Whether the ordination of women to the offices of deacon, then ruling elder was inevitable and just a symptom of the slide or whether it actually made the slope all the more slippery…well, that’s a subject of debate. Women pastors in the PCUSA did not gain approval until 1956, two decades after Machen’s untimely death. It seems that it took so long for women to climb into pulpits, considering the movement for full women’s equality began in 1930.
Ordained female deacons in the Northern church resulted largely from the receiving into the PCUSA in 1905-1906 of the greater part of the old born-in-revival Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which already had female deacons. Sometime between 1905 or 1906 and 1922 the PCUSA went from having informal deaconesses or inherited (grandmothered in?) Cumberland lady deacons to the real, official thing. Here’s the first mention of official lady deacons in a copy of the PCUSA constitution to which we have access (1922):
Section II is not a triumph of the English language. *By comparison, the PCA Book of Church Order is much more expansive on offices and the qualifications of officers.) To make things even less clear, we have a stray reference to deaconesses a page or two later:
It’s not entirely clear whether this refers to a more informal, unordained, locally-variable quasi-office or to the fairly new office of female deacon. Maybe it’s the former…a thing that had been around for a while. If so, the PCUSA of the 1920s was much like the PCA of the 2020s, which seems to have a de facto “office” of deaconess or female deacon, though unordained. (More to come on the PCA situation in a future article.) The PCUSA constitution was frustratingly short on definitions. Deacons (whether of the XY or XX type) seem not to have been a big deal in the Northern church. They were not for Machen…as far as we know. I considered why this might be about a year ago in the NTJ:
Machen vs. Women – A War He Never Fought
To anyone familiar with J. Gresham Machen’s biography the words, “Machen and women” will bring two facts to mind: that Machen never married and that he had a particularly intimate relationship with his mother. Much of what we know about Machen comes from the voluminous trove of letters to his mother. His views on segregation (shared in an early letter or two) have gotten him in particular trouble in the era of Wokeness. And in the era of Revoice there is new, if unfounded, speculation about his bachelorhood. And there is ongoing disagreement about the nature of his one (and only?) alleged romance with a Unitarian lady.
The more ecclesial-minded Machenite might well have another question: Where did Machen stand on the issues of women, office, and ordination in presbyterian churches, particularly his own? I, at least, have thought a lot about this murky issue. No biographers have cited comments from Machen on these issues, and if such comments existed, they would loom large in women’s ordination debates that bubble up from time to time in conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Some consider women’s ordination a sort of canary in the confessional presbyterian coal mine: any talk of approving it being viewed as an indicator of faltering biblical fidelity or as symptoms of cultural compromise.
History may be our only helper in discerning Machen’s views, so here’s some history. The northern Presbyterian Church in the USA (in which Machen labored until 1936) first ordained women as deacons, serving equally with men, in 1923, though there may have been a less-formal deaconess role previously allowed or maintained, somewhat like many PCA churches have today. Machen’s opinion on admitting women to the ordained officeriate is unknown. Maybe he was indifferent. Maybe he shared the views of his Princeton colleague, the great B.B. Warfield, who favored some sort of “deaconing women,” to use a Tim Keller term….
…By 1930 when women ruling elders were first ordained, Machen was fighting for his own ecclesial life, having become persona non grata with PCUSA elites, and was fighting for the life his newly-established seminary, having resigned from Princeton after nearly 25 years of association with the northern church’s flagship theological school.
Machen was a busy man. Maybe he never married for that reason alone, He may also have lacked the time or energy to address the women-as-officers issue. We’ll never know.