Second Woman Pastor to Serve Christian Reformed Church
• Mary-Lee Bouma to “teach, expound the Word of God, and provide pastoral care” as unordained solo pastor of Trinity CRC, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
(September 2, 1994) RBPS – On Sunday, August 28, 1994, Mary-Lee Bouma became the second female pastor in the 300,320-member Christian Reformed denomination, which still officially bans women from being ordained to the offices of minister or elder. Bouma will serve as the unordained solo pastor of Trinity CRC in the northern Michigan community of Mt. Pleasant.
Although the Christian Reformed denomination has never allowed the ordination of women in its 137-year history, Synod 1989 allowed women to serve as “adjunct elders” without vote and Synod 1992 allowed women to “teach, expound the Word of God, and provide pastoral care, under the supervision of the elders” of the local church. While a number of Christian Reformed congregations have used the “expounding” provision to have women seminarians lead services and a few have hired female seminary interns, Mt. Pleasant CRC is only the second Christian Reformed congregation to hire a woman as its full-time unordained pastor.
The first woman pastor in the CRC was Ruth Hofman, who in late 1992 began serving First CRC in Toronto, a congregation which has had women elders for years and which allows church member Dr. Hendrick Hart to lead the Toronto chapter of the As We ARE gay and lesbian support group on church premises. Mt. Pleasant CRC, by contrast, is a small and quiet 95-member congregation whose campus ministry at Central Michigan University is heavily funded by Christian Reformed denominational and classical ministry shares. The church has no women elders and has no intention of disobeying synod.
Rev. Keith Tanis, coordinator of field education at the denominationally-owned Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, conducted the commissioning service at Mt. Pleasant. Tanis, who began his ministry at Mt. Pleasant in 1975, said he was pleased Bouma could fill the pulpit from which he preached until 1979.
“It’s a good fit for her,” said Tanis, “She’s an outstanding evangelist and I think she’ll bring some good gifts to the congregation as far as outreach goes.”
Tanis said Bouma would be particularly effective in a college town. “She really is an outstanding leader because of her campus ministry background in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship,” said Tanis,
Tanis said the commissioning service for Bouma included laying on of hands but carefully avoided language of an ordination service. Tanis noted that prior to participating in the service, he had consulted with Rev. Wilbert Van Dyk, Calvin’s academic dean, and participated only with the understanding that his action was not ecclesiastical disobedience.
Other participating ministers included Mary-Lee’s father, Rev. Henry Bouma, and a black Lutheran pastor from the area. As a seminarian, the younger Bouma served in inner-city ministry in a predominantly black neighborhood of Grand Rapids.
A number of female seminarians from Calvin also attended the commissioning service. “It was very encouraging for the women students to see that they could do ministry in the Christian Reformed Church,” Tanis said, noting that Synod 1994’s decision not to allow the ordination of women ministers or elders had discouraged a number of Calvin’s women seminarians.
Bouma declined comment on the record, but said she believed her new position did not disobey synodical regulations and was in accord with the decision of Synod 1992 allowing unordained expounders to do mostwork of ministers other than administration of the sacraments.
However, not everyone in the CRC agrees that the 1992 decision was intended to allow women expounders to serve as solo pastors of congregations, Confusion over the 1992 decision led to a number of overtures in 1993 and 1994; Synod 1994 appointed a committee to clarify the term “expound” which is scheduled to report back to Synod 1995.
“I think it is not in accord with the Church Order or the intention of synod that an expounder take the place of a pastor and that seems to be what is happening in this instance,” said Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in California and reporter for the Synod 1994 advisory committee which successfully recommended non-ratification of women in office.
“I don’t know Mary-Lee Bouma and I don’t want to say anything negative about her, but I think it’s particularly unfortunate that while a committee is studying this matter a church would take the kind of action that this church has,” said Godfrey, “I don’t think that it will contribute to the peace or unity of the church.”
Godfrey said the Mt. Pleasant action, coupled with an earlier decision by Classis Grand Rapids East not to discipline churches with women elders, would produce calls by his church and others for strong synodical action. “I’ve spoken with some men who know the Church Order very well and believe synod has the authority to order classes to bring their congregations into conformity with the Church Order, and if the classis or the congregation refuse, that synod has the authority to discipline the classis and the congregation,” said Godfrey.
“The ultimate form of discipline would be to depose officebearers, but I certainly hope it wouldn’t come to that,” said Godfrey. “But if there is an utter defiance of the Church Order and synod, that might be necessary.”
Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service
UNPRECEDENTED DECISION OF REFORMED CHURCH IN AMERICA SYNOD REMOVES VOTING RIGHTS FROM TWO REGIONAL CLASSES
by Rev. Edwin P. Elliott, Jr. with Daffell Todd Maurina Distributed by Reformed Believers Press Service
(August 23,1994) RBPS – America’s senior Protestant denomination, the Reformed Church in America, excluded 10 delegates from two of its West Michigan classes from participation in its 1994 General Synod. Though not full excision from the denomination, the two assemblies were refused the right to vote because they did not collect denominational assessments from congregations in their bounds.
In Muskegon Classis, Christ Community Church in Spring Lake had withheld payments from the central office due to objections over the mailing of the denominational periodical, the Church Herald, to all congregations. Christ Community Church, pastored by Rev. Richard Rhem, is a progressive congregation which has on occasion changed the Lord’s Prayer to feminine language. Christ Community even termed its withholding of payments “civil disobedience.”
In contrast, the conservative Seventh Reformed Church in North Grand Rapids Classis withheld payments because the denomination was too liberal Seventh Reformed’s pastor, Dr. John R. deWitt, is a leading figure in conservative circles, identified with the Banner of Truth Trust, and formerly a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
The General Synod did give the ten delegates from the two classes full privilege of the floor apart from voting rights.
A Profile of Westminster Theological Seminary in California
ESCONDIDO, CALIF. (August 20, 1994) RBPS – “Can Calvinism survive in the sun?” quips Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in California.
Godfrey’s biography answers his own question. He is a native Californian converted from liberalism through Christian Reformed mission work, becoming one of the eRe’s most prominent conservatives. Few in the Reformed world would argue that Godfrey’s Calvinism has been diluted by solar rays.
Mentioning southern California usually summons up images of beaches and surfing, not the black-robed scholars of the Synod of Dort or the Westminster Assembly. Solar warmth might have a bit of an impact on a seminary where many professors work in shirtsleeves while lecturing on books written under the grey skies of Scotland, New England or the Netherlands, but sunny skies and a religiously tolerant atmosphere have not qualified Westminster’s theology.
“California is a place that historically has not been strong in concentration of Reformed churches,” noted Dr. Dennis Johnson, academic dean of Westminster in California. “This is not Grand Rapids, this is not Jackson, Mississippi; this is an opportunity for us to bring the depth of Reformed understanding to the world around us.”
Westminster’s faculty hope to change the theological climate, not merely of southern California but also of Reformed Christianity elsewhere in the country. “Our emphasis from the beginning has been to emphasize first of all preparing men for the pastoral ministry, as the east campus began to focus on academic and Ph.D. training,” said Johnson.
Keith Vander Pol, Westminster’s vice president for development, noted that training competent leaders is essential to the health of the church. “In this day and age churches which were once very solid have experienced a change in their leadership and become otherwise,” said Vander Pol. “We want to train the leadership of the future.”
A focus on promoting Reformed Christianity has brought an uncommonly strong focus on pastoral involvement to the only accredited Reformed seminary west of the Missouri River. Six of the seminary’s eleven regular faculty members currently double as pastors or assistant pastors of area churches; and another two including the seminary president serve as elders in Escondido CRC. Almost all of Westminster’s 13 adjunct and visiting faculty are pastors or heads of Christian ministry organizations, ranging from Dr. Timothy Monsma, executive director of Cities for Christ Worldwide and former Mid-America Reformed Seminary professor, to Rev. Tae Young Shin, pastor of English worship at Dr. John E. Kim’s 1,960-member Los Angeles Christian Presbyterian Church.
Westminster in California began in 1979 as a 50th Anniversary project of Westminster’s original Campus in Philadelphia, dating back to 1929 and founded by J. Gresham Machen during his conflict with liberalism in the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). “They had a long-term plan to plant a Reformed seminary on the west coast,” said Vander Pol “Unbeknown to them, there were groups of various intensities meeting in Los Angeles and San Diego when at the same time we were looking for such an opportunity.”
Escondido, a growing town of approximately 100,000, was intentionally chosen midway between the two major southern California cities of San Diego and Los Angeles.
The impetus for the new school came from members of a variety of denominations, particularly the Orthodox Presbyterian and Christian Reformed denominations, but also members of the Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, and Reformed Church in the United States. Classes at the new school began meeting in 1980, using temporary facilities seven miles away in San Marcos.
Planting a school in southern California was not cheap: the facility built on a 9 acre campus is valued at 1.35 million dollars. Finances were not always easy. “We had four faculty in the early days,” said Johnson. “Probably one of the greatest challenges to me to grow in my faith was the financial struggle.”
