One of the biggest news items coming from the 44th General Assembly of the PCA was the formation of a Study Committee on the Role of Women in the PCA in local Church, Presbytery, and Assembly levels. This item of business caught me off guard, as I hadn’t read anything about it in the preliminary material, and it generated quite a bit of political drama on the floor of the Assembly. Allow me to give a little background to the story here, as best as I can, describe the nature of the debate, then explain the decision. Bear with me.
The recommendation for a study committee on women in ministry began with a group called the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC). The CMC is made up of the chairmen of the ten standing Assembly committees as well as the six most recent moderators of the General Assembly. The CMC’s responsibilities primarily deal with long-range planning for the overall mission and ministry of the PCA, giving recommendations, not to the General Assembly, but to the appropriate committees in dealing with particular issues facing the church.
The Administrative Committee received the suggestion of the CMC, and recommended to the General Assembly to form a committee to investigate: 1) the biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination; 2) the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; 3) clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses; and 4) should the findings of the study committee warrant changes to the Book of Church Order – propose such changes to the General Assembly.
When the General Assembly meets, each committee gathers to prepare their report to the Assembly. These committees are made up of Teaching and Ruling Elders who have been nominated and elected by the Assembly. Each committee also has a Committee of Commissioners, Teaching and Ruling Elders who have been nominated by their presbyteries to review the work of the Committees and make necessary recommendations for correction or improvement of the work of the committee. (How many times can I write “committee” in a paragraph?) The Administrative Committee’s Committee of Commissioners reviewed their proposal to form a Study Committee and recommended the General Assembly vote down the action.
This is where the debate got rather passionate. There were those who advocated for the Study who argued that this is something that every church is dealing with, that we must find a way to articulate in a positive manner the role and responsibilities of women in the church. Several spoke to the point that highly educated and able women were relegated to menial tasks simply because they were women and could not serve in ordained ministry as Elders or Deacons.
Those who spoke against the Study made it clear that they wanted to affirm the role of women in ministry, but had fundamental disagreements with the way the action originated and with the parameters of the study. If this were something that every church were dealing with, why did the recommendation for the study have to come from the Cooperative Ministries Committee rather than from a Presbytery? We are a denomination that is governed by the elders and Presbyteries, not from the top down – so it is interesting that this recommendation came from a small group of committee leaders and moderators rather than from churches and presbyteries.
Likewise, the parameters of the study encompass quite a bit of territory; investigating the biblical basis and authority of ordination; the office of deacon; and the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses. That’s quite a bit of area to cover as a Study Committee, and the fear expressed on the floor of the Assembly is that this committee would lead to the recommendation of ordaining women to the office of Deacon and Elder in the PCA.
In the end, the recommendation was passed by a vote of 767-375 and the Study Committee was formed. I don’t know how often the committee will meet, or if they will give their final report at the next General Assembly, but I would presume that would be the case.
My personal take…
First, I am not afraid of a Study Committee. I welcome the opportunity for the Church to faithfully study the Word of God as it leads us to understand the offices of Elder and Deacon in the Church, and as we understand the particular calling of men and women to serve the church together. I think it would be helpful to have a positive statement in the Church on the role of women in ministry. Simply saying “you can’t be an Elder or Deacon” is not encouraging women to serve, nor does it begin to exhaust the expanse of possible ways in which women are called and gifted for service in the church. A positive, biblically faithful report on women in ministry can only help, not hurt, the ministry of the Church.
Second, I have spent the first year here in Lennox getting to know my congregation, visiting with the women and men of the Church. I have listened well, and I have not heard the women of the church complaining that they cannot serve because they cannot be ordained as a Deacon or Elder. In fact, I have heard just the opposite. The women of the church a glad to see men take up the mantle of their God-ordained responsibility, as they lead in prayer, in the proclamation of the word, as they lead the church in compassion and enthusiasm. I have come from churches where this is not the case, where men refuse to serve, requiring the women to pick up where the men have abdicated their responsibilities. I would hate to see the church waver from the Word of God, giving the men of the church license to reject their calling, and causing more confusion and trouble in an already confused and troubled generation.
Finally, while I want to uphold the high calling in scripture to the office of the Elder as a spiritual overseer in the Church, and that of Deacon as one called to the ministry of compassion and care, I think it is problematic when we tell people, especially the women of the church, that unless they have the title of Elder or Deacon their ministry is somehow less important or invalidated. Why must we have a title to serve? Do you have to be ordained to care and show compassion? Perhaps the problem stems from the way that we have exercised leadership in the past, lording it over others rather than using the office to become a servant to all. In this way, a study on ordination is warranted, and the correction, as always, is to come back to the Word of God.
Just to wrap things up, here are a few key passages to consider on the issue of Elders, Deacons, and ministry in the church.
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
1 Timothy 3:1–7
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
1 Timothy 3:8–13
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”