A Review of James De Jong’s Freeing the Conscience: Approaching the Women’s Ordination Issue by Means of Theological Correlation
One of the most familiar and stirring stories of the Protestant Reformation is the story of Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, refusing to recant his views and deny his writings. The Diet of Worms was a meeting called by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles, to which the electors and princes of Germany were invited, together with delegations of representatives of the Roman Catholic Church from several nations. Luther, who had on the basis of the Word of God criticized many of the teachings and practices of the church of his day and called for its reformation, was on trial. Finally, on the second day of the Diet, Luther was compelled to answer whether he was willing to repudiate his books and the views they contained. His answer was:
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.2
This reply of Luther has become for churches of the Reformation a kind of symbol of what the Reformation was about—the restoration of Christ’s rightful dominion in His church, a dominion exercised through His Word in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. A reformational church is a church that, as one of the earliest confessions of the Reformed churches expressed it, “is born from the Word of God, remains in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger.”3 I mention this familiar story and its significance because it is only in this context that the on-going struggle within the Christian Reformed denomination regarding the ordination of women to the ecclesiastical offices may be understood. This struggle may not be understood as a minor skirmish over a relatively small point of doctrine. It is a struggle for the Reformed character of this denomination, its continued adherence to the confession of the authority of God’s Word in the church of Jesus Christ.
This story also provides a broader context within which to review and evaluate the newest argument for the ordination of women that has been put forth in the Christian Reformed denomination. This argument is summarized in a small pamphlet, Freeing the Conscience: Approaching the Women’s Ordination Issue by Means of Theological Correlation, written by President James A. De Jong and published by Calvin Theological Seminary. Because De Jong’s argument amounts to the claim that our consciences need not be bound to the Bible’s alleged prohibitions of the ordination of women, it raises the question of conscience in a very direct manner. Furthermore, it provides an occasion to consider how the Reformed tradition has historically understood the relation between the Word of God in Scripture and the freedom of the conscience.
THE BACKGROUND TO THE ARGUMENT
Before addressing the specifics of President De Jong’s pamphlet, it will be helpful to summarize the background of his argument for freeing the conscience on the issue of women’s ordination.
In a preface to his study, De long gives a brief account of the occasion for his publishing yet another article on the much-disputed issue of women’s ordination in the Christian Reformed denomination. After the Christian Reformed synod of 1995 met and made its decision to permit churches and classes to declare the word “male” in Article 3 of the Church Order “inoperative,” several synodical delegates approached him and encouraged him to publish the gist of his remarks made on the floor of synod during its debates. These delegates, apparently impressed with the argument employed by De Jong, believed it to be important that he share it with a larger audience in the churches.
According to De Jong, he found this request persuasive for at least four reasons. First, his argument might prove helpful to those in the ChristianReformed denomination who continue to be troubled in their consciences by the practice of the ordination of women. Second, because De Jong’s remarks at synod were regarded by some as a “reversal” of his previously stated position, he believed it would be useful to set the record straight and summarize elements of his approach to this issue that he previously had presented in various settings. Third, De Jong wishes to invite comment and critical reflection upon his argument, in order for it to be corrected, refined or amplified. And fourth, De Jong expresses the hope that, by putting his thoughts on this subject to paper, “they will contribute to closure of the women’s ordination issue…” (p. 3).4
After providing a brief account of his reasons for writing this pamphlet, De Jong presents a rather lengthy review of the issue of women in office before taking up the particular arguments that he wishes to present. This lengthy review is divided into three sections: “Lessons from the Past,” “What Kind of Issue?,” and “Exegesis and Hermeneutics.” The major thesis in these sections is that the issue of the ordination of women is not nearly so important or decisive as many have argued it is, and that its resolution does not seem possible on the basis of exegetical and hermeneutical grounds alone.
In the section, “Lessons from the Past,” De Jong notes that “[t]hroughout its history the church has engaged in numerous, prolonged discussions of issues” (p. 4). During the course of these debates, intense discussion occurred and long-cherished positions only gave way after considerable division and distress among the churches. Participants in the contemporary debate regarding the ordination of women would do well to view this issue in a broader historical perspective, recognizing how frequently in the past light was shed upon a particular doctrine only after a period of heated debate. De Jong mentions, in this connection, a variety of such debates and issues, including the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, Christ’s presence in the supper and the half-way covenant. Closer to home in the tradition of the Christian Reformed denomination, there have been bitter disputes and divisions over such matters as English in the worship service, the communion cup in communion, worldly amusements, and the like. What must be remembered in the context of these debates, including the present debate over the ordination of women, is that the church is held together by a deeper set of commitments expressed in the creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches. So long as there is a common commitment to these confessions, coupled with an ability to distinguish “primary” and “secondary” doctrinal matters, there is no reason the issue of women’s ordination should divide the churches.
