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

Reflections on Synodical Decisions

By the time this report appears in the Standard Bearer, it will be old news. Yet several items have appeared in magazines and newspapers that should be of interest to our readers.

The first is the action of the Synod of the Reformed Church in America. Synod took note of the fact that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the first ordination of a woman to the ministry within that denomination. That was 1979. In 1980 the RCA Synod took a decision establishing in its bylaws a “conscience clause.” Ministers, elders, and deacons, for conscience sake, were exempt from participating in any way in the ordination of women. The Word of God that did not allow women to speak in the church bound their conscience. At its last synod two years ago, an attempt was made to remove this “conscience clause.” The synod approved, but the proposal failed to receive the necessary 2/3’s vote of the classes (it fell three votes short). This year the proposal was again on the floor of synod—and again it was approved. The 2/3 vote of the classes is again required—and the expectation is that this time it will succeed.

The Grand Rapids Press, June 5, 2004, reports sympathetically about the plight of women ministers and “wannabes” in that denomination.

Angie Mabry-Nauta moved to Holland from Texas nearly three years ago because she felt God called her to be a minister.

She was shocked and angered, then, when people—including a classmate at Western Theological Seminary—told her God did not allow women to be ministers.

“It was very painful,” Mabry-Nauta recalled, sitting in her snug apartment surrounded by Bibles and baby blankets for her newborn daughter.

“I felt like I had to legitimize myself everywhere I went and defend my call.

“It is God who called me. Who are you, as a human being, to question that?”

Now, a month after completing a master’s of divinity degree, Mabry-Nauta waits for a church to affirm her calling by offering her a pastoral position. 

But, for women in the Reformed Church in America, that can be a long wait.

Twenty-five years after the RCA officially opened its pulpits to women, the frustrations of women such as Mabry-Nauta remain common.

More than 200 women are ordained as ministers in the RCA, about 10 percent of the pool of 2,000 ministers.

But it is difficult for many female clergy to land posts in many churches — particularly in conservative West Michigan.

In this area, only four out of more than 50 ordained women are senior or solo pastors.

After 2000 years of church history, and hundreds of years of history of Protestantism and of the Reformed segment thereof, women obtained the “right” to be ordained into the ministry in the Reformed Church of America. But it was a “mixed celebration” at the synod meeting in Wheaton, IL. There was the bone of contention: the “conscience” of those opposed to such ordination. So the synod had to decide: was it right to have a conscience which insisted it was not biblical to ordain women into the ministry?

“It’s a mixed celebration,” said the Rev. Evelyn Diephouse, moderator of the RCA’s Commission for Women. “We’re going to honor the conflict that women experience, not deny that that’s the reality.”

The reality will hit home during the weeklong General Synod that began Thursday and wraps up Wednesday.

On the agenda is a proposal to do away with the “conscience clauses” — provisions that allow church officers to abstain from sponsoring female seminarians or approving their ordinations.

Though the more conservative Reformed Churches remain somewhat more opposed to women serving in office, especially in the ministry, that is evidently not true of the leaders.

But denominational leaders stand squarely in favor of women clergy as part of God’s salvation plan.

“It’s God’s intention when his kingdom fully comes that people of every language, tribe, nation and gender serve as priests of God,” said Mathew Floding, dean of students at Western Theological Seminary. “If these are going to be brothers and sisters in the kingdom when it fully comes, how can we treat them any differently now?”

The article continues by explaining the “conscience clause”:

Fearing a major schism, synod delegates in 1980 approved the conscience clauses — language intended to prevent officials from obstructing women’s ordination and protect them from violating their consciences by participating in a practice they find un-Scriptural.

Opponents of female ministers often cite

I Timothy 2:12:

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

However, opponents say the clauses have undermined female clergy’s authority….

Some of the reasons that few women have been ordained into the ministry, or have been installed into the office in a local church, are given also in the article:

In this region, only four women are head pastors or the sole minister, according to RCA figures. Nine are co-pastors or associates.

Several are chaplains or specialized ministers.

A few women serve churches of other denominations such as Evangelical Lutheran or Congregational.

The Rev. Barbara Wright this month became minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Chelsea, after a year of fruitless searching for an RCA pulpit in West Michigan.

Wright was pastor of Grand Rapids’ Hope Reformed Church for five years before stepping down in March 2003, feeling her divorce made it difficult to lead the congregation….

…While frustrated women have not made more progress in the RCA, she [Rev. Kathryn Davelaar] sees the problem in larger terms.

“The world is just plain not a just place when it comes to gender equality. I can’t fault the church any more than I can all of humanity.”

But Angie Mabry-Nauta finds fault with a church that allows discrimination that is illegal in the secular world. She notes that churches may specify preferences of gender, age or race when seeking ministerial candidates.

