Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Women in Office

This week, as I write this article, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church will begin its meetings. At these meetings, that synod will treat a committee report on “Women in Office.” Five years ago the synod had decided to allow the ordaining of women as ministers, elders, and evangelists. The individual classes were given permission to waive the rule of their Church Order which allowed only male leadership within the church. Although there were some legitimate objections to this course of action, there were 18 (of 47) classes in the CRC that did waive the rule. Subsequently, nine women have been ordained as pastors or chaplains in the CRC.

Five years ago it was also decided that there would be no protests or objections allowed at following synods until the synod of 2000 reviewed a study committee report and decided on further action. The time for that review has arrived. The CRC synod can conceivably (or inconceivably) rescind its past decision, or give final and full approval of women in office—or waffle and postpone a final decision to be made later (something the study committee proposes).

When you read this article, the decision of the CRC synod will have been made and you will doubtlessly have become aware of what it is.

Of particular interest was an article appearing in the Banner, April 24, 2000 by Rev. David Feddes, radio pastor of the Back to God Hour. It was a remarkable article because of its title and content: “Women in Office—What Changed My Mind.” It was remarkable also in that this appeared in the Banner, which has long supported the “women in office” concept. I quote some of the statements made by Feddes:

In seminary I studied with talented women who wanted to become pastors. Opponents of women’s ordination struck me as old-fashioned and cranky. I read books and articles that said it was permissible, even required, for women to serve in all church offices. My regard for women’s abilities made me eager to find scriptural, scholarly support for female pastors.

I did not find what I wanted. The more I studied arguments in favor of women’s ordination, the more hollow they sounded. The more I examined the church’s historic position, the more solid and scriptural I found it to be, whether I liked it or not. The office of pastor or spiritual overseer, I found, is for certain men and not for women. Much as I might want to think otherwise, the case is too strong at three levels: practice, precept, and principle.

Rev. D. Feddes continues by pointing out the “practice” both in the Old and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the priests were always men. In the New Testament Christ appointed twelve men to serve as apostles. Historically, the church continued to call men to serve as pastors. He emphasizes that “some cults that spun away from Christianity into Gnosticism or goddess worship ordained women as priestesses, but the church never did. With each passing century, responsibility for official teaching and church governance remained a task for men.”

He emphasizes, secondly, the “precept” demanding male leadership. He shows that God commanded Moses to establish a priesthood of Aaron and his sons (not Miriam and her daughters). He reminds further of the New Testament requirements laid down for leadership within the church. He states also:

…Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”

That is not just a suggestion that we might be unwise to ignore; it’s a command that we would be wrong to disobey. “Do not permit” means it’s not allowable, not merely that it’s not advisable. It is the precept of Christ’s apostle, written with the Lord’s authority under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

Rev. Feddes goes on to explain the “principle” involved in male leadership in the church. It is, of course, principle which should be of utmost importance to the Christian. Feddes reminds the readers:

After saying, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man,” Paul goes on to explain, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

I Tim. 2:13-14

Paul does not merely give advice for a particular time and situation. He appeals to a principle established at creation and violated in the Fall: the principle of male headship.

God created a man first, then formed a woman from him and for man. “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

I Cor. 11:8-9

When the man and the woman first met, the man took the lead by naming her and defining her relation to himself.

Gen. 2:23

God’s order of creation was Adam first, then Eve. Satan’s order of temptation was Eve first, then Adam. But God’s order remained Adam first. After Adam and Eve sinned and hid, the Lord called to the man, “Where are you?”

Gen. 3:9

Although Eve sinned first, God addressed Adam first. Primary responsibility remained with the man.

Male headship, established at creation, violated during the Fall into sin, then reaffirmed by God, is the principle that underlies the precept and practice of ordaining men as leaders in the church. God wants godly male leadership in the home and in God’s household, the church. Indeed, a man’s ability to lead his family is a mark of whether he can lead God’s church. “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (I Tim. 3:5). 

Male headship expresses God’s creation design. It reflects the relation between Christ and his church.

Eph. 5:23

It even parallels life within the Godhead: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”

I Cor. 11:3 

As God the Father and Christ are united and equal, with the Father leading and Christ submitting, so man and woman are united and equal, with complementary roles in family and church.Feddes points out that “many church members, including officebearers, have never heard a sermon about whether women should be ordained. Many pastors (on either side of the issue) say little or nothing about this from the pulpit….”

Feddes encourages the church members to study the issue anew. “Veterans of long-running debates over women’s ordination sometimes complain, ‘We’ve been studying this for decades, and nobody’s mind is likely to change anymore.’ But many, especially those of us under the age of 40, have not studied it so long and may not be so entrenched as battle-weary veterans think.”

To what Feddes writes concerning women in office, we can give a loud and resounding “Amen!” The arguments, obviously, are not new. It is refreshing, nevertheless, to hear them repeated briefly but clearly.

