PCA General Assembly Should Not Approve CMC’s Recommendation to Form A Study Committee on Women Serving in Ministry

The PCA Cooperative Ministries Committee’s recommendation to form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church should be rejected.

Moreover, what is being overlooked by the CMC and AC in this recommendation is that the “biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination,” “the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon,” and “the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses” have already been studied, explored and settled. Not only has this happened through past General Assemblies, but the PCA’s Constitution is already clear on what the PCA believes is the Scripture’s teaching on these issues.

The Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has proposed a recommendation to the 44th General Assembly that it form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church. The proposal is ill-conceived, overly broad, poorly drafted, and completely unnecessary. This recommendation should not be adopted by General Assembly (GA) for reasons this article outlines.

Here is the proposed recommendation that is being presented through the Administrative Committee (AC) to the PCA GA:

That –

  • The Assembly form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church (RAO 9-1; 9-3). The Assembly authorizes the Moderator to appoint the study committee. The study committee should be made up of competent men and women representing the diversity of opinions within the PCA (RAO 9-1; Robert’s Rules of Order [11th edition], §13, pp. 174-175, §50, pp.495- 496, §50, pp. 497-498 §56, p. 579]).
  • The committee should give particular attention to the issues of:
  • 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;
  • Should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, the study committee will propose such changes for the General Assembly to consider.
  • The committee will have a budget of $15,000 that is funded by designated donations to the AC from churches and individuals (RAO 9-2).
  • A Pastoral Letter to be proposed by the ad interim study committee and approved by the General Assembly be sent to all churches, encouraging them to (1) promote the practice of women in ministry, (2) appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and (3) hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.

Grounds: The Cooperative Ministries Committee may not make recommendations directly to the General Assembly but must do so through an appropriate committee or agency (RAO 7-3 c; 7-6). The CMC has had a subcommittee on the role of women and has sent several recommendations to the AC (including a proposal for a study committee on the issue women serving in the church) and CDM to bring to the Assembly[1].

An article titled “Women In The Church: A Big And Complicated”[2] written by Teaching Elder Michael F. Ross recently appeared in the PCA’s ByFaith magazine. The article provides background to and gives reasons for this recommendation to erect a study committee. The article begins by stating, “As one GA Moderator put it, ‘Women in ministry is the atomic bomb for the PCA,’ meaning that if we do not review and recommend changes in the way we treat women, we will probably lose a large segment of millennials.”

Ross provides as a part of his reasoning the following:

This issue is complicated by a triangle of pressure points pushing into the PCA. First, there is an egalitarian spirit owned by more and more people in our culture, especially among the young. Second, the PCA has a history of passivity and even resistance to discussing the role of women in the church. Third, our understanding of a complementarian viewpoint of gender roles and relationships places constraints upon us as a church which our society denounces.

There are a number of assertions and assumptions with these statements, especially as used as the bases for the CMC recommendation, which need to be examined.

There is no empirical evidence that the issue of women in the church is a big and complicated issue as stated above. Quoting a former GA Moderator is his opinion but there is no evidence presented that it is “the atomic bomb for the PCA,” with the result that the PCA “will probably lose a large segment of millennials.” This assessment has no foundation in facts. Another GA Moderator could just as easily claim the opposite: that “Women in ministry is the atomic bomb for the PCA” in that any attempt to amend the Book of Church Order (BCO) to allow for the ordination of women to church office will result in the PCA losing a large segment of boomers, busters, gen-Xers and millennials. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan rightly said, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

First, why was it the CMC that sent this proposal to the GA? The reasons provided suggest that there is a problem or disturbance in the PCA local level. However, this proposal on women in ministry does not arise from the grassroots of the PCA, which are obviously closer to the alleged issue. If this issue was an “atomic bomb” issue in the PCA as suggested, then why does the recommendation come from a committee at the top tier of our graded courts, the General Assembly’s CMC, rather than the from Sessions or Presbyteries? Where is the evidence that significant ongoing discussions on women in office have been taking place in the lower courts? Given the grassroots nature of the PCA we would expect any potential overtures to arise from the grassroots courts. There is no evidence of any discussion percolating from the lower courts that now needs to be moved to be considered by the higher courts. All of this raises the question: Who empowered the CMC at its top tier level to take up on its own the issue of women in ministry and then make a proposal to the General Assembly?

Second, what are the supposed “pressure points pushing into the PCA?” Pressure from outside is not unique to our era; in fact, the church in every generation has faced pressure points from all types of forces, from both inside and outside of the church. One of the first issues the early church faced was its ministry to widows (Acts 6:1-7). The Apostles prayed and deliberated and concluded that the congregation should elect seven men filled with the Spirit and wisdom. We read that, “This proposal pleased the whole group.” The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 concluded that the basis of salvation was the same for both Jews and Gentiles: through Christ alone. There have been many other pressure points in the church’s history that over time were considered and answered.

