Church & World July/August 1994

Classis Grand Rapids East Votes “In Principle” to Permit Churches to Disobey CRC Synod’s Ban on Women Elders

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (July 21, 1994) RBPS – Synod 1994 of the Christian Reformed denomination voted to declare that “the clear teaching of Scripture prohibits women holding the office of minister, elder, and evangelist,” but some advocates of women in office aren’t taking the synod decision lying down. Meeting tonight at the oldest Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids, Classis Grand Rapids East voted “in principle” to adopt a resolution that “classis permit its individual churches the freedom to decide whether or not the word ‘male’ in article 3a of the church order is operative in their particular settings.”

Classis president Rev. Russell Palsrok, pastor of Plymouth Heights CRC, said adopting the motion in principle “means that we are not held to the precise wording of this, we could add grounds to this, but that it would be the principle of this motion that we would be adopting.” Classis also appointed a study committee to prepare a more detailed report for presentation to the regular classis meeting on September 15.

Classis Grand Rapids East is directly affected by another decision of Synod 1994, which after voting down women in office, voted to “urge all congregations which have ordained women elders, evangelists, or ministers to release them from office by June 1, 1995” and not to ordain any more women to those offices on the grounds that the practice “has always been in violation of Church Order Article 3” and that the June 1, 1995 date is “reasonable.”

So far, at least 15 Christian Reformed churches have ordained women elders despite the synodical prohibition. Five of these are in Classis Grand Rapids East, which means a third of the 15 churches in classis have women in positions synod has ruled they may not hold. A number or other churches have women serving in “adjunct” positions doing the work of elders without ordination or voting rights. Churches with women “adjunct elders” are not in violation of synod; since 1989, synod has allowed unordained laypeople to serve as “adjunct” elders so long as they do not vote at council meetings.

One of the churches is First CRC, which called and hosted the special classis meeting. The 137-year-old church voted last year to elect only “associate elders,” including two women, until women could be elected as regular elders. Because the church has two year terms, Rev. Morris Greidanus said he would be the only regular elder left on its council unless the church either disobeys synod or decides to place only males in nomination for the regular eldership. According to the church, this “avoids synodical offense, but seems to some to offend justice.”

“We are dismayed that the 1994 synod refused to ratify the 93 decision, and even more dismayed by some of the grounds used for that decision,” First CRC wrote in a letter to classis. “We see no ‘clear’ message in the Bible that would disqualify women from serving as elder. We are offended by the way the synodical decision attempts to decide our consciences for us.”

Even the tentative decision taken by C1assis Grand Rapids East to endorse ecclesiastical disobedience will be watched far beyond the classis. Many of the denominational leaders are members of churches in the classis, including many of the CRC’s top officials and 15 of the 21 faculty members at Calvin Seminary.

Despite the late July heat, the audience at the special meeting of classis was far higher than normal and was filled with many of those denominational leaders. During a 30 minute discussion session for delegates to classis, all five churches which already have women elders said they would not follow the urging of synod to release them from office. One church, Sherman Street CRC, indicated that their congregation and council had responded to synod’s urgings by voting to retain their women elders by a unanimous vote.

“I find some freedom in that word ‘urge,’” said Rev. Jack Roeda, pastor of Church of the Servant CRC which first elected women elders in 1992. “When my son was seven I instructed him to go to school and he went. Now that he is grown and an adult, I urged him to go to seminary and he decided to go somewhere else.”

When the floor was opened for speeches by non-delegates, Charlotte Ellison, member of Church of the Servant and one of the organizers of the protests against synod mounted in 1992 and 1994, warned that the denomination is “faced with a real crisis.”

“It seems to me that the Christian Reformed Church has been faced with something very much like the Southem Baptist Convention of a few years ago,” said Ellison. “I do believe that this is a radicalizing moment.”

Ellison combined the words “Reformed and fundamentalist” to coin the term “Refundies,” and amidst audience laughter, applied the them to those who led the opposition to women in office.

“I think this synod could be grieving the Holy Spirit,” said Elder Lillian Grissen, for years a leading figure in CRC circles and now president of the Grace CRC council. “You can have peace without justice or justice without peace, but as long as this decision stands, peace without justice is no peace at all.”

Dorothy Van Hammersveld, initiator of the Van Hammersveld scholarship fund of the Committee for Women in the CRC, told classis delegates that over the years the Committee for Women had sponsored 85 women studying at Calvin Seminary, Fuller Seminary, Western Seminary and other schools. “One by one the women have graduated and most of them have left for other denominations that allow women to serve,” Van Hammersveld noted with sadness.

Although sentiment at classis was overwhelmingly supportive of women in office, at least one observer urged classis to count the costs of ecclesiastical disobedience before proceeding.

“The question I came to hear was a discussion on ecclesiastical disobedience,” said retired Calvin College professor Dr. Henry Beversluis. “I think it is a solemn decision for a body in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition to advise ecclesiastical disobedience.”

“We have got to teach respect for law and order,” continued Beversluis. “We need to teach kids that, with words and with examples. This has to be done with fear and trembling, to violate the church order and disobey a synodical decision.”

“We must be ready, as Martin Luther King was, to suffer the consequences,” warned Beversluis.

When the classis moved from discussion to consider action on the motion, the delegates from Seymour CRC submitted a formal written protest against the special meeting of classis and requested that the chair rule that the classis could not consider any motions.

