Church & World

Classis Submits Overtures for 1993 Ratification of Women in All Offices

We want to call the attention of our readers to the overture submitted to Classis Grand Rapids East by First CRC. It comes in the political form of an Appeal designed to convince Synod 1993 of the error of Synod 1992. If the Appeal is adopted by Synod 1993, the way will be immediately open to proceed with the ratification of the decision of Synod 1990 to open all offices to women. The CR churches will have no more opportunity to debate or resist.

Despite the favorable advice given by Dr. Henry De Moor from Calvin Seminary, this Appeal is clearly illegally before Synod. Consult Church Order Article 30, reinforced by the SIC Study Committee which reported to Synod ‘91, with ratification of its work by Synod ‘92 (see Acts of Synod 1991, pp 714–15 and Agenda for Synod 1992, pp 221–222). The Church Order clearly states that the appellant (in this case Classis Grand Rapids East) must appeal its complaint (re: Synod 1992) to the next higher body. There is none.

This Appeal-Overture should not appear in the Agenda for Synod 1993.

The Editors

Grand Rapids, Michigan February 4, 1993 

Classis Grand Rapids East, after receiving a flurry of overtures on women in office from churches in classis, sent three overtures on to Synod 1993. One overture calls for ratification of women in office by a two year process ending in 1994; another requests a local exemption for Church of the Servant CRC. A third overture, however, may catch the brunt of conservative attention: an overture from First CRC asking Synod 1993 to ratify the 1990 decision on women in office without waiting for 1994.

Classis Grand Rapids East has sent overtures to synod for years asking for ratification of women in office and the presence of women elder overtures at classis was no surprise. Classis adopted and sent on to synod a proposal from Sherman Street CRC to make a church order change allowing women to serve in all the offices of the church via the regular process of a 1993 decision to change the church order and a 1994 decision to ratify the change. The motion passed unanimously with little discussion.

However, two other overtures attracted considerably more attention.

First CRC asked that classis send an overture to synod to “appeal the decision of Synod of 1992, Art. 105,B,4 to ‘not ratify the change in Church Order Article 3’ and overtures the Synod of 1993 to ratify the decision of the Synod of 1990 by changing Church Order Article 3 to read: ‘All confessing members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the office of minister, elder, deacon and evangelist.’”

The church cited five grounds, including one which states that non-ratification binds the conscience of members who believe the Bible allows women’s ordination, that “synod has no right to bind the conscience of members and churches where the Bible does not bind,” and that “by forbidding the churches where Scripture does not clearly forbid, Synod. undermines its own authority and invites disobedience from the churches.” First CRC also said Report 31 of 1992 “sets forth positively the biblical grounds for women in ecclesiastical office” and that numerous study committees of the last twenty years have concluded that the Bible does not prohibit women in office.

According to First CRC’s pastor, Rev. Morris Greidanus, the intent behind the overture is to appeal Synod 1992’s non-ratification, have synod rescind the decision against ratification and place itself back in the position where it was prior to the non-ratification vote, and then have synod vote again on the 1990 proposal.

Dr. Henry De Moor, professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, attended classis as an advisor on church polity matters and was asked his advice on the legality of the procedure. “I concur that the overture from First Church is different in form from the others,” said De Moor. “Ratification of the 1990 change in the church order is no longer an option in 1993, so formally speaking there can be no question of ratifying 1990 in 1993; there is nothing there dangling, it is dead.”

“That is why there is this procedure of an appeal to place synod back in the position where it was prior to Synod 1992,” said De Moor.

After hearing De Moor’s advice, Classis Grand Rapids East voted unanimously to send the overture on to synod.

Classis then proceeded to address the request from Church of the Servant CRC for exemption from the ban on women elders, citing three grounds. The longest ground was the first, stating that “because through the years a large number of members have joined COS who could not maintain membership in churches where women’s gifts were not fully utilized in leadership functions, serious damage would be done to our fellowship if the decision of the 1990 Synod, which approved women serving as elders, could not be implemented.” Other grounds included that Report 31 of Synod 1992 was persuasive to the congregation and that although Synod 1992 cited “prudence” as a reason for non-ratification, “Church of the Servant CRC believes that because of spiritual realities prevailing among its membership, prudence is an additional reason for appointing women elders.”

Explaining why he wanted classis to send his request for exemption in along with a request for ratification, Rev. Jack Roeda of Church of the Servant said it was an alternate plan if Synod 1993 did not ratify women in office.