But the question for this particular recommendation from the CMC is whether the PCA is facing a “triangle of pressure points” that necessitates a study committee on women in ministry. What are these alleged pressure points referred to in the article and how should the PCA respond?

“First, there is an egalitarian spirit owned by more and more people in our culture, especially among the young.”

In what way does an egalitarian spirit in our culture create a pressure point for the PCA? We will readily stipulate that culture has a different perspective and opinion on just about everything Christianity believes. But culture doesn’t set the standard for the church. A cultural egalitarian spirit is not a valid reason to erect a study committee on women in church office. By way of analogy, culture doesn’t like the fact that biblical Christianity asserts that Jesus is the one and only way to the Father; in fact, people in our culture are highly offended that one religion would dare make such a claim that Jesus is the one and only Savior. We would, of course, all agree that no matter what the pressure from the culture, we would never abandon the principle of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The same is true for women in ministry: This issue has been studied in the PCA, and we are clear on what Scripture teaches. Thus a study committee is decidedly unnecessary.

“Second, the PCA has a history of passivity and even resistance to discussing the role of women in the church.”

A quick review of recent history will attest to the fact that the PCA does not have a history of passivity in discussing the role of women in the church; in fact, quite the opposite. The issues of the role of women in the church and women in office were occasions for long and serious debates, especially between 2000-2011. The PCA had numerous discussions at each level of our church courts. That this discussion was on the front burner of the PCA can be seen in a paper drafted by Dr. Roy Taylor, the PCA’s Stated Clerk. He wrote a paper, “Issues Facing the PCA,” in 2008 in which he had a section, “Addressing the Women’s Issue” (http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/clerk/IssuesFacingPCA2008.pdf pp. 3-4). This is just one indicator of note that there has been no reluctance in the PCA to discuss the “women’s issue.”

Note also this section from Dr. Taylor’s Stated Clerk’s Report on the Actions of the 36th General Assembly that highlights the intensity of the debate on women in ministry. Contrary to this assertion, there hasn’t been any passivity or reluctance to engage in this important issue in the life of the PCA; in fact, it has been quite intense for a number of years as represented in the Clerk’s Report:

Deaconess Discussion

A major issue at this year’s assembly was women’s roles in local church ministries of mercy.[1] The present PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) does not allow for women to be ordained as deacons but does allow for Sessions to appoint godly women to assist the male diaconate in mercy ministry (BCO 9-7). Some PCA churches call such women “deaconesses” to describe their function and some do not. Also, some PCA churches publicly “commission” such women, but do not ordain them. There have been differences regarding the nature or necessity of ordination and the distinction between ordination and commissioning. As candidates for ordination in the PCA have indicated that they differ with the PCA’s present policy on deaconesses, as more churches have sought to involve women in mercy ministries, and as some churches have chosen not to ordain either men or women for diaconal ministry, the issue has come to the attention of the General Assembly by several overtures and a judicial complaint. The complaint (Case 2008-1, Session of Crossroads Community Church v. Philadelphia Presbytery) is before the Standing Judicial Commission. Overtures from several Presbyteries asked the General Assembly to take action on the issue:

  • Philadelphia Presbytery (Overture 9) [seconded by Overture 15 from Western Canada, and Communication 2 from Northern California Presbytery] asked for the assembly to form a study committee to study the biblical evidence concerning the role of women in mercy ministries.
  • Rocky Mountain Presbytery (Overture 17) then asked the assembly to expand the scope of the proposed study committee to include all matters regarding establishing guidelines where women may serve in the Church whether ordained or unordained.
  • Central Georgia Presbytery (Overture 19) expressed the opinion that a study committee should not be formed and additionally asserted that “commissioning” people to do diaconal ministry is unwarranted.

The Overtures’ Committee (OC) Majority Report was that no study committee be formed (as proposed in either Overture 9 or 17). A Minority Report, submitted by about 40% of the members of the OC, asked that there be a study committee on the women’s roles in diaconal ministry only (Overture 9), providing biblical and historical evidence as well as pastoral advice. The proposed committee was to include scholars representing a range of opinion. After the longest discussion of any issue at the assembly, the Minority Report requesting a study committee was not adopted and the Majority Report was adopted by a margin of about 60% to 40% of those present and voting. Overture 19 from Central Georgia was answered by referring to the assembly’s action on Overture 9. The Majority Report advised Presbyteries to send up specific BCO amendment proposals (BCO 26-2) or references (BCO 41) to the General Assembly. (http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/clerk/2008.html)

Further, after many years of debates, and numerous overtures recommending a variety of options to be considered regarding women in office, especially that of deacon, the PCA finally settled on new wording for BCO 9-7:

These assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church (BCO 7-2) and, as such, are not subjects for ordination (BCO 17). (http://pcahistory.org/ga/39th_pcaga_2011.pdf, pp. 110-112).

