Women’s Ordination in the EPC: Learning from the CRC

The EPC occupies a rare place in Reformed evangelicalism. We allow for the ordination of women, but we do not require our officers to affirm women’s ordination, nor require churches to ordain women, and permit presbyteries to have male-only teaching elders. This subject is one of the few the EPC has formally identified as a “non essential” where there is room to disagree.

The EPC is not unique in our approach. The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC), which is an official ecumenical partner of the EPC, has a very similar position. Unlike the EPC, which was founded in 1981 and has had this position on women’s ordination since then, the CRC is a church with its roots in the Neo Calvinist movement in the mid-19th century and only began allowing women’s ordination 25 years ago. That led to schism and the formation of the URCNA. For the EPC, the issue is one we have settled from the outset: freedom for all views. For the CRC, the ordination of women is seen as part of a larger trajectory, for good or for ill.

How’s that going? Following the CRC’s recent adoption of their human sexuality report, a group has emerged calling for the church to adopt a third way, allowing room to agree to disagree on LGBT issues. They cite the CRC’s success with women’s ordination as an example of this possibility. CRC Pastor Eric Van Dyken assessed the state of things recently, and this excerpt is worth including at length.

I think that premise is worth challenging, and I do so from the perspective of a complementarian. A foundational fact that the proponents do not mention, or seem to grapple with, is that in the wake of the decisions of synod to open up the authoritative church offices to women, the CRC lost upwards of 15 percent of its membership. The 1990s saw an exodus of around 50,000 members, many leaving directly because of the change in doctrine and practice on Women in Office…

Beyond the reality of immediate fracture caused by the CRC’s decision hold to dual and oppositional positions on Women in Office, the subsequent years have perhaps not been as rosy as presented when viewed from the complementarian position.

It seems likely, if not certain, that all of the proponents of a Third Way are egalitarian in belief and often practice. One wonders just how much they have “centered” or even considered the perspective of complementarians. The fact that the CRC at the institutional level has become overwhelmingly egalitarian seems to have escaped them. In other words, the balance we profess is not the balance we practice. At present, the complementarian view seems to be begrudgingly tolerated, at best, and is increasingly impugned and slandered within the CRC. 

Following are some of the ways that this imbalance appears in the life of the CRC:

    • Ministry share dollars support the Women’s Leadership office, which “affirms and supports women in all levels of leadership.” What this means is that complementarian churches are asked to financially support teaching and advocacy that directly contradicts their convictions. 
    • The CRC institutionally celebrates the anniversaries of the Women in Office decisions of synod.
    • Every Synod (not every other year, commensurate with our dual position) is entirely egalitarian, including:
      • Women delegates
      • Women Pastors leading worship
      • Women Pastors serving communion
      • Women in Office celebrations
      • Approval of Women Pastoral Candidates
    • Nearly all denominational materials are predicated on egalitarian convictions
    • A national figure who is militantly and slanderously opposed to complementarianism is invited in and featured by CRC publications and CRC offices

Synod 2022 was told during a power and privilege training that “we want to ensure that we are creating space for every voice to be heard.” However, from the complementarian perspective, that does not ring very true. When Classis Minnkota delegates seek to preserve unity while assuaging their consciences in a short and respectful word of protest amidst a full week of egalitarian synod, we see a Banner article about the deep hurt Minnkota is causing. In addition, word now comes of an overture from Classis Niagara requesting to silence Classis Minnkota’s voice.  Shouldn’t that make us wonder how our stated intention for balance is working out? 

Complementarian convictions are violated, even provocatively, over the course of a whole week of synod, but a short explanation of our position in the agenda and a quick word of respectful protest is not greeted with understanding and recognition of its rightful place in our denomination but rather with declination and distrust. This is not the dynamic of a long-term workable balance.

“Everything not prohibited is compulsory”. Once permitted, affirmation becomes required. This is easy to understand: being a principled complementarian pastor in an egalitarian-allowing denomination means you believe your female peers should surrender their ordination credentials and choose a different vocation. And the women pastors and egalitarian men know this. And to the women, their ordination is not incidental, but essential to their sense of calling. This leads to inevitable tension and confrontation, which the CRC is still addressing.

So far the EPC has managed to avoid the pitfalls plaguing the CRC. I hope that continues to be the case, but that will require an intentional learning from the CRC. Let’s maintain our culture and values: charity in all things, including disagreement over the ordination of women.

That can be achieved through several routes. The first is the insistence that the ordination of women is a non-essential doctrine. The subject is not addressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and so lies outside the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures. We need to insist that our officers believe this when they vow agreement with our Standards. Both men and women, complementarian and egalitarian, need to acknowledge that this is not a confessional issue, and is therefore, on the terms of their own solemn word, non-essential to the life of the church. Maintaining this as a non-essential keeps the temperature low and makes it easier to uphold a charitable culture around the issue.

Second, is recognizing that complementarians who reject the ordination of women are not sexist for doing so. This is the historic and majority view of Christianity. Acting like complementarians in their votes and actions in the church (i.e. voting against the ordination of women; declining to serve on committees with women officers) is part of the allowed view. The EPC allows complementarian officers, not simply complementarian views. Therefore, the complementarian officers should be free to act like it. Otherwise, the freedom of conscience taught in the Westminster Confession and the EPC Book of Government is meaningless.

Third, complementarians need to recognize the validity of women’s ordination in the EPC, even if they believe it to be erroneous. The issues lies outside our confessional system, the good order of the church allows for the ordination of women, and all our officers, including complementarians, vow submission to our polity. This means that complementarians should not be in a tizzy when women officers fully participate in the courts of the church, nor be outraged when courts of the church ordain and celebrate women officers. Female officers have been legitimately ordained by the church acting in good order.

Fourth, our courts, especially General Assembly, should remain conscientious of our denomination’s diversity on this point. Our courts should not be ashamed to have women in leadership and in participation, but should also not use their Christian liberty and bully pulpit to either hector or alienate the complementarians in attendance.