Letter to a CRC Synodical Delegate in 1993

Dear friend in Christ:

Congratulations on being chosen to be a delegate to the Synod of 1993 of the Christian Reformed Church. It is always an honor and a privilege to be selected as a delegate to synod. And it is a grave responsibility.

The gravity of this responsibility is especially evident at this juncture in our church’s history. As you well know, our church is a sorely troubled church today. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs. One very obvious reason is an issue that has been before the church for two decades and over which the church is sharply divided. I refer of course, to the matter of opening all the offices of the church to women. Behind this issue is a deeper one, namely, the manner and method of our interpretation of the Bible today.

Last year the synod decided by a vote of 109 to 73 that the Church Order should not be changed to allow women to serve in the offices of minister, elder and evangelist. That vote came after twenty years of study and discussion. and after two years of especially concentrated reflection upon the vote of Synod 1990 t o change the Church Order. Synod 1992 voted not to confirm that change. We do well to recall that Synod 1990 did not give Biblical grounds for its action.

This significant flaw in the action of 1990 was brought to the attention of the Synod of 1991. That body appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to glean from study committee reports and other pertinent documents the Biblical support that Synod 1990 did not furnish. The report of this Ad Hoc Committee came before the Synod of 1992, and that body was not persuaded that the materials gat hered by the committee were of sufficient weight to tip the scales in favor of confirmation. So after prolonged debate the Synod of 1992 decided that the Church Order should not be changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that Synod 1993 will not take any action that overturns the decision of 1992 or that moves in that direction. Please do not think it presumptuous of me to urge you as a delegate to take no action that will aggravate the turmoil and distress in our church . In speaking thus to you I am thinking of the fact that every poll I have seen indicated that a majority of the members of the Christian Reformed Church did not want its long-standing practice changed. And let it be carefully noted. their objection to the change was not simply a matter of traditionalism as some may assume. I have spoken to many people in the church on this matter, and almost without exception the objection to the change was anchored in the firm belief that the Bible does not allow it.

It seems fair to say that many members of the Christian Reformed Church are weary of argument over this issue. Let the church be done with it, many feel, so that we can get on with the church’s business. But the issue will not go away. It’s coming back to synod this year . And if action is taken that overturns last year’s decision, or weakens it, the disruption of the church will be intensified. and more members will feel constrained to say farewell to the church they have loved. So a grave responsibility does indeed rest on your shoulders. May God give you the grace and the wisdom to make decisions that uphold the integrity of His Word and that bring blessing upon His church.

Permit me now to comment briefly on what to me are some important facets of this whole question. In the first place I would call attention to a two-fold teaching that lies solidly imbedded in the Word of God. This teaching is that on the one hand, men and women are fully equal in worth and standing before God; and on the other hand, men and women are different in total make-up and in role. In the first chapter of the Bible male and female are both created in the image of God and both are given the “cultural mandate.” In the second chapter woman is formed to be a “suitable helper”  to Adam who was created first, a fact of significance to the Holy Spirit and to St. Paul (I Tim. 2:10). In the third chapter, in the account of the fall into sin, though Eve led the way in this disobedience, Adam was the one finally held accountable .

The Bible never departs from this basic pattern. Man is given the role of loving headship (like that of Christ in relation to His church – Eph. 5:23), and the fact must always be honored in the two agencies God has appointed to carry on His covenant with His people, namely, the family and the church. In today’s God-denying, secularistic culture, in which the family is under heavy assault from many directions and the children are suffering much because of the failure of parents to give them the constant love and direction they need, let us who live out of and by God’s word be especially vigilant to maintain God’s pattern for home and church. Let us eschew the egalitarianism that drives the modern feminist crusade, and that is also very much a part of the aggressive push by the gay community. (I wish you could have heard Cliff Bajema’s splendid speech on this subject at Synod 1992.)

A second item has to do with the place of Galatians 3:28 in the debate over women in office. This text says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The case in favor of women in office leans heavily for support on this text as is clear from the report of the Ad Hoc Committee dealt with by Synod 1992 (Report 31). It is plain to all that the text (in its context) has nothing to say about who should hold the special offices in the church. In fact, to introduce this matter in our understanding of the text is to inject an element that is wholly foreign to the intent of the text. The text is talking about what all believers have in common in Christ, all believers without exception or distinction. When we inject the matter of holding office, we are talking about distinctions among believers, distinctions of gifts and qualifications that may equip some believers for office and keep other believers from holding office. Such distinctions are totally foreign to the thrust of Galatians 3:28.

