Wednesday - March 4, 2021 - Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA)
The Council of Delegates (COD) of the Christian Reformed Church met (via teleconference) from February 17 to 19. The COD is a governing body of the denomination, and meets several times throughout the year to conduct church business between the annual Synods.
During the meeting last week, temporary Executive Director Colin Watson presented information to the delegates regarding attacks and racist comments that have been directed toward employees of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice. Watson reported that the attacks and racist comments have been coming from Ministers, Elders, and Deacons within the CRC.
What We Know
- Mark Stephenson (temporary Director of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice) brought his concerns about these threats to Colin Watson, and also to Paul DeVries (the Chair of the Council of Delegates). Watson and DeVries determined that the threats and racist comments were serious enough in nature that they needed to be presented to the full Council of Delegates.
- The Banner (the official magazine of the CRC) reported that Colin Watson showed members of the COD a Power Point presentation that included pictures of threatening and racist messages that had been sent to employees at the Office of Social Justice.
- The CRCNA’s Communications Office reported that both Mark Stephenson and Paul DeVries also participated in the presentation.
- Stephenson also stated that CRC Ministers, Elders, and Deacons have been guilty of “name-calling, claims of incompetence [on the part of OSJ employees], misrepresentation about the work being done, and concerted efforts to overwhelm staff with emails and social media posts.” And also “sexist and racist comments.”
- Paul DeVries, Chair of the Council of Delegates, stated that the COD executive committee will be contacting the pastors, elders, and deacons who have been guilty of these attacks.
- The Banner Magazine originally reported on concerns raised by at least one COD Delegate about controversial and divisive actions carried out by employees of OSJ. This Delegate wanted to encourage OSJ employees to consider the broader picture. However, current and former employees of the OSJ quickly expressed extreme dissatisfaction that The Banner Magazine would include comments that might bring the employees’ own behavior into question. The Banner quickly changed the story, and the headline, to bring it in line with what the current and former employees of OSJ wanted.
- The CRC Communications Office reported that an outside consultant has been hired by the Office of Social Justice to help its employees handle these threats.
What We DON’T Know
1) How many Officebearers are guilty?
Stephenson, Watson, DeVries, and the reports from The Banner and the CRC Communications Office repeatedly state that numerous CRC Pastors, Elders, and Deacons (Officebearers) made threats against the personal safety of employees of the OSJ, and also that they made multiple racist and sexist comments.
However, there was no reporting on the actual number of Officebearers being accused of making threats. Obviously it is important to know how widespread the problem is. Were there 3 attackers? Or 30? The number of attackers would determine what kind of response should be taken. The reporting on the incident, and the fact that it was brought to the attention of the full Council of Delegates (rather than simply handled one-on-one with the attackers) implies that there were many attackers, and implies that the problem is very widespread.
Reformed Every Day contacted Stephenson, Watson, DeVries, The Banner, and the CRC Communications Office directly, and specifically asked how many Officebearers were guilty of these actions. DeVries was the only person who responded, saying:
“I can tell you that the official Banner story and the CRC Communications article are accurate in what they report.”
But none of the reports gave a specific number. Reformed Every Day will continue to try to gather that information, and share it when it becomes available.
2) What was the specific nature of the threats?
The reports from The Banner and the CRC Communications Office mention non-specific items such as “anonymous letters and postcards,” “racist posts,” and several mentions of “threats,” including “threats towards persons of color” (referenced in an email from Colin Watson).
But the only specific example given is a letter mailed from a personal acquaintance of Mark Stephenson (temporary Director of the Office of Social Justice). The reporting from The Banner implies that the letter was mailed to Stephenson in his official capacity as an employee of OSJ, and was thus a threat to the entire staff.
Subsequent information has clarified that the letter was sent to Stephenson at his personal address, from someone he knows. It was not an anonymous threat.
The letter was concerning enough to Stephenson that he contacted local law enforcement, who visited Stephenson’s acquaintance to assess the threat level. After talking to the person who sent the letter, law enforcement determined that there was no threat.
Neither The Banner nor the CRC Communications Office explained why the matter was presented to the Council of Delegates if police had determined that it was not an actual threat.
3) Was proper Church Order followed in raising these concerns?
The guiding principle of Church Order regarding wrongdoing between believers within the CRC is that the person who is wronged should go directly to the person who is guilty of wrongdoing, in order to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation. In cases of extreme offense, Church Order requires the involvement of the Elders within the local church where the person perpetrating the harm is a member.
It was unclear from the reporting whether or not this happened before the matter was escalated to the Council of Delegates.
Reformed Every Day contacted Watson, Stephenson, DeVries, The Banner, and the CRC Communications Office to ask whether or not employees at the Office of Social Justice attempted to privately resolve the issue directly with those making the offensive comments, and their local Elders, in an effort to bring about reconciliation before the matter was taken to the COD and reported publicly.
Once again, Reformed Every Day only received a response from Paul DeVries (Chair of the Council of Delegates). The others involved (Watson, Stephenson, The Banner, and the CRC Communications Office) did not respond to questions.
DeVries indicated that the employees of the Office of Social Justice did not approach the offending parties, or their Elders, directly. He stated that they were bringing it to the COD for informational purposes, to make the COD “aware of the stress and strain on [Office of] Race Relations and Social Justice staff due to the offensive communications…”
4) What kind of disciplinary action will be taken against those who made threats and racist comments?
While DeVries indicated in his email to Reformed Every Day that disciplinary action was not the goal, stating, “This was not a disciplinary hearing, nor was our primary focus on discipline of the perpetrators,” the report published by the CRC’s Communications Office indicated that members of the Council of Delegates Executive Committee will be contacting the Pastors, Elders, and Deacons who “have been guilty of some of these attacks.”
5) Does the COD Executive Committee have the authority to contact Officebearers directly, without involving local church Elders or the Classis?
Last year, Neland Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids openly contradicted CRC doctrine and Church Order by installing a Deacon who is involved in ongoing, unrepentant sexual sin. The goal was to force the CRC to change its teachings on sexual immorality, and to start accepting LGBTQ behavior.
In the process, the resident expert on CRC Church Order, Professor Kathy Smith (Calvin University), defended Neland Avenue CRC’s decision, stating that because the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t specifically prohibit homosexuality by name, and Synod has offered "pastoral advice" on how to deal with behavior that the Church holds to be sinful, that it was a “local” matter.
Therefore, according to Kathy Smith, other assemblies within the Christian Reformed Church such as Synod and the Council of Delegates did not have the procedural authority to confront the offending Deacon or her local church council directly. In the case of ongoing sexual sin, Kathy Smith argued that no disciplinary action could happen within the denomination, because the local Elders at Neland Avenue CRC had not initiated any procedural actions.
However, in this new case where local Officebearers are being accused of making threats and racist comments, it seems that the Council of Delegates DOES have the authority to contact individual Pastors, Elders, and Deacons directly, without having to address the matter through broader assemblies such as at the Classis or local Council.
This is good news for those in the Denomination who have argued that the Council of Delegates DOES have the authority to deal directly with churches such as Neland Ave CRC who are promoting and accepting ongoing sinful behavior.
Reformed Every Day contacted Kathy Smith for clarification on this point, but we have not received a response.
As we receive more information about this story, Reformed Every Day will provide updates.