March 20, 2008

Post to RCUS Forum, by C. W. Powell


I apologize for the length of this post, but I believe that the readers of this forum will find it provocative.

Dear Ray, Frank, and All,

Things are not always what they seem.

For the sake of full disclosure, it would be well to review the history of the matter of women voting in the RCUS. I would iterate as well as re-iterate it later that I am in full agreement with the actions of Synod on this matter.

1. The original three position papers were adopted but not implemented, as has been reported. They were adopted a number of years before my time in the RCUS. The lack of consensus was indicated by the fact that they were simply sent to the churches with advice to study them. I was new in classis and did not understand what a "position paper" was, but I knew that it was different from, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the RCUS Constitution, which bind the congregations. The position papers did not. When I asked some old ministers, I was told that the papers are advice. I have only a very vague remembrance of the debate, but there must have been a great hesitation on the part of the delegates to impose the matter on the churches. The papers themselves were adopted many years before they were recommended to the churches for study, as I remember.

I never considered position papers to be amendments or additions to the creeds. The creeds are the foundations of our unity.  The position papers are often forces of disunity. The commandment which establishes human authority [the fifth] requires honor to both father and mother. It might be unwise to have a position paper that has the potential of setting mother
against father. Do not think this has not happened. But then, this is a private opinion, but a well-considered one.

In Anderson, when we entered the Eureka Classis, our church adopted male-only voting. Just before I left there, in 1986, the congregation changed its constitution to permit all over 21 to vote. I never considered either position to be binding on the churches, for many churches in the denomination allowed women voting at that time.

2. This consideration was confirmed in 1986 when the church in Colorado Springs was admitted to the Reformed Church in the U. S. Classis approved our constitution, which allowed women voting. We were required to have the name "Reformed" in our name which we were glad to do, and advised to have male only voting. We changed our name from Trinity Covenant Church to Trinity Covenant Reformed Church, but did not change the voting.
We reported both to Classis. We never thought we were required to have male-only voting. No action was taken by classis, confirming our thought.

3. Later, a committee was appointed on church government by synod and brought in a lengthy report with recommendations. One recommendation was to change the RCUS constitution to male-only voting. The recommendation was passed and sent to the classes. It was defeated with two classes opposing, two supporting. This action of the denomination confirmed that the papers were not binding on the churches.

Did everyone submit to this decision by the denomination? Of course not. You only preach submission when you win. So the synod decisions were ignored, nobody said we should submit to this decision of synod; instead the papers were dragged out again and touted as the last word, which they were not. In fact, some will think that this letter shows that Powell cannot submit to authority, even though I support this decision of synod and they do not. Amazing! I have counted the possible price that is paid for not being politically correct, and am willing to pay it. But, clearly the denomination refused to bind the churches in the constitution to the position papers.

4. The next year a resolution was introduced to change the bylaws of synod to not receive any more churches to the denomination that had women voting. The resolution was debated and defeated decisively.

Did all submit to the decision of synod? Of course not. Two classes decided they would make up for the short-sighted unfortunate decision of synod by passing their own bylaws not permitting any women-voting churches to be admitted.   Though certainly within their legal rights to pass such a bylaw, they certainly were not in the spirit of submission to synod, I
do not believe, but divisive. I supported the decisions of synod and have not attempted to undermine them by trying to get bylaws passed in classis contradicting and subverting the decision of synod. Of course it is easy to submit when you agree; it is much harder when you disagree. The critical thing is that those who aggressively sought the prohibition against
women voting did not submit to the decision of the denomination nor to the decision of synod, but continue to aggressively push the position papers as "the official position."

5. Shortly after, a matter arose in one of our churches that had a proposal to amend its constitution to male-only voting.  The question was asked whether it was all right for an elder to oppose the "position paper" and not support male-only voting. A committee was appointed by synod and took several years to bring a conclusion. The conclusion, approved by synod, was that the position papers were "judicial advice." As such they could not be a basis for discipline, but could be used as witnesses in discipline. In other words, the elder was off the hook for opposing the position paper. This was the third vote, affirming that the position papers are not binding on the churches or its officers.

Did all submit to this decision of synod? Of course not. It has been completely ignored, and the position papers are continually dragged out and attempts are made to bind the consciences of people in terms of them, and nothing is said about submitting to three decisions of synod which clearly defined them as not binding upon the churches or their officers.

6. When the mission manual was adopted, a provision was made that mission churches must adopt male-only voting. It was passed. I did not object, to my shame, of what was and is an unconstitutional provision. In those days I could be intimidated by the words like "submit" and "sissy." In fact, a few years later a provision in the manual about congregational nominations was changed because it reflected something that was contradicted in the RCUS constitution. But the unconstitutional male-only provision remained. I was tired of fussing about it. I will be dead and in heaven probably before the contradiction is resolved. But the revision of the manual to remove the nomination provision confirmed the conviction that the constitution trumps the position papers and the missions manual.

