Tag Archives: women’s ordination

Herman Bavinck on Women in the Church

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) stands with John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as one of the greatest Reformed theologians.  He’s renowned for being biblical, confessional, and incisive.  It’s been especially the publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English that’s brought him to prominence in our day.  Biographies by Ron Gleason and, more recently James Eglinton, have certainly helped as well.  However, most of Bavinck’s corpus remains in Dutch.  Eric Bristley’s Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck illustrates the vastness of this corpus, listing hundreds of his articles and books. 

I want to introduce to you one of these untranslated works, one that was controversial in its day, and still bears some relevance for today.  In 1918, Bavinck published his book De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij (Women in Contemporary Society).   It’s a comprehensive look at questions Dutch society was wrestling with in the early 20th century, particularly under the influence of first-wave feminism.  It deals with what Scripture teaches about women and how biblical teaching applies today, but also surveys church history – Bavinck’s typical approach.  In what follows, I’ll summarize what he says in his chapter about women in the church.  I’ll be simply reporting what he writes.  In other words, this is only descriptive and not analytical/critical.

“Women in the Church” is the title of chapter 10 of De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij, the second-last chapter of the book.  It begins with the pre-Reformation church, noting the role of nuns in Christian philanthropy.  During the Reformation, some efforts were made to reorient this kind of diaconal service among women, but these efforts were hardly successful.  In some areas, efforts were made to have deaconesses, but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 decided that it was not advisable to reintroduce the office of deaconess in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  In exceptional circumstances such as a time of plague, however, the work of deacons could be done by their wives or other women.  According to Bavinck, this happened in places like Middelburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Emden.

Bavinck then turns his attention to a historical overview of women as pastors/preachers.  He notes that the Salvation Army was among the first to give a prominent role to women as church leaders.  This was owing especially to Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William.  Catherine Booth argued for the right for women to be preachers alongside men.  Others who pioneered women’s ordination were the Quakers, Congregationalists, Universalists, Unitarians, Methodists and, in the Netherlands the Mennonites and the Remonstrants.

Bavinck evaluates all these developments as being unbiblical.  He notes that Christ entrusted the ministry of the word to men, first to the apostles, and then to pastors and teachers.  The apostolic church never had any official ministry of the word and sacrament by women, nor any government of the church by women.  The apostle Paul said that women are to be silent in the congregation because to do otherwise would violate the natural order grounded in creation.             

Bavinck has a more positive evaluation of women serving in a general diaconal role.  In fact he says, the church “cannot do without women in this work.”  This includes things like Sunday school, care for the poor and the sick, care for the elderly, the support of pregnant women, and more.  He doesn’t think these activities need to be directly under the oversight of the church as an institution, but the church does have the calling to promote this kind of work where women use their gifts.

That leads into a discussion of the active role that women can play in missions.  He notes some figures for women serving on the mission field.  According to his figures, 160 women from America were serving as missionary doctors, and 2458 as “sisters in the mission” (zendingszusters).  Canada had 23 and 220, while Australia and New Zealand 2 and 94.  He also draws attention to the role that “missionary women’s associations” play on the home front, promoting and supporting the work of missions around the world.  Bavinck presents all of this in a positive light. 

Finally Bavinck comes to the controversial topic of women voting for office bearers in the church.  He begins this discussion with an overview of where things stand:  he notes that there are many churches in America, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland where women vote.  He points out that it was discussed and defended in the Netherlands as early as 1898 by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by pastors A.D.C Kok and C. Lindeboom.

Bavinck notes that the issue did not seem to be a pressing one in the Netherlands of his day.  Unlike in other countries, men were actively involved in Dutch church life and there didn’t seem to be any desire to have women voting for office bearers.  He writes that, with such indifference, it would be foolish to press the issue.

However, he notes that if we discuss it in principle, “there is little ground to condemn it.”  Bavinck argues that women are equal members of the church with men.  They have just as much an interest in having good office bearers as the men do.  Because of their nature as women, they tend to actually have quite a great deal of interest in religious matters.  Moreover, there are large numbers of widows, women married to “religiously indifferent men,” or women married to men who belong to another church.  Without being able to vote, such women are all stripped of the opportunity to have an influence on church life. 

Bavinck strengthens his argument by noting that while women under the authority of their husbands in the home, as church members they receive the same benefits and should receive the same rights.  He notes that young male communicant members who still live with their parents are subordinate to those parents, but yet they have the right to vote.  This is unfair.  Bavinck says the injustice becomes worse because women are allowed to raise objections to the election of an office bearer – yet they cannot vote.  Then he notes that the vote in the church is not an exercise of power.  The congregation only points out its preferences for office bearers; the consistory is responsible to call and appoint.

He maintains that there is only objection with any weight:  if women can vote in the church, it will not be long before the church will be forced to have women standing as candidates.  In other words, women’s voting will lead to women’s ordination. 

But Bavinck notes that this is an argument from fear.  It is an argument that often persuades fearful minds concerned about novelties in the church.  However, he points out, if the Scriptures are so strong that women may not serve as office bearers, then we have nothing to fear.  The clarity of the Bible should prevent any such development.

He then points out that it’s not unusual for people to be able to vote and not be able to stand as a candidate.  One does not follow from the other.  The requirements for eligibility to vote are often different from the eligibility requirements to stand as a candidate.  In the Dutch situation of his time, a public servant, clergyman or teacher was not allowed to be a candidate in a city council election.  Writes Bavinck, “Thus eligibility to any office in Scripture is bound by certain requirements, 1 Timothy 3; but no such limits are placed on the power to vote.”

Finally, Bavinck comes to a brief discussion of Scripture.  In Acts 1:15, in the meeting of the 120 people to replace Judas as apostle, women were certainly there (Acts 1:14).  True, Peter addresses the gathering as “Men and Brothers.”  That was common practice and it still was in the church of Bavinck’s day.  Even though they were present the sisters were never mentioned.  It’s therefore uncertain as to whether or not the women present participated in the process.  Other passages like Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23 likewise do not shed any light.  Bavinck concludes that while Scripture limits the offices of the church to men, there is no definite and clear statement about who may vote.

Indeed, it seems to Bavinck, in the ancient church women were not excluded from choosing bishops or making contributions to other ecclesiastical matters.  He points out that, in his day, in Germany there were Roman Catholic congregations where independent women had long been allowed to vote on the choice of a pastor.  Similar situations occur in the Netherlands, he says, proving that women have not always been excluded from the voting process in the congregation just because they are women. 

In his biography, Ron Gleason describes the reception of this book (pp.415-416).  It was especially the matter of women voting in the church that led to some negative evaluations by men such as Dammes Fabius and Seakle Greijdanus.  Gleason relates that Abraham Kuyper wrote his last letter to Bavinck about this book and indicated that the two of them had significant differences on the subject.  However, a footnote surmises that these differences may have been about women’s suffrage in civil society.  Given how Bavinck asserts that Kuyper defended women’s voting in the church, Gleason may be correct.

(Note: I haven’t yet read James Eglinton’s biography and what he may have to offer on this – it’s on my list of must-reads for 2021.)            


What’s Wrong With Hillsong?

Hillsong is one of Australia’s most well-known exports.  They’re known not only for their praise and worship music brand, but also for attracting celebrities like Justin Bieber.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently spoke at a Hillsong Conference.  He’s a member of a church that belongs to the Australian Christian Churches, to which Hillsong also belongs.

Hillsong is not just a church – it’s a global phenomenon.  Around the world, over 130,000 people attend Hillsong each week.  That could be a great thing if Hillsong was faithful to the Scriptures.  If they were faithfully preaching the gospel and following the Word of God, Hillsong could have a powerful impact.  But are they?

Last week, the ABC featured a piece on modern Pentecostalism in Australia.  This is how it opens:

It is Sunday morning at Hillsong’s megachurch in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria, and Pastor Natalie Pingel pauses mid-sermon to conduct an impromptu Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look-a-like contest.

She selects a group of buff parishioners and members of the band to line up on stage. Each takes turns flashing the crowd the actor’s signature raised eyebrow, to approval and gushing laughter.

Pastor Pingel then leads the congregation in prayer, the band plays anthemic rock music and the big screens either side of the stage light up with suggestions for what people can pray for.

