Christian Renewal: Overall, what is your reaction to the recent decision of Synod 1992?
Dr. Robert Godfrey: My reaction? Overall, I was pleased and relieved that they did not ratify the decision of 1990 and was disappointed that they did not do that on a more clearly biblical and principial basis. So on that point I was very pleased with the action although not so pleased with the grounds. On the matter of urging the churches to make full use of women's gifts, I certainly concur in that as a general principle but regret what I see as some ambiguity in what they actually urged the churches to allow women to do.
CR: Could you clarify what you see as the ambiguity?
Godfrey: Well, I already hear some people in the secular press and some of the religious press saying that this allows women to do all the work of the ministry at least in terms of preaching, teaching, and exercising pastoral care without being ordained. I don't think in fact that is what that motion can mean in light of our church order, but I think it does point to the ambiguity in the decision in terms of potential for confusion in the churches as to what it allows and doesn't allow.
CR: Could you explain what you mean, in terms of the church order, about women not being allowed to do certain things?
Godfrey: The church order makes it very dear that ministers are to conduct worship services and to preach in the worship services, and the only exceptions allowed in the church order to that are people who are licensed in the first place or people who are reading a sermon authorized by the consistory in the absence of a minister or a licensed person. This recent action by the synod does not permit women to be licensed and therefore it seems to me it does not permit them to conduct public worship services or do anything similar to preaching.
CR: Do you believe there is a difference between expounding and exhorting as used by Synod 1992?
Godfrey: I think there has to be a difference since exhorting is a somewhat technical term in our church order for what licensed persons do in leading the service and therefore synod by choosing not to use the word exhort is clearly separating its recommendations from what the church order provides that licensed persons can do. That to my mind supports the notion that women have not been authorized to preach or exhort by this action of synod.
CR: Following the 1990 decision of synod you had spoken to approximately 1,100 people in Grand Rapids stating among other things that churches make mistakes, that if the only thing synod had done wrong was the 1990 women-in-office decision you would be calling for a secession but in light of other matters in the Christian Reformed Church you called for secession in 1992 should the decision be ratified. Could you comment on your position in 1990 and whether Synod 1992 has changed your position on the need for a secession?
Godfrey: Well, I said in 1990 that we would probably need a secession if the change in the church order was ratified, sealing us as a denomination to what I regard as a serious misuse of Scripture, signaling a more basic problem in the life of the church of how Scripture functions as an authority among us. Since synod didn't ratify it seems to me a secession is not presently necessary. I don't mean that the church has turned around and all its problems are behind it, by any means. But I think it gives us time to go on talking to one another and for those of us who want to hold to our Reformed heritage to bear witness as to how Scripture should function as an authority in the church. So I don't see the necessity of a secession at this point.
CR: As you are aware, there are certain conservatives in the denomination who have said unless synod formally repents of its action, secession is necessary. Do you feel that synod has repented of its 1990 decision rather than simply failed to ratify and do you have any comments on the position of those conservatives who fell that repentance was necessary?
Godfrey: I think the insistence that synod repent is a difficult matter to insist on. The Synod of 1990 no longer exists and therefore it’s not in a position to repent of anything that it did. I think that Synod of 1992 has rejected the action of the Synod of 1990 which is probably all that can be reasonably expected that it do. I think perhaps what some conservatives meant is that they were going to leave unless they could see a real turnaround in the church’s attitude toward Scripture and its function as an authority in our midst. As I’ve said, I don’t think we’ve seen that turnaround, but I still have some hopes that such a turnaround might take place. I can understand that some conservatives feel compelled to leave over these issues, that they don’t feel the church has made enough progress, and I don’t particularly want to criticize them, but I don’t share that conviction.
CR: The majority report allowing women to teach, expound the word, and provide pastoral care was signed by at least five known conservatives, Dr. Joel Nederhood, Prof. H. David Schuringa, Rev. Don Wisse, Rev. Allen Petroelje, and Elder Doug Vande Griend. If they had joined with the four signers of the conservative minority, they would have made that minority report the majority report; 9 of the 17 members. Could you comment on that turn of events?
Godfrey: Well, I don't know why they chose the path they did rather than joining with the minority two and I don't feel that I'm in a position to second-guess or criticize their action. I personally would wish they had joined with minority two, but they might have felt that minority two did not stand as good a chance on the floor of synod of passage and I think we should be very cautious in criticizing them. As I say I personally wish and I think had I been there I would have acted if in support of minority two but they for a variety of reasons felt that was not the best way to go.
CR: As a conservative you do not support the majority report. Do you think it is a good or bad thing that other conservatives did support it?
Godfrey: As I say, I think the majority report did one good thing. It saw that the ordination of women to the office of minister and elder was not ratified and to that extent I, of course, support what they did. What I don't support is what I think are grounds that I wish were stronger and an ambiguous action as to what we are urging women to do in the life of the church. So what I would have preferred is more clarity and more sharply articulated biblical grounds for the action. I wish other conservatives had taken that course, but I want to respect them for what they did in the circumstances they face.
CR: Do you think that the Back to God Hour and Westminster Seminary will be hurt by Nederhood and Schuringa’s actions at all?
Godfrey: I don't have any way of knowing. I would hope not. I think in the first place, both of those institutions are larger than the single individuals involved. I think in the second place Dr. Nederhood and Prof. Schuringa have served the church in a variety of ways over many years and it would be very unfair of the church to turn on these two men for a single action that people may disagree with.
CR: What’s the general reaction down at Westminster to the synodical action?
Godfrey: Well, a lot of people are away on vacation, especially students. We have very few students around now. I think in general there's a sense of relief that the action wasn't ratified and a sense that the need to continue to try to communicate our conservative understanding goes on. I just saw the report of the Orthodox Presbyterian fraternal delegate to our synod and they seemed pleased by the progress they thought conservatives have made at our synod .
CR: Now obviously more than just conservatives are unhappy with the synod decision, considering the women's protest on the floor of synod. Do you believe this proposal can work?
Godfrey: The proposal cannot work to satisfy the far left in the church. There's no doubt that those who believe in women's ordination will continue to work for that cause. The way in which the proposal will work is to give us all more time to think and to talk about how we as a church should try to live under the Scriptures. It also means that conservatives will not have to face the issue of conscience as to whether they can attend classis and synod meetings with women officebearers, so this decision works to give us time. Whether it works to renew us in biblical commitment remains to be seen. As it stands it doesn't move us very far to a renewed biblical commitment to the Scriptures as our authority in the life of the church.
Previously published in Christian Renewal July 20, 1992.
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