The article of Feddes, according to the Grand Rapids Press, June 10, 2000, created a measure of anger in the CRC.

(Rev. Ronald Meyer, pastor of Drenthe Christian Reformed Church, states: ) “I guess I thought we’d all pretty much decided to cave in at this point—that there was no hope of winning, so what’s the use of trying? But I’m encouraged by the conservative voices that have chosen to speak out.”

One of these is the Rev. David Feddes, a broadcast minister on the Back to God Hour’s worldwide English radio program. Feddes angered some with an April essay in The Banner, the CRC official magazine, explaining why he believes the Bible does not permit women to serve as ministers.

Feddes said he wrestled with the question during seminary, wanting to find justification for female clergy. But after studying Scripture, he said, “I couldn’t convince myself of that case.”

He said he spoke out because he felt that if the local-option policy is to continue, churches should hear both sides.

“There are those who believe if you work in a public agency, you should avoid controversy. I believe certainly while not courting controversy, those called to positions of leadership should lead.”

The study committee recommends, according to the Press:

…(to continue) the local option policy with some modifications. Those modifications would:

Enable classes to allow a congregation to hire women, even if the classis has not waived the male qualification. Women would not be permitted to attend classis meetings unless the classis invited them.

Allow CRC agencies to appoint women as ministers, in areas where the local classis has approved them.

Call for another study committee to review the policy, to be appointed in 2003 and report back in 2005.

A minority of the nine-member study committee goes a step further, recommending that women be allowed to serve as Synod delegates beginning in 2002.

Officials expect Synod will adopt the majority report, though not without opposition.

“They have found a way here that will be not to tip to one side of the church or the other, but kind of a steady course,” said the Rev. David Engelhard, CRC general secretary. “I’m both hopeful and expectant that the position the committee has laid out will actually prevail.”

It appears clear that the attempt will be made to postpone for another five years a final decision. A continuing study committee, appointed in the year 2003 to report in 2005, must study—what? Probably again it will be studying how the decision of women in office can be finalized in the denomination without causing too great additional loss of membership. Surely it will not need to study the rightness or wrongness of the issue of women in office—synod has already decided that. It must rather study how to placate the opponents while slowly inching ahead to final and full approval of women in the ministry.

At the same time one must commend Rev. Feddes in his changed stance. Though it seems strange, when the “practice, precept, and principle” involved is as strong as he correctly insists, that he or anyone else could have ever doubted it, his “conversion” is, nevertheless, testimony of the power of the infallible Word applied by the Spirit. One wonders, however, at one statement Feddes makes in the article: “Ordaining women may not be the worst error, but it is an error.” Does this mean that Feddes and many others agree that, though “practice, precept, and principle” all oppose the position of “women in office,” they will remain in the denomination in spite of any decision of synod in June? It seems to me that it would be very difficult then to live with one’s conscience.

Those who support the current position of the CRC give a certain lip service to the testimony of Scripture. (The “Rev.” Mary) “Antonides said she was discouraged to see the number of overtures that want to turn back the clock. ‘At the same time, I share with these people a common rootedness in Scripture and a commitment to do what we think Scripture teaches,’ she added. ‘We both want Scripture to be upheld and the church to be blessed. We just end up at a different place.’ ”

The Press does not report any of the scriptural proof to which Antonides alludes. It does, strangely, state:

When the Rev. Mary Antonides looks at the future of women in the Christian Reformed Church, she looks no further than the girls in her congregation.

“I just think about the children in my church,” said Antonides, pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC. “The little girls who play minister, who dress up in their parents’ clothes and do communion and baptize their dolls.”

If the CRC were to once again forbid women to be ministers, it would be devastating to those little girls and the church they’re growing up in, Antonides says.

“We have so much good coming out of this,” Antonides said of the CRC’s 5-year-old policy allowing local groups of churches to ordain women. “To back up and say we were wrong—we don’t have a clue as to how much pain and grief that would cause.”

Antonides does express somewhat of a threat if synod were to reverse its position: “If that policy were reversed, she predicts the move would be ‘fought tooth and nail’ and could create legal problems with the women already hired.”

The Press reported also that “about 365 Calvin College faculty, staff and students have made their views known, too. They signed a petition urging the Synod to remove the male officer-holder requirement for all churches. The current restrictions on women create ‘significant tension between the CRC and Calvin College’ and have made Calvin less attractive to prospective and current faculty, the letter states.”

“…Others say it’s absurd to suggest Scripture condones what they regard as discrimination against women.

“It’s almost a form of abuse as far as I’m concerned,” said Gerald Vandezante, a Toronto activist who helped write a letter to synod urging full use of women’s gifts in all areas. “Not to embrace them within the structure of the CRC is to treat them as second-class citizens.”

“Convincing” arguments, indeed!!