Tag Archives: Women’s voting

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.)            


Synod Dunnville 2016 (6)

(Photo: eeninwaarheid.info)

(Photo: eeninwaarheid.info)

We spent the weekend (and a bit more) without Internet.  As of last night, it’s back up and running and so I can continue the blogging about the recent CanRC Synod.  Today let’s review what happened on Day 6, Tuesday May 17.  I’m summarizing from the Provisional Acts found here.  Some of the highlights from where I’m sitting:

  • Article 86 mentions the appeal of Ancaster regarding Dr. Jitse van der Meer.  The discussion on that Tuesday was held in closed session.  We can skip ahead to Day 7 and article 103.  There we find that the decision in this matter is only going to appear in the confidential Acts.  And what happened to the Providence appeal?  It doesn’t appear again anywhere in the Provisional Acts.  I suspect that it might appear in the final, public version of the Acts.  We will have to see.
  • The matter of women’s voting was certainly something of interest at this Synod for a lot of people.  There’s a long history on this topic in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  It took a long time for the momentous decision at Synod 2010 recognizing that this is a matter for local churches to decide upon.  Synod 2010 left it in the freedom of local churches whether or not they wanted to allow female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers.  Numerous churches appealed that decision to Synod 2013 and it was overturned.  By then the horses were already out of the gate.  Churches that had been doing it since the decision of Synod 2010 continued doing it in the conviction that this was not agreeable to Scripture, Confessions, and Church Order.  More appeals were submitted to Synod 2016.  Consequently, this most recent Synod decided that Synod 2013 erred in its overturning of Synod 2010 on this matter.  Confused yet?  Let me make it simple:  the Canadian Reformed Churches are back to where they were after Synod 2010.  Whether female communicant members vote or not is a matter for local churches to decide.  My view on this has not changed.  I remain convinced that there are no sound biblical, confessional, or church political arguments that can be brought to bear against allowing female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers.  I understand that some local churches believe differently about it and thus I think the approach of Synod 2010 (buttressed now by GS 2016) is the best approach — really, it’s the only approach that can be justified.  I would urge readers to look carefully at the arguments presented by GS 2016 in the Acts.  For this post, I am going to open up the comments.  If you want to argue the case for the opposing view or make other comments, I’m giving you the opportunity.  However, please don’t expect that I’m going to interact.
  • Article 90 dealt with another topic relating to the role of women in church life, but this time in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA).  The Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA) recommended that the CanRCs offer ecclesiastical fellowship to the RPCNA.  This despite the fact that the RPCNA allows for women to be ordained as deacons.  The CCCNA pointed out that the RPCNA doesn’t consider the deacon to have “an office of ruling authority.”  Contrary to the CCCNA’s reasoning, Synod Dunnville decided that the RPCNA’s view on this matter did, in fact, constitute a significant obstacle to EF.  After all, article 30 of the Belgic Confession says that faithful men are to be deacons.  Moreover, they said (Consideration 3.2.3) that the office of deacon does “involve the exercise of authority in the church.”  It appears to be the end of the road for any possibility of formal relations with the RPCNA, though informal interactions will continue through venues like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

Appeals on Women’s Voting at CanRC Synod 2016

CanRC Synod Dunnville is coming up in May.  I just noticed this press release from Classis Central Ontario of March 11, 2016.  It was not a very eventful classis, but the press release does note that every single church in that classical district is appealing the decision of the last CanRC Synod on women’s voting.  I’m quite sure that there are other churches across the country doing the same.  Will Synod 2016 reverse course?  It will be very interesting to watch.


Synod Carman 2013 (5)

Our Synod finished its business last night.  Not all the Acts have yet been posted, but they should be soon.

Today I’ll make some comments about a few matters found in articles 113-134.

In article 122, there are some noteworthy decisions regarding the CanRC edition of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As mentioned here, the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise proposed a change to QA 115.  Synod decided to leave well-enough alone.  However, there were also a few changes proposed by one of the churches and a couple of these were taken over by the synod.  Answer 10 says that “He [God] is terribly displeased with our original sin…”  It will now read, “He is terribly angry with our original sin…”  In Answer 75, “everlasting life” will be changed to “eternal life” in order to make it consistent with Answer 79.

The matter of women’s voting came up again in article 125.  At Synod 2010, the Fellowship CanRC in Burlington appealed a decision of Regional Synod East on whether or not this issue was a matter of local regulations.  Synod 2013 decided that Synod 2010 erred in the way it handled that matter.  Synod 2013 then proceeded to deal with the appeal and denied it.  It reaffirmed that the issue of women’s voting is in fact a matter of the churches in common and not a matter for local churches to decide by their own regulations.

However, perhaps the most interesting items in these acts are found in the articles dealing with the United Reformed Churches.  From a superficial CanRC standpoint, the process is continuing.  Our committees were all reappointed.  Our church unity coordinators were also mandated to urge the URCNA to reappoint all their subcommittee counterparts.  Should those counterparts be reappointed or mandated with a call to engage the CanRC subcommittees, we will be ready and waiting for them.

But…there is a fly in the ointment here and it’s not a tiny one.  In article 126, in the “Considerations,” one can find interaction from some of the churches with the report of our Coordinators for Church Unity.  URC brothers who are paying attention will undoubtedly read some of this with concern.  Three local churches wrote letters to our synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the Canadian Reformed Churches.”   One church wondered whether the URCNA “has a clear picture of the Federal Vision movement.”  Though for the sake of honesty and transparency it’s necessary that these sentiments be expressed, I deeply regret that they live in our federation.  At least now the URCNA will have a clear justification for their concerns about pursuing full federative unity with us.  There are now official CanRC documents stating that there is sympathy for “some points of FV” in our churches.  One church wonders whether our brothers in the URC even understand the FV — that despite the fact that they’ve been engaging it and studying it at length for over a decade.  Let’s be realistic:  a merger in my lifetime is now certifiably a pipe dream.   If it happens, it will be nothing short of miraculous.  Moreover, those of us in the CanRC who are concerned about FV clearly have our work cut out for us.

The same article also has some more discussion about the status of the Nine Points of Schererville and the Fifteen Points of London.  Some of our churches continue to be concerned about the status of these points in the URCNA.  Our Coordinators have been mandated by this synod to get more clarity on that point, while at the same time discouraging the URCNA from “making further statements of this nature.”  Does anyone else see the problem there?  We need more clarity on what these points mean to the URCNA, but we also urge them to stop making statements “of this nature.”  The nature of these points is unclear — that’s what the CCU is mandated to clarify.  How can we urge them to stop making statements like this until we have a clear understanding of the nature of these statements?

Over the last few years, I’ve not been hopeful for the prospects of federative unity between the URCNA and CanRC.  Today I’m disappointed to say that I’m even less so.  Whatever momentum we’ve had in the last few years is likely to be torpedoed by what our URC brothers read in the Acts of Synod Carman 2013.  This grieves me and, even more importantly, I can’t believe that this would be pleasing to the Lord.


Synod Carman 2013 (4)

Synod Carman 2013 -- photo courtesy of Rev. D. Boersema.

Synod Carman 2013 — photo courtesy of Rev. D. Boersema.

As Phil Robertson would say, “Now we’re cooking with peanut oil.”   There are several very interesting items in yesterday’s Acts.

Synod made a decision about Bible translations.  The ESV is now the recommended translation in the Canadian Reformed Churches, having supplanted the 1984 NIV.  Synod refrained from recommending the NIV2011 for use or testing in the churches.  However, the Committee for Bible Translation was tasked with doing further study of both the NIV2011 and the ESV.

There were a number of decisions pertaining to the Book of Praise (with more to come).  One of the decisions was in regard to the Abbreviated Form for the Lord’s Supper.  I predicted that the recommendation of the Committee would be followed and the words “For the Second Service” would be dropped.  It didn’t happen.  The Synod decided to keep the words, citing as grounds the fact that the Committee still needs to interact with the reasoning of Synod Smithville 1980.

But the biggest surprise of all has to do with women voting for office bearers.  My prognosis postulated that the status quo would prevail.  I was wrong.  Many churches appealed the decision of Synod 2010 to leave this matter in the domain of local churches.  Synod 2013 was persuaded by the arguments presented and has overturned that decision.  A 180 degree turnaround is rare in the Canadian Reformed Churches, but that’s what has happened here.  Let me give the full text of the recommendations that were adopted:

4. Recommendations
Synod decide:
4.1 That Synod Burlington 2010 erred on church political grounds in its decision to leave the matter of women’s voting in the freedom of the churches.
4.2 That Synod Burlington 2010 erred in stating that the exegetical sections brought forward in both the majority and minority reports are “hardly relevant or decisive for the matter of women’s voting”.
4.3 That the churches should return to the voting practice as it officially was before 2010,  namely, male communicant members only voting.

This decision doesn’t affect our congregation in Providence, but I can think of some who will not be happy with this.  This issue is not over, not by far.