The 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first women into ministry in the Christian Reformed Church was met with silence instead of cake and a special liturgy at Synod 2016.
There was no cake at Synod 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first women into ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. Cake and a special liturgy at Synod are typical ways to celebrate milestones within the CRC. There was no prayer of thanks for the blessings that have come through the added gifts and contributions women bring into ordained ministry and no reflection on what we have learned during the last 20 years.
One reason for the silence is the desire to be sensitive to those who are opposed to women in office. Another is fatigue with what is perceived to be an unresolvable and potentially divisive issue. At a deeper level, the reason may lie in distortions of the 1995 Synod decision to live with two positions, offices open or closed to women depending on the policies of local churches and classes. Two distortions, in my view, have frozen discussion and development in an unhealthy way.
The first distortion is a perception that the acceptance of two positions has the status of a confession, a position for all time, not to be questioned again. If one reads the record, however, it is clear that Synod’s decision was a developmental position, to maintain unity at the time, to allow the church to move forward, and to continue processes of discernment. That is evident in the provision for a five year review, which happened in 2000, and the decision in 2008 to allow women to be delegates to Synod. In recent years, however, attempts to open substantive discussion are squelched by reminders of the duty to honour both positions, fear of new divisions or threats to leave if the issue is opened again. Perhaps the biggest problem is a corporate inability to have difficult conversations in a healthy way.
One cost of the silence has been ignoring legitimate concerns faced by women in ministry, as revealed in a recent survey of women pastors and in CC’s “The stained-glass ceiling: 100 ordained women in CRC ministry today” by Angela Reitsma Bick (Feb. 22). These range from matters like compensation and benefits at lower levels than male pastors to verbal abuse and disrespect based on gender. There is also a lack of support for particular challenges women face, such as men who refuse to serve on a committee if a woman is on it. These concerns have not been on the agenda of the Board of Trustees (BoT), for fear of being seen as biased toward one of the two positions. Other churches, such as the Reformed Church of America, have an office for women, to work through such issues and provide support for women in ministry.
Some change may come through the new ministry plan, recently approved by the BoT. It intentionally names women under the broader strategy of leadership development. Hopefully we will see new initiatives to support and strengthen the contributions of women in leadership, along with other groups.
More importantly, without much discussion, the issue is now frequently described in the language of two ideologies about gender – complementarianism versus egalitarianism. This framing, borrowed from evangelical circles, was not officially used in the earlier discussion, but it has been voiced on the floor of Synod as if it is theologically acceptable in the CRC and it was used in an overture to Synod this year, dealing with women advisors to Synod. In my view this ideological framing of the issue is damaging because it distorts the real-life issue, use of the gifts of women in ministry, and it is not consistent with Reformed theology.
With regard to women in office, egalitarianism holds that all believers, without regard to gender, ethnicity or class, are called to exercise God-given gifts with equal authority and responsibility in church, home and world. Complementarianism, on the other hand, holds that God restricts women from leadership roles because, although women and men are equally persons, roles and functions in society are gender specific with men called to exercise authority or headship and women called to submission to male authority. There are various articulations within these schools of thought; my analysis is limited to common elements related to this specific issue.
Egalitarianism distorts the issue
Labelling the desire to open ordained offices to women as egalitarianism, in contrast to complementarianism, intentionally associates it with more radical approaches to feminism that are viewed negatively by many within the CRC. It polarizes rather than fosters mutual learning. This labelling distorts the issue because complementarity between men and women is, in fact, one the main reasons for opening ordained offices to women – so ministry can benefit from a wider range of gifts and experiences. Opening offices to women does not mean denying or reducing recognition of the differences between the genders. In reality, I have heard from many consistory members that being able to draw on the insights and gifts of women as well as men has been an asset in dealing with particular pastoral situations. I suspect that this is one of the most common learnings in the last 20 years, but it is not openly acknowledged.
Female pastors add insights into the opening of Scripture that complement the insights of male peers and add a richness to our Scripture-based living. Evidence of the last 20 years includes a “complementarity” within the offices that has blessed the life of many churches. I am not aware of any evidence that the threat of extreme forms of feminism taking over the church has any credence.
Drawing on the insights and gifts of women as well as men has been an asset for many churches.
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Questions about Complementarianism
Complementarianism, in my analysis, raises questions about internal consistency and consistency with Reformed theology that have been ignored for the sake of not disturbing the peace.
The first stated premise is that women are equal to men in value before God and share equally in the creational calling for all humans, but the implications of that are given short shrift. If a woman has an equal creational calling and she has the gifts and senses a call from God for ministry that falls within ordained offices, she violates her creational calling to ignore her call. If women are restricted in moral agency as image-bearers of God and males are not, that is not equal. If males have authority over women because they were created first in order, that is not equal. It is inconsistent to say women and men are equal in this approach.
Violating one’s creational call can be the sin of domination or failure to submit to authority, which gets a lot of attention in complementarianism; it can also be the sin of failing to fully exercise God-given gifts and fully take responsibility for our creational mandate, which women must also take seriously, if they are truly equal moral agents before God. Other inconsistencies emerge as complementarians try to explain how their view serves the best interests of women and is different than hierarchy or traditionalism, as well as in practical examples.
More importantly, most articulations of complementarianism do not take account of the essential Reformed belief that God continues his redemptive work through history, leading up to the new creation which will fulfill the vision in Scripture. The historical-redemptive reading of Scripture as God’s story and our story includes a future and our role now as witnesses to it. It is clear in Scripture that physical features will not be barriers to full participation in the new creation and diverse gifts will be celebrated. Complementarians do not consider that the flourishing of women’s gifts in ministry may be one way God is bringing elements of the new creation into our world and the life of the church today. Could it be that experiencing the richness of mutual service and blessing now in the church is a taste of the new creation and an important witness in our culture?
Specific Bible verses
Readers will be thinking about the specific verses that seem to explicitly silence women in church, verses whose meaning was fiercely debated in the 1990s. Twenty more years of Bible scholarship have added richer layers of exegesis. This is not my area of expertise, but I am not aware of any new reading that would compel everyone to agree on one understanding. That reality, along with similar trends on other issues, suggests to me that it may be time to review the current narrow approaches to Reformed hermeneutics in the CRC. More scope for considering inputs from God’s work through creation, historical development and cultural context, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might help us discern more clearly how God’s story and our story come together to be a powerful witness for the time between Christ’s redemption and fulfillment of the new creation.
Is a CRC office needed to support women in ministry?
My hope is for the church to be in a more productive space by the 25th anniversary of women in ministry in the CRC. To achieve that I would suggest three simultaneous steps:
Ditch both egalitarianism and complementarianism as unhelpful ideologies and get back to the real-life core issue of the full use of all gifts of women and men, given by our Creator God, to join God’s redemptive work in the world through God’s church, living between Christ’s redemption and the fullness of the new creation.
Start a new honest and open conversation about what we have learned through 20 years. What can we learn from experience with women as ministers, elders and deacons? What can be done to empower their ministry? How are women doing in closed churches and classes? What do they have to say? What can be done to support their ministry in non-ordained roles?
Create space to probe the elements in our current approach to hermeneutics that turn challenging issues into conflictual divides which erode our ability to engage and witness meaningfully within our culture.
If we dare to end the uncomfortable silence, I am confident we will all enjoy more than cake well before 2020.