Classis Grand Rapids East “Refines” July Decision to Disobey Christian Reformed Synodical Ban on Women Elders

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (September 29, 1994) RBPS – In the wake of seven written protests and a storm of public criticism, Classis Grand Rapids East of the Christian Reformed denomination voted on September 15 to revise its July 21 decision “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.”

The new decision, supported by over ten pages of grounds, declares that “recognizing synod’s legal right to insist on the retention of the word ‘male’ in Church Order Article 3a, [classis] nevertheless acknowledges its congregations’ moral right of conscientious objection (with any attendant consequences) to that insistence with respect to the office of elder.”

Classis also resolved “not to attempt to force its congregations to comply with the decision of Synod 1994” urging churches to release women elders by June I, 1995 and not to ordain more women elders.

The resolutions came from a five-member committee appointed by the July meeting “to do further work and refinement” on the motion. Dr. Henry DeMoor, professor of church polity at the denomination’s Calvin Theological Seminary, served as reporter for the committee.

Delegates themselves appeared surprised by the extent of the negative reaction to their earlier decision. Complaints received include objections from Classis Illiana, First CRC of Chino, and the Presbytery of Southeast Alabama of the Presbyterian Church in America.

“There are strong feelings on our committee that we have got to get out from under that July decision,” said De Moor. “You’ve got to do something to fix July, because there are many people who are really upset.”

The PCA letter, sent from the presbytery whose stated clerk is a leading PCA moderate and former chairman of the PCA’s Interchurch Relations Committee, was singled out for special attention by Rev. Rolf Bouma, pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC. “We’ve got a letter from the Presbytery of SE Alabama,” said Bouma. “I’d really like to see what their classical agenda is like that they have time to send communications to us.”

De Moor told delegates that he hoped the new classical decision would receive just as widespread publicity as the July decision. “Reporters are apt to very quickly send throughout the country reports that a certain classis voted to defy synod, but they’re not so apt to send out notations on a change in that decision,” said De Moor.

De Moor noted that his service on the Classis Grand Rapids East ad hoc committee had raised questions at Calvin Seminary. De Moor is a member of Woodlawn CRC, the church which submitted the overture adopted in July. His wife Ina, also employed by Calvin Seminary as housing coordinator and publications secretary, signed the overture as clerk of the Woodlawn consistory. Woodlawn CRC allows women to serve on consistory in nonvoting adjunct positions, a compromise which does not disobey synod and was approved by Synod 1989.

“You can imagine how if I as a seminary professor am a member of a committee which recommends ecclesiastical disobedience, I am in deep, deep trouble,” said De Moor. “The seminary president said to me, ‘De Moor, do you think you can be on this committee in good conscience?’ I said, ‘Wait and see what the committee comes up with.’”

Most discussion on the report focused on the question of ecclesiastical disobedience.

“This says something different from defying synod,” said De Moor. “One thing classis can’t do is say, ‘We’re going to say Article 3 does not apply to churches in classis.’ That’s defiance; we can’t do that.”

De Moor said that under Article 42 of the CRC Church Order, Synod 1994’s statement urging churches to release their women elders means that each CRC classis must send its church visitors to congregations with women elders and urge the congregations to release the women elders.

“Synod is going to have to understand that there are churches, not just one or two, that cannot do what synod urges them to do,” said De Moor. “We’re saying to synod, ‘Do not, please, expect us to go to those particular churches and say, you’re going to have to get rid of these women elders or we will have to depose your entire council.’ Then we have another 1926 on our hands.”

The 1926 date refers to the last major split in the CRe. In that year, the CRC synod upheld the deposition of three Christian Reformed councils by Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West for refusing to comply with Synod 1924’s position affirming common grace.

Ironically, classis was held at Eastern Avenue CRC which until 1925, was pastored by Rev. Herman Hoeksema and was one of the three churches whose council was deposed for refusing to affirm common grace. Eastern Avenue CRC is now one of at least fifteen churches which have disobeyed synod to elect women elders.

