Freeing the Conscience: A Review

Dr. James A. De Jong, President of Calvin Theological Seminary, has written an interesting booklet entitled, “Freeing the Conscience, Approaching the Women’s Ordination Issue by Means of Theological Correlation.” The booklet seeks a new approach to the issue of the ordination of women and is argued in a way designed to be helpful, balanced and respectful. It deserves a careful and considerate response.



The booklet ends with the recollection of a conversation between De Jong and the great British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones about baptism. Lloyd-Jones allowed both infant baptism and believer’s baptism in his church. De Jong disagreed with LloydJones on this practice, but appreciated his willingness to recognize some beliefs and practices as secondary to the heart of the Christian religion and his willingness to be tolerant on those secondary matters. De Jong appeals to his readers for a similar toleration on the matter of the ordination of women, seeing it as a secondary matter.

De Jong’s appeal to Lloyd-Jones is ironic as the conclusion of his booklet. Lloyd-Jones’ position on baptism, as De Jong notes, is the result of his conviction that neither the Bible nor the record of the early church is clear on the question of the baptism of infants. The record of the early church is crystal clear that in orthodox churches women did not serve as presbyters. The Bible is also much more explicit -at least at first glance—on the roles of women in the church than it is on infant baptism. De Jong’s own conclusion reminds us that ultimately this issue before the church on the ordination of women is the teaching of the Bible. We must seek in all ways to follow the Bible faithfully. De Jong’s own approach is to argue that the route of studying particular texts and of investigating principles of interpretation (exegesis and hermeneutics) have not resulted in a consensus and harmony in the church. He suggests that perhaps we need to find a different approach. This different approach he calls systematic corollaries. These corollaries are conclusions drawn from the implications of established elements of systematic theology. As we defend infant baptism in part by arguing from the nature of the covenant, so De Jong suggests that some points of systematic theology may help resolve the issue of the ordination of women. De Jong specifically examines four such corollaries: the doctrines of Scripture, church office, the immutability of God and heresy.

On the doctrine of Scripture De Jong argues that since the words of women are recorded in the Bible and are part of the authoritative teaching of the Bible, the words of women would also be appropriate in the teaching and pastoral roles of the church. But this line of reasoning is neither clear nor convincing. The words of the unbelieving Gamaliel, Balaam’s ass and the devil are also recorded in the Bible, but that does not qualify those speakers for ordination. The words of believing David are frequent in the Bible, but he is not qualified to be ordained as a priest. One cannot reason from the inclusion of words in the Bible to ordination. On the doctrine of church office De Jong argues that the Reformed view insists that the authority of office always remains in the Christ and His Word, not in the individual officebearer. De Jong is quite right that only the Word is ultimately authoritative. He expresses this point very strongly and all of us in the Christian Reformed Church should heed him: “In fact, either the minister or the council/synod can depart from the Word, in which case they deserve no honor or esteem for they have then forsaken Christ” (p. 22). We all must be very careful to stay with the Word even if it means showing no honor to a synod lest we forsake Christ. De Jong, however, does not reason clearly from the doctrine of church office. In the first place the minister does have ministerial authority, even if that authority is not absolute. (See the Acts of Synod 1978.) In the second place, even if the office had no authority at all, the New Testament does establish qualifications for office in I Timothy and those qualifications seem to exclude women.

On the doctrine of the immutability of God De Jong argues that God never changes and since he allowed women to be judges (Deborah) and prophets (Huldah) in the Old Testament, they must still be permitted to hold office in the New Testament. Again De Jong is not convincing in the corollary that he draws. First, he does not consider that the offices of judge and prophet are extraordinary offices and that the offices of minister and elder are ordinary offices (according to standard Reformed teaching). For God to allow women in one and not the other involves no change for him. Second, God does sometimes in Scripture appear to change even though in fact He does not. In the Old Testament God declares pork a forbidden food, but in the New Testament He permits eating it. So even if women could hold office in the Old Testament, that would not automatically prove that they could hold it in the New.

On the doctrine of heresy De Jong rightly notes that “Reformed theologians have long realized and stated that a departure from an orthodox position on one point entails an unraveling of other doctrines” (p. 22f). De Jong insists that no heresy results from approving the ordination of women unless on the basis of “secular feminist presuppositions” (p. 23); and so he concludes that such ordination cannot be as harmful as some suggest. But is this claim credible? Most of those in the Christian world who endorse the ordination of women deny the inerrancy of the Bible, limit the authority of the Bible to “salvation issues” narrowly defined, and deny the leadership of the husband in Christian marriage. Many are beginning to challenge the use of male language for God—even where it is used in the Bible. And these positions are held in the CRC as well. We are indeed seeing an unraveling of other doctrines among many in the CRC who have championed the ordination of women. Several leaders in Classis Grand Rapids East, for example, who are committed to the ordination of women have also supported ministry to homosexuals that avoids calling homosexual practice sinful.

