Justifying Ecclesiastical Disobedience

No doubt many readers of The Outlook are aware that Classis Grand Rapids East of the Christian Reformed Church has formally decided not to “force its congregations to comply with the decision of Synod 1994” regarding women in ecclesiastical office. By this decision Classis Grand Rapids East has determined upon a course of ecclesiastical disobedience, defying the decision of Synod and violating the explicit requirements of the Church Order (Church Order Articles 29 & 31). Whatever justification they may present for this disobedience, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that, by this decision, Classis Grand Rapids East has ceased to function legitimately as a member classis of the Christian Reformed Church and has set upon a course that removes it de facto from appropriate membership in the denomination.

Considering the serious seriousness of this kind of open defiance of synodical authority and proper procedure, the question is inescapable what grounds could Classis Grand Rapids East possibly give for such a radical course of action? Are there any compelling reasons, based upon Scriptural and confessional considerations, that might justify the kind of ecclesiastical disobedience upon which this classis has embarked? Reformed Christians understand that we must obey God rather than man, and therefore they do not regard all forms of ecclesiastical disobedience to be unlawful. Ifa decision of an ecclesiastical assembly is in clear contradiction to God’s Word, we must, of course, disobey (compare Article 7 of the Belgic Confession). However, such disobedience must not be entered into lightly; it must be Biblically justifiable.



It is not surprising, accordingly, that Classis Grand Rapids East has prepared and given an extensive response to this question. In a lengthy document, citing no less than eight different grounds, Classis Grand Rapids East has sought to show why it cannot insist upon the compliance of its member congregations with the decision of synod. These grounds deserve our careful attention and answer. For if they are good grounds, then there is reason to believe Synod 1994 erred in its decision regarding women in ecclesiastical office. But if they are poor and inadequate grounds, then Classis Grand Rapids East has not only encouraged ecclesiastical disobedience but has also done so in an unwarranted and reckless manner.


A thorough evaluation of the grounds given by Classis Grand Rapids East would require a lengthy study, perhaps almost a booklet or book length treatment. I will not attempt such an evaluation in what follows. Rather, I will attempt to comment briefly on each of the grounds presented, in some cases more extensively than in others. In this way a preliminary response and evaluation of these grounds will be given. Thereafter and in conclusion, I will comment on the implications of the action of Classis Grand Rapids East for the Christian Reformed denomination.

Ground #1: Freedom of Conscience

The first ground offered for the decision of Grand Rapids East appeals to the Christian believer’s freedom of conscience from all man-made or merely human ordinances that cannot be clearly based upon the teaching of Scripture. This ground asserts that Synod 1994 bound the consciences of many church members to a practice that has no compelling Biblical support.

There are two difficulties with this ground. The rust is that it begs the question regarding the clear teaching of Scripture. Though it is certainly true that some Reformed believers favor the ordination of women and do not find the Biblical arguments against it compelling, and though it is true that the vote at Synod 1994, like many previous votes at synod on this issue, was very close—the only legitimate way in which this dispute may be settled is by a direct appeal to the teaching of the Scriptures. The consciences of believers must be governed by the authority of God’s Word; no one may claim freedom of conscience where the Bible clearly speaks. Synod 1994 declared that the Bible does clearly speak to this matter and therefore it properly insisted that congregations and church councils abide by the demands of Scripture.

But there is also a second and more subtle difficulty with this ground. Classis Grand Rapids East fails to acknowledge, as is frequently the case in Christian Reformed discussions of women in office, that in the Reformed tradition, the government and polity of the church is based upon Scriptural teaching and obligation, not the “Lutheran” principle that the churches may govern themselves in whatever way they see it, so long as they do not violate express prohibitions in the Bible. For this reason, the Belgic Confession speaks of “that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word,” and of doing things “with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy” (Article 30).1 In matters of church government which concern the supervision of the worship and faith of the churches, we are not free to introduce “human inventions” or practices that are not expressly sanctioned by the Word of God. This means that for a Reformed believer the only possible justification for the practice of women serving in the ecclesiastical offices would be the express testimony of the Word of God requiring it.

This first ground of Classis Grand Rapids East, therefore, not only begs the question—what does the Bible teach, anyway?—but it also neglects to acknowledge the need for a Biblical argument for the ordination of women which would show that this practice belongs to “that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word.”

However, as we shall soon see, lurking beneath the surface of this ground is just such an argument. The irony of the situation is that Classis Grand Rapids East will never be able to rest content with the freedom within its boundaries to ordain women to office. Its argument will compel the further insistence that all consciences within the Christian Reformed Church be bound by the Biblically-required practice of ordaining women to office!

Ground #2: Hermeneutics

In its second ground for the decision not to insist upon compliance with the decision of Synod 1994, Classis Grand Rapids East introduces the difficult subject of hermeneutics or the proper method of interpreting Scripture. Here the Classis maintains that Synod 1994 and those who oppose the ordination of women on Biblical grounds are operating with a non-Reformed hermeneutic. Though the term “fundamentalistic” is not used in supporting this ground, it is evident that the Classis regards the hermeneutic of those who oppose women’s ordination as being less than Reformed.

There is something initially curious about this ground from a historical standpoint. Were the hermeneutic employed by opponents of women in office un-reformed, it is hard to understand why, historically, the vast majority of Reformed exegetes in times past understood the Bible to prohibit this practice. Though an appeal to the history of Reformed exegesis does not settle the issue—after all, a Reformed church is always reforming by the Word of God this history does constitute a rather strong argument against the plausibility of Classis Grand Rapids East’s claim that it is un-reformed to interpret the Bible as opposing the ordination of women! From a historical point of view, Classis Grand Rapids East’s reading of the Biblical texts is novel and innovative. Certainly, the burden of proof legitimately rests with those whose interpretation of the Bible deviates from the main, consistent line of the Reformed tradition.

However, to address more directly the claims made in support of this ground, it must be said that they are very weak and unconvincing. Indeed, in several instances the classis is guilty of”question-begging” in the formulation of its argument:

• Though it is true that a Reformed hermeneutics hesitates to base a particular teaching on a single, pivotal text, especially if the meaning of that text is not entirely clear, this does not properly represent what Synod 1994 declared. Not only did Synod 1994 declare that 1 Timothy 2:11,12 is clear, but it is also appealed to the “general analogy” of Scripture. Though one clear text is enough to prove a particular Scriptural teaching, in this case there are many texts that teach “that men and women both in the original created state and in the present redeemed state have diverse roles and responsibilities” (Acts of Synod 1994, p. 507; compare I Cor. 11:3,7–9; Eph. 5:22–24, 1 Pet. 3:1,5–6, 1 Tim. 3:2,4–5, Tit. 1:6, 1 Cor. 14:34–35).

• Classis Grand RapidS East speaks of “the subordination of women” as a “sub-theme” of Scripture, inconsistent with the flow of redemptive history and exclusively the consequence of the fall into sin. However, it is inconsistent with classic Reformed hermeneutics to play off a sub-theme of Scripture against the alleged flow of redemptive history. Furthermore, Classis Grand Rapids East offers no proof that Genesis 2 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 regard the leadership of the man in marriage and church to be a consequence of the fall. It is not difficult to see why this proof is lacking: both texts quite emphatically associate this leadership with circumstances that preceded the fall into sin!

• It is not enough to say that the hermeneutic employed by opponents of women in office could be used to reject various cardinal doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, infant baptism) or to oppose practices now commonly permitted to women (e.g. voting in congregational meetings). Simply to assert such things as a necessary consequence of the hermeneutic of opponents of women in office is to commit the fallacy of “guilt by association.” No proof is offered by the classis for this assertion.

• Both the argument from “cultural setting” and the parallel with slavery are answered by Synod 1994 in the grounds adopted for its decision. For example, Synod 1994, commenting on the alleged parallel with slavery, makes the following points: “1) Slavery is permitted in the Bible as an institution resulting from the fall and is nowhere grounded in creation. But male leadership in the church is grounded in creation (1 Tim. 2:13). 2) The Bible points in the direction that it would be good for slavery to end (I Cor. 7:21, Philemon). No parallel teaching indicates that women may hold the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist” (Acts of Synod 1994, p. 508).

Admittedly, each of these points could be elaborated upon considerably. These brief comments, however, ought to show that the argument for this ground by Classis Grand Rapids East fails to answer the decision of Synod 1994. I am reminded by this ground of the trite but useful expression – “saying it is so does not make it so.”

