Squaring our shoulders forward

I’ve mentioned before (twice: here and here) that a significant issue facing this year’s General Assembly was the question of women and how they fit into diaconal ministry. In what my friend Steven Estock called “the year of the woman,” there were no less than five overtures before the assembly that spoke to this matter, most of them asking the assembly to erect a study committee that would apply high-level scholarship to the issue.

After some substantial discussion (and some interesting moves of parliamentary procedure), the primary overture (and the rest as well, as related overtures) was answered in the negative (in other words, we voted against it) on the grounds that:

...the presbyteries should work through the implications in their own local contexts.


Their response was centered around the basis that the overtures were intended essentially to amend the Book of Church Order, and they pointed out that there are processes to amend the BCO that don’t require the time and resources of a study committee.

Already there is quite a bit of stir about this decision. Some will continue to debate the matter in a way that suggests that the vote hasn’t yet happened. Others will continue to insist that the questions being asked are such simple matters that the motives of the questioners must be suspect. (For a glimpse of some of this, you might read some of
the responses to ByFaith’s report of the decision.)

While I’m disappointed with the vote, I don’t think either of these responses is the most helpful or appropriate. Part of our presbyterianism-- a large part, actually-- is that we acknowledge that God works through His body, at least as much as (if not more than) through individual believers. So we need to trust that, if the assembly voted against this overture, God has good purposes for that.

What’s before us, then, is to receive the advice and instruction of the assembly and take up study of the issue in the lower bodies. I’m sure many are already beginning to do exactly this-- I certainly am-- and I’ll be curious to see how many overtures are presented next year with, not just questions about the issue that MIGHT lead to an amendment, but actual amendments.
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Surprising things from General Assembly

I’m at the PCA’s General Assembly this week, which means I’m enjoying a week of visiting with old friends and new, gathering resources, ministering to friends and acquaintances, and meeting with over 1000 delegates to handle some important decisions for our denomination.

Over the week, here are a few things that I’ve noticed, heard, or been a part of that I’ve found delightfully surprising (I’ll update this list as the week goes on):
  • I served on the Committee of Commissioners (which essentially serves to audit the minutes and reports of the agencies of the denomination) for Covenant Theological Seminary. Our committee invited Bryan Chapell, who is the president of the seminary, to share with us any personal and pastoral needs and concerns that he, his family, and the community of the seminary may have. Let me add, this was a sweet and touching time. Here’s the surprising thing: Dr. Chapell said that no one (which I take to mean no committee) had ever asked him about that.
  • Friends old and new: I’ve seen three friends that I’ve known since high school or earlier, two of whom are pastors and one is the wife of a pastor. I’ve also seen and met with two friends who I have gotten to know over the past months and years only through my blogs and through e-mail exchanges.
  • Gary Campbell, who is the director of the PCA’s Retirement and Benefits, Inc. agency, was extended a pay increase that was reported on in the assembly. Here’s the surprise: Gary actually asked the board to REDUCE the pay increase that he was offered, out of concern that the resources of that agency be best utilized. The good news also is that the board refused to reduce it, recognizing that this act was a microcosmic representation of why Gary deserves a pay increase in the first place.
  • Presbyterians eat, right? And I’ve shared every meal with a friend, classmate, or new acquaintance. Here’s the fun surprise: my generous and hospitable friends have bought most of my meals, and I’ve actually only paid for one meal so far (as of Thursday morning). For that one, I took the opportunity to buy my companion’s meal, so that I could pass along the goodwill and hospitality. UPDATE: well, the trend continued. All told, I bought three meals all week. May I take this opportunity to say, THANKS! to all my friends who were so gracious.
  • Dr. Kooistra (who served as moderator for this assembly) is quite witty, and was able to bring an element of fun and lightheartedness even to some of the more serious discussion. It was wonderful to see this man of such stature and accomplishment not take himself too seriously (while not belittling the tasks or discussions before him, either).
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Discussing women and deacons

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Philadelphia Presbytery has submitted an overture to the PCA's General Assembly asking the GA to erect a study committee on Deaconesses. That overture has been echoed by the Western Canada Presbytery, and if I'm able to read this sort of thing at all, the committee will almost certainly be erected.

