An apology for women ministers in the PCA...
By Tim and David Bayly
Read an apology for her work by the Rev. Sam Downing, Senior Pastor of City Presbyterian Church.
(Here's Pastor Downing's original document as a PDF.)
But first, a few words of explanation....
When TE David Kniseley of Rocky Mountain Presbytery discovered in mid-January 2007 that City Presbyterian Church of Denver had hired and appointed (not ordained and installed) a woman to be Minister of Congregational Care he called City Presbyterian senior pastor and fellow presbyter, Sam Downing, and requested that City Presbyterian forego the title “Minister” for a woman staff member. TE Downing declined the request.
Pastor Kniseley then overtured Rocky Mountain Presbytery to instruct City Presbyterian Church to conform to the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order in this matter by no longer using the title “Minister” for any non-ordained staff member.
Because Pastor Kniseley’s overture was submitted too late for normal inclusion on the January 2007 docket, the Standing Rules of Rocky Mountain Presbytery required a two-thirds vote for new business to be added. The vote failed. Pastor Kniseley’s overture was thus added to the April 2007 docket of Rocky Mountain Presbytery.
In February, 2007, Pastor Downing wrote the paper we critique below titled “The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment: Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic,” circulating his paper as an explanation and defense of his church’s practice with regard to women in ministry. In March, 2007, Village Seven Presbyterian Church (Colorado Springs) sent an additional overture to Rocky Mountain Presbytery asking for it to be passed on to General Assembly. Their overture sought to amend the Book of Church Order so it would explicitly state the word ‘minister’ always refers to a teaching elder.
Both overtures (from Pastor Kniseley and Village Seven Presbyterian Church) were slated to come before Rocky Mountain Presbytery for action in April’s meeting. TE Dominic Aquila, the 2006 Moderator of General Assembly, took both overtures and recast them into two motions—a main and a substitute motion.
Main motion: "That the Presbytery acknowledge that the title 'minister' as used in the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America is synonymous with 'pastor' and 'teaching elder,' and as such none of these titles may be used to refer to any but ordained teaching elders."
Substitute Motion: "That the Presbytery acknowledge that the title 'minister' as used in the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America is synonymous with 'pastor' and 'teaching elder,' however, that it also acknowledge that the title 'minister' has been used in a general or generic manner and in this general way can be used for unordained church staff members."
The Main Motion, if approved, would have required City Presbyterian Church (and other churches in Rocky Mountain Presbytery who have used this term for staff people) to remove that title, replacing it with some other word such as 'Director.' The Substitute Motion, if approved, would have permitted City Presbyterian Church to allow its female staff member to retain her title, "Minister of Congregational Care."
The substitute motion (agreeing with the logic of the following paper) was adopted by Rocky Mountain Presbytery on a 32 to 26 vote.
Now, with that background, click below to read Rev. Downing's paper with our critique interspersed within it...
The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment:
Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic
By Rev. Sam Downing
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faces a unique challenge at this juncture in its history, namely to remain faithful to its polity of reserving the office of elder and deacon to the male gender while still maintaining an effective witness to a culture that has moved, and continues to move toward a more egalitarian position. This culture shift is true in both the non-religious (“secular”) sphere as well as in the religious sphere. As in the shift which took place during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s which largely dismantled discrimination on the basis of race, the freedom of women in the United States to serve in any office or capacity (secular or religious) is increasingly seen as a fundamental civil right. And thus to deny a woman any position on the basis of her gender…
Use of the word ‘gender’ is significant here. ‘Sex’ refers to a dualistic, rock-hard biological reality. Body parts don’t lie. But speak of ‘gender’ and we’re able to place our sexual identity at any point along an almost infinite continuum thereby transmuting sex into a social construct or role. ‘Sex’ is determined by God in the womb. ‘Gender’ inevitably leads us to think of each person’s sexual identity as a very personal choice. We’re squeamish to use the word ‘sex’ because it conjures up thoughts of body parts and physical intimacy. But we need to return to it because it anchors the battle over sexuality in God’s created order rather than man’s rebellion.
