Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Annual church assemblies give rise to public discussion on controversial issues. As the readers of the Standard Bearerknow well, women in office is such an issue. This year is no exception.
Turning to the annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church, we learn that this issue has probably reached its climax with the inclusion of women delegates to synod and the election of one of these women delegates to serve as the vice-president of synod. True, they still await a woman president, and that seems likely to come in its own time.
The Grand Rapids Press has a way of dramatizing these events. In the Saturday, June 14, 2008 copy, Religion Editor Charles Honey writes:
Following the Christian Reformed Church annual meeting of 2006, the Rev. Thea Leunk lingered in the audience after a four-hour debate about women’s role in the CRC. She sounded discouraged after what, for her, was yet another disappointing decision.
Delegates to the CRC Synod had voted to remove the word ‘male’ as a requirement for being a minister or elder. But they also maintained a ban on women serving in the Synod—the CRC’s highest rule-making body.
“I’ve been living with this my entire adult life,” Leunk said. “How long do I have to wait?”
Only two years, it turned out.
Today, Leunk is to take her place among delegates in a Synod that includes women for the first time in the CRC’s 151-year history.
She will be among 26 women delegates who, with 162 men, will vote on church issues over the coming week.
After a lifetime of waiting as the CRC battled over the women’s issue, the pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC finds the occasion a bit daunting.
“It’s going to be scary,” Leunk admitted. “We all sense we’re going to be very carefully watched and scrutinized. We don’t want to appear ridiculous or not up to snuff, not the right caliber of delegate that the guys are.”
But her apprehension will be trumped by a more powerful feeling: she added, “More than anything else, it will be gratitude that we are finally here, and a sense of rightness that we belong here.”
Then the next day the same writer continues to report:
With one remarkably swift vote, the Christian Reformed Church made history Saturday by electing a woman as vice-president of its annual meeting.
The Rev. Thea Leunk, pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, was elected after finishing second in the vote for president on opening day of the CRC Synod meeting at Calvin College. The Rev. Joel Boot, of Georgetown Township, was chosen president.
Applause greeted Leunk’s election by a Synod that includes female delegates for the first time in the CRC’s 151-year history.
Some saw the vote as synod’s way of celebrating the breakthrough after a nearly 40-year battle for women’s full clergy rights.
Leunk pointed the spotlight away from herself, emphasizing her role as one of four officers heading up the weeklong meeting. The Rev. Leslie Kuiper of Wisconsin and the Rev. Laryn Zoerhof of Indiana were elected clerks.
“It’s an honor and it’s a trust more than anything else,” Leunk said following the 10:05 a.m. vote at Calvin Fine Arts Center. “All of us as officers are hoping we can live up to that trust, that’s been placed in us to lead the Synod well.”
But her smile spoke of a sea change in the CRC.
“Based on the people who have come up to me, it’s a day of celebration,” said Leunk, who has served on numerous CRC boards and as a Synod deputy at regional meetings.
Sylvia Hugen, a longtime advocate for women in office, found her eyes brimming with tears after the vote. ]
“It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” said Hugen, 73, a member of Leunk’s congregation.
“I’m ecstatic. This is something we waited for.”
Boot, a third-time president, recognized the moment’s import in his remarks to more than 180 delegates, 26 of them women.
“Sisters and brothers,” said Boot, his voice quavering. “It’s been a long time in coming, that phrase, and this is a historic occasion. I consider it a distinct honor and privilege to be part of it.”
It was the first time in memory that a first-time delegate was elected president or vice-president.
“I would suspect that would be a rarity, if it ever did happen,” said the Rev. Henry De Moor, a church policy expert.
For women like Carol Rottman, simply stepping onto the Synod floor was a first. One of four female delegates from Classis Grand Rapids East, she gazed at her delegate’s seat with wonder.
“There always has been that barrier out there,” said Rottman, 69, who fought for female clergy since 1975. “Now to be here with a place that’s all for me, with my name….”
For the CRC, she added, “It’s coming to the 21st century, living less in the past and more in the future.”
The future looks less promising to those who oppose women clergy on biblical grounds. Kuiper, the Synod clerk, called the meeting, “difficult for me” but promised to cooperate with Leunk and other women.
“I know that we’ll work together and work with respect,” Kuiper said.
A Byron Township pastor said he does not oppose female clergy, but worried female delegates will reduce already weak male leadership in a “feminized” church.
“My concern is the men are sitting back and the women want to be more at the power centers of the church,” said the Rev. Steven Elzinga, of Pathway Ministries. “Eventually, what are the men going to do? Are they going to be sitting back even more?”