It may be needless to point out that this issue has caused quite a bit of stir and discussion. The PCA's own magazine,
byFaith, has posted a summary of the announcement of the overture and that has generated quite a bit of discussion in the comments. Other, less "official" sources have also hosted a significant amount of discussion as well. A good bit of the discussion is quite helpful, offering finer points and perspectives that would simply be impossible to gather were it not for this Internet/Information Age that we live in.

Sadly, a lot of the discussion has also deteriorated into mostly or totally unhelpful rant, name-calling, and fear-mongering. A few of the points of discussion may be summed up as follows:
  • "Scripture is clear on this matter (OR, arguing that Scripture isn't clear is a sign of our cultural liberalism and feminism)." The thought process here: because the NIV translates 1 Timothy 3:11 with reference to "their wives" instead of (the equally possible) "the women;" and because it translates "diakonos" Romans 16:1 as "servant" because it refers to a woman, then the issue is clearly settled. But who is to say that these translations are filled with cultural bias or the influence of a historical patriarchalism? Anyone who says, "Scripture is clear" has probably only been looking at English translations.

  • "The Book of Church Order (BCO) already prohibits ordaining women as Deacons." The line of thought here: The BCO is a finished, completed document that is utterly faithful to Scripture and never need be changed or amended to be brought closer to the Bible. This is difficult to reconcile with (common sense and) the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, "All syonds or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both" (WCF 31.4).

  • "The word that is translated 'Deacon' in the Bible for men is obviously translated as 'servant' for women." Thought process: meaning changes substantially, even fundamentally, based solely on gender. This is an interesting foundational principle-- and one I'd like to hear more support for by other examples before accepting, which the arguers haven't provided.

  • "The Apostles' recognition of Phoebe, and other women in the New Testament, was a function of their cultural role-- something that doesn't apply to us." The appeal here is to the historical context, which of course is a fundamental principle in Bible interpretation. The problem is that these same folks will argue that historical context trumps literary context (or the language of the text itself-- see previous bullet) when Phoebe is mentioned, but when dealing with, say, 1 Timothy 3:11, quickly jump to the next argument...

  • "The historical context doesn't apply, since Paul was writing normative principles to Timothy about the qualifications for Deacons." Line of thought: somehow historical context is disposable for any normative portion of biblical text. The problem with that is that it would rule out the context of the deliverance and redemption of Israel out of Egyptian slavery as the setting for the 10 commandments, for example-- which most would agree poses some problems about a classic Reformed understanding of the 10 commandments.

  • "Allowing women as Deacons (even if the Bible permits it) will inevitably lead to handing over all authority in the church to women." The thinking here is a classic slippery slope notion: if one thing is bad or prohibited, then we dare not go near anything close to that thing. (This was a problem that the Pharisees often had, by the way...)

  • "Allowing women as Deacons is granting them authority and leadership that is unbibilcal." The thought trajectory in this argument is that Deacons have authority of the same sort that Elders have, and the Bible forbids women to have such authority. The problems here are rooted in the (mistaken and unbiblical) idea that Deacons are some kind of "Junior Elder" and therefore share in the role of authority with the Elders. But two problems immediately arise from this line of thought: first, the BCO itself defines the office of Deacon as "one of sympathy and service" (BCO 9.1) while it defines the Elder as office of exercising "government and discipline" (BCO 8.3)-- very different roles, one with clear distinction of authority and the other with, at best, less clear distinction. Secondly, the Deacons are "under the supervision and authority of the Session" (BCO 9.2), which begs the question: what authority do they have that, for example, a Sunday School teacher or WIC (Women in the Church) leader doesn't also have?

  • "We already have the WIC; what do we need women as Deacons for?" The idea here being that the WIC serves as a functional body of "Deaconesses" and we should simply let things remain as they are. Here again, there are two problems with this: first, Scripture does not define for us something like a WIC, and if we desire to pattern our bodies of leadership after Scripture then we should be careful about casually assuming that the WIC fulfills a role that Scripture defines for women. Secondly, and more importantly: the WIC is a ministry of leadership, structured specifically to minister to the women in the church; yet, the office of Deacon is broader than just women. Frankly, I learn a lot from women and have benefited from the ministry and teaching of many women-- and I find the suggestion that women should only minister to other women (and children) short-sighted.

