I have written recently about the decisions made by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands at Synod Ede 2014, specifically decisions relating to women in office. As part of the decision-making process, the synod asked a number of experts for advice. One of those experts was the retired professor of New Testament, Dr. J. Van Bruggen. Jaap and Arjen Vreugdenhil have translated this letter and, thanks to their efforts, I can share it with you here. It’s definitely worth a read. Dr. Van Bruggen is certainly not alone in his protest against these developments in our Dutch sister churches.
To the General Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, Ede 2014.
Dear brothers in Christ,
Your assembly asked me to comment on the report, Men And Women In The Service Of The Gospel. It should be short, I was told. It can only be short if we focus on the essentials.
It is certainly tempting for your assembly at this time to go along with the committee and to adopt their proposal: “The view that beside men, women also may serve in the offices of the church, as described in this report, fits within the spectrum of what may be characterized as biblical and Reformed”. By taking this decision, you would meet the sentiments of many and remove difficulties in the relations with the NGK, and in approving of some missionary projects. (The report also repeatedly stresses these benefits.)
But before these ‘benefits’ move you to consent to this report, you should consider what price you will have to pay.
After all, it cannot be denied that our Apostle Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, requires of us, in the organization of congregational life, to take into account the different creation of man and woman (1 Timothy 2:13; compare the reference to the Law [in this case Genesis 1-2] in 1 Corinthians 14:34b, and 1 Corinthians 11:8-9:12), as well as the reality of the history of sin in paradise (1 Timothy 2:14).
It is our responsibility to account for this in later times with very different organization of congregations in various times and countries. Worldwide and through all earlier centuries, this brought the churches to distinguish between offices that man ought to fulfill, and other tasks that belong specifically to the woman, or to man and woman together.
Traditionally, the Reformed Churches also aligned to this custom and practice of all congregations (for such alignment, compare 1 Corinthians 11:16, 14:33, 36). The Reformed Churches (liberated) reaffirmed that alignment in 1993, when at the introduction of women’s right to vote they stated in the grounds that this does not concern an act of government.
The committee does not justify their departure from this argument in this fairly recent decision of a synod of their own federation. That is odd, but not incomprehensible. Underlying the decision of the Synod of Ommen 1993 was a consideration of how the Bible speaks to us today concerning the offices in the Church. It was summarized as “governing”. The committees no longer enter into a discussion of this kind, because they deem the Apostle’s instruction on this matter not directly relevant for us today.
Paul, an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, was convinced that “every Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable to teach, to refute errors and mistakes and to educate a virtuous life” (2 Tim. 3:16). On the basis of this conviction he also wrote, using Genesis 1-3, about the organization of church life. He reasoned from the Holy Scriptures to the congregations that they should be trained in piety and virtue (see Acts 20:28-32).
The committee report presents a very different picture. Paul allegedly used the Scriptures as a source for arguments when describing what impression the congregations make on their surroundings. If this were true, we modern Christians, through a similar reasoning, might arrive at very different conclusion, to adjust to what our culture perceives as normal.
Page 24 of the report shows how detrimental this concept of ‘context’ may be for the unity of God’s redemptive history and for the authority of the apostolic word. There we read the following:
In 1 Timothy 2 [Paul] does not appeal to a specific given from Scripture (“Scripture says…”), but he reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve as a historic event: creation, fall, redemption. Such a reminder of a historic event, even at the beginning of history, is not a normative appeal to the precepts of God. In a similar way, Peter confronts his female readers with the example of Sarah, who addressed her husband as ‘my master’ (1 Peter 3:5-6; see Genesis 18:12). In 1 Timothy 2:13 (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve”), Paul uses the situation in Paradise to point Timothy and his church in their situation in the right direction. In doing so, he interprets the order of creation events as an order of rank. While the notion of a created order of rank, in which each person was assigned his or her proper position, fit well with the existing social patterns of the day, in our situation such an idea feels foreign. Thus the use of this argument, too, is coloured by its context.
1. The beginning of this quotation immediately raises questions. Why would an appeal to God’s history in creation and redemption not be a ‘given from Scripture’? Why would a reminder of a ‘historical event’ have no normative value? God’s history with his people “took place as an example, for us”, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:6. Paul and Peter point to the examples of Adam and Eve and Sarah because they provided men and women with models for their own behavior. The work of the Creator and the attitude of Sarah are instructive for us, Christians—according to the apostles of Jesus Christ!
2. Precisely because Paul writes as “commissioned by God” (1 Timothy 1:1), it is strange that the quotation speaks about his words to Timothy and Ephesus in such a humanistic and limited way. They write that Paul “uses the situation in paradise to point Timothy in the right direction”. Paul would be ‘interpreting’ the creation sequence as an order of rank. That is, in 1 Timothy 2:13 we are dealing with an example from creation, but with an interpretation by Paul that is not in the Bible (Genesis), but which he adds to adjust to what “fits well with the existing social pattern”. In other words, we owe the example of ‘rank’ not to Genesis 2, but to society in the first century A.D., and Paul employs Genesis 2 to suggest that this ‘ranking’ was actually created! This means that the apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, in fact, would have abused Scripture in his reference to Genesis 2.
3. Despite all the good words in the report on the authority of Scripture, the quotation above implies that 1 Timothy 2:13 has no authority for us, because it is Paul who ‘interpreted’ the creation order ‘as a ranking’, and because this interpretation was well-suited to his own time but no longer to ours. Just as the prevalence of a certain view inspired Paul to make a specific use of a past situation (Paradise), so the ‘foreignness’ of this idea in our own time might move us to dismiss the word of Paul, as something that has only been valuable in the past.