In the next section, “What Kind of Issue?,” De Jong basically maintains that the issue of women in office is a secondary issue, not a confessional issue or one which touches any primary doctrine of the Christian faith. I use the word “basically” because this section sends rather mixed signals. On the one hand, De Jong maintains that those who oppose the ordination of women on biblical grounds treat this issue as having the “status of a confession” (p. 7). Since they are convinced the Bible clearly forbids the ordination of women, De Jong acknowledges that for them “the problem could possibly be a primary level issue and ought to be considered exegetically and hermeneutically” (p. 9).5 On the other hand, he points out that the Christian Reformed denomination has chosen to treat this issue as a church order issue and not as a confessional issue. For example, the synod of 1989 refused to accede to an appeal against a Calvin Seminary professor who was advocating the ordination of women, judging that the issue “has not been regarded as a creedal matter but as a church order matter” (Acts of Synod 1989, p. 433). With the synodical judgement, De Jong is clearly in agreement.
The lengthiest section in the introductory portion of his pamphlet, is the section addressed to “Exegesis and Hermeneutics.” In this section, De Jong provides a brief sketch of the history of the exegetical and hermeneutical debates that have occurred in the last twenty-five years of discussion in the Christian Reformed denomination. De Jong correctly observes that these debates have been inconclusive. They have not produced unanimity of conviction in the Christian Reformed denomination, but have rather exposed a fissure that runs throughout the denomination between those who favor and those who oppose the ordination of women. In recent years, De Jong observes, “[a] general mood prevailed that the exegetical and hermeneutical ground has been thoroughly covered and the church is at an impasse” (p. 13). Synods in recent years have declined to appoint new study committees, recognizing this impasse and believing no purpose would be served by the appointment of yet another study committee. This does not mean that discussion of the exegetical and hermeneutical issues has been lacking. De Jong mentions, for example, “two important books,” one by professor John Cooper of Calvin Seminary6 and the other by Rev. Clarence Boomsma.7 Though De Jong is impressed with the contribution of these authors, he notes that their studies have also not been “totally satisfying or convincing, particularly in the way in which they attempt to apply gender equality as extrapolated from Galatians 3:28 to women’s ordination” (p. 14).
On the basis of this survey of the discussion of exegetical and hermeneutical issues, De Jong concludes this section by noting several “major problems” that remain with the position favoring the ordination of women as well as the traditional position opposing the ordination of women. He concludes that these discussions have reached an impasse from which there appears to be no escape.
“A THIRD APPROACH”
All of the preceding brings us to the heart of De Jong’s argument in his pamphlet. As he puts it at the outset of his consideration of a “third approach,” “[i]f after twenty-five years of reflection, discussion, and synodical zig-zagging the issue of women’s ordination has not been solved in a way that produces unity, is there another and broader kind of theological reflection which might be helpful” (p. 17)?
It is this possibility which De Jong raised in his address at the synod of 1995 and it is this possibility which he now articulates in more expanded form in his pamphlet. Perhaps we should not approach the issue of women in ecclesiastical office as though it were an issue capable of being resolved in a directly exegetical or hermeneutical manner. Perhaps, De Jong suggests, the answer lies elsewhere, in a new approach which appeals to the broader teaching of the Word of God and the “systematic integrity” of the Reformed faith.
If, as it now appears, the issue of women’s ordination will not (and can not) be resolved by arguments that are based upon Bible passages and their interpretation, then it might be better to approach this issue by “drawing inferences and making deductions from biblically clearer convictions” (p. 18). Just as the Reformed faith has maintained the practice of infant baptism, not by appealing directly to this passage or that passage but to the implications of the scriptural doctrine of the covenant, so with the issue of the ordination of women we may have to answer the question by appealing to what De Jong terms the “systematic corollaries” of the Bible. By a “systematic corollary” De Jong means “a well established and uniformly accepted teaching which seems to imply a less biblically clear position” (p. 18, emphasis mine).8 If the Bible teaches a number of doctrines clearly, each of which implies a less clear teaching, we are probably warranted in concluding that the less clear teaching is biblical. This kind of an argument has a cumulative force as well, when several such corollaries lend support to the teaching that is being disputed.
This, then, is the approach De Jong proposes to take. By arguing from several clear biblical teachings to a less clear, but probable implication, we may be able to “move…beyond the exegetical and hermeneutical impasse” that presently plagues the Christian Reformed denomination’s debate over women’s ordination.
The doctrine of Scripture
The first systematic corollary that De Jong invites us to consider is the doctrine of Scripture. One of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition is its confession that the Bible is the “God-breathed” or “inspired” Word of God. The Bible is the supreme standard for the faith and practice of the church, including the preaching of the gospel, because it is the very Word of God Himself. The doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Old and New Testaments is the common conviction of Reformed believers.
To the question, how does this doctrine of Scripture relate to the issue of women’s ordination, De Jong answers as follows:
What is intriguing is that the Spirit and human authors of the Bible employ the words of women for “teaching” the church of all ages. Hannah’s prayer (I Samuel 2:1–10) and Mary’s song (Luke 1:46–55) are notable examples…As part of the infallible, inspired Scriptures, these words of women in redemptive history stand above and define the sermons that male preachers have delivered throughout the history of the Christian church! (p. 20)
Since God has been pleased to use the words of women, inscripturated in the Old and New Testaments, to teach His people, and since these words have been the authoritative measure for the preaching of the gospel, including the preaching of male ministers of the Word, it seems to follow that God could use the words of women today to teach His church. As De Jong himself concludes, “[i]f women are used to teach the church of all ages through the inspired Word of God, is it so radical or threatening to consider that God would allow women today to join men in teaching believers from the Word?” (p. 21).