…is considered bigoted, narrow-minded and a violation of her civil rights. Though the more rural and conservative regions of the United States have been slower to adopt this worldview (at least in the realm of religion) this is certainly the case in the major cities and urban areas.
Let’s be clear: it’s actually the gender-anarchists who are bigots and narrow-minded, not those who honor Scripture’s doctrine of sexuality. Feminists and homosexualists are destroying the beautiful diversity of sexuality, seeking instead a transgendered androgynous uniformity of polymorphous perversity.
One would assume the writer disagrees with the assertion that those confessing Scripture’s doctrine of sexuality are “bigoted” and “narrow-minded,” but there’s no statement, either here or later indicating as much. Does it grieve the writer’s heart to know the world is lost in such rebellion that it believes the battle to end slavery and racism is morally equivalent to the battle to end father-rule?
In the midst of such high-handed rhetoric, let’s not forget the Word of God. The distinction of the sexes was created before the Fall whereas these other distinctions came after the Fall. The significance of sexuality for leadership and submission was decreed by God prior to the Fall, as the Holy Spirit tells us: “I do not allow a woman to exercise authority over a man…for Adam was created first, and then Eve.” Leadership and submission are the deep ecology of creation sexuality, not the product of “ancient patriarchal cultures.”
We must resist the enticement to use the world’s rebellion to justify our own compromises in matters where we fear that standing on Scriptural truth would hamstring our church’s growth. Rather, let’s take the Apostle Paul as our model for church growth. He was neither mollycoddling the Athenians nor dealing softly with their rebellion against God when he approached the Areopagus: “In the past God has overlooked such ignorance, but now He demands that all people everywhere repent. For He has fixed a day when He will judge all men…” And the church grew.
A similar shift has taken place within the American religious landscape, where virtually all of the so-called “Mainline” denominations and many charismatic, Pentecostal and other independent churches in North America have shifted to an “egalitarian” perspective of ordaining women to church office. This raises a vital question, “How can the PCA effectively minister in American culture generally, and in an egalitarian urban culture particularly, when it holds to a theological position that denies women ordination into church office?”
Why does the writer keep referring to it as the “egalitarian perspective” rather than the “egalitarian error” or “rebellion?”
But beyond word choice, this is such a tragic question for a PCA teaching elder to be asking. The errors and rebellion of the world have always been our greatest opportunities to preach the Gospel. Yet this writer implies that the feminist rebellion renders the Gospel impotent, creating such a crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of the world that we must hide the biblical truth about sexuality—or even leave it behind.
Every one of us must choose: either egalitarian feminists are right and the Church and her officers have arrived at such a crisis of legitimacy that we must deny the “hopelessly patriarchal god of the Bible” lest we sentence our ministries and congregations to cultural oblivion or we stand at one of the greatest opportunities we’ll ever have to evangelize the lost, entering their hearts and minds through the altars of their egalitarian gods and then leading them to the One True God Who “made the world and everything in it…”
Among our nation’s feminist pantheon is the god which demands our unborn children. Our streets run with blood spilled in homage to this modern-day Molech. What will we do? Will we serve this god ourselves? Will we treat such false worship tenderly? Or will we, in the power of the Only True God, our Heavenly Father, fight it to the death?
Luke records for us that when the Apostle Paul proclaimed the Resurrection of the dead to the Areopagus, the sophisticated Athenians “sneered” at him. If those in bondage to the spirit of our age sneer at the Fatherhood of God writ large over His creation, we should—what?—try to figure out how to hide or soft-sell that doctrine so that our message containing the pure kernel of the Gospel (and nothing else) will not be harmed by this sadly negative association?