But for most, Synod’s opening day had the buzz of history being made. From female delegates saying “here” during roll call to men’s and women’s voices blending in stirring hymns, it was a new day for the CRC, many said.
“What Synod experienced today was a desire to work together and come together,” Leunk said. “I sense a willingness to say, ‘Let’s find ways to make this work.'”
The Reformed Church of America did the CRC one better. They elected their first woman president of Synod. I quote from the RCA web page:
The Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel, General Synod vice president, was elected president by the synod at its meeting Monday afternoon.
In her opening speech to delegates, as General Synod president-elect, Bechtel said, “Help me to understand your joys and your challenges, and I will do my best to listen and learn and love.”
Bechtel is professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary and attends Hope Church in Holland, Michigan. She has served on the Commission on Christian Worship and as General Synod professor of theology; she preaches and teaches widely and has published several books and Bible studies.
Bechtel told delegates that in her presidential year, she would focus on education, worship, and reconciliation. “I count it all joy to serve God and you in this way,” she said.
As a note of clarification: the RCA considers their President of the General Synod an annual position. This is different from most Reformed churches, which treat the offices of synod as positions of service during the actual meetings of synod, and when synod is finished the office also ends. Also, the RCA did have women functioning as president of synod before, but they did so in the capacity of elder delegates. This is the first year a woman pastor was elected to fill this office.
The RCA also elected an Afro-American pastor from New York, the Rev. James Seawood, as vice-president. This was not the first time for this. About 20 years ago the RCA elected their first. The unique combination of a woman president and a black vice-president occasioned many a comparison to Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. In the RCA it was called “engaging our multiracial at the top.” There was some nasty exchange in the public pulse. What offended the Religion Editor in the GR Press was this:
What is troubling is their equating overdue cultural change with political expediency. Please. If you take your Bible seriously, why would you hammer the church for seriously trying to serve, and be served by, people of every tribe, tongue, and yes, gender? Of course, anyone holding church office, whether president or pastor, should be fully qualified to do so. But, certainly, it’s a plus if that person enriches the church with new perspectives and expressions of faith by virtue of what they have experienced differently from white guys like me.
In contrast to the CRC and the RCA is a report from the PCA, the Presbyterian Church of America.
A little background information may be helpful. You may know that last year, 2007, the PCA decided “to terminate our recognition of the Christian Reformed Church as a church in ecclesiastical fellowship immediately.” This was in response to the CRC decision to allow women in office. The PCA bans the ordination of women to any office, but allows churches to appoint women to assist the male deacons, and permits them to be called “deaconesses.” The OPC, last year, likewise broke off ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC over the women in office issue.
This year the PCA faced the women in office from within their own churches. I quote from their web page:
GENERAL ASSEMBLY REJECTS DEACONESS STUDY COMMITTEE
On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, the PCA’s General Assembly voted to reject an overture that recommended forming a study committee to discuss the issue of women deacons.
“This is not a new area of study,” said Fred Greco, who served as the chair of the Overtures Committee, which recommended that the General Assembly dismiss the deaconess overture. “There is plenty of existing material on the subject, and our Book of Church Order is clear (that ordained church officers are to be men).”
Greco also expressed concern that further study of this issue would polarize advocates on either side—causing deepening division in the church.
Bryan Chapell, who presented the minority report on this issue, disagreed.
“We have to listen to one another,” said Chapell, who serves as president of Covenant Theological Seminary. “We have to be willing to talk about difficult things without fear of demoralizing the church. We must get people together in the same room to talk about difficult issues in an atmosphere that’s not highly charged.”
The minority report recommended that a committee comprised of theologians on both sides of the issue—including Tim Keller, Phil Ryken, Ligon Duncan, and Jimmy Agan—meet together over the coming year to come to a Scriptural understanding of deaconesses. After an hour of debate and multiple motions from the floor, the minority report was eventually defeated.
Fred Greco urged continued discussion about this issue, but at the local level. “We recommend that the church address these issues constitutionally, through presbyteries working in a local context and raising up amendments for General Assembly. There are venues for this discussion to take place in a less confrontational, more grassroots way.”
During the debate on the floor, a number of commissioners spoke to those in the minority, especially the rising generation of PCA leaders.
“We need to celebrate the young men who want to dive into the PCA and study these issues,” said Mike Khandijan of Chapelgate Presbyterian in Maryland.
“It’s not the issue before us, but how we deal with the issue before us,” said Joe Novenson of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian in Tennessee. “That’s part of the Reformed tradition, and how we have addressed issues in the past.”
And another pastor spoke directly to women, “There’s much we need to do—we’re failing to love fully half of the body of Christ,” said Jonathan Inman, pastor of Grace and Peace PCA in Asheville, N.C. “I’m sorry for the ways the church has offended women and often been unaware of it.”
In the end, a majority of the Assembly voted to follow the recommendation of the Overtures Committee, comprised of 80 ruling and teaching elders, who debated the overture for five and a half hours on Tuesday before making their recommendation to answer Overture 9 in the negative. (Overture 9, submitted by the Philadelphia Presbytery, recommended that the General Assembly “erect a study committee on deaconesses” to determine whether the election of women to the office of deacon is contrary to the Book of the Church Order, and to determine more clearly the role of women in diaconal ministry.)
A number of things come to mind as to how we react to this annual confrontation within churches over women in office.
One thing is that it is rather staggering how persistent the advocates of women in office are. There are all sorts of reasons for this, of course, but one conclusion is clear, they will not stop until they accomplish their goal of having women in office. Even though the PCA stands strong in rejecting women in office today, and we thank God for that, it is discouraging to read of the presence of opposition and the lack of effort to convince each other that it is wrong. The deliberation seems to go in the direction of how to talk it out; and, if history speaks, the more talking advocates of women in office do, the more influence they have. Talking and discussion are not the answer, careful study of God’s Word and allowing the Holy Spirit to work is crucial for a solution.
A definite pattern arises when you study the history of the struggle of the place of women in the church. The GR Press made a telling timeline of the CRC. 1927—Johanna Timmer appointed to faculty of Calvin College, later director of Kuiper College; 1933—Johanna Veenstra dies from appendectomy while serving as pioneer missionary in Nigeria; 1957—Women allowed to vote on budgets and other local church issues (at congregational meetings); 1973—Synod gets 80-page report on women in office, defers action; 1977—Committee for Women in CRC is launched to advocate women’s ordination through voices of Joan Flikkema, Carol Rottman, and others; 1978—Synod enables women to become ordained deacons; 1978—Marchiene Rienstra, graduate of Calvin Seminary, applies for ordination as minister but is denied (she leaves the CRC and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church); 1979—Synod repeals its 1978 decision about female deacons; 1984—Synod reinstates female deacons; 1990—by a 99-84 vote after 8 hours of debate, Synod enables women to become ordained elders and ministers; 1992—Synod reverses 1990 decision about female elders and ministers; 1995—following more reversals in 1993 and 1994, Synod reinstates women elders and deacons; 1996—Ruth Hofman, pastor of First Toronto CRC becomes first woman ordained minister; 1996—Mary Hulst, pastor of Eastern Ave CRC becomes first woman ordained minister in USA; 2007—Synod ratifies 2006 decision to remove word “male” from requirements for office, and enables women to serve as delegates to Synod.
Did you observe the progression; women in missions—women at congregational meetings—women deacons—women elders and ministers—women at Synod?
Interviews recorded by Press reporters of those men and women who advocate women in office focus entirely on women’s gifts, equality of the sexes, changing times, and most of all hermeneutical practices that allow for biblical interpretation that contradicts the clear and simple reading of the text. Opponents cry in tears that the Bible gives authority in the church to the man and forbids it to the woman. It means nothing to advocates for women in office because their method of interpreting the Bible allows for it. This makes them so persistent and convinced. They have an allegiance to the Bible, and they are convinced that their interpretation of the Bible not only allows for but calls for women in office. This makes one tremble in holy anger because they pass off the lie for the truth, and in the name of faithfulness to the Bible introduce into the church evil practices. Ultimately this is blindness from above. It is God’s judgment upon unfaithful church leaders.
At the same time, it makes us grieve. God’s Word is the product of the Holy Spirit, His gift to the church. Nothing grieves the Holy Spirit more than to see the church distort His Word and turn the truth into the lie. It is Satan’s ultimate victory. We take our cue from the Spirit of God. We do not gloat in the apostasy of any church. We grieve with the Spirit. We pray for repentance and turning from evil. We rejoice with those who have the courage to stand for the truth against all opposition, even to the point of forsaking an unfaithful church.
We must dedicate ourselves to the Spirit’s work. While some distort the Bible, we must concentrate more faithfully on interpreting the Word of God in agreement with the Holy Spirit’s purpose. Not only that, we must with great courage and zeal declare the gospel from our pulpits and in our mission fields. We men who are called to office must be filled with passion and a burden for the souls and well-being of men and women. This includes encouraging our godly sisters, who have a wonderful place of service within the family of God, apart from the office of minister, elder, or deacon.
The Holy Spirit works within the order He has ordained. That is His promise and our motive to obey.