Calvins doctrine of office
A second systematic corollary to which De Jong appeals is what he terms Calvin’s doctrine of office.9
According to De Jong, Calvin taught that Christ is the “sole Head of the church and rules it by his Word and Spirit.” Christ exercises this headship within His church by means of the preaching of the Word of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, both of which are entrusted to the stewardship of officebearers, particularly ministers of the Word. However, Calvin insists that, when Christ entrusts this office and stewardship to officebearers, He does not transfer to them and relinquish thereby His original and inherent authority in the church. Officebearers are merely instruments through whom Christ is pleased to minister His Word in His church. They have no authority of their own, but their authority remains with Christ who uses them for this purpose. As Calvin notes, Christ uses such ministers “not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.”10
This understanding of ecclesiastical office, De Jong insists, has profound implications for the issue of the ordination of women. For, if all authority in the church resides alone in Christ and His Word, the officebearer being but an instrument for the communication of the Word, then there seems to be no reason why the gender of the minister has any relevance. The Word alone has authority, not the messenger. Therefore, why should it matter whether the messenger is male or female? Here again, I to wish to allow De Jong to express his argument in his own words:
The simple, but profound question that arises is this: if the authority resides in Christ’s Word and not in the person or the assembly, what does gender matter? Gender is a dimension of our personhood, not of the Word! (p. 22)
The “doctrine” of heresy
In addition to these arguments from the doctrine of Scripture and Calvin’s view of office, De Jong notes what he calls the “doctrine” of heresy in the Reformed tradition.11 Even though the Reformed tradition does not have a formal doctrine of heresy, De Jong suggests that “in fact Reformed theologians have long realized and stated that a departure from an orthodox position on one point entails an unraveling of other doctrines” (p. 23). For example, the heresy of Pelagianism has a number of implications for several cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith including the doctrine of original sin and the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. Thus, in the Reformed tradition any doctrine or teaching that causes other, important doctrines of the Christian faith to unravel may properly be termed “heresy.”
But, asks De Jong, what doctrines of the faith are threatened by the ordination of women? Are there any serious and harmful consequences for confessional Reformed orthodoxy, were the ordination of women to be approved? To this question, De Jong answers with an emphatic, No! This would only be true, were advocates of the ordination of women to succumb to “secular feminist presuppositions” something which has not been demonstrated or shown to be true. And so again De Jong concludes, “[n]othing confessionally essential is lost if women who are one with men in the faith are ordained” (p. 24).
The doctrine of immutability
The final systematic corollary to which De Jong appeals is the doctrine of God’s immutability. This doctrine teaches that “[i]n his will and purposes…[God] does not change” (p. 24). God always acts in a way that is consistent and invariant, because He Himself is unchanging.
This doctrine of God’s immutability is difficult to correlate, however, with the prohibition against the ordination of women. God, in the history of redemption, has chosen to use women like Deborah the judge or Huldah the prophetess to exercise authority among His people and to speak His Word. If these women, whose callings were “precursors of the New Testament offices of preacher/pastor and elder,” were able to be used by God in this manner in the past, it seems inconsistent that God would be unwilling to use them in a similar manner today. Thus, those passages which seem to limit the appropriate roles of women (like I Timothy 2 or I Corinthians 14) do not “resonate” with other teachings in the Bible. “If God is immutable and if he has truly forbidden women from serving in office in the New Testament, one would not expect to find God raising up and sanctioning women officials among his Old Testament people”(p. 24).
To object to this line of argument by noting that these are “exceptions” which only prove the rule, is without force, according to De Jong. How could we imagine an immutable God making exceptions “if he took rug rules seriously” (p. 24)? If God acted in this manner in the past, there is no legitimate reason He could not act similarly today. To claim otherwise would be to imperil the doctrine of God’s immutability.
With this fourth corollary, De Jong concludes his argument or, as he terms it, “third approach” to the issue of women’s ordination. Though he does not specify further such corollaries, he does hint that they may exist and further buttress the case for freeing the conscience on the issue of the ordination of women. “When considered collectively,” he judges, “they add weight and plausibility to the exegetical and hermeneutical considerations for women’s ordination, and they render the traditional explanations less believable and the traditional problems more significant” (p. 25). Indeed, they seem to “tilt the balance” in the dispute in the direction of the ordination of women.
