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While I was in a Presbytery meeting our denomination “dropped” the study report on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church that is going to be presented at General Assembly this June. I’ve seen some very critical statements about this report. I wonder if we are reading the same report. I am not done reading it, but so far I’ve found it to be edifying. In light of that, let’s look at the first chapter which serves as an introduction.

The report begins by laying out their commitments and affirmations that form the presuppositions of our denomination and this study report.  This includes:

  • Confessional commitment to the complementarity of men and women.
  • The full dignity of men AND women as created in God’s image.
  • The Scriptures teach that eldership is comprised of qualified men (they embrace this “humbly and happily”).
  • Marriage should display mutually-edifying complementarity.
  • Male headship is to be expressed in sacrificial love to his wife.
  • It is expressed when a wife “welcomes her husband’s headship with respect”.

This means they are laying out the boundaries, biblical and confessional, that exist for our denomination and this study. The purpose is not to examine things outside of the boundary markers, or to change the boundary markers. The purpose is to examine questions that lie within these boundaries. Within these boundaries there are some differences of opinions. Another way of saying this (as I’ve said before) is that complementarianism is not a monolithic movement. There are a continuum of views that exist within the bounds of biblical and confessional complementarianism. These are the differences in view. The goal was not to ordain women elders as some have asserted (and have intentionally or unintentionally stirred up fear).

At least half of the adult membership of the church are women. How they can serve, and how we can empower them, are important questions to ask if we actually want to see them serve God to the fullest as God permits.

They note that in BCO 9-7, both men and women may be appointed by the Session to assist the diaconate in their work. There are elders in the PCA who think that the PCA should permit women to be deacons. Some others favor an office of deaconness which supports the diaconate particularly in its ministry to women. Some see this as a position, not a church office. Others have an unordained diaconate so women may be deacons. So, recognizing these big differences in opinion we ought to consider the question more carefully.

“The committee is not recommending any Book of Church Order changes.” page 2, line 44

Historically they note that the PCA was formed during a time in which the women’s rights movement was popular, and many denominations, including the PC (US), were beginning to ordain women to the office of elder (including teaching elders). The PCA affirmed complementarianism then and still does now. However, “members and ministers are asking how to equip, encourage, and utilize women in the church’s ministry in ways that are consistent with our confessional and theological commitments to complementarianism.” This, I think, is a worthwhile project.

I recently saw some of the Overtures that have been made to the upcoming General Assembly. One is Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery which calls for the dismissal of the study committee. The report responds to this overture recommending that GA answer it in the negative. It deals point by point with the objections (except that it has reported disturbed the peace in Westminster Presbytery which was vague- are they fighting among themselves or just in existential agony because we’re considering how women may serve within the boundaries of our biblical and confessional commitments?).

One idea put forth by the Overture is that it is improper for women to serve on voting committees since this might involve “having authority over men.” I’m confused. Don’t women vote in congregational meetings? While we don’t recognize it as a court, congregational meetings function like a court and decisions are made by vote, like whether or not to call a particular man as teaching elder. Additionally, as the Study Report notes, committees made recommendations that must be voted on by the Assembly. It has no authority, the authority lies with the Assembly to approve or deny the report  and its recommendations.

To summarize: this report is addressing questions within our denominational boundaries, and not trying to make us PC(USA)-lite. This study committee was properly called, and women may serve on such a committee.

May God use this process to further the purity, peace and prosperity of the Church (and churches) through this process.

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At this year’s General Assembly they decided to have a study committee on women in the church. This was met with mixed reviews. Some were glad. I was glad, but I will not impute the reason for my joy to others. I want to better understand the Scriptures, in particular one text of Scripture, and for our church life to be more fully conformed to those Scriptures. In other words, I believe that notion of Reformed and reforming.

Some were upset seeing this as a move toward liberalism. They believe they fully understand the Scriptures and haven’t imported any erroneous cultural notions into our understanding of the Scriptures.

I don’t see this as the on ramp to women elders. This is especially true when I look at the people on the study committee. We’re talking Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt for Pete’s sake.

Our Session decided we wanted to study this subject for ourselves so we can better evaluate any majority and minority reports. In fact, our men’s ministry has decided to look at this too. So I’ve done some shopping to add to the books I own and have read on this subject. One of the books I added was Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles by Kathy Keller. Kathy is also on this study committee and this was a book I wanted to read anyway.

In addition to being the wife of Tim Keller, Kathy has an MA in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell and spent some time as an editor for Great Commission Publications.

To call this a book is generous. It is more like a booklet, being 39 pages (plus a few pages of end notes). This increases the likelihood of it being read by my very busy elders. It also means that it won’t cover everything I might want it to cover or as in depth as I might want it covered.

Let’s lay the card on the table first. She is a complementarian. This is a broad term, and there are a few differences of opinion within this movement. Many want to claim their version as the only version. This, in fact, is one of the reasons for this book. She tries to nail down the essential point of complementarianism.

She divides the book into two chapters. The first focuses on hermeneutical issues and two key texts. The second focuses on how this plays out as she feels pressure from both egalitarians and more “conservative” complementarians (or those who may actually hold to a view of patriarchialism).

