This article appears in the Winter 2021 edition of the Calvin Seminary Forum
by John Cooper, Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus
This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of the Calvin Seminary Forum
It is twenty-five years since the Synod of 1995 opened all ecclesiastical offices to women, and it took twenty-five years of study and debate until it made that decision. It is worth reviewing this half-century development so that current members of the CRCNA understand what our position is, the reasons for it, and what it implies for other challenging cultural issues.
How We Got Here. The 1960’s began an era of significant change and reform of gender relations and the roles of women in marriage, society, the economy, and politics. Women began taking on an expanding range of non-traditional jobs, professions, and leadership roles. The question naturally arose, “what about the offices of the church?” The traditional answer was “because the Bible reserves those roles for men.”
But during the 1970s, Synod decided to take another look at Scripture. Almost every year for over two decades, the ordination of women was on its agenda. It commissioned extensive studies of the authority and proper interpretation of Scripture, ecclesiastical office, male “headship,” and women’s participation in the ministries of the church. Study reports, overtures, and synodical sub-committees considered the length and depth of the arguments pro and con the ordination of women.
Vote-counts were often close, one way and the other. In 1978 Synod opened the office of deacon, closed it the next year, and reversed again in 1984. All offices including evangelist were opened in 1990, subject to ratification in 1992. Synod 1992 permitted women to engage in diaconal work, teaching, and proclaiming Scripture but without ordination. In 1993 Synod reopened all offices to women, but Synod 1994 narrowly reversed that decision.
What Synod Decided. Synod 1995 narrowly opened all offices again, pending a final decision in 2000. After twenty-five years of debate, it concluded that both positions are validly derived from Scripture and that both should be allowed and that debate would temporarily cease. Specifically, it gave each classis authority to decide whether member congregations could open all offices to women, and whether they could be delegates to classis meetings. No congregation is required to ordain women, and a number of churches ordain women as deacons but not as elders or ministers. When a majority of churches in a classis favors opening all offices, then that becomes its default position. The same policy holds for Synod: The word male was removed from the Church Order’s qualifications for the offices when a majority of the classes favored doing so (2008?), and female officer-bearers were then delegated to Synod. (Synod had a panel of female advisors for a number of years before women delegates.)
Synod 1995 did not explain the conflicting interpretations of the biblical texts or how both conclusions could be drawn from Scripture. An informative summary is found in The Report of the Committee to Review the Decision re Women in Office for Synod 2000 (reference/link).
Two Interpretations of Scripture. What follows is my own summary of the positions—their significant agreements and the crucial disagreement. Both affirm that males and females equally image God, are equally culpable for the fall, equally redeemed by God’s grace in Christ alone, equally filled and gifted by the Holy Spirit, equally share in Christ’s offices of prophet, priest, and king, and equally destined to reign with Christ in God’s everlasting kingdom. Both positions recognize that women in the Bible (such as Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Lydia, Dorcas, and Priscilla) lead, teach, proclaim the Gospel, and serve diaconally. Both sides (with minor dissent) agree that “headship” pertains to marriage--not all male-female relations--and is not a “chain of command” but a relationship of mutual submission in which the husband should take the lead in laying down his life for his wife as Christ did for the church (Eph.5:21ff.). Both sides encourage women’s participation and leadership in society, culture, and church (except office). (It is wrong to accuse those who oppose women’s ordination of implying that women are inferior to men.) Both positions recognize that Scripture limits women’s roles in communal religious activities—Old Testament male priesthood, for example, and Paul’s assertion that women should not teach or have authority in worship. The opposing positions share significant common ground.
The key difference is whether the limits in Scripture are enduring and unchanging principles, like the Ten Commandments, or historically situated and possibly changeable regulations, such as dietary and ritual practices, permitting slavery, prohibiting interest, and monarchial government. Those who oppose women’s ordination interpret the limits as enduring principles. They have good grounds, unless there are sufficient reasons to conclude otherwise.
To see why the restrictions might not be permanent, however, consider some debated issues in I Timothy 2:8-15, the text with the most definitive limits. First, Paul might be addressing married couples rather than all men and women because the Greek terms for man/husband and for woman/wife are the same, and he addresses child-bearing and marriage (Gen.2). Second, the word “authority” does not occur elsewhere in Scripture, and there is extra-biblical evidence that it meant “illegitimate or dominating authority” (for example, the priestesses of Diana in Ephesus, where Timothy was, led men in sexual rituals) rather than the servant authority that Jesus enjoined. Further, although here Paul does not permit wives/women to teach their husbands/men, in Acts 18:26 he commends Priscilla for teaching Apollos. Most significantly, some of Paul’s instructions in verses 8-12 are universal and enduring—men praying peaceably and women dressing modestly. But we have judged other instructions to be culturally situated and not enduring—raising hands to pray, and not wearing gold, expensive clothes, or braided hair. The question therefore arises whether Paul’s not permitting women to teach or have authority is an enduring principle or an historically situated regulation. The traditional position claims that it must be an enduring principle because Paul appeals to the order of creation and the fall in verse 14.
But I Corinthians 11:3-16 suggests otherwise. Paul gives clear guidelines for all the churches about hair length and head coverings for men and women when they pray and prophecy during worship (women are not required to keep silent). He bases these rules on headship, the creation of man before woman, and the natural difference between men and women. But Old Testament men wore long hair and covered their heads for prayer, so Paul’s appeal to headship and creation order does not imply that his instructions in I Corinthians 11 are universally binding principles. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, there is good reason to conclude that Paul’s instructions based on creation and the fall in I Timothy 2 are likewise not changeless principles.
The debate about I Timothy 2 is typical of the other relevant texts as well. It exemplifies why the Synods of 1995 and 2000 allowed both positions, odd as it seems for a church that professes the unity and clarity of Scripture.
Did the CRC concede to Political Relativism? Accepting two contradictory interpretations of Scripture might seem like adopting the subjectivism that infects current culture wars: truth is in the eye of the beholder; opposing ideologies each have their own facts and reality; reasonable adjudication is impossible. Does the CRC position on women’s ordination imply that we are merely reading our own preferences back into the Bible?
No. A more accurate analogy is deciding legal disputes. In some court cases the evidence so strongly favors one side that the verdict is “beyond reasonable doubt.” Other cases are closer but can be decided by “the preponderance of the evidence.” But sometimes the evidence is so even or debatable that conscientious judges and jurors cannot reach consensus. On the issue of women’s ordination, the CRCNA is like a “hung jury.” This result is neither ideological relativism nor political pragmatism. It is the old Reformed principle, “bind only where Scripture binds.” After decades of conscientious deliberation, we are not (yet) able to discern whether Scripture binds us about the ordination of women.
This article appears on page 4 of the Summer 2021 edition of the Forum. Download this issue.