When we leave these words of our apostle behind us, in the context of his own time, and focus on the context in which we live ourselves, we arrive at a dead end. For which culture becomes our norm? That of D-66 [politically bland, AVr] Netherlands, or certain subcultures of Amsterdam or Utrecht? The Kampen ethics professor recently wrote that churches in Muslim countries might have to deal very differently with women in office, in order to obtain the same effect of giving no offense. But what impression does the church give to the 16.9% Muslims in the Netherlands?
Thankfully the Lord through the Scriptures puts us on the continuing road of his own history, and his goal is to express this in his church. In the eyes of the world she will share in their attitude to the gospel: foolishness to Greeks! How good it is that we, Christians, precisely on the basis of the special characteristics of the church, can tell about the reality of Adam and Eve, of creation and fall of man, of love and mercy.
As I write this, I but wonder with some dismay whether I this write for a synod of Reformed Churches. Who would carry coals to Newcastle? Am I off-track in this letter because I fail to discuss in-depth the hermeneutics developed in the report? After all, is not this hermeneutics the justification for no longer applying the Pauline statements about Adam and Eve, creation and fall of man?
It was indeed first my intention to write a note about that hermeneutics, but it gradually dawned on me that this would really get my advice off-track.
1. The elaborations presented in the report, complete with charts, do not belong in an ecclesiastical and pastoral document. This would also apply to an analytical discussion of them.
2. One may fill many or few pages with arguments, but in the end we believers read what Paul writes, without theoretical considerations and diagrams. And then we cannot escape the fact that he urges the churches to account for Genesis 1-3 in the organization of congregational life. He never says that he uses the texts of Genesis merely as an occasional argument to remain in line with the social position of women and men in his time. How could he do so? So many centuries later, the narrative of Genesis is still decisive for the churches of the New Testament, because it is God’s work and our history! Therefore, the apostle appeals to it, even though the new Christians in Ephesus were not familiar with the stories from Genesis, which sounded foreign in their culture. That is why Paul also commands the preacher Timothy to “communicate this in his teaching” at Ephesus (1 Timothy 4:11). We should therefore take his arguments seriously and allow ourselves to be taught by it (whether we find this is difficult or easy). If we fail to do so, we will not only push Paul aside, but Genesis as well! And we miss the fact that Paul is not concerned with the removal of potential offenses to unbelievers, but rather with the teaching of what is proper for women who claim to worship God (1 Timothy 2:10). Are we not descendants of our ancestors Adam and Eve in the same way as our brothers and sisters in Ephesus?
3. When I asked your clerk what exactly was involved in this request for an advice from me as an exegete, because the report takes a decisive position on hermeneutics for the reading of Scripture, he kindly wrote back that I’ve taught Hermeneutics in Kampen. Indeed, in the line of Van Andel and Greijdanus I have taught the rules for the interpretation of the Bible (classical hermeneutics) for 35 years, and over and again I have refuted the new hermeneutic: it considers the Bible as a document from the past, which must continually be infused with new meaning in new contexts. I have also written about it in Het Kompas van het Christendom and other publications. This is not so much about knowledge or information, but rather about choices and decisions.
The committee suggests that the line of their report is in line with the Reformed tradition (p. 20). For proof of this they mention my name. Unrightfully so: in the article cited by the committee, I was dealing with the relationship between the meaning of words and the cultural and social context. The view of the deputies has to do with a different issue, namely: the meaning of text and cultural and social context.
4. Do I accuse the committee of bad faith? No, but rather of rashness. Perhaps some people imagine that we can say goodbye to some Pauline texts merely on the matter of men and women, and nothing else. But that is quite naïve. There are at least two major shipwrecks on the beach that should be beacons to us. When the Gereformeerde Kerken (synodaal) opened up all offices for women, with an argumentation very similar to that of your committee, they really had no intention to introduce higher criticism or make the Bible inoperative. The outcry was great when Prof. Dr. H.M. Kuitert immediately declared that his synod had now legalized higher criticism. Yet he was proven right: this rash decision was later regretted by many. The same process was repeated with the Christian Reformed Churches. I am unwilling to believe that any of the committee members or synodical delegates wants this. But I do say: look at those beacons and think again! Surely you don’t want this?
At the end of the day, it should not be difficult for your assembly to decide about the report.
a. You may declare that this report has not shown convincingly that in the organization of our church life we need no longer take into account the decisions of our apostle Paul about the difference between Adam and Eve and the significance of the fall.
b. Furthermore, your synod may state that the report rightly devoted many good words to the service of men and women for the sake of the gospel, but that it wrongly ignored what Scripture says about what we call “the office of government” (recently confirmed by the synod of Ommen, 1993).
c. If you want to complete the discussion about this entire issue, as was the intention of the previous Synod, you may decide that no compelling reasons have been found to deviate from the practice of many centuries and of most of the churches, based on 1 Timothy 2, to assign the offices of teaching and oversight to the responsibility of the man.
Much more difficult than taking a decision, is a return to instructing the congregations about the importance of the history of creation and salvation in general, and about these scriptural data in particular. We have become desensitized to these realities and become more sensitive to the world around us. However, it is very important to regain this sensitivity. Only through education and example will reappear the love towards the story of Adam and Eve and the respect for what the Lord attaches to it. I’m not sure if synods can decide anything about that. In any case, they cannot execute or accomplish it. The responsibility lies with those who as shepherds must lead the flock to be citizens of a kingdom this is above, and with all Christians who would persevere in their desire for a heavenly kingdom, that is not of this world.
The decision-making about the report takes place in an ecclesiastical reality that is adrift. I pray therefore for all of you, that you may have wisdom and courage. You will not be able to take a decision to change reality. But you can make a decision that is responsible. And the Lord can make that decision in his time and manner into a blessing for the church and the gospel, for men and women.
With regards and brotherly greetings,
J. van Bruggen
May 2, 2014.