However, Rev. Archie Vander Hart of Fuller Avenue CRC thought differently. “My own gut reaction, and I feel synod will feel the same thing, is that this is coming to the father and asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage after you’ve already gone to see the justice of the peace,” said Vander Hart.

Building on Vander Hart’s metaphor, Roeda responded that exceptions allowed must be allowed. “If this father has a thousand children and makes a rule which affects 950 of his daughters, it may not apply to all of them,” said Roeda.

Other delegates said that synod’s disapproval but failure to discipline churches with women elders amounted to a de facto local exemption. “I find it interesting that Madison Square has been doing this for years, Grace has been doing it for years, Washington has been doing it for years, but no one got really excited until Eastern Avenue did this,” said Greidanus.

Classis voted to table the matter to allow the Church of the Servant delegates to fine-tune the overture during lunch. When classis returned to the matter, Church of the Servant added an additional ground that “synod itself recognizes ‘that diversity within the denomination will result in variations in practice.’” After several amendments, the motion read that classis “requests Synod. to deal with the request of the Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church for exemption from the decision of the 1992 Synod. ‘…that Synod not ratify the change in Church Order Article 3…’ (Art. 105,b,4, p. 699) to the effect that COS be permitted to continue its practice, begun in September 1992, of installing women elders.”

Rev. Mark Vermaire, pastor of Sherman Street CRC, the most recent congregation to disobey the synodical ban on nominating women elders, asked what the Church of the Servant proposal meant for other congregations. “I just have a question wondering what is meant with other churches,” said Vermaire. “Would they be able to write a letter asking for the same thing?”

Roeda responded in the affirmative. “I don’t think this would prevent Sherman, Eastern or Grace from asking the same thing,” said Roeda. “We are saying, if you don’t want to implement 1990, you must make exceptions; our local ministry would be radically affected should this be allowed to stand.”

After further discussion, classis sent the Church of the Servant overture on to synod along with the other two overtures.

Learning of the decisions, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey countered the two unexpected overtures from Classis Grand Rapids East—especially the proposal calling for ratification in 1993—as divisive and dangerous to the unity of the church.

“In purely technical terms, I would guess that De Moor’s advice was correct that they can overture synod to do anything,” said Dr. Robert Godfrey, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.

“Were the synod to adopt that overture, it would be tragic,” said Godfrey. “There is this attitude that synod can do whatever it wants, which is fundamentally a lawless attitude.”

“I feel there is a growing disregard for God’s law in the Christian Reformed Church,” said Godfrey.

“In the first place, it would put the CRC in violation of the Scripture, which is of course the most important thing,” said Godfrey. “Of all the study committee reports they cite, none of those have ever been formally approved by synod; to my mind and to the minds of many in the CRC, the Scripture clearly prohibits women in office.”

“Also, the efforts of the synod of 1992 to maintain unity in the church would be destroyed by such action and we would see more congregations, I believe, leaving the church and the financial problems of the church would continue to grow,” said Godfrey. “I think both for Biblical reasons and also for practical and pastoral reasons this overture is very ill-advised.”

To date, none of the large conservative congregations in California have seceded from the CRe. According to Godfrey, who also serves as vice-president of the consistory of the 863-member Escondido (CA) CRC, that restraint might not continue indefinitely. “I would want if possible to act in concert with other congregations and ministers; as one committed to Presbyterian polity I don’t like to contemplate merely individual action,” said Godfrey. “But it would be very difficult for me to see how I could stay in the Christian Reformed Church under those circumstances.”

Darrell Todd Maurina, Reformed Believers Press Service

Grand Rapids East Unanimously Rejects Call for End to Women Elders; Nixes Ban on Women Delegates to Classis

Grand Rapids, Michigan February 4, 1993

Showing a highly unusual degree of unity on the women-in-office question for a regional body in the bitterly divided Christian Reformed denomination, Classis Grand RapIds East’s January 21 meeting unanimously rejected an overture from retired Calvin College professor Dr. Gordon Spykman, Calvin Seminary President Dr. James De Jong and four other council members of Plymouth Heights CRC in Grand RapIds asking that four councils in classis be directed to stop disobeying synod by ordaining women elders.

At the same meeting, classis received a report from its stated clerk indicating that six churches and classes had protested the synodical disobedience in Classis Grand Rapids East. Sherman Street CRC also submitted a letter announcing that it had voted to nominate elder candidates without regard to gender, beginning with the next council elections. The action by Sherman Street and a similar announcement in another classis by River Terrace CRC in East Lansing, Michigan, upped to twelve the total number of CRC congregations which are known to have voted to admit women to all the offices. Other churches are reported to be planning similar action in the near future.

Plymouth Heights CRC, one of the few remaining moderate conservative churches in Classis Grand Rapids East, has been confronted with the women in office issue in its own classis in a way faced by few other churches. Madison Square CRC had elected women elders even prior to Synod 1990’s decision, allowing women to serve in all the offices of the church. Grace CRC, which earlier had voted not to elect any elders unless women could serve and by 1990 was out of elders due to term expirations, voted after Synod 1990 to elect women to all the offices of the church. Following Synod 1992’s refusal to ratify the 1990 women in office decision, Eastern Avenue CRC and Church of the Servant CRC ordained women to all the offices of the church. The recent vote of Sherman Street CRC means that a third of the churches in classis have chosen the path of ecclesiastical disobedience.

However, Plymouth Heights is itself a divided church. In 1992, eleven of the 36 council members—including DeJong, Spykman and the other four council members signing the new overture—brought an overture asking that the ratification vote be deferred until 1994 and saw their overture rejected by both the Plymouth Heights council and Classis Grand Rapids East. While Synod 1992 voted down the 1990 decision rather than postponing it to 1994, it did adopt a modified version of one of the grounds of the Plymouth Heights council minority—that “in the present highly polarIzed situation, the peace and unity of our churches, to which Scripture calls us…will be better served by maintaining the status quo, even with its ambiguities, than by forcing this issue to a decision that will certainly cause significant departures from the denomination.”

This year, confronted with massive ecclesiastical disobedience in their own classis, six members of the Plymouth Heights council brought an overture to their consistory asking classis “to admonish councils and congregations that have decided to proceed with the ordination of women as elders and to rescind these decisions by March 1,1993.”

The overture includes a background statement of fraternal esteem for the sister congregations but indicates that the signers are “deeply concerned that their action on this matter will further erode denominational solidarity and adversely affect our joint, denominational ministries.”

“We believe that as churches in Classis Grand Rapids East we have a special responsibility to foster healing and trust in the present denominational climate, since the direction of our denomination and its ministries is closely identified in the minds of many with the actions of our classis and the churches in it,” the overture states. “We note further, that the decision of our sister churches to ordain women as elders betrays the spirit of seeking the greater good in which synod reached its decisions; delegates of deep conviction on both sides of the subject of ordaining women as pastors and elders determined denominational policy in the interest of preserving our unity in Christ.”

The signers also note that banning the ordination of women elders “would not interfere with using women’s gifts in pastoral capacities, which we recognize could be a source of rich blessing to these congregations.”

According to the introduction to the overture, it was approved by a majority of elders but defeated by a majority of the full council at Plymouth Heights CRC.

Neither of Plymouth Heights’ two delegates to classis were signers of the overture. As a result, Classis Grand Rapids East faced an extremely unusual parliamentary problem: having been properly processed through the local church assemblies, the overture was legally before classis but not one delegate from any of the fifteen churches was willing to move the overture so it could be considered. After the chairman announced that the overture was about to die for lack of a mover, Plymouth Heights pastor Rev. Peter Van Elderen announced that he would sponsor it out of concern for his members. “Out of pastoral concern, I will make the motion that this be discussed by classis, but not out of support for their goals,” said Van Elderen. The motion then received a second and came up for debate.

No speakers supported the overture. Rev. Morris Greidanus, pastor of First CRC and a member of the committee appointed in 1991 to gather Biblical grounds for the 1990 synodical decision to open all the offices to women, said it went beyond even what synod had asked.

“When Washington, D.C. [another church with women elders] came up, synod said you cannot have women elders, but they allowed them to fill out their terms,” said Greidanus. “This motion is saying we don’t even want to do that, we want to take back their ordination.”

After a brief discussion, classis defeated the overture on a voice vote. Not a single delegate responded when the chairman called for those in favor of the motion.

Although it rejected the plea from the six Plymouth Heights council members, classis gave more consideration to an overture from Neland Avenue CRC, generally regarded as supportive of women’s ordination, asking that classis refuse to seat women elders who might be sent to classis. Far from being a merely theoretical possibility, the churches of Classis Grand Rapids East were urged by some speakers at a special discussion session following Synod 1992 to show their solidarity with women by sending a woman delegate to classis.

