The agenda before the 1993 CRC synod was, relatively speaking, rather light; but what It dealt WIth was very weighty. The matter of women and ecclesiastical office was again before the delegates of this year’s synod. Many members of the CRC felt that this issue had reached something of a resolution in 1992 when that synod voted not to change the Church Order, Article 3 to allow women to serve in all the offices of the Christian Reformed Church. To be sure, the 1992 decision was not satisfying to many in the CRC, and that for a variety of reasons. For those who favor the ordination of women, the 1992 decision was a deep disappointment, while others found the use of the term “expound” very ambiguous, thus creating a confused situation regarding who is and is not permitted to lead worship and proclaim the Word of God in the worship services of the churches. But the issue was not laid to rest in 1992, or perhaps it is more accurate to say last year’s uncertain compromise did not allow the matter to stay at rest.
This issue came before this year’s synod not by way of a study committee’s report nor by way of unfinished business (i.e., ratification of a previously proposed church order change) but strictly by way of more than 25 overtures and communications from CRC classes and councils. On the one side were requests either to ratify the 1990 statement that women may serve in all the offices of the church, that Church Order Article 3 be amended by dropping the word “male,” and/or that the 1992 decision be revised or appealed in. order to allow churches to ordain women in office. Overture 26 called for Synod 1993 to allow the Church of the Servant (GR East) to continue its current practice of ordaining women elders.
On the other side were official requests that those churches that have been ordaining women elders already for varying periods of time be addressed in some manner. Some advocated words of admonition, while others called for stiffer penalties. For example, Overture 35 from Minnesota South called for all women eiders to be released from office by August 1, 1993, and for classes in which women elders serve to take steps to see that this does not happen again. Overture 33 (Zeeland) sought clarification of the phrase “expound the Word of God,” while Overture 36 (MN South) called for synod not to accede to GR East’s request to open all offices to women. An overture (#59) from five council members of Plymouth Heights CRC (Grand Rapids) asked that churches which “(1) withhold or permit members. to withhold…ministry-share gifts [“quotas,” MVH]…(2) deliberately decide to under pay their ministry shares in favor of congregational programming, or (3) ordain women to the offices of elder, evangelist, or pastor” not be permitted to have their office-bearers be seated at synod, or serve on denominational boards and committees or as synodical deputies. In terms of official overtures and communications the amount of material was about evenly divided. So was Synod 1993.
The advisory committee which handled this issue was chaired by Rev. Charles De Ridder with Rev. AI Kuiper serving as the reporter. After much discussion and reflection, the advisory committee eventually divided into majority (basically favoring the status quo on the issue, although also asking for a small study committee to define “expounding”) and minority committees. The minority was chaired by elder Sylvan Gerritsma, with Rev. Allan Groen the reporter.
The full synod began to deal with this issue on Wednesday morning, June 16. According to synodical procedure both the majority and minority reports were read for information. The majority reporter then had the floor (as per procedure). In its first two recommendations the majority sought to turn synod away from four overtures which basically called for opening all offices to women. The majority in its grounds noted that overtures 25 and 27 come as appeals, “and a decision of synod may not be appealed (Church Order Article 30).” Revision is possible but not an appeal. Furthermore, the ratification process (e.g., the 1992 vote on the 1990 proposed change in Article 3) is “a process intended to be completed within a designated period of time, and not a process to be continued indefinitely.” When Synod 1992 dealt with the matter, it stated that “the current wording be retained” (Acts of Synod 1992, Art. 105, B. 4, p.699). In other words, the whole matter should have been over in 1992. So, many thought. But Synod 1993 never got an opportunity to vote on these majority recommendations.
After only four speakers had addressed themselves to the majority report, the synod voted (104–77) to consider the minority report. The minority first had to establish whether there were “sufficient and new grounds for reconsideration” of the 1992 decision. Its second recommendation called upon synod to “revise the decision of Synod 1992 concerning women in office.” Recommendation 3 concerned the changes in CO. Article 3 (deletion of the word “male” and merging Art. 3a and 3b). Recommendation 4 called for immediate ratification of Co. Article 3, and finally, Recommendation 5 of the minority report concerned adoption of guidelines for implementation of the women in office decision (see Report 31, Agenda for Synod 1992, pp. 380–81).