The truth is that the biblical doctrines of sexuality are fantastic opportunities for evangelism today precisely because the world hates them. These doctrines are the gap in the wall where our culture has been focusing its attack upon God for decades: abortion, fornication, adultery, divorce, father-rule, women in combat, marriage, etc. Do we really believe capitulation in these areas will win an honest hearing for the Gospel? And if so, will our capitulation be limited to the biblical doctrine of father-rule, or will we accommodate over and over again until every sin of our nation is exempt from scrutiny by a “culturally appropriate” Church
It seems apparent that the author of this paper fails to see egalitarian feminism as an opportunity for evangelism and discipleship. A commitment to excluding women from serving as elders is not the same as standing in the breach and confessing the biblical doctrine of sexuality. Tight and stingy obedience is no obedience at all. The world’s attacks upon Scriptural truths are Gospel opportunities—not crises of legitimacy.
The PCA: Polity
The Book of Church Order (BCO) of the PCA expressly forbids the ordination of women to the office of Deacon or Elder. This position is derived largely from two sources: Primarily, from the PCA’s interpretation of Scripture; secondarily, from the historic tradition of the Church catholic.
Think how different it would sound if the preceding were changed to something along these lines: “The Book of Church Order (BCO) of the PCA expressly forbids the ordination of women to the office of Deacon or Elder. This position is the doctrine of Scripture and the practice of the church throughout church history. Sadly, the egalitarian feminist revolution has begun to make inroads within biblical denominations and churches in the past couple of decades. And we too, in the PCA, are seeing these pressures within our own fellowship.”
Though women are not allowed to be ordained as church officers in the PCA, they are nonetheless seen as spiritual equals to men.
‘Though’ and ‘nonetheless’… The implication is that equality of the sexes and distinction of callings are logically inconsistent.
A term that has become popular in the last twenty-five years to describe this position is complementarian: the view that although…
Again, why use the word “although?” And why “not equal in calling” rather than ‘distinct in calling’?
…women are equal to men in significance and gifting for ministry, they are not equal in calling – men are called to exercise authority in the Church and in the home; women are called to submit to and support men in their roles of leadership and authority. (Men are likewise called to support women in their submission through love and sacrificial service.)
The PCA: Culture and Practice
Within the PCA there is no serious debate over the legitimacy of the complementarian position.
Does the writer view this as a good or a bad thing?
Those who disagree with that position have generally either left the denomination of their own accord or have been forced to leave due to non-compliance with the BCO.
Again, does the writer think it good that they were forced to leave? The best possible construction we can put on this is that City Presbyterian and its pastor have difficulty seeing deviance from the Biblical doctrine of sexuality as sufficiently sinful to call for repentance over.
However, it’s also possible to view this paper as a flat rejection of Biblical teaching. The author may believe that sex has significance for the fitting together of bodies in marriage (and perhaps for the offices of teaching and ruling elder being limited to men). But beyond that? Has God’s truth of Adam first and then Eve captured any part of his heart? It’s not apparent in what’s written here. City Presbyterian appears to submit to the doctrines of its denomination in this realm as one submits to a dentist drilling out a cavity.
However, there is indeed a serious and growing debate surrounding the culture and practice of the PCA in regard to the role of women. A growing number of PCA pastors, elders and laypeople are recognizing that there is much more latitude in regard to the role of women in the church beyond the traditional ministries women are given access to, such as keeping the nursery, teaching children, singing in the choir, teaching within gender restrictive ministries such as Women in the Church (WIC) etc.
The writer attributes the historic focus of godly women on ministry to other women and children to “tradition.” Clearly, he doesn’t intend this as a compliment. He says such limitations are part of our PCA “culture.” Yet throughout church history, the primary reason for these emphases among women in ministry is that these are the foci Scripture has called women to. Consider, inter alia, such passages as 1Timothy 5:9-16 and Titus 2:3-5. Are these texts demeaning to women?
And why label the explicit Titus 2 command (that women teach women) as “gender restrictive” instead of “sex specific?” It seems obvious the word ‘restrictive’ was chosen for its pejorative weight. The writer appears to view such sex-specific work as patronizing and demeaning to women.
