which concluded with the following:

Why is this issue important to the church? It’s important because it’s an issue of justice—an issue of human rights, public health, and racial and ethnic disparity. It’s important because it’s an economic issue that holds one class of people in a posture of “less than” and puts an immoral strain on the economics of this nation; it’s an issue of social management of human lives, and above all it’s an issue of compassion, forgiveness, and honoring the imago Dei in all of God’s human creation. It’s an issue of God’s love for all men and women, even the least among us.

We are instructed in Scripture to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Our criminal justice system and mass incarceration have proven to be unjust and unrighteous in their dealings against a class of people who live on the margin and are oppressed by society. As we read Scripture, we learn that Jesus took the side of the oppressed. Jesus ate with the oppressed, liberated the oppressed, and actually was oppressed himself, for in Scripture we encounter Jesus as the one who was criminalized and executed. And yet, as he hung dying for our sin, he found it in his heart to be merciful to each of us in his prayer of forgiveness to the Father on our behalf. It was his work of redemption that provided a way for eternal life for all.

Mass incarceration leaves little to no room for redemption. Life without parole screams out to us that a life so precious to the Lord Jesus Christ is considered so unworthy by humankind. Outrageously lengthy prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses deny the mercy of God toward those who so badly need mercy. Mandatory minimum sentences serve the very opposite of the Lord’s teachings about restoring our brother or sister who has been found in sin. They serve to dehumanize both those caught in a web of destructive self-behavior and those who punish severely rather than love and forgive seventy times seven (Minutes of General Synod 2014, p. 190).

In response, General Synod adopted the following resolutions:

  • To work with Christian Churches Together to take an active role in developing guiding principles for the church related to issues of mass incarceration.
  • To work together with Formula of Agreement partners and CCT faith families to educate, advocate, and take direct action related to prison reform and mandatory sentencing reform.
  • To form a coalition among the Commissions on Christian Action, Christian Unity, and Race and Ethnicity, and any other commission interested in participating, to engage in a deeper study of the issue of mass incarceration and to develop a collaborative response to present to General Synod 2015.
  • To urge RCA congregations to initiate conversations about how faith communities can work toward healing fatherless generations, understanding that fatherlessness is a critical consequence of mass incarceration.
  • To direct the General Synod Council to examine RCA investments to ascertain whether the RCA has any investments in private prison corporations
  • To direct the Commission on Christian Action, in consultation with the Commission on Theology, to develop a paper on God, justice and compassion for those who are incarcerated, victims of incarceration, families of the incarcerated, and returned citizens that addresses the church’s role in being the beloved community of God.
  • To encourage New Brunswick Theological Seminary and Western Theological Seminary to continue to actively develop curriculum that trains future graduates in the realities and practicalities of social justice issues in general and mass incarceration in particular, grounded in a Christian response.
  • To direct the Commission on Christian Action to develop a resource list of books, articles, documentaries, training, workbooks, and resource people that can be utilized to raise the level of awareness and educate congregations about the issue of mass incarceration (MGS 2014, pp.192-193).

The 2015 General Synod’s CCA presented a follow-up report on the previous year’s resolutions, which led to the adoption of these additional resolutions:

  • To direct the coalition of Commission on Christian Action, Commission on Christian Unity, Commission on Race and Ethnicity, and Commission for Women members working on the subject of mass incarceration to submit a report on its work to the General Synod for the next three years.
  • To direct the General Synod Council to create a page on the RCA website containing resources, data, and training opportunities related to mass incarceration using information provided by the Commission on Christian Action and/or the coalition of commissions studying mass incarceration.
  • To direct the appropriate Transformed & Transforming initiative to seek out churches and individuals already engaged in learning and advocacy around mass incarceration and to create learning communities and/or advocacy groups around specific issues related to mass incarceration, e.g., children of incarcerated parents, women in prison, reentry following imprisonment, prison reform for the aged, juvenile justice, or family visitation (MGS 2015, pp. 164-165).

The Commission on Theology also appointed one of its members to be a liaison to the CCA and to co-draft a paper on God, justice, and compassion for those who are incarcerated, victims of incarceration, families of the incarcerated, and returned citizens that addresses the church’s role in being the beloved community of God (MGS 2015, p. 240).

In 2016, at the recommendation of the Mass Incarceration Coalition, General Synod adopted the following resolutions:

  • To direct the General Synod Council to host a meeting of people interested in the study and work of mass incarceration as the beginning of a learning community (MGS 2016, p. 234).
  • To encourage the church to use the document “The Church and Criminal Justice: A Brief Exhortation”  as a liturgical resource, and further; to direct the General Synod Council to make the document available to the church (MGS 2016, p. 239).
  • To direct the General Synod Council to add screening language to the RCA’s investment policies, particularly as it relates to for-profit prisons (MGS 2016, p. 239).

Physician-Assisted Suicide

In 1994, the Commission on Christian Action reported to the General Synod about physician-assisted suicide. They concluded:

What Christians say about issues of morality ought to be and usually is a reflection of their fundamental faith convictions. There are at least three of these convictions that appear especially relevant to the question of whether it is acceptable for Christians to seek a physician’s assistance in committing suicide in the midst of extreme suffering.

A fundamental conviction Christians have is that they do not belong to themselves. Life, despite its circumstances, is a gift from God, and each individual is its steward…Contemporary arguments for the “right” to assistance to commit suicide are based on ideas of each individual’s autonomy over his or her life. Christians cannot claim such autonomy; Christians acknowledge that they belong to God…Christians yield their personal autonomy and accept a special obligation, as the first answer of the Heidelberg Catechism invites people to confess: ‘I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1)… A decision to take one’s own life thus appears to be a denial that one belongs to God.

A second conviction is that God does not abandon people in times of suffering…Christians express their faith in God’s love by trusting in God’s care for them. A decision to end one’s life would appear to be a cessation of that trust…Suffering calls upon people to trust God even in the valley of the shadow of death. It calls on people to let God, and not suffering, determine the agenda of their life and their death.

A third conviction is that in the community of God’s people, caring for those who are dying is a burden Christians are willing to share. Both living and dying should occur within a caring community, and in the context of death, Christian discipleship takes the form of caring for those who are dying.

This is an era when many people find legislating morality a questionable practice. Should Christians promote legislation which embodies their conclusions about the morality of physician-assisted suicide?…If Christians are to be involved in debating laws regulating assisted suicide, it will be out of a concern for the health and well-being of society…As a society, there is no common understanding that gives any universal meaning to “detrimental.” In humility, Christians can simply acknowledge this, and proceed…to share our own unique perspectives, inviting others to consider them and the faith that gives them meaning. (MGS 1994: 70-71, 74-75)

This position was reaffirmed at the 1995, 1996, and 1998 General Synods.

Poverty

All people—whether rich, middle class, or poor—are God’s children, made in God’s image. Accordingly the Reformed Church in America is concerned by poverty, unemployment, and the widening income gap between rich and poor. The RCA encourages its churches and members to take this concern into local and national political discussions and business decisions. (MGS 1987: 63-66)

In 1990, the General Synod passed several resolutions regarding poverty and economic inequality. These resolutions included:

  • To instruct the minister for social witness to organize regional conferences in the United States and Canada during 1991 that will focus the attention of the RCA on the broader issues of economic justice and mercy in international, national, and local communities.
  • To instruct these regional conferences to develop action agendas to be processed by the Commission on Christian Action and presented to the 1992 General Synod for consideration. (MGS 1990: 72)

The 1995 General Synod addressed the issue of welfare reform. It concluded that “the church has numerous responsibilities in helping the poor.”

First, the church has a responsibility to support individuals and families, including a call to moral responsibility. The church’s task is to make disciples. When people are called into the church and receive God’s grace, they enter a community of care, and their responsibilities to God and neighbor unfold. They are cared for and learn to care for others.

