A dominant Roman cultural influence that shaped ancient Corinth was the pater familias: the power exerted by the oldest living male in the household. His control was not only legally sanctioned but often autocratic and even violent. In such a family, one did not question authority, one did not have a voice. The church in Corinth reflected this broader social phenomenon insofar as it showed partiality to members who possessed worldly power and authority. Instead of imitating Christ crucified in mutual submission and sacrificial service, wealthy and culturally sophisticated Corinthian church members lorded it over their poorer and weaker. By doing so, they were guilty of transgressing the Word of Christ and the spiritual polity of his church (cf. 1 Cor. 1-2).
The RCSA has been embroiled in a debate over women in office (WIO) for decades, with the first point of description tabled before 1988. In 2009, a definitive decision was made – based on careful exegesis of Scripture – against women in special office. Despite petitions of protest against said decision and attempts to declare WIO a non-essential/non-confessional doctrine, the 2009 decision was upheld at Synods in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2018.
In January 2023, the RCSA convened for its Fifth General Synod since the reintegration of Regional Synods formerly divided along racial lines. Conspicuous on its agenda were matters that related to those congregations – a significant minority – that have ordained female elders despite Synod’s decisions to the contrary. In other words, these churches have openly defied Article 31 of the RCSA Church Order by failing to submit to a binding decision of a broader assembly. No dissenting church has historically lodged a successful appeal.
RCSA 2023 Synod: WIO and discipline
Despite the above history of studying, debating, and deciding on WIO, Synod 2023 ruled not to discipline churches contravening Article 31 by openly ordaining female elders, some of which did so more than a decade ago. Discipline would have involved not seating at Synod delegates who hold office at dissenting churches, because such individuals cannot take the open declaration (to honour one’s ordination vows pursuant to the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order) honestly.
Effectively, almost all discussion of WIO and rebellious churches was silenced – ironically, on church orderly grounds. The catalyst for this were appeals against Regional Synod Pretoria for not following the letter of the Church Order when, in 2022, it barred delegates who came from churches that had ordained female elders.
Instead of dealing with the matter threatening to divide the RCSA, Synod decided to debate for days the intricacies of judicial applications of Articles 31 and 46. Instead of proceeding with previous Synod decisions against WIO on Scriptural, confessional, and church orderly grounds, Synod 2023 decided to re-open study on the matter for another three years with the following questions:
- Are previous decisions regarding WIO of such biblical and confessional significance that dissenters can be deemed to take the open declaration dishonestly, thereby effectively separating themselves from the fellowship of the RCSA?
- To answer the first question, both sides of the biblical and theological debate around WIO will be revisited yet again.
- How should the RCSA address churches that fail to uphold other articles of the Church Order? In other words, how should binding Article 31 decisions be applied in general?
- Has the RCSA evolved in its sentiments towards WIO to the extent that it has now become a matter of freedom at the local church level in the name of love and tolerance for the end of unity?
Related and further evidence of the RCSA’s softening on matters of discipline:
- It is one thing for churches outside Potchefstroom to ordain female elders. It is of greater concern when the “mother” church on the campus of the Faculty of Theology in Potchefstroom – whose membership includes a number of professors of the Faculty – decides to open all offices to women. For one such professor to declare on the floor of Synod 2023 that his wife is an elder and she has good reason to be one, in light of his wife’s father’s theological resumé, is not only brazen but adds insult to injury. As far as I know, and as in the case of Professor Koos Vorster below, no disciplinary action has been taken by his home church consistory or the RCSA Curators.
- The RCSA continues to have ecumenical unity, ties or contact with churches that have openly ordained female elders/pastors and are considering endorsing same-sex unions or have already done so.
- Despite North-West University (NWU) insisting on a parting of ways with the RCSA’s seminary, Theological Seminary Potchefstroom (TSP), separation will take place in a phased approach over the next three years. It has become obvious over the past few decades that the theological progressivism of the university has eroded orthodoxy in the RCSA. Yet, the RCSA will continue a relationship with NWU for years to come.
- The Curators of the RCSA failed to discipline Prof. Rev. Vorster for his unequivocal open endorsement of monogamous same-sex unions.
Reasons that were given from the floor of Synod 2023 for “loving and tolerant” unity on WIO and related matters:
- Strict due process in the application of the Church Order. This is patently ironic seeing that division in the RCSA is about the failure to abide by the Church Order.
- Conceptions of “love” and “tolerance” without any reference to the third mark of a true church: discipline (see assessment below).
- Insisting that those who oppose WIO are tyrants and dictators in their use of the Church Order and the broader assemblies of the church.
- At times outright denial of presbyterian forms of church governance, while insisting that power and authority lies exclusively with the local church.
Some sobering observations
- That the RCSA needs another three years to settle a matter that was unambiguously and definitively handled in 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018 strikes me as all the more arrogant when basically every denomination with which the RCSA has fraternal bonds has judged WIO to be of such an essential nature. The likes of the United Reformed Churches in North America came into existence as a result of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) opening all offices to women. At the end of 2022, the International Conference of Reformed Churches removed from her fellowship the Free Reformed Churches, Netherlands, for following the road of the CRCNA. Does the RCSA think she is so special that she deserves to be treated differently (by God!) on a matter that has clearly been judged heterodox by sister churches?
- While there were many speeches about the legalities of due process in applying the RCSA Church Order, particularly from those with doctorates in church polity and otherwise, there were minimal references to Scripture and the confessional standards. In a sense, and paradoxically, the Church Order was used to silence the historical findings of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity. The proceedings reminded me of J. Gresham Machen’s defrocking by the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) on the back end of unjust church orderly proceedings. By ousting Machen through an unconstitutional General Assembly edict, the PCUSA was able to skirt dealing with the elephant in the room: the denial of cardinal Christian doctrines within her ranks.