Ground #3: Biblical teaching

In its third ground, Classis Grand Rapids East cites a variety of Biblical grounds or evidences that permit and encourage the ordination of women to office. The burden of the argument in this section of the classis’ report is that the limits placed upon the service of women in positions of authority are exclusively the consequence of the fall into sin. Furthermore, as the history of redemption progresses, there is a considerable body of Biblical evidence that suggests that the flow or direction of this history is toward the more full inclusion of women and the free employment of their gifts in all the offices. Redemption brings not only the restoration of that original parity that existed between men a nd women before the fall into sin, but also the full liberation of women for service within the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

There are primarily three weaknesses in the argument for this ground in the report of Classis Grand Rapids East.

First, it rests upon an illegitimate reading of such passages as Genesis 2 and 1 Timothy 2:12–14. Though the classis is anxious to prove that the Bible teaches an equality in the sense of “parity” of role between men and women before the fall into sin, neither of these passages will permit themselves to be squeezed into this mold. They teach a differentiation of role between men and women in marriage and the church that expresses a created difference between men and women. No amount of “hermeneutical gymnastics” will permit another conclusion.

Second, the passages cited by the classis, in which women are clearly shown to exercise a wide range of responsibilities and a diversity of tasks within the life of God’s people, are not specifically addressed to the matter office and ordination. It is a standard rule of Reformed hermeneutics that a text that directly and specifically speaks to a particular matter has greater weight and importance than a text that indirectly and only by implication speaks to it. This means that it is unwarranted to conclude from Biblical passages that ascribe a variety of responsibilities to women that they should also be permitted ordination. To make this point more concrete, it should be noted that the same apostle, writing under inspiration, penned Galatians 3:28 and 1 Timothy 2:12–14! These texts do not conflict with each other because they are addressed to quite different issues. The same apostle who teaches the unity of all believers in Christ (and by implication, their legitimate equality of worth and dignity as members of the church) also teaches a restriction upon women’s roles in terms of office and ordination.

And third, there is a hidden and unexpressed assumption in the classis’ use of this ground to defend the ordination of women. This assumption is that the equality of dignity and worth between men and women at creation and in the church demands the elimination of any possible difference between them of calling or function. This assumption, however, flies in the fact of the repeated instances in the Bible in which the calling or function of men and women are distinguished. In fact, were this assumption correct, it would be necessary to conclude that the Bible is full of internal contradictions: in some places it affirms the equality of men and women, and in other places it denies this equality.

Ground #4: Ecumenical Concerns

The fourth ground presented by Classis Grand Rapids East notes that contacts with other Reformed churches have been mixed on the subject of women in office. Rather than simply appealing to the advice of the NAPARC churches not to ordain women, Synod 1994 should have considered the differing views and practices of other churches, some Reformed and in close fellowship with the CRC, that permit the ordination of women.

It is difficult to see how this ground could be satisfactorily answered and its concern resolved. Clearly Grand Rapids East is not happy that Synod 1994 listened more attentively to those conservative and confessional Reformed denominations with which the CRC has been most closely joined in North America in recent decades. Classis Grand Rapids East wants the CRC to listen to more progressive (liberal) voices among those churches with which it has contact. However, those who regard themselves as confessionally Reformed in the traditional sense of these terms will be pleased (as I am) with the appeal Synod 1994 made to the advice of NAPARC and the historic consensus of the Reformed churches on this issue. Those who wish to follow the lead of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) and others, churches who can no longer be regarded as confessionally Reformed in the traditional sense, will not be pleased. But no one can deny that to choose to follow the latter churches would be to betray the historic line of the Christian Reformed Church as a solidly confessional denomination.

Ground #5: Synod 1993 and Church Order

In this ground Classis Grand Rapids East objects to the claim, made by Synod 1994, that the Synod of 1993 violated the requirement of the Church Order that revisions of previous decisions only be made on the basis of “new and sufficient” grounds.

However, Classis East’s objection here amounts to the bold assertion that synods can do whatever they want by majority vote. Because Synod 1993 by majority vote did what it did, it must have made the judgment that the grounds presented were “new and sufficient”! And because Synod made this judgment, no subsequent synod has the right to judge the previous synod’s actions to be out of order by the requirements of the Church Order! Unless I am missing something in this ground, it amounts to the assertion that in the assemblies of the church “might does make right” and no assembly may be held accountable to Church Order requirements if by a majority vote it decides to suspend them.