“Perhaps it is appropriate that we are meeting at Eastern Avenue, which was the consistory that was deposed in 1926,” said the current pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC.

Bouma urged the delegates not only to consider the loud objections against ecclesiastical disobedience but also the pain of CRC women. “We’re beginning to worry about the old boy network, what people are going to say to us at Ministers’ Institute,” said Bouma. “I want us in our communications to be as aware of the pain we were addressing in July and not solely to be concerned today with what other classes are saying and what synod might say, but also with the pain of the women we were concerned about in July.”

De Moor disputed the suggestion that the committee had capitulated to the “old boys’ network” in producing its report, noting that the committee included leading male and female advocates of women’s ordination. “As for the ‘old boys’ network,’ do you really think that Clarence Vos, Morris Greidanus and Henry De Moor could get away with that in the presence of Lillian Grissen and Charlotte Ellison?” asked De Moor.

The classis may still face consequences for its decision. “If congregations choose to take the option of conscientious objection, they’re going to have to take their licks,” said De Moor. “If classis refuses to discipline those congregations under Article 42 we may have to take our licks.”

However, De Moor pointed out that synod has been reluctant to force classes to compel obedience in other cases. “This is not the first time classes have not followed through with discipline under Article 42,” said De Moor. “I would cite as an example the many classes which have not disciplined churches which say they cannot pay ministry shares to Calvin College because of what is taught there.”

For over a decade, conservatives in the Christian Reformed denomination have mounted a financial counterattack on denominational agencies by refusing to pay the synodically assessed “denominational ministry shares,” formerly known as “quotas.” The 1994 denominational ministry share levels total $601.46 per family and $250.60 per professing member, but the payment rate has dropped under sixty percent for some denominational agencies, most notably Calvin Seminary. While a number of classes have sent church visitors to inquire into reasons for nonpayment, no church has yet been disciplined for refusing to pay its denominational ministry shares.

Although it is clear that Classis Grand Rapids East will not, at least for now, send its church visitors to “urge” congregations to release their women elders, a number of questions still remain about what other effects Classis Grand Rapids East’s new decision may have. According to First CRC pastor Rev. Morris Greidanus, “The grounds try to counter what synod did and show this whole theme which moves through Scripture” of openness to use of women’s gifts.

“The synod adopted a very annoying ground, in my opinion, and that was that this decision will not bind Christian consciences in any inappropriate way,” said Greidanus. “We’re taking a stand here with churches that say our consciences do not allow us to not ordain women elders.”

Other pastors wanted further clarification. “Is it true that we can say that we as a classis are not acting in conscientious objection, we are simply recognizing that churches within our classis have conscientious objections?” asked Plymouth Heights CRC pastor Rev. Russell Palsrok, who faced an organized petition drive in his congregation opposing the July decision. “If people ask, have you disavowed July 21st, you should say yes,” responded De Moor. “The classis is saying, we think as a classis, these churches have a good case for conscientious objection. That’s not defiance; that’s sharing with synod our pastoral concern about a situation in our classis.”

The decision still did not satisfy Rev. Jerry Zandstra, pastor of Seymour CRC, who had strongly objected to the original July decision and whose council had overtured classis to rescind it. “It seems to me that it’s still sort of disobedience if synod says to do something and we don’t carry it out,” said Zandstra, urging classis to take the further step of rescinding the July decision.

De Moor said synodical rules do not provide for rescinding a previous decision and that the Seymour CRC request was impossible for technical reasons. Rev. Archie Vander Hart of Fuller A venue CRC then called the attention of classis to a provision in its local rules of procedure allowing classis to rescind a previous decision. De Moor apologized for not being aware of the local classical provision and said the ad hoc committee would return with a recommendation on the matter at the January meeting.

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer Reformed Believers Press Service

A thorough critique of the ten pages of Grounds adopted by Classis Grand Rapids East and sent to Christian Reformed Church councils, will be presented soon in this periodical. The Editors