She begins by describing how she arrived at these conclusions (and to hold to the inspiration, infallibility and authority of the Scriptures) though she didn’t grow up believing them and they threatened her career ambitions. Hermeneutically she affirms that the analogy of Scripture (clear texts interpret unclear texts) and each text has a context (historical, cultural, social, and I might add theological) that affects its meaning. The two texts she focuses on are 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. In some ways she views the first as less clear and the second as more clear such that 1 Timothy helps us understand 1 Corinthians.

We cannot isolate 1 Corinthians 14 from the rest of 1 Corinthians. This means that we cannot use it to mean that women must be absolutely silent in a worship service. For instance, 1 Corinthians 11:5 mentions women praying and prophesying in the public worship service. While we might claim the prayer is silent, clearly the prophesying is not. As a result she notes “Paul in 1 Corinthians is not condemning the public ministry of women, but regulating it.” In other words, public exercise of spiritual gifts is to retain “divinely ordained gender roles.”

She does mention Miriam, Deborah and Huldah as women leaders. She, unfortunately, just mentions this in passing. Since these women are used by egalitarians like Sarah Sumner to justify their views, I think this bore more attention. Miriam, for instance, while publicly leading, was publicly leading women in the chorus of the song.

In its context, she understands (quite reasonably) this text to be about the elders evaluating and judging the content of prophecy in the worship service. They were discussing it and speaking authoritatively upon it. Women were not to be interjecting and disrupting this process which involved only the elders. This happened prior to the completion of the canon and the elders were to guard the deposit of truth they had (and were still receiving). We do this less formally now that the canon is complete by holding pastors to confessional standards. If I begin to preach deviant views, the elders are charged with admonishing me, and presbytery will be involved if I persist.

These view is supported by what we find in 1 Timothy 2. Debate has raged over whether “teach or have authority” (NIV), “teach or exercise authority” (ESV),  refers to two separate functions or one function (teaching in a position of authority). She, following James Hurley (who used to teach at RTS Jackson), Craig Blomberg and Philip Payne believes this is a hendiadys in which the conjunction connects the two verbs so they are mutually defining.

“So what is being forbidden to women in 1 Timothy 2 (and by extension in 1 Corinthians 14) is authoritative teaching- some kind of teaching that carried with it an authority not found in other, allowable forms of oral discourse.”

In her understanding there are times when a teacher doesn’t have authority. You can disagree with a SS teacher or small group leader but it isn’t a problem. The problem is if we disagree with the elders on an important issue (it may be prompted by the disagreement with the SS teacher). The SS teacher can’t excommunicate you, but the Session can!

The main tenant of complementarianism is male headship in the church (and home). In the church it is male elders (there is disagreement on the question of deacons which means we have disagreements on the nature of a deacon or “ordination” behind the scenes).

Keller than briefly mentions the common reasons why people think we don’t have to obey these instructions by Paul: misogyny by Paul, only binding on the church then, and outdated commands. She notes how unconventional Paul was in his relationships with women and how the charge of misogyny really doesn’t have any legs. The second charge is based on a fallacy since every part of Scripture is written to a specific group at a specific time for a specific reason. We do distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive passages however. Scripture describes polygamous marriages, for instance, but never prescribes or affirms them. This second excuse also denies Paul’s instruction about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3. The third excuse essentially is that we have more light now. Another version of this would be the trajectory hermeneutic of some progressives like Rob Bell where we try to project what Paul might think & say today.

“Consider the enormous hubris in appointing our present cultural moment as the yardstick against which God’s Word must be measured.”

We should not give into the impulse to fall back onto “love” since the issue is so “complicated and confusing.” She reminds us that the great creeds and confessions of the church were the produces of (often) vigorous debate. It is better to dig deeper into the Scriptures and submit ourselves to what they say. This is not simply a personal project but a community project (regarding both time and space).

“I have found it fruitless, leading only to self-pity and anger in my own life, to question God’s disposition of things when I do not understand. Confidence in his goodness has been a better choice.”

The second section is really about trying to address those who disagree with her, both the women who are egalitarian and the men who are more patriarchical (my term) or those who have a more restrictive view of women in the church. She distinguishes between gifts and roles. We tend to conflate them. A woman can have a shepherding gift and she can exercise it, but not in the role of pastor. She brings up her now deceased professor Elizabeth Elliot in discussing this. We should want women to fully exercise their gifts even as we recognize that there is a role (or two?) they cannot fulfill. She puts forward a common formulation that a woman can do anything an unordained man do.

This is a SHORT book, as I mentioned. As a result there are a number of things I thought went unaddressed. I would have preferred some discussion about deacons. That was beyond her scope and is really not an egalitarian vs. complementarian question.

She does affirm the voluntary submission of the Son as Mediator in the economic Trinity. In the footnote in that paragraph she clearly denies Eternal Submission of the Son, which is proposed by some complementarians or at least seems to be. She rightly calls this, in my opinion, a heresy. Some people, like Wayne Grudem, keep doubling down on their ESS views (which are also found in the ESV Study Bible). Frame’s comments are quite tentative on this issue.

Anyway, this was a helpful booklet to read even though its scope was limited. Reading this I see no reason for my more “conservative” brothers (I am a conservative, by the way) to fear the PCA sliding into liberalism with Kathy’s inclusion on the study committee.

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