These younger generations of PCA leaders and laypeople are not taking issue with the theology of the PCA as much as the culture of the PCA that goes beyond restricting women from holding church office to limiting a woman’s ability to use her spiritual gifts meaningfully…
Really? This little phrase “as much as” is the equivalent of the poker player’s “tell.” In fact, they don’t agree with Scripture’s teaching if that means any ontological and theological understanding of the meaning and purpose of sexuality that comes from Adam being created first, and then Eve. Nor are they likely to agree with any connection of this order of creation to the prohibition of woman exercising authority over man. Consider Scripture’s witness on this issue and ask whether the Word received from the Holy Spirit constitutes City Presbyterian’s “doctrine,” let alone its “culture?”
God created Adam and Eve “in His Own Image” thereby revealing their essential equality in bearing His image:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
This is a part of the truth that is the basis of the Apostle Paul’s statement concerning the community of saints:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
There are other Scriptural truths in complete harmony with the truth, above, all of which make clear that egalitarianism is rebellion against God:
First, God created Eve after Adam (order of creation):
For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. (1 Timothy 2:13).
Second, God created Eve for Adam (purpose of creation):
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:18-23).
Third, God Created Eve from Adam (his body was used):
For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man. (1 Corinthians 11:8).
Fourth, Adam named Eve:
Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.
The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:19, 22-23).
Fifth, in Adam we all died; not in Eve. Nowhere does Scripture lay the blame for the Fall at Eve’s door:
God, walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, inquires of Adam “Where are you?” When Adam responds by explaining that he and Eve found themselves naked and hid, it is notable that God directs His follow-up question again to Adam asking him:
“Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:11).
It was Adam, not Eve, who was required to explain the tragic alienation from God they both had suffered, and this despite Eve having been the one deceived, the first one to sin, and the one who enticed her husband to follow her into that sin. This is neither a small or unimportant aspect of the Genesis account: it was Adam whom God first held responsible for the Fall despite Adam being the second sinner in the Garden.
So today, it is because of the sin of Adam—not Eve—that the race of Adam remains under the curse of judgment and death down to this present day.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned-for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14).
There’s no question but that the Bible is quite specific on this issue… as the New England Primer (one of the most widely used textbooks in the early history of the United States) succinctly sums it up: “In Adam’s fall We sinned all.”
God’s Word makes clear that because God made Eve for Adam and placed her under his authority, it was Adam whom God called to account for the Fall. Adam was the patriarch of his home and his race. (This is not to say that Eve escaped personal accountability; in Genesis 3 we read that God also placed Eve under a curse- the punishment that even today brings suffering to all women in childbirth. So too the serpent and his descendents suffer under God’s judgment.) Yet it is through Adam alone that death comes to all men, it is because of Adam’s sin that all creation groans awaiting its release from the corruption of sin (Romans 8:22,23), and it is in Adam that we all die:
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
All through the Old Testament, God has named the human race ‘adam,’ and this name reinforces what the whole account of the creation of Adam and Eve reveals-that the first woman was made after and for the first man and that for all time this structure is to be mirrored in the lives of God’s people by their living together under father-rule, not matriarchy or egalitarian utopianism.
If we gave City Presbyterian’s session and pastor the above doctrine and asked them if they wholeheartedly affirm it we suspect they’d claim that the meaning of many of these texts is arguable—and that even if they do mean what they’ve historically been understood by the Church to teach, they need to be massaged to gain the Gospel a hearing in a postmodern, urban, cosmopolitan, ethnically-diverse community. And they would emphasize that these texts were originally written in a patriarchal context quite different from our own…
…as much as the culture of the PCA that goes beyond restricting women from holding church office to limiting a woman’s ability to use her spiritual gifts meaningfully in any way that even appears to be usurping male leadership.
Do the leaders at City Presbyterian see the joy, blessing, and holiness of obedience to these Scriptural principles?
