Synod 1994 – A Genuine Turningpoint or Temporary Reprieve?

As the Christian Reformed denomination held its collective breath, Synod 1994 met for almost two weeks at the Fine Arts Center of Calvin College, beginning with an opening prayer service at the Westview CRC on June 13 and concluding on June 23. Though, as in recent years, this was not a “one-issue” synod, it was evident from the outset that the issue looming largest on the synodical agenda was the issue of women in ecclesiastical office. Would this synod finally decide to ratify the proposed change in Church Order Article 3 and open all the offices of the church to women? Or would it perhaps repeat the precedent of Synod 1992, permitting women to “expound” the Word of God and stopping short of granting ordination to the office of elder, evangelist or minister? Or would, as to many seemed most unlikely, Synod 1994 refuse to ratify the change in the Church Order on Biblical grounds and declare the practice of women’s ordination contrary to Scripture?

Before summarizing and commenting on the surprising decision of Synod 1994 on the issue of women in office, I would like to begin by noting several other areas of synodical decision. Since Dr. Godfrey is reporting on those decisions made in the earlier sessions of synod, I will primarily record those matters that were addressed in the second week of synod. Due to the importance and complexity of synod’s decisions regarding women in office, I will reserve my discussion of them until the conclusion.




On Monday afternoon synod considered a pair of recommendations which addressed different aspects of the debate over gender-inclusive language.

In response to an overture from Classis Minnesota North, synod decided to provide for a gender-sensitive revision of the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. This revision will be restricted to language used to name and describe persons in the translations of these confessions, and will not involve any changes in language used to refer to God. The earlier revision of the Heidelberg Catechism was cited as a precedent for this decision. Though it was clearly noted in the synodical discussion that this was not a move in the direction of gender-inclusive language, it remains uncertain whether references which in the original version of the confessions clearly referred only to persons of the male gender (as in Article 31 of the Belgic Confession, for example) will undergo a revision that alters the meaning of the confessions.

In perhaps a more far-reaching decision, synod also decided to appoint a committee to study the use of inclusive language for God. This decision was taken in response to two overtures, one from Classis Hudson and the other from Classis of the Heartland (formerly Orange City), which requested that synod declare the use of feminine pronouns and language to name God to be sinful and contrary to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. Arising out of a dissatisfaction with guidelines approved by previous synods which governed the Board of Publication’s use of language to refer to God, these overtures asked synod to go further than in the past by providing general guidelines for all the churches. In its response to these overtures, Synod 1994 reaffirmed the guidelines adopted by previous synods for use among the churches. The churches were also warned not to concede that the Biblical language about God is “sexist, oppressive, distorted, or in anyway unhealthy for our understanding of God and ourselves.” During the discussion of these overtures, no synodical delegate defended the practice of naming God with feminine pronouns or names, though several encouraged the churches to be sensitive in their use of language about God so as not to needlessly give offense.

In the past I have been quite critical of synodical decisions regarding gender-inclusive language. The guidelines adopted by previous synods did not, in my judgment, answer to the real crux of this issue. These guidelines did not strictly forbid any use of feminine pronouns and names to describe or name the Triune God who is revealed in the Scriptures. They were also primarily directed to the Board of Publications of the CRC. However, the decisions made by synod this year were a distinct improvement upon the record of the recent past. Not only were the guidelines reaffirmed for all the churches and agencies of the CRC, but they were also expanded with a warning against inappropriate concessions to those who would object to the language of Scripture in which masculine pronouns and names are used for God. Furthermore, the argument for appointing a study committee was not that this would open the door to the use of gender-inclusive or feminine language to name God, but that this would provide the churches a comprehensive study of this issue and help stave off a movement in this direction in the future.


It is not likely that many reports on Synod 1994 will focus upon the whole subject of the growing shortage of ministers in the Christian Reformed Church. This was a kind of hidden item or “sleeper” on the synodical agenda and did not capture a great deal of synod’s interest and debate. However, the provision of an adequate number of well-trained candidates for the ministry of the Word is as important a measure of the health and future well·being of the denomination as any. Therefore a few comments about decision’s of Synod 1994 relating to this matter are in order.