  • "We ought to just do like ____ [insert name of a very large PCA church in the south] with the way they handle Deacon's assistants." I was surprised to see this argument made by more than one or two people. The thinking here: So-and-so has figured it out, and they should set the pace for all PCA churches. Again, problems arise: setting aside the very big assumption that the leadership there really has figured it out and has hit upon the perfect biblical solution, what does this have to do with what the BCO says about Deacons and women? But a closer look at the proposed practices reveals the truth: said PCA church's solution is to hire out the work of "serving tables" to outsiders (many of them unbelievers, all of them African-Americans).
I'm not convinced that blogs and discussion boards (mine included) are completely helpful in matters like these. It seems to me that folks are getting so entrenched in their positions, long before GA, that the possibility of healthy, profitable discussion on a study committee-- and even a good appointment of that committee-- is diminished.

I'm not decided about the matter. I've held back from my inclination to dig into the issue and study it to the point of deciding what my mind is about it-- though I'll take the time to do that before GA. But I am struck by this: most of the arguments against the study committee (summarized above) go against my logical inclinations-- committing fallacies and demonstrating inconsistency frequently-- and these weaken the case against a committee significantly. So I'm obviously in favor of erecting a study committee, even if I'm not decided on the issue of women as Deacons/Deaconesses.

Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised that brothers and sisters in the PCA can't have a more constructive conversation about all of this. As much as anything, reading some of these discussions have caused me to grieve the lack of brotherly love and charitable grace within our denomination, and my heart has frequently been heavy about it over the past few weeks. Why is an overture to study ANY part of the BCO to consider if it is fully and truly based on Scripture so threatening?

One commenter (Scott Truax of Peace Presbyterian Church, Cary, NC) at the
byFaith page summed it up the best: "If we follow Scripture, we have nothing to fear."
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Women in church leadership

One of the more difficult questions facing many churches (and I say "many" because some churches have answered the question for themselves, not because it isn't a question for them) is, what is the role of women in leadership in the church?

The PCA has, since its inception, proclaimed a "complementarian" position on women in leadership. The "complementarian" view stands squarely between the egalitarian (with unequivocal removal of distinction between men and women in terms of leadership and/or authority) and the patriarchal (with unequivocal denial of any sort of leadership or authority to any woman). How to implement this has frequently been in dispute: at worst, the complementarian position appears little different from the patriarchal position, with perhaps the exception of allowing women to minister to other women (and usually children); at best, applying the complementarian view is summed up in the idea that a woman may perform any act of service or leadership (apart from preaching in public worship) that a non-ordained man may also perform.

One complicating factor in applying the complementarian position has been that the PCA's Book of Church Order (BCO) does not
currently allow for women to be "ordained" to any leadership office-- Elder or Deacon. An overture for the upcoming General Assembly, from the Philadelphia Presbytery, may bring some modification to this, or at least clarification for how it is to be implemented. I appreciate the spirit of this overture, and how it asks for clarification even if the "status quo" is maintained. Should the BCO be amended to allow women to serve as Deacons, it might actually make the issue more complex-- but in this case simplicity hasn't historically proven to be beneficial, when it comes to the application of seemingly simple ideas. Simplicity in this issue usually results in either denying women opportunity or ignoring biblical guidance.

Another complicating factor, ironically, is the difference between leadership and authority. Ironically, because for years (centuries? millennia?) this has been the argument that I have heard tossed back at women who argue that they are denied opportunity for service and the exercise of their gifts. Yet more recently confusion on this point has been the justification for relegating women to only teaching children or perhaps other women. Why is granting women a role of leadership a tacit breech of biblical distinctions for authority?

As a counterexample: if leadership somehow equals authority to the point where biblical boundaries are crossed, why have a two-office view (Elders and Deacons) in the first place? Isn't the granting of authority to
male Deacons at least raising the possibility that the boundaries will be crossed? Of course it is-- and sometimes those boundaries ARE crossed. Yet we don't eliminate the office of Deacon to protect the authority of the Elder. We don't eliminate the organization of a presbytery to protect the authority of the local congregation, either. Thus, we shouldn't prevent women from having a role of leadership simply to limit their authority.

I'm glad for the Philadelphia Presbytery overture, and I look forward to seeing the PCA mature through this discussion. What do you think?
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