“We’re supposed to be living in this reality of what it means to be moving toward the new heaven and the new Earth, where things are just not like this anymore,” said the 33-year-old Texas native.

…Calling the conscience clauses “sanctioned sexism,” she nevertheless sees pain on both sides of the issue and calls for loving understanding. But she strongly rejects biblical arguments against women’s ordination….

The Grand Rapids Press, June 9, 2004, reports the decision of the RCA Synod approving the removal of the “conscience clause” from its by-laws. That decision had some delegates concerned about the action taken.

The Rev. Barbara Fillette, a Pennsylvania pastor who recommended removal of the clauses, said they “served a worthy purpose in their time,” but they are “now being used at times to undermine authority of women who are ordained.” Without them, women ministers will get more respect from their male colleagues, she said.

“We can learn from each other. We can work side by side. We can talk to each other openly and honestly,” Fillette said. “Nobody can hide behind the Book of the Church Order.”

The Rev. Scott VanOostendorp, pastor of First Reformed Church in Zeeland, voted to keep the conscience clauses. Even though his congregation approves of women pastors and has sent five women on to the seminary, he said “there is a significant number of churches in our denomination that are not at that place.”

The clauses maintained unity in diversity, with both views having a biblical basis. Deleting the clauses sends a message that opposition to women in church office is an invalid viewpoint, he said.

This sort of action reminds of the story of the frog. It is claimed that a frog when placed directly into boiling water will immediately leap out. But if the frog is placed in cool water that is then gradually heated, it will remain in until dead.

Several other thoughts come to mind. First, how can one have a conscientious objection to participate in the ordination of women—but not have the same objection of being part of the organization that allows this activity?

Secondly, how can two diametrically opposite views on woman’s ordination both have “a biblical basis”?

Thirdly, what kind of theology is the remark quoted in the Press, “It is God who called me. Who are you, as a human being, to question that?” Homosexuals aspiring to the ministry have made similar claims. Even murderers have made the claim that God called them to commit this evil deed. How can any claim a “call of God” which is contrary to the teachings of Scripture?

One can only be saddened by these results. One wonders: how long before the Christian Reformed Church will also take away the “right” of individual classes to continue to maintain the Church Order, which restricts the ministry to males?

258th Synod of the RCUS

The Reformed Church US (German Reformed) held its 258th synod this year from May 11-13 at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Christian Renewal, May 31, 2004, reports on its decisions. One point of great interest, especially in light of recent editorials in the Standard Bearer, was the statement on “Justification by Faith.”

A second significant issue before Synod this year was a 56-page report on justification by faith. The report was balanced, thoroughly researched and well written. Discussion began on Wednesday evening and concluded on Thursday morning. The unity of the body was apparent throughout the discussion, with most time spent on fine-tuning wording.

As Rev. Tracy Gruggett presented the report, he spoke of the general perception many people have about Norman Shepherd being “just vague,” and the committee’s desire to show if Shepherd is simply vague, in error, or heretical. “Justification is, in his mind, the forgiveness of sins only,” stated Gruggett. He pointed out that the recommendations, with their resolutions and supporting grounds, follow a pattern. “Essentially they are a syllogism,” he said, each building on previous ones. 

The report detailed background of the issue, including an extensive section on Shepherd’s doctrine, a history of the controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia that led to Shepherd’s eventual dismissal, as well as summaries of teachings found in Shepherd’s Call of Grace, his article in Reformation and Revival, and his recent lecture at the Conference of Covenant Theology. The report then summarizes and critiques Shepherd’s teachings and makes four recommendations (the first containing four resolutions).

The first recommendation was most significant and generated a great deal of discussion. It called for the adoption of four resolutions with extensive grounds regarding the teachings of Norman Shepherd. Resolution #1 stated: “we reaffirm the truth of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone as it is expressed in the Three Forms of Unity” with a lengthy list of references. Resolution #2 was: “we find that Rev. Norman Shepherd for many years has taught a confused doctrine of justification, contrary to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort” with a supporting list of specifics. Resolution #3 said: “Therefore, we also resolve that the teachings of Norman Shepherd on justification by faith be anathematized and call upon the faithful everywhere to reject these old errors in whatever form they appear.” Resolution #4 asked for the RCUS to “recognize these Romish, Arminian, and Socinian errors for what they are and urge our brethren throughout the world to reject them and to refuse those who teach them.”

There follows in the report some of the revisions made in the above recommendations. After these changes were made, “the first recommendation, with its extensive resolutions and grounds, carried unanimously. A further motion asked for the record to state that the vote carried ‘without dissenting voice.'” While some conservative Reformed denominations appear to be favoring the teachings of Norman Shepherd on justification, at least one has publicly taken a stand against that.