Second, the church has a role to play in its community. The church can and often does reach out in various ways to address the needs of the poor in its neighborhoods. The most precious gift the church has to offer to the needy in the community is the people of Jesus Christ. Christians must be willing to touch the lives of others in a caring and supportive way that will meet human needs in the name of Jesus Christ.

Third, the church must raise God’s concern for justice in the current welfare debate. The church reminds the state that it is under obligation to God and among its tasks is ensuring justice for the poor and providing support for the weakest members of society. Every society must answer to God for its treatment of the poor. The church must speak out and support those programs which provide emergency relief, help those in poverty to improve their lot, help children to have every opportunity for growth and healthy development, and recognize the value of all people as citizens in this society. The church must speak out against efforts to trim welfare rolls in any way that causes harm or additional hardship to those currently receiving benefits. Always the goal of reform must be to aid those who need help, not simply to save money. (MGS 1995: 79-80)

Racism

RCA staff acknowledge that, despite decades of passion and vision to eradicate acts and systems of racism and white privilege, the successful implementation of steps toward a multicultural future freed from racism has often been stalled or lacking, due to a variety of circumstances.

Please note that Minutes of General Synod are primary source texts, such that language and diction should be read and considered within each historical context. In addition, there may be gaps in this particular listing of General Synod recommendations and actions.

In 1957, the General Synod adopted a landmark Credo on Race Relations, as prepared and recommended by the Christian Action Commission. The credo is built upon ten statements of belief, including the confessing and repenting of sinful actions that failed to demonstrate Christian love. It also asserted a commitment to act:

We believe that sincere repentance manifests itself in acts of obedient love. We, therefore, believe that our sincerity will be demonstrated through concrete local acts, such as:

1—identification with minority groups victimized through unjust discrimination.

2—conscientious efforts to open the doors of all churches to all people.

3—the support of those laws and agencies designed to uphold and guarantee the rights and health of all.

4—the promotion of inter-group discussions, where in atmospheres of understanding and good-will, the forces for reconciliation may operate creatively.

5—the education of our youth in the privileges and responsibilities of life in a free, mixed society.

The 1964 General Synod established a Commission on Race to serve for an initial two-year term. The commission “produced and distributed various materials concerning Christianity and Race — seeking to inform and engage the mind of the Church on race relations” (MGS 1966, p. 96). The 1966 General Synod voted to continue the Commission on Race for another two years and to grow the commission through the election of an additional three people. In 1968, the General Synod approved the recommendation to merge the commission’s activities into the General Program Council, rather than reporting to the Board of North American Missions.

In 1967, the General Synod adopted the following recommendation from the Christian Action Commission regarding increasing tension in South Africa:

1. That the Reformed Church in America register its disapproval through the Stated Clerk of General Synod to the Reformed Churches of South Africa on the policies within South Africa which deny basic rights and freedoms to the vast majority of people in that country.

2. That the Reformed Church in America support the efforts being made to withdraw funds of church groups from those financial institutions which invest in South Africa.

3. That the members of our churches be urged to write to our government leaders calling for them to work through the United Nations and diplomatic channels to seek remedies for the inequities in South Africa.

In 1969, the General Synod heard from Mr. James Forman of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), who—with his associates—had previously made demands at the RCA’s headquarters in New York. In response to the demands of the NBEDC, the Ad Hoc Committee on Response to the Black Manifesto was formed. The committee’s report stated:

The appearance before this General Synod of Mr. James Forman and some of his associates of the National Black Economic Development Conference, the “liberation” of our denominational headquarters, the private conversations some of our people have had with him, have brought us to a new and far deeper understanding of the suffering and denial of manhood that vast numbers of our citizens have experienced.

In response, the synod, “without a dissenting vote,” adopted statements and 12 recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on Response to the Black Manifesto (MGS 1969, p. 104). Among other items, the synod agreed to “individually and collectively take concrete action to help resolve injustices” and formed the Black Council for the Program of General Synod (102-104).

In 1977, the General Synod adopted a statement of purpose for the RCA’s racial/ethnic councils, which concludes:

We must confess the need of the church and the world for the prophetic word which minority councils are called upon by God to utter in his behalf. Injustices of the past and present must be compensated for, and the war on disease of racism must be waged until our oneness in the family of God’s children is accomplished in fact as well as in principle. Further, minority councils are in a favored position to stimulate the church and the world to protect and preserve the rights, responsibilities and privileges of minority groups.

In this interim between reality and the accomplishment of the ideal, minority councils fulfill a vital role in the world’s history and in the building of the Kingdom of God.

The 1977 General Synod also adopted the following theological basis for the preceding statement of purpose.

We believe that God has created from one, every people on the earth and that in the church there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

We confess that our sin has led us to erect religious, cultural, economic and political barriers along ethnic and racial lines and that these barriers have separated us from one another and deprived many of us of the right to develop our personal and corporate identities.

We believe that God in Christ has broken down the dividing walls of partition and that the differences which have divided us have become the diversities which enrich us.

We believe that God will accomplish His purpose of gathering together in the new world people of every tongue and tribe and nation and that the glory of human diversity will enrich the new Heaven and the new earth.

We believe that the Body of Christ will grow and be built up in love only when each organ is in good health and able to function freely and that the parts which have been deprived of their full membership in the Body need an opportunity to discover themselves as members of the Body each in its own way.

We believe that this unity of the Body with its diversity of members is given to the church as a witness to the world and that we must use our unique gifts and special insights to equip one another for the continual renewal of the church and its ministry in a divided and broken world.

The 1977 General Synod additionally requested its General Synod Executive Committee, its General Program Council, its Board of Theological Education, and all of its General Synod committees and commissions “to take such steps as are necessary to change their constitutions and enabling documents to allow representation of at least one person from each of the RCA’s minority councils, with nominations originating from the councils themselves” (MGS 1977, p. 82).

In 1978, the Black Council made the following recommendations, which were adopted by the General Synod:

THAT the General Synod, understanding that racism is sin, call upon all churches to study the causes which made necessary the founding of the Black Council, giving special attention to the role of the churches in these historical injustices; and

THAT the General Synod urge particular synods, classes, local congregations and all other agencies of the church to work with the Black Council in improving communication and developing better working relationships, so that the already difficulty work of struggling for racial justice can be made a bit easier and the day of its achievement can come soon.

The 1978 General Synod requested the General Program Council to “consider making available an equal number (2) of scholarships at Western Theological Seminary and New Brunswick Theological Seminary” for students within minority groups in the RCA (MGS 1978, p. 200).

The synod also instructed “appropriate officers of the church study the manner in which the current investments of the church might be contributing to apartheid and report back to the General Synod of 1979” (200). In response, the RCA filed a number of shareholder resolutions, requesting termination of operations with and sales to the South African government, military, and police “unless and until the government commits itself to ending apartheid and takes meaningful steps toward the achievement of full political, legal and social rights for the majority population” (MGS 1979, pp. 97-98).

In 1979, the General Synod adopted recommendations from the Black Council that recorded support of federal programs that ensured full employment for all people who want to work and communicated this position to national government bodies. The General Synod also called upon churches and members of the denomination to “do all within their power to extend employment opportunities to racial minority group members” (MGS 1979, p. 93). Denominational staff, in cooperation with the minority councils, were called to “bring forth specific program ideas and policy proposals which enable the church to make a relevant and creative response to this pressing problem of unemployment among minority people” (MGS 1979, p. 94).

The 1979 General Synod also acknowledged “the biblical call of the Church to solidarity with people suffering from racial injustice in all its forms, and particularly at this time with the oppressed people of southern Africa and the call to give support to people and groups who struggle for justice, freedom, and peace, with special affirmation for the use of non-violent means” (MGS 1979, p. 106).

