Stirred With Questions from the PCA Study Report on the Role of Women in the Church

Some questions that the Committee may not have dealt with adequately; thus needing to understand some things better.

The Committee carefully describes the diversity within the PCA.  Some of our churches encourage women to teach classes to everyone including men, and others not.  In some churches women read Scripture and lead in prayer in public worship, in others not. Some have women deaconesses, others not, and some deliberately do not ordain men as deacons in order to avoid drawing what they consider an artificial line between their diaconal work and that of women.

 

Consider the report of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly’s committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church: http://wrfnet.org/articles/2017/04/pca-study-committee-report-role-women-ministry#.WPzhLVKZPok

We have been eagerly waiting for this. I believe it is very well done, thorough and fair. As we work through this, we can also review the similar 1988 Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) report http://www.opc.org/GA/women_in_office.html For too long we have focused only on what women may not do, but both of these point the way ahead for women to have greater opportunities and challenges in the life of the church. This subject remains difficult and controversial, so it’s not surprising that there will be suggestions for further clarification. Here are mine:

  1. There are questions that I don’t consider the Committee has dealt with adequately, though I honor them greatly for doing so much. I personally need to understand these better:
  • Is God’s announcement to Eve back then, “He shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16), the response to her rebellion, therefore removed by God’s salvation, or is it something built into women forever?
  • Did Jesus’ death and resurrection erase not only the boundary lines between his chosen Jews and the rest of us, or did it also have meaning for our gender distinctions?
  • Since only the high priest once a year could come to the Holy God in his Holy of Holies, but now in Christ all believers live in his Presence, does that influence our understanding of leadership in his church?
  • I especially need more help on 1 Corinthians 14:35, the “silent women” text. The report addressed the issue of whether or not it is in the original text or is rather a later addition, but in my mind should also have considered the further work of Philip Payne in his Man and Woman, One in Christ.
  1. The report’s introduction recognizes that the culture has been changing and along with it vocational opportunities for women. We know that women are now doing well in executive leadership in the business and government worlds and in higher education, so that previous difficulties have largely disappeared; there are now godly options for women besides the traditional ones of teacher, nurse and secretary.  In the past many women were offended at the way churches restricted their work in the church and thought it was directing them to limit their work opportunities everywhere. The report clearly shows us that assumption has been false! Looking ahead, women seeking higher education are outnumbering men and that will no doubt lead to their holding even more “secular” leadership positions.

Seminary and college Bible teaching especially deserves a longer look. We have long accepted independent seminaries, not believing that teaching there need be under church jurisdiction. I have encouraged women who are especially zealous and competent in Bible and theology to work toward college or seminary teaching. Note the many well-qualified women on the faculties of two outstanding seminaries, Gordon-Conwell and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

I deeply appreciate the Committee’s reminding us how cultural change must affect the way we see these issues. Perhaps they could have been even clearer that the church’s limitations on leadership roles for women have little to do with their other roles in society, but they did enough already and we can all see the implications by ourselves.

  1. The Committee carefully describes the diversity within the PCA.  Some of our churches encourage women to teach classes to everyone including men, and others not.  In some churches women read Scripture and lead in prayer in public worship, in others not. Some have women deaconesses, others not, and some deliberately do not ordain men as deacons in order to avoid drawing what they consider an artificial line between their diaconal work and that of women.

Does the PCA agree that such diversity is acceptable and helpful, or does it wish to definitively pronounce that some positions cannot be accepted?  We might find that out soon from General Assembly’s responses! I believe the PCA will accept the diversity so well described, just as it has previously with the diversity on Intinction in the Lord’s Supper. But if it does not, I hope we can still care well for each other, including for those we want to leave us.  Should we get to know our sister churches, the ECO and EPC, better?  We might see them as the right places for those whom we may decide no longer belong in our fellowship.

I’m not yet personally convinced that women should not be ordained deacons, nor even that any deacons should be ordained. Since we all agree that this is not a “leadership” office, why doesn’t that settle it? Their decisions are important, of course, but how are they leadership?

  1. Should the Committee have considered the leadership of the church not only as it exists in its “offices” but also in the congregation itself?  There everyone calls the pastors and elects the elders. Ages ago those voting in its meetings were “heads of household,” but for decades now women routinely vote and serve on its committees, including pastoral search. We knew that already and the Committee didn’t need to address that, but shouldn’t we encourage our women to make more use of their executive experience in our congregational meetings? Shouldn’t all take more initiative in setting the vision of our churches?
  2. Just what is the difference we recognize between the authoritative work of a teaching elder and the way we all open up the Word to each other? The Committee mentions that pastoral authority implies this, that if we do not heed the teaching we are liable to discipline. That’s a beginning, but we need to understand much more definitively how the preaching of an ordained man exemplifies that. Do we recognize that line between a well-organized lecture, which some men and some women can do, and being led in godly worship? We’re now at the time when we need to think and pray that one through. The Lord calls us together to do more than receive bits of information; we come to worship and praise our Holy Lord, to know his Presence in his Glory, in Awe and Wonder, in Praise from our Hearts!

That’s where we need the further work, I’m convinced. The Committee has helped us so much, but I doubt we’re finished.  Are we satisfied with lectures from the pulpit, and do we know we shouldn’t be? If it’s about great lecturing, some women do that well. But the Lord calls us to more, to warm up for our worship in Heaven.

Clair Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is retired from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia after a long tenure as Professor of Church History. He lives in the Philadelphia area.