“We received the information via the mail only 15 days before the meeting of class is. Even if we were able to call a council meeting, a large percentage of our elders and deacons are on vacation,” wrote the Seymour CRC executive committee in their protest. “If a meeting of classis is to be called in which motions are to be considered and voted on, it is necessary to have specific overtures with grounds at least a month in advance in order to give individual councils an opportunity to consider both the overtures and their grounds.”

Rev. Gerry Zandstra, pastor of Seymour CRC, asked the president of classis to rule that no motions be entertained at the special meeting. When he declined to do so, Zandstra challenged the decision of the chair. No delegates from other churches sup-ported Zandstra’s challenge that no motions be entertained.

Zandstra’s challenge was voted down by a wide voice vote margin. Classis then took up and eventually adopted the motion to “permit its individual churches the freedom to decide whether or not the word ‘male’ in article 3a of the church order is operative in their particular settings.”

The motion was presented by Woodlawn CRC, a church which is supportive of women in office but does not yet have women elders.

Greidanus said the motion did not address First CRC’s concern about synod’s statement that “this decision will not bind Christian consciences in any inappropriate way. Christ is Lord of the conscience and a Christian cannot claim freedom of conscience where the Scripture has spoken.”

“What offended me most about the decision of synod, [Woodlawn’s motion] didn’t even mention,” said Greidanus. “I just don’t read the Scripture the way the majority did. I think we need bigger grounds if we’re going to make a decision this momentous.”

“I like the motion because that’s what we’ve got to do,” said Berkenbosch from Eastern Avenue CRC, but he expressed concern about insufficient grounds. “We could vote on this tonight and it might pass, but it would be attacked in other assemblies and might not prove very durable.”

Hoezee from Calvin CRC said any decision by classis should be well-written to send a strong message to synod. “I’d like synod to hear as a more progressive classis that we don’t like your decision, butwe ain’t going, so you’re gonna have to deal with us,” said Hoezee.

Zandstra moved to refer the proposal back to Woodlawn for refinement, but withdrew his motion after delegates objected that it would prematurely cut off discussion.

Greidanus then moved to “approve this motion in principle” and to appoint a committee to prepare a report for submission to the next meeting of classis.

Classis finally adopted the motion to “approve this motion in principle” and assigned the officers of classis to appoint the committee.

While sentiment in Classis Grand Rapids East was overwhelmingly opposed to the synodical decision, not every member of classis agrees with the classical decision. Calvin Seminary president Dr. James De Jong, a member and former elder of Plymouth Heights CRC, has previously worked with a minority of the Plymouth Heights council to send overtures urging classis and synod to take a variety of actions against churches practicing ecclesiastical disobedience by withholding quotas or electing women elders.

“I would be very disappointed in Classis Grand Rapids East and its leadership if it in any way subverted synod’s decision,” said De Jong, who was not delegated to classis and did not attend the meeting. “I think our times call for the highest possible level of Christian virtue and in this context I judge that to mean using all the legitimate avenues at our disposal to effect change.”

De Jong declined comment on whether the “legitimate avenues” would include an overture by him against the decision of classis.

Zandstra was even more upset by the classical decision to reject the Seymour protest and entertain motions, describing it as “obvious, total disobedience” and a “sorry day for our denomination.”

“Obviously when almost half of classis has women elders and synod tells us to urge them to stop we need to talk about it, but the funny thing about this was that Classis Grand Rapids East has the votes to do this appropriately and chose to do so inappropriately,” said Zandstra. “I voted last night on a motion my council hasn’t even seen. This was just flat out wrong; this was a power move by the ministers. It has been hastily, emotionally, and inappropriately done. We had a motion on the floor to engage in ecclesiastical disobedience, and to vote on a motion like that which hadn’t even been seen by the councils is ecclesiastical insanity. We took a step toward congregationalism last night and only time will tell what will come or it,” said Zandstra.

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in California and reporter for the Synod 1994 committee majority against women in office, predicted that the Grand Rapids East decision will meet with more resistance elsewhere. “I think this decision is tragic,” said Godfrey. “It is one thing to ignore churches that are defying synod, it’s another thing to approve that defiance. I think it makes their claims about seeking the peace and unity of the church sound exceedingly hollow.”

Godfrey took exception to those offended by the majority report’s statement that Scripture is “clear” on women in office. “The fact that some people think the Scripture is unclear on a subject doesn’t make the Scripture unclear,” said Godfrey. “There were even ‘good’ Presbyterians in late 17th century England who thought Scripture was unclear on the divinity of Christ.”

Godfrey rebutted arguments that his own church, Escondido CRC, commits ecclesiastical disobedience by withholding the denominational ministry share assessments from Calvin College. “I don’t think quotas are mandated in the church order in the same way that Article 3a mandates no women elders or ministers,” said Godfrey. Godfrey also noted that Escondido CRC had resumed paying ministry shares to Calvin Seminary.

According to Godfrey, the strongest opposition to the decision of Classis Grand Rapids East may come from laymen rather than ministers. “It seems to me that in our church in a number of ways this argument is being made that Scripture is unclear and the effect is that Scripture is being taken away from the people,” said Godfrey. “Next year’s synod will have to decide what is appropriate action for a whole classis that is in defiance of the church order.”

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service