For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, the debate went back and forth among the delegates. What grounds were advanced to permit reconsideration of this issue? The minority claimed that: (1) the 1992 decision “binds the consciences” of those who believe Scripture does not prohibit women’s ordination; (2) the 1992 decision has caused “serious unrest in the churches”; and (3) the 1992 decision concerning women “expounding” is problematic on church order and Biblical grounds. In the debate that ensued, it was pointed out that the grounds described reactions, and reactions are not sufficient grounds. In fact, reactions are not grounds at all! Furthermore, many who oppose opening the offices to women also have consciences bound by the Word of God on this matter. More than one delegate asked for Biblical grounds for opening all offices of the CRC to women. Significantly, minority chairman Gerritsma said that for 1900 years no new evidence has come forth, and no more will come forth from the Bible. The evidence is where the Spirit is leading us, he said. He (and a number of other delegates) told synod that he had changed his mind on the matter to the point that he thought that the burden of proof had now shifted to those again women’s ordination. In other words, if you oppose women in office, you have a harder time proving your case. By a dose vote (93–91) synod said that there were “sufficient and new grounds for reconsideration” of the 1992 decision.
The synod then proceeded to debate revising the 1992 decision. This second recommendation was grounded in reasons similar to the first recommendation. It did add the ground that this action is “permitted by Scripture.” Here were cited certain parts of Report 31 of 1992. In brief, this “evidence” is texts such as Genesis 1:26–28; Acts 2:17,18 and Galatians 3:28. In addition, the minority argued that no dear testimony of Scripture compels the church “to prohibit women in their equality in Christ from church office in all times, places, and circumstances.” Finally, the minority (drawing upon Report 31. 1992) said that male headship i.n marriage cannot be extended to prohibit women in church office.
The content of the debate dealt with some of these grounds, but in the opinion of this writer, the debate frequently roamed elsewhere (a phenomenon hardly to be avoided and not limited to this issue). In the discussion we heard a number of “personal journey” stories, e.g., an account of a daughter no longer in the CRC. One delegate said that when his first daughter was born, he switched his thinking to allowing women in office. We heard calls for love and unity, for the need to put this behind us, calls “to get on with it,” appeals for a concern regarding the healing process which the 1992 synod had initiated, pleas for patience while the CRC gets used to the idea of the “inevitable” decision of opening all the offices to women. Some called for the freedom for churches to act locally; after all, no one is being forced to ordain women, it was argued. We heard that the issue had nothing to do with salvation; the differences among us were only cultural (e.g., Koreans are against it; some Dutch people favor it). Many delegates, including synod’s president (Rev. Peter Brouwer), warned of the chaos, division and the loss of church revenue that would follow if synod went ahead and opened all church offices to women. By mid-afternoon the debate was virtually over. By means of the ballot, counted before a hushed audience, synod voted 95–88 to revise the 1992 decision “by giving councils and churches the option to nominate, elect, call and ordain qualified women to the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” When the vote was announced,many in the audience reacted with loud applause—and tears.
The only question which remained was that of ratifying the change in Church Order Art. 3. Delegates now began to be wary of using the term ratify; although it is a perfectly good church order term, some felt it was too “political.” The minority committee recommended that the change be implemented immediately. When the chair was asked to rule on this, Rev. Brouwer ruled it out of order, saying that we are bound by Church Order Art. 47 until we should change the Church Order. Although the chair was challenged, the ruling was sustained. The next day the synod approved a recommendation which reads, “That the advisability of the proposed change in Article 3 of the Church Order be decided by Synod 1994.” Synod then voted that “churches be requested not to implement” any of these changes until after the decision of Synod 1994. It expressed its “regret that some churches have already ordained women elders, intentionally violating our mutual covenant to which each congregation has committed itself,” and it then adopted the 1992 guidelines found in Report 31 (Agenda for Synod 1992, pp. 380–381) for how to implement the decisions on women in office in all the assemblies and agencies of the CRC.
I am sure that many people will be writing and speaking about this issue in the next several months, giving more reflective analysis of what synod did. Although this report is intended mainly to explain to readers what happened at CRC Synod1993 with regard to this issue, allow me several observations.