This amendment was approved by the 38th GA (2010), sent to the Presbyteries for their votes, and the Presbyteries voted 71-2 to approve it. What is significant to note is that after all of the years of serious and intense debate, the amendment was approved by 97% of the Presbyteries, and it was overwhelmingly approved by the 39th GA (2011). This scenario should at least give truth to the notion that the PCA accepted the outcome after years of discussion and was ready to move on to other “pressure points.”

We shouldn’t miss the significance and effect of approving the amendment to BCO 9-7. The issue of women in church office was settled sufficiently that no other proposals have been brought forward since 2011. After the long years of debate the PCA settled on the reality that women in office was not an option for the PCA. Yet, five years after the approval of BCO 9-7, with the PCA having settled the matter in 2011, now here comes the CMC raising the issue again without any warrant or stir within the PCA. To be clear, the PCA doesn’t have a history of being passive in discussing the issue of women in ministry; this notion is simply not borne out by the facts.  Actually, the PCA has been tenaciously against any movement towards egalitarianism with regard to women in church office.

“Third, our understanding of a complementarian viewpoint of gender roles and relationships places constraints upon us as a church which our society denounces.”

It is a fact that the PCA affirms and holds to a clearly defined complementarian position and it holds to this complementarian position based on its study and exposition of Scripture. The PCA does not see this position as an inappropriate constraint on its ministry in that Scripture regularly confines us in a number of areas of doctrine and life. And, further, we can expect our society to denounce this position; why should any of us be surprised that culture doesn’t agree with our position? But society’s denouncing our exegetically based position is not a reason to erect a study committee on women in ministry.

We also have a number of concerns in the language of the recommendation itself. First, the recommendation asks the General Assembly to form a study committee on the issue of women serving in the ministry of the church, but does not provide any definition in the recommendation regarding the meaning of “women serving in the ministry of the church.” Does it mean ordained ministry, that is, authoritative ministry? Based on how the recommendation is phrased it can be understood as the CMC’s meaning.

Further, the AC recommends that, “The study committee should be made up of competent men and women representing the diversity of opinions within the PCA.” The problem with this is that the polity of the PCA is elder-based; women are not ordained officers of the church; they are not elders in the Church. That the study committee should be made up of competent men and women representing the diversity of opinions within the PCA, misses the important fact that the PCA has already determined what the Scriptures say about women in the ministry of the church, especially with regard to the ordained offices of elder and deacon: The BCO states this clearly: “In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only” (BCO 7-2). The PCA having already studied, explored, and settled the issue of women in the ministry of the church, renders the CMC’s recommendation superfluous.

Moreover, what is being overlooked by the CMC and AC in this recommendation is that the “biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination,” “the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon,” and “the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses” have already been studied, explored and settled. Not only has this been expressed in past General Assemblies, but the PCA’s Constitution is already clear on what the PCA believes Scripture teaches on these issues.

Lastly, the CMC/AC proposal recommends that a pastoral letter be sent to all churches “encouraging them to (1) promote the practice of women in ministry, (2) appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and (3) hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries.” This outline for a pastoral letter is astounding in that it assumes a certain conclusion to the study committee’s work even before it has been formed. It would have been easier and more direct if the CMC had just proposed this pastoral letter so the GA could debate the real issue in this recommendation.

We are left with the conclusion that culture has already determined what the truth is in this issue and we should accept it, even though the PCA has determined otherwise from Scripture. It appears that the CMC and AC have a specific goal in mind, to move the PCA in the direction of including women in ordained ministry. However, the PCA should be wary of using culture’s belief system as the baseline to urge the church to consider changing its doctrine and practice.

Over the last decade American Evangelical Presbyterianism has gone through a number of significant realignments. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) approved amendments to its Book of Church Order to allow the ordination of women as ministers, elders and deacons. The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) was formed by churches withdrawing from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). The ECO has chosen to continue the practice of the PCUSA in ordaining women as ministers, elders and deacons. Both the EPC and ECO have adopted an egalitarian interpretation of the Scriptures that allows them to ordain women to church office. The PCA, in contrast to the EPC and ECO, has adopted a complementarian interpretation of Scriptures with reference to women in church office. With all of these realignments, there is no compelling reason for the PCA to abandon its distinctiveness in this area.

The General Assembly should acknowledge that the PCA has adopted its view on women in office after a long and careful study and application of Scripture, that this position is settled, and there is therefore no need to erect a committee to study this matter any further. The GA must reject this proposal and in so doing inform and assure the PCA that its view of women in ordained ministry is settled. Expending time, effort, and funds for a study committee will not advance the peace and unity of the PCA.

Dominic Aquila is President of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Andrew Barnes is Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo.

[1] PCA 44th General Assembly Commissioner’s Handbook. Pgs. 306-307.

[2] Ross, Michael F. “Women In The Church: A Big And Complicated Issue.” ByFaith Magazine. Q2, No. 52. 2016. pp. 16-17.