The time has come for Synod ‘94 of the Christian Reformed Church to settle the matter of women in church office Biblically, confessionally and finally. Although we do not endorse the idea of postponement, we do support the analysis of the church which this article presents and we thank the author for his comments. The Editors
The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, meeting in June of this year, will ratify or will not ratify the decision of the Synod of 1993 admitting women to all offices in the denomination.
I have a growing conviction that the time has not come for the denomination to make this momentous decision. True, there are those who favor a resolution of this issue this year: “Let’s get it over with one way or the other.” This sentiment has some good grounds. There are also some good reasons for postponing a decision on this question, and I am persuaded that they outweigh those that argue for action now. I would like to present reasons for consideration.
My first thought in support of my hope is practical in nature. I wonder whether we are in the right mood to make such a momentous decision? Among some, feelings run high. Too high! Some heads are hot. Too hot! There are those who are sending pro-literature, and others who are sending anti-literature regarding women in office to all our churches. Many delegates to synod have been selected this year on the basis of where they stand on the women’s issue. How easily churches too, can fall into making power plays.
So I ask, “What’s the hurry?” Could we find a better time, perhaps when feelings would not be running so high? It is said, “Let’s get it over with. We’ve been at this for twenty years.” The fact is that our synods, in plenary session, have only been at this for a matter of hours rather than years—and always under time constraints, in unwieldy assemblies and often under pressure, real, even if silent, from the gallery, as was certainly true last year.
How many meetings have taken place congregationally or regionally meetings where people of opposite points of view could pray together, sit together, eat together, look each other in the eye and rejoice together in Christ our Savior? True, we do engage each other via the printed page. We are good at that. And surely, the printed page is a good medium. But it has its limits. Dueling in print often becomes a contest with reputations at stake. We practice one-up-manship with our pens. Human beings that we are, it all can so easily become a matter of winners and losers, victories and defeats.
Sometimes it is wise for a church too, to sleep on it, to diffuse the moment by adding moments, and to make a final decision when heads have cooled. So I ask again, “What’s the hurry?” Rome wasn’t built in a day. Maybe, just maybe, we can settle more amicably tomorrow that which we will surely settle less amicably today.
There are those who may dismiss this reasoning as crass and political. I prefer the word “practical” and see nothing wrong with being so. It seems to me that there were those who were practical at that first council in Jerusalem of which we read in Acts 15.
My second reason for hoping that synod will defer action is ecclesiastical in character. I wonder whether synod is really in a position to finalize this whole matter when our church appears to be, to an alarming degree, in shambles ecclesiastically. Does it even matter anymore what synod does or says when there are those among us who go their own way? And have! If Synod 1994 does not ratify Synod 1993, what assurance is there that there will not be many more churches who will simply go home and do their own thing? There would be something comical if it were not so tragic, about the picture of people holding their breath to see what synod will do when it doesn’t seem to make much difference anymore what synod does or doesn’t do.
The question is raised whether we are denominationalists or congregationalists. We used to be the former. But when churches go their own way, regardless of synodical decisions, we have become the latter. So who are we? And can we really decide the women’s issue without first deciding whether we are loosely tied congregations or a denomination?
This line of thinking along ecclesiastical lines is a long one. There comes to mind for example, the serious frustrations with ecclesiastical procedure which abound among our people and which have made many cynical. True, ecclesiastical machinery is in place, making it possible for people to be heard. Nevertheless, there are those who feel that it is difficult, even impossible, for them to get a hearing. Should we have a serious look at those charges which are made that everything is “cut and dried,” or that “It’s all from the top down?” There are those who have left us who make references to this frustrating situation. Another burr rightly under the saddle of many, is the lack of discipline among us when churches go their own way and do what is right in their own eyes on a number of matters beside that of women in office. The answer some give is that there is no discipline anymore. They are right!
Regarding the independency that exists among us, we may well ask ourselves whether we can really make important synodical decisions anymore without first setting our house in order ecclesiastically. It is at least thinkable that if Synod 1994 would defer action on the women’s issue for ecclesiastical reasons, and if these reasons were properly explained, that many on both sides of the aisle (to use a political expression) would go along.
