Our Sister Churches Open all Ecclesiastical Offices to Women


Prof. dr. C. van Dam *



A decision that those familiar with the Dutch ecclesiastical landscape saw coming has now actually happened. Our Dutch sister churches (Gereformeerde Kerken vrijgemaakt - GKv) decided on June 15–16 at this year’s synod to open all ecclesiastical offices to women. The synod took this decision in steps by first approving female ordination to the office of deacon (by a vote of 30 to 2), then elder (23 to 9), and finally minister of the Word (21 to 10 with one abstention). On Saturday, June 17, the synod also decided that as soon as a local consistory ratified the synodical decision, it could ordain women in these offices. If a consistory is not ready to do this, that is fine too. The synod has left it up to the local church to decide whether they wish to ordain women or when and how to do so. Synod wanted to show respect for the differences within the churches on this issue and that there should be room for these differences within the churches.


What are we to make of all this? It is important to realize that the problem is in the first place not the decision to allow for female ordination. That decision is a symptom of deeper, underlying problem. The Synod has embraced a new way of reading Scripture; a way which brings them into bondage, in this case into the bondage of the prevailing egalitarian culture of our day. There is a bitter irony here that such a going into bondage should take place in the 500th anniversary year of the great Reformation which set the churches free from this type of captivity by asserting that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the infallible rule for faith and the practices of the church.


Since this anniversary year of the Reformation commemorates especially the work of Martin Luther, it is appropriate that we pause and place this Dutch decision in the light of one aspect of Luther’s contribution on interpreting Scripture, namely his emphasis on sola Scriptura.


Luther on Interpreting Scripture


One of Luther’s most important contributions to the Reformation was his insistence on the absolute authority of God’s Word which is to be understood and submitted to in its plain meaning. That sounds familiar to us, but put in the context of Luther’s time, it was revolutionary. By asserting the absolute authority and the clarity of Scripture, Luther took direct aim at the Roman Catholic teaching that only the pope and other ecclesiastical authorities could determine the meaning of the Bible. According to Rome, the Scriptures were obscure and needed the church to tell the people what they meant. Thus God’s people were kept in bondage to the “expertise” and authority of the church which taught them such “truths” as the sacrament of penance and the need for indulgences from the church in order to receive forgiveness. Luther challenged all of that and more. In his The Bondage of the Will he attacked the Pope for maintaining that the Bible was not clear and that Rome needed to tell the people what it meant. Luther went on to say that this is most pernicious “for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased, until the Scriptures have been completely trampled down and we have been believing and teaching nothing but the dreams of madmen.”

[1] He further asserted that “those who deny that the Scriptures are quite clear and plain leave us nothing but darkness.”[2]


By defending the absolute authority of Scripture and its clarity so that its obvious plain meaning could be accepted, Luther set many people free from the bondage of those who had set themselves up as authorities above the plain teaching of Scripture. Luther however realized that for the people to be truly free from such pseudo-authority the Bible had to be made available to the common people and translated into their language. All the members of the church had to be able to read the Bible for themselves and become familiar with it so that they could embrace its teachings and reject heresy. Is not the Word a lamp before one’s feet which is to illuminate the path we walk on (Ps 119:105)? Reading Scripture also makes one sensitive to the issues of the day and gives a biblical perspective. As Luther put it: “all spirits are to be tested in the presence of the church at the bar of Scripture.”[3] No wonder, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses against Rome’s teachings on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to expose the false teachings of the church in the light of Scripture. And what a blessing for the church that he translated the Bible into the language of the people.


Implications for Today


Luther set many in his generation free from the false teachings of Rome. The Word of God became the norm and had to be obeyed rather than the pronouncements of popes and councils which placed themselves above the Word. In this anniversary year of the Reformation, we do well to remember that we are not to be in bondage to any teaching that opposes the clear instruction of the Word of God. Today many look to authorities outside Scripture to address ethical and other issues on which Scripture is clear. Many look to science for objective truth on how the world began. But also the speculative theories of science on the origin of our planet need to be scrutinized in the light of God’s normative and clear Word in its teaching about creation. God used Luther to set his people free in the past from those authorities which placed themselves above Scripture. Also today we should not be in bondage to any authority which sets itself up over and against the clear teaching of God’s Word.<