Church & World February 1995

Synodical Study Committee: “Expounding” Does Not Mean Women May Fill Christian Reformed Pulpits’ Will Christian Reformed Debate Change from Women in Office to Unordained Women Exhorters in Pulpits?

GRAND RAPIDS, MI RBPS – A study committee appointed by Synod 1994 to determine the meaning of the term “expound the Word of God” has unanimously decided that, whatever the term “expounding” means, it does not permit women to fill pulpits in the 300,320-member Christian Reformed denomination.

If adopted by Synod 1995, scheduled to meet in June, the study report will have profound effects in a denomination which, although it has never officially allowed women in office, has changed its position four times in five years on whether women may serve in the offices of pastor, elder, and evangelist. Allowing women in office would require a change in the CRC Church Order, and advocates of women in office have never yet been able to muster the votes in two subsequent years at the denomination’s annual synod, which would be required to change the Church Order.

Largely due to frustration with perceived synodical waffling, at least 17 Christian Reformed congregations have disobeyed synod by deciding to allow the ordination of women to the office of elder. Two women are serving as the unordained pastors of Christian Reformed congregations, and seven women have been “approved to expound” or “licensed to exhort” in at least two classes of the denomination. In addition, the denominationally-operated Calvin Seminary has allowed women to “expound” the Word of God from Christian Reformed pulpits ever since Synod 1992 allowed women to “teach, expound the Word of God, and provide pastoral care, under the supervision of the elders” of local Christian Reformed congregations.

All of these actions, however, were violations of the Christian Reformed Church Order, according to the synodical study committee. In a six-page report focusing on the technical applications of the terms “preaching,” “exhorting,” and “expounding,” the committee noted that the phrase “expound the Word” is only used in the Church Order with reference to seminary professors who train students for the ordained ministry. Noting that this point was not brought to the attention of Synod 1992, the committee reported that “it may be safely assumed that Synod 1992 did not intend what Article 20 intends by this expression.”

What, then, does “expounding” mean? The committee report noted that “preaching” and “exhorting” are technical terms applying, respectively, to ordained ministers and laypeopJe licensed to exhort by a classis or, in the case of theological students, licensed to exhort by the Board of Trustees of Calvin Seminary acting as a committee of synod. The Church Order specifically states in Article 3 that only men may be ordained as ministers and elders and in Article 43 that only men may be licensed as exhorters.

As a result of its examination of the Church Order prohibitions against women exhorters or preachers, the committee report asks synod to “declare the expression ‘expounding the Word’ as used in the decision of Synod 1992 to mean that women ought to be encouraged to use their gifts of interpreting, teaching, and applying the Word of God in a variety of ministry contexts but not for exhorting and preaching in official worship services.” In a separate recommendation, the committee asks synod to “declare that a change in Church Order Article 43 would be required to authorize women to bring the Word of God in official worship services.”

The report was signed by all members of a highly diverse committee consisting of former synod president Rev. Peter Brouwer, Calvin Seminary professor of church polity Dr. Henry De Moor, former CRC General Secretary Rev. Leonard Hofman, and Rev. Allen Petroelje, chairman of the 1992 synodical advisory committee which recommended the creation of the category of “expounding.” However, De Moor and Hofman added an additional note stating that they wished the committee had recommended that Synod 1995 “take decisive action as to whether or not to formally provide for such authorization” for women to “exhort” as licensed laypeople (as opposed to “preach” as ordained pastors). According to the note, the other members of the committee “judged that such a request by the committee would be beyond the mandate and, therefore, not in good order.” Noting that “churches and classes are at liberty to overture synod with respect to this matter and in the interest of coming to synod with a unanimous report,” Hofman and De Moor wrote that they “decided not to press [their] case.”

“The whole question is what does expounding mean, and the answer to the question is, if we are talking about a woman mounting a pulpit and delivering a self-made sennon, that is exhorting and the Church Order restricts that to men,” said De Moor. “All we’re saying is from now on we’re going to call a spade a spade, any woman who in fact climbs a pulpit is in fact exhorting. I know a lot of people were disappointed about that report, but that was a mandate and we’ve done it.”

De Moor said the note attached to the report was written out of concern that the report’s recommendations could cause serious pastoral difficulties in churches which already have women filling pulpits as expounders. “We acknowledge that churches in good faith may have interpreted Synod 1992 in that way. [Synod) didn’t change the Church Order; they didn’t want to get into the question of exhorting, and as a consequence we have confusion on our hands,” said De Moor. “We are not saying what Synod 1992 meant, we are simply saying the new Synod 1995 should declare that expression means everything but climbing a pulpit to deliver a self-made sermon. We’re saying whatever they meant by it, let’s eliminate the confusion, and say that those who climb a pulpit, whether male or female, when they deliver a sennan are exhorting.”

De Moor noted his concern for the pastoral problems which could be caused in classes which had licensed women expounders. “I want to admire that, because in the 1992 decision there is nothing about a broader assembly licensing to women to expound,” said De Moor. “These people are living up to the spirit ofthe Church Order as well as the synodical decision, and I appreciate that. But we’ve got to call a spade a spade, and if we’re going to allow women to exhort, we need to change the Church Order and allow that.”

De Moor also called attention to the difference between women exhorting and women in office. “A change in Article 43 [on exhorters] has absolutely nothing to do with the whole women in office debate because Article 43 focuses on unordained, with people who do not require or want ordination,” said De Moor. “I would think that ought to be contemplated that women who want to lead in worship would not be ordained to office.”

A change in Article 43 to permit women exhorters would still not allow the licensure of women theological students at Calvin Seminary, according to De Moor. “Licensure of theological students is given by the Board of Trustees and synod, and is tied to Article 3 of the Church Order,” said De Moor. “The only reason they’re licensed at all is that they are preparing for ordination.” But others in the denomination would see a change in Article 43 as a threat to the decision of Synod ‘94, and a “paving of the way” leading to the ordination of women.

Although the note to the committee report indicates that churches are free to submit overtures to synod which would allow women to be licensed as exhorters, De Moor indicated that to his knowledge no such vortures had yet been submitted. “In the overtures I’ve seen so far, none of them talk about expounding, only women in office,” said De Moor.

As De Moor said, not everyone in the Christian Reformed denomination is happy with the committee report—and some of those who are happiest with the report are seldom happy with Christian Reformed synodical reports.

“The committee begins with the Church Order and applies the Church Order to the 1992 decision, instead of beginning with the 1992 decision and trying to decide how the 1992 decision dealt with the Church Order,” said Pastor George Vander Weit, stated clerk of Classis Lake Erie, one of the classes which has licensed women.

“It’s amazing that the secretary of the committee, who was the chairperson of the committee that recommended expounding, and the very person who substituted the word expound for the word proclaim, now doesn’t know what the word meant,” said Vander Weit.

However, the synodical report received praises from an unusual quarter: Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary and reporter for the majority of the 1994 synodical advisory committee on women in office which successfully opposed ratification of the 1993 synodical decision allowing women in office.

“My initial response is it seems a correct interpretation of the Church Order and synodical actions and I think it will be helpful,” said Godfrey.

What is Godfrey’s advice to the 17 churches which have voted to allow women’s ordination, the two churches with full-time women expounders, and the two classes which have licensed women to exhort or expound?

“I assume that as those who desire to keep covenant with the denomination, they will want to abide by the Church Order and synodical decisions,” said Godfrey.

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service

Classis Lake Erie Requests “Balance” on Christian Reformed Committee Studying Whether God is “Mother”

RBPS – Since June, a seven member committee has been studying whether Christian Reformed churches and members may address God using feminine terms such as “Mother,” “She” and “Her”.

Even voting to study the matter has been controversial for many in the CRC. The study committee was erected in response to a three-year string of overtures from Classis Hudson and a 1994′ overture from Classis of the Heartland, most of which called for the initiation of disciplinary action against CRC members who address God as “She.” Conservative objections to a study committee were largely muted, however, by the appointment of Calvin Seminary professor Dr. John Cooper as chairman of the study committee. Cooper, a former elder of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids who supports women in office, has been a vocal opponent of feminine language for God.

However, some of Cooper’s normal allies in the defense of women in office are less happy with his position on calling God “She.”

According to “Cross Talk,” the Classis Lake Erie newsletter, “it seems that synod has ‘stacked the deck’ to secure a particular conclusion.”

“Because of public positions taken on this and related issues, it appears that the two theologians and the two ministers appointed to this committee hold the same position [as synod],” said the newsletter. “To ensure a fair study and a serious consideration of the issues involved, classis requested the Board of Trustees to add Dr. Clay Libolt, pastor of our River Terrace church, to the committee. Clay’s doctorate is in the Old Testament, the section of the Bible where the majority of the feminine imagery used to describe God is found.”

Ironically, one of the “two ministers” cited by the newsletter is Rev. Jai-Sung Shim, a doctoral student at Calvin Seminary who was ordained by Classis Lake Erie to serve on loan to an independent Korean church in Saginaw, Michigan.

“Several people are already on record saying this practice is possibly a violation of the third commandment [against taking God’s name in vain],” said Pastor George Vander Weit, stated clerk of Classis Lake Erie. “I think there has to be some balance on the committee, what we try to do on committees is make sure issues get a fair hearing.”

“This has nothing to do with whether people are in favor of addressing God as ‘Mother,’ it has everything to do with making sure this issue gets a fair hearing, with whether the various issues surrounding this subject get raised and addressed,” insisted Vander Weit. “The conclusion of the committee may indeed be that it’s inappropriate to address God as ‘Mother.’ That may be the final conclusion of a balanced committee, but when synod appointed people who have already staked out a public position, that these people were appointed because they oppose calling God ‘Mother,’ it doesn’t do anything to give the church any confidence in the committee.”

In fact, the appointment of a committee whose leading members oppose feminine language for God “may polarize the church more rather than bringing the church together,” warned Vander Weit.

The formal motion adopted by classis instructed its interim committee “to request the [CRC] Board of Trustees to add Dr. C. Libolt to the committee studying inclusive language for God.” If the CRC Board of Trustees does not add Libolt, that won’t necessarily end the matter; classis also requested its interim committee “to prepare an overture on the composition of this and other denominational committees if that is necessary.”

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service

Alliance Church Dedicates Building in Holland, Michigan

Grand Rapids, MI (January 3, 1995) – Messiah’s Independent Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan, has become the first of the new independent Reformed churches in the Lake Michigan Regional Fellowship to erect its own building for worship.

Of the nineteen churches in the Lake Michigan Regional Fellowship, only five left the Christian Reformed denomination with their property. Two of the churches had been independent for over twenty years and erected buildings in the early 1970’s, and another two purchased buildings shortly after organizing. Following the November 2 dedication service at Messiah’s, only seven of the nineteen area churches are still meeting in rented quarters.

“We built with a lot of volunteer help from members,” said Rev. Ken Anema, pastor of the mostly rural congregation.

Messiah’s has seen substantial growth since organizing in late 1992 with 17 families. The church now has an average attendance of 150 people and it built for further growth: the total seating capacity of its new building is 300.

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service