As the 1995 Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches began, the newly elected chairman, Rev. Calvin Bolt, expressed his sadness that the past synods were being overshadowed by the issue of women in office. ÒI wish we could settle it and get on with the things which are important,Ó he said. He expressed at the outset that he hoped to set an agenda of unity and patience for synod.
Synod 1993 had approved initial measures in the direction of permitting women to be pastors and elders, but the necessary ratification was voted down at Synod 1994. Last yearÕs synod also issued a supporting statement declaring that Òthe clear teaching of Scripture prohibits women from holding the offices of minister, elder and evangelist.Ó One of the first things done by the Synod this year was to turn down several overtures calling for the unseating of delegates from churches that ordained women elders despite the urging by last yearÕs synod to release them by June 1 of this year. Classis Grand Rapids East which has six churches which have ordained women elders, decided already last fall that it would not force its local churches to comply with Synod 1994Õs ruling. Rev. VanEssen of Lansing, Illinois, asserted that the action of this classis Òwas a very serious matter that undermines the authority of Synod.Ó When synod decided not to unseat the delegates of dissenting classes, the direction of its actions on other related proposals seemed fixed.
On Friday the women-in-office issue came up again in connection with two differing reports explaining what Synod 1992 meant when it allowed women to Òexpound the word.Ó One advisory panel maintained that it allowed women to preach from the pulpit the message they have prepared, while another study committee came to the conclusion that it meant that women could not preach in an official worship service. These reports were tabled until synod had ruled on whether to allow women to be ordained as pastors and elders. That issue would be taken up after the weekend.
On Monday the debate ensued and before the day was over the synod had decided with a vote of 112-66 to allow each classis to determine whether or not to open the office to women. Both the majority and minority reports made attempts to honour those on each side of the issue as being faithful to Scripture. The difficulty encountered in being equally charitable toward both sides of such a sharply defined issue was demonstrated by the wording of the first recommendation of the majority report:
There is an ambiguity in this statement which synod approved. It is also found in the statement of the minority report which declared Òthat both sides had faithfully sought to interpret Scripture on this issue.Ó Are these statements meant as the expressions of the judgement of charity, trusting that those on each side desired or intended to be faithful to Scripture? Or do these committees and the CRC synod believe that both positions are equally faithful to the Scriptures? It raises the question whether this indicates relativistic thinking in the prevailing view of Biblical interpretation in the CRC. Can two opposing interpretations both be faithful to Scripture?
The central point of the approved decision was that which allowed a classis, in relation to their local needs and circumstances, Òto declare that the word male in Article 3a of the Church Order is inoperative, and authorize the churches under its jurisdiction to ordain and install women in the offices of elder, minister and evangelist.Ó Realizing that this would provide a real problem of conscience for certain delegates at future synods, it was decided that such classes with women office bearers would not send them to synod. On the other hand, a classis which does not uphold the word male in Article 3 may not Òenforce complianceÓ upon those local churches which take exception to classisÕ decision. They may not be disciplined if they go ahead and ordain women regardless. Agencies of the synod, such as World Missions or Home missions cannot appoint women pastors. Furthermore, this decision would remain in effect until the year 2000, at which time it will be reviewed. This decision came about as an attempt to maintain unity. It remains to be seen whether it will, in fact, do so within the CRC denomination.
As to interdenominational fellowship, it appears that this decision may indeed serve to nurture contacts with the Reformed Church of America. The RCA in the same two-week period met in New Jersey and approved a decision to Òmaintain regular correspondence with É the CRCÓ and Òexplore avenues of reconciliation.Ó Women delegates at the RCA synod had spoken of the Òpain and hurtÓ suffered by women who had left the CRC because it had denied church offices to women. This decision may well be perceived by the RCA as an Òavenue of reconciliation.Ó It may also be viewed as lessening the distance between the CRC and the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. However, delegates from another Dutch denomination obviously did not feel the decision was ecumenically positive.
Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGKN) Delegates
Rev. P. DenButter and Rev. J. Westerink attended this yearÕs CRC synod as delegates of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. Rev. DenButter addressed the synod and explained that, while the policy of their committee is to send a delegation once every three years, they decided to come this year as well as in 1993. In 1993 CGKN delegates expressed their denominationÕs Ògrave concernÓ about developments in the CRC. This year they as committee are preparing to make a recommendation to their synod (CGKN) this fall regarding their Òfellowship in principleÓ with the CRC.
Rev. DenButter explained that if he has been given the opportunity to address the synod earlier, he would have urged the CRC synod to stay with the Word of truth and abide by the decision of Synod 1994 regarding women in office. But Synod 1995 has already decided otherwise; thus he could only let the CRC synod know that the CGKN churches are resolved to stay with the Òclear teaching of Scriptures.Ó They as delegates will also urge their churches in the Netherlands to learn from the developments in the CRC. It was frankly stated that this decision may very well jeopardize their relationship with the CRC. The Gereformeerde Kerken (GKN) delegate had cited the secularization of the Netherlands as motivating the GKNÕs recent accommodating decisions. In response to this, Rev. DenButter observed that they as CGKN churches live in the same secular society. However, they do not agree that the secularization of a society is an way solved by accommodating decisions. Rather, such accommodation by the church causes, or at least aggravates, the process of secularization. In Acts 17 we see Paul at Athens approaching an even more secular society by clearly proclaiming the Word of truth. During the course of synod the church had been compared to a windsurfer or a ship. The CGKN delegates got the impression they were on a train, which is spite of conservative voices calling to stop going down the wrong track, just keeps steaming on at greater speed. With respect to the issues like women in office and other matters dealt with these few days, the CGKN delegates got the impression that this yearÕs synod was determined to carry right on without taking seriously the problems of conscience which many concerned members of the CRC have with these matters.
After this address, during intermission, the Dutch brothers were met by various delegates of the CRC who expressed support for the comments and others who at least appreciated that they had been candid about their opinions. With most there seemed to be an expectation that soon the relationship between the CRC and the CGKN would be terminated.
CRC Problems Not Over
One consequence which loomed over the decision regarding women-in-office was the insensitivity of this procedure to the conscience of many conservative members throughout the CRC denomination. It was presented in the name of a compromise on a non-essential matter. But too many will feel the decision as a constraint to compromise their conscience on a matter of Biblical principle. During the lengthy debate on the majority report Dr. Robert Godfrey spoke against it and urged that synod show a pastoral concern for the conscience of those who believe that Scripture is clear on the matter of women in office. As Rev. James Admiral put it in a review of the Agenda in the Outlook (June 1995, p.11): Òto allow for some latitude and permit churches the local option to ordain womenÉwould be asking those against women-in-office to abandon their position that Scripture clearly forbids this.Ó
As reported in the Grand Rapids Press, Rev. Roger VanHarn, delegate of Grand Rapids East, admitted that Òfor many of us this feels like the end of a long struggleÓ. But he added a caution, Òit isnÕt. This is only the beginning. The attitudes in the church are still pro-male governance.Ó Dr. Godfrey, who was elected as second clerk of synod, feared that this yearÕs development would be decisive for the future of the CRC. ÒFor all intents and purposes, the battle is overÉThis was the camelÕs nose in the tent, and thereÕs no getting the camel out.Ó (Grand Rapids Press, June 21, 1995)
The process of liberalization seems to have gotten more than a nose in. Before the synod adjourned it had opened a way for children to take part in the LordÕs Supper and had approved to relax the long-standing policy of having two services on Sunday. Other Reformed churches do well to take home the lesson of which the CGKN delegates took note: let us as churches learn from the developments in the CRC.