In 1980, the General Synod Executive Committee report included the work of the Task Force on Nonviolent Liberation of South Africa. The report encapsulated related General Synod actions since 1967:

Subsequent Synods initiated correspondence with the Dutch Reformed Church (MGS, 1968, pg. 221), recommended an exchange of seminary students (MGS, 1972, 1973, 1978, 1979), encouraged negotiations with the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (Black) (MGS, 1976, p. 214-215, 229), and sent a letter to the government of South Africa urging them ‘… to enter into negotiations with the Black leadership in South Africa on an equal basis in order to work for reconciliation and thus avoid further bloodshed’ (MGS, 1976, p. 257).

The report continued:

These and other actions have made the position of the Reformed Church in America clear: apartheid is an unjust system based on race that is contrary to the Scriptures. Confessing its own shortcomings in the matter of race relations, the Reformed Church in America has shared its views with both the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa (NGKA) while expressing its concern for them in these days of conflict (MGS, 1977, p. 252, 269) and, in 1978, urging our own churches “to join in continuing prayers for an equitable resolution of the problems and tensions among the peoples of South Africa” (MGS, 1978, p. 199). …

If the actions of General Synod are to be seen as more than empty rhetoric by those in South Africa who are, in fact, struggling for justice, freedom and peace, some specific support must be given by our church.

In response, the 1980 General Synod voted to provide ongoing financial support for health, education, and welfare programs in South Africa. The synod also voted to discontinue investments in banks and corporations of business in South Africa and to support embargo policies and other economic sanctions against South Africa (MGS 1980, pp. 306-308).

In 1981, the General Synod adopted the following recommendation from the Commission on Christian Unity:

To call on all Reformed Church members to write to the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Canada, urging them to give fresh affirmation to our countries’ opposition to apartheid, and to establish that the abolition of apartheid is the key to normal relationships for both the United States of America and Canada with the Republic of South Africa.

The 1981 General Synod also adopted a recommendation from the Black Council—“in light of the overt signs of resurging racism in America”—to call on RCA members and congregations to purchase and read two specific books in order to be acquainted “with the extent of this problem [of racism] and to assist in developing responses to it” (MGS 1981, p. 70). The recommended books were Portrait of Inequality—Black and White Children in America by Marian Wright Edelman and Race: No Peace Without Justice by Barbara Rogers.

In 1984, the Commission on Christian Action brought the paper, “The Resurgence of Racial Violence and Discrimination Against Asian Americans,” before the General Synod and recommended that it be distributed to and studied by RCA congregations. The synod also called on RCA congregations to be “in prayerful concern regarding the recent sinful resurgence of racial violence aimed specifically at Asian Americans” (MGS 1984, p. 74).

In 1987, after the Commission on Christian Action cited racism as a cancer that sometimes goes into remission but is not yet cured, the General Synod adopted the following:

To encourage RCA congregations to provide assistance to local groups and persons victimized in their fight against racism.

To encourage RCA members to support legislation that will enable government, industry, labor, church, and other groups to unite in new methods of ending racism.

The 1987 General Synod also voted to appoint a task force on racial justice. In 1989, the task force reported on its initial work to explore “visions of a ‘fully inclusive church’ with classes, the seminaries, the executive staff, and the councils” (MGS 1989, p. 73). In their report, the task force stated:

What is true for the congregation is also true for the denomination: “lukewarm” is not an option. By the RCA’s witness or its silence on issues of racial justice—indeed by the very structures used by the RCA to make decisions concerning its life and witness—the RCA will either struggle against racism in all its forms by means of a prophetic witness, or it will by its silence abet racism both within and outside the church. …

The church, from congregation to executive staff, from its individuals to its agencies, must be about the task of reforming itself and of being a reforming agent in society. The task force therefore calls the church to work toward the goal of becoming a fully inclusive church.

As proposed by the Task Force on Racial Justice, the 1989 General Synod adopted four principles to guide the RCA in its response to concerns of racial justice and inclusiveness, including:

The church shall seek to

1) celebrate the presence of people of color in the RCA,

2) stand in solidarity with the particular needs of people of color,

3) rejoice in the contributions of people of color to the church, and

4) eliminate racism from its attitudes and structures.

The 1989 General Synod proceeded to adopt approximately 20 recommendations that, among other action items, required reports of specific actions taken to eliminate racism, encouraged consultation with the racial/ethnic councils, called for the seeking out and hiring people of color, urged for the inclusion of people of color in denominational publications, and created cross-cultural programs in RCA seminaries, camps, and affiliates.

In 1998, the Commission on Christian Action produced a paper about racism and affirmative action. Among other things, the paper states:

Where there is talk of prejudice and racism, we can face it squarely because we already know that we are sinful. That racial prejudice and racism might be in our hearts and actions should not surprise us. That institutional racism would exist even in spite of our intentions serves as a particular example of our constant need for repentance, and the constant thankfulness that God’s grace makes repentance possible. We should be able to talk humbly with one another about our failings and explore ways of making race relations better, precisely because we have no illusions.

… As people in the Reformed Church in American learn about their own participation in institutional racism, they will want to participate in it no longer. The discomfort people feel about the possibility that they may be part of a racist system can express itself in two ways—denial or deliverance. The discomfort is good—it tells us that we disapprove of racism. The choice is between rejection of the diagnosis (denial) or commitment to changing ourselves and the system we live in (deliverance).

The 1998 General Synod voted to “designate the decade 2000-2010 as the ‘Decade Freed from Racism in the Reformed Church in America;’ and further, as the Reformed Church in America works to become freed from racism, to advocate for a society freed from racism” (MGS 1998, p. 131).

The synod also instructed the newly formed Commission on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) to coordinate plans and establish steps for the Decade Freed from Racism, and to invite RCA regional synods, classes, congregations, agencies, commissions, and institutions to plan events and have open discussions of race and racism in an atmosphere of Christian love. Specific recommendations were also made to various RCA bodies to help accomplish a decade freed from racism (MGS 1998, pp. 131-134).

The 1999 General Synod adopted recommendations from the African-American Council to recruit, train, and mentor racial/ethnic seminary students in order to provide pastors for the growing number of racial/ethnic churches within the denomination. The General Synod also voted:

To encourage all members of the RCA to speak boldly, in the spirit of Christian love, against acts of intolerance, racism, and police violence; and further,

to encourage commissions, synods, and classes to work with all deliberate speed in the implementation of past and present recommendations in addressing issues of prejudice and racial intolerance.

From 2006-2008, the General Synods adopted 19 recommendations that addressed the “transformation of the Reformed Church in America from a predominantly Caucasian denomination to a fully multiracial and multicultural church. The recommendations ranged from encouragement to consistories and congregations, to directives to the General Synod Council concerning staffing and ministry priorities, to requests for a broader engagement in global mission with peoples in developing regions where the RCA has previously not been involved” (MGS 2008, p. 80).

In 2008, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity presented a report on the progress of the “Decade Freed from Racism,” which originated in 2000 (approved by the 1998 General Synod). The report commended the work done in the past eight years and also outlined ongoing concerns. It stated:

There are many good things going on the RCA, but CORE believes that the commitment to a “decade freed from racism” has not received the energy, resources, and sense of urgency it deserves.

The members of CORE recognize that the 1998 commitment to a “Decade Freed from Racism” was in itself an expression of naïve enthusiasm. Eliminating racism and its consequences will not be accomplished in a decade. It requires intentionality, commitment, education, vision, passion, allocation of resources, and structural and attitudinal changes at all levels of church life. CORE believes that beyond the “decade” the RCA must be perpetually committed to a multiracial future freed from racism.

In 2008, the General Synod voted to add an emphasis to Our Call, the RCA’s ten-year goal that was approaching its midpoint:

To affirm that, in the spirit and intention of the “Decade Freed from Racism,” the RCA’s racism-free multicultural future is a critical and strategic component of the working out of Our Call; and further,

to direct the General Synod Council, in collaboration with appropriate commissions and agencies of the RCA, to prepare a proposal to integrate, within the framework and language of Our Call, a commitment to the core values of the Belhar Confession: unity, reconciliation, and justice, for report to the 2009 General Synod; and further,

to instruct the General Synod Council to suitably reflect that affirmation by adding to the five dimensions of Our Call the following as a sixth: “A Multiracial Future Freed from Racism,” and to develop objectives, goals, and strategies for implementation and measuring outcomes.

The 2008 General Synod also instructed the General Synod Council to revise the annual consistorial report form in order to gather information about churches’ actions to deepen and develop multiracial and multicultural ministries and congregations.

In 2009, the General Synod declared that “racism is sin because it is an offense to God” (MGS 2009, p. 311).

In 2010, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity defined and addressed white privilege in their report. They stated:

CORE recognizes that many synod and GSC processes and operations predate our current RCA commitments 1) to be Reformed and mission, 2) to pursue a multiracial future freed from racism, and 3) to include women in all offices of the church. Since these processes have been established within a system of white male privilege it is very important that they undergo discerning critical evaluation.

James 2:1-9 forbids favoritism in the church, and Acts 6:1-4 records that the apostles took corrective action when they recognized that some groups in the church were being favored over others. Before we can act we must better understand these particular dynamics of privilege as they are enacted in the RCA.

The 2010 General Synod voted:

To direct the General Synod Council and the Commission on Race and Ethnicity to study and critique the effects of white privilege in the processes and operations used and decisions made by General Synod and General Synod Council.

A task force was also established to develop “a series of discipleship resources and experiences that are educational, transformational, and incarnational such that people understand white privilege and its effects in our lives, and become equipped to live from self and Christian identities that are freed from the harmful and hurtful effects of white privilege” (MGS 2010, p. 337).

In 2010, the General Synod adopted the Belhar Confession as one of the RCA’s doctrinal standards. Stemming from apartheid and racial divisions in South Africa, the Belhar Confession centers on God’s call to unity, reconciliation, and justice. The Commission on Christian Unity stated:

In the late twentieth century the leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, like those Christian leaders centuries before them, stepped forward to confront yet another critical issue that threatened the very core of the gospel message. In this case, the church and the society in which it functioned were torn by horrible internal conflict, injustice, racism, poverty, and the subjugation of those who were disenfranchised. From this crucible of suffering emerged the Belhar Confession, a biblically based doctrinal standard of justice, reconciliation, and unity, intended to guide not only the personal lives of God’s children but the body of Christ in the world as well.

Like the confessions which preceded it, the Belhar Confession became a gift from one particular expression of the church to Christians in other parts of the world, a testimony for all of God’s people in our time. For South Africa is not alone in its journey with conflict, injustice, racism, poverty, and the subjugation of the downtrodden. This history of oppression in our countries, and the reality of racism and injustice in our own time, calls for the voice of the Christian church to be heard with unmistakable clarity—one that not only speaks against injustice but also offers a biblically faithful picture of hope, mercy, and reconciliation.

In 2011, the Commission on Race and Ethnicity asked “classes and all denominational bodies to analyze and become conscious of the actual distribution of resources to insure that all ethnic congregations have equal access to them” (MGS 2011, p. 288). General Synod voted:

To instruct the General Synod Council (GSC) to develop tools for discerning race-based disparities in the distribution of financial resources, embedding principles of the Belhar Confession of unity, reconciliation, and justice into the factors of these tools; and further,

to direct the GSC, and urge assemblies to use these tools.

In response to this recommendation, in 2013, the General Synod Executive Committee reported the creation of two race-based disparities tools. The same report also included a resource list for understanding and dismantling white privilege as a matter of Christian discipleship, provided by the 2010-commissioned task force.

The 2013 General Synod directed the Commission on Church Order and the Task Force on White Privilege to “propose changes to the Book of Church Order that would create an at-large voting delegation to General Synod composed of ministers and elders representing the racial/ethnic diversity of the RCA” (MGS 2013, p. 160).

In 2014, the Task Force on White Privilege presented their report to General Synod. They stated:

Through a range of actions the RCA has shown a desire to address the effects of both racism and white privilege. It has made clear that its best future—the one God has planned for it—is one in which the effects of racism and white privilege are one day eradicated. …

The Book of Church Order developed first in a mono-ethnic and then in a mono-racial context; that context, along with its philosophical and theological frameworks, have influenced the RCA’s governance. But how do these governance frameworks serve us in our increasingly multiracial contexts and in the future to which we believe God is calling us? Do some parts of our polity fit well in the RCA’s context? Would modification of some of our governance expectations and methods serve us better? Are there portions of our polity that simply do not work well in today’s multiracial contexts and even contribute race-based disparities within the RCA’s part of the body of Christ?

The R-91 Task Force strongly urges General Synod to explore these questions. The task force believes we have a confessional duty for such an examination. The Belhar Confession emphasizes that the values of unity, reconciliation, and justice are deeply embedded in God’s own character, and, consequently, must become deeply embedded in the character of God’s people.

The 2014 General Synod instructed the Commission on Race and Ethnicity:

To monitor the successful implementation of recommendations proposed by the R-91 Task Force on White Privilege and adopted by the 2013 and 2014 General Synods; and further,

to include this information in their reports to General Synod for the next five years.

In 2014, the Commission on Christian Action presented a report on mass incarceration, citing it as “an issue of human rights, public health, and racial and ethnic disparity” (MGS 2014, p. 190). Read General Synod’s response and resolutions, including subsequent actions in 2015 and 2016.

Socially Responsible Investing

In 1985, the General Synod sent out a document entitled “The Church’s Peace Witness in the U.S. Corporate Economy.” This document held that:

When the church enters the investment markets, however, it is entering a particular culture in a particular way. The church becomes a participant in the economic life of the greater society. This participation need not be troublesome in and of itself. Through its economic involvement, the church may offer a significant witness in and to its society. The investment of church funds in secular enterprises may be salutary for the society as a whole. Church investment capital may help create jobs; useful products; and opportunities for scientific research, growth of knowledge, and the relief of human misery. Indeed, the church lives not for itself but for the world. The reformed tradition has emphasized that the essential role of the church in society is not to enhance its own resources but to glorify God, witness to the Lordship of Christ, and transform this present social order according to the vision and values of Christ’s Kingdom.(MGS 1985: 57)

The 2001 General Synod adopted resolutions for socially responsible investment, which include:

  • Shareholder initiatives—based on the positions of General Synod, shareholder initiatives have covered a variety of issues including dioxin pollution, foreign military sales, distribution of pornography, and banking practices in a democratic South Africa.
  • Investment screens—enacted by the General Synod when all attempts to change a policy have failed, or when the product or business in question will in no way advance the vision and values of Christ’s kingdom. Screens have been enacted against industries involved with tobacco, alcohol, and gambling. Investment levels in companies involved with the nuclear weapons industry will be at the minimum level necessary to initiate shareholder resolutions in those companies.
  • Mission investments—investments which attempt to promote the values and visions of Christ’s kingdom. Begun in 1970, the purpose of such investments was to empower minority communities by investing in appropriate banks, etc. (MGS 2001: 68-69)

The 2002 General Synod affirmed the resolutions of the 2001 General Synod concerning socially responsible investment.

In 2014, General Synod called for a review of all RCA investments, and for the divestment of any investments in private prison corporations. No such holdings were found. In 2016, General Synod added screening language to the RCA’s investment policies, ensuring that no funds will be invested in for-profit prison corporations in the future.