To their way of thinking, has not the Holy Spirit given women the very gifts that insecure PCAers are not allowing to be used in the church?
One serious consequence of this is that the vast majority of PCA churches continue to be populated almost exclusively by politically conservative Anglos.
The failure of PCA churches to attract non-Anglos is attributed to her faithful witness on sexuality. This is an astounding leap of logic. We might as easily attribute the PCA’s cultural makeup to the architecture of its churches or the hardness of its pews
There are a host of reasonable explanations for the current PCA demographic, but the author of this paper has the key which opens every lock. The demographic (and, of course, it’s assumed that the demographic is a failure) of the PCA is entirely due to her not keeping up with the fast-changing egalitarian world within which she dwells. If she would simply give women “meaningful” ministries, she’ll finally pull in the Democrats, the Latinos, the cosmopolitans, etc.
There are many more plausible explanations for our predominantly white, highly-educated, rich, suburban, and politically conservative culture than the PCA’s purported failure to use women’s gifts “meaningfully.” As a start, how about our practice of locating church plants in wealthy communities? How about a musical style and instrumentation so integrally tied to WASPish tastes and our Western cultural background that even middle-class Anglos often don’t get it? How about our don’t-use-any-part-of-the-body-other-than-the-brain culture of worship?
Then again, maybe it’s as simple as our not offering services in Spanish….
Actually, the key City Presbyterian claims to possess doesn’t even fit the lock it purports to open. Truth be told, it’s not non-Anglos who want an egalitarian culture, but sophisticated urban Seinfeld wannabes who hate authority and want their pastor and church to confirm them in their errors and rebellion. Since it’s Denver we’re talking about, and not Detroit, it’s appropriate to observe that Latinos are actually much less sympathetic to women in public leadership than the sort of urban Anglos that City Presbyterian is most likely to be attracting. And we’re not talking about machismo, here, but the historic and quite-authentic Latino cultural commitment to father-rule. If City Presbyterian wants to contextualize, if she really wants to attract the dominant non-Anglo culture of Denver, she might well start by having Spanish-speaking blue-collar men in leadership—certainly not by hiring an Anglo woman minister and having her and other women lead worship, mixed sex Sunday school classes, and Community Groups.
Minorities and political liberals are noticeably absent. This is unfortunate, not only because a great many non-whites and political liberals need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also because there is a growing number of evangelical Christians who are politically moderate-to-liberal and are finding it increasingly difficult to find a church where they “fit.”
Bingo! We suspect the vast majority of PCA churches that trumpet their attractiveness to “non-anglos” actually attract rather few Latinos or African-Americans. Rather, they specialize in attracting the disaffected children of Evangelicalism who find mainline churches hopeless but reject the “pietism” of their childhood homes; young men and women who had their biblical faith attacked at college or the university who are looking for a church both their professors and their parents would approve of.
As to what is meant by “politically moderate-to-liberal,” we’re afraid to ask. Though we ourselves are not lock-step conservatives, we care very much about, for instance, the unborn. Do the “political liberals” filling City Presbyterian’s chairs care about the unborn? Do they know the name of the doctor in Boulder who has specialized for decades in late term abortions, killing viable children while they’re still in their mothers’ wombs—the man who has written America’s textbook on abortion procedures? (Check out drhern dot com.) And if they’re not particularly concerned, at first, because of their “liberal political commitments,” does the church lead them to care, in time?
What about sodomy? Do City Presbyterian’s converts and new disciples look askance at sodomite marriage? And if at first they don’t, are they led in time to do so because of their love for sodomites and for the Law of God?
We’re not prejudging the answers to these questions but the writer and his congregation should not simply be given a pass on this matter because, after all, we’re leery of tearing down the wall of separation between Christian faith and the public square…. Of course it’s true that we do not convert souls to the Republican Party. But when we are converted to Jesus Christ and to His Bride, should we not begin to care about matters such as these?