The extent of the growing shortage of ministerial candidates in the CRC becomes readily evident from a few synodical statistics. The Pastor-Church Relations Committee reported to synod that the number of vacancies is presently around 120, almost a doubling of the number from a few years ago. The problem is aggravated by a number of factors: 27 ministers were emeritated over the last year; 27 ministers were released from their office, many of them leaving the denomination for independent churches; and 33 ministers were separated from their churches. When these growing numbers of declensions from the Christian Reformed ministry are compared with a declining number of candidates being declared by synod—27 candidates were declared eligible for a call—it becomes apparent that the number of vacancies in years to come threatens to become a floodtide . Sooner or later some future synod of the Christian Reformed Church will have to take a closer look at this problem.

Clearly, Synod 1994 was nor the synod to address this matter seriously. Not only did it follow the lamentable pattern of previous synods by gloss· ing quickly over the roster of departing ministers with hardly a comment,1 but it also refused to consider an alternative approach to the training of prospective ministers. In response to an overture from Classis of the Heartland requesting the appointment of a committee to revise the requirements for theological students preparing for candidacy, Synod 1994 decided to leave the present method intact. The overture of Classis asked synod to restore the responsibility for the examination of theological students to their home classes and to remove the present requirement of an “extra year” of study at Calvin Seminary. This overture was defeated with very little discussion, suggesting that this synod was not prepared to ask whether the present method and requirements may have something to do with the growing shortage of ministers available to serve Christian Reformed congregations. Though I freely acknowledge my prejudice in this matter, the decision of synod on this overture only serves the vested interests of Calvin Seminary and can hardly be said to be in the best interest of the congregations of the Christian Reformed Church who are increasingly in need of ministers.

The restraint upon the number of ministerial candidates generated by the present monopoly of Calvin Seminary was illustrated and tested in the case of an appeal by student Brad Nymeyer. Brad Nymeyer, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in California, had not been recommended to synod for candidacy by the faculty or Board of Trustees of Calvin Theological Seminary. Having appealed these non-recommendations to synod, the advisory committee of synod also recommended that he not be declared a candidate. Only after the long and grueling debate on women-in-office on Tuesday of the second week did Mr. Nymeyer’s appeal come up for consideration in executive session. Perhaps influenced by the decision of the previous day, not to change the Church Order and permit the ordination of women, synod decided to grant Mr. Nymeyer’s appeal and declare him a candidate for the ministry. After a lengthy debate which consumed most of the Wednesday evening session, Mr. Nymeyer, his wife and youngest child were welcomed and congratulated by the synodical delegates.

Though this is not the place to evaluate the ramifications of synod’s decision to grant candidacy to Mr. Nymeyer, his case does illustrate how difficult it can be for CRC students to be admitted into the ministry in the CRC when they decide to attend a Reformed Seminary other than Calvin. When such students declare their loyalty to the Word of God and indicate that they will not place the authority of synod above the Word, their entrance into the ministry in the CRC may be jeopardized. Thus, the present monopoly of Calvin Seminary may serve to restrict the number of available candidates for the ministry. It also constrains students from other Reformed seminaries to be subjected to a kind of loyalty test that seems inconsistent with the Reformed confession that synods err and the truth of God’s Word is of more value than anything else (Belgic Confession, Article 7).


The Monday evening session of Synod 1994 was primarily devoted to financial matters. In addition to adopting a series of recommendations regarding Fund for Smaller Churches’ compensation guidelines, approving proposed salary ranges for denominational employees, and recommending a number of denominational causes for one or more offerings, synod adopted a ministry share of $241.35 per professing member and $558.90 per family. Responding to several overtures asking for changes in the ministry share system, synod also decided: to continue to use an “experience factor” in determining ministry share amounts; to proceed with the movement in the direction of assessing ministry shares on a remember basis rather than a per-family basis; and not to replace the ministry share system with a set of giving guidelines.


Also during the Monday session, Synod 1994 approved an overture from Classis Lake Erie, expanding the office of evangelist to include serving in an organized congregation along with a minister of the Word. This change in the requirements of the Church Order will require ratification at next year’s synod. Previously, evangelists were restricted in their work to emerging congregations and were unable to continue after the congregation called a minister of the Word.


The great debate at Synod 1994 focused upon the issue of women-in-office, particularly whether the proposed change in Article 3 of the Church Order should be ratified. Synod 1993 had decided to permit the churches to ordain women to the offices of elder, evangelist and minister, but this permission could only be implemented after the Church Order change had been adopted.

The debate regarding the advisability of this change in the Church Order consumed the morning and afternoon sessions on Tuesday, and continued to dominate the subsequent debates at synod until its adjournment on Thursday. In order to evaluate the debate at synod and the decisions made, I will consider the following: the recommendations of the majority and the minority of the advisory committee; the decisions of synod 1994 relative to women-in-office; a summary of the debate; and an evaluation of the significance of synod’s decisions.

Two options

One of the keys to the outcome of this year’s synodical deliberation on women-in-office was the clear choice presented to synod by its advisory committee. The majority of the committee (14 members) recommended that synod not ratify the proposed change in Church Order Article 3 on the basis of a variety of Biblical, confessional, procedural and Church Order grounds. The minority of the committee (5 members) recommended that synod ratify the proposed change, arguing that a decision to permit churches the option of ordaining women, in view of the continuing differences of viewpoint in the denomination, was the best way to bring a close to this disputed issue. The fact that synod was faced with such a clear choice decisively shaped the subsequent debate and its eventual outcome.

The majority: The majority of the advisory committee presented synod with two sets of recommendations. The first and most important asked synod not to ratify the proposed change in the Church Order. The second asked synod to clear up any ambiguity by noting that the decision of Synod 1993 to reconsider and revise the decision of Synod 1992 on women-in-office meant that Synod 1992’s decision regarding women “expounding” was no longer in effect. The primary recommendations of the majority were:

• “That synod not ratify the change in Church Order Article 3 as adopted by the Synod of 1993 that ‘All confessing members of the church who meet the Biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of minister, elder, deacon, and evangelist’….and that the present wording of the Church Order Article 3 be retained.”

• “That synod, to avoid possible ambiguities, declare that the decision not to ratify the proposed change in Church Order Article 3 means that there is now no synodical decision in effect to allow women to serve in the office of elder, minister or evangelist.”

• “That synod note that the decision of Synod 1992 to allow women ‘to expound the Scriptures’ was reconsidered and revised by the action of Synod 1993 and therefore that decision is not presently in effect in the Christian Reformed Church.”

• “That synod a) instruct all councils which have ordained women elders, evangelists or ministers to release them from office by June 1, 1995, and b) instruct all councils not to ordain any additional women elders, evangelists or ministers.”

The minority: The minority of the advisory committee recommended to Synod 1994 that the proposed change in the Church Order be ratified. The minority argued that this would permit the churches to practice what is in accord with their Biblically-informed consciences, recognizing that there are irreconcilable differences on the issue of women’s ordination in the CRC. The recommendations of the minority were:

• “That synod ratify the 1993 decision to delete the word ‘male’ and merge Church Order Article 3-a and 3-b to read: ‘All confessing members of the church who meet the Biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of minister, elder, deacon or evangelist.’ Grounds: a.Our lengthy study of this issue has demonstrated that the ordination of women to all church offices is Biblically permissible. b. This decision addresses pastoral concerns by giving freedom to those who believe the offices of the church should be limited to men and to those who believe the offices should be open to women. c. Ratification will contribute to healing by providing closure to a lengthy period of controversy.”

• “That synod reaffirm the guidelines for implementing the change in Church Order Article 3 adopted by Synod 1993 and urge all church leaders and members to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3) as they live and work with fellow believers.”

The decisions

After an entire day of debate on Tuesday of the second week, synod voted by a narrow margin, 95-89, to adopt the first recommendation of the majority. This recommendation, unamended and with all of its grounds intact, declared, among other things, the ordination of women to be contrary to the clear teaching of several Scriptural passages, incompatible with the general analogy of Scripture, and inconsistent with the historic consensus of the catholic Christian church.