Sexuality

Divorce and Remarriage

In 1962, a report to the General Synod stated that “God’s intention for marriage is that it is to be permanent. Divorce involves sin.” It also noted that the Reformed position has been that there are two grounds on which divorce is permissible: adultery, and the desertion of the believing spouse by the unbeliever. The synod approved the statement that:

A pastor may with good conscience officiate in the remarriage of divorced persons if in his judgment, and the judgment of the congregation’s Board of Elders, the persons have met the following requirements: Recognition of personal responsibility for the failure of the former marriage, penitence and an effort to overcome limitations and failures, forgiveness of the former partner, fulfillment of obligations involved in the former marriage, and a willingness to make the new marriage a Christian one by dependence upon Christ and participation in His Church. (MGS 1962: 205-218)

The 1975 General Synod affirmed the statements of the 1962 General Synod, stating that:

Where the one flesh relationship has been irreconcilably shattered, there one has divorce (de facto) and it must be recognized. In fact, where a marriage has been destroyed, the Christian community may even counsel severance to prevent further damage to persons involved.

Those who have undergone the trauma of divorce need time to reflect upon their experience and time to rebuild. First, persons should take time for reflection on the causes of the previous failure. Repentance is necessary. It involves not only penitence for one’s own part, but a change in one’s attitude and actions. Harmful personality traits and behavioral patterns should be modified before any remarriage.

Second, personal realization of God’s forgiveness is a vital part of one’s readiness for remarriage. This includes forgiving the former partner and seeking forgiveness. Otherwise a residue of bitterness can cloud future interpersonal relations. Continuing obligations to the former mate or children, financial and otherwise, should be met.

Third, there must be a vision of what the new marriage can mean and the determination to make it Christian. Recognition of human limitations at this point rightly leads one to a reliance on Christ and on the supportive family of faith. Willingness to be a full participant in the people of God is prerequisite to proceeding with remarriage. Where the forgiveness of God has been accepted and life redirected to obedient service, the prospects for a sound marriage exist. (MGS 1975: 170-171)

Homosexuality

In 1978, the General Synod voted to make a paper presented by the Commission on Theology available to RCA congregations. The paper stated that:

  • “Heterosexuality is not only normal; it is normative. Homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God for human sexuality.”
  • “While avoiding simplistic and obnoxious social crusades, the church must affirm through its preaching and pastoral ministry that homosexuality is not an acceptable alternative lifestyle. God’s gracious intent for human sexual fulfillment is the permanent bond of heterosexual love. This redemptive word must be spoken, with sensitivity, caring, and clarity to any person who would make a perverted sexual choice, and to society as a whole.”
  • “It is one matter to affirm that self-chosen homosexual acts are sinful. It is quite another to reject, defame, and excoriate the humanity of the person who performs them. This distinction has often been missed. It is possible and necessary on biblical grounds to identify homosexuality as a departure from God’s intent. However…there are no theological grounds on which a homosexual may be singled out for a greater measure of judgement. All persons bear within them the marks of the fall.”
  • “The denial of human and civil rights to homosexuals is inconsistent with the biblical witness and Reformed theology.”

A report entitled “Christian Pastoral Care for the Homosexual,” presented to the General Synod in 1979, listed three areas of congregational life with which the church must come to terms if it is to witness effectively to the homosexual:

  • Elimination of the double standard of morality applied to the homosexual. It often seems as though the church places certain sins, homosexuality among them, beyond its own responsibility for ministry and, by implication, beyond the reach of God’s grace.
  • The church should acknowledge its sins against the homosexual. Homosexuality is neither to be celebrated nor persecuted. Homophobia must be replaced by a sense of common humanity, the desire to understand, and the determination to put away the sins commonly committed against the homosexual, including stereotyping, caricaturing, and enjoying disparaging humor at the homosexual’s expense.
  • The church should make a genuine effort to understand homosexuality. The church must be willing to understand and deal with the concrete life situation in which [the homosexual] finds himself. There is much we do not know about homosexuality, but we do know that it is a complex phenomenon (MGS 1979: 130-131).

The 1990 General Synod voted to adopt an official position on the issue of homosexuality, as some classes felt there was confusion within the church as to the status of the 1978 report on homosexuality. The advisory committee recommended:

To adopt as the position of the Reformed Church in America that the practicing homosexual lifestyle is contrary to scripture, while at the same encouraging love and sensitivity towards such persons as fellow human beings (MGS 1990: 461).

In 1994, General Synod voted to adopt another resolution addressing the church’s relationship with homosexuals. The resolution stated:

The General Synod of the Reformed Church in America recognizes and confesses that the Reformed Church in America has failed to live up to its own statements regarding homosexuality in 1978 (MGS 1978: 229-240), 1979 (MGS 1979: 128-135), and 1990 (MGS 1990: 461). Few in the Reformed Church in America have creatively and lovingly spoken with persons with a homosexual orientation about the truths of Scripture and the hope of the gospel. Many have participated in or tolerated forms of speech and behavior which humiliate or degrade such persons. Many of the churches within the Reformed Church in America have not provided an environment where persons have felt the acceptance and freedom to struggle with hard issues involving sexual orientation. Many Reformed Church in America members have shown no interest in listening to their heartfelt cries as they struggle for self-acceptance and dignity. For all these wrongs, this General Synod expresses its humble and heartfelt repentance, and its desire to reflect the love of Christ to homosexual persons. In all that this General Synod does, it seeks to obey the whole of Scripture, demonstrating in its own life the same obedience it asks from others. It calls itself and the whole church to a greater faithfulness to Christ in relationships with persons of homosexual orientation.

To this end, the General Synod calls the church to a process of repentance, prayer, learning, and growth in ministry. This process will be guided by the basic biblical-theological framework presented in the previous statements of the General Synod (MGS 1994: 375-376).

In 1998, the General Synod called for a temporary moratorium on the issue of homosexuality. It adopted this proposal:

To instruct this General Synod to refrain from deliberative debate and policy decisions relating to homosexuality, as these matters have already been thoroughly addressed by previous synods, and to urge this same action upon the 1999 and 2000 General Synods.

To instruct the General Synod Council, through its Congregational Services Committee, to help enable congregations and classes to enter a process of intentional discernment concerning the pastoral challenges raised by the issue of homosexuality over the next two years, utilizing the study guide and other resources, in order to fulfill the actions called for on this matter by the 1994 General Synod (MGS 1998: 60).

In 2004, General Synod “instructed the Commission on Theology to provide a study paper on ‘human sexuality and marriage.'” When that paper was presented to General Synod 2006, synod voted to refer it the Commission on Theology for review and revision in light of the wisdom of Reformed theology (MGS 2006, pp. 233-260).

In 2004, synod also affirmed “that  marriage  is  properly  defined  as  the  union  of  one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others” and directed the Commission on Church Order to consider an amendment to the Book of Church Order that added the affirmation into the RCA’s church order (MGS 2004, pp. 332-333). In 2005, the commission reported that it had considered an amendment to the Book of Church Order but did not feel it was appropriate, and gave six reasons why (MGS 2005, pp. 90-91).

In 2009, the General Synod voted to “affirm the value of continued dialogue and discernment on the topic of homosexuality within the church, to state that our dialogical and discerning work is not done, and that legislative and judicial steps are not a preferred course of action at this time.” The 2009 synod also asked the General Synod Council to monitor how the assemblies of the church are dealing with this issue and report back to the 2011 synod. Finally, the 2009 synod recommended that “officeholders and ministers avoid actions in violation of the policies of the earlier statements of General Synod on ordination and relevant state laws on marriage, with sensitivity to the pastoral needs of all involved.”

In 2012, General Synod voted:

While compassion, patience, and loving support should be shown to all those who struggle with same-sex desires, the General Synod reaffirms our official position that homosexual behavior is a sin according to the Holy Scriptures, therefore any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense; and further,

that the General Synod Council shall oversee the creation of an eight member committee made up of representatives appointed by each of the regional synods to pray and work together to present a way forward for our denomination given the disagreement in our body relative to homosexuality. The purpose of the committee is not to revisit our stated position, but shall operate with the understanding expressed earlier in this recommendation and issue a report with practical recommendations to the General Synod of 2013 (MGS 2012: 149-150).

