Women in Ecclesiastical Office?

This article on “Women in Ecclesiastical Office?” by Rev. Henry Vander Kam, pastor of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is timely in view of the fact that the CRC Synod has instructed a study committee to report on this matter, if possible, in June of this year.

Rev. Vander Kam writes: “The problem of whether or not we should have women holding ecclesiastical office must never be ‘solved’ by our logic, our sense of fairness, or by the common practices in the secular world. Our solution must come from the Word of our God.”

The editor of this paper has asked me to write an article on the above subject even though the name of the number of articles which have been written on this subject is legion. Yet, the subject is an important one and the solution of the problem contained in it will be of farreaching effect on the church.

Why is the problem raised? In a way, I suppose, it is a very natural problem. Are not both men and women members of the body of Christ and joint heirs of the grace of life? Do the women not as well as the men share in the “office of all believers”? Havent women often played a very important role in the history of the people of God? Isnt it often true that women are as capable or more capable than men?

It is strange that the question of women holding ecclesiastical office should surface (again) at the time when there is a strong movement in secular society to give equal rights to women. The movement to seek equal rights for women stands on solid ground in much of its argumentation. For example, why shouldn’t a woman receive the same wages as a man when she does the same work? To ask the question is to answer it; and, still, there is ever so much inequality on this score. Doesnt the same principle hold true in regard to the offices in the church?

We have come farther toward a “solution” of this problem than many may think. The Synod of the CRC has already determined that office is essentially fictional. This says nothing about the person who is to carry out this function except that such a person is to be chosen by the church, but, surely, could be either male or female. The “office of all believers” receives an emphasis which, I believe, is not warranted by the Scriptures (cf. Numbers 16).

The question whether women may hold ecclesiastical office is, of course, not a new one. It was a question which was faced early in the history of the Christian church. However, throughout the history of the church it was ruled improper for women to hold such office. True, there are instances of women holding the office of deacon but not the office of ministry or that of the elder. The argumentation against this practice was not always the best and would not be used by anyone today. The exclusion of women from ecclesiastical office was also, to no small degree, a reaction against the sects who did permit women to hold such office. Again, this is not the best of reasons, but the fact stands that the church did not permit them to hold office. At the time of the Reformation things did not change on this score although the argumentation of both Luther and Calvin was much more to the point than that found in the early church.

Today there are various church bodies in which women hold the office of elder and of minister of the Word. Now, it is rather dangerous, of course, to say that this practice is found almost exclusively in those churches which we would call the more liberal. Yet, when one looks at the list of those churches which permit women to hold all three offices, he approaches that conclusion. Some have stated that it is necessary for them to elect women to these offices because men refuse to serve. Others are so afraid they will not keep up with the times. Surely, we live in an entirely different time than that of the New Testament writings. But, this is the beau ty of the word—it is timeless!

Whenever one writes or speaks on this subject and comes to a negative conclusion he is almost assured of a storm of reaction and protest. So far we have already come. The charge of male chauvinism is becoming rather common. However, we all confess that the Scriptures are normative and we will abide by their teaching. It is, therefore, a matter of the proper interpretation of that which the Scriptures have to say on the question before us.

The concept of equality is not necessarily synonymous with sameness. Many seem to make the error of identifying the two. Does equality mean that all differentiation has been done away? In this connection reference is often made to Galatians 3:28: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus.” Here the apostle is referring to the faith-communion one has with Christ. Then all differences fall away. However, this must not be interpreted in such a way as though all distinctions then also fall away in other areas of Me. This same apostle demands recognition of these distinctions in man‘s cultural life in Ephesians 6:5 and Titus 2:9–10, etc. There are rich and poor—and the Lord made them both; there are bond and free—and the Lord made them both; there are male and female—and the Lord made them both.

The passages most frequently quoted regarding the subject of women in ecclesiastical office are I Corinthians 14:33–35 and I Timothy 2:11–15. In the first of these passages Paul admonishes the women to keep silence in the churches . He says that they are not permitted to speak, and that they are to be in subjection. In the second passage he again states that she is to be quiet in subjection and adds that he does not permit a woman to teach or to have dominion over a man. Now, we are to remember that these words were written in an entirely different time than our own. The woman had a very inferior place in the cultural and sociological world of that time. The temptation is to say that these words were only for that time and not normative for all ages. There surely are parts of the Bible which were only intended for a restricted time. The ceremonial law is a case in point. However, we must be very careful not to limit the Scriptures too quickly regarding the time of their authority. Paul respects order and is also sensitive to the mores of the times. However, he is never so sensitive to the life-style of his time that he would compromise principle. In both of the above-mentioned passages he refers to those things which do not change with the times, i.e., the law and the creation. These references should make us extremely careful in quickly limiting his teaching here only to the practice followed in the early church.

The teaching of Scripture in many other instances and in many other connections also militate against placing women in ecclesiastical office. The place of woman at the time of creation is characterized as that of “a help meet” for man. This is not demeaning but is rather the relationship in which her highest potentialities are realized. This was her place in the sinless created order. Today this place of woman is denied and many seek an entirely different role for women—but so was it not in the beginning.

In the New Testament Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:23 that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ also is the head of the church. Here again there is a very definite distinction in the roles which husband and wife have in the marriage relationship. These roles are not and cannot be the same. The principle which has been laid down at the time of creation continues. Today this distinction is denied by many and a “democracy” is advocated for the home and for the marriage relationship. Deteriorating marriage relationships and home life is the price modern society pays for tampering with creation ordinances.

The problem of whether or not we should have women holding ecclesiastical office must never be “solvedby our logic, our sense of fairness, or by the common practices in the secular world. Our solution must come from the Word of our God. In the Scriptures we have found nothing which favors the practice of women holding ecclesiastical office. Those who would argue that Scripture allows women to hold such office are standing on very shaky ground. It is true that the Old Testament contains the record of a woman who was a judge, of a woman who was a prophetess, and of queens of nations. The New Testament also makes mention of prophetesses and of other women who were very active in the life of the church and aided the apostles. However, these instances do not prove the point at issue.

The church will, no doubt, have to face many important issues in the years to come. It may well be that the subject treated in this article will be one of the important issues determining the welfare of the church. The involvements are many. The concept of office in the church is involved; the view of the role of the woman is involved; and the nature of marriage and the home is involved. It is not a question standing in isolation from all others.

Secular society no longer considers this matter a problem. It had concluded that the one is as good as the other; therefore, why should there be any distinctions? Secular society formerly enslaved women. It was not led by the light of the Scriptures either time. Secular society sneered at the freedom which women enjoyed among Gods people in the past, and they sneer at the “bondage” of women in the church today. Of course, its modern “liberation” of women has slain its ten thousands, but the church is considered “old fashioned.”

May God grant His church light and obedience to His Word.