J.G. Vos’ Work of Theological Renewal in the RPCNA

Recently Gentle Reformation writers did a series on J.G. Vos for the Reformed Presbyterian Witness magazine.  The following article was my contribution.  In the article I referred to a tract that Vos and another minister wrote, and have received inquiries to its availability.  To my knowledge the tract was only in printed form, so I have scanned it for easy reference.  Click “Are Women Elders Scriptural?” to read it.

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In the flow of denominational history, periods occur where the church can be threatened and even overrun by liberalism.  Indeed, a look at the ecclesiastical landscape today would make one think there is never much of an ebb and flow but only irreversible tidal waves!

The RPCNA has been no exception to such concerns.  In an article he wrote regarding the history of the RPCNA, Tom Reid recounts the state of the denomination in the first half of the twentieth century.  “Over time, the RPCNA’s interest in bringing reform to society gradually was deformed into something approaching social gospel liberalism.” However, in our ongoing look at the influence of J.G. Vos on the RPCNA, we want to highlight how the Lord raised him up to stem the tide of modernism by bringing theological renewal.  His influence is exemplified in the following case.

At the Synod of 1938, a paper was brought before the court from a presbytery seeking the ordination of women as elders.  Synod decided to appoint a committee to study the matter, and its report came to the Synod the next year for review.  The committee recommended that “Synod declare its judgment that the ordination of women to the office of Ruling Elder is not contrary to a reasonable interpretation of the Scriptures.”   The Synod laid this report on the table until the following year (1940) for the vote.

During that time, the denominational magazine The Covenanter Witness reported on this matter and invited response.  The magazine was filled with articles debating the issue.  Along with another minister, Vos published a definitive tract entitled “Are Women Elders Scriptural?”  When the time came to vote at the 1940 Synod, Vos’ influence led to the report’s defeat.

Vos’ response to the report of the Synod committee is striking, marked by simplicity, clarity, scholarship, and even humor in his argumentation.  He took the report and, in parallel columns, dismantled point-by-point the faulty argumentation that the committee was offering as it strained to find biblical support.  Some examples:

In response to the committee saying that Jesus chose a woman to be “the first preacher of the gospel of the resurrection to the apostles,” Vos countered this was no evidence she held office. Telling of Jesus’ resurrection was to be distinguished from preaching about it, and “the real work of preaching could not begin until Pentecost.”

The committee sought to deny the clear rendering of I Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach”) by pressing it beyond reasonableness, saying if that were the case then women could not even teach Sabbath School classes and would probably leave the church to start their own schools. After establishing the clear meaning of the text from the Greek, Vos replied that the immediate context of “to teach” was in the sense of having dominion over a man, not teaching other women or children.  He then said (perhaps with a bit of tongue in cheek) that even if the text did prevent women from teaching Sabbath schools, “we hope the church would be disposed to obey it rather than rebel against it.”

The committee accused their opponents of making an argument from silence, saying that they stood against women as elders because no Scripture positively states that women are eligible. They then offered the analogy that this stance would prohibit women from baptism, since there is no Biblical record of women being baptized except Lydia.  Vos “argued from silence” by uncharacteristically writing nothing and merely quoting Acts 8:12: “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”

Because of this challenge and others like it, Vos started publishing from his own home a quarterly magazine called The Blue Banner of Faith and Life in 1946, which continued for over three decades until 1979.  He persevered in seeking to persuade patiently, and he and other contributors wrote on the biblical role of women in each of those decades.

As recounted on the tribute website to him (bluebanner.org), Vos said he started this “simple publication” because in the RPCNA there was “a low level of awareness of true biblical Christianity….The church seemed confused, frustrated, and unable to go ahead with a constructive program of any kind.”  When one looks in recent years to the theological resurgence, church planting vision, and opening doors to the nations the RPCNA is experiencing, we need to offer thanks for men like Vos whom the Lord used to lay the foundations upon which we now build.

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This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of the Reformed Presbyterian Witness. Used here with permission.

3 Comments

  1. Kathy Stegall May 22, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    Dr. York, you’ve summarized J.G. Vos’ contribution to the RPCNA as praiseworthy in directing the church toward a deeper biblical Christianity. I am happy to agree with this and highly respect Vos’ work. I knew Dr. Vos. He was the chairman of the Bible Department at Geneva College when I attended there, although I never had him for a Bible class. I grew up in the First Beaver Falls congregation where Dr. Vos was the teacher of the adult Sabbath School class for many years. That class was always very well attended and the entire congregation benefited from his influence. My sister Esther worked as Dr. Vos’ assistant when she attended Geneva and had only good things to say about her boss. My personal encounters with Dr. Vos were always genial and helpful. I am very grateful for his work in missions, teaching and publications.

    However, I cannot agree with the implication within York’s article that the RPCNA of the early 20th century was on the verge of slipping into liberalism or was confused and frustrated. This maligns the work of many godly and faithful men and women who spent their lives in the service of Christ through the RPCNA on a quick quote from one man. I would think that much more careful research is needed before such an evaluation should be given any credence whatsoever. Many throughout the years of its existence have done their part to bring constant and ongoing renewal to the RPCNA and to keep it on a Bible-centered path. We should be careful of demeaning our forebears by succumbing to the temptation of prideful arrogance in how much better our own generation is.

    1 Cor. 12:4 ”There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

    But it is the subject of “Are Women Elders Scriptural”, the meat of your article, which I most want to address. I have read the 1938 paper submitted to Synod “On the Ordination of Women Elders.” Now I have also read the Martin/Vos rebuttal pamphlet: “Are Women Elders Scriptural?” and would like to address a few issues that come to my mind as a result. I hope you and your reading will come along with me through my next few blog posts at http://www.fullrightsofsons.com/wordpress/ as I discuss this important subject.

    • Barry York May 25, 2015 at 9:28 am #

      Just two short replies. First, I’m not a doctor though I’m working on it. Also, to comment on the trend of liberalism in the last century which many fathers in the church have told me about and Vos himself said he was addressing is not to deny the wonderful contributions of many serving the Lord in that era.

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