In 2013, the General Synod voted:

To instruct the General Synod Council to appoint a diverse working group representative of the constituencies of the RCA and the varying understandings within the Reformed Church in America regarding sexual orientation and gender identity to identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings that will encourage grace-filled conversations among those holding varying understandings; and further,

to identify, design, and/or develop resources for use in congregations and other RCA settings to assist the RCA in the development of strategies to preserve unity, purity, and peace (MGS 2013: 115).

The 2013 General Synod also voted:

To acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, in the proceedings that led to the adoption of R-28, demonstrated a lack of decorum and civility, and a general atmosphere in which delegates were not always treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ; and further,

to acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes when, in R-28, we stated that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense” (MGS 2013: 179).

The 2015 General Synod accepted a paper entitled “The Word Became Flesh” from the Commission on Theology as a resource for further reflection on human sexuality.

Setting the topic of sexuality within the drama of God’s rule and reconciliation in Christ might indeed enable our church to rediscover the ground of a meaningful cultural witness in the midst of wearying conflict over a variety of topics concerning sexuality.

The 2016 General Synod declared that the RCA does not support the use of reorientation/reparative therapy. Reparative therapy describes a variety of treatments intended to change someone’s sexual orientation. “There has been no data found for the widespread and long-term effectiveness of reparative therapy. However, there is documentation of the adverse effects of reparative therapy,” said the report of the Commission on Christian Action, which had been tasked with studying reparative therapy.

The 2016 General Synod adopted as constitutional the 2002 “Order for Christian Marriage” liturgy, which describes marriage as “a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.” Synod also voted for a change to the Book of Church Order (BCO), mandating that consistories or governing bodies “shall assure that marriages in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.” Neither constitutional amendment achieved the required approval of two-thirds of the classes (MGS 2017, pp. 41-42).

General Synod 2016 also passed this resolution:

No matter what position we as Christians have taken on the moral status of same-sex behavior, we reject all forms of mockery, degrading words and thoughts, economic oppression, abuse, threats, and violence made against members of the LGBTQ+ community, and we call on anyone involved in such behavior to repent and immediately begin walking in obedience to Jesus’ command to love.

General Synod 2017 voted “to affirm that the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 108 and 109 categorically states that God condemns ‘all unchastity,’ which includes same-sex sexual activity, and that faithful adherence to the RCA’s Standards, therefore, entails the affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

General Synod 2017 also voted “to urge all RCA assemblies and other bodies and all RCA members to maintain our covenant bonds with each other, especially with regard to the conflict over human sexuality; and further, to urge classes to refrain from approving the requests of churches to transfer to another denomination prior to the conclusion of General Synod 2018, instead focusing on our God-given mission.”

The 2018 General Synod responded to overtures from two classes and a regional synod by approving a recommendation:

To commend the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality for reflection, study, and response by the Commission on Theology and RCA churches and classes as a means of deepening our understanding of the biblical teaching on human sexuality and finding a pathway forward toward unity in mission and ministry. (OV 18-21, MGS 2018: 148)

General Synod 2019 declined to receive the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality as a “catechism” based on the Commission on Theology’s review of the document, instead instructing that it be referred to as a “teaching tool” in future denominational references.

Marriage and Cohabitation

The Reformed Church in America believes it is important to strike a balance between accepting people as they are and encouraging them to live by Christian standards of fidelity, forgiveness, and growth. We are committed to encourage the holding together of what God has joined—love, permanent commitment, and the sexual expression of unity. (MGS 1975: 170-171)

The 1986 General Synod adopted a position regarding couples who are cohabitating:

Persons who have been living together while unmarried have violated our perceptions of the rules of chastity which are required by the Church of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, some of the violations have become acceptable within the current mores of some of our communities and churches.

Particularly difficult is our response to the couple which comes seeking a church wedding after a significantly long period of known cohabitation without ecclesiastical blessing or legal sanction. Practical wisdom says, “When that time comes, let us praise the Lord and get on with the arrangements.” This response is legitimate, if (a) the couple is seeking the blessing of God on their common law marriage, and (b) the couple realizes that the integrity of their relationship requires that it be redirected in the light of the Gospel and celebrated by the community of faith.

The elders and minister(s) of the church must not take lightly any infraction of any code of behavior which the church accepts and promotes. But this community of forgiven sinners knows that broader than the code is the grace that forgives and restores the penitent. Let the church be a reconciled community. (MGS 1986: 322)

The 1989 General Synod offered further clarification on the issue of cohabitating couples seeking a church wedding:

In biblical perspective the essential thing is not the ceremony, but the covenant between the man and woman to live together in “holy wedlock,” i.e., with and before God as Scripture understands and describes that relationship.

Therefore, after consultation with a couple living together who enjoy a private relationship with the commitment and intent for permanence which is at the heart of Christian marriage, a Christian minister appropriately performs a public wedding ceremony which witnesses to and affirms their marriage. If, after consultation with the couple it is not clear whether their private relationship is accompanied by a Christian understanding of the nature of marriage, then they should be encouraged to turn toward a covenant way of living together in keeping with the teachings of Scripture. It would not be responsible to approve of performing a Christian wedding ceremony for them until it was clear that they were ready to enter into marriage with the covenant fidelity which it demands. In some situations pastoral help in repentance is appropriate. When parents or other family members have been hurt, the couple should be encouraged to pursue reconciliation prior to the ceremony. (MGS 1989: 342)

The 2018 General Synod responded to overtures from two classes and a regional synod by approving a recommendation:

To commend the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality for reflection, study, and response by the Commission on Theology and RCA churches and classes as a means of deepening our understanding of the biblical teaching on human sexuality and finding a pathway forward toward unity in mission and ministry. (OV 18-21, MGS 2018: 148)

Pornography

In 1972, the Commission on Christian Action responded to the Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, published in 1970. The Commission on Obscenity and Pornography was set up by President Lyndon Johnson to study pornography. The report of the presidential commission controversially concluded that there was no measurable correlation between the use of pornography and anti-social behavior. The Christian Action report says that the presidential commission’s report fails to take into consideration the large number of variables that work together to affect human behavior. It goes on to say that dealing with pornography in a Christian manner requires looking at the totality of a person rather than at a few behaviors. The report also concludes that is logical to believe that there is a correlation between pornography and violence, since both tend to treat the individual as having little worth. The commission notes that 1) Christians should encourage sex education classes that seek to teach that humans are more than just sexual playthings, 2) Christians should understand how to judge between acceptable and unacceptable materials in literature and art rather than merely censoring inappropriate words and pictures, and 3) other institutions and individuals should be judged by the same standard as art and literature. (MGS 1972: 203-206; read the full report (PDF))

In 1978, the General Synod passed four resolutions against different forms of pornography:

  • General Synod urged the members of the RCA to call upon their legislators to enact legislation to control pornographic film making.
  • General Synod called on RCA members to make known their objections (to their families and friends and to those who more directly control the media) when television portrays an image of human sexuality abhorrent to the biblical images of persons.
  • General Synod called upon the members of the Reformed Church in America to respond to the desensitizing “spillage” from pornography, and to boycott those who indulge in advertising techniques that use pornography and inform them of those decisions and actions out of a commitment to be good stewards of God’s precious gifts.
  • General Synod urged RCA churches to avail themselves of various types of Christian sex education materials; marriage enrichment, preparation, and growth seminars; and groups involved in halting the spread of pornography, and that as much as possible the education process would occur at the family and church level. (MGS 1978: 197-199; read the full report)

In 1987, the Commission on Christian Action reported to the General Synod on the issue of pornography. Their report stated that congregations should support those laws that require store owners to display the fact that they sell pornographic materials, and that such materials be made separate and off limits to minors. Since pornography by definition dehumanizes the persons portrayed in its material, Christians must resist its presence. Pornography distorts the humanness of women and perverts the nature of the male-female relation, the very image of God (Genesis 1:27). The church cannot, in the name of “rights,” defend those who produce that which engenders violence against persons. Pornography must be recognized as a symptom of a societal sickness, a phenomenon that cannot be eliminated simply by sophisticated laws or rigorous prosecution. Until the alienation between persons—the loss of the God given intimacy in which we are made to be human—is overcome, pornography will find fertile soil in which to take root. (MGS 1987: 56-57; read the full report)

