This June, the 45th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in Greensboro, North Carolina, to carry out the business of the church.
The previous year had been a landmark year in the life of the church, as elders from the conservative Presbyterian church voted to usher in racial reconciliation in a historically Southern denomination, that had once been prejudiced against African Americans.
While Overture 43 in the 2016 assembly brought about an incredible time of repentance and prayer by the brothers (see report in Evangelical Times, September 2016), the assembly was overshadowed by the appointment of a committee to study women’s roles in ministry.
This appointment garnered intense debate, as many feared that this study committee, made of women and men, would encourage the full inclusion of women as elders and deacons, such as the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) practices.
However, a ‘Committee on women serving in the ministry of the Church’ had been commissioned, to examine the role of women in ministry, with five study goals: the biblical basis, theology, history, nature and authority of ordination; the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses; and, should the findings of the committee warrant Book of church order changes, to propose the necessary changes for the GA to consider.
The committee was also charged with composing a pastoral letter, to be approved by the GA and sent to all churches, encouraging them (within the parameters of the PCA’s doctrinal standards) to: promote the practice of women in ministry; appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church; and hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.
The PCA was founded in 1973 to stand fast against the advances of theological liberalism and remain pure to the Scriptures and Reformed doctrines. One of the pivotal issues that caused this split from the liberal Presbyterian Church was the issue of women in church leadership.
While the Presbyterian Church in the Southern US was slower than that in the North in its progress toward liberalism, the ordination of women as elders and deacons became the norm, during the 1960s as America was caught up in the civil rights debate.
As the above committee stated: ‘When the PCA was formed, objection to the ordination of women as pastors and elders was an animating issue. We agreed upon it and rallied around it (all of us, men and women), because we rightly saw that it was an issue of biblical authority. Today, that commitment remains dominantly embraced’.
Today, the PCUSA ordains women as elders and deacons in accordance with the culture’s mandate for the full inclusion of women in every sphere of leadership. The PCA has maintained that the role of elder is only open to men. But, in recent years, some churches have practised the commissioning of women as deaconesses or forgone the practice of ordaining deacons, by informally selecting men and women for the service of the church.
This is not the first time a study committee on this subject has been approached. During the years 2000-2011, the PCA’s GA was busy debating and judging cases where presbyteries had commissioned or ordained women as deaconesses.
One such instance was in 2009, when the Philadelphia presbytery presented an overture concerning this issue, since they had licensed a candidate who took exception to the Book of church order 7-2, which states that, ‘In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only’.
The presbytery presented an overture to the GA to examine this subject, but the GA answered in the negative. It was ruled that, ‘The question of the role of women in the Church is not a new or unstudied issue … the proposed study committee is unlikely to break new ground or shed new insights’ (37th GA, 2009).
While the suggestion to form a study committee lay dormant since 2011, the issue of women as deaconesses did not. Pastor Phil Ryken of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia wrote an article on the subject, stating Tenth’s stance as: ‘Nor do we ordain women as deacons. Although this was our former practice, since joining the PCA in 1982 we have sought to honor the teaching of Scripture and our adoption of the Book of church order by ordaining men only as deacons — a useful and dignified office.
‘At the same time, we have appointed gifted women to assist the deacons in their ministry. Each year women are nominated for service, approved by the session, and presented to the congregation for election at our congregational meeting in December.
‘In January they are commissioned for their service through prayer, much the way we commission our Sunday school teachers and short-term workers, which includes neither the laying on of hands by the elders — a rite of ordination — nor the congregational vow of obedience which church members make to deacons as officers of the church’ (‘Brief statement on deaconesses in the work of Tenth Church’).
Other pastors, such as Tim Keller, Jim Hurley and Ralph Davis, agreed with Ryken, though others like Ligon Duncan differed on this subject. While the subject was approached through writing and much internal discussion, the question of women’s roles in ministry still came to the forefront in 2016’s GA.
The committee, made up of men and women from the PCA with all sorts of views on the subject, worked extremely hard over the course of the year to bring forth nine recommendations and a statement to the 2017 GA.
They presented their report and the GA accepted it with thanks and worked, over the course of two days, to debate the nine recommendations.
To be brief, the report confirmed the confessional standards of the PCA, that only men were to be ordained as deacons, and gave an extremely helpful exegesis of the scriptural basis of ordination.
One of the major events in the GA’s business was the debate over Overture 3, where the Westminster presbytery made an overture to, ‘Declare that the 44th General Assembly erred in the formation of an ad interim committee on the role of women as not being properly before the court, and dismiss the ad interim committee with apology’.
After much debate (in which a motion almost prevailed to dismiss the whole report), this overture was answered in the negative.
The GA took each recommendation one at a time and much time was spent in debate. The assembly adopted Recommendation 5, which stated that sessions (elders of the church) should ‘consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church, so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilising the gifts God has poured out to his entire church’.
Furthermore, the GA voted to approve an amended Recommendation 6, which reads, ‘that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate’. They also affirmed Recommendation 8, which stated that ‘sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and under-represented women in the PCA’.
While many in the PCA were concerned about this committee and the complexities it would present the conservative denomination, the committee must be thanked for their due diligence in searching the Scriptures and providing a concise report for the assembly.
This issue of the role of women is a tough one, to be sure, especially since the PCA is much broader in its views than other smaller conservative Reformed denominations. We must praise God that the committee’s report remained biblically orthodox in deciding that only men should be ordained to the office of elder and deacon.
Women’s gifts are so often under-represented and under-appreciated in Reformed denominations and I’m thankful the report gave such recommendations at presbytery level.
The report may not have given specific biblical or confessional definitions for their recommendations, but at least they encouraged presbyteries to work these matters out, so that these issues may come to the assembly through their proper channels.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA