It’s been about 20 years since I regularly attended a Christian Reformed Church. At that time, I was living in western Colorado. Every so often, on a Sunday morning, I made an hour-long trip from a small town called Rifle to Grand Junction to be with those whom, at the time, I still considered to be my people.
Since then, I’ve drifted. I’ve fled my faith and fled the country. First I went to South America, then I came to Africa. I’ve been gone for 18 years now. I left the US in my mid-twenties, pulled by wanderlust and driven by guilt, shame, and fear. I’m in my mid-forties now, finally accepting myself as a human who is both homosexual and loved by God.
I ran, in large part, because I was gay and ashamed. Rather than putting down roots and benefitting from the support that a community could provide, I drifted. I worked too much; I drank too much; I moved too often. I damaged relationships between myself and women and between myself and men. I did not allow myself to confide in anyone, much less anyone Christian. I had been raised in the church and I knew better than to expect the understanding or support of anyone there.
I longed for God, but as soon as I came near His light, I felt the heat of his wrath on the scars of my shame. So I backed away. Repeatedly, I tried to get close to Him, but then had to retreat. I couldn’t come out of the closet.
I ran and ran. At first, I managed to repress my sexuality. Then I managed to suppress its urges. Then, even that became untenable. I gave in; I acted. Later, I began to acknowledge my sexuality. I began to accept that I had not chosen to be gay. I realized that continuing to hide or repress my sexuality would do more harm than good. Eventually, I came out: to my friends first, and finally to my parents. I got married. I told my grandfather that I’d be getting married to a man. Grandpa didn’t approve. He sent a wedding card, not as a congratulatory note, but rather as a reminder that God had ordained marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. Grandpa said he loved me. And he said he hoped I’d start reading my Bible. “With love,” he signed off, “Grandpa.”
Grandpa dissented. But at least he’d done so with love.
By now, everyone on earth knew that I was gay, but God and I still hadn’t talked about it.
At 38, when asked after a yoga class (yes—I know—some would say that’s another sin…) how I was feeling, I responded by bursting into tears.
“I have no Joy,” I said.
I had been raised to believe that Joy should come from God, and yet my only apprehension of God was that He is useful to save me from the awfulness of my sinful self. Over time, I realized that my Calvinistic upbringing had led me to see God as jealous, wrathful, and judgmental. I felt that He was perpetually disappointed in me, try though as I might to do my best. My appreciation for God had been based solely on His utility in saving me from eternal damnation. I hadn’t learned, nor had I figured out, how to worship God who is majestic in His own right—a God who didn’t require my sin in order to have a purpose of His own. The only Joy I’d heard about was a joy predicated not on God’s love, but on my own wretchedness. By now I was exhausted, for maintaining such a negative worldview is all-consuming. I didn’t have the energy it would take to meditate endlessly on the emptiness of my depravity. And when I lost sight of my depravity, I lost my use for God.
Eventually, I have come to believe that worshipping a God on the basis of his utility to save us from our sins arrogates us and our sinfulness to a position superior to God. To make an analogy, it’s like we’re praising God for being the umbrella that protects us from the pluvial filth of our own sin. In a world without rain, who would value an umbrella? If there were no sin, would I, as a born-and-bred Calvinist, still have a use for God?
And I can’t believe in a God who wouldn’t be great without my sin.
All of the above, as I’m sure you will have noticed, is said from the standpoint of a layperson. I have no theological training; I know as much about the Canons of Dort as I do about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (Very little, I mean to say.) If what I’ve said violates your beliefs or our confessions, I’m sorry, but this is just how it seems to me. “Niet spotten, jongen!” I know the meaning of these words and still value their significance. I don’t mean to blaspheme.
Grandpa was the last of my four Dutch-born grandparents to die. After he died in 2020—just a week shy of his 95th birthday—I dusted off my Bible. I had watched the video of his funeral. I was intrigued by the notion, articulated rather darkly by the minister of the CRC I’d grown up in, that sin gives death its sting. I fumbled through the New Testament, trying to understand this. In the process, I stumbled across a reminder that there is no fear in love.
Slowly, I began to feel that maybe God really is Love. Maybe I can worship him on the basis of His majesty, and not just because I’m grateful to Him for the role he played in delivering a wretch like me from flames of hell. Maybe my walk with God should fill me with joy rather than shame, dread, and bottomless guilt.
A year or so ago I decided to put pen to paper. I’ve resolved to write a book about this journey, my experience, and the changes in my worldview. My perspective has changed so much over the past 25 years. Immediately after high school, I spent a year at Calvin College. After that year, I transferred to a secular university. One year after leaving Grand Rapids, I returned to Calvin for a visit. I learned that one of my former classmates had written an editorial in the Calvin Chimes. He said that he was gay, and that he felt that one could be both Christian and gay. I was incensed, deeply irked. I asked my friends how the Chimes could dare to print such scandalous blasphemy. My friends shrugged.
Recently, in early 2022, I shared a draft of my story with someone I’d met on social media. He (gay, middle-aged, and ex-CRC) clued me in to the existence of the HSR. He let me know that big things would be happening at Synod this year. The next thing I knew, I was at my desk here in Nairobi, watching online as the Synod hit the fan.
