Women’s Lib in the Christian Reformed Church

The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, June 10 to 20, 1975. will consider a report on Women in Ecclesiastical Office. One of the “guidelines” recommended for adoption is the following significant statement: “Biblical teaching is not opposed in principle to the ordination of women to any office that men may hold in the church” (1975 Agenda for Synod, p. 422). It is especially to this matter that Rev. Peter De Jong of Dutton, Michigan addresses himself in the following article.

Immersed in the prevailing trend to wipe out all sex distinctions before the law and in public life, the coming Synod of the eRe faces the question whether it will approve the ordination of women to be preachers, elders, and deacons in the churches.

How the Issue Arose

TIle question was raised among us by our delegates to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1968 whose recommendations led to the appointment of n study committee by our 1970 Synod. That committee brought an 80-page report to the Synod of 1973 stating as its conclusion that “the practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office cannot be conclusively defended on biblical ground.” One of the committee members, Rev. Peter Jonker, disagreed with this conclusion, convinced (as was the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1972) that especially such passages as I Timothy 2:11–15 and I Corinthians 14:34–37 plainly exclude women from office and should not be dismissed as “time-conditioned.”

The 1973 Synod referred the report to the churches for study and reactions and appointed a new study committee to consider the matter. The following Synod asked the same committee to study also the difference between licensing and ordination and between exhorting and preaching in connection with the question whether women may be licensed to exhort in the churches as other seminary students are. Now although the committee is not yet ready with the question of licensing women to exhort, it has given the churches a 23-page report on “Women in Ecclesiastical Office” (1975 Agenda, pp. 399–422).

The Conviction of the Churches

First the committee reports on the many responses it received to its requests for reactions to the earlier report. While only ten percent of those responses were favorable, the overwhelming majority (146 to 17) were opposed to the report convinced that the Bible forbids the ordaining of women. The committee concluded from the reactions it had received that:

  1. The overwhelming majority in the Christian Reformed Church is not yet of a mind to open the existing ecclesiastical offices to women.
  2. There is support for instituting the office of deaconess, although this office is not clearly defined.
  3. There is considerable concern that the church make all possible use of women in the work of the church outside of the existing offices.

In this conclusion one is struck by the use of the little word “yet.” Why are we not told, “The overwhelming majority . . . is not of a mind to open the . . . offices to women”? The addition of the word “yet” plainly suggests that the reaction is “time-conditioned”; it may change. It “tips us off” as to what is to come.

Criticism of the 1973 Report

The new report sharply criticizes the earlier one. It finds that that report is from its beginning so concerned about stressing the equality of men and women that it does not at all do justice to the differing roles which the Lord assigns to each. It especially accuses it of failing to recognize the important but differing places that are given to each in the covenant home and family. It charges that report with using the Bible “as a source of information on which to base sociological conclusions” instead of as divine revelation (p. 404). It judges that the report is wrong in concluding that the churches of the Reformation were out of harmony with the Old Testament in keeping women from church office.

Moreover it finds the same fault running through the earlier report’s treatment of the New Testament. Beginning with “A Socia-Cultural view of New Testament Times,” the report interprets instructions about women keeping silent in the churches as merely the customs of those times. Making much of Galatians 3:28 which speaks of men and women as one in Christ, it refuses to recognize that there is any difference in their function in the church or in their eligibility for office.

Opinions of the New Report

Having criticized the earlier document, the new committee directs attention to what it believes is a most important consideration in dealing with this subject of church office—namely, the place the Bible assigns to Christian motherhood. It sees that role of the wife and mother as important throughout the Bible, but, with what appears to he some questionable argument, considerably reduced in the New Testament.

The committee gives its interpretation of the four New Testament passages that, in its consideration, deal most directly with the subject of women in office. It observes that, although Galatians 3:23–29 does not really bear on this matter, the others, 1 Corinthians 11:1–16; 14:34, 35 and I Timothy 2:9–15 do. After taking up each of these instructions of the Apostle Paul, the committee study in dealing with each text takes a peculiar turn. It observes that if these instructions were to be taken literally they would interfere with some practices which are already found in at least some of our churches. “Therefore” it procedes to seek reasons or arguments why these instructions do not have to be literally applied in our time (pp. 412, 413, 415, 417).