However, after passing this first recommendation on Tuesday, synod became entangled in extensive debate on Wednesday and Thursday, the outcome of which was a modification of the original second set of recommendations of the majority. Two decisions of special importance were made, one noting that the decision of Synod 1992 regarding women “expounding” “the Word of God was still in effect, and the other urging the councils of the CRC to release women elders, evangelists, and ministers of the Word. The first of these decisions resulted from synod’s rejection of the original recommendation of the majority which asked synod to note that the 1992 decision was no longer in effect. The second of these involved an amendment of the majority’s original recommendation, in which the word instruct was replaced with the word urge. The decisions of synod regarding these two matters were as follows:

• “That synod recognize that the following decision of Synod 1992 regarding the use of women’s gifts is in effect: ‘That synod encourage the churches to use the gifts of women to the fullest extent possible in their local churches, including allowing women to teach, expound the Word of God, and provide pastoral care, under the supervision of the elders’…”

• “That synod appoint a three-member study committee to clarify the expression ‘expounding the Word’ as used in the decision of Synod 1992…and report to Synod 1995.”2

• “That synod a) urge all councils which have ordained women elders, evangelists or ministers to release them from office by June 1, 1995, and b) urge all congregations not to ordain any additional women elders, evangelists, or ministers.”

A summary of the debate

Admittedly, it is not possible to summarize the entire debate of Synod 1994 on the subject of women-in-office. Nor is it possible to follow the sometimes tenuous procedural wrangling into which synod plunged on several occasions on Wednesday, after the decision had been made not to ratify the proposed change in the Church Order. However, there are several impressions of this debate that I would like especially to note.

I have personally witnessed many similar debates at synods of the CRC in recent years. But I do not recall ever hearing a debate on this issue in which the two sides of the issue were as starkly contrasted, or the basic hermeneutical differences as obvious. The debate at this year’s synod did not obscure but clarified the extent of this difference in a striking way. This difference was already evident in a panel discussion that was sponsored by the advisory committee on women-in-office on Friday morning of the first week. The panelists – Dr. Al Wolters, Rev. Norman Shepherd, Rev. Clarence Boomsma and Dr. John Cooper—well represented the alternative positions in the debate. The differences evident in this panel discussion were prophetic of the debate that occurred in the following week.

Repeatedly during the Tuesday debate, opponents of the ordination of women appealed to synod to be “humbly submissive” to the Scriptures. These were the opening words in the debate by Rev. John Van Regenmorter, chairman of the majority advisory committee. The able reporter for the majority, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary in California, frequently observed that synod could only serve the well-being of the churches by affirming the clear Scriptural prohibition against women serving in ecclesiastical office. The strength of the majority’s recommendation clearly rested on the Biblical grounds cited. The majority, echoing the consensus of the catholic church for over 1900 years, maintained that the Bible speaks clearly and directly to the issue of who may serve in the offices of the church. In so doing, they not only had the texts of Scripture on their side but also the historic understanding of these texts in the Reformed churches. Godfrey, as reporter for the majority committee, was able to point out that the majority was the historic Reformed view. He noted that this was confirmed by the Belgic Confession (Articles 30–32) and a relatively recent declaration of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (1968) that noted that the “plain teaching” of Scripture forbids the ordination of women.

Against the majority’s insistence upon the clear Scriptural prohibition of women’s ordination, the delegates who defended the minority position repeatedly had to argue that the Scriptures do not speak clearly to this issue. Furthermore, several speakers for the minority suggested that the majority’s approach to the Bible was “fundamentalistic” and “Pharisaical.” According to one of these delegates, “the letter kills, but the spirit makes alive.” This meant, he argued, that we have to discern the “spirit” of the Scriptures, not the teaching of particular texts, in order to determine the permissibility of the ordination of women to office. It was maintained that the “thrust” of Scriptural revelation runs contrary to the apparent teaching of a few isolated texts like I Timothy 2:12–14. The synod was even warned in this connection by one delegate that it not “idolize” the Bible or make the mistake of thinking an issue like this can be resolved by a simple appeal to Scripture What became evident in the case of the delegates who favored the ordination of women is that they do not believe the Bible speaks clearly to this or many other issues. The best we can hope for is a variety of “interpretations” of the Scriptures, but no single interpretation may be affirmed as true. According to some of these delegates, the “central teaching” or “thrust” of the Scriptures may sometimes conflict with the apparent teaching of specific Biblical texts. The difference between this approach to Scripture and that found in the report of the majority could not have been more clear, and the delegates’ speeches repeatedly called this to the attention of synod.

In addition to the obvious differences in approach to the Biblical texts and the interpretation of Scripture, the synodical debate was also marked by an unevenness in the quality of the arguments for and against the recommendation of the majority. Though the majority grounded its recommendation on a wide variety of Biblical, historical, procedural, and Church Order grounds (some of which were never disputed during the synodical debate), speakers for the minority offered a number of rather weak and unconvincing arguments for their position.

As has occurred during previous synodical debates on this issue, delegates who favored the ordination of women recounted stories of how they had changed their minds on this issue. Arguments like these are classically regarded as ad hominem (appeals to experience, but not real grounds), but they were in vogue again at this synod. One delegate, for example, referred to his daughter who declared her desire to be a minister, a desire he found himself unable to oppose as her father. Another mused as to what his now deceased parents might think about this issue. It was frequently suggested that those who opposed women in office were closing the door to all the women of the CRC and preventing them from speaking in the church (a comment which the reporter aptly rebutted by noting that many women in the CRC fully support the position of the majority). Several delegates invoked the leading of the Spirit on this issue through the years. One of them even insisted that the Spirit was “speaking with my spirit” and calling for the ordination of women.

Absent, however, from the argument of the minority was any sustained attempt to show the Biblical case for the ordination of women. Though it was frequently alleged in the debate that there is a Biblical case to be made for the ordination of women, this case was never made in the written report of the minority or in the speeches made on the floor. It was not even attempted. Undoubtedly, this striking imbalance in the arguments on both sides, the one appealing to the Biblical texts, the other appealing largely to personal experiences and something vaguely termed the “thrust” of the Scriptures, contributed to the ultimate outcome.

This leads me to one additional impression of the debate. Though this is a rather subjective impression, Thad the conviction throughout the deliberations of synod on this issue that the majority occupied the “high ground” in the debate, whereas the minority often descended into rhetoric and tactics that were in poor style at best, possibly offensive at worst.

From the inception of the debate on women-in-office, the minority vehemently attacked the position of the majority. The recommendation and grounds of the majority were variously termed “unpastoral,” “harsh,” “almost wicked,” “Pharisaical,” “judgmental,” “unloving,” and the like. These attacks upon the majority recommendation were frequently repeated, sometimes in the strongest possible terms. However, these harsh attacks were deflected by the calm and measured response of reporter Dr. Godfrey, for the majority. Defenders of the majority generally resisted the temptation to attack the “other side” in a similar manner. Furthermore, they made the very important point that, however synod decided this issue, the consciences of some delegates would be bound to a decision they regarded as unbiblical. Though the minority tried to suggest that theirs was the more inclusive position, it was evident that, to adopt the recommendation of the minority, would exclude those who are convinced on Biblical grounds that the ordination of women is Biblically wrong.

One of the evidences of this difference in the quality of the arguments on both sides was the rather unusual series of attempts on Wednesday to rescind the decision of the previous day. On no less than three separate occasions, delegates on the losing side of Tuesday’s debate attempted, for the flimsiest of reasons, to reopen the debate and reverse the decision of the previous day. It is difficult to understand how this could be done by delegates who earlier professed their commitment to the leading of the Spirit through the process of synodical deliberation and decision. Clearly, many delegates did not recognize the leading of the spirit in the decision of Tuesday afternoon.3


Interpreting the decisions of a synod is a hazardous undertaking. So is any attempt to predict what its decisions may mean for the future. Do you only measure a synod by its formal decisions, the decisions which become a part of the official record in the Ads of Synod 1994? Or do you take into account such things as the context in which these decisions were made or the margin by which certain recommendations were passed? I believe that you ultimately have to judge a synod for its decisions, however they were made and despite the circumstances surrounding them. This does not mean, of course, that other factors may be discounted altogether. However, it does mean that the decisions themselves of a particular synod must be the primary basis for evaluating its significance.

Though it will sound like I am repeating an analysis I once made of Synod 1992, I would like to suggest that time will tell whether this synod represents a genuine turning-point in the history of the eRe or only a temporary reprieve. I do not believe that a careful observer of Synod 1994 could say much more than this.

