Women in Office

By now, virtually all within Reformed circles are aware of the action of the Christian Reformed Synod this past June in allowing women to serve in the office of deacon—and amending their Church Order that this could immediately be done. 

The whole of the decisions related to this question was confusing and even contradictory. The Synod first adopted a study-committee report which emphasized the Scriptural teaching of the headship of man. That was adopted, however, by a very slim margin. Many took this decision to mean that the deacon’s office would be kept closed to women. So it was reported in the news accounts. Tearful women were observed on Calvin’s campus who were themselves convinced that their cause had failed. 

Still, the very next day the same Synod adopted the motion to allow women to serve as deacons in the church. Though the offices of elder and minister remained closed to women, most were of the opinion that this would shortly change too in the C.R.C. 

The various church periodicals, as well as the local press, carried extensive accounts of the decision taken. Perhaps the account in the Presbyterian Journal, July 4, 1984, is as comprehensive and representative as any:

Women in the Christian Reformed Church may be elected to the office of deacon, but not to the office of ruling or teaching elder, following a series of sometimes confusing decisions here by the church’s Synod.

This year’s Synod has been seen by many throughout the church as a watershed, as some conservatives dug in their heels to prevent opening any offices to women while a small minority on the other side hoped for a crack in the dike which would open all offices.

Over three days, almost every crucial question was answered by a vote so close that as few as three delegates made the difference. 

Early in the discussion, conservatives seemed to have things going their direction as the CRC Synod approved 81-76 a statement that “the headship principle, which means that the man should exercise primary leadership and direction-setting in the home and in the church, is a Biblical teaching recognized in both the Old and New Testaments.” 

But the next day, by a more convincing voice vote which was not challenged, the Synod declared that there is insufficient Biblical evidence to say that the same headship principle is a creation norm. Therefore, said the CRC, the headship principle is not applicable to areas of life outside the home and the church. 

That statement backed off substantially from the main committee report which had supported a kind of universal male headship. 

Then, in still another vote which appeared to contradict the first position on headship, the Synod rejected 82-77 a statement that the first position excludes women from the offices of minister, elder, and evangelist. No one at this year’s Synod explicitly pushed to have these offices opened to women, but the reluctance to approve a statement of principle excluding that possibility was disturbing to many conservatives in the church.

The actual decision to open the office of deacon to women came on an 82-75 vote, but was qualified in several important ways. For one thing, in congregations where deacons sit regularly with elders in the church “consistory” (the CRC equivalent of a Presbyterisan session), such deacons are clearly forbidden to exercise “consistorial” authority. In many CRC congregations, the two bodies sit together in what is sometimes called the church “council,” and functions are at least blurred by the joint work. The Synod here asked churches, if they elect women as deacons, to keep the functions separate. 

Further, every CRC minister is guaranteed freedom of conscience in connection with the ordination of women as deacons. No minister may be required, under the new rules, to participate in such an ordination if he chooses not to do so. 

. . . Although the limits of this year’s action are clear, many in the church remain fearful that there will be a continuing effort to open the offices of elder and minister as well. “If that is the case,” says John Hultink, editor of Christian Renewal, a conservative CRC-tabloid in Ontario, “what happened here is the beginning of the disintegration of the Christian Reformed Church.” 

Those who believe all offices should be open to women, while thought to be a small minority, have hardly hidden their views. The Rev. Andrew Kuyvenhoven, editor of the official denominational magazine, the Banner, has written repeatedly in support of the wide open position, allowing minimal space in the magazine for the more widely held conservative viewpoint. “He acts more like a papal authority than an elected officer of a Protestant denomination,” complains Hultink. 

One reason for conservatives’ distress is a set of statistics published early last spring by the Banner indicating the grassroots support for women in all offices continues to grow in the CRC. “Naturally,” one layman told the Journal, asking not to be identified, “they control the magazine, the college, and the seminary. They can teach future members anything they want to.”

The president of this year’s Synod, Rev. Roger Van Harn, wrote in the Grand Rapids’ Press, Aug. 4, 1984, concerning his own impressions of this decision:

The students of tomorrow will find the conditions of today hard to imagine—just as it is hard for some of us to imagine the days when churches did not have microphones and did not need Sunday bulletins. 

The students will have grown up hearing men and women preach from their pulpits. They will have received the bread and wine of holy communion from male and female hands. They will have watched an offering plate move from a silver-haired deacon working one end of the pew to a nervous novice young enough to be her grandson working the other. 

The students will learn that for the first 35 years the CRC worshipped only in Dutch, for the first 70 years its members sang only psalms, and for the first 127 years they ordained only men. (And that the church for the 2000 years before this time, also only ordained men? G.V.B.) 

I am convinced the day is coming when men and women will serve together in all the offices in the Christian Reformed Church. 

My prophecy is not bold. For the last 10 years I have, been engaged—sometimes embroiled—in studies and discussions about women in church office. When I ask others if they believe that women will someday hold all the offices in this denomination, the answer is almost invariably, “Yes, it will come.” 

Some fear it and wonder how long it can be held back. Others hope it and wonder how the day can be hastened . . . .

Some already envision some practical problems which can arise. One writes in “Voices” in the Banner, July 16, 1984,

Choose four men for deacons, and choose four women for deaconesses, not related to any of the men. 

When you have consistory meetings until about eleven or twelve o’clock, or when the deacons and the deaconesses are sent out on missions, and a deaconess comes home to her husband, he can ask, “What man have you been out with tonight?” Also, when the deacon comes home to his wife, she can ask, “What woman have you been out with tonight?”

Outside of any possible practical problems which might arise, the more fundamental problems remain. Those who support the position of women in church office, usually are ready to admit that certain passages in the N.T. clearly forbid this. The passages are so clear, that they are forced to admit this. But the answer to the dilemma is that this teaching 4 is applicable only to that age of the apostles when the position of women was far different from what it is today. What was true then, was true for practical reasons—not for principle reasons. Therefore, because of changing situations today, we need no longer observe the requirements of Scripture on that point. 

Such interpretation, of course, is traced back to the CRC decision called “Report 44” treating of the infallibility of Scripture and setting forth principles of Biblical interpretation which allows for this presentation. 

Also, though many of our CRC brethren would deny it, much of this whole problem is traceable to 1924 and the adoption of Common Grace as church dogma. On the basis of the third point of Common Grace, the Spirit of God graciously works in the reprobate wicked so that they can produce works which are good and pleasing to God—though not a “saving” good. The women’s lib movement in our land ultimately must be regarded by some in the light of the “gracious” operation of the Spirit. It is reasoned that not all of this can be bad. Some is good: the fruit of common grace. There is reason, then, to join in such movement—and follow its principles within the church. The battle was lost in 1924—though the skirmishes continue even till today. 

I can join President Van Harn in predicting that shortly the office of teaching and ruling elder must be opened to the women as well. But I would go further. I can predict that these same arguments used to gain admittance of women to the office in church, can and will be used in future years to admit the practicing homosexual to these same offices. Some mainline denominations already are doing this. The condemnation of homosexuality in. Scripture can also then be said to be a “time-conditioned” command. And if God gives gifts and desire for the ministry to practicing homosexuals, it is His own indication that He would have them serve within His church. Why limit or restrict God-given gifts? 

In the meantime, one wonders what the “conservative” will now do. Their entire reaction to date resembles nothing so much as the action of the small boy to the neighborhood bully. As the bully approaches, the young boy draws a chalk mark on the sidewalk, declaring, “If you cross this line, I’ll knock your block off!” Then, as the bully crosses the line, the little boy backs up several feet and draws another line. He states the same warning—and observes the same response. Then: another line—and another response. The question is: which line is going to be the last one?