What’s in a Name? Critical Reflections on the PCA’s Women in Ministry Study Committee

So, if not intended to push the question of ordination of women, why include the topic of ordination at all?

The way the Reformed Christian community talks about, responds to, and values women needs much work. I hope that the newly formed study committee on the role of women in the PCA will conduct a more thorough investigation into what these many unanswered questions affecting women actually are before they start attempting to answer them. I hope they will put aside the distracting issue of ordination, which the women themselves on the sub-committee apparently did not themselves put forward. Cultural relevance does not protect women. Ordination will not protect women.

 

On 23 June, 2016, the Presbyterian Church in America’s 44th General Assembly voted in favor of forming a study committee on women in ministry (767 in favor, 375 against, 12 in abstention). The debate on this matter lasted approximately one hour, involving 11 GA Commissioners as well as representatives from the CMC Sub-Committee who brought forward the recommendations and the Committee of Commissioners who opposed it. I did not attend this meeting, but I watched the live feed and transcribed the speeches and debate, which are accessible here.

I have family members and many friends in the PCA. I attended Covenant College. I grew up in the Reformed Christian community in the United States. I am a Reformed Christian and an academic and conduct research on issues affecting women in the Reformed Christian community. And I was heartened, at first, to hear that members of the PCA were reportedly working towards resolving some of the many problems and questions that PCA and Reformed women more widely face. However, when I read the actual recommendation for the study committee and listened to the debate on the floor of PCA GA 2016, I was struck by the following:

  1. a lack of specificity in the evidence provided that women would actually benefit from the study committee,
  2. worrying ambiguity in the recommendation document and among its advocates with regard to the rationale for focusing on ordination, and
  3. understandable concern among those opposing the recommendation, based on the above.

First, I noted the lack of clarity regarding what exactly the sub-committee had done in the three years preceding its recommendation. Like the speakers on the floor of PCA General Assembly, I have anecdotal evidence that PCA women face significant problems. For example, a good friend who had worked with great enthusiasm with the young people in her PCA church was suddenly, with little notice, told that her church could no longer afford to pay her. This left her family in a financial crisis that they have yet to recover from. This crushing blow came after repeated changes to her job description and duties, largely due to ambiguity about whether or not she could teach male teenagers about the Bible. Another friend was fired from her job in a PCA church as a worship leader for separating from her abusive husband. Still another left the PCA after her pastor pleaded her to stay with her serially adulterous husband, very likely influenced by his celebrity-like status. Reformed brothers and sisters, as Kevin Twit made clear during the debate,

if you don’t think that we have issues surrounding women’s roles in the church [and, I would add, issues beyond just their ‘roles’], you are not listening or you are only talking to yourself.

However, anecdotal evidence is simply not enough. I wondered, listening to the speeches, whether or not the sub-committee had surveyed PCA women across the country in order to collect information on the problems they face. I wondered how they came up with their list of questions women have about their role and standing in the church. Perhaps the sub-committee had done this systematically, but they certainly did not present evidence before the Assembly that they had. The issue of women in ministry absolutely deserves attention. But, in my view, the sub-committee’s failure to do justice to the evidence opened its recommendation up to needless criticism. As Steve Tipton pointed out, the General Assembly had

not been given an opportunity to adequately consider why we as an Assembly should in fact form this study committee except for anecdotal evidence that has been made today.

For example, among those in support of the study committee, Joel Belz was among the clearest when it came to which questions he hoped the study committee would answer.

Literally dozens of practical issues beg to be Biblically resolved. Should women read Scripture? Or lead music? In public worship? Should women teach men through articles published in the PCA’s denominational magazine? Should women missionaries teach men in foreign countries? Should Rosaria Butterfield use books to teach our whole denomination about how to evangelize the homosexual community? What about books from Diane Langberg, from Kathleen Nielson, from Nancy Guthrie?

These are intriguing questions, ones to which I believe Christian women would like answers. Still, to what extent had the sub-committee determined that a significant number of women and their churches are troubled by such questions? To what extent is this list of questions complete? Are there other questions that a significant proportion of women have? Without clear and precise evidence, systematically collected, these questions lack foundation in fact. They are therefore open to criticism, result in wasted time and effort, and ultimately fail to help women effectively.

