The Christian Reformed Church continues on its dangerous journey. The synod that marked our 150th anniversary was yet another that signaled that this denomination is in grave danger.
This is not a new development. The truth is that this denomination and others that seek to express the biblical teaching about what the church should be are always in great danger.
The powers of the underworld concentrate on the church; they always have, and they will until the final tribulation is cut short to protect God’s elect. The devil, described in the Bible as a lion on the hunt, has little reason to attack those who are already his victims. Denominations like the Christian Reformed Church are Satan’s prey. He works at destroying them. And he is good at it.
When we think about this danger, we are not thinking about the organizational structures that constitute the CRC. There is nothing sacrosanct about these structures—they often change and sometimes should. Boards, committees, and agencies that accomplish assigned missions are occasional structures, designed to accomplish certain tasks.
The danger that has dogged the path of the CRC since it struggled into independent existence a century and a half ago has to do with the fragility of its soul. A denomination has no right to exist if it loses its soul, no matter what else it may gain.
The soul of a church depends on its attachment to the Son of God. It must be attached to Jesus Christ as a child in the womb is attached to her mother. The cord that nourishes it is woven of two divine realities: the Spirit-inspired Bible and the Holy Spirit himself.
From this two-fold cord, the church receives its message and the supernatural power that enables its worship and impels its mission. And, as often happens in a living church, there were events in June that brought this church to the edge of danger because they had implications for the way the denomination receives life from this holy source.
Such critical moments in a denomination’s life will strengthen it if recognized for what they are. If the danger is not recognized, a church can start a fatal plunge into a sea of error.
The incendiary issue at the sesquicentennial synod was that of the ordination of women to church office. Coming as it did after 37 years of intense attention and widespread interest, this issue became the centerpiece of synod’s work.
That the matter was settled as amicably as it was, was remarkable. Delegates could not escape the conclusion that the Holy Spirit was with them in a wonderful way. And the Holy Spirit’s presence was specifically related to Jesus’ prayer for his church’s unity just prior to his crucifixion; two meditations on Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17—one as synod opened, the other as it ended—became the bookends for all that happened.
There are fault lines in the Christian Reformed Church that threaten it with fragmentation, but the delegates at this synod were united in their determination, by God’s grace, to keep further fragmentation from occurring. The manner in which the issue was resolved was good and also dangerous.
What happened was that the word male was removed from Article 3 of our Church Order. Previously the article had read, “All male confessing members who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of minister, elder, deacon, and ministry associate.”
Though the church removed the word male, it recognized that many of its members do not believe that the Bible authorizes the ordination of women. Rather, these members continue to believe that the “biblical requirements” mentioned in Article 3 have a gender component. The current form of the article does not require them to surrender this conviction.
And synod made clear that there should be mutual respect between those who hold opposing views. It made provision for churches that oppose the ordination of women to have a regular place in the church’s life without penalty and without prejudice. It also indicated that if they so desire such churches could migrate to classes where their convictions are honored. In other words, synod went out of its way to create ample space for those who are not persuaded that the ordination of women to church office is supported by Scripture.
This is not the usual way denominational controversies conclude. When two groups within a denomination who hold differing positions on an issue as important as this seek to make arrangements for one another’s comfort, something historic is happening. Usually denominational gender wars are settled when one side has a clear-cut victory and the victors impose their position on the rest of the church. What was it last June that caused the CRC to turn away from such behavior?
Well, something happened in 1995 that made this possible. Then synod declared that, using accepted Reformed principles of biblical interpretation, it is possible to arrive at two conflicting positions: women may be ordained to ecclesiastical office and women may not be so ordained.
This decision is easy to ridicule. For one thing, it appears absurd: nothing can be both “for” and “against” at the same time. But the decision did not declare that both positions are true; it said only that using accepted principles of biblical interpretation, you could conclude one or the other.
The biblical interpretation issue—the hermeneutical issue—is huge, and this is not the place to address it. But it is worthwhile to observe that the 1995 synodical decision provided a useful service. Whatever its faults, it recognized that a church the size of the CRC, with a biblically literate and theologically aware membership, will, at any given moment, have members who hold different convictions on several biblical and doctrinal subjects.
The simple way to resolve the women’s ordination issue is for the vanquished to leave and join another church body or start a new church. But this solution ignores Jesus’ prayer to his Father in heaven, just before the nails tore his flesh, the prayer for the oneness of his people. In this prayer Jesus connects the oneness of the three persons in the Trinity with the oneness of God’s people. And surely when he prayed that prayer he knew that God’s people would not always agree on everything.
Delegates to Synod 2007 understood the necessity to avoid further fragmentation of the body of the Lord. This is laudable. But as we praise, we must remember that the journey we share is a dangerous one because of Satan’s skills. For Satan there is no combat-free zone; he continues to keep this church in the crosshairs of his weaponry.
There is a feminist theology that is more powerful than theological liberalism—it can wreak deadly havoc as it separates churches from the Holy Spirit’s written work, the Scriptures. Justification for the ordination of women based on this theology is a virus that must be opposed by all who value the biblical testimony. As we work together, we must purify our ideas and our motivations.
It is to be hoped that, as the adversarial element within the church diminishes, there will be valuable discussion of both sides of this issue. For too long the church has ignored biblical studies that present a strong case against the ordination of women. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (cbmw.org), for example, has seldom been acknowledged within the church; many Christian Reformed pastors are not even aware the organization exists.
So we continue our dangerous journey, and we continue it together. Let there be new courage now. Let there be the death of bitterness and cynicism. And may it be that many who are seeking to know God and Christ, God’s Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit will find the very unity of this church a message that tells them something about our God who is a Trinity.
Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! One God, and we are his people.