Dear Church Family,
Continuing in my effort to share with you some of the major items that will be discussed, debated, and voted upon at the next General Assembly of the PCA, this week we take up the topic of male-only eldership. This topic may seem like a simple question of what does the Scripture and the subordinate constitution of our church say about the matter, but the question that is being asked has more to do with subscription to our church standards by ministers in our denomination. If that sounds confusing, let me put your mind at rest: it is confusing! But let me see if I can help us think through the issue.
Overture 22 from Philadelphia Presbytery is a petition for the General Assembly of our denomination to erect a study committee in order to clarify and define the general principles of biblical polity referenced in the third ordination vow (BCO 21-5, 3rd Vow), how these vows relate to one’s views concerning male-only eldership, and to evaluate whether or not the constitution should be amended and if necessary to recommend a constitutional process to that end.
I know that that doesn’t clear things up much for most people, but here’s the gist of what’s going on – at least as I understand it. When candidates seek ordination in the PCA (whether initially or by transfer from other denominations), they must assent to certain ordination vows. In these vows – among other things – the candidate must affirm that he believes the Scriptures to be the Word of God and only rule of faith and practice, receive and adopt the Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger and Shorter Catechisms) as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures, and approve of the form of government and discipline of the PCA as set forth in our Book of Church Order (BCO). Basically, the minister vows that he believes the Bible, and agrees with the constitution of our church (the Westminster Standards and the BCO).
Sometimes, when candidates come before a presbytery to be examined for ordination, they ‘take exception’ (or express ‘stated differences’ with) a particular part of the Westminster Standards or the BCO. It is then the responsibility of the presbytery to determine if that ‘stated difference’ is “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” or if it is “hostile to the system” and “strikes at the vitals of religion.” (BCO 21-4f)
If the ‘stated difference’ is found to be unacceptable in the view of the presbytery (i.e., it strikes at the vitals of religion), then the candidate is not approved for ordination in our denomination. If the ‘stated difference’ is found to be acceptable in the view of the presbytery (i.e., it does not strike at the vitals of religion), then the candidate is approved for ordination, those ‘stated differences’ being annotated in the minutes of presbytery.
Bottom line: The question being asked by this overture is (as I understand it): If a candidate for ordination in our denomination believes that Scripture allows for women to be ordained to the office of elder (which is contrary to our church constitution), may he still be ordained as a minister in our denomination?
It seems to me that the Philadelphia Presbytery is petitioning the General Assembly to erect a study committee to answer this question.
As I have tried to think through this overture, there seems to be two main issues being discussed here and this complicates the overture.
(1) Allowable Stated Differences. On the one hand, this overture seems to be asking for the General Assembly to erect a study committee to determine if believing that Scripture allows for women to be ordained to the office of elder is an allowable exception to our constitution for ministers in our denomination. This is actually a very important question – not only as it relates to the specific exception to male-only eldership, but also as it relates to other ‘stated differences’ that officers in our church are allowed to take to our constitution.
I have personally served on the theological examination committee in two different presbyteries and this is something that must be determined with particular candidates on a wide variety of issues. In fact, one of the most important responsibilities of a member of presbytery is how he casts his vote with regard to the ordination of candidates for the gospel ministry. As Machen argues in the final chapter of Christianity and Liberalism, one of the most important duties of Christian officers for the preservation of the health of Church is to “perform their duty in deciding upon the qualifications of candidates for the ministry.”
That being said, there are several reasons for which I am not entirely convinced that a denomination-wide study committee will be able to answer this question. First, according to our constitution, it is the presbytery which must make this determination (BCO 21-4f), the ones who actually hear a candidate’s ‘stated difference.’ Their actions, of course, come under review of the denomination, but it is the presbytery that initially deliberates and decides. Second, in examining many candidates over the years (in committee and on the floor of presbytery), I have found that with regard to certain issues there are varying degrees of ‘stated differences’ even concerning the same doctrine. I don’t see much nuance in the male-only eldership issue, but I have seen nuance on other issues. I’ve even seen a candidate express a ‘stated difference’ which actually ended up being a defense of what our standards taught – he thought he was taking an exception, but he really wasn’t! An odd circumstance, I know.
(2) Male-only eldership. For my part, this issue is much simpler. The Scriptures teach that the office of elder is limited to qualified men in the church. Instead of delving into this topic at length at this time, let me just point you to the transcript of a sermon by Ligon Duncan called “Silent in the Church: Why Can’t Women Preach.” Duncan cites and examines five New Testament passages that explicitly establish an all-male teaching office in the church: 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-2, 4, 12; Titus 1:5-6; 1 Corinthians 11:5-10; and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
Thus, the constitution of the PCA unequivocally states, “In accord with Scripture, these offices [elders and deacons] are open to men only” (BCO 7-2). The question as to whether or not one must believe this to be the teaching of Scripture in order to be ordained in our denomination seems to be the main question which is raised by this overture.
I would not want to make a carte-blanche statement with regard to the views of a particular candidate without hearing his views first; however, I do believe that this is an important doctrine that must be upheld and taught by all of the officers of our church. One reason is the simple one that most children learn in Sunday school: because the Bible tells me so. If the Word of God teaches it, then we must believe and obey it regardless of how we feel or what the world says. I know that there are some well-meaning, professing Christians who disagree on this interpretation of the Scripture, but I find most all of their arguments to be equivocating.
Another reason for which I believe this to be an important doctrine that must be upheld and taught by all the officers in our church is because to disbelieve it reveals a form of interpreting the Scriptures that is dangerous and can easily lead to faulty interpretation of the Bible in other doctrines. [I can hear the groans: Oh no, here comes the slippery-slope argument.] Yes, that is what I’m saying: beware the slippery slope.
For instance, the Apostle Paul writes, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). If you can do all sorts of exegetical back-flips and equivocations to say that Paul was simply speaking for his day, for his particular culture, then really all bets are off. Paul clearly roots his teaching in creation, the fall, and redemption through Christ (1 Timothy 2:13-15). But if we take Paul’s teaching as being culturally bound as applying to only his time and place (as the argument usually goes), then we can say the same thing concerning what the Bible says about the sin of homosexuality (1 Timothy 1:10), the historicity of Adam (Romans 5:12ff), or even the necessity of the gospel for the salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). According to the hermeneutic of ‘chronological snobbery’ (to borrow a phrase coined by C.S. Lewis), who’s to say all those doctrines might have been true in the first century but they aren’t true now?
Well, I hope that this discussion of overture 22 is helpful. If nothing else, it may help you to see that (at least on this overture) there may be valid reasons to vote for the erection of a study committee on this issue and there may be valid reasons to vote against it. After all, though the question being raised is an important one, the actual overture is calling for a study committee to examine the issue – not a call to vote on the issue itself.
Please continue to pray for our local church, our presbytery, and for our denomination and General Assembly as we take up these important matters in June.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch