In blistering heat, the 1994 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church began its meetings on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Tuesday, June 14. A number of important topics were on the agenda of synod, but from the beginning there was a clear sense that the largest issue was whether the synod would permit the ordination of women to the offices of minister, elder and evangelist. The synod worked thoughtfully and efficiently on its business, yet with an eye toward the great debate on the role of women that would take place in the second week.
This article will report on some of the key events of the first week of synod and then reflect on the significance of this synod. Cornelis Venema will report on the second week. My report is shaped by my experiences as a delegate to this synod.
Synod’s first task is to elect officers. The Rev. Peter Brouwer from Edgerton, Minnesota was elected president for the second year in a row. The other officers were: vice-president James Kok of Central California; first clerk, Carl Zylstra of Orange City, Iowa; and second clerk, Wayne Brouwer of London, Ontario. Rev. Brouwer’s leadership was universally recognized as fair and effective. The church owes him an incalculable debt for the leadership he has provided in the last two years.
Other issues of leadership in the church emerged in the first week of the synod. Discussion took place on the work of evangelists and further extension of their work was permitted by the synod. (I continue to wonder why evangelists who can preach and pastor and administer the sacraments should not be ordained as ministers.) The synod also decided to create a new position in the church’s administration to help churches deal with problems of physical and sexual abuse. The new coordinator will provide information and support in legal and counseling matters for the churches.
Synod also addressed the matter of a replacement for the Rev. Leonard Hofman. Rev. Hofman has served the church as general secretary (formerly stated clerk) for 12 years. Many words of appreciation were spoken for his fairness and hard work for the denomination. After a lengthy interview, Dr. David Engelhard was elected the new general secretary, taking up his work September 1. Dr. Engelhard has been Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary for a number of years.
It is customary at synod for representatives of various denominations with which the CRC has ties, to address the synod briefly. This year greetings were brought from the PCA, OPC, RPCNA (Covenanters) (each of which urged the CRC to remain faithful to the Bible, especially on the issue of women in office), the RCA, the Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv, and others. For the first time in 37 years, a delegate was present from the Dutch Reformed Church of Sri Lanka. He announced that the church would soon be changing its name to the Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka. Also present was a delegate from the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKN). He spoke of merger talks with the Dutch Reformed Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. These talks should produce a new church to be called the United Protestant Church. (I could not help thinking of the devotion and blood that had brought the Reformed faith to the Netherlands and regretting that apparently that name will disappear from what had been the largest Reformed denominations in the Netherlands.)
A variety of financial matters came before the synod. This year the synod discussed the setting of the denominational ministry shares (formerly quotas) very briefly and generally. The denominational ministry share was set for 1995 at $558.90 per family and $241.35 per professing member.
Of special interest to me was a proposal from the Board of Trustees (formerly the Synodical Interim Committee) to remove Westminster Seminaries from the list of accredited causes for which offerings may be taken in the churches. Westminster has been on the list for a very long time, but in the last ten years several efforts have been made to remove it. I am glad to report that the advisory committee unanimously recommended that Westminster remain on the list and synod overwhelmingly approved that recommendation.
The Board of Trustees also recommended that International Theological Seminary in Los Angeles (founded by Dr. John E. Kim) be removed from the list. That seminary was removed.
Several overtures came to synod asking for clarification of the CRC’s stand on homosexuality. Basically the synod reiterated the position taken in 1973, but with some helpful additional statements. The actions of synod made clear that homosexual desires and lusts were sinful and that the advocacy of homosexual practice was condemned by the Scripture. These decisions should strengthen the Biblical teaching on homosexuality in the life of the church.
WOMEN IN OFFICE
In the first week the advisory committee recommended to synod that a panel discussion of one and one half hours take place on the floor of synod on the matter of women in office. The goal of this recommendation was to focus the discussion on the Bible and its teaching. The synod decided to invite four speakers to present their views and to have a discussion with each other on Friday morning.
The Rev. Norman Shepherd of South Holland, Illinois and Dr. Al Wolters of Redeemer College presented the case against the ordination of women. Dr. John Cooper of Calvin Seminary and Dr. Clarence Boomsma, a retired CRC minister, presented the case for the ordination of women.
Rev. Shepherd began by reminding the synod that Christ as king of the church makes the rules for the church. As Reformed believers we look for the warrant in Scriprure for any basic decision in the life of the church. The burden of proof rests with those in favor of women in office to show that the Scripture mandates such an action.
He then proceeded to discuss several Scriptural texts. He explained that Dr. Cooper and Dr. Boomsma both admit that Gal. 3:28 is not a proof text for the ordination of women. He discussed I Timothy 2 and 3, pointing to the clarity and relevance of this passage and how Paul properly grounds his teaching in creation. He supported this point further with references to Genesis I and 2 and I Corinthians 11.
Then Dr. Wolters spoke, showing that the equality of men and women in creation and redemption does not mean that there cannot be differences between them on the matter of office. He pointed out that headship cannot be limited to marriage, and that “head” in the New Testament cannot mean source, but must mean authority.
He quoted from Calvin and Bavinck on I Corinthians 11 and 14 showing that they understood Paul’s permission for women to prophesy in I Corinthians 11 to reflect the early, unorganized state of the New Testament church and that Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 14 was to guide the organized church perpetually.