Ground #6: Synod and Local Option

The sixth ground of Classis Grand Rapids East raises a point on which I have previously written at greater length than I wish to do so here.2 In this ground Classis Grand Rapids East insists that it will remain loyal to and supportive of the denomination, despite its inability to comply with Synod 1994’s decision on women in office. Furthermore, classis maintains that Synod 1994 should have followed the pattern of other synodical decisions regarding local church practices in which “local option” is permitted (e.g. women voting in congregational meetings). The ordination of women should be regarded as a “thing indifferent” (an adiaphoron) and left to the discretion of the local church.

This ground of the classis misses the mark rather widely on at least two counts. First, were the ordination of women to office a genuine “matter indifferent,” Classis Grand Rapids East would have no legitimate reason to disrupt the unity and peace of the denomination by insisting upon its freedom to do what it admits is not a matter of Biblical obedience or necessity! Second, though there are many areas of congregational life that legitimately vary from congregation to congregation within the denomination, who may serve in the offices of elder and minister is not among them. No one who advocates the ordination of women can contest the fact that this practice would permit women officebearers to function at every level of the denomination’s life, including delegation to all of its assemblies (classis and synod). This would impose an immediate, direct and unavoidable requirement upon the consciences of all those who believe the Scriptures forbid the ordination of women to office. Since the exercise of these offices necessarily extends beyond the limits of local practice, the claim of Classis Grand Rapids East that this is solely a local matter rings hollow.

Ground #7: The CRC’s Ministry

In its seventh ground, Classis Grand Rapids East makes the claim, often repeated among those who favor the ordination of women to office, that the CRC needs to remove all unjust barriers to its ministry of reconciliation among the nations. A practice such as the prohibition of women from serving in ecclesiastical office injures the church’s reputation in the world and lends support to unjust forms of patriarchy and other kinds of discrimination.

This ground obviously cannot stand alone. It must presume that the ordination of women is a Biblically warranted practice. Were the ordination of women to be contrary to Scripture, this practice could not advance the church’s reputation in the world, since the church is called to be, among other things, a “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), founded upon the teaching of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Moreover, if the church’s standard of righteousness is the teaching of the Word of God, not what the world perceives to be unjust or discriminatory, this ground is without foundation. Indeed, it might be argued that Classis Grand Rapids East, in its formulation of this ground, has simply accommodated itself to a common inheritance in the West from the time of the so-called Enlightenment—that “equality” in the sense of sameness or identity of role is a precondition for genuine equality of worth or dignity.

Ground #8: The Use of Gifts

As with many of the previous grounds considered, this eighth and final ground offered by Classis Grand Rapids East begs the question that is at issue. That question, to put the matter in its simplest form, is whether God grants to women the “gift” of ordination. Though Classis Grand Rapids East assumes that this is the case, this is precisely what is being disputed. This ground, therefore, rests upon the conviction that the Bible teaches that women must be granted ordination in order to use their gifts to the full.

One of the problems inherent to this conviction is that it demeans the “office of believer,” teaching that men and women in the church cannot use their gifts fully and appropriately unless they are ordained. Thus, by maintaining that the decision of Synod 1994 prevents the full use of women’s gifts in the church, classis not only slanders the teaching and practice of the Reformed churches throughout most of their history, but the teaching and practice of the universal Christian church since the apostolic epoch as well. The claim of this ground that, without ordination, women are deprived of the full use of their gifts in the church—must be exposed for what it is: an extravagant and unsubstantiated criticism of the common practice of most Christian churches throughout their history. Were this ground true, it would require the corollary that unordained men are relegated to a status of inferiority and arbitrary restriction upon the free employment of their gifts in the church.

A Preliminary Conclusion

A brief review like this one of the grounds offered by Classis Grand Rapids East for its decision not to comply with the decision of Synod 1994 cannot authorize anything more than a preliminary conclusion. Nevertheless, it should be apparent that what Classis Grand Rapids East has done is to draw together, in one document, most if not all of the arguments customarily employed to make the case for the ordination of women. 

The conclusion to which our consideration of these grounds leads is that Classis Grand Rapids East both proves too little and too much at the same time.