Having concluded his summary of his case, De Jong briefly notes in two closing sections of his pamphlet the difficulty that always faces claims made on the basis of conscience (these claims are always based upon appeals to the Word “as one presently sees and understands it”) and draws a lesson from a wise man. The lesson drawn from a wise man refers to the practice of Westminster Chapel under the leadership of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones that permitted parents either to baptize or to withhold baptism from their children. Though De Jong does not concur with the judgment that infant baptism is an unclear teaching of Scripture, he uses this example as a lesson for disputants in the debate regarding the ordination of women. In a disputable matter like this, the wisest course would be to permit each church and believer to act in accordance with their consciences.12
TESTING THE ARGUMENT
With this summary of De Jong’s pamphlet and its main argument before us, I would like to turn now to an evaluation of its merit(s). In this way, I hope partially to contribute to De Jong’s own rationale for printing his pamphlet—to provide an occasion for others to critique his approach and examine whether it is convincing. In this section of my review, accordingly, I will test each of the four systematic corollaries that lie at the heart of De Jong’s case. I will reserve until the next and concluding section of my review, a further discussion of the broader issue of conscience raised by De Jong’s pamphlet.
The doctrine of Scripture: Proving too much?
The first corollary that De Jong mentions, appeals to God’s use of women as instruments through whom He has given His Word in Scripture to the church. If God could reveal His Word authoritatively through those women whose words have been inscripturated, then why should women not be able today to minister God’s Word in preaching and teaching with authority in the church?
The fallacy of this corollary and the inference that De Jong draws from it, is a fallacy known as the fallacy of proving too much. If an argument, based upon a particular premise, can be shown to warrant conclusions which are obviously wrong, then the argument and its premise needs to be re-examined. It seems to me that something like this is the case with De Jong’s first corollary.
The argument in brief form looks something like this: if someone (or something) were used by God as an instrument to reveal His authoritative Word, then he (or she, or it) may be ordained to minister that same Word today. This argument could also be restated more precisely in this way: if God used women to reveal His Word in the past, then women are eligible for the offices of minister and elder in the church of Jesus Christ in the present.
But this argument proves too much. Were ita good argument, it would prove that any instrument of revelation, used by God in the past, might equally well be eligible for the offices of the church today. Surely, however, this does not follow. If this were true, then one could equally well make the case for the eligibility of the following for office in the church: the speaking serpent of Genesis 3; Salaam’s ass who prophesied; pagan kings like Cyrus; the Roman governor Pilate; the Pharisees, etc. It would not be difficult to expand greatly this list with a virtual “rogue’s gallery” of those whom the Lord has used to communicate authoritatively His Word! Are we to conclude that all of these instruments of revelation are, at least potentially, eligible for office in the church of Jesus Christ?
Furthermore, were this argument a valid argument, it would be logically impossible for God through the mouth of a woman to teach that women ought not to be ordained! There does not seem to be any reason, biblical or otherwise, why that should be the case.13
But it is not only the fallacy of proving too much from which this first corollary of De Jong suffers. It also suffers from a severe case of begging the question. For what if God has declared, in the very Word which De Jong wants to affirm is divinely inspired and authoritative, that women ought not to teach or exercise authority in the church over men (1 Tim. 2:11–14)? Unless De Jong can show that God has not spoken to the legitimacy of women occupying the office of minister or elder in the church in the Scriptures, this corollary proves not only too much but also evades the real point of contention altogether what does the text of Scripture teach regarding who may and who may not serve in ecclesiastical office?
Calvin’s doctrine of office:
Are there any “biblical qualifications” for office?
The same difficulty arises in connection with the second corollary mentioned by De Jong. This corollary assumes something which I will now, for the sake of argument, concede, namely, that Calvin’s doctrine of office is a biblical one. But does this doctrine authorize the kind of inference that De Jong thinks it does?
Here again it is important that we try to understand the force and nature of this inference. As best as I can understand it, De Jong seems to be arguing that, because the person who ministers the Word of God has no authority of his (or her) own, but only serves as an instrument to convey a Word which is inherently authoritative, the gender of the minister is an irrelevancy. What difference does it make to the inherent authority of the Word of God, whether Christ chooses to minister that Word by the mouth of a woman or a man?
This is a rather intriguing argument, one which has a superficial appearance of plausibility. But, sadly, it is only a matter of appearance but not of reality. For, were this argument legitimate, it would also follow that all biblically prescribed qualifications for office, not only qualifications of gender, are irrelevant and unnecessary. This would be true not only for those who hold office in the church, but it would be equally true for those who hold office in a Christian marriage or family. It would even render the whole idea that some hold a distinct office by divine appointment, which is accompanied by a corresponding conferral of divine authority and sanction, meaningless. All that would matter for relationships among church members and Christian believers of all walks and stations of life is that they communicate the Word of God to each other.
This corollary, therefore, like the first one suffers from the fallacy of proving too much. Were it true, the whole idea of particular officebearers having unique authority by virtue of a divine calling in the church or the home would be undermined. A child who spoke the Word of God would have an authority in the family (his own family, as well as any other!) indistinguishable from his parents. A parent would have no unique authority over his own children, in distinction from other children. A husband would no more be the “head” of his wife than any other person who might communicate the Word of God to her. Indeed, any member of the congregation who spoke the Word of God to another member would be in a position which was the virtual equivalent (so far as Christ’s appointment and the authority of their office) of any other. There would be, in such a circumstance, no difference in kind between, say, a visit from two other believers and an official visit by two elders of the church who were conducting family visitation. The inference De Jong draws from Calvin’s doctrine of office, in other words, is one which obliterates altogether the unique authority that belongs to the particular offices, and it yields the most radical form of egalitarianism.