But it is contended (Report 31) that this text has implications and consequences—bearing on the subject of women in office . I would like to point out that if the Holy Spirit through the mind of Paul had intended that the teaching of Galatians 3:28 carry an implication that women should be ordained to the special offices in the church, then the apostle Paul, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, could never have written I Timothy 2:11–3:12 as he did at a later date.

A third matter I want to touch on is one relating to orderly procedure. Last year’s decision came at the end of a well-defined process, a process involving many years of study and discussion, many committee reports, a preliminary action by the Synod of 1990 and then the final action by Synod 1992. Is it proper procedure for Synod 1993 simply to reverse or overturn the action of 1992? Such a prospect is wholly unacceptable. We are dealing here with amendment of the church’s constitution—the Church Order. The process by which such amendment is to be achieved came to its end with the Synod of 1992 and the proposed amendment was defeated by a sizable vote. If a new effort to change Article 3 of the Church Order is to be launched, it will have to be with the understanding that such effort is the beginning of the process of amending the Church Order allover again. We have a parallel in the process involved in amending the Constitution of the United States of America. When the proposed Equal Rights Amendment failed to win the support necessary for passage, it was clearly understood by all parties that any renewed effort to pass the ERA would mean that the process of amending the constitution would begin allover again. Of course, such reopening of the church matter could come only with the demonstration of new material or new circumstances that would warrant such a renewed effort. Furthermore, if Synod 1993 should decide to reopen the matter, then the least it could insist on is that approval of the change in Article 3 in the Church Order would require the affirmative vote of two sequential synods.

That sounds almost bizarre, doesn’t it—a vote on the issue by two more synods, making for a total of four synods to vote on the matter. And in each case the difference between approval and disapproval is a simple majority of just one vote.

Does not this scenario highlight the flaw in the method the Christian Reformed Church uses in amending its basic constitutional documents? Would it not be far better if the church would decide to do what many through the years have asked it to do, namely, to require that a proposed change in the Creeds or Church Order be done only after two-thirds of the classes approve the amendment? This procedure or one similar to it, practiced by most Reformed or Presbyterian church bodies, would show proper respect for the integrity of the church’s constitution.

Under this matter of proper procedure one more item has to be mentioned. Article 29 of the Church Order says, “The decisions of assemblies shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” The decision of Synod 1990 to open all the offices to women obviously did conflict with the Church Order, but discussion of that aspect of the matter is irrelevant at this point. What about the need to prove that the decision of 1992 is in conflict with the Word of God? On this score those who object to the 1992 decision are in a difficult position. The Synod of 1992 had before it a report that assembled the Biblical data that the years of study had produced in favor of opening the offices to all qualified members of the church, men and women. The Synod decided that “the Biblical support for ordination presented in Report 31 is not sufficiently persuasive to win the confidence and support of the church.” Some delegates, the writer of these lines among them, would have liked that ground presented in stronger language. However, on the central issue Synod 1992 was not persuaded that firm Biblical grounds had been adduced for opening the offices to women as well as men. The movement of the issue through the church channels came down to the question of what the Bible teaches. That’s where the issue rests. Can those who object to the decision of 1992 now come up with new Biblical material? That is highly doubtful. The best they can do may be something that appears as the first ground in an overture being forwarded to Synod 1993. Borrowing language used in the decision of 1992 a classis is saying this: “The Biblical support for ordaining women as outlined in Report 31, Agenda 1992, is sufficiently persuasive to many of our churches to permit their ordination.” That statement simply means that certain people don’t agree with what Synod 1992 said. Is that a proper ground for requesting reversal of a synodical decision in a matter of such importance and one which has received so much study?

The booklet entitled A Cause For Division? written by Professor John W. Cooper and published after consultation with the rest o f the faculty of Calvin seminary, says this: “That case against the ordination of women is clear and solidly based on Reformed hermeneutical principles” (p. 37) . On the other hand the booklet, in seeking to make the case for the ordination of women, abounds with words and expressions like the following: “perhaps,” “likely,” “if,” “probably,” “it can be argued,” “possible.” In a church committed to preaching “Thus saith the Lord,” which of these two presentations must we favor? The answer to me is clear; I sincerely hope it is clear to you.

I would like to close this letter by giving expression, most emphatically, to my warm regard for the gifts, contributions and services that women bring to our churches. These gifts, contributions and services are of inestimable worth. The churches could not function without the faithful and devoted labors of their female members. Nothing written in this letter or elsewhere should be interpreted as in any way suggesting a lack of appreciation and respect for these blessings brought to the churches by their women. And it is my belief that these blessings can best continue if the women remain as they are now—unordained. The burdens that ordination would place on them would take away much of the freedom and appreciation with which they now serve so well.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Edward Heerema

Rev. Edward Heerema is a retired minister of the CRC, resides in Cape Coral, FL.