Synod 1994 made a number of decisions that were encouraging. Previous synodical decisions on matters like homosexuality and inclusive language for God were strengthened and improved. A theological student who declared his loyalty to the Word of God above that of church assemblies was declared a candidate for the ministry in the CRC. On the most controversial issue of all, the ordination of women, Synod 1994 passed by a narrow margin, perhaps the best decision in the history of CRC synodical deliberation and debate. Because of this decision, it is now the official position of the CRC that the Bible clearly prohibits the ordination of women to the office of elder, evangelist and minister.

Thus, one could argue that these decisions, on balance, represent something of a turning or at least a halt in the direction of the CRC. Though it remains to be seen how churches, office-bearers, and denominational employees respond to them, one might argue that Synod 1994 has made it very difficult for advocates of the ordination of women to obtain their objective by the normal and prescribed route. It is difficult to see how it will be possible to bring this issue before synod again and reverse the decision of Synod 1994. What new and sufficient Biblical grounds could be offered to reverse the decision of Synod 1994? Furthermore, denominational employees who continue to agitate for the ordination of women will be openly defying synodical decision and policy. They will be in the uncomfortable position of opposing what Synod 1994 has declared to be the clear teaching of Scripture. It is difficult to see how one could honorably serve the CRC by teaching and advocating views that a synod of the CRC has declared to be in conflict with Scripture.

The decisions of Synod 1994, therefore, may have lasting consequences for the future course of the CRC. Certainly, those of us who want to see the Word of God honored in the CRC and the historic confession of the Reformed churches maintained, have reason to be thankful for several of them.

However, it must also be acknowledged that these decisions may prove to be only a temporary reprieve in a process of on-going decline. No one who observed Synod 1994 can deny that the denomination is a deeply “divided house.” It is difficult to imagine that many of the advocates of women’s ordination in the CRC will comply with the decision of synod. Several were already declaring early in the day Wednesday that this would be impossible for them. It is also not certain whether those churches which have already ordained women to the office of elder will release them from their office at synod’s urging. It is quite possible that a future synod, perhaps Synod 1995, will have to address the issue once more in the form of a judicial case in which discipline against a disobedient church council is demanded. Will any classis or synod of the CRC be able in the future to insist that meaningful discipline be exercised against councils which defy the requirements of the Church Order? That is a question that remains to be answered.

I do not raise this question to dampen the enthusiasm of those who welcome what Synod 1994 has done. But I raise this question in order to caution anyone against unwarranted optimism. We may well pray and work for a consensus in the CRC that honors the decision of Synod 1994 on the issue of women in office. But we must realize that one victory does not mean the struggle is over or the debate is finished. Synod 1994 could prove ultimately to be only a temporary reprieve, little more.

Whatever the future brings, only the Lord of the church ultimately knows. For our part, whether we labor within or outside of the boundaries of the CRC, let us labor that the Word of Christ be honored among us and in all the churches until He comes again. And let us also be sure we labor in a spirit of gentleness and love, as well as in a spirit of firm resolve and steadfast purpose.


1. I have been struck at recent synods of the CRC that almost nothing is said, when the list of released ministers is brought to the attention of the delegates as they are asked to approve the work of the synodical duputies. This year among the list of released ministers were such names as: Dr. P.Y. De Jong, Rev. Edward Heerema, Dr. John Kim, Rev. Peter De Jong, and Rev. Peter Vosteen. To me it is extraordinary that men such as these, representing many years of faithful ministry in the CRC. could be released from their office without so much as a comment expressing, if nothing else, the pain that their leaving represents in the life of the denomination.

2. Synod appointed the following members to this committee: Rev. Peter Brouwer, Rev. Leonard Hofman, Rev. Allen Petroelje and Dr. Henry De Moor.

3. Perhaps this is the place to report two demonstrations that occurred on Wednesday to protest the decision of synod on the previous day. At the beginning of the morning session, twenty women, ten on each side of the synodical delegation, signified their disapproval of synod’s decision by dressing in black and covering, in some instances, their mouths with tape. One protestor held a sign which read, “We Are Overcome.” Later in the day, during the noon break, in a protest reminiscent of an earlier protest in 1992, a number of women and their supporters occupied the seats of the delegates and sang together until the delegates returned for the afternoon session.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and served as reporter for The Outlook the second week of CRC Synod 1994.