Posted by Bob Mattes
Things have been a bit busy since returning from the 37th PCA General Assembly. A lot of the post-assembly talk has centered on the the overtures considering women’s role in the church. You may recall that last year, Philadelphia Presbytery put forward an overture to study the issue of deaconesses in the PCA which was rejected by the Assembly. As I reported in this post, James River and Susquehanna Valley Presbyteries submitted identical overtures calling for a more general study committee to study the role of women in the church. Although this apparently was thought more palatable than an outright call for deaconesses, most commissioners saw through the thin veneer.
The Overtures Committee debated these overtures at some length. I tip my hat to TE Phil Ryken who chaired the committee this year. Although his church, 10th Presbyterian in Philadelphia, has deaconesses, you would never have guessed that from his moderation of the debate. TE Ryken did an excellent job of keeping things moving and on track.
Many who argued for the committee relied on the unproven premises in the “Whereas” clauses of the overtures. These primarily included the unsupported assumptions that:
Whereas, the PCA has struggled with the question of how women in the local church are to exercise their God-given gifts within the framework of the BCO; and
Whereas, many PCA churches are uncertain about how to use appropriately God’s gifts among the many capable women within the membership of those churches; and
Whereas, in many PCA churches those gifts are under utilized;
Personally, I’ve never seen or been in those churches though I traveled widely. Do they exist? Perhaps, but proponents offered no specific evidence. These were just emotion-based, unsupported assertions for which no one in the debate could/would offer evidence.
What could have been offered into evidence is that there are PCA churches skirting the BCO by commissioning women as deaconesses. There are PCA churches who, while commissioning women and men to a parallel “diaconate”, refuse to ordain men as deacons as required by the BCO. The Assembly spoke against this practice last year through the Review of Presbytery Records. That there are churches skirting around the BCO or defying it is clear. I doubt that this is out of confusion, but am open to correction.
The other major argument offered was that some past studies had been helpful. The few studies mentioned included the ones on Freemasonry and creation. Of course, these did not concern BCO changes or daily practices in the church. What proponents didn’t mention were the numerous other studies that didn’t provide the catharsis desired. Take the Federal Vision study. Although approved by over 95% of the 35th General Assembly, Federal Visionists are still tolerated in some PCA presbyteries. They simply will not submit to the decision of their brothers.
So would it be with a study on deaconesses or women’s role in general. Such a committee would certainly produce a minority report just at the Overtures Committee did. Proponents of each side would latch onto the version they like and the debate would continue unabated. We already see this with the OPC’s minority report on women in the church. Although rejected by the OPC, it is still widely used by proponents of deaconesses. Study reports rarely solve anything, which opponents of this proposed study skillfully argued.
Proponents also argued that a significant percentage of overtures and SJC cases this year involved the issue of women’s roles in the church. However, when actually examining the overtures, eliminating duplicates, and considering the details of the SJC cases, the assertion didn’t hold water. The argument seemed to be based on a cursory count of titles rather than actual content.
Those who opposed the study believed that the Scriptures and the BCO provide ample clarity. I’ve posted on the applicable Scriptures and the BCO previously. The problem isn’t clarity in our only rule for faith and practice, but with our confusion and lack of resolve in an egalitarian culture.
Another argument presented against the study was that polity study reports such as this tend to be elevated to constitutional status in practice. The way to affect changes to the BCO or Confession isn’t through study reports or pastoral letters, but overtures to the GA proposing such changes. Although studies don’t have constitutional force, they sometimes take on that role by default.
Further, the overtures as written seem to seek a checklist of what women can and can’t do in the PCA. This removes the flexibility of local sessions to minister in their local circumstances, always within the boundaries of our theology and polity. As I argued later on the floor of the Assembly, the last thing a unit in the field needs to accomplish its mission is more guidance from headquarters. The current guidance conforms to Scripture while allowing flexibility for local implementation.
Proponents attempted to soften the overtures through amendments, even changing the final product from a report to a pastoral letter. On the other side, one opponent put forth an amendment to change the study to explicitly address deaconesses. That particular amendment was defeated.
After considerable debate, the Overtures Committee recommended answering the overtures in the negative by 40-34-2. Of course, the minority wished to produce their own report to support the overtures.
TE Dave Coffin presented the committee report to the Assembly and RE E. J. Nusbaum delivered the minority one. TE Coffin’s arguments were excellent and centered on much of what I reported above. RE Nusbaum’s minority presentation rehashed the same arguments made in committee. The debate lasted an hour and produced no new insights. In the end, the Assembly voted against a study committee by a narrow 446-427 margin, which required a carefully counted vote.
What does it all mean? Well, as TE Ligon Duncan posited the day before, there were at least four camps in the debate. Just considering the core issue, some wanted the study to expand the permissible roles of women, perhaps to include commissioning deaconesses. Others wanted the study to close the door on deaconesses. Some opposed the study because they feared that it would close the door on deaconesses or expanding the permissible roles of women. Others opposed the study because they feared it may take a step in the direction of egalitarianism. So, with competing interests on both sides of the study issue, it’s hard to say what the vote really means overall in relation to the core issue. My guess is that it doesn’t necessarily much at all.
My opposition to the study haven’t changed since last year. It would have wasted $10,000 (or $15,000 as approved during the Admin Committee votes) and solved nothing. As I argued on the floor last year and again this year, I think that the honest approach is for those who want change to put forth an overture to make specific changes the BCO. Let’s put our cards on the table and debate specifics rather ask for studies on the basis of unsupported generalities.
Posted by Bob Mattes