He discussed at some length the cultural setting in Ephesus as the background of Paul’s teaching in I Timothy 2. He concluded that all of the recent discoveries about the history and culture of Ephesus in the first century supported the traditional reading of I Timothy 2 as opposing women in office.
Dr. John Cooper then spoke with great energy and zeal defending the ordination of women. He insisted that his approach to this question used traditional Reformed methods of Biblical interpretation. He suggested that the Holy Spirit did not intend the teaching of I Timothy 2 to guide the church forever. He said that a major theme of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation was the equality of men and women. He stated that male leadership in Genesis 2 related only to marriage and not to the church. He appealed to Pentecost and the way all believers share in the three-fold office of Christ as further support for his position. He suggested that I Corinthians 11 and 14 as well as 1 Timothy 2 were really about relationships in marriage and not in the church.
Since Dr. Cooper took about 20 minutes for his remarks, Dr. Boomsma had only 10 minutes in which to speak. He said that he was uncertain of his own position until 1991. But his study of Galatians 3:28 and elsewhere convinced him that Paul is concerned about freedom in Christ and envisions a renewed society in which all discrimination is eliminated. I Timothy 2 bristles with difficulties and is really an obscure text.
The formal presentations were all good. Dr. Cooper was the most effective rhetorically, but, being as objective as I can be, I believe that Rev. Shepherd and Dr. Wolters made much more effective use of the Scriptures. They dealt much more carefully and specifically with the texts. This care was especially effective in the discussion that followed the formal presentations. Shepherd and Wolters showed again and again that the sweeping claims of Cooper and Boomsma about the general thrust of the Bible could not stand against the teaching of the particular texts of the Bible. Shepherd was particularly effective in answering the claim that the issue of women in office is parallel to the issue of slavery. He showed that slavery is a result of the fall, but that Paul bases male leadership in the church on creation.
The discussion did serve to focus the attention of synod on the Bible in relation to women in office. I do not think that it changed any minds. It certainly illustrated the difference in the use of Scripture between the two sides -the one quite general and the other quite specific. It also made clear to anyone who was uncertain, how strong the case against the ordination of women really is from the Bible.
On Tuesday of the second week of synod, after about 7 hours of debate, the synod voted 95–89 not to approve the ordination of women to the offices of minister. elder and evangelist. For those of us convinced that this decision is Biblical, it was a moment of joy. But even in that moment we knew that this success brought with it both continuing concerns and new opportunities.
The concerns are at least three. First we are clearly a divided church. The close nature of the vote shows that. If three votes had changed, the outcome would have been different. But even before the vote, the debate on the issue showed the division. Those opposed to women in office consistently appealed to the specific texts of Scripture. Those opposed appealed to the broad themes of Scripture as they saw them and to the gifts and needs of women. The two sides in the church have real difficulty communicating with each other and clearly have very different agendas for the church.
Second, we are a disinterested church. I do not mean that the delegates were disinterested. They devoted much time, energy and attention to the debate. The disinterest showed in the gallery. Throughout synod, women in favor of ordination for women sought to present a silent protest with nine women sitting as a block wearing robes or paper doves pinned to their clothes. But in most sessions they did not actually have nine women present. Much more tellingly. however, on the day of the debate—when everyone expected a packed gallery in the Fine Arts Center—the gallery was only about two-thirds full. In years past when such a debate was held, the gallery was full. I am not sure how to interpret the attendance this year, but I suspect that the church is getting tired of the issue and increasingly people do not care what the synod does. This lack of interest may mean that those in favor of women in office will have more trouble in the future bringing the matter up. But it may also mean that our denominational ties are unraveling and everyone is more and more inclined to do what is right in his own eyes.
Third, we are a disoriented church. During the debate, over and over again, those in favor of women in office said that the Biblical reasoning of those opposed to the ordination of women was not Reformed, but fundamentalist. Any look at history shows that this claim is silly. Reformed theologians long before the rise of fundamentalism opposed the ordination of women on precisely the grounds that the synod endorsed this year. Indeed, the irony is that those in favor of the ordination of women really use a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture. Fundamentalists often seek only broad themes in Scripture and, unlike the Reformed, do not seek to mine the depths and riches ofScripture for theology, worship and church government. Those in favor of women in office frequently justify their position by appealing to the evangelistic work of the church—just as fundamentalists do. The church truly is disoriented in trying to understand its history and theology.
These concerns show that the successes in 1994 do not guarantee anything for the future of the CRC. The successes do, however, give us the opportunity and the time to work to reform the CRC. In the face of division, disinterest and disorientation we must become missionaries for our cause. (If you think you have heard me make this point before, you are right! I believe that we must keep reminding ourselves of this point.) Like missionaries we should not expect our work to be easy or expect that people will automatically understand or accept what we say. But we need to express our positions in clear, Biblical, sensitive, compelling ways in order to try to rebuild a Reformed consensus in the CRC.
We must work hard and we must pray even harder. I heard from many people both before and during synod that many were praying for us. I sensed a new devotion and urgency in prayer in many parts of our denomination. I believe that the Lord heard those prayers and showed us His mercy far beyond our deserving. We need to keep praying. Only God can ultimately bring revival and renewal. He has given us an opportunity. Let us pray fervently that He will continue to bless us.