Predictably, the committee finds some considerations with which it seeks to eliminate the binding character of these instructions. Having talked its way out of taking literally the Bible passages which forbid women holding office, the committee recommends to the Synod its conclusion that “Biblical teaching is not opposed in principle to the ordination of women to any office that men may hold in the church.”

At the same time having persuaded itself that “the authority structure within marriage” is the key biblical consideration that must be kept in view in dealing with the matter (although neither I Cor. 14:34, 35 nor I Tim. 2:9–15 states that) the Committee attempts to face the question of whether women should be ordained on the basis of whether or not that “authority structure within marriage” would be endangered by it. On that practical question the committee members disagree among themselves but want the Synod to declare this the decisive consideration. The committee recommends to the Synod its weak conclusions that the Synod should decide that the church is “not ready or willing” to ordain women, but that the churches should “make all possible use” of women “within biblical guidelines and the restrictions of the Church Order” in their church work.

Evaluation of the Material

It seems to me that, while the new report is rightly critical of the bias of the earlier report, it docs not do much better in us handling of the biblical material. Letting the practice of our churches and the changing customs of thc times decide what the Bible is to teach us on this point seems to set aside the authority of the Bible in much the same way Roman Catholics and Modernists do. The result is advice that is unconvincing and weak to either those who believe women‘s ordination is right or to those who believe it is wrong.

The reports of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1972 (Acts of the RES 1972, pp. 196–204) and the Postscript of Rev. Peter Jonker to our 1973 Report (Acts 1973, pp. 588–594), although brief, deal far more responsibly with the Bibles teaching and are therefore clearer and more convincing in their conclusions. Anyone concerned about this matter, regardless of what his own inclinations may be, ought to consider what they wrote about it.

Since we do not find in the new Synod report a satisfying treatment of the issue, it might be worthwhile to try to list some of the points believe the Bible teaches us, noting where and how the various reports deal with (or neglect) them. Trying to make such a summary may help us to sec more clearly what our churches should do about this question of women’s ordination.

Defining the Question

1. First of all we ought to see clearly that the question we face is not whether men and women are equal before God as Christians. The Apostle Paul states very clearly in Galatians 3:26, 28, 29 that they are: “For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus.” “There can be neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither bond nor free . . . no male and female; for ye are all one . . . in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.”

The earlier 1973 Synod report, as the new report points out, throughout its long study sets out to prove that men and women are equal and makes much of this text, concluding that therefore they are equally eligible to hold all offices. (The Rev. John Vriend articles in The Banner use the same arguments.) We ought to acknowledge such equality as Christians and appreciate everything the reports show us the Bible teaches about that, but we need to see just as clearly that this by no means proves that the Lord makes every Christian equally eligible to hold every office. The first committee wants to accept what the inspired apostle wrote about Christian equality but ignores what he wrote about requirements for office as being time-conditioned. Making the Bible say only what you want it to say is not recognizing its authority at all! We ought to see clearly that . the question we face is not about the equality of Christians before God but about the requirements the Lord prescribes for being called to and for holding particular offices in His church.

2. Furthermore, we ought to see clearly that the question under discussion is not whether all Christians are called to and equally hold the basic office in Christ’s church, the office of believers. The 1973 report (pp. 580, 584, 5S5) alludes to this point, but much more could be said about it. I have long been convinced that much of our treatment of this matter as of many other problems of the church, in evangelism, in our view of Christian living, in our facing social obligations, as well as in our church order matters has been seriously handicapped by a general failure to recognize to the extent that we should the Bible’s teaching about this basic office of believers. Although one can hardly begin to deal with this adequately here, we ought to notice that Acts 2 teaches us that the Holy Spirit was given to all believers (vss. 3, 17, 18; cf. also I Cor. 12) and that I Corinthians 7:20–24 points out that each Christian is as truly “called” by the Lord to his or her place of Christian service as any preacher ever was. (“Let each man, wherein he was called, therein abide with God,” vs. 24; cf. vs. 20.) Ephesians 4:11–16 plainly teaches that the various special offices were given “for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of ministering” so that each believer may the more effectively serve the Lord in his and her particular office (vss. 13, 16; notice the “all”s and “every” and “each several part”).