Westminster in California officially separated from Westminster in Philadelphia in 1984 when it moved into its just-completed Escondido quarters; and while the two schools maintain good relations, each now has an entirely separate board of trustees, faculty, and degree-granting authority. The only formal connection between the two is “Westminster Seminary Ministries,” an organization which promotes cooperation and mutual assistance between the two campuses. The eastern campus, located in the historic Presbyterian city of Philadelphia, currently has over 400 students in a wide variety of degree programs ranging from M.A. programs in Christian education to the Ph.D. program. By contrast, the California campus has 108 masters-level students in only two programs: the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program usually used to prepare for ordained ministry, and two Master of Arts (M.A.) programs normally used to prepare for positions in church education, teaching, or counseling. An additional 51 students are currently enrolled in Westminster California’s Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) curriculum, a program focusing on preaching and pastoral work which is largely completed off campus. One distinctive of the Westminster California program is almost unique among Reformed seminaries: women are not admitted to the D.Min. or M.Div. programs “because the seminary board and faculty understand the Scriptures as limiting the gospel ministry in the church to qualified males only,” in the words of the official seminary catalog. Women are, however, admitted to the two tracks of the M.A. program which do not require students to preach or exercise pastoral authority. “The entire academic training of our M.Div. program is available to women,” noted John Sowell, student recruiter for Westminster. “We are a school primarily to train men for the pastoral ministry, but we welcome women to our M.A. program and we have several of them.”
Sowell pointed to the low faculty-student ratio of 1:10 as a particular benefit of Westminster in California. Even though the school’s enrollment is rapidly growing, an unusual zoning requirement ensures Westminster will always have a low student population. Because its campus is located in a residential area of Escondido, local authorities issued a conditional use permit that prevents the school from ever having more than 200 masters level students.
Despite Westminster’s conservative reputation, both students and faculty insisted that professors require students to understand rather than merely memorize and repeat doctrinal positions. “Theological education is not just education but discipleship,” said Sowell. “We insist on our students not just saying this is what I believe, but I’ve read the book and here’s the page on which it appears.”
“We view ourselves as quite ecumenical and open-minded,” said Dr. Steven Baugh, one of the earliest graduates of Westminster in California who now teaches Greek and New Testament at the seminary, noting that many students come to Westminster from non-Reformed backgrounds.
“We do not require a doctrinal pledge of our students on the front end or on the back end,” said Vander Pol. “Our major marketing point is inerrancy and Biblical infallibility. To serve the non-Reformed student this is what we want to do.
The faculty, however, must sign a very specific doctrinal pledge affirming not only Reformed theology but also Presbyterian polity “as agreeable to the divine oracles.” Faculty members must “solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate or insinuate anything which shall contradivter or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any element of that system of doctrine, nor to oppose any of the fundamental principles of that form of church government, while [they] continue a member of the faculty in this seminary.” “We do have to subscribe to the Westminster Confession ex animo as professors and we do so joyfully,” said Baugh. “There are certain clear teachings in the Scripture that we stand upon.”
Vander Pol said the result of strict adherence by faculty members to Reformed theology and Presbyterian polity was that while half of Westminster’s students come from non-Reformed backgrounds, “the joy is that 95 percent end up thoroughly Reformed upon graduation.”
While Westminster is strictly Reformed and strictly Presbyterian, the seminary has been interdenominational since its very beginning. From its earliest days, the Christian Reformed Church joined northern Presbyterian conservatives in the work of Westminster’s Philadelphia campus. Later helpers included the Reformed Church in the United States, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church in America, and most recently the Korean-American Presbyterian Church.
“I like very much our multi-denominational stand,” said Vander Pol. “Students are not maneuvered in the direction toward a certain denomination and I very much appreciate that.”
Although the CRC was one of the earliest supporters of Westminster, recent developments have brought tension to that relationship. The most public conflict has been over decisions by the CRC Board of Trustees and the Calvin Seminary Board of Trustees—both overturned by Synod 1994—to drop Westminster from the list of nondenominational agencies approved for financial support and to deny ministerial candidacy to Westminster graduate Bradd Nymeyer.
“The implication is that we gain by bashing the CRC. We’re broader than the CRC and we don’t want to do those things,” said Vander Pol, who is himself a member of Escondido CRC.
“Nine of our 20 employees working here are in the CRC so what would we gain by attacking the CRC?” asked Vander Pol. “Criticism should in no way be confused with lack of compassion for the CRC and too often it is that way.”
What’s next for Westminster? At least for the short term, much of Westminster’s energy will go into a building program which will add more classrooms, a larger student lounge, and an expanded library. The expansion program, which will take six to eight months, follows a 53 percent increase in the number of students since 1992 and the donation of a 12,000-volume collection of rare books on cults.
While the facilities will undergo a major change in the next few months, Johnson said future students can be assured that one thing will remain the same: “They can be confident of the faculty’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, the inerrancy of Scripture, and Reformed theology.”
Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service