- One got the sense that by avoiding the substantive matter of WIO, Synod’s deliberations degenerated into wrangling about words (cf. 2 Tim. 2:14). Superficially, one got the impression that serious ecclesiastical business was unfolding, but a gaslighting of the unsuspecting and even the circumspect was in fact taking place.
- The irony of Synod using Article 31 against Article 31 would have been humorous if it were not outright sad.
- One could not help but feel that the contracted duration of Synod (one week instead of the historic pattern of two; RCSA Synod meets every three years; because of COVID, it had not convened since 2018) only helped to push through decisions without due discussion and debate around the important matter at hand: WIO.
- It was ignorant, at best, and arrogant, at worst, for some proponents of WIO to insist that their hermeneutic has not been shaped by the evolution of feminism, in particular, and the phenomenon of postmodern identity politics, in general.
- Much was said about maintaining unity. Reading between the lines as an outsider, however, I could not help but suspect that preserving Afrikaner cultural homogeneity may be more important than faithfulness to Scripture, the confessions, and the Church Order. To be sure, the RCSA is by no means unique in her attempt to forge unity on pragmatic cultural grounds rather than faithfulness to Scripture. A poignant recent case in point is the decision by the Church of England to endorse homosexual unions to accommodate theological liberals who want to maintain their social respectability.
- Following on from the previous point, and what seems to be evidence of a triumph of pragmatic wisdom over costly biblical faithfulness, an apparent attempt was made to maintain unity for the sake of the RCSA’s financial sustainability.
Children in dysfunctional families marked by control learn to survive by securing a fantasy bond (illusion of intimacy) with their parents. There are “fathers” in the RCSA – pastors, elders and professors – who are guilty of teaching and practising heterodoxy, which is the equivalent of spiritual abuse. For many younger and otherwise more pliable office-bearers, the RCSA has been a home from birth. Like an unhealthy biological family, members of a church family can become so acclimated to abuse and so fearful of abandonment that they learn to tolerate spiritual narcissism without speaking up. An obvious feature of any unhealthy family system is the unwillingness to engage in conflict when boundaries have been breached, and accountability is necessary. The result is a superficial sense of harmony, while undercurrents of power plays and fearmongering predominate.
Taking the family analogy further, coming from a wholesome and well-adjusted line of blood relations matters little if the legacy is not perpetuated with comparable morals in the present. As they say, you cannot rest on the laurels of the past. Similarly, for the RCSA to claim a history of robust contending for the faith is of little consequence if that same contending is not renewed in the present. Being conservative historically and/or on paper does not make a church Reformed today.
The cry of RCSA Synod 2023 was “peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14). The peace and unity of the church is based on truth, which is the Word of God (Belgic 2-7, 27-35). Christian, cruciform, love follows from this constitution, which includes discipline where necessary.
- It is difficult not to conclude that the RCSA as a federation of churches is in danger of losing the third mark of a true church or has forfeited it already (Belgic 29). The failure to discipline churches that have for years acted against Synod’s decisions on WIO represents the leading edge of a capitulation to a worldly agenda of identity politics. It is only a matter of time before hermeneutical shifts at the academic level filter down more thoroughly to the pastoral and lay levels.
- I suspect that for many delegates, Synod 2023 represented an irreparable breakdown in trust, making the likelihood of another round of stringent legal proceedings at Synod 2026 almost inevitable.
- The RCSA will likely lose unity with sister confessional churches that have historically attempted to hold her accountable.
- Because progressive office-bearers and their churches are unwilling to leave the RCSA, but insist on continuing to be openly schismatic, the RCSA is heading for an inevitable split.
- To delay the inevitable for yet another three years only provides more time for the less informed and the moderates to be drawn away by the spirit of the age, which is becoming ever-increasingly inclusive in the name of Neo-Marxist social justice.
All this said, there are reasons for encouragement amid the discouraging outcomes of RCSA Synod 2023. For one, there is the formation of the Reformed Theological Academy as an independent alternative to sharing degrees with NWU. Second, Regional Synod Pretoria has signalled her willingness to take a stand for orthodoxy and count the cost. Third, and related, there appears to be a new generation of faithful men who have the courage to push back against the most recent tide of theological liberalism in the RCSA. May that tide continue to rise and swell in the direction of reform: for Christ, his Gospel, and the peace and purity of his church. May the RCSA join other faithful churches in our postmodern West in always reforming by earnestly contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
Rev. Simon Jooste is the pastor of RCSS.
 See Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000)
 “A decision reached at a church assembly by a majority of votes shall be considered fixed and binding, unless it is subsequently proved that it conflicts with the Word of God or the articles of the church order. If someone complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to a major assembly, up to the national synod. An appeal from a national synod to a general synod is possible only when the appeal is made to the Bible, confession, church order or a verdict of the general synod.”
 Matters to be dealt with in major assemblies shall not be prepared for discussion until the decisions of previous synods regarding these matters have been studied, in order that matters which had already been finalized were not tabled yet again unless it be considered necessary to review such matters.
 See Simon Jooste, “Review: J.M. Vorster’s The Gift of Life”, The Heidelblog, https://heidelblog.net/2023/01/review-of-the-gift-of-life-by-prof-j-m-vorster-part-1/; Embodiment and Power: The Essential Nature of Office in the Identity Politics Debate (Potchefstroom: Calvin Jubilee Book Fun, 2022; Kindle Books).
 See D.G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove: The Committee on CEC for the Historian of the OPC, 2005), 27-39.