Neland Avenue came to classis with three recommendations: “that dassis declare that it does not approve the actions of four of its member churches that have ordained women as elders,” that “classis declare that it will not seat women elders as delegates to classis” and that “classis delay further action with respect to these churches until synod addresses our overtures.”

As grounds, Neland noted that the church order does not allow women elders or women delegates to classis but also noted that the decisions would “serve as guidance to all the churches of classis” and that “although the four member churches have provided classis with grounds for their actions, classis has not evaluated these grounds.”

“I think the primary motivation for that whole overture was principal; what does it mean to say we live in a broader assembly, a classis, and a denomination?” asked Rev. Duane Kelderman, pastor of Neland Avenue CRC.

“We are not saying we disapprove of the actions of the four churches,” said Kelderman. “We should be aware that if we initiate Recommendation A [classical non-approval of women elders], we have virtually initiated an investigation of these churches; I think it would be incumbent upon us to act.”

“Let’s give synod a chance to rectify this; let’s wait as long as possible; we may shift the focus from these four local congregations to classis itself,” said Kerderman.

Noting the flood of protests and complaints to Classis Grand Rapids East about its failure to discipline churches in ecclesiastical disobedience, Kelderman said that the protests demanded action of some sort by classis. “If we would adopt this, we then would have a recommendation for action, then we have something to say to these other churches, these other classes,” said Kelderman. “I think Classis Grand Rapids East, if it does nothing, really jeopardizes its credibility in the ongoing debates.”

“We were trying to say as little as we could but yet get a process started,” said Kelderman.

Rev. Roger Van Ham, pastor of Grace CRC, relinquished the chairmanship of classis to state that he supported the motion despite pastoring one of the churches in ecclesiastical disobedience.

In an ironic parallel to a 1991 debate in Classis Niagara over deposing the consistories of two conservative congregations which were about to secede from the CRC, in which classis later ruled that the delegates from the two congregations faced with deposition should not have been allowed to vote, the chairman cited Church Order Article 34’s prohibition on a delegate voting “on any matter in which he himself or his church is particularly involved” and ruled that since the motion dealt with four specific churches, those churches could not vote on the main motion.

Rev. Jack Roeda, pastor of Church of the Servant, protested the ruling. “What would you do if there were twelve of these congregations?” asked Roeda. “Would the decision be made by the four? Classis could be tyrannized by the minority based on this ruling.”

To avoid the appearance of making a negative statement about the churches in ecclesiastical disobedience, one delegate moved that the words “classis declare that it does not approve the actions” be changed to “classis declare that it has not approved the actions”—changing the motion from a statement of opinion to a statement of fact without opinion.

However, Rev. Roy Berkenbosch, co-pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC said the proposal weakened the motion. “The strength of this motion as originally presented was that it would give us something to say to these churches which have objections to our actions,” said Berkenbosch. “If we make this change, we are not telling them anything they do not already know.”

Following further debate, the proposed amendment was voted down. On a close vote, classis passed the main motion on not approving the actions of the churches in ecclesiastical disobedience.

However, Neland’s proposed ban on delegating women elders to classis did not fare as well Kelderman defended his church’s overture. “We judge that it is reasonable to put some bounds around our ecclesiastical disobedience,” said Kelderman. “As we struggle to draw a balance between our loyalty to synod and our Biblical convictions, this puts us on a middle ground.”

However, Rev. John Timmer of Woodlawn eRe argued that the overture was unnecessary. “If we are on record opposing these churches opening the office of elder to women, why would we seat an elder at classis?” asked Timmer.

“If that’s the case there shouldn’t be any problem with passing it,” responded Kelderman.

“We have a pastoral problem here,” said Kelderman, providing further grounds for passing the overture. “If we don’t adopt something like this and one of these churches were to send a woman to classis, we don’t know what would happen. Would other churches protest? Then we’d have a person here and have to fight.”

Rev. AI Luke, pastor of Boston Square CRC, said that such a fight would be unnecessary. “It seems to me that should a church send a delegate here, we should seat her,” said Luke.

Classis Grand Rapids East finally voted not to pass the Neland motion banning women elders from classis and later approved the third overture saying that classis would not discipline churches in ecclesiastical disobedience until at least Synod 1993.

“Neland Avenue does not resent what the churches have done; if you look at the record, we have been quite supportive,” said Kelderman. “After Synod 1993 acts, we have something on our table that we have to deal with; our view was to let synod try to straighten this thing out.”

“Time is on our side on this one,” said Kelderman.

Darrell Todd Maurina, Reformed Believers Press Service