As I was gripped by the proceedings, I could see myself and the dear people who raised me in the hearts and voices of the strangers who so passionately argued the opposing sides of this issue. A man named Larry, principled and measured, reminded me of my dad.
Younger guys reminded me of my younger self. “Scripture is clear. Christians can’t be in same-sex relationships” they said. Back when I was at Calvin, I had thought—and argued—that Christians couldn’t be gay. I thought that Christians couldn’t even be Democrats. I drove up and down the East Beltline in a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that crudely reminded every anonymous onlooker that ‘Your Mother Was Pro-Life.’ In high school, I shouted obscenities at a houseful of lesbians because I cared so much about sexual morality and not at all about loving my neighbors. I’m ashamed of this.
Now I’m guilty of it all. Of being a closed-minded Christian and an open-zippered homosexual. And while I dual-majored in those disciplines, I also minored in hypocrisy.
I’m out of the closet now, and married to a man. (My husband is even a Catholic, which is the part I dared not confess to Grandpa.) And to tell you the truth, I’m more ashamed of the self-righteous Calvin student I was back then than I am of the practicing homosexual I’ve become.
I have argued both sides of this issue. I have stood on both sides of this fence. I’ve thrown stones in both directions. I feel as convinced now as I did then, even though I now believe the opposite of what I used to believe. Some of us believe it’s possible to be Christian and gay. Others say no—surely, you must be one or the other. With our opposing viewpoints, we can’t all be correct.
Therefore, and from my own experience, I know that the degree to which we feel convinced of our position is no measure of whether we are actually right.
Occasionally, the thought crosses my mind that I might be wrong. Maybe Grandpa was right. Maybe God doesn’t approve. Maybe my soul is precariously teetering on the verge of damnation. Maybe someone should roll down the windows of their pick-up truck to remind me of the danger my soul is in.
Maybe. Maybe not.
What we can’t be wrong about, though, is the commandment to love. After I watched the sermon delivered at Grandpa’s funeral, I investigated the sin-induced stingfulness of death. Then I contemplated the fact that there is no fear in love. Later, I was reminded of Christ’s command that we love God—and you all know what comes next—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Heart, soul, mind, strength. Once those are exhausted, in terms of the resources at our disposal, what’s left? Nothing. Not a thing. To me, this means that if I still have energy left over for judging and condemning others, then I have failed in dedicating all of my energy and effort to the task of Loving, as Christ asked. Christ asked us to spare no energy; He asked us to go all-in on love.
As much as we would like to believe that we are holders of an absolute truth, we cannot deny that our views of morality, sexuality, and correct theology have changed over time. If they’ve changed throughout the past, why should we expect that they won’t change now, and in the future?
I was reminded, as I researched the history of our denomination, that the CRC broke away from the Reformed Church in America—way back in 1857—in part because we believed that hymns were sacrilegious, and a violation of Sola Scriptura. John Calvin held that God’s word was complete and infallible, and that the Bible should not be added to or taken away from. “Only Scripture,” he said. (Sola Scriptura, in Latin.) We should sing Psalms, our forebears said, and only Psalms. Since hymns are written by humans, our ancestors heeded Calvin’s warning that singing them might be a form of blasphemy. We don’t think this anymore. In fact, most of us now think that hymns are old-fashioned, stuffy, and conservative.
I learned from reading Bridget Eileen Rivera’s book, Heavy Burdens: Seven ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church, that John Calvin would not have approved of married couples’ use of birth control, which enables them to have sex just for fun. I’ve never seen what goes on in other people’s bedrooms, but I believe that the use of birth control has become accepted practice, even between Christian Reformed husbands and their Christian Reformed wives.
In our grandparents’ generation, it was unthinkable that members of the CRC should dance, play cards, or go to the cinema. In fact, these so-called ‘worldly amusements’ were verboten by Synod in 1928. Later, in the 1960s, this position was revised and social dancing was allowed.
“Women in Office” was the controversy that served as a backdrop to my childhood in the CRC. And yet, over time, we’ve come to recognize the value of women’s contribution to the leadership of our churches—as well as the fairness in allowing women to participate. After a 25-year debate that ran from 1970 to 1995, CRC congregations may allow women to serve as elders, deacons, and ministers. Whether it is good news that some congregations may allow women to serve, or bad news that other congregations may continue to disallow women from serving, is a matter of perspective. Now, 27 years after Synod’s decision to allow women to serve in ecclesiastical office, many CRC congregations that still do not allow ‘Women in Office’. The church I grew up in is among them.
As people who are ‘Reformed and ever-reforming,’ it’s inevitable—and constructive—that our views of acceptable moral, sexual, and theological practice will continue to evolve. One thing that we shouldn’t change, though, is our resolve to follow Christ’s command that we go all-in on love.
Daniel Alberts is writing about his experience growing up LGBTQ+ and CRC. He’s on Twitter @DanielAlberts7 and online at www.danielalberts.com