Previous article in this series: June 2013, p. 399.
About twelve years ago, in this rubric, I defended the proposition that deacons must be men, that is, male in gender.
In this and the following article, I defend the same point regarding the office of elder in the church of Jesus Christ: elders must be chosen from the male membership of the church. Not just any males may be elders: they must be adult, confessing believers who meet other requirements that God gives in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But they may not be females.
Admittedly, this position is not a popular one. Publicly to state this position today is almost equivalent to asking others to label you as being old-fashioned, male-chauvinistic, out of touch with today’s culture and society, unappreciative of women’s God-given gifts, and demeaning to the whole fairer sex.
If this position were not the clear teaching of God’s Word, few would risk being labeled in this way. But it is the clear teaching of Scripture. The faithful church must not (and, God be praised, will not) waver on this point.
In the next article, God willing, we will demonstrate that Scripture permits only males to hold the office of elder. In this article we see why the issue is worth underscoring.
Significant Departures from the Scriptural Norm
We must underscore this point because some Reformed denominations have caved in to the pressure to let women hold office.
The Reformed Church in America permits women to hold all three special offices. Its Church Order defines a “minister” as “those men and women (italics mine, DJK) who have been inducted into that office by ordination….”1 Regarding who may serve in the office, the RCA’s Book of Church Order states: “The elders and deacons shall be chosen from the confessing members of the church in full communion who have attained the age of twenty-one years or, at the discretion of the consistory, eighteen years.”2 No mention is made of the gender of the candidate—because the RCA does not restrict the office to males only.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America also permits women to hold all three (actually four) offices. Article 3a of the CRC’s Church Order and Supplements 2012 reads: “All adult confessing members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of minister, elder, deacon, and commissioned pastor.”3
Apart from the inclusion of this fourth office of “commissioned pastor,” the wording of Article 3a cannot be faulted.
The problem is that the CRC as a denomination does not consider the “biblical requirements” to include gender restrictions; since 1995, the CRC permits women to hold the office of elder, and since 2007, the CRC permits women to hold any office. Synod 2007 said: “All congregations may, but will not be required to, allow women to serve in the office of minister, elder, deacon, or commissioned pastor.”4
Let me emphasize that not every individual member of the CRC, nor every congregation, nor even every Classis of the CRC, agrees with the position of the denomination. This creates conflict within the CRC. Respecting the autonomy of the local congregation, the CRC does not require a church to have women officebearers. But how do churches that understand Scripture to prohibit women officebearers work alongside of those churches that permit women officebearers? Inevitably women officebearers will be delegated to meetings of classis or synod; inevitably synodical deputies who do not agree with women holding office in the church will be asked to participate in a neighboring classis in the examination of a woman who aspires to the office of minister.
In a number of supplements to Articles 3, 45, and 48 of its Church Order, the CRC addresses this real problem. In sum, Synod 2007 made every effort to accommodate male officebearers who believe that women should not serve as officebearers, while at the same time giving every reason to women who aspire to the office of pastor to suppose that they will eventually gain entrance into the office.
The position of these churches that not only men may serve in office is significant.
First, while numerous Christian churches permit women to serve in office, these two denominations are in the Reformed tradition. More specifically, the CRC is the spiritual mother of the PRC, and the RCA is our spiritual grandmother.
Second, at one time both of these denominations excluded women from holding special offices in the church for this reason: they understood Scripture to permit men only to hold the office. The position of both of these denominations is a departure not only from the scriptural norm, but from their own previous practice.5
That our mother and grandmother have departed from the scriptural norm in this respect is a reason for us to underscore that only men may serve in church office.
The Correct Position on This Issue Is Not Difficult to Discern
The second reason why we must underscore this is that the correct position on the issue is not difficult to discern.
The issue is not that Scripture is unclear in I Timothy 3 or Titus 1. Some would have us think that in fact the Scriptures are unclear; after all, if they were clear, why would Christians be of different minds on the issue? But Scripture is clear. Being perspicuous, the whole of Scripture is inherently clear. This is not to deny that one finds difficult passages in Scripture; but I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not unclear. Arguing that Scripture is not clear on this point is to tip one’s hand already, to try to muddy the waters, to cause confusion, and to pressure the church to permit women in office.
