At the 2016 General Assembly of the PCA, I was one of thirteen men and women chosen to study the biblical and historical basis for women in ministry. We were tasked to report back to the Assembly in 2017. The report was released in April and will be discussed publicly as a denomination in June. It is a consensus document that seeks to uphold biblical inerrancy and infallibility, the importance of historical theology, a robust complementarianism, and the significance of women in the church.
During our first meeting, the committee immediately affirmed the importance, dignity, and value of women in the world and in the church. Women image their God, and, therefore, demand respect and equal treatment. The committee was unified in this biblical assessment, also confessing the harm some churches have done to women. The reduction of their role to cooking, playing the piano, and administrative responsibilities has unnecessarily limited the gifts that they can provide to Christ’s Church.
We hope to demonstrate that the church needs and desires women’s opinions, teaching, and service, especially in light of the culture that is often fostered in churches that seeks to focus on what women cannot do rather than what women are called to do (Judges 4-5; John 4:1-30; Acts 18:24-28; Romans 16:1-2; Titus 2:3-5; cf. BCO 9-7, et al).
One area of importance was their service along side and potentially within the diaconate. The PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) 9-7 permits non-ordained men and women to serve alongside deacons. “It is often expedient,” the BCO maintains, “that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.” The BCO addresses non-ordained women as co-laborers with the deacons; however, since the committee was tasked to study ordination, we were required to look into the possibility of women serving within the diaconate as ordained members. This further caused the committee to study the biblical and historical precedent for a non-ordained role, which is sometimes called “deaconess.”
We focused on key passages in the New Testament that contribute to the possibility of female ordination within the diaconate and the role of deaconesses. The conversation of this important issue occurred via conference call, email, and face-to-face meetings at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. After consideration of key passages (e.g., Acts 6:1-7; Rom. 16:1-3, 6-7, 12; 1 Cor. 14:26-40; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 3:8-11, etc.), our convictions of the importance of women in ministry were affirmed. That affirmation, nonetheless, also recognized that God has instituted roles within his church.
Our focus was not femininity or mere outward expressions of what it means to be a woman. These are culturally fluid and often spring from mere human traditions. Rather, our sight was set on the unchanging and unfailing word of God, which objectively defines gender roles within the church, though allowing much cultural freedom of expression within those roles.
Our conclusion led to a recommendation that churches continue to pursue BCO 9-7. Further, our interpretation of the main passages confronting the issues of the diaconate and women’s ordination led the majority of the committee to conclude that ordination is for called and qualified men. What about the non-ordained position of deaconess? At a minimum, church history supports that role (see Calvin and Warfield, for example). The committee therefore recommended that PCA churches “select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have historically been referred to as deaconesses.” Deaconesses would be recognized through commissioning, though not ordained.
A second area of considerable importance was complementarianism. We desired to set forth a biblical, rather than cultural, approach to gender roles. Informed by the many places Jesus describes himself as a servant and insists his followers do likewise, we concluded that God-ordained differences in role were not for the purpose of accruing self-serving power and privilege, which can lead to abuse. Instead, these God-appointed differences in role were for sacrificial service. Men who use their roles of leadership to oppress and abuse women are acting sinfully and not as followers of Christ and his Word.
Our time together as committee ends at the 2017 General Assembly. The Assembly will vote on the recommendations. Additionally, there will be an Assembly-wide panel with the members of the committee to answer questions. On this panel, we hope to reinforce that our conclusions in the report were molded by the word of God. Our desire was never to create unrest within the PCA. Rather, we wanted to uphold the necessity of women in ministry that accords with the Word of God. Our prayer is that our report will be used to foster an environment were women can serve Christ’s Church joyfully, faithfully, and according to the Scriptures.
Leon Brown received an M. Div. from Westminster Seminary California in 2011 and an M. A. in historical theology from Westminster Seminary California in 2012. Rev. Brown is pursuing his Ph.D. in Hebrew at the University of the Free State.