My third reason for hoping that synod will defer action is theological in nature. Do we need time as a church to rethink hermeneutics? Are there divisions among us that will still be there—even after ratification or non-ratification of Synod 1993—of a theological nature insuring the fact that the road ahead will continue to be rocky? I think so. Are we really together in our views on the inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible? We are not! Some among us openly assert a belief in errancy—not inerrancy—and to the disquiet of many in the pews. Are not our people entitled to know where their leaders stand on this issue—and what they mean? If the “errantists” are referring only to versions of the Bible, there is less of a problem. If on the other hand, they have the autographa in mind, we have a different ballgame. Past synods have declared that we stand for the inerrancy of Scripture. If there are deviations from that position among us, we can sweep them under the rug, but we should deal with them openly and honestly.
Somewhat related to this whole matter is the hermeneutical question already referred to, whether some passages of Scripture are culturally induced and applicable only to the times in which they were written, while other passages are for all time. Some of our differences on the women’s issue hinge on this distinction, and can certainly stand further exploration.
It may be that some of our differences (hermeneutics, inerrancy) are so deep that we are no longer referring to the same Bible when seeking to make synodical decisions. If so, how then can we come to closure on the womens’ issue without first earnestly wrestling together on these deeper theological levels? Deferment on the matter of ratification of Synod 1993 makes sense to me on theological grounds.
My fourth reason for hoping that Synod 1994 will postpone action on the issue it will face, is spiritual in character. The question can be asked—what has happened to us? We were so richly blessed! The envy of other churches! How did we get to where we are? Some of us are suspicious of others of us. Too often we do not deal gently with each other in the spirit of love, which is the spirit of Christ. Romans 12:16 says, “Live in harmony with one another.” At best, many of us have been living in isolation from one another, and at worst, in near enmity. We sing, “How good and pleasant is the sight when brethren make it their delight to dwell in blest accord.” But sometimes I fear we only sing it. Think of what is happening among us! Ministers here, there, and everywhere are being separated from their churches via one or another article of the Church Order. Many pastors can’t wait to take early retirement. Suspicions are raised as to what goes on in the Pentagon, or seminary, without investigation. We are not growing. And I’m not thinking first of all, in terms of numbers. There are days when I think that the devil has never had it so good among us as we go off in different directions guided by our own rules. Meanwhile, we all pray to God and speak in His name.
If we were Roman Catholics, it would be high time for the Pope to send out a pastoral letter to us all. Is there a similar device available to us? Do we pray for one another regardless of what side of an issue we are on? Can we expect God’s blessing on synod’s decision of 1994, whatever that decision may be? Does God not say to us, “Before you go any further addressing pressing issues, clean up your act?”
Is the leadership in our church largely asleep to the fact that we are at a spiritual low tide? Praise God that there still are some good things happening among us. God’s grace is infinite. But this is no excuse for business as usual when we ought to be declaring a moratorium on all further synodical actions until we take care of some prior business. We must not act as if all is well in Zion when it’s not! There are heavy hearts among us that need to be ministered to.
There may be those who will argue that I paint too dark a picture of our spiritual condition. But if the picture is better than presented here, where are the showers of blessings as they came to us in the past?
I believe that if we do not give priority to these ecclesiastical, theological, spiritual and even practical matters I have mentioned, before going ahead on ratification or non-ratification, we will continue to go from crisis to crisis, as we have been doing. The devil will tie us up from here on out till we are no more what we always thought we were.
I have a dream. It is this: that a decision reached by Synod 1993 on the women’s issue, by a bare majority, will be put on hold by the Synod of 1994, in loving deference to members on both sides of this issue, and with a pastoral admonition that we all seek to understand each other better. It may be argued that this will gain nothing. But in my dream, a miracle takes place. For with God, all things are possible.
In my dream, I also see the newspapers reporting such a wise action of deferment by synod for pastoral reasons, and how all sides are in agreement that a decision can only be made—not when the time seems ripe—but when the spirit is right. The headline says: “SEE HOW THEY LOVE ONE ANOTHER!”
That would be a better witness to the world than is given now.
Rev. Eppinga is pastor emeritus of the LaGrave Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, MI.