Synods and General Assemblies: Christian Reformed Church (part 1)
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Women-in-Office Issue Continues to Cause Division in the CRC
The 2013 Synod of the CRC received an overture from two congregations requesting permission to form a new classis. The congregations desired to form a classis made up of congregations that share the conviction that the ordination and installation of women into church office are unbiblical. In response to this overture the synod made three decisions. These decisions demonstrate that the CRC continues to be troubled by deep divisions over women’s ordination. What follows are the three decisions with their grounds and my response.
That synod not accede to Overtures 3 and 4, requesting an affinity classis [a classis where the congregations share the conviction that women’s ordination is unbiblical].
The creation of a separate classis based upon and restricted to a single theological conviction will create a fixed uniformity that runs contrary to biblical principles and practices of unity in the CRC (1 Cor. 12:12-31).
This is consistent with the past decision of synod not to accede to the “formation of a classis based on theological affinity” (Acts of Synod 1996, Article 76, C, 4, p. 561).
The creation of such a classis may address the issues of conscience and the discomfort of protesting the presence of women officebearers at the classical level, but this does not resolve those same issues at the synodical level.
The key to understanding this decision and its grounds is the CRC's understanding of the women-in-office issue as an issue "of conscience." The CRC refuses to view the women-in-office issue as an “either or” issue—either the Bible forbids women in office or it doesn't. Rather, the CRC maintains women-in-office is a “both and”issue—scripture can legitimately be interpreted both against and in favor of women's ordination. The CRC refuses to grant, therefore, that opposition to women in office is grounded on the correct interpretation of scripture. The opposition to women in office cannot claim that the issue is a matter of faithfulness to the Bible. Both sides are faithful to scripture. Both sides ought to be able to accept that the other side is holding to a correct interpretation of scripture. If an opponent to women's ordination cannot accept the other view, his objection cannot be based on scripture but is merely a matter of an overly sensitive conscience.
The CRC is committed to the idea that people who fall on both sides of the issue should be able to live together in harmony in the same congregation, classis, and denomination. Does that mean that those who are in favor of women's ordination should be silent and happily accept a situation in which their congregation won't ordain women, that they should be silent and happily accept that classis and synod won't allow women delegates? No, it means that those who are opposed to women in office should be silent and happily remain members when their congregation installs women office bearers, and be silent and happy when women delegates show up at classis and synod. Even if you are convinced that it is contrary to scripture, the conservatives are told, you shouldn't have a problem if it is a woman who hands you the collection plate, administers to you the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or stands before you in the pulpit.
This thinking is the basis of the CRC's refusal to allow the formation of a classis that is made up of churches opposed to women in office. Those churches should not have any problem enjoying unity with churches that practice women's ordination.
It is noteworthy that the CRC admits in this decision that it does not believe unity requires uniformity of "theological conviction." This is an admission that the CRC believes that unity can be enjoyed without agreement on the truth. There is a difference between unity and uniformity. Absolute uniformity means sameness in all things. Absolute uniformity is not necessary for unity. For example unity does not require the same ethnicity, gender, etc. But in one area there is a need for uniformity—that is in the area of the truth. Of course it is true there is freedom to interpret scripture in different ways where the meaning is not clear to us (although our interpretation must always be in harmony with our Reformed confessions). But where scripture's teaching is clear there must be uniformity of conviction. And scripture's clear condemnation of women in office means that there is only unity when there is a uniformity of conviction that women's ordination is unbiblical.
The CRC's contention that unity is possible when there is disagreement on the issue of women's ordination is wrong. The congregations that want uniformity of conviction in the classis that women’s ordination is unbiblical are correct.
However, in ground "c" above, the CRC synod demonstrates a grave and embarrassing error in the thinking of the two congregations that requested the formation of a new classis. Synod made a very keen insight when it said, "The creation of such a classis may address the issues of conscience and the discomfort of protesting the presence of women officebearers at the classical level, but this does not resolve those same issues at the synodical level." This ground rightly argues that the formation of an "affinity classis" will not change the fact that these congregations will have to live in a denomination that does not share its theological convictions. Thus the synod exposes the shortsighted thinking of those who are opposed to women's ordination yet remain in the CRC. For years they have wanted theological agreement (read unity) in their own congregations with regard to women’s ordination—perhaps we can call them “affinity congregations.” Now they want theological agreement on this issue in the classis—an “affinity classis.” From a classis where they do not have this affinity they are ready to withdraw! But what about an “affinity denomination?” Obviously they are not so concerned about denominational unity. From a denomination that promotes the unbiblical practice of women’s ordination, in which they do not have unity with many congregations and classes, they will not withdraw! The CRC's decision implies, and rightly so, that any congregation that is willing to live in a denomination that accepts women in office ought also to be willing to live in a classis that accepts women in office. Indeed these congregations should even be willing to live with women office bearers in their own church.