Furthermore, this corollary, like the first one but to an even greater degree, omits to consider whether the Word of God itself addresses the issue of qualifications for office in the church of Jesus Christ. Why would the Bible teach, for example, that an “overseer” ought to be “the husband of one wife,” “apt to teach,” “not given to much wine,” “no brawler,” and the like, if the person of the officebearer makes no difference so long as the officebearer communicates the Word of God? Though the gender of the officebearer may not matter to De Jong and those who approve his reasoning, it seems difficult to suppress the conviction that it matters to Christ, when He chose His apostles and appointed them to minister His Word, including His Word respecting qualifications for office in the church.
Like the first corollary, this second one not only proves too much but wholly sidesteps the question whether the Bible has anything to say about who mayor may not be an officebearer in Christ’s church.
The doctrine of “heresy”: What is at stake?
In his treatment of the doctrine of “heresy,” De Jong suggests that the Reformed tradition has no formal doctrine of heresy. Whether or not the Reformed tradition has a formal doctrine of heresy, there can be little doubt that, consistent with the original meaning of the term, generally heresy has been defined as any “belief or teaching that contradicts Scripture and Christian theology”14 Though the term has come to connote for some the idea of a contrary belief only on matters of fundamental biblical teaching, the general sense of the term refers to any departure from the biblical faith. In the context of the Reformed churches, heresy would be any belief in conflict with the Confessions’ summary of the articles and points of doctrine taught in the Scriptures. Thus, in its broadest sense, heresy is teaching that conflicts with Scripture; in a narrower sense it is teaching that conflicts with the confessions in their summary of theScriptures; and in the narrowest and most precise sense, heresy is any teaching in conflict with the Scriptures and the confessions that touches upon a primary article of the Christian faith . De Jong’s insistence that heresy always adversely affects several other, important areas of Christian doctrine is, therefore, too narrow and stringent a view. Though heresy may be of greater or lesser consequence, heresy simply refers to any deviation from biblical truth. Now it is De Jong’s contention that the advocacy of women’s ordination can in no wise be termed a “heresy,” not only because it cannot be shown clearly to conflict with Scriptural teaching, but also because it does not adversely affect any important doctrine of the Christian faith. This is so, he maintains, provided that it is not the expression of secular feminism.
There are several comments that may be made in response to this argument of De Jong’s.
First, it is certainly possible that a person could advocate the ordination of women to office without necessarily contradicting any cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith or self-consciously opposing any article in the Reformed confessions. Christians can hold mistaken views as to what the Bible teaches or even inconsistently refuse to own up to the implications of an unbiblical view that they may have adopted. Thus, it would be possible for a Reformed believer to subscribe to the Reformed confessions, yet inconsistently and unbiblically advocate the ordination of women to office.
Second, though this is a possibility, a consistent Reformed confession of the authority of the Word of God in Scripture requires, in my judgment, that the ordination of women be opposed. I use the term “consistent” in order to acknowledge the possibility of inconsistency at this point, without thereby approving such inconsistency. Because I am convinced that the Bible speaks clearly in its prohibition of the ordination of women to office in the church, I am equally convinced that a faithful and obedient listening to the Scriptures will lead to the same conclusion.
Third, it is not at all clear to me that the Reformed confessions nowhere speak directly to the question as to whether the Bible forbids the ordination of women. Most students of the confessions of the Reformed churches would readily acknowledge that the Belgic Confession in Articles 7, 30–32, does, so far as the common understanding of its authors and subscribers during the first several hundred years since the Reformation, forbid the ordination of women to office.15 The same confession regarding eligibility for office in the church is found in other Reformed confessions as well, including the Second Helvetic Confession.16
And fourth, the issue of the ordination of women cannot so easily be divorced from other related issues which do touch upon important doctrines in the Word of God and the Reformed confessions. Without giving the matter too much attention, I believe that the following doctrines of Scripture, among others, do relate to and are adversely affected by the advocacy of the ordination of women: the doctrine of God’s creation of man after His own image, male and female, the man first and the woman subsequently, taken from His side; the covenantal representation of the human race by the first man, Adam, and similarly the covenantal representation of the new humanity by the second Adam, Christ; the biblical doctrine of divinely appointed relationships of authority in the church, as well as in the home and in the institution of marriage; the biblical doctrine of the Son’s voluntary submission to the Father, a submission that in no respect impairs His full equality of nature with the Father; the biblical teaching that, when God chooses officebearers to represent Himself, as covenant husband, to His people and Christ’s church, His covenant wife, He has consistently and appropriately chosen men; the biblical teaching that created differences between men and women are not adventitious or accidental, but integral to our co-humanity as image-bearers of God; the integrity of creation, including the diversity between men and women, against all forms of Gnosticism in which the biblical doctrine of created differences is denied; the consistent biblical condemnations of worship practices which “feminize” the divine (the Asherah of Baalism; cult prostitution, etc.); the doctrine of the Bible’s clarity and sufficiency as a rule for the faith and practice of the church, including that aspect of the church’s government having to do with the “lawful election” of officebearers.