Second and perhaps more worrying were ambiguity, confusion, and contradiction surrounding the controversial issue of ordination. As the recommendation document made clear, the remit of the study committee includes examining the issue of ordination.

The committee should give particular attention to the issues of:Rod
(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

I noted that the rationale for this remit did not seem to have come from the women in the committee. The closing statement by Dr. Rod Mays indicates that they did not, in fact, see ordination as a key concern.

It has the great opportunity to clarify for women in our church and for ourselves what women can do, how they can help care for the souls of other women. The ladies that served on our sub-committee were humble. There was never a hint about ordination. They want to know how to carry out the Great Commission… Not ordination. Not serving as an elder or a deacon. But how can I minister to women in the church?

Dr. Mike Ross confirmed this and explained that the issue of ordination was included due to “inconsistent practices about ordaining and installing male and female deacons or deaconesses.” He went on to say that some of these varying practices are “contrary to the Book of Church Order.” He stated that this variation has confused “younger people about what ordination is and what we should do with it.” By way of example, Dr. Ross noted that some churches ordain both elders and deacons, some commission deaconesses, and some list women as officers. However, this and other speeches by members of the sub-committee failed to adequately address how they arrived at the conclusion that such confusion is widespread. Is the problem truly inconsistent application of what the BCO currently says? If so, is that variation related to refusal to comply or simply misunderstanding of the PCA’s current position on ordination? Unless and until they answer these and related questions, I would argue that the sub-committee cannot make the case that the PCA position on ordination requires further examination.

Beyond the lack of concrete evidence that the PCA’s position on ordination requires revisiting in the first place, the speeches and debate also raised questions about what such a study would accomplish. Dr. Ross at one point seemed to be saying that the purpose of the study committee is not to direct the PCA towards the ordination of women, nor is it about adding to or changing the BCO. In his words,

We are not, gentlemen, now I am either lying at this point, or I am telling you the truth. We are not recommending that we ordain women…

So, if not intended to push the question of ordination of women, why include the topic of ordination at all? According to Dr. Ross, the study committee would clarify for young people what the BCO already states and, in so doing, act as a more accessible resource.

We are asking for resources. We understand the Book of Church Order. We understand the rules of Assembly operation. But our people don’t. And the study paper can do nothing more than give us good resources… We are asking the General Assembly to appoint a very diverse and well qualified committee of men and women to study the issue of women’s role in the church and their ministry and to touch upon with greater clarity for us what ordination is and how it is to be conducted.

For Dr. Ross, then, the rationale for raising the question of ordination seemed to be confusion in young people’s minds about what the Bible and the PCA say about ordination. It was not lack of clarity in the minds of the Assembly about their own Book of Church Order.

And yet, others arguing in favor of the study committee did not talk about clarity in the same way. On the contrary, some suggested not just an unpacking of the PCA’s existing stance on ordination but also possible, potentially necessary changes to the BCO itself. However, crucially, these potential changes were only vaguely described, leaving understandable doubt and concern in the minds of some in the Assembly. Kevin Twit, for example, arguing in favor of the study committee, referred to “the issue” and “all kinds of questions.” Which questions? From whom? While Mr. Twit argued that “We are not debating whether we are ordaining women,” the vagueness of his language allowed for the possibility that such a debate might happen in the future, again sparking understandable concern. Similarly, Mike Khandjian referred to a general need

to be changed by the scriptures, to be shaped by the scriptures, to be challenged by the scriptures, to be convicted by the scriptures.

He later asked,

Are we afraid that maybe we will find that we may have been wrong or that in nuanced ways we may have been misguided? Or that even we would’ve been correct?

Wrong about what? Misguided regarding which matters? For him, as it seemed for others, some ambiguity was crucial since putting restrictions on where the PCA might be wrong would hinder the work of the committee. As Mr. Khandjian asked,

Why do we have to enter into something like this, having forged conclusions already?

However, it appeared that it wasn’t the lack of conclusions but the lack of precision regarding the questions that troubled members of the General Assembly.

Aside from making imprecise statements regarding the intended purpose of the study committee, some speakers mentioned other, rather unusual rationales. One commissioner encouraged the Assembly to think in terms of their own personal gain, saying,

I encourage you to vote for this study committee because your wives are gonna love you. Women in your church are gonna love you.

Still others argued that a vote against the study committee was an indication of fear, reminding the General Assembly that it is “just” a study committee.

What are we afraid of, guys? Is what we believe so fragile that we are terrified of testing it against the scriptures?

As a result of the sub-committee’s lack of evidence substantiating the need for the study committee and lack of justification for raising the question of ordination, the debate, unsurprisingly, was dominated by statements against the ordination of women. As Wes Reynolds put it,

This is not about an ad hominen argument. The discussion is about imprecise language, to put it charitably. The reason that people keep mentioning the ordination of women is because ordination of women is in the original recommendation, clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses. How can we imagine that there would not be alarm?

The sub-committee may not have been recommending that women be ordained, but that became the issue. And some speakers took this opportunity and ran with it.

Women in the church but not women in the office. -Albert Kona

The Bible says this, let your women keep silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive as the law also says. -Bill Schweitzer

I think the court needs to be aware that this is an open-ended authorization to study the ordination of women, not just for the office of deacon but for the office of elder as well. -Joseph Pipa

To summarize, then, the Assembly’s division on this matter could have been prevented, to a large extent, by

  1. a greater attention to concrete evidence and
  2. greater clarity regarding the precise motivation for including the controversial topic of ordination in the recommendation

Regarding the first, clearly, the sub-committee had anecdotal evidence of problems related to women in ministry but no clear statements as to the exact nature and extent of these problems. Nor, it seems, did they clearly grasp the extent to which such problems were due to churches’ and presbyteries’ lack of communication with their congregants or due to disagreement with/ violation of the PCA’s statements on ordination and women in ministry.

Regarding the second, it appears from sub-committee speeches that they included the topic of ordination to clarify the PCA’s existing position for the benefit of young people and churches with (reportedly) widely conflicting understanding and practice. But, for whatever reason, they chose not to narrow the recommendation for study of ordination along those lines. This indicated that the door was open for the study committee to interpret it however they wished, even if, one might reasonably assume, that meant concluding that the PCA’s position on ordination is unBiblical. As a result, commissioners were understandably (and needlessly?) in doubt of the sub-committee’s grasp of the situation facing women in the church. Also as a result, they were suspicious of the sub-committee’s intentions regarding ordination.

In closing, instead of considering the extent to which women are treated as second class citizens in the church, the PCA General Assembly devoted much of its time to arguing against ordination of women. What a waste. Mr. Barnes, representative of the Committee of Commissioners who recommended that the study committee not be formed, voiced the opinion of several, perhaps many, on the floor when he clarified that

Certainly there are many unanswered questions in our churches about the latitude of ministry opportunities that should be available to our wives and our daughters our sisters in Christ. But this request for a study committee asks us to study the doctrine of ordination as well as the office of deacon in the context of ordination. Were the study committee asking us to study the former and not the latter, it might be a whole different matter. Since it includes the latter, the doctrine of ordination, and related issues, the committee of commissioners is opposed to the direction of the study committee and we ask you to support the substitute motion of the committee of commissioners.

The way the Reformed Christian community talks about, responds to, and values women needs much work.  I hope that the newly formed study committee on the role of women in the PCA will conduct a more thorough investigation into what these many unanswered questions affecting women actually are before they start attempting to answer them. I hope they will put aside the distracting issue of ordination, which the women themselves on the sub-committee apparently did not themselves put forward. Cultural relevance does not protect women. Ordination will not protect women. In short, I urge the study committee to talk to women across the country. Ask them if and how they have been marginalized, abused, and rejected, their role in the church inappropriately limited and undervalued. If, on the other hand, the study committee pursues this issue of ordination of women, they risk dividing the PCA and, perhaps even worse, defeating what I desperately hope is the real purpose of their existence.

Dr. Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield and Associate Director of the Lydia Center for Women and Families at Greystone Theological Institute.