Women in Church Offices Report – Exegesis or Eisegesis?

The 1973 CRC Synod received a report on “Women in Ecclesiastical Office” together  with a recommendation from all but one of  the committee that Synod adopt the following: “The practice of excluding women from  ecclesiastical office cannot conclusively be  defended on Biblical grounds.”

Instead of adopting the above recommendation, Synod decided:

1. To refer the entire report to the churches for study and reactions (cf. pp. 514–594, Acts of Synod 1973). 2. To appoint a new committee to study the matter anew, to receive and evaluate the reactions of the churches, and to report to Synod 1975.

In this article, Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Reeman, Michigan, comments on the report brought to Synod 1973.

Most readers of THE OUTLOOK know what “exegesis” is, namely, the interpretation of the text of Scripture to determine its meaning. If you do not have a large unabridged dictionary you may not be able to locate the meaning of “eisegesis.” It is defined by Webster as “faulty interpretation of a text, as of the Bible, by reading into it one’s own ideas—distinguished from exegesis.” This distinction occurred to me as I read the report on “Women In Ecclesiastical Office,” pages 514 through 594 in the Acts of Synod 1973.


Thorough work—but eisegesis – This report is a very thorough piece of work. Members of the committee have done a lot or work and they make their position clear. It is not my purpose to discuss the entire argument or the stand taken by the committee. Leaving out of final consideration whether the committee is correct or not, it would seem well to reflect on the type of Scripture interpretation employed. As is stated in the report itself, quoting H. Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, “The position of women . . . is chiefly so deeply rooted in the churches because it depends on the question of what should be considered the right interpretation of the Scriptures” (Acts, p. 585).

Because of limitations of space let us confine ourselves to one example of a kind of interpretation that is found in many instances throughout the report in which it seems to me that the committee—and many of the authorities they quote—are reading into the Bible text what they want it to say rather than what it actually says. The passage I want to reflect on is Ephesians 5:21–6:9.

This is not one of the main passages under consideration since it does not speak directly to the place of men and women in the church as organized congregations. However, especially 5:21–33 is a very important passage in its teaching concerning the relationship of wives and husbands, more especially as members of the Christian community. It is particularly significant also because of the reference to Christ as “head of the church,” a subject to which the report devotes a lengthy excursus.

Point is blunted – The comments on this passage are found on page 551 of the Acts of Synod 1973. We read in part: “Then, in Ephesians 5:22–33 Paul tells the wives of the congregation to be submissive to their husbands (twice, vss. 22, 24) and he tells these husbands to love their wives (three times, vss. 25, 28, 31). To draw the conclusion that the husbands do not have to submit to their wives would not only be in conflict with the mutual submissiveness Paul requires in verse 21, but it would be as foolish as to draw the conclusion that these wives do not have to love their husbands! We should not unduly stress the point that Paul calls wives to be submissive, and husbands to love.”

The report goes on to say that these verses do not teach a kind of submissiveness of women to men (wives to husband) from which one could conclude that women are inferior to men. “The concept of submissiveness in the New Testament does not at all contain an idea of inferiority.” While concurring wholeheartedly with that statement, I would contend that this does not mean that therefore women must not be submissive to their husbands. It would seem that the report is making Paul say the very opposite of what he is really saying and blunting the very point of the entire passage.

What Calvin says – The committee takes its approach from verse 21 which reads “subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ” (ASV), or “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (RSV). The American Standard Version makes it the end of a paragraph while the Revised Standard Version begins a new paragraph with it.

In either case the verse is transitional from the principles of Christian conduct laid down in verses 15 to 20, and the specific applications of those principles in verses 22—6:9 to marriage, parents and children, and servants and masters.

In seeing in this clause a declaration that Christians must be mutually submissive the committee is in good company for John Calvin comments in his Commentary, “Where love reigns, there is mutual service. I will not make an exception for either kings or rulers; because to serve they have been set over the people.” But he goes on to say that since nothing is more against human nature than to submit oneself to others, Paul calls us to humility in the fear of Christ, so that we do not refuse the yoke and curb our pride, and do not shame ourselves to serve our neighbor. In other words, our mutual obligations do not cancel out specific and particular obligations based on God-ordained relationships.

In this connection it is of interest that in the parallel passage in Colossians 3:18–4:1 this introductory statement is missing and the apostle writes only of the duties of wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters. At least in the twin epistle of Colossians, Paul’s concern is not so much mutual submissiveness as submissiveness in the three relation· ships he mentions. As Calvin remarks, it takes grace to be humble and submissive, and it is exactly in this that our obedience to Christ shows itself.

A remarkable example of eisegesis – It is important to note that the submissiveness of wives to husbands differs from that of children to parents and slaves to masters. Wives arcenot told to “obey” as is the case with the other two. However, in verse 33 they are reminded to “fear” or “respect” their husbands (ASV and RSV), which is an added element in the nature of their relationships.

But granting this difference, we need to note that there is a parallel which makes the argument of the committee very weak. Since children are told to obey their parents may we conclude that fathers and mothers must also obey their children? If one objects to the word “obey” and prefers “honor” from the fifth commandments, one can indeed argue that parents must also honor their children in the sense of respecting them as persons, but hardly in the sense that the Heidelberg Catechism gives to this commandment. To be sure, parents are not to abuse their authority and provoke their children to anger, but must bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

The same line of thought applies to slaves and masters. To be sure, here again the authority of the master is tempered by considerations that make abuse impossible if applied in obedience to Christ as Lord. Paul does not outlaw slavery, but it is not the institution of slavery as such that is at stake here. Even in our days of labor unions there remains a principle here that employer and employee are not just mutually submissive, but the one gives orders and the other obeys them.

When one looks at this passage in its application to the relationship of husbands and wives, men and women in the marriage relationship, in the light of the other two relationships also cited by Paul, one cannot escape the impression that his concern is not to emphasize the things husbands and wives have in common but the specific aspect of that relationship in which they differ.

This is not to say that Paul teaches that women are inferior to men as persons and as members of the Church which is Christ’s body (Gal. 3:28). But to make the apostle say that husbands have to be submissive to their wives, when he says the very opposite, seems to be a remarkable example of eisegesis instead of exegesis. Obviously there have been those who in theory and practice have “unduly” stressed the point that Paul calls wives to be submissive and husbands to love.

The truth here taught can be distorted and misused both to the left and to the right, that is, in the interest of women‘s liberation or of male chauvinism. But to make the apostle say nothing of any significance at all by virtually cancelling himself out, which seems to be what the report does with this passage, is surely not doing justice to the seriousness with which we must take the Bible as a revelation of God‘s will.

Not a satisfaction solution – This is not to say that when we have understood what Paul says we do not need to ask how what the Holy Spirit teaches through him must be applied to our situation. Just as the childparent relationship principles need application in our day of complex educational situations and demands, and the slave-master relationship principles need application in our technological society, the place of women in the home, in society and the church needs definition and understanding in the light of Scripture.

The committee says some good things about this problem. But the purpose of this study of its use of Ephesians 5:21–33 is to show that the solution cannot be found in making the Bible say something that it really doesnt say. You don’t solve a dilemma by simply saying that one of its horns does not exist.