The following assessment by some members of the CRC some decades ago hits the nail on the head:
Preposterous as it might seem, the Christian Reformed Church is going to spend time and money to “study” this matter [women in office, DJK] which is so very clearly and decisively taught (revealed) in Holy Writ. We submit that laymen could settle this matter in five minutes.6
Nor is the issue this, that the Christian church at large has historically had the wrong understanding of this point. I already indicated that the CRC and RCA were once of a different mind than they are today. But take Rome’s witness also. Though certainly a false church, her position on this issue is noteworthy because she is the oldest Christian denomination, and because in fundamental respects, both for good and for bad, Rome does not change her mind despite pressure to do so. On this issue, her position is: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.”7 “Vir” is the Latin word for man; it specifically refers to a male. This Latin word is inserted in the Romish catechism, and put in parentheses, to underscore that “man” means “male.”
Because on this point Rome was and is correct, the matter of women in office was not an issue at the time of the Great Protestant Reformation.
The issue is not difficult to discern; the only difficulty is maintaining the correct position. Pressure from society (feminism and political correctness) makes the churches ask: should we open the offices to women? And the modern view of Scripture and scriptural interpretation provides a “loophole”: if I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 speak only of male elders, they do so because such was the culture of the day! Today’s culture is different! Therefore, we may open the offices also to women!
Let us be aware of the intensity of the pressure, and of the beguiling arguments used to support it.
The Matter Regards Offices in the Church
Third, we emphasize that only males may be elders because we are speaking of offices in the church.
The apostle Paul puts it this way, as he concludes the list of qualifications for special offices in the church: “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” ().
Notice several points here. First, in God’s house (the church), officebearers represent Christ. Whether or not they are the kind of people (men) God would have them be is, therefore, no small matter. So, second, the apostle speaks of necessary behavior in this house. “Necessary” is the idea of “oughtest” in the verse—Paul is not giving some suggestions or personal recommendations; because the church is God’s house, how we act in His house is of crucial importance. And thirdly, by necessary behavior, the apostle has in mind men qualified for the office. To put into office men who aren’t qualified is to conduct oneself in God’s house in an unseemly way. It manifests a lack of respect for that house and its owner—a lack of decorum that befits those saved by grace.
The issue at stake, then, is not whether we appreciate the gifts of women and their place in Christ’s church. We do appreciate these. We must, for Scripture demands this also of us. The Holy Spirit teaches this in various places—one of which is in I Timothy 2:9ff., immediately before setting forth the qualifications for special office, and making clear that holding such is not the place of women in the church.
The issue is not whether we are relevant to the times, or politically correct.
The issue is whether we will receive the plain teaching of the Scriptures over against the view of the day; whether we will behave ourselves properly in the house of God; whether we will in this respect also give proper glory and honor to the God who saved us.
Will we? By God’s grace, we will!
1. Cf. Book of Church Order (New York, NY: Reformed Church Press, 2012), Part I, Article 1, Section 3. This quote is found online at https://images.rca.org/docs/bco/2012BCO.pdf, p. 11, accessed 12/29/2012.
2. Book of Church Order, Part I, Article 2, Section 14; pp. 16-17 of the online document.
3. Cf. Church Order and Its Supplements 2012 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Reformed Church in North America, 2012), p. 11. This book can be found online at http://crcna.org/sites/default/files/2012_churchorder.pdf, accessed 12/29/2012.
4. Church Order and Its Supplements, Supplement to Article 3, Regulation 1a.
5. The RCA set forth briefly the history of its change of position in a document entitled “Position of Women in Ministry.” This can be found at https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=3846, accessed 1/7/2013. And, as alluded to earlier in this article, the CRC Synod of 2007 made the final decision to permit women to be elders and pastors. As readers know who were following developments in the CRC, this decision culminated a decades-long effort on the part of some members of the CRC to include women in the special offices.
6. A Handbook of C.R.C. Issues, 1968-1978 (Grand Rapids, MI: Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, n.d.), p. 219.
7. This statement is originally found in Latin in Canon 1024 of Rome’s Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici). I quote from section 1577 of the 1994 English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), p. 447.