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.”
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.” 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.
A potent force and authority that currently attacks and erodes the truth of Scripture is our godless egalitarian culture which acknowledges no norms except what humans desire for themselves and imagine their rights to be. This corrosive culture and the authority it wields in our society must not enslave us and lead us to denying the clear teachings of the Word of God, also when dealing with qualifications for the offices in the church. It appears that our Dutch brothers and sisters are slipping into the bondage of the powerful and seductive cultural spirits of our time and reinterpreting Scripture to make the qualifications for ecclesiastical office more agreeable to the current cultural norms.
The Struggle in our Dutch Sister Churches
As indicated at the beginning of this article, the decision to admit female ordination is a symptom of an underlying problem. The plain sense of Scripture is no longer accepted but Scripture is read through today’s cultural glasses to make it say what is more agreeable to societal norms. In this way, the authority of Scripture is undermined or denied and is sometimes made to say and mean the opposite of what God’s Word plainly states.
At the time of writing this article, the official texts of the decisions which admitted women to all the offices of the church have not yet been made available. This means that commentary on any possible biblical justification which the Synod may offer for this decision cannot be made at this point. It will have to wait until such material is available. However, the report that served the Synod on this issue is not encouraging in the manner in which it interpreted Scripture. (See the editorial in the Clarion of February 10, 2017.) We also note that for two thousand years the Christian church in all its manifestations has never opened the office of elder and minister to the women in the church. There was a reason for that. It was because Scripture was and remains crystal clear on this point. There was and is no ambiguity. The ecclesiastical leadership was to be entrusted to men. The apostle Paul stated, for example, that elder must be the husband of one wife and manage his household well (1 Tim 3:2–4; Titus 1:5–6).
However, you will not find any discussion on the apostolic instructions on the qualifications for the offices in the report submitted to synod in support of women in office. These passages are simply ignored. Synod has gone along with the main recommendations of the report. Its decision to allow female ordination in all ecclesiastical offices is in effect a declaration of this synod that the church authorities and experts and specialists of the our time have now finally been able to see what the common people today and the church as a whole over the millennia have not been able to see; namely, that the apostolic qualifications for the offices are culturally bound and no longer relevant for the church today. That sounds quite presumptuous and it is. But it is also very sad. With this new understanding of Scripture, fallible creatures have declared null and void parts of God’s Word or made it say the opposite of what it plainly states. Unless people are familiar with Scripture and accept its clear requirements for the offices, too many churches will likely swallow this decision which was taken by about a two thirds majority vote. But by acquiescing to this decision they will be placing themselves in bondage to ecclesiastical authorities which set themselves above the plain teaching of the Word of God. This was the bondage from which the Reformation had once set God’s people free. And it was also a bondage from which many churches set themselves free in the Liberation of 1944.
A second current example of the new way of interpreting Scripture and ecclesiastical leaders and experts setting themselves above the clear teaching of the Word of God is the non-discipline within our sister churches of those who live in homosexual relationships in spite of the fact that Scripture clearly condemns such relationships, for example, in Romans 1. According to Dr. Ad de Bruijne, professor of ethics and spirituality in Kampen, church discipline is hardly used against practicing homosexuals and at the most only about a third of practicing homosexuals are kept from the Lord’s Table.
This issue is also on the agenda of the current synod of our sister churches. In May, Synod discussed how churches should deal with homosexuals. This discussion was in response to a question from two churches in Hardenberg. They wanted to know if there was room in the congregation for a homosexual who loved the Lord uprightly and wanted to live in a relationship of love and faithfulness. Synod was not able to come to a final decision at that point and the matter will come back on their agenda. If the decision on female ordination is any indication, the prospects of clearly condemning homosexual sin and so helping the struggling gays in the congregation to embrace Christ in holiness is not that bright. The pressures to conform to the secular gay agenda is enormous. But the church must not place itself in bondage to the prevailing culture but listen to the plain teaching of Scripture as it has been understood over the millennia and so be in the freedom in which Christ has set us free.
The decision to allow females to be ordained in all the ecclesiastical offices will have major consequences. Although it was said that churches could appeal this decision if they are not happy with it, such a comment is meaningless because Synod also decided that churches were free to implement the decision immediately. If Synod had decided to postpone implementation of its decision until after the next synod to allow for churches to appeal the decision, such an appeal would make sense. But once churches have already ordained women there will be no turning back. In other words, this decision is final and will not be overturned in the foreseeable future.
Another indication of the finality of this landmark action of Synod Meppel is that one immediate result of their decision was that Synod fast-tracked unity talks with the Netherlands Reformed Churches (NGK), the so-called former “buitenverbanders.” Our sister churches now hope to be one with the NGK by 2023, only six years from now. These churches already have women in office. Furthermore, at least two congregations, in Groningen and Utrecht, have also decided that homosexuals who are in a relationship of love and faithfulness can be admitted to ecclesiastical office. These are churches in bondage to the prevailing secular culture of our times.
Another consequence of Synod’s decision is that it will constitute an obstruction for a closer relationship with the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK), a sister church of the Free Reformed Churches in North America. This church decided in 1998 not to ordain women in ecclesiastical offices.
Without a doubt, the Dutch decision will also impact their relationship with the foreign sister churches in a negative way. It will be up to all these churches which warned the GKv not to admit women to the ecclesiastical offices what the exact consequences of this decision will be. It will certainly be on the agenda of our next synod to be held in Edmonton in 2019. It must have been on the agenda of the International Council of Reformed Churches which will probably have met in Jordan, Ontario, by the time this article is published.
We sorrow and need to be in earnest prayer for our Dutch sister churches and for those who object to being placed in bondage to the secular mind-set and culture of our time by so-called ecclesiastical experts and assemblies. They are placing themselves above the Word of God and making it say the opposite of what is clearly stated. The Reformation of 500 years ago which we may celebrate this year, is to be a celebration of freedom from all that can lead to unbiblical bondage. Sadly, our Dutch sister churches have chosen this year to succumb to the ungodly egalitarian culture of our day and give up the freedom of understanding God’s Word in its plain and clear sense when it comes to the qualifications for the offices in the church. Needless to say, this synodical action also serves as a warning to us not to be seduced and captivated by the culture of our times. The church must resist whatever is sinful and unbiblical and not embrace it.
In closing, may the major consequence of this decision be that many free themselves from the unbiblical yoke that Synod Meppel has placed on them. May they be directed and inspired by God’s clear Word and be encouraged by his work in the sixteenth century Reformation. May they maintain the principle of sola Scriptura, Scripture alone is the infallible rule for faith and the practices of the church.
Cornelis Van Dam
* Prof. Dr. C. van Dam, professor (emeritus) Old Testament of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, Hamilton.
. Luther, Martin, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, et al. (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1955–2016), 33:90.
. Luther, Luther’s Works, 33:94.
. Luther, Luther’s Works, 33:91. “What is new in Luther is the notion of the absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.” Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 204.
. Ad de Bruijne, “Vriendschap voor christen-homo’s,” in Open en kwetsbaar: christelijk debat over homoseksualiteit, ed. Ad de Bruijne, TU-Bezinningsreeks 11 (Barneveld: Vuurbaak, 2012), 57–58.