Why did De Jong not look at other corollaries that point in quite a different direction? The doctrine of creation does point to male leadership in that man was created first. The doctrine of the Trinity shows that equality of being can co-exist with some difference of function. The doctrine of the Christian family surely implies that if the man is head of his home, he should also be the head of his wife in church. The idea of systematic corollaries is useful, but far from supporting the ordination of women, they point in quite the opposite direction.

The biggest surprise in De Jong’s booklet is the tendency to treat the issue of the ordination of women in isolation from what is going on in the CRC more generally. Most of us who oppose the ordination of women see it as symptomatic of much deeper problems. The ordination of women may be a secondary issue in itself, but it reflects an approach to the Bible that is definitely a primary issue. We have profound divisions in the CRC on the ordination of women just as we have profound divisions about many beliefs and practices. The CRC is divided in many ways (although the proportions on each side of an issue vary greatly): evolution, Sabbath, worship, inerrancy. homosexual marriages, universalism and language for God to mention some. These differences, just like those on women in office, are not all settled in the confessions of the church. But they are all very important to the life of the church and reflect very different ways of reading the Bible and understanding its authority.

De Jong claims that on the issue of ordination of women both sides approach the Bible in the same way. He points to John Cooper’s booklet A Cause for Division? (1991) to support that contention. I respect John Cooper, but disagree with both De Jong and Cooper on this matter. Cooper takes an unreformed approach in his booklet, content to justify the ordination of women by arguing that Scripture does not forbid it. (I do not think that he demonstrates even this successfully.) A fully Reformed approach would recognize the obligation to demonstrate the Bible positively teaches the ordination of women.

De Jong himself illustrates the changing approach to the Bible in the CRC when he lists some “problems” with the traditional opposition to women in office. The traditional position “operates with an exegetical approach that seeks to establish church political regulations in a theological context that has long recognized that the Bible gives us principles for church order, but not a church polity or even a clear notion of ecclesiastical office” (p. 16). De Jong is giving voice to those in the CRC “theological context” who do reduce the teaching of Scripture to a narrower realm than historic Reformed Christianity has done. Indeed De Jong runs the risk of contradicting the Belgic Confession which in Articles 30–32 speaks of a spiritual order or polity taught in the Bible and does define the offices of the church.

De Jong does not really spend any time looking at Biblical texts in his booklet. Of course he cannot do everything in a short work. But ultimately it is on the texts of the Bible and how they are used that the issue of women in office must be settled. De Jong undervalues the work of the 1984 Study Committee Report which undergirded the synodical decisions of 1985 and 1994 against the ordination of women as ministers and elders. He has not shown why the church’s historic reading of the Bible should be overturned.

De Jong rightly sees serious problems in the argument in favor of the ordination of women (p. 15f). But the questions that he raises against the “traditional” position do not seem equally serious (p.16). For example, he repeats the error that in I Timothy 2 the use of authentein is ambiguous. Professor Al Wolters and others have shown that the word is not ambiguous. Further, he sees a tension between women prophesying and being told to be silent (I Cor. 11 and 14). Again this “problem” is solved by the simple Reformed distinction between extraordinary and ordinary offices and functions in the life of the church.

De Jong also criticizes the decision of Synod 1994 for simply claiming to be Biblically correct (p.17). But he does not respond to the claim of the synod that the evidence all together is clear and cumulative. Nor does he note that Synod 1994 was the first synod to try to bring together the range of Biblical evidence that supported its conclusions. But most seriously, neither De Jong nor the 1995 Synod of the CRC have yet—as De Jong himself puts it—fulfilled “a solemn obligation to such fellow [conservative] members to demonstrate convincingly that a change is warranted, why the Bible does not say what the church for 1900 years thought it said” (p. 7).

The study of the Biblical texts may not lead to agreement and harmony in the church. Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible and deny the divinity of Jesus. Baptists read the Bible and deny infant baptism. Pentecostals read the Bible and believe prophecy is for today. Not all these errors are of equal seriousness, but they have allied to divisions. Divisions are necessary at times. Perhaps some kind of unity can be found in the CRC. Perhaps new efforts are needed “to create structures for harmony and unity in the face of a difficult, emotional issue” (p. 13).

In any case we must stand with the Scriptures. We must face with the greatest seriousness the theological unraveling taking place in the CRC. We must refuse to honor any synod that does not teach and vindicate the Scriptures—lest we be guilty of forsaking Christ. We must continue to dialogue with those with whom we disagree so that we may all grow in our understanding of the Bible.

President De Jong is to be congratulated for trying to move the discussion of women in office forward, and doing so in a thoughtful, dispassionate manner. I do not think that his effort has succeeded. The best way forward is through a study of the Word by those who will bow unreservedly to its teaching.

Dr. Godfrey is President of Westminster Seminary in CA, Professor of Church History, and contributing editor of The Outlook.