Women in Ecclesiastical Office

One of the issues which the Christian Reformed Church will be facing shortly is that of the propriety of “women in ecclesiastical office.”

For decades this question has plagued churches throughout the world. After some initial resistance by those who dared to stand lip and be counted in the church courts, one denomination after another has been softened to the point of succumbing to the arguments offered in its favor. Today those who raise their voice in protest against this new trend are quickly labelled old-fashioned, reactionary and completely unrealistic in the face of changing circumstances. They are esteemed out of touch with the “newest” and the “best” in the field of Biblical studies and very unfair to the fairer sex. Even our sister church, the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, seems bent on opening this door so long closed.

It comes as no surprise therefore that this subject was recently discussed in The Banner. The articles were, of course,only preliminary and tentative. Much, much more will be argued and debated in the coming years, as one response found in “The Reader Writes” already indicates. Here was someone who wasn’t completely happy with either the “pro” argumentation by the Rev. John Van Harmelen and the “con” argumentation of the Rev. Dr. Louis Praamsma. Since these articles are accessible to nearly all of our readers, further comment on them is unnecessary.

Much has been written on the subject. We mention only a few of the works which have exerted their influence on the discussions: L. Zacharnack: Der Dienst der Frau in den ersten Jahrhunderten der christl. Kirche (1902); P. Tischleder : Wesen and Stellung der Frau nach der Lehre des Heiligen Paulus (1923); Zerbst and Merkens: The Office of Women in the Church (transl. 1955); M. E. Thrall: The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (1958). Dibelius has opined that while Paul had to restrain the forwardness of women in his day, the situation has measurably changed since then. He bases his argumentation on the conviction that in Christ the order of creation to which the apostle appealed has been suspended. Oepke in the well-known TWNT speaks in a similar vein by suggesting that Paul found himself in tension between progressive ideas concerning women and Jewish reactionary trends. Thus he was compelled to write to the church in those days as he did.

The question that we face is why there is within the Reformed community of churches disagreement on this subject.

Undoubtedly many factors playa role. Some argue from the practical situation. Many churches apparently cannot find sufficient and suitable men to discharge the official work laid upon the church. Others urge that women have a unique contribution to make to the life of the church. Still others insist that since in Christ there is neither male nor female, women may not be barred from office. And then there are those who remember that early Reformed synods in the Netherlands spoke on the possibility of having “deaconesses.”

The disagreements, however, seem to go much deeper than the relative weight of these and similar arguments. They touch some of the fundamentals of the Reformed understanding of the Scriptures. And on these, it seems to us, all who would engage in discussion should give a clear account of themselves and their positions.

The first concerns our understanding of “office” within the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just which offices have been instituted by Christ and under what conditions? What is to be regarded as the specific responsibility and authority with which the Savior has endowed them? What is the relation between such offices and the almost endless variety of “gifts” which he has bestowed on those who belong to him? Is any and every task discharged on behalf of the church to be recognized as partaking of the character of official ministry? Does this, then, mean an integration of all these “services” into the three “offices” or “ministries” of the church to form, as the Belgic Confession puts it, the council of the Church (art. 30)?

The second, which is far more basic, concerns our understanding of the nature and scope of Biblical normativity. And on this it appears that there is no longer a consensus within the Reformed community.

All agree that Paul makes no room for women in office. Even those who appeal to the case of Phoebe the “deaconess” (Romans 16:1) and to the register of “widows” ( I Tim. 5:9f) acknowledge that the insuperable obstacle for the apostle was his understanding of the creation ordinances. But, so the argument runs, this prohibition by Paul was temporally-conditioned. It sprung from the fact that in both the Jewish and Graeco-Roman social situations it gave offense, when women were thrust into positions of prominence. Now, however, the relationships between male and female are measurably altered. To be sure, the distinction between the sexes and the contributions which each can and should make must be recognized. This is the argumentation used in the Gereformeerde Kerken. By recognizing this, so that women in office do not replace or overshadow or even simply reduplicate what men can and should do, Paul’s principle would in essence be safeguarded.

Now let there be no misunderstanding on the positions taken. No one who takes God’s Word seriously would object to much more cooperation between men and women in carrying out the work that must be done in and for the church. As members of the congregation women also have a calling to promote sound teaching, orderly government and the grand work of Christian mercy. In all these fields, either singly or in groups, many have made signal contributions. And much, much more can and perhaps should be done by them as well as by the male members. Nor is it a question whether they have received sufficient recognition as well as opportunity to make their contributions. Rather, the question is whether they are to engage in these spiritual activities as members of the “officiary” or council of the church. Is Paul’s prohibition on this score temporally-conditioned (tijdgebonden), as many today are arguing, or not?

To suggest that this was intended only for his day and circumstances constitutes, we believe, a completely wrong evaluation of his prohibition. It fails to do justice to his appeal to the creation ordinances. It tends to undermine the true apostolicity of Christ’s church. It opens the door to every kind of accommodation to the ever-changing opinions of modern man. To be sure, God’s Word has come to us through men inspired by the Spirit to address themselves also to the situations of those days. But Scripture leaves no doubt on its authority also with respect to such matters for the church of all times and in all lands. Precisely because creation ordinances come into sharp focus here, much more is at stake than the “holy kiss” and the “foot-washing” and the “love feasts” of the early congregations. We do well to remember what we profess in the Belgic Confession with regard to church ordinances,

In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers in the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience t9 God… (art. 32).

If on the basis of “temporal conditioning” Paul’s writing on the position of women in the church can be so radically modified, and that despite ecclesiastical practice for some nineteen centuries, then the erosion of Biblical normativity as always understood in the Reformed churches according to their creeds will be legitimatized. And this is a most serious matter. Much more is at stake than the position of women in the churches. Let us not forget that the modern “heresies” of subjectivism and existentialism, so characteristic of modern ecumenical theology, can subtly influence Reformed individuals and companies of scholars and even synods. If these prevail, then we are left by our own fault without the abiding Word of the Lord.

One of the issues which the Christian Reformed Church will be facing shortly is that of the propriety of “women in ecclesiastical office.” In this brief article, Dr. P.Y. De Jong makes some suggestions regarding this subject in the light of Scripture and the Confessions.

Dr. Peter Y. De Jong is Asst. Professor of Practical Theology at Calvin Seminary.