Overturning 150 years of tradition, the 314,000 member Michigan-based Christian Reformed Church has taken a step toward opening all offices of the church to women, including those of elder and minister.
Delegates voted 99 to 84 this week at the 1990 Synod in Grand Rapids, Mich., to "permit churches to use their discretion in utilizing the gifts of women members in all the offices of the church."
However, because opening those offices to women involves changes in the denomination's church order -- striking the word "male" from all references to church office holders -- women cannot officially be ordained until the changes are ratified at the 1992 Synod.
In 1984, the church cleared the way for female deacons. In the Christian Reformed Church, deacons are lay officers of "mercy and service to the congregation" who prepare church budgets, administer benevolence funds and transact other church business. Elders are higher-ranking lay officers who are responsible for the "spiritual needs" of a congregation and supervise preaching and the sacraments.
According to a statement issued by the denomination, the vote followed nearly eight hours of discussion centering on what the denomination refers to as the "headship principle" -- the concept that men are "heads" of women in marriage.
For 20 years, the Christian Reformed Church has been engaged in often divisive debate over whether "headship" applies to the roles of men and women in church as well as in marriage.
Although the denomination has not permitted the ordination of women, at least one church, in Washington, has ordained female elders. That church was ordered by the 1989 Synod to refrain from the practice.
In voting to ordain women as ministers, the Christian Reformed Church moves a step closer to its sister church in the United States, the Reformed Church in America.