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Article Thirty-One

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   December 1, 1990   |  Type: Articles

In 1944 much debate took place in the Netherlands about Article 31 of the Church Order of the Gereformeerde Kerken. Professor Klaas Schilder and those associated with him argued that their synod had exceeded its authority under Article 31. Opponents of Schilder charged him with abusing Article 31. Many came to refer to the churches that rejected GKN synodical authority following the suspension and deposing of Schilder as the “Article 31 churches.” What was this Article 31 and why was it so important?

Article 31 in the Church Order of the Gereformeerde Kerken read: “If someone concludes that an injustice has been done to him by the decision of a minor assembly, he can appeal to the broader assembly. The decision reached by the majority of votes shall be received as binding, unless it is proven that it is in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order.”

The synod of the GKN claimed that Schilder violated Article 31 by not accepting the decisions of synod as settled and binding. It was on that basis that Schilder was suspended and deposed. He had not submitted to the decision of the majority.

Schilder replied that the synod had acted in a tyrannical and hierarchical fashion. He maintained that synod had sought to bind him by doctrines that were not in the confession and that were contrary to the Word of God. He believed that the synod had violated Article 31 by usurping authority not given to it under Article 31.

1990 is the centennial of Schilder's birth, and the struggles and accomplishments of his life are on many minds. It is surely very ironic, then, that in 1990 the Christian Reformed Church is having its own troubles with Article 31 of its Church Order. Our Article 31 is not the same as that of the GKN in 1944. But it certainly raises very similar concerns.

Article 31 of the Church Order of the CRC reads: “A request for revision of a decision shall be submitted to the assembly which made the decision. Such a request shall be honored only if sufficient and new grounds for reconsideration are presented.”

Did the CRC synod act tyrannically this year when it moved to amend the Church Order to open church offices to women without offering “sufficient and new grounds” for that action? After all, the Synod of 1985 had ruled that the offices of minister and elder were closed to women. Did synod ignore the provisions of the Church Order? Did it have the right to do so?

Someone said at synod this year - in jest, I hope - that synod can do whatever it wants. Any notion that synod can do whatever it wants is clearly tyrannical. Synod's authority is ministerial. Our churches entrust synod with the responsibility to minister the Word of God in those areas that affect the churches in common. Under the Word of God synod looks to the confessions and Church Order to direct its work. Synod's function is to serve the churches by administering the responsibilities that have been entrusted to it faithfully. Was the Synod of 1990 faithful in its administration this year? The only objective answer possible is that it was not faithful. Synod ignored the Church Order which binds synod as much as it binds every classis and consistory. Article 31 required the synod to present as reasons for its action on women in office “new and sufficient grounds.” The synod did not do that.

The synod offered three grounds for its action, but none of them responds to the action of the Synod of 1985 in ruling that the offices of minister and elder are closed to women. The first ground presented by the Synod of 1990 said that Report 26 did not offer “clear biblical and confessional grounds for extending the 'headship principle' from marriage to the church.” But the failure of Report 26 to present such grounds is not a sufficient reason to overturn the decision of the Synod of 1985 which was based on a very full study of the Bible presented to the Synod of 1984. Further, the Synod of 1975 had declared “that the practice of excluding women from the ecclesiastical offices recognized in the Church Order be maintained unless compelling biblical grounds are advanced for changing that practice.” What biblical grounds did the synod this year offer to fulfill the requirement laid down by the Synod of 1975?

The second ground offered by the Synod of 1990 is that the ordination of women is not a creedal matter, but a church order matter. Presumably this ground means to say that since it is only a church order matter, biblical arguments are not necessary for such a change. Synod's reasoning here is entirely fallacious. It is true, as the Synod of 1989 stated, that the issue is not creedal, but a matter of church order. But the Synod of 1989 also noted that the matter had been handled in that way “at least since 1978” (Acts of Synod 1989, p. 433). Yet much study of the Bible has gone into this church order matter since 1978. This ground by no means exempts the Synod of 1990 from the obligation to offer biblical evidence for its action.

The third ground notes that in the past, synods have left some church order matters up to the local consistory to implement or not. This ground also does not offer any “compelling” or any “sufficient or new” biblical evidence for this momentous change in our church life.

The action of Synod 1990 was tyrannical, judged purely from the perspective of Church Order Article 31. In 1990 as in 1944, Article 31 is at the center of our church struggles. 

Previously published in The Outlook, December 1990 by Reformed Fellowship Inc. Used with permission.

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