The suggestions include financial stability, luck with job applications and visa approvals.

In these few words, there’s plenty indication that things are seriously wrong with Hillsong.  Even though they’re Pentecostal and, as such, claim to give more attention to the Holy Spirit, in reality they’re missing some key things the Spirit says.

Let’s start with the pastor.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Yet Hillsong flouts the Holy Spirit’s teaching and has a woman delivering a sermon.

What about the “look-a-like” contest?  Search the Spirit’s book to see if any such thing was ever done by the apostles.  In the Bible, did the apostles pursue “approval and gushing laughter”?  Surely not.  Instead, the apostles preached the Word of God and left these sorts of comedic antics for the theatre.  They followed the leading of the Holy Spirit who said, simply, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) – they didn’t add or take away from that.  They simply preached the Scriptures.

Next, notice the stage and “anthemic rock music.”  What associations do we commonly make with such things?  Entertainment.  Together with the comedy act, this doesn’t portray serious Christian worship in the presence of the Holy God, but an entertainment event.  What is this but “the itching ears” described by the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 4:3?

But most concerning of all in the ABC article is the portrayal of Hillsong as a purveyor of prosperity gospel teaching.  This is well-known.  Hillsong teaches that God wants believers to experience prosperity in this life.  This can manifest itself in different ways:  financial, health, relationships.  Becoming a Christian opens up access to all these blessings.  Christ died and rose again victorious to give Christians these blessings.  From time to time, they may still talk about the cross and give something of the true biblical gospel.  However, the emphasis falls on prosperity and success as the good news.

Even though the Spirit says it (Isa. 45:7, Lam. 3:38, Ps. 60:1-4, Ps. 66:10-12, Ps. 119:71), the idea that God would send adversity into the lives of believers because he loves them and wants to shape them is foreign to prosperity gospel churches. The Holy Spirit made most of the Psalms laments, but the prosperity gospel doesn’t know what to do with them.  In the New Testament, the Spirit-filled Jesus told his disciples that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 10:38).  In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas told the early Christians, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  But the idea of bearing the cross before wearing the crown doesn’t register in the prosperity gospel message.  Instead, it’s all about glory here and now.

Moreover, what’s missing is the biblical gospel message which the Spirit gave through Paul:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  And what did he come to save us from?  According to Romans 5:9, we are saved by Christ “from the wrath of God.”  That note is rarely, if ever, heard in prosperity gospel churches.

Let me conclude with a question someone is sure to raise:  could someone be genuinely saved at or through Hillsong?  Perhaps.  God can do amazing things despite people.  He does amazing things despite me.  So he could save people through Hillsong too and I sincerely hope he does.  But that’s beside the point.  If a Christian is looking for a more consistently biblical, gospel-preaching church, I’m afraid Hillsong just doesn’t fit the bill.  If a Christian is looking for a church aiming to follow what the Holy Spirit teaches about worship and the offices of the church, one can do far better than Hillsong.


CanRC Committee Recommends Termination of Relationship with RCN

The Canadian Reformed Churches have an attractive new website — you can find it here.  The new website is publishing the reports going to Synod Edmonton Immanuel in 2019.  Amongst them you can find this report from the Subcommittee for Relations with Churches in the Netherlands.  As expected, the CanRC committee is recommending the termination of ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Among the grounds are the following:

a.  The decision by Synod Meppel 2017 to admit females to ecclesiastical office is contrary to Scripture as shown in Appendix H of our report.

b.  It is highly unlikely that this decision will be reversed on appeal to the next general synod since Synod Meppel decided that the churches could ordain female office bearers immediately, and since the NGK with whom the GKv are in the process of uniting have been allowing female ordination for some time already.

c.  By the decision to permit female ordination the GKv has ignored the numerous warnings about unbiblical hermeneutics directed to their synods by the SRN as well as delegates of other sister churches since Synod Zwolle 2008. The GKv has also brushed aside the serious admonitions directed to Synod Ede by Synod Carman 2013 concerning the place of those unbiblical hermeneutics at the TUK as well as in the report Deputies M/F.

d.  The decision of Synod Meppel to work towards full unity with the NGK shows that the GKv have moved in the direction of those churches which have also opened the offices to females and which allow same-sex couples to remain members in good standing.