The synod's thinking in ground c is correct. The only way to escape the wicked practice of women's ordination is to withdraw from the Christian Reformed denomination. And anyone who is willing to stay in the CRC (thereby accepting women in office on a denominational level) should drop the issue and allow women's ordination everywhere, including in their own congregations. There is no unity or peace available in the CRC for those who oppose women’s ordination.
That synod grant Trinity CRC in Sparta, Michigan, and Second CRC in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the option to move to the classis in closest proximity that is willing to receive them and which they are willing to join.
After Synod 2010 did not accede to the overture to allow the move to Classis Minnkota, these churches exhaustively explored geographically closer options. They have satisfied Synod 2010’s concern that they explore classes of closer proximity.
In view of the diligent efforts of these two churches, the desire of their classes to help them move forward, and the desire of these churches to end the hurt and tension within their classes, this decision offers grace into this reality.
This is consistent with the synodical precedent that allows the transfer of churches to another classis (see Acts of Synod 1995, 2000, 2006, 2007).
In this decision the synod admits that there is “hurt and tension” in the classes because of the disagreement over the issue of women in office. There is no unity and peace between the congregations who are on opposite sides of the issue. Yet the synod refuses to acknowledge that the issue needs to be decisively decided one way or the other. So the synod has made a pragmatic decision. Since these two recalcitrant congregations find it difficult to live in a classis where women’s ordination is accepted, synod will let them join other classes, even if they won’t allow them to form a new one.
The obvious irony is that although the CRC won’t allow the creation of a so-called “affinity classis” such classes already exist in the CRC. There is added irony when one considers that it was the 1995 synod that encouraged the creation of “affinity classes.” That synod gave to each classis the right to declare the word male “inoperative” in the church order article that speaks of the qualifications for officebearers. That decision made every classis in the CRC an “affinity classis.” After each classis made a decision to drop or keep the word male, the CRC was made up of what we could call A and B classes. The congregations in the A classes agree (affinity) that women may not be ordained. The congregations in the B classes agree (affinity) to allow and practice women’s ordination. Having created a situation in which there are A and B classes, the CRC has decided it won’t allow the creation of a new A classis, but it will begrudgingly allow two congregations in B classes to move to A classes.
Synod’s admission that there are A and B classes in the CRC is proof that there is deep division in the CRC over the women-in-office issue. Its decision to allow churches to withdraw from their classes and join a different one only encourages that division to continue.
That synod communicate the following to Trinity CRC, Sparta; Second CRC, Kalamazoo; and their respective classes:
- We commend these two churches for their faithful perseverance in these matters and for their desire to remain in the CRC.
- We encourage these churches to seek ways to continue in their current classes.
- We encourage these churches and classes to engage in some process of reconciliation, healing, and blessing.
- We also encourage these churches to seek ways to continue to work together with local CRC churches to communicate and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in their regions.
This decision is a futile attempt by the synod to maintain and to foster unity despite sharp disagreement over the women-in-office issue. At the same time it demonstrates that synod is not really interested in defending and promoting unity. This decision is an implied charge of schism against the two congregations that want to depart from their classes. If synod wanted unity it would charge the two congregations with sin and call them to repent. But instead of bringing charges of sin, the synod commends the congregations for remaining in the denomination. This commendation for staying in the denomination comes even though synod views the two congregations as the cause of a situation where there is need for “reconciliation, healing, and blessing” on a classical level.
By commending the congregations for staying in the denomination even though they are causing division on the classical level, synod’s decision promotes unity in name only. Unity in name only exists when there are congregations that are deeply divided but decide to stay together in one denomination anyway. That means unity in name only is actually schism. Synod 2013 followed the lead of Synod 1995 that promoted unity in name only when it allowed the classes to disagree with each other over the issue of women’s ordination.
It is sin on the part of the CRC synod to promote unity apart from the theological conviction that only men may be ordained as office bearers. It is also sin to stay in the CRC on the part of those who are convicted that women’s ordination is unbiblical. It is good that they know that unity is impossible for them in a congregation or classis that allows women’s ordination. But when they stay in the CRC despite their theological disagreement with the denomination’s allowance of women’s ordination, they show themselves willing to accept the sham unity of unity in name only. The result is continued tension and disharmony in the CRC.
The Acts of the 2013 CRC Synod are available here.
The Executive Director of the CRC’s summary of the Acts is available here.
A report by John Van Dyk can be found in Christian Renewal (July 21/August 21) 18-19.
Click here to read Part 2 on the CRC Synod 2013.
This article was written by guest blogger Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, IL. Rev. Spronk will be blogging for us several times a month, taking us first through a brief study of Richard Smit's newly released book, The Fruit of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If there is a topic you'd like to Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us.