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Synod wrestled again and again and again with differing positions on what the Bible says about women. In the end, the constellation of adopted positions cannot be described as either complementarian or egalitarian.

About a year ago, a young couple approached me asking whether the Christian Reformed Church is “comp” or “egal.” To clarify, “comp” and “egal” are shortened forms of the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian,” words used to describe different beliefs about what the Bible teaches about women. This couple was looking for a church home and wanted to make sure that the faith community they joined aligned with their understanding of Scripture and their values.

It’s not uncommon to hear Christians today use the terms “complementarian” or “egalitarian” to describe churches, seminaries, authors, conferences, denominations, organizations, and networks, splitting the Christian world into two opposing camps divided by their beliefs about women. But where does the CRC fit into this theological landscape? Recent communications and overtures to synod have referred to the two perspectives affirmed by the CRC on women in church office as complementarian and egalitarian. But can the decisions of synod be faithfully captured with these terms? Not exactly.

Defining Terms

The term “complementarian” was first coined in 1988 as shorthand for the beliefs articulated in The Danvers Statement. The Danvers Statement is a document drafted by a group of conservative evangelical theologians to describe their understanding of the biblical teachings about men and women. Their concern was what they perceived to be an accommodation of Christianity to the spirit of the age and modern feminism. In response, they published a document outlining their conviction that the Bible teaches that though men and women are equal before God, they have different roles in the church, society, and home. In the home, men are to exercise leadership and authority over their wives while wives are to submit to their husbands. This principle of male headship extends to the church, where ecclesiastical roles that involve leadership and authority (preaching, teaching, and church leadership) are to be limited to men. Furthermore, subtly implied in the Danvers Statement but made explicit in other writings, the authors claim that the husband’s divinely ordained responsibility is to provide for his wife and that the wife’s divinely ordained responsibility is to care for the home and children. In other words, “complementarian” refers to a belief that God ordained from the beginning and for all time different roles for men and women characterized by differences in authority and in spheres of responsibility. Men are to lead; women are to submit. Men are primarily to provide for their households; women are to manage their households.

While “complementarian” is a relatively new term, the word “egalitarian” began showing up in political and philosophical works in the late 1700s to describe a belief that all people are created equal and that this equality should be reflected in equal rights and opportunities. While the term has been associated with equal rights for women, its use in social and political circles is much broader, targeting any and all inequalities between people as a result of race, class, gender, and (dis)ability.

In the 1970s, some biblical scholars and theologians began using the term “egalitarian” with some regularity to describe Jesus’ or Paul’s treatment of women or the biblical teaching about marriage. The association of the term with female equality grew, and by the 1980s, the term came to be used in Christian circles to refer almost exclusively to the belief that the Bible supports the full equality of the sexes. Christians for Biblical Equality, for instance, describes itself as the world’s largest egalitarian organization. Their mission is rooted in the belief that “the Bible teaches that women and men are equally created in God’s image for shared governance in all spheres.”

According to CBE’s foundational statement, men and women are created for full and equal partnership in the home and are to defer to each other, seeking to build each other up. Roles within the church are determined not by gender, but by giftedness, recognizing that the Spirit has poured out spiritual gifts on men and women alike. In terms of spheres of responsibility, men and women share jointly in having dominion over the created order and thus are free to explore the best use of their gifts and competencies both in and outside the home.

CBE’s foundational statement goes on to state that gender inequality exists between men and women not because God ordained it to be so, but because of the fall into sin. In other words, the disparity that exists in the opportunities and expectations given to men and women is a reflection of brokenness in the world, not God’s intention for women and men. In Christ, all things are made new, and by grace through faith, women as well as men are restored in their relationships with God and with each other, freed from the burden of sin and patriarchy. For CBE, the larger definition of “egalitarian” as equal rights and opportunities for all people is woven throughout its foundational statement.

Still, in Christian circles today, the term is typically used in a more limited sense to refer to beliefs about men and women.

The Conversation in the CRC

Almost two decades before the Danvers Statement was penned and CBE formed, the Christian Reformed Church began a conversation on biblical teachings about men and women. In 1970, synod appointed a study committee “to examine the Reformed practice of excluding women from ecclesiastical office.” The discussion took place at the request of the CRC delegates to the Reformed Ecumencial Synod (now known as the Reformed Ecumenical Council). They believed the CRC should clarify its own position on this matter so they could “play a responsible role” in the conversation unfolding within the RES.

Since 1973, CRC synods appointed 10 different study committees to explore various aspects of the issue of women’s roles in the church and at home, having the issue come up at no fewer than 40 synods. Buried in these study reports from the past 50 years is a stunning amount of excellent biblical interpretation and theological reflection on what the Bible says about women. Unlike the drafters of the Danvers Statement, however, the synods did not approach the question about biblical manhood and womanhood in a comprehensive way. Instead, over the years, the synods adopted various statements addressing issues related to women’s roles in the church as questions arose.