In 2008, the Commission on Christian Action’s report to General Synod included a paper titled “Pornography and the Internet.” As the paper states, the Internet offers hundreds of millions of pornographic web pages, and this new availability has heightened ethical concerns. Studies show that there has been a huge increase in the number of people who access pornography and that a much wider cross-section of people, including women and children and many pastors, now obtain pornography. Because access takes place in the privacy of a home, people can avoid the social stigma that kept many of them from associating themselves with pornography in the past. The paper calls attention to the use of the Internet to distribute child pornography and as a tool for pedophiles and sexual predators to seek victims. It also mentions that Internet pornography is the main component of a new psychological disorder called “cybersex addiction” that has proved very difficult to treat. While acknowledging that fighting the multi-billion dollar porn industry with all its advocates and lobbyists is daunting, the paper concludes by stating: “Despair is not the appropriate Christian response…Some information regarding pornography is available, but most in the church are not aware that it exists and prefer to ignore the problems pornography is responsible for both in the church and in society. With all the information that is available, the church remains silent. It must, at a minimum, inform and educate its members. ‘Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin’ (James 4:17).” The commission concludes its report with a recommendation to have a denominational pornography awareness day, which synod approved. (MGS 2008: 223-225; read the full report)

The Word Became Flesh

General Synod 2015 accepted this paper from the Commission on Theology as a resource for further reflection on human sexuality. 

Setting the Context for the Church’s Discussion of Issues Involving Sexuality

At a crucial point in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Then he adds, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).

Setting the topic of sexuality within the drama of God’s rule and reconciliation in Christ might indeed enable our church to rediscover the ground of a meaningful cultural witness in the midst of wearying conflict over a variety of topics concerning sexuality. Sex is a gift, but a gift to be honored and used in the service of the life in Christ. In our late-modern context, setting discussions of sexuality in right proportion is an increasingly difficult task. In the effort to sustain disciplined reflection about Christian life in the world, this paper offers a provisional sketch of a number of theological and moral considerations necessary to understand sexuality as a divine gift to be honored and used in the service of the kingdom of God. The Commission on Theology believes that entering into this reflection upon our common commitments regarding human sexuality will assist the church when it takes up the more contentious issues of same-sex attraction and marriage.

This introduction has been written with the conviction that agreement upon the meaning and scope of the biblical witness concerning God’s purposes for human sexuality is necessary. Without such agreement, we see little hope for a more fruitful and constructive theological process for securing an understanding of what is at stake for the church to address the narrower topics of same-sex attraction and same-gender marriage. In other words, our confession of “one holy catholic and apostolic church” demands that prior to giving in to the temptation toward sectarianism, which would widen the separation between two or more parties, we first risk asking the question: Is there a biblical and theological foundation for a distinctly Christian understanding of sexuality in general, one that provides for a renewed discovery of core Christian commitments about reconciliation, holiness, authority, personhood, vocation, community, and friendship?

This brief sketch is offered in the hope that we may prompt further, extended discussion on the nature of what it means for all of us to offer our bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We proceed on the basis of the conviction that before the church wades into turbulent waters of controversy, it needs to recover its core convictions. This requires a rigorous assessment of the consequence of sin—understanding that the world stands under the judgment of God—and a glad acceptance of the call to holiness in Christ. At the same time, God’s covenantal faithfulness—pursuing his children in spite of their sinful rebellion—leads us joyfully to express thanksgiving for the transformative power of God’s grace and forgiveness. Apart from a concerted effort to begin our reflection upon Christian life and human sexuality within the primary context of the drama of God’s creation and reconciliation of all in Christ, there is little hope for a genuine solution to the more focused challenge of same-sex attraction and same-gender marriage.

In the face of dramatic and forceful cultural pressures, Christian reflection on sexuality must be sufficiently humble to learn from the witness of Holy Scripture. In doing so, we may well discover the resources necessary to set aside all forms of self-justification. The Holy Spirit guides the church in its reading of Scripture so that it might faithfully bear witness to the renewal of all things in Christ. Scripture leads us to see all of human life in Christ. Because the Word has become flesh and promises to raise our bodies at the last day, we cheerfully recognize that our life with God and each other is embodied. Accordingly, Christian reflection on the weakness or death of the body (cf. Romans 6:6, 7:24, 8:10-13; 2 Corinthians 4:10) should not be regarded as a refusal to grant that the body is to be cherished, protected, and honored. While we are fundamentally social creatures, known to each other bodily—with all that this entails for communication, nurture, attraction, and intimacy (for good or ill)—each of us is called to offer the totality of who we are back to God (hence Paul’s exhortation to offer our bodies and to seek the renewal of our minds). Far from denying bodily desires and needs, Paul insists that they are to be drawn into the drama of our redemption, for we are called to “glorify God in [our bodies]” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

Given the bodily incarnation of the Word, we believe that the diversity of culture is a positive gift of God. Christians are called to embody unity in Christ in the midst of such diversity. However, no issue generates more controversy than the question of human sexuality. This is due, in part, to the fact that much of late-modernity remains ill-disposed to accept a classic (catholic/orthodox) Christian view of human sexuality. In this setting, we should not be surprised to find that many, in the church and beyond, lack an understanding of the moral space within which sexuality is properly ordered toward its appointed end in Christ.

Central to the Christian faith is the confession that the divine Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurated the dramatic liberation, renewal, and exaltation of humanity. In him we meet our maker and our match, our beginning and our true end. For Jesus Christ is the appointed covenant partner with God, and the ground of our deepest identity and calling. In turn, this confession closes the door upon every attempt to construct a vision of human identity, personhood, and flourishing apart from Christ. In him we come to know God and ourselves truly.

None of us, however, has fully come to terms with the pervasive disorder brought about by original sin. In painful ways, we resist the hard truth of our condition. Refusing to see the world and ourselves in light of the biblical drama, we imagine that we cannot possibly be as broken and alienated as Scripture claims (cf. Romans 3:9-18). Our tendency is to make either too much or too little of sex, thereby refusing to come to terms with who we truly are. When the first path is taken, sexuality is asked to carry a burden that it was never intended to bear. Alternatively, whenever people treat sex and sexuality too lightly, they are tempted to engage in casual sex, pornography, or prostitution without fully realizing how profoundly damaging and disordered such behavior truly is. When we ask sexuality to bear the full weight of personal identity, we quickly lose our grasp of the abiding Christian truth that our life (and thus our identity) is truly hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Each of us is called to honor God’s revealed purposes for human sexuality.

Corresponding to the lifelong covenant faithfulness of God is the call to honor and protect the binding character of sexual intimacy, openness to the gift of children, and the care and nurture of families capable of embracing the widow, orphan, and sojourner. Like all good gifts, the gift of human sexuality is to be honored, cherished, and used in ways that bring glory to God. It is against this backdrop that sexual promiscuity of any sort is always wrong. It is precisely for this reason that Paul exhorts us to offer our bodies back to God as a living sacrifice “holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). This call to offer our bodies back to God is, at the same time, an invitation to enter upon the path toward the gift of true identity, forgiveness, healing, renewal, and freedom.

Capable of redemption, human sexuality is a crucial setting in which we are called to bear witness to God’s forgiveness and saving grace. Given that Christ alone “fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23), marriage and singleness point, in their differing ways, to the “fulfillment” of all creation in Christ. Such fulfillment does not require the exercise of every desire, power, or gift we may possess. Instead, the proper exercise of desires, powers, and gifts is realized within the drama of God’s reconciliation of the world in Christ. Following Jesus in the way of the cross, we discover the calling and strength to enact a chaste and disciplined life. Contrary to our culture’s assumptions, our desires are not the final determinants of our life or identity, though they may well be taken up and made holy through God’s sanctifying and redeeming love.