I am not suggesting by this list of doctrines that may be adversely affected by an unbiblical advocacy of the ordination of women, that advocates of women’s ordination have gone astray on all of these points. Many have not, and for that we should be grateful. However, none of these doctrines is secure from those who would draw out the consequences of the kind of arguments normally used to advocate the ordination of women. Though it may not always be true that a person should be held accountable for the implications of his views, it is certainly true that he should be held accountable for showing why these implications either do not follow from a view being advocated or are not as serious as they might first appear.
Unfortunately, one of the features of the dispute within the Christian Reformed denomination regarding women’s ordination, is the apparent unwillingness of those who advocate this practice to show persuasively that this advocacy does not have any of these serious implications. The urgency of making the case that the ordination of women is not a serious issue is heightened by developments in most denominations that have approved the ordination of women. In these denominations, it seems all but impossible to disentangle their approval of women’s ordination from other, related departures from Scriptural teaching, like those mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
The doctrine of immutability: Does God’s Word change?
The last corollary in De Jong’s approach appeals to the immutability of God. If God is unchanging, then His willingness to call a Deborah or a Huldah to office must mean that He remains willing to use women in an official capacity in the church of Jesus Christ.
The problem with this corollary is that it misses the mark rather widely. No opponent of the ordination of women of whom I am aware has ever denied that God, who is ever the same in His will and purposes, has used and continues to use women in a variety of ways in the life and ministry of the church. The real issue is whether God has ever declared it to be part of His normative will, for the government and care of Christ’s church, that women should serve in the offices of minister of the Word or elder. Not only has this not occurred, but it might also be added that God has never, so far as the biblical record is concerned, called a woman to an ordinary office in the old or new covenant church.
If I may be permitted to turn the tables on De Jong’s argument at this point, it seems to me precisely to follow from God’s immutability that women ought not to be called and ordained to the offices of the church. If we know God’s will and purpose through the Scriptures, and if the Scriptures consistently teach that God has not been pleased to call women to the offices of the church, then it would be a denial of God’s unchanging character (not to mention, His unchanging Word!) to do today what God did not do in the past. The only way De Jong’s argument at this juncture could have force would be if he were able to show that God, in the history of redemption, prescribed as a regular practice the ordination of women to the offices of the church.
OUR CONSCIENCES REMAIN CAPTIVE TO THE WORD OF GOD
It should be apparent from my response to the four corollaries De Jong cites that I do not find his approach or argument convincing. Not only are these corollaries an inadequate basis for the kind of inferences that De Jong would like to draw from them, but they also fail to address the real point of contention in the debate regarding the ordination of women.
As De Jong’s title for his pamphlet intimates, the real problem in the dispute regarding the ordination of women is that many church members, myself included, are convinced that the Bible forbids the ordination of women, This conviction is not simply the product of custom or tradition, but a settled conviction based upon careful study of the Word of God. It is rather disappointing, therefore, that, in a pamphlet bearing the title, “Freeing the Conscience,” De Jong does not address in any direct or convincing fashion the biblical considerations that bind the consciences of those who object to the ordination of women. The only way a conscience bound by the Scriptures could be freed with respect to the ordination of women would be on the basis of a sound, biblical argument. Since De Jong offers no such biblical case for the ordination of women, indeed does not even so much as claim to offer one, I can hardly see how he hopes his pamphlet will “bring closure” to the debate in the Christian Reformed denomination.
Perhaps to appreciate fully the weakness of De Jong’s case, it would be helpful to consider the issue of conscience more directly. Though De Jong is quite correct when he notes that consciences belong to our fallen, sinful humanity, and therefore sometimes need to be corrected and informed by the Word of God, no Christian conscience is ever free to act contrary to convictions based upon the Word of God. Thus, to say, for example, as De Jong does, that we need to remember that the conscience is always bound to the Word “as one presently sees and understands it [theWord],” offers no way out of the difficulty. Of course the conscience is bound by the Word of God, as the person of conscience understands the Word. That is a self-evident truism. When Luther refused to recant his views at the Diet of Worms, this was the objection that was constantly thrown in his face—who do you think you are, Luther, that your interpretation of the Word of God is preferable to that of the church, indeed to that of the multitude within the church?! What was Luther to do at this point? Agree that he might be wrong and therefore go against his conscience? This was an impossibility for him, and it remains impossible for any believer today to go against what he regards to be the clear teaching of Scripture.
It is just this basic problem of conscience that De Jong’s pamphlet largely ignores. Were De Jong to take seriously the conscientious objection of believers who oppose the ordination of women, he would be obliged to offer them reasons why their understanding of the Bible is not correct. Because he has chosen not to do this, but rather to offer a weak and misleading discussion of what he terms “systematic corollaries,” his argument is beside the point. It does not address the real problem of conscience.