In 1973, for instance, synod’s focus was what the Bible says about women serving in ecclesiastical office. By 1978, the conversation narrowed to address the possibility of women serving as deacons. This decision was deferred, giving way to a broader study of male headship in Scripture and its implications for women in marriage and in the church. In 1984, synod adopted a statement that defined male headship in marriage as a direction-setting role that is to be exercised by husbands in self-sacrificial ways that build up their wives as Christ built up the church. Synod 1984 also gave churches permission to ordain qualified women to the office of deacon.

A second study committee was appointed by Synod 1987 to discern the implications of male headship in marriage for women’s roles in the church. Reporting to Synod 1990, this second study committee noted that no biblical or confessional grounds had been established for extending the headship principle from marriage to the church and that no synod had affirmed this application of headship. Furthermore, it noted that the affirmations about male headship in marriage made by Synod 1984 are themselves subject to debate and thus were not a promising foundation for developing a theology of women in the church. As such, it invited synod to set aside the conversation about male headship and reconsider the matter of women in ecclesiastical office.

In response, Synod 1990 decided to permit churches to use their own discretion in deciding whether to use the gifts of women members in all offices of the church on the grounds that years of biblical study of this issue had not provided definitive evidence that biblical teaching is opposed to the ordination of women to any church office.

Over the 50 years of discussing the nature and role of women, synod tabled, defeated, and adopted numerous statements and decisions that are worth noting. Synod 1984, for instance, resisted defining headship in terms of authority and power over one’s spouse, preferring instead the notion of direction-setting and self-sacrificing love. Additionally, Synod 1984 and Synod 1990 affirmed that there is insufficient biblical grounds for extending a headship principle beyond the home to the church or to society in general. Finally, Synod 1990 urged the churches to recognize that the issue of women’s roles in the church is not one of salvation and that even in our differences we remain sisters and brothers in Christ.

In 1995, synod ultimately concluded that “there are two different perspectives and convictions, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible word of God, on the issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the offices of elder, minister, and evangelist.” Twenty years later, Synod 2005 affirmed that “churches ought to make use of the gifts of women, including invitations to ordained women to preach and licensed women to exhort in those congregations where it is permitted.”

Just as telling as the statements of what synod has affirmed are the statements and resolutions that were not approved over the years. For example, Synod 1984 rejected statements proposed in overtures and by advisory committees that described male headship as a creation norm and God’s intention for male-female relationships from the beginning. Synod also did not adopt statements that claim that the man should exercise primary leadership and direction-setting in the home, in the church, and in society in general. Additionally, synod did not approve the statement “that God gave woman to be man’s fitting helper for the whole of human life, and that she should render her service and exercise her gifts in a way which acknowledges the headship of the man” (Acts of Synod 1984, p. 624).

A Way Forward?

The statements that were adopted or defeated were the subject of robust and at times heated debate. Synod wrestled again and again and again with differing positions on what the Bible says about women. In the end, the constellation of adopted positions cannot be described as either complementarian or egalitarian.

Instead, what synod has affirmed is that there are two perspectives and convictions that honor the Scriptures as the infallible word of God on whether women may hold ecclesiastical office. Synod did not affirm male headship as a creation norm or the notion that men and women have fundamentally different roles in church, home, and society. Neither did synod explicitly affirm an egalitarian position, particularly with respect to marriage. Different from the positions of other institutions that claim to be complementarian or egalitarian, synod’s statements, and thus the CRC’s position, are characterized not just by nuance, but by reserve and restraint, resisting declaring more than can be supported clearly by the Scriptures or more than is needed to provide direction to the church. Beyond that, the CRC has sought to pitch a large tent that can hold a variety of perspectives on the issue of women, affirming neither the complementarian nor the egalitarian position, but creating room for those who identify with either of these positions and anywhere in between.

Not everyone is happy with this approach. It is challenging for those who don’t believe women should hold positions of leadership in the church to be seated at larger assemblies with ordained women. It's also incredibly hard and painful for women in leadership to know that there are people in the room who don’t think they should be there. But there is a kind of righteousness and holiness in this willingness to sit together in the discomfort of disagreement, to have humility about our interpretations of Scripture, and to hold our deepest convictions with enough grace that we can be in relationship with those who think differently. In a polarized world where people prefer to retreat into their own echo chambers, being willing to continue the journey together, to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ even in the face of disagreement, is a gift and a testimony to the work of the Spirit among us.

Discussion Questions

  1. How have you understood the theological terms “complementarianism” and “egalitarianism”?
  2. Are you surprised to read that the Christian Reformed Church’s official position “cannot be described as either complementarian or egalitarian”? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian Reformed Church’s approach of pitching “a large tent that can hold a variety of perspectives on the issue of women”?
  4. What steps or attitudes do we need to “hold our deepest convictions with enough grace that we can be in relationship with those who think differently”?

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