In a discussion that started with many references to the Holy Spirit at work, Synod 2006 adopted a compromise about women in ecclesiastical office that many delegates called illogical yet inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Synod 2006 voted to remove the word “male” from the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, theoretically allowing ordained women to serve in all the same assemblies as their male counterparts, including synod.
But in the same breath, the 186 male delegates declared that women may not be delegated to synod, the church’s broadest assembly, or serve as synodical deputies (synod’s representatives) at classis meetings. Removing women’s eligibility from serving as synodical deputies reverses a decision by Synod 2005 to allow it.
Synod also recommended that future synods take a seven-year “Sabbath rest” before revisiting the issue.
Rev. Peter Slofstra, Classis Quinte, told delegates he was both grateful and confused. “There is something illogical in the recommendation,” he said. “I’m going to bow tonight before the illogic of the Holy Spirit and do that in deference to the fruit of the Spirit, that fruit being patience. There are difficult arguments ahead for me in my classis, but for the unity of the church and the sake of the Spirit, I’m going to adapt to this recommendation.”
Rev. Paul De Vries, reporter for the advisory committee, said that the logical thing would have been for the committee to divide up and present cases for and against women being delegated to synod. “But that just might not be what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the church,” he said.
However, as the debate moved into its second hour, the spirit of unity began to wear thin.
Rev. James Blankespoor, Classis Grand Rapids East, wondered how the recommendation really changes anything, except that women would once again no longer serve as synodical deputies. “[This] might be a fine compromise if it were as simple as those in favor of women in office and those against,” he said. “But there is now a third group. That’s the group of women who are in office.”
Blankespoor, whose wife is a pastor, called the compromise direct oppression of a segment of pastors, elders, churches, and classes. “Let’s admit it,” he said. “We allow women in office within this denomination, but we don’t fully embrace them or even fully ordain them. We allow them to do sacraments and preach, we communicate that they are tolerated but not embraced. It discourages them and makes it that much harder to do what they have to do.”
Rev. George Vander Weit, also from Classis Grand Rapids East, said there was very little honorable about the recommendation. “This recommendation extends nothing to our sisters in Christ,” he said. “It takes something away that synod gave them. It’s a double insult.”
Rev. Al Gelder, Classis Atlantic Northeast, also spoke against the compromise. “I would just like to see this denomination, as it goes to its 150th anniversary, be able to say, ‘We are starting a new era; we are moving forward using the gifts of all God’s people—on the floor of synod and everywhere else,’” he said.
While delegates voted to take the word “male” out of the Church Order, subject to a future synod’s ratification, they chose not to enshrine the ban against women at synod in the Church Order. They chose instead to place that and the prohibition against women serving as synodical deputies in the Church Order supplement, a document more easily changed than the Church Order.
As the debate went on, several ordained women in the audience wept. Afterward, Rev. Elizabeth VanderHaagen, a pastor of Boston Square CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., said, “I think it’s a mistake, and I’m heartbroken. We have waited long enough.”
Rev. Rozanne Meyer Bruins, a chaplain in Grand Rapids, explained how sad she was that not one ordained woman had a voice in the debate. Rev. Erika Dekker, also a chaplain, said she had a hard time putting her feelings into words. “I’ve been called by God to serve in this capacity. This changes nothing day to day,” she said. “But there is such a disconnect.”
Rev. Thea Leunk, pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC, Grand Rapids, said she had very mixed emotions. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. “Having the word male out of the Church Order is marvelous on the one hand, but we’ve had something taken away on the other.”
Leunk had already been selected by Classis Grand Rapids East to be a synodical deputy. When synod ratified those appointments the following day, it declared an exception to allow her to serve her term in that position.
Rev. Mary Hulst, a former pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC, was much more upbeat about the whole thing. “This is significant stuff,” she said. “We took the word male out of the Curch Order! We have to be grateful for that.”>
CRC’s Current Stance on Women in Ordained Office
Currently Article 3 of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church states that confessing male members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the offices of minister, elder, and ministry associate.
In 1995, synod declared that a Reformed interpretation of Scripture on this issue can lead to different views. It also created a local option, allowing churches and classes that so desired to declare the word male in Article 3 inoperative, thus allowing women to serve in those offices.
Synod 2000 added a panel of women advisers to synod’s deliberations, without allowing women to be delegated to synod.
Synod 2005 allowed women to serve as synodical deputies, who represent synod at meetings of classes (regional groups of Christian Reformed churches).
- Can a compromise decision be both “illogical” and “inspired by the Holy Spirit”? Can you give instances from Scripture where this seems to have been the case? Could this be the case with respect to this issue?
- Is it illogical to drop the prohibition on female pastors and elders in the Church Order but then bar female officebearers from being delegated to synod or serving as synodical deputies?
- Who gets hurt by the present CRC policy with respect to women in office? Women within the CRC in general? Women pastors? Those who believe the Bible forbids women to serve in these capacities? Others? All of the above?
- Is this a matter of conscience for both those who believe the Bible forbids women’s ordination as well as those who believe the Bible requires it? How should we proceed?
- Can we live with synod’s compromise? Should we take a Sabbath on this issue and let it rest for seven years?
- How do you respond personally to synod’s decision? Read Galatians 5:22-26. How does Paul’s urging to exercise the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23) mesh with his exhortation to “keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25)?
About the Author
Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.