In recent weeks more than once the subject has arisen of the possibility of a division, a split, in the Christian Reformed Church. I have seen it mentioned in more than one of the papers which circulate among Christian Reformed people. More than once this subject arose in connection with a proposed meeting in the Chicago area which has been advertised, for example, in The Outlook (April, ’84, p. 15) as a “Conference of Concerned CRC Office-bearers Adhering to the Biblical and Historic Reformed View of Ecclesiastical Office.” From the latter reference it is clear, too, that the issue over which a possible split might come, and either should or should not come, is the issue of women in ecclesiastical office. This issue is supposed to be decided by the 1984 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in June.
As of this writing, the conference mentioned above has not yet been held; it is scheduled for May 4. Neither have I as yet had the opportunity to study the reports about this matter which will be on the agenda of the CRC Synod. It has been reported that the Study Committee will present a divided report, with the majority advising that the office of deacon be open to women.
Now it is not my intention to try to predict what the coming synod will decide on this matter, though there seems to be considerable pressure for the synod to decide this matter, after many years of hesitation, with finality, and though there also seems, judging from various writings, to be considerable pressure for the synod to “cross the Rubicon” and to open at least the-office of deacon to women. At the same time, however, some voices have been raised in favor of postponing the matter again, in order to allow time to educate the CRC membership and to prepare them for this major change. Synods have been known to vacillate when it comes to crucial issues; and it is not impossible, I believe, that if the coming CRC synod should see signs of potential trouble down the road, it might take measures to avoid a head-to-head conflict. However, I will refrain from putting on the cloak of a prognosticator.
Neither do I intend in this editorial to discuss the issue as such. The issue is indeed a very serious one. Involved is not only the immediate issue of opening the office of deacon to women. Also involved, in my opinion, is the issue of opening all ecclesiastical offices to women. In other words, if this year the office of deacon would be opened to women in the CRC, it would be only a matter of time before the offices of ruling elder and teaching elder (minister) would also be opened to women. In fact, this is precisely what some in the CRC are already pressing for and even to some extent practicing. But there is an even more important issue involved. In this respect I agree with a recent statement by Editor Kuyvenhoven in The Banner when he pointed out that the underlying issue was one of hermeneutics. Basically, the issue at stake is that of one’s view of Scripture, one’s view of the question whether Scripture is “time-bound” in its statements about the place of women (among other things) in the church and with respect to the offices.
Neither will I venture to predict whether there might be a split of either small or large proportions if the coming synod would take a firm decision in favor of opening the offices, or even simply the office of deacon, to women. Frankly, I am rather skeptical. For one reason, I believe the basic issue was decided years ago when Report 36/44 was adopted; and it seems as though almost everyone, including some of whom better things were expected, is able to live with Report 36/44. Besides, there have been too many other crucial issues in the past—the Dekker Case in 1967, for example—with respect to which the threatened (or promised?) opposition disappeared like the morning mist when once a synodical decision was reached. But, once again: I will not predict. Such a prediction would be idle speculation; and, besides, I might be proved wrong.
However, I do wish to say that in my opinion a CRC split on this issue would be regrettable.
Why do I say this?
Certainly, I do not say it because the issue itself is not sufficiently important. It is indeed important. I could not and would not belong to a church which allowed women in office. And when I say this, I am not referring merely to a local congregation, but to a denomination. For it must be emphasized that one does not escape his responsibility by belonging to a congregation which does not tolerate what is practiced in sister congregations and that, too, with the approval of the churches in common as gathered in synod. I fear that for too long there have been those who soothed their consciences with respect to various issues in this way. To open the offices to women is wrong because it is contrary to Scripture. It may not be tolerated. And, in fact, it should not have been tolerated in the CRC even temporarily. And when I take into account the broader issue of the view of Scripture and the hermeneutical method that is involved here, then I am even more convinced that the issue is indeed of crucial importance. It is not for lack of importance, therefore, that I say that in my opinion a split over this issue would be regrettable.
Nor do I say this because in general I feel that a split is always regrettable. From a certain point of view, of course, there is always something regrettable about a split. And I think I know whereof I speak both from study of history and from personal experience. I would not wish the pain and the anguish, the trouble and sorrow, the conflict and bitterness of a split on anyone. But if a split involves reformation, genuine reformation, then it is not only not regrettable, but also mandatory and commendable, as well as salutary and even joyful and spiritually refreshing.
Nevertheless, I believe a division in the CRC about this issue at this point in history would be regrettable.
In the first place, because such a split would be over an issue which does not belong to the very genius of the Reformed faith, does not belong to the peculiarly Reformed distinctives. Once again, let me stress that the issue is an important one; and no truly Reformed man can tolerate the position which is being advocated. When the battle becomes one about women in office, or even about the doctrine of Holy Scripture, then you are getting back to what the writer to the Hebrews calls “first principles,” from which a church long ago should have gone on “unto perfection.” In the second place, if a separation would take place over this issue, it would be entirely possible—unless more took place—that the final product of such a separation would be two groups of which neither would be genuinely Reformed. It would be regrettable—in my opinion, not even worthwhile—to split over this issue when the heresy of general atonement and the heresy of the denial of sovereign reprobation, for example, are not only tolerated but also officially approved. And that leads me to a third point in this connection, namely, that such a split would be regrettable because it would not involve genuine and total reformation. It would be a partial—very partial, in fact—measure. But genuine reformation is in its very nature total. It involves a wholehearted and complete return to the truth. Reformation is not like shopping in a supermarket, so that you choose this issue and reject that issue, take a stand on this truth but not on that truth.
For these reasons I would deem such a division regrettable. I would also deem it “too little and too late.” And, frankly, though I make no predictions, I have little expectation of it.