In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that each believer is “a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of His anointing” to enable him or her to confess and serve Christ. Our consideration of special offices has too largely failed to sec that this general office is basic to the rest and really constitutes the purpose of special offices. Considering the special offices apart from this relationship to that of each believer makes a caricature of them and fosters the notion, too common in the church and implicit in the 1973 report, that one who doesnt or can’t hold such an office must therefore be an “inferior” Christian. We ought to acknowledge, if we havent been doing so, that all Christians, men and women alike, are equal in this basic office of believers. Then we ought to go on to observe that equality decides nothing about who is or who is not eligible for special offices in Christ’s church. Equality before the law never means that everyone is equally suited to do every job. All of us know that in our earthly business; we should not forget it in the church. And then what is decisive is not our ideas about who is suitable, but what the Lord has said about the order in His church.

3. Furthermore, we ought to notice that discussion of this question of ordaining women to church office is complicated by the great deal of confusion that exists about the nature of church office and the meaning of ordination. A special committee studied that matter and made an 80-page report on it to the Synod of 1973 (Acts 1973, pp. 635–716). Despite the great learning in and the length of that report it appears to have confused the issue more than ever. The reason for that failure of the report to clarify the discussion, as I pointed out a year ago in THE OUTLOOK of April, 1974 (pp. 5–7) was that it reduced the whole idea of office and all authority involved in it to nothing but “service” (diakonia). In other words, it was opposed to recognizing any real “authority” in office, reducing in effect all offices to that of “deacon.” The “rule” which the Bible assigns to elders was retranslated and reduced to merely “leading” or “caring for” and even Christ was made nothing but “the supreme servant,” the facts being overlooked that the Bible says a few things about His “rod of iron” and that the “rule” or “leading” which the Bible assigns to elders is to be “obeyed.”

This refusal of the committee to do justice to the Bible’s teaching regarding the authority of especially the office of elder is not merely my criticism. It was the criticism of the Synod of 1972 (Acts 1972, p. 95) which sent the report back to the committee to remedy the deficiency. This was again noted by the Synod of 1973 which attempted by its own amendments to include the acknowledgment of authority which the committee would not recognize (Acts 1973 pp. 61–63). In this refusal to recognize any real authority that is increasingly characteristic of our time and society, This feature of the report gives its view a good deal of popular appeal in the church, especially among those circles which pride themselves on being up-to-date. Of course, the Bible says that this rejection of authority is by no means new. It is as old as the devil’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. We may however expect it to increase as history moves on toward its conclusion in the end time which the Bible says will be dominated by “the man of sin,” the “lawless one” (II Thess. 2:3, 8).

Instead of making concessions to this anti-Christian prejudice, if we are to do justice to the nature of the offices as the Lord established and intended them, we will have to frankly recognize that the Lord has called some in the church to serve Him in positions of rule and of authoritative teaching and He has denied this to others. Although people in these offices are commanded to rule and teach in order to serve Christ and His church rather than their own interests or honor, faithfully carrying out that divine command even requires them on occasion to exercise discipline. Does the Bible teach us that the Lord calls women as well as men to such special rule and authority in His church? That is the real question which we face.

What Does the Bible Say About Ordaining Women?

Its General Teaching – The 1973 Report, in making its case for the equality of men and women, points out the prominent places taken by women at certain points in the Bible. It cites such examples as Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Huldah. We ought to frankly recognize each such instance. We ought to observe too that these instances show that the Bible is plainly not just revealing the “male-dominated” pagan or civilization of those times. But do they not prove that women ought to be eligible for every office? They do exactly the opposite. They highlight the fact that, however important the roles of Sarah, Rebekah, and other women were in the story, the Lord assigned to none of them the roles He assigned to Abraham, Isaac. and Jacob as Patriarchs. Among the thousands of priests who through the hundreds of years of Israel’s history were called to the divinely ordered office of priest not one was a woman. The 1973 report (p. 536) cites a number of reasons suggested by Dr. Clarence Vos in his doctoral thesis for this curious fact. Most significantly, the only reason that the Bible itself gives for the absence of women priests is not mentioned: the Lord assigned that office only to men!