1. The discussion at synod this year on this issue was not noted for extensive wrestling with Scriptural givens on the matter. To be sure,there were some references to Biblical texts, mainly (although not exclusively) by those opposed to women in office. One senses that we are either unable and/ or unwilling to discuss well and thoroughly the relevant Scriptural data. After about 20 years of study (committees) the CRC seems to have arrived at a “you’ve got your texts, I’ve got mine” attitude. If it all boils down to differences in interpretation, then the boundaries of discourse will, and do, noticeably shift to other areas. But for many of us who are convinced that Scripture prohibits women from serving in church office, this attitude toward Scripture is of great concern because of the implications it contains for other issues. This decision cannot be “settled and binding” because it is contrary to the Word of God.
2. Those in favor of women in church office argued that many members have had their consciences bound by the 1992 decision which retained the present wording of the Church Order. They are “persuaded that Scripture does not forbid qualified women from serving in any ecclesiastical office. Synod may not bind the consciences where Scripture does not bind.”
Yet, let the reader listen carefully to what we believe and confess in the Belgic Confession, Art. 7: “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it. For since the entire manner of service which requires of us is described in it at great length, no one.. ought to teach other than what the Holy Scriptures have already taught us…Therefore we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule.” Article 32 of the same Belgic Confession, in speaking of the governance of the church, says that those who govern “ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master has ordained for us. Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God,which bind and force our consciences in any way. So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God. To that end excommunication, with all it involves, according to the Word ofGod, is required.” In other words, the confessionally Reformed position is that we must do what Christ through His Word requires without deviation from that.
Some have argued that Scripture can be used both to favor and oppose women in church office. If that be true (and I do not believe so), then the issue falls into the realm of “things indifferent” (adiaphora). But “things indifferent” cannot bind anyone’s conscience! One cannot have it both ways. If Scripture requires women’s ordination(and some have argued this!),then those who oppose such should be subject to discipline. If it’s an indifferent matter, then nobody may claim a bound conscience. But again, for many of us Scripture prohibits it, and therefore this decision with its grounds cannot be “settled and binding.” It is contrary to the Confessions.
3. One wonders what authority this synod has when, in the judgment of many, it violated its own rules. Although the recommendations that were adopted have proper wording (that “synod reconsider synod revise”), these recommendations came on the strength of some overtures that were improperly before synod. One cannot appeal the decisions of a previous synod, which is what some overtures tried to do. But in the context of discussing whether to change Church Order Art. 3 this year or to wait a year, Professor Henry De Moor of Calvin Seminary spoke to the effect that a synod may do what it wants to do; the question is whether it is wise to do so. Those skilled in church order and its procedures can well take up that discussion.
But in a broader context questions need to be asked precisely about the wisdom of this decision and about the issue of the 1993 synod’s authority. How long can the CRC go careening from one position to the next on this issue within the space of 12 months? The 1975 synod said that compelling Biblical evidence must be forthcoming for the CRC to open church offices to women. Are the grounds for this year’s decision compelling? Synods 1984 and 1985 affirmed the position of male headship, implying that the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist could not be opened to women. But then came Synod 1990 (open all offices), then came Synod 1992 (retain current wording of Article 3) when many had hoped for some breathing space and time to heal, and now comes Synod 1993 with the issue thrown back into the lap of the churches. When a person constantly scratches a scab that covers a wound, a permanent scar is the result. Sadly, it appears that synodical gatherings are becoming places of political power-play where whichever side has 50% plus 1 wins. But the churches are the losers. This cannot continue.
4. Finally,the comment was made after one of synod’s sessions that issues are often won or lost at synods because of the elders that do or do not make themselves available for going to classis and synod. According to the printed 1993 Agenda there were 15 alternate elder delegate spots not filled. Where are the elders when time for synod rolls around? I’m aware that being away from job or farm is at times impossible or that it entails some loss. But I was impressed again at how well many elders spoke at this year’s synod. Yet I feel that there needs to come a great revival in the eldership in Reformed churches. A Reformed pastor dignifies the elders of the congregation he serves when he teaches, trains and encourages his elders to stretch their limits in doing a better job in service to our Lord. Classes and synods are well-served when faithful elders are present at the various church assemblies.
The 1993 synodical decisions regarding women in office cannot be considered “settled and binding.” Many consistories and councils are already now preparing to act in regard to this decision. Talk (even articles!) is not enough. May God grant that the steps which churches now take be orderly and done out of an intense love for the Lord, His Word and the well-being of the church. But let those steps be taken.
Rev. Vander Hart is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City, IA.