To illustrate the weakness of De Jong’s address to the problem of conscience, there are two statements in the Reformed confessions that should be noted. The first is taken from Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, an article dealing with “the order and discipline of the church”:
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. (emphasis mine)
The second statement is taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 20, entitled “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience”:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (emphasis mine)
A careful reflection upon these articles, in two major confessions of the Reformation, will show that the Reformed churches have always insisted that, in the worship and government of the church of Jesus Christ, consciences may only be bound by the clear requirements and ordinances of the Word of God. In the worship and government of the church, including the lawful election of officebearers, the churches are not free to introduce “human inventions,” things not instituted by Christ in His Word, so as to bind anyone’s conscience. Since consciences may only be bound by the clear requirements of the Word of God, it is not enough that the Word of God perhaps permit a practice (either by its silence or apparent permission)! Since matters pertaining to the worship and government of the church will inevitably require obedience on the part of the churches and their members, such matters ought to be drawn from the clear prescriptions of the Word of God.
The only possible justification, accordingly, for the ordination of women to office in any church of Jesus Christ, would be the explicit requirement and warrant of the Scriptures. Were such an explicit requirement or warrant lacking. consciences would be bound to accept, embrace and conform to a practice (the ordination of women) not instituted by Christ. Or, to make the same point in another way, the Reformed tradition has never treated the issue of election and ordination to office as an “indifferent matter,” an adiaphoron, with respect to which Christians are at liberty to do as they see fit.
Now, how does this relate to De Jong’s argument that the theological corollaries he cites will serve to “free the conscience” on the issue of women in office? It relates to it in a very direct manner. Reformed believers who take their confession of the Reformed faith seriously may not consider it an option to go against the teaching of Scripture when it comes to the worship and government of the church. Nor may Reformed believers institute practices in this respect that do not have the clear sanction of Scripture. Even to say that a particular practice may be permissible (because it is not explicitly condemned) is inadequate. No practice may be introduced, at least not in the determination as to who is qualified for office in Christ’s church, which does not meet the high standard of being taught in the Word of God.
For this reason and others mentioned in the previous section, De Jong’s pamphlet offers little prospect for resolving the debate regarding the ordination of women in the Christian Reformed denomination. The real crisis that faces many today in the Christian Reformed denomination is a crisis of conscience, to be sure. But, unless and until someone is forthcoming with an argument from the Scriptures, showing that the ordination of women to office in the church is right and necessary, that crisis will only be heightened by the kind of arguments found in this pamphlet.
For many of us, therefore, the room to maneuver without violating conscience in the Christian Reformed denomination is becoming very small indeed. I can see only one of two ways out of this dilemma: either De Jong and/or others accept the burden of proof which is theirs to show us how our consciences need not be bound on this issue, or they ought to show how consciences bound to oppose the ordination of women can remain genuinely free in a denomination which permits this practice.17
There is little in De Jong’s pamphlet that offers encouragement on either front.
1. The term “Diet” simply refers to a parliament or assembly.
2. Quoted by Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: New American Library, 1950), p. 144 (emphasis mine).
3. First Thesis of the “Ten Theses of Berne,” 1528.
4. This last reason for publishing his argument seems oddly in conflict with the previous reason. Unless De Jong knows with a certainty that his argument could not be refuted, how could he expect it to bring “closure” to the discussion of an issue that must ultimately be decided by the assemblies of the denomination (councils, classes and synod)? If his thinking is genuinely subject to “critique” and “correction,” to use his own words, how could he or anyone else presume that it would bring an end to the discussion. Note that the page references in parenthesis here and throughout are from De Jong’s pamphlet.
5. With this admission, De Jong undermines, as we shall see, the burden of his argument subsequently. Though he attempts to shift the burden of proof from the exegesis of specific Bible passages like I Timothy 2:11–14, I Timothy 3, Titus 1:5–9, I Corinthians 11:1–16,and I Corinthians 14:34–38, to the consideration of broader theological issues, he has here acknowledged that the only argument that will satisfy opponents of women’s ordination will be an exegelical argument. He is, of course, correct in this acknowledgment. But, unhappily, his pamphlet offers no such exegetical argument. None is even attempted.
6. A Cause for Division (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1991).
7. Male and Female, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993). It is interesting to observe that De Jong omits to mention two critiques of these books, one written by myself and my colleague, Dr. Nelson Kloosterman (A Cause of Division: The Hermeneutic of Women’s Ordination [Orange City, IA: Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 1991]), and the other by myself alone (Compelling New Insight? [Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1993]). He also neglects to mention the study of Rev. Norman Shepherd (Women in the Service of Christ [South Holland, IL: Cottage Grove CRC, 1992]), a study which faithfully summarizes the biblical teaching respecting the service of women in the church. Though these contributions may not meet with De Jong’s personal approval, his neglect to mention them seriously compromises the completeness and fairness of his historical sketch in this section of his pamphlet.