Among those called as “the Lord‘s anointed” to rule as kings, none was a woman. The lone example of Athaliah, who in the spirit of her mother usurped power, can hardly be called an exception to that rule. Among the prophets whom the Lord occasionally raised up, a few women‘s names appear, but none of them was called to the leading roles of those whose names are given to the books of the Bible. Don’t dismiss this as the result of a maledominated society. The only prophets whose office and message were the products of their society or their own prejudices were the false prophets! The Lord did not ordain women to the regular offices that had to prepare for that of the coming Christ. It does not do to cite every example of prominent women as God‘s revelation of equality and dismiss the obvious fact that God did not ordain women to the regular special offices as being merely “time-conditioned male-domination,” as the report does. That procedure is twisting the Bible to suit your own ideas.

In the New Testament we find no change. Jesus Himself was a Man. However important the unique place assigned to His mother Mary was, I trust that no one among us is quite ready to follow some Roman Catholics in calling her “co-mediatrix.” In His dealings with women Jesus was free from the prejudices of His time. The disciples were startled to find Him speaking with the Samaritan woman. Women were prominent among His followers, last at the cross and first at the grave on Easter morning. In the establishing of His church, however, Jesus did not call women to serve as six of the twelve apostles. All of them were men. Similarly, in the inspired instructions the Apostles Peter and Paul had to give for the future ordering and guidance of the churches, we find the same difference between the roles assigned to men and warned.

Decisive Text: I Timothy 2:11–3:5 – The Bible gives us no formal and complete church order. Some of the clearest directions it gives the laler church for the ordering of its life and service of the Lord are found in Paul’s inspired directions to his assistants, Timothy and Titus. In them he shows His deep concern for the way the churches’ faith and life is and will be threatened by the devil’s efforts to overthrow it. 111e only ,vay in which Christians and the church will be able to meet and overcome those attacks is through the faithful teaching and preaching of the gospel. Only in that way can their faith and life be built up when so much activity is directed toward tea ring it down (Acts 20:32; 11 Timothy 3:13–17). Timothy must “hold the pattern of sound [healthful] words” heard from Paul in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus,” must “guard” it “through the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us” (II Tim. 1:13, 14) and must “commit it to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2:2).

Because of the central importance of these offices of “ruling” and “teaching” in the church, the Apostle gives some detailed directions as to whom the Lord would have to serve in those offices. In I Timothy 2, after first calling attention to the need for prayer for all kinds of authorities and admonishing first the men and then the women regarding their proper behavior in the church, Paul I goes on to write, “Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness (vss. 11, 12).

At this point it might be appropriate to recall the way Jesus in Matthew 19:3–10, treated the in His time hotly debated problem of divorce. When asked whether “every cause” was sufficient to justify it He replied, “Have ye not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh? So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” In other words the way out of this problem must not be sought in considering the “time-conditioned” changing situation or current practice which at that time, as now, justified easy “no-fault” (?) divorce. (Consider the disciples’ startled reaction, “If one is tied that tightly it is better not to marry at all” (vs. 10). The only way the Lord teaches us to face such problems is to step out of the relativities of changing, and often debased custom and practice and raise the question, “What did God from the beginning say He intended?” Now we notice that the Apostle Paul, facing this question of women in authoritative teaching office, follows the same procedure the Lord Himself taught; he too appeals to God’s creation, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression” (vss. 13, 14). Just look what happened when Eve did take the initiative!

Thereupon Paul directs attention to the area of life in which the Lord has assigned to women, not a position of equality with men, but one of absolute, total monopoly—a monopoly in which even our present women’s lib agitation and efforts of legislatures to create complete equality do not succeed in making a dent, the al1important role of “childbearing”!

The Apostle goes on to list the requirements for authoritative teaching in the church. “Faithful is the saying, If a man seeketh the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (but if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” (3:1, 2, 4, 5).

