When I teach the Belgic Confession to my catechism students, I now spend a lesson on the topic of women in office. I never had to do this before, but sadly, the times have changed. I’ve added the outline for my lesson on this to the resources on Yinkahdinay — you can find it under “Teaching Tools” or through this direct link. PLEASE NOTE: this is just an outline. Obviously, a lot more would be said in a catechism class than what is just on this one page. However, if anyone is studying or teaching on the issue, at least you’ll have a bare bones idea of the history, the relevant Scripture passages, where the confessions speak to this, and some of the common objections. If you want to dig even deeper, see here for a short booklet published some years ago when the Christian Reformed Church in North America was dealing with this. For an even more comprehensive treatment, see Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
Category Archives: Church life
It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office. I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there. That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession. Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church? That question needs to be answered carefully.
This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches. Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it. That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years. A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.
I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia. This would have been in the early 2000s. Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as: do you now view the CRC as a false church? No URC person would say that. It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church. At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.
I think I can see why they said that. Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church. Let me explain.
Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church. Let’s use that as our starting point. What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?
- It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
- It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
- It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
- It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
- It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.
So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five. Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false. In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill: the Roman Catholic Church. Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church? Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too. However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom). A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.
But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true. Let’s review the marks of a true church:
- It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
- It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
- It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.
Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?
“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general. I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29. I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.” Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.
What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”? Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them? Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration? We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.
Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true. When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures. When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place. But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears. So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.
All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office. The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ. This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.
That still leaves the question hanging: if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what? It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession: the sect. The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either. In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands. Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists. He never calls their groups “false churches.” Instead, consistently, he calls them sects. If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.
As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all. I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word. I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN. I don’t want to see them become a sect. I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches. We must keep praying!
It’s synod year for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Synod Meppel 2017 is underway and it will prove to be a cross-roads for the RCN — will they adopt women in office? Better: will it become the official stance of the RCN? After all, it is already being done. If the RCN does go in that direction, Synod 2018 of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) is likely to terminate our sister-church relationship with the RCN. Like many others, I’m watching and praying.
As I’ve been watching recently, a Supplementary Report from their Deputies for Relations with Foreign Churches (BBK) appeared on the official RCN website. Before I get to this report, some background is in order. At Synod Baldivis in 2015, the FRCA decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel of the RCN, explaining their decisions (see here for a summary) and warning the RCN once again. Synod Baldivis also decided to send this letter to all the local churches of the RCN. At Synod Dunnville in 2016, the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) also decided to send a letter to Synod Meppel. Synod Dunnville also decided to forward a copy of its decisions on the RCN (see here for a summary) to all the local churches of the RCN.
Now to the Supplementary Report of the BBK (see here for the original — it’s only in Dutch, sorry!) As far as I can tell, this report appeared on the RCN website on February 10, 2017. The report proposes three decisions to Synod Meppel.
The first is that any letter written to Synod Meppel from foreign sister churches with objections be answered with a letter hand-delivered by some members of the Synod plus deputies from the BBK. So, for example, a response to the FRCA would be delivered in person to Synod Bunbury 2018 by a delegation from Synod Meppel and deputies from BBK. The grounds note that it’s always better to meet in person — it’s respectful when there are tensions, and it shows serious commitment and good will. In itself, that’s not a bad thing to propose. One might wonder whether members of Synod Meppel can actually speak on behalf of a body that no longer exists, but perhaps there’s some new Dutch church polity behind that.
The second decision proposed has to do with the CanRC. Specifically, the BBK wants to propose that Synod Meppel express its disapproval of the decision of Synod Dunnville to send correspondence to the local churches of the RCN. The BBK argues that this is interfering in the private life of a sister church. Moreover, it borders on agitating or inciting the local churches of the RCN.
The third decision is similar and pertains to the FRCA. Again, Synod Meppel is presented with a proposal to express disapproval at the actions of a sister church. Specifically, it’s the decision of Synod Baldivis to send a letter to the local churches of the RCN. However, in their view, the FRCA went further and actually agitated or incited the local churches by sending a cover letter which urged them to take action. In this regard, the FRCA went beyond what the CanRC did. The CanRC merely bordered on agitating amongst the local RCNs — the FRCA went over the line. With both the CanRC and FRCA, the understanding of the BBK appears to be that the only proper way to address the RCN is through the BBK.
I’ll offer some commentary on this. I have several points:
- Why did it take until February of 2017 for the BBK to issue a report about what they perceive as objectionable behaviour from the CanRC and FRCA?
- There are rules for ecclesiastical fellowship. The CanRC rules can be found here. The FRCA rules can be found here (on page 72). Nowhere do any of these rules state that a sister church federation is forbidden from contacting the local churches of another federation. It’s probably never been done before, but that says something about the unusual circumstance in which we find ourselves — see my next point.
- I get the sense that the BBK still does not understand the gravity of the situation. Both the CanRC and FRCA are deeply concerned about the RCN. It’s out of that deep concern that these actions were taken. They speak of inciting or agitating amongst the local churches — if we really felt strongly that this was a matter of ultimate importance, why wouldn’t we do that? Wouldn’t you expect a sister church federation to do everything in its power to warn our beloved brothers and sisters in the Netherlands if they were on the wrong track? It would be cold and heartless for us to do otherwise. Perhaps to do otherwise would be very bureaucratically proper, but it would not be Christian. In that regard, the two proposed decisions about the CanRC and FRCA in this report are confusing. It’s as if they want us to stop caring so much. Brothers, you’re asking the impossible. We don’t let go that easily.
- For myself, I hope and pray that these CanRC and FRCA letters did incite local churches to action. I pray that faithful consistories rose to the occasion and wrote to Synod Meppel to indicate their grave concern about the efforts to officially endorse women in office, and other matters. I pray that all the delegates to Synod Meppel read these CanRC and FRCA letters too, and will take action, not only to preserve the RCN’s relationship with Canada and Australia, but most importantly to honour what God has revealed in the inerrant Scriptures.
As regular readers of this blog know, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands are currently wrestling with the issue of women in office. There is a report going to their next synod advocating for it. This report is now available in English here. Naturally, there are members of these churches excited about the possibility of admitting women to all the church offices. However, we should not be left with the impression that everyone is on board with it. There have been Dutch voices, inside and out of the GKV, that are critical of these developments. The website Werken aan Eenheid has a collection of links to articles critical about women in office — you can find it here. Of course, it’s in Dutch, but for English-only readers there’s always Google Translate to give you a rough idea of what you’re looking at.
In the broader Reformed/Presbyterian context, it is common to fence the Lord’s Supper with a verbal warning only. Typically that means that the minister makes an announcement inviting any guests to participate who are communicant members in good standing in an evangelical church, or something to that effect. For some years, this was one of the sticking points that obstructed the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Eventually, an agreement was reached which paved the way for full ecumenical relations between the CanRC and the OPC. You can find that agreement here.
Last week, amongst the Canadian Reformed Churches, a Classis Central Ontario was held. Admission to the Lord’s Supper was on the agenda. We find this reported in the press release (find the full document here):
The Classis ad hoc committee submitted a report on the Lord’s Supper admission as mandated by CCO June 10, 2016. The report, which included an appendix from Burlington Fellowship, was deemed admissible. A discussion ensued. Classis having reviewed the committee report, decided that Burlington-Fellowships practice of inviting guests with only a strong verbal warning from the pulpit is not in line with the Church Order.
I mention this without any further comment at this time, except to say that I agree with the classis decision.