It proves too little in that it offers no real case for the issue that is in dispute, namely, whether in the church of Jesus Christ women may be ordained to the offices of elder minister and evangelist. Many arguments are offered, but they are like so many arrows wide of their intended target.

But it also proves too much in that, were the case presented by Grand Rapids East true, then the practice of forbidding the ordination of women to ecclesiastical office is sinful rebellion against the demands of the Word of God. Ironically, like many advocates of the ordination of women, Classis Grand Rapids East wants to plead for this practice as though it were an indifferent matter, when its case loudly declares it to be a matter of Biblical justice. Though it is probably necessary, from a purely pragmatic and expediency standpoint, to argue the case as though it were a plea for local option, I find this kind of argument disingenuous at best, possibly intentionally misleading at worst. If Classis Grand Rapids East wants to make a case for the ordination of women, my plea would be that it also spell out clearly the implications of that case—that those who for Biblical reasons oppose this practice will have to violate their consciences in order to remain within the Christian Reformed Church or, if they should be unwilling to do so, they will have to leave.


Having considered the various grounds offered by Classis Grand Rapids East for its decision not to comply with the action of Synod 1994, there remains one substantial matter to address. In my introduction I acknowledged the right of the Reformed believer, particularly a church assembly, to refuse compliance with decisions of assemblies that are unbiblical, contrary to the Word of God. No one can contest this right and still maintain a reformational view of the supreme authority of the Bible in the life of the church.

However, when an assembly like a classis determines that a decision of a synod is unbiblicaI and therefore not “settled and binding,” what recourse does it legitimately have within the boundaries of the denomination of which it is a member assembly? Only two. Either it follows due process and appeals the decision, seeking to bring the denomination through its assemblies to full and faithful obedience to the Word of God. Or it determines to sever the denominational relationship for the sake of obedience to the Word of God (a severance which could be restored, were the denomination subsequently to bring its practice into conformity with Scripture on the disputed point).

Classis Grand Rapids East, however, has taken a different course, one which in my judgment cannot be justified because it undermines the essential nature of the denominational fellowship, governed as it is by a mutually received and acknowledged Church Order.

Classis Grand Rapids East has in effect said that it wants to remain a member classis of the Christian Reformed Church, though it will no longer act like a classis of the Christian Reformed Church, at least on the important matter of who is ordained to office in its churches.

This course can only invite and encourage ecclesiastical anarchy. It opens a “Pandora’s box” of ecclesiastical disobedience, since it offends against the very terms of the “covenant” made between the member congregations of the denomination (as set forth in the Church Order). It threatens to remove any moral ground to oppose other forms of ecclesiastical disobedience carried on within the denomination, so long as such disobedience is justified in the name of conscience. But when such conscientious objection to synodical decisions and Church Order requirements is permitted, without being accompanied by the willingness to suffer the obvious cost of such disobedience—the cost of withdrawal from the denomination for the sake of conscience—the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship spelled out in the Church Order become meaningless.

Unless a future synod of the Christian Reformed Church (specifically, Synod 1995) demands compliance with the Church Order by this Classis, upon pain of dismissal from the denominational fellowship should it refuse, the Christian Reformed Church will have officially and formally ceased to be a denomination which orders her life by a common Church Order. Anarchy (or the tyranny of rule by arbitrary synodical decision or indecision) will ensue.


1. Attentive readers will notice that I am quoting the older English translation of the Belgic Confession which is based upon the authorized Latin translarion of this Confession. The new English translation in use in the CRC speaks of “persons” (based upon the French, personages) rather than “faithful men” (based upon the Latin, viri jickles). Though “persons” as a translation may serve the cause of political correctness and allow the pretence of fidelity to this article in the Confession, no one need doubt what this Confession means to say, whether by the French personages or the Latin viri jiddes, when it speaks of choosing officebearers according to the rule of St. Paul to Timothy. Those who would appeal to the French “persons” as though this could legitimately be taken as a gender-inclusive reference do violence to the original French and the normal canons for interpreting historical texts.

2. Cf. “Local Option: A Convenient Fiction,” The Outlook 44/6 (June, 1994):13–14.

Dr. Venema, a contributing editor to this periodical, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-Amenca Reformed Seminary.