General Assembly Follow Up #2 -A Study Committee

One of the biggest news items coming from the 44th General Assembly of the PCA was the formation of a Study Committee on the Role of Women in the PCA in local Church, Presbytery, and Assembly levels. This item of business caught me off guard, as I hadn’t read anything about it in the preliminary material, and it generated quite a bit of political drama on the floor of the Assembly. Allow me to give a little background to the story here, as best as I can, describe the nature of the debate, then explain the decision. Bear with me.

The recommendation for a study committee on women in ministry began with a group called the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC). The CMC is made up of the chairmen of the ten standing Assembly committees as well as the six most recent moderators of the General Assembly. The CMC’s responsibilities primarily deal with long-range planning for the overall mission and ministry of the PCA, giving recommendations, not to the General Assembly, but to the appropriate committees in dealing with particular issues facing the church.

The Administrative Committee received the suggestion of the CMC, and recommended to the General Assembly to form a committee to investigate: 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; and 4) should the findings of the study committee warrant changes to the Book of Church Order – propose such changes to the General Assembly.

When the General Assembly meets, each committee gathers to prepare their report to the Assembly. These committees are made up of Teaching and Ruling Elders who have been nominated and elected by the Assembly. Each committee also has a Committee of Commissioners, Teaching and Ruling Elders who have been nominated by their presbyteries to review the work of the Committees and make necessary recommendations for correction or improvement of the work of the committee. (How many times can I write “committee” in a paragraph?) The Administrative Committee’s Committee of Commissioners reviewed their proposal to form a Study Committee and recommended the General Assembly vote down the action.

This is where the debate got rather passionate. There were those who advocated for the Study who argued that this is something that every church is dealing with, that we must find a way to articulate in a positive manner the role and responsibilities of women in the church. Several spoke to the point that highly educated and able women were relegated to menial tasks simply because they were women and could not serve in ordained ministry as Elders or Deacons.

Those who spoke against the Study made it clear that they wanted to affirm the role of women in ministry, but had fundamental disagreements with the way the action originated and with the parameters of the study. If this were something that every church were dealing with, why did the recommendation for the study have to come from the Cooperative Ministries Committee rather than from a Presbytery? We are a denomination that is governed by the elders and Presbyteries, not from the top down – so it is interesting that this recommendation came from a small group of committee leaders and moderators rather than from churches and presbyteries.

Likewise, the parameters of the study encompass quite a bit of territory; investigating the biblical basis and authority of ordination; the office of deacon; and the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses. That’s quite a bit of area to cover as a Study Committee, and the fear expressed on the floor of the Assembly is that this committee would lead to the recommendation of ordaining women to the office of Deacon and Elder in the PCA.

In the end, the recommendation was passed by a vote of 767-375 and the Study Committee was formed. I don’t know how often the committee will meet, or if they will give their final report at the next General Assembly, but I would presume that would be the case.

My personal take…
First, I am not afraid of a Study Committee. I welcome the opportunity for the Church to faithfully study the Word of God as it leads us to understand the offices of Elder and Deacon in the Church, and as we understand the particular calling of men and women to serve the church together. I think it would be helpful to have a positive statement in the Church on the role of women in ministry. Simply saying “you can’t be an Elder or Deacon” is not encouraging women to serve, nor does it begin to exhaust the expanse of possible ways in which women are called and gifted for service in the church. A positive, biblically faithful report on women in ministry can only help, not hurt, the ministry of the Church.

Second, I have spent the first year here in Lennox getting to know my congregation, visiting with the women and men of the Church. I have listened well, and I have not heard the women of the church complaining that they cannot serve because they cannot be ordained as a Deacon or Elder. In fact, I have heard just the opposite. The women of the church a glad to see men take up the mantle of their God-ordained responsibility, as they lead in prayer, in the proclamation of the word, as they lead the church in compassion and enthusiasm. I have come from churches where this is not the case, where men refuse to serve, requiring the women to pick up where the men have abdicated their responsibilities. I would hate to see the church waver from the Word of God, giving the men of the church license to reject their calling, and causing more confusion and trouble in an already confused and troubled generation.