8. It should be observed that this definition of a “systematic corollary” is not that different from what has been termed, in a Reformed approach to hermeneutics or the method of Bible interpretation, a “general analogy of Scripture.” A general analogy of Scripture is a doctrine taught throughout the Scriptures, in the light of which particular Scriptural passages should be interpreted. One example of a general analogy would be the “equality of worth” of men and women as image bearers of God. De Jong’s argument.. therefore, is similar in form to the argument of those who have appealed to the general analogy of Scripture in favor of the ordination of women. He appeals, however, as we shall see, to different “corollaries” or analogies than those thus far singled out in the debate over women’s ordination.
9. It is worth noting at this juncture that this corollary is not as directly biblical as De Jong’s case would lead the reader to believe. Though Calvin’s doctrine of office may be biblical, it is passing strange that De Jong includes it as one of his proposed biblical corollaries which implies the permissibility of the ordination of women. At the least.. one step in his argument—and a most important step—is omitted at this point…namely, an argument for the biblical character of Calvin’s view of office.
10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. by John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), IV.iii.I.
11 . Here I would reiterate a comment made in a preceding footnote (Cn. 9).This systematic corollary does not answer to its advanced billing. A doctrine of heresy that mayor may not have been an integral part of the Reformed tradition is hardly the kind of systematic corollary or basic biblical teaching that De Jong has promised. It is certainly rather insecure footing on which to base an argument from inference for the ordination of women.
12. De Jong’s introduction of this lesson in his closing section endangers his case, since it is not difficult to apply many features of his argument against the doctrine of infant baptism, at least any formulation of the doctrine that would insist that it is a “primary” or essential doctrine and practice of the Reformed faith. I cannot see, for example, how his formulation of the doctrine of heresy would serve to buttress the argument against local option on the matter of infant baptism. What essential doctrine or doctrines of the faith would have to be jettisoned, were this permitted? And why would any congregation not be guilty of “schism….on De Jong’s understanding of the term, were they to leave a denomination which dispensed with its confession regarding the baptism of children of believers? Though a consideration of the implications of De Jong’s argument at this point would take us too far afield of our limited purpose in this review, it is not hard to see that it has rather serious consequences for the viability of a fellowship of confessional Reformed churches.
13. De Jong’s argument at this point also fails to notice that, in the inscripturation of His Word, including the inscripturation of the words of the women De Jong mentions, God was pleased to reveal Himself through the ministry of inspired men. I am not aware of any inspired texts of the Old or New Testament which were given through the instrumentality of women. However, my objection would still stand, even were this to have occurred. But it does raise an additional consideration that shows the weakness in De Jong’s argument from this corollary.
14. This definition is taken from the Millard Erickson’s Concise Dictionary of Christum Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), p. 73. The term “heresy” derives from a root which has the sense of “to differ,” “to separate from,” or “to be other.” Hence, heresy is any deviation from the truth taught in the Bible and confessed by the church.
15. This is not the place to address the significance, for example, of the language of Article 30 of the Belgic Confession. This article reads (quoting the new English translation from the French now in use in the Christian Reformed denomination):
We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make the council of the church….By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church. when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.
It should be noted that the synod of 1989, when it declared the issue of women’s ordination a church order and not a confessional matter, erred when it cited the language of “persons” in this Article. No self-respecting interpreter of the French “personages,” which gains its gender reference from the context, including the use of masculine pronouns which refer to it as an antecedent, can deny that it refers to those “faithful men” who meet the requirements of the apostolic rule of 1 Timothy 3. If anyone can produce a single Reformed subscriber to this confession who thought otherwise at the time of its writing and for several hundred years subsequent to its writing. I would be happy to reconsider the matter. I thought to be enough that the great Synod of Dordtrecht, in its Post-Acta (actions taken after many foreign delegates had departed, but with their knowledge and approval) provided for an official, ecclesiastical translation into Latin of the Belgic Confession, a translation upon which earlier English translations were based and which translates the French “personages” correctly, in terms of its acknowledged meaning, as “virifidelts” (“faithful men”). The story of the Christian Reformed denomination’s treatment of this article and its relation to the dispute regarding the ordination of women needs still to be told in full. Let it suffice here to say that it is a story of ecclesiastical disingenuousness and “sleight of hand” translation.
16. This confession of the Swiss Reformed churches echoes the language of Article 30 of the Belgic Confession and gives expression to the common understanding of the Reformed churches of the Reformation. In Chapter 27 it says: “Not anyone may be elected, but capable men distinguished by sufficient consecrated learning pious eloquence, simple wisdom, lastly, by moderation and an honorable reputation, according to that apostolic rule which is compiled by the apostle in I Tim., ch. 3, and Titus, ch.1.” (emphasis mine).
17. If present trends and requirements continue, those who oppose the ordination of women on biblical grounds will, among other things, be obliged to violate their consciences in at least these ways: mandatory attendance at a denominational seminary whose convictions respecting the ordination of women are becoming increasingly clear; paying for all ministry shares, a portion of which will support the advocacy and practice of women’s ordination; participating in examinations and ordinations of women officebearers; participating in classes where women delegates have been seated, etc. Perhaps some who oppose the ordination of women on biblical grounds will be able to “salve” their consciences and cooperate in these and other ways. Speaking for myself and I suspect many others, this is not a viable option.
Dr. Venema, contributing editor for The Outlook, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.