When we actively share in the misdirection of erotic powers, we fail to respect and honor the divine purposes for human sexuality. In effect, disordered sexual life, affections, and acts constitute a tragic rebellion against the goodness of creation and the promise of freedom and renewal in Christ. When erotic powers are misdirected, we painfully rend covenantal faithfulness and destroy the creaturely gifts of intimacy, respect, mutuality, and love. Aware of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of such rebellion, we must resist the temptation to reduce sexual sin to the internal domain of dispositions and attitudes. By way of contrast, we affirm that God’s purposes for sexuality locate us within a given, objective order with clear purposes and goals, not only for us, but for the whole social order. Thus, when we sin, we not only harm ourselves, but wound and threaten our bond with God and neighbor. Whenever we use others for our selfish ends, we refuse to nurture faithfully and fully inhabit the concrete world of community, friendship, and family.

Sexual desire is enormously complex. Nevertheless, we reject the view that sexual desire is a wearisome taskmaster that must be obeyed at all costs. As Paul declares, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). The journey of sanctification is never to be traveled alone. None of us has been called to mortify the flesh on the basis of resolute self-determination. For we all live in constant need of the gift and sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Spirit, we not only find emancipation from self-indulgence, but are drawn forward into lasting friendship with God and neighbor. Despite our manifest brokenness, the triune God calls and brings us into freedom. As Paul teaches: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14). Thus, the call to chastity and obedience requires, at the same time, resolute commitment to seek and nurture friendship—particularly friendship with those on the margins, whose hunger for belonging, intimacy, and love would otherwise remain painfully unsatisfied.

Conflicts surrounding same-gender marriage are currently at a high pitch, with legal issues under rapid inquiry and change. Fractured debate over individual rights threatens the church’s grasp upon the larger drama of God’s reconciliation and renewal of all. In the midst of this intellectual and moral fragmentation, it becomes all the more difficult for the church to clearly understand and affirm the unique gifts of homosexual persons. Positively, these conflicts provide us with the opportunity to rediscover the meaning and purpose of human life revealed by the Word made flesh. Furthermore, they constitute a significant prompt for the church to exercise its public ministry and witness in calling all persons to holiness, reconciliation, covenant, and life in Christ.

To conclude, obedience to Christ must be our chief aim, for he alone pronounces words of life. When faced with complex and difficult questions, we would do well to step back from the brink, and once again listen with keen determination to the still, small voice of our Lord, for he alone “will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11).

Tobacco

The General Synod has voiced the church’s concern about the use of tobacco products by expressing its opposition to cigarette advertising on television (MGS 1953, pp. 166-168), by encouraging voluntary abstinence from smoking (MGS 1964, p. 219), and by urging a well-directed effort to acquaint youth with the facts and dangers of smoking (MGS 1964, p. 220). In 1984 the General Synod directed the Reformed Church in America and all its agencies to divest itself of all investments in the tobacco industry “inasmuch as that industry runs contrary to the biblical vision for health and stewardship of the earth” (MGS 1984, p. 85). (MGS 1992: 127)

In 1992, the Commission on Christian Action reported to General Synod that

Government measures to reduce tobacco use and to educate the public about its dangers deserve the support of the members of the Reformed Church in America. Efforts by the United States trade representative to open foreign markets to United States tobacco sales are another matter. While the Commission on Christian Action recognizes that the United States government assumes certain responsibilities regarding access of United States exports to foreign markets, those responsibilities do not include the right to interfere with other nations’ attempts to deal with public health issues. By responding positively to tobacco firms’ insistence that foreign restrictions in tobacco promotion and use be treated as a trade barrier, the United States government ignores the rights of those nations to deal with what is clearly a public health concern—a concern which the United States itself seeks to address in its domestic health policy. (MGS 1992: 129)

The 1993 General Synod voted to adopt a resolution “to instruct the general secretary to write to the president of the United States and to key members of the U.S. Congress, urging support of legislation which increases taxes on tobacco products and designates a portion of that tax revenue for educating the public about the health effects of tobacco use.” (MGS 1993: 104)

Women in Ministry

Women can participate fully in the life and ministry of RCA churches. The issue of the inclusion of women first formally came before the church in 1918, when two overtures came to General Synod requesting changes to the Book of Church Order that would allow women to be ordained as elders and deacons. The overtures were denied, but the issue continued to surface every few years.

In 1958, General Synod adopted a statement upon recommendation of the Committee on Ordaining of Women:

Scripture nowhere excludes women from eligibility to the offices but always emphasizes their inclusion, prominence, and equal status with men in the Church of Jesus Christ. (MGS 1958: 328)

In 1979, the Judicial Business Committee stated that

First, [the General Synod] has repeatedly voted for amendments to the Constitution which would clearly and unequivocally declare all the offices of the church open to women.

Further, on each occasion when such action was requested by the classes, the General Synod has in 1973 (MGS, p. 37) and again in 1977 (MGS, p. 168) granted dispensations from the professorial certificate to women; thus, opening the way to examination for licensure and ordination.

And, it has in 1974 (MGS, p. 97) and in 1976 (MGS p. 115f) taken no action on overtures which would have amended the Book of Church Order, Chapter 1, Part I, Article 1, Sec. 3, in such a way as to limit the office of minister of the Word to men only. (MGS 1979: 68)

The 1980 General Synod approved an amendment to the Book of Church Order which clarified the legality of the ordination of women as ministers of the Word.

(a) Amend Part I, Article 1, Section 3 (BCO, p. 12) by substituting “men and women” for “persons.”

(b) Amend Part II, Article 2, Section 7 (BCO, p. 24) by adding the following:

If individual members of the classis find that their consciences, as illuminated by Scripture, would not permit them to participate in the licensure, ordination or installation of women as ministers of the Word, they shall not be required to participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences, but may not obstruct the classis in fulfilling its responsibility to arrange for the care, ordination, and installation of women candidates and ministers by means mutually agreed on by such women and the classis.

(c) Amend Part II, Article 10 (BCO, p. 40) by adding a new section:

Section 15. Ministers of the Word shall not be pressured in such a way as to lead either one who supports or one who opposes, on scriptural grounds, the ordination of women to church offices to offend against his or her conscience. Nor shall any church member be penalized for conscientious objection to, or support of, the ordination of women to church offices. Nor shall any minister of the Word or church member obstruct by unconstitutional means the election, ordination, or installation of a woman to church offices. (MGS 1980: 275)

In 1989, the minutes of the General Synod noted that it

continues to note with deepest regret the number of congregations in which women do not serve as deacons and elders. It is the hope of the commission that congregations will become increasingly open to affirming and utilizing the gifts of all their members. (MGS 1989: 253)

In 1991, the Commission on Theology presented a paper entitled “The Role and Authority of Women in Ministry” to the General Synod. The paper asserted that

In sum, the authority of women and men in ministry is given to them by the triune God, who is the author of the first creation and the finisher of the new creation which exists within and beyond human history. Those called by God are called to exercise their authority in a way which builds up and makes new and seeks goodness and delight, wholeness and harmony, equality and productivity. As God welcomes and persuades men and women into partnership, so must those who represent God. As God opposes all partnerships which misunderstand or abuse the servant authority made manifest by Jesus Christ, so must women and men who share in Christ’s ministry. (MGS 1991: 445)

Since the 1980s, the Commission for Women has studied the situation of women in ministry in the RCA. The commission reports to the General Synod every year, encouraging advocacy for women in office.

In 2012, General Synod voted to remove the “conscience clauses”—statements that spell out how people can and cannot conscientiously object to the ordination process of women—from the Book of Church Order. The required two-thirds of RCA classes voted in support of synod’s action, and the 2013 General Synod ratified the removal of the “conscience clauses” from the Book of Church Order.