Finally, while I want to uphold the high calling in scripture to the office of the Elder as a spiritual overseer in the Church, and that of Deacon as one called to the ministry of compassion and care, I think it is problematic when we tell people, especially the women of the church, that unless they have the title of Elder or Deacon their ministry is somehow less important or invalidated. Why must we have a title to serve? Do you have to be ordained to care and show compassion? Perhaps the problem stems from the way that we have exercised leadership in the past, lording it over others rather than using the office to become a servant to all. In this way, a study on ordination is warranted, and the correction, as always, is to come back to the Word of God.

Just to wrap things up, here are a few key passages to consider on the issue of Elders, Deacons, and ministry in the church.

Titus 1:5–9
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”

1 Timothy 3:1–7
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”

1 Timothy 3:8–13
“Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Mark 10:42–45
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

Follow Up from General Assembly

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America wrapped up its business, and I think I’ve finally recovered from the experience.  I don’t mean to say that the General Assembly was an ordeal one had to suffer through. In fact, it was a great time of fellowship, study, worship and prayer as the presbyters assembled to conduct the business of the church.  Still, the drive to and from Alabama was exhausting, and I followed General Assembly with a week of Church Camp as a Counselor and Teacher, then came back home just in time for our Community’s 4th of July Celebration.  I need to make sure that this perfect storm doesn’t hit my calendar like this again.

I thought I’d take the next couple of weeks on my blog to share some follow up thoughts from the Assembly.  One of the downsides to going to a conference like this alone is that I’m the only one who had the experience, and much of what I heard or picked up is beneficial to the entire church.  So I’ll try to share some insights (hopefully they’ll be helpful).

Today – some personal observations from the floor of General Assembly.

  1. I don’t have, nor will I ever have, enough seersucker to be a fully vested PCA Teaching Elder.  Ok, this might not be the earth-shattering, revolution causing insight you might be looking for, but I found it interesting that there were so many Southern, “hipster-ish” among the Elders of the PCA.  I know we are a predominately Southern church, having come from the PCUS, but the dominance of the Southern influence is overwhelming at an even like General Assembly.
  2. I scored points by being from South Dakota.  Having stated that the PCA is a predominately Southern church, it was remarkable the reaction from our brothers and sisters in the church when I told them I was from South Dakota.  You might have thought I told them that I had planted a church on Mars.  They acted as though living this far north qualified me for hardship duty.  For many, the prospect of pastoral ministry in the “outer rim territories” was simply inconceivable.
  3. I never want to speak on the floor of General Assembly.  During the business of the Assembly, microphones are placed throughout the assembly room for people to come and speak for or against a motion, to present new business, or to question the order of business on the floor.  It’s all very “politic-y”, and I hope never to get caught in the middle of it.  There were people who stood in line to speak on every item of business before the Assembly – they always had something to say or a point to make. I pray that I may go my entire life without having to rise to speak on the floor of the Assembly.
  4. There are some brilliant people in this Church.  The real blessing of attending GA was to see how God has richly blessed this church with those who will intelligently and passionately engage this world with the truth of God’s Word.  The preaching in worship, the instructional seminars, and the conversations in the halls were uplifting, informative, and encouraging.
  5. We are a church that is searching to find its voice.  We are in our 44th year as a church.  We broke away from another denomination in an effort to remain faithful to the inspired, authoritative, and inerrant Word of God, and have grown through the years as we have faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Unlike the majority of mainline and other evangelical denominations, the PCA continues to grow in numbers, and is financially strong.  Yet it is obvious that the pressure to look like the other denominations and to concede in certain areas to social and political influences  is high.  How will the church move forward in a culture that is more and more clearly post-Christian and even antagonistic to the faith?  How do we proclaim the gospel to a generation that is technologically proficient, but is meanwhile spiritually illiterate, lacking even the most basic understanding of who God is or what the Bible teaches?  How we answer these questions will shape the next 40 years, and more, of our church. I pray that our answer will be the same as that which led to the establishment of the PCA, a faithfulness to the Word of God and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I do have audio recordings of several seminars that were offered at General Assembly if anyone is interested.  Here are the topics:

  • Advancing The Gospel In A Changing North America
  • Recovering The Biblical Office Of Elder
  • The Pulpit And Public Theology In The Public Square Presbyterian Style
  • Making Session Meetings The Best Night Of The Month, Or How The Session Is Supposed To Work (2016)
  • Transformational Discipleship