Because inflaming rhetoric ["Sissy churches let women vote"] and by ignoring the clear decisions of synod, sometimes a position can come to have a de facto status, when the legal foundation for its "official" status is shaky. Those who voted against the constitutional revision were publicly castigated from the pulpit at synod, and the claim was made that the RCUS would be liberal in 20 years because of their vote. New ministers are told what the "official position" is, quoting the position papers and omitting the synodical decisions. People
make pronouncements that are short or wide of the reality, and others take them for gospel. And so tradition becomes the status quo. The de facto position is the one you try to get when you cannot get the legal one, but the de facto can be very powerful in intimidating those who do not know the facts. I heard a minister emphatically telling a mission church, "Women do not vote in the RCUS." It wasn't and isn't the truth, of course. But it is very human to state as truth what you wish to be the truth.

I do not attribute evil motives or dark deceit to those who have done such things; I attribute it to an excess of zeal for things strongly believed, which zeal is very normal and natural.  Sometimes our "position" has been overstated by delegates to other Reformed bodies. I admire the zeal but not the results of the zeal.

The "official" position of the RCUS is defined by these decisions. I have tried to live and teach in submission to each one of them. I wish others would be as submissive as I have been [wow! I cannot believe I wrote that--sounds pretty smug, doesn't it?]

I have been married to the same delightful and godly woman for more than 45 years. I know the difference between getting married and getting a wife, for they are not the same thing. We have had our share of differences, but I have never thought that it was an affront to my masculinity or Scripture to allow her to have some areas of independent thought and freedom. She has money out of our budget to spend as she pleases, she planned the redesigning of her kitchen, and even chose the house we live in very happily today.

I am not a micro-manager, and think it sinful to be one. God gave her a brain and sometimes she is right in what she thinks.  We do discuss everything and do not make decisions until we agree on them. I wear authority lightly because I don't need to do otherwise. I am absolutely certain that she will do me good and not evil all the days of my life. My heart safely trusts in her.

I have also learned that if she has a difference from me, her idea of getting my attention would not be going to the annual meeting of the church and canceling my vote. She has other much more effective ways. We have been under a constitution where she did not vote and under one where she did. She is completely indifferent to the matter, but has always been content to live under the covenant of the church. If I thought it sin for her to vote, I would not join a church that permitted her to vote, and certainly not to raise a fuss and subvert the church. But in all my study of church history, I have not found that to be one of the marks of the true church. We have adapted and submitted to the constitution we live under, which all members swear to do when they agree to live at peace with God's people.

If a woman is in rebellion to the very clear teachings of the Bible concerning submission to her husband, she will not likely be persuaded by a church constitution based upon doubtful exegesis. If a young husband is having trouble with a rebellious wife, it will probably not be effective for him to point to the church constitution and say, "See, you can't vote. This means you have to do what I say." He is in deep doo-doo [not a theological term] if he must resort to such. I have not found it effective either in family or in church to say, "Shut up and do as you are told." It does work sometimes, but the cost of compliance may be heavy indeed. It won't help to call the man a sissy for not doing it. Maybe some of you know a different kind of  people than I know, but I don't think so.

An intelligent godly woman is a tremendous asset. Nabal was extremely lucky [in a Calvinist sense, of course] that he had such a wife in Abigail, or David and his men would have made sausage out of Nabal's whole household. Of course, David was extremely lucky [again in a strict Calvinist sense], for if he had made sausage of Nabal, Nabal's slander of David ["There be many servants who run away from their masters nowadays"] that David was simply an outlaw terrorist would have been justified and his cause lost. Thus the wisdom of a godly woman.

But you know the women in your church. If you have to put leashes on them, so be it. But maybe you wouldn't have to if you thought you didn't have to.

I would wish that the position papers would be re-examined on the subject of women voting. I think they are flawed deeply in application and flawed somewhat in exegesis. I cannot support them and do not think that the actions of the church require me to do so. If people are saying that we have an "official position" and that the officers of the church must do something about
it, then it is time to deliver these officers from the slander that is implied because of the ignorance of our position. The fact that there are churches that still have women voting is simply that there is no legal position to force them to change. Nor biblical reason either, in my view, not in a Presbyterian order. In a congregational church, maybe--but not in a church ruled by elders.

Three times the synod voted clearly NOT to coerce churches to comply with the three position papers. In the beginning the old Eureka Classis simply commended them to be studied. I did that, agreed with them for a time in my innocence, but came later to see the flaws in the exegesis and application and now reject them. I am more than ready to debate the exegesis and the application. I am in submission to these three votes of synod.  On the other hand, I will be perfectly content to have the issue go away and the churches live in peace, according to their own understanding of the matter.

Those who have read this far and desire more affliction can find my article on "Intemperate Applications" at Go to the link on Index for all articles and scroll down until you find the link.

Have fun and keep your powder dry, as Gene Sawtelle would say.  But don't shoot at each other or at your own foot; shoot at me; I am old and can take it.

C. W. Powell
New Geneva Theological Seminary
Trinity Covenant Church:
Basket of Figs: