Item 1 passes the presbyteries and the 51st General Assembly, the most radical changes in churches may just be more clear labels of who is a “Youth Pastor” (and is ordained) and who is a “Youth Director/Coordinator” (and is unordained staff); or, who is in the ordained diaconate as distinguished from those who should properly be called deacons’ assistants or other titles under BCO 9-7. While such changes seem small and – perhaps to some – pedantic, they ought to be considered as helpfully didactic in that they teach something.
While all of the proposed amendments to the Book of Church Order (BCO) received about three-fourths (or more) support at the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCAGA50), Item 1 (i.e., Overture 26), is most likely to receive a measure of debate and discussion in the presbyteries. The context of the debate leading up to PCAGA50, in Overtures Committee and on the Assembly floor, however, can help us to understand the proposal and why it takes the current narrow form that it does.
First, the language of the proposed amendment to BCO 7-3 regards titling of unordained people by the simple addition of a sentence (which is underlined):
BCO 7-3. No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein, or receive official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scripture. Furthermore, unordained people shall not be referred to as, or given the titles of, the ordained offices of pastor/elder, or deacon.
The Need for Item 1
The Reformed Tradition has long placed a high value on polity and ordination. Confessional Presbyterians also place a high value on words and what they convey about ordained officers in our churches. Those who support the proposed amendment share a duplex concern that the doctrine of ordination has been downplayed as of late, and that there is a consequent confusion and disorder around the offices of elder and deacon in the PCA. Some of this downplaying is evidently unintentional (e.g., in the use of the words “pastor” and “minister” to describe unordained ministry staff), but perhaps some is intentional (e.g., in the case of the diaconate).
Members of our congregations visit or transfer to other PCA churches and find unordained people listed as “pastors” and “deacons.” Some of these well-meaning staffers and volunteers could not be properly ordained in our polity. In such cases, unordained persons are occasionally listed on church websites and weekly bulletins as “youth pastor” or “women’s pastor.” More frequently, we find egalitarian lists of “deacons” which include both men (either ordained or not) and women (not ordained) who function together as a board of deacons for their church. These confusing practices cause many onlookers and visitors to question the practical weight, then, of ordination when the difference between an “ordained deacon” and an “unordained deacon” may be reduced to a mere asterisk in the bulletin.
The Overtures Committee Debate
In Overtures Committee, the argument for the original overture 26 was presented as making explicit what was already implicit in our Standards, giving greater clarity to the proper titling of our ordained officers. Leading up to the 50th General Assembly, some leveled an objection to this overture that it is already implicit in our Standards that only those who are ordained should use these titles. They appropriately asked, “Wouldn’t this be mere redundancy in our BCO if we all already understand this principle?”
During the debate in the Overtures Committee, however, one man spoke against the overture saying that churches should be able to use these titles how they wish, especially if an unordained woman was in charge of women’s ministry. In such a case, he argued, she should be able to be titled: “Women’s Pastor.” This argument against the overture seemed to have the opposite effect of that which the speaker intended, evidently convincing some commissioners that making that which is implicit in our Standards more explicit in order to counteract the apparent confusion over how some churches use ordained titles for unordained persons.