I Corinthians 14:32–38 – The other passage in the Bible which deals most plainly with this matter is found in the Apostle Paul’s treatment of the disorders which arose in the Corinthian church, especially in connection with the use and misuse of “tongues.” In his effort to reestablish the wholesome order the Lord intended for His church the Apostle has to correct the conduct of women in that church. “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church” (vss. 33–35). Then, as though to anticipate and respond to the objections which this distasteful instruction would provoke from his readers—and still does—Paul adds, “What? was it from you that the word of God went forth? or came it unto you alone? If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord.” And then he adds, in case anyone still wants to object, “If any man is ignorant, let him be ignorant,” or as the NIV translates, “If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.”

Notice the grounds which the apostle gives for these instructions: God’s creation and the roles He has assigned in life, “the law,” “the commandmeth of the Lord.” For all who take the Bible as God‘s inspired word, these clear commands would appear conclusive, as they have through much of the churches’ history settled the matter.

An Attack on “the Commandment of the Lord”

Now we are being asked, however, to brush all this aside and to declare that “Biblical teaching is not opposed in principle to the ordination of women to any office that men may hold in the church” (Agenda 1975, p. 422). On what kind of grounds are we supposed to set aside what the Apostle Paul plainly said were “the Law” and “the commandment of the Lord”?

1. It has been argued that these views found in the Bible were merely the views of the rabbis. Rev. P. Jonker painted out in the 1973 Report (pp. 589) how nonsensical that argument is when one considers the way Jesus and Paul attacked the false traditions of the rabbis.

2. Rev. P. Jonker calls attention to a second argument, “the assertion that the apostle in a haphazard manner used data from the Old Testament in order to add some Scriptural weight to an injunction which as such is only based on practical considerations.” His answer to that is short and to the point, “Nobody who adheres to a scriptural view on the inspiration of the Bible authors by the Holy Spirit can accept this as a possible explanation” (p. 590). 3. It is argued that Paul was merely urging the church to comply with the existing customs of those times and that this no longer applies because times have changed. Again Rev. P. Jonker points out that neither of these allegations is true. Paul was not conforming to existing practice in Corinth, but calling attention to the commandment of the Lord. 4. These directions of the Apostle are sometimes linked with I Corinthians 11:2–16 in an effort to show that they merely reflect changing customs such as those in women’s clothing. Customs of course do show such changes, but we must not appeal to changing customs in hair-do’s and hat-styles as excuses to reject the “commandment of the Lord” regarding the ordering of our lives in the church and the world. If we do that, we are doing the same thing that the Pharisees did, whom the Lord condemned as “blind leaders of the blind.”

The Real Issue: the Authority of Gods Word

As we confront this question it becomes increasingly apparent, as it has in recent discussion of other issues, that the real question we face is whether we regard the Bible as wholly God’s authoritative word or not. A few years ago our churches were persuaded to compromise that conviction with the view that the “nature and extent” of the Bible’s authority must be understood in the light of “its content and purpose as saving revelation of God in Christ.” Several of us then observed that to really agree to that commits one, whether he wants to do so or not, to regard whatever in the Bible as not plainly “saving” as having no authority. Since that decision we are seeing its results in the many ways we are asked to set aside all kinds of biblical teachings and commands.

We ought to notice in this case, as in others, the unfortunate role that is being played by our Dutch sister church. They first proposed that our view of the Bible’s authority should be compromised in the way just mentioned. Now, one after another, the same problems and discord of biblical doctrines and practices that are plaguing the Dutch churches are being exported to us. In this case the issue came to us not out of our own churches which the report indicates oppose it almost 10 to 1, but by way of the RES. Much of the argumentation of the 1973 Report for the opening of the offices to all was taken over directly from the doctoral thesis of Dr. Clarence Vos written for the Free University in the Netherlands where this issue was then being agitated among the Dutch churches. We ought to lake notice of where this line of real rejection of biblical authority has taken those churches and where it is taking us. If we set aside what the inspired Apostle insisted was “the commandment of the Lord” regarding who may hold office in his church, is there any reason why we should regard this teaching as other than time-conditioned on any other question of doctrine or morals? Already those Dutch churches are engaged in “dialog” with one of their ministers who is denying the atonement of Christ with this kind of argument. How long will it before we do the same? If our churches are to have a better future than that forecast by the dismal statistics of our latest church Yearbook we will have to seek for the revival and reformation that the Lord gives only as His people return to His infallible Word as their guide for faith and life.