[…]

g.  A decision to discontinue the relationship with the GKv would be an encouragement to faithful members within the GKv to take action, and it would be a final call to the GKv as a whole to take stock of the direction of those churches which once stood with us on the same basis of Scripture and Reformed Confessions.

It seems inevitable that CanRC Synod 2019 will take the same step that FRCA Synod 2018 took and, sadly, end their long-standing relationship with the “mother church” in the Netherlands.


RCN Suspended from ICRC

By a vote of 25-4 (with two abstentions), the International Conference of Reformed Churches has decided to suspend the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN).  This comes after the RCN last month at their synod decided to open all the offices of the church to women.  The ICRC is one of the world’s most important ecumenical organizations for confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  It consists of over 30 churches from all over the world.  With this decisive action, the RCN receives a clear message that it is out of step with global Reformed Christianity.

The question of what to do with the RCN led to several hours of debate up to this point at the ICRC.  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church made the initial proposal, but found vocal support from the Canadian Reformed Churches, the United Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa, and others.  Voices were also heard cautioning against suspension — notably, the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA).  Rev. Dr. Rowland Ward from the PCEA was quoted in the Dutch press as arguing that the body had to come up with substantive biblical arguments to take action against the RCN.  He noted that several biblical passages could be understood at first glance as supporting women in office.  So, Dr. Ward said, “Why couldn’t there be freedom on this point?”  He was also quoted as saying that, for him, the RCN was still Reformed and suspension would not be appropriate “for a church that has been so faithful in our midst.”  In personal correspondence, however, Dr. Ward clarified that it was explicitly made clear that neither he nor the PCEA support women’s ordination.

Voting took place Monday on the OPC proposal (which can be found here).  The first, third, and fourth parts of that proposal passed readily 28-1.  It was the second part that took a little extra time:  to suspend the RCN immediately.  The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands proposed a substitute motion to give the RCN time until the next meeting to reconsider their membership.  This motion failed 8-21 with two abstentions.  The body then voted on the second part of the OPC proposal as presented and it passed without difficulty.

The RCN now has four years to repent of their decisions regarding women in office.  Since women are already being ordained in the RCN, it is difficult to see how such repentance could be effected federation-wide.  But if, somehow, they are able to reverse course, the RCN will continue to make valuable contributions to global ecumenicity through the ICRC.  If not, their membership in the organization they helped to found will be terminated in 2021 at its tenth annual meeting.


RCN in ICRC: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

Debate about the future of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN) as members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) has been continuing in Jordan, Ontario.  At their synod last month, the RCN fully adopted women’s ordination.  Anticipating this move, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church mandated their delegates to the ICRC to propose the suspension of the RCN.  Details of that proposal can be found here.

On Friday afternoon debate continued about the OPC proposal.  The delegates from several ICRC member churches vocally supported it.  Amongst them were the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa.  The OPC and others have been arguing that suspension of the RCN is necessary to preserve the integrity of the ICRC and its testimony to the world and other churches.  Such a move also sends a clear signal to the RCN and gives them the opportunity to reconsider and repent.  Above all, they argue, this course of action gives the most honour to the head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and the authority of his Word.  Tolerating the present situation is unacceptable.

During the two hour discussion, however, some delegates expressed opposition to the proposal to suspend the RCN.  The Christian Reformed Churches from the Netherlands (not related to the Christian Reformed Church in North America, but rather the sister churches of the Free Reformed Churches of North America) argued that more time was needed and suspension would be premature.  The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia also expressed discomfort with the OPC proposal, arguing not only that it was premature, but also that it was necessary to answer the RCN with carefully formulated biblical arguments.

Despite these reservations, there seems to be a consensus at the ICRC that the RCN is indeed out of step with the basis of the ICRC, namely the Scriptures as confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.  There’s therefore no question as to whether the RCN’s membership will be terminated in 2021 should they fail to reverse course on women’s ordination.  The present question is how to move forward at this meeting:  suspend or not.  The Christian Reformed Churches are reportedly preparing a counter-proposal to that of the OPC.

Debate continues on Monday with a vote expected later that day.