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!