Reflections on the CanRC Synodical Decision to Allow Women to Vote in Congregational Elections

3 June 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

In a historic decision, Synod 2010 decided that who votes in congregational elections for office bearers is a matter for local regulations.  To state the obvious, this will prove to be a controversial decision.  It was certainly not a unanimous one.

To begin with, there were majority and minority reports from Cornerstone, the church appointed to study this matter.  The majority report argued for, the minority against allowing women to vote in congregational elections.  Then there were the other churches.  There were over 30 letters from the churches, most of which were in favour of maintaining the status quo.  Then there was a majority report and a minority report presented by the synodical advisory committee.  When it came time to vote, it was all done by secret ballot.  The majority report arguing against was defeated, and the minority report adopted.  Most of the decisions of Synod 2010 were made with unanimity.  This was not such a decision.  The vote was 14 in favour of the minority report and 10 opposed.  In other words, it passed by a narrow margin.

I have the utmost respect for the brothers who served at Synod Burlington-Ebenezer.  They are my fathers and brothers in the faith.  I consider them blessed with gifts of wisdom and discernment.  Many of them, both pastors and elders, are men who have shaped me and my ministry.  So, this is not at all a personal vendetta on my part.  I’m sure they were convinced that this was the best decision they could make under the circumstances and I respect that.

Yet…yet I cannot help but wonder what will happen to our churches from here on.  The days of far-reaching Canadian Reformed homogeneity are over.  Maybe that will be a good thing.  Maybe we’ve all been the same for too long.  One of our Reformed forefathers said that it’s the devil who wants us all to be the same.  Whatever you may think of that, imagine the city with two Canadian Reformed churches:  one allows women to vote, the other not.  Unless borders are strictly enforced (which we all know to be impossible), this cannot but contribute to the development of what are called “modalities.”  In simpler terms, it means that a certain kind of person goes to a certain kind of Canadian Reformed Church.  He or she picks the church that has the mindset or the practices that he or she favours.  With the passing of this decision, we can expect to see this trend developing in the years ahead.  It already happens to a certain extent, but it will happen more.

As for the decision itself, I have mixed feelings.  The Bible does not say anything explicit about congregations voting for office bearers, let alone who should be doing the voting.  To clarify:  Scripture speaks about God’s people in the OT and NT choosing office bearers, but it does not specify how this was done.  This is something that has developed as part of our church culture.  The principle of congregational involvement is biblical, but the exact shape of that involvement is not rigidly delineated in God’s revelation.  It is something that congregations and federations come to agreement upon with wisdom broadly informed by Scripture.

However, we have not always been consistent in what we have agreed upon.  Up to now, we have generally agreed that there should be democratic-style elections where only the men vote.  But we have allowed women to submit nomination letters.  Though I’ve never seen it happen, a woman could submit a letter with names that is completely in disagreement with the letter that her husband sent.  Women are allowed to participate in the nomination process.  But then the election comes and they are excluded.  Then when the approbation process comes, they are again permitted to participate.  A woman is free to bring a lawful objection to the appointment of an office bearer, even if her husband should not be in agreement.  Odd.  Inconsistent.  Who ever heard of an election where those allowed to nominate and approbate were not permitted to vote?  Include them altogether or exclude them altogether.

There is also the issue of whether voting is an act of authority.  If it is, then we aren’t Reformed, but Congregationalists.  It’s that simple.  I’m glad that Synod 2010 put that erroneous idea to bed, hopefully for good.

So, from the point of view of principles, I can see why the brothers at Synod made the decision they did.  What other way can we expect Synod delegates to make decisions?  They can’t go on gut feelings or speculations about what might happen as a result of their decision.  In this sense, it was a bold and just decision.

However, I regret that this decision was not made years or even centuries earlier, in a time when there were fewer pressures on our Reformed churches.  I look at it this way:  let’s not be naive; there are people in the Canadian Reformed Churches who would like to see women in ecclesiastical office.  However, up till now, they could make no credible argument for their position.  How can you plausibly argue for women in office when your church federation doesn’t even allow women to vote?  It would be like a woman running for Parliament before 1919, when women were finally granted suffrage in Canada.  The camel is now inching his way to the tent.

A related factor concerns me and that is the influence of N. T. Wright.  This British theologian and Anglican bishop is popular and highly regarded by some of our people.  Some people even describe him as “Reformed.”  He is a well-known proponent of women’s ordination.  In 1991, Mid-America Reformed Seminary published a booklet entitled, A Cause of Division: The Hermeneutic of Women’s Ordination.  That was against the background of the struggle of concerned members in the CRC.  Dr. Kloosterman and Dr. Venema demonstrated that there is a far-reaching hermeneutical approach that leads to these positions.  My point is that there is a hermeneutical philosophy that leads to the ordination of women.  It is not a quirk that Wright holds to this position; it’s the consistent outworking of his philosophy of biblical interpretation.  Don’t be fooled: those who are smitten by him and influenced by his hermeneutics are in danger of being led to his error on this point.

The third and final factor that makes me apprehensive about this decision is the efforts made by some to introduce the hermeneutics now in the ascendancy in the Netherlands.  There too, among other things, we see increasing openness to the possibility of women being ordained to ecclesiastical office.  These are the people we’re being encouraged to learn from as true teachers of Reformed hermeneutics.  That deeply concerns me.

The issue of women’s ordination is not where it ends.  Where it ends was ably described by Wayne Grudem in his little book, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism.   The same hermeneutic that results in the ordination of women leads to the abandonment of the gospel.  As Grudem puts it, “Those who adopt an evangelical feminist position ‘buy into’ an interlocking system of interpretation that will relentlessly erode the authority of Scripture in our churches” (262).  Where the authority of Scripture is eroded, you can be sure that the gospel is in grave danger too.

In conclusion, I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, at least not in the sense that I can predict the future with unfailing accuracy.  However, if I read the signs, I’m barely hopeful.  I see increasing disparity in our church federation because of this decision.  I also expect that within fifteen or twenty years we will be entertaining the ordination of women, despite Synod 2010 stating the position of Scripture on this clearly and faithfully.  Perhaps the only thing that can prevent that in the short-term is a merger with the URCNA, and I’m only marginally hopeful about that too.  All I know for sure is that the church belongs to Jesus Christ.  He hasn’t promised to preserve the Canadian Reformed Churches in pristine faithfulness until his return.  But he has promised to keep a church for himself, somewhere, with someone, somehow.  I only pray that we can continue to be a part of that.