Though the majority of these people would consider themselves egalitarians, most of them are not particularly interested in fighting over women’s ordination so long as the gifts and calling of women are taken seriously in the church and women are given meaningful opportunities to use their spiritual gifts.
Who will define whether “the gifts and calling of women are taken seriously?” The egalitarians? That’s letting the fox into the hen house. If they are, in principle, opposed to the Scriptural doctrine of father-rule, why would they ever be satisfied with the manifestation of that Creation-order Divine rule in the church’s community life? After all, by the writer’s own admission the souls making the judgment are “egalitarian,” right?
It’s also telling to note how thoroughly the writer qualifies his assurance that these are not fighting liberals. He says “most” of them are not “particularly” interested in fighting over women’s ordination. “Most of them” leaves some of them, right? And not “particularly” interested still leaves somewhat interested, right?
Ultimately, one of three things is true:
First, it may be that City Presbyterian and its pastor have no doctrine of sexuality past the minimalist “don’t allow women to be preaching pastors or elders” followed by an increasing number of PCA elders and churches.
Second, it may be that City Presbyterian and its pastor do indeed hold to the biblical doctrine of sexuality and father-rule, but they view the order of the sexes as a non-essential of the Christian faith. Consequently, they think that bringing souls who reject this doctrine into their church is not significant for the future unity and wellbeing of the church or the homes under their care. And they have no heart for leading those souls deeper into the curative blessings of this doctrine.
Third, it may be that City Presbyterian and its pastor want to get those who reject Scripture’s teaching on the order of the sexes inside the door of their church so that, once they’re there, they can lead them into God’s Truth. It may be that the people of City Presbyterian are chomping at the bit to “teach” their converts “everything our Lord commanded us” and they’re waiting with great anticipation for the time when their marriages, families, and church will all finally be united in glorious witness in a matter where the world is in rebellion against God and is suffering terribly, due to that rebellion.
The third option seems highly unlikely. That leaves the first two, and both are serious departures from Scripture. It’s hard to imagine why any church would view adherence to such views as success.
Maybe this gets at the nub of it: To be converted to Jesus Christ necessarily means that a man will be converted to Father-rule—not simply that he will put up with attending and holding his membership in a narrow-minded church where female preaching pastors and elders are forbidden. But the converts at City Presbyterian are proudly paraded in front of us as committed and continuing egalitarians.
Thus it is often not the theology of the PCA but the culture of the PCA which causes many people outside the traditional PCA demographic to look elsewhere for a church home.
What the PCA holds to as “theology” and what is dismissed as her “culture” is the whole ball game. But if father-rule is just “culture,” why does the world hate it so perfectly?
It may be that City Presbyterian needs to focus on evangelism rather than attracting egalitarians “looking…for a church home.” New believers have the merit of not having been inoculated against the power of God’s Word by evangelicalism’s scribes and Pharisees, maybe they’re the ones it’s most productive to focus our ministry on.
Speaking from many years of experience in communities just as liberal, urbane, and sexually decadent as Denver, new believers are ready and willing to throw out their false doctrines when they come to Christ. It’s generally transfer members from evangelical and liberal churches who cling to the idol of egalitarianism. Bring into the church new Christians, male or female, and they embrace father-rule with joy—and not simply in the matter of who preaches to them or who serves as their elder. No, but with great enthusiasm they embrace God’s blessed order of the sexes across their entire lives, often joyfully sharing that truth with the lost with whom they formerly associated.
Perpetuating a "typical PCA culture" within more secular, urban contexts often brings about small, homogeneous churches largely made up of conservative Christians from other churches.
Well again, it depends upon what is meant by “homogeneity.” Since this entire paper argues for diversity of conviction concerning the egalitarian ideology, it’s clear that City Presbyterian defines the heterogeneity she seeks as having a congregation filled with souls who deny Scripture’s doctrine of father-rule.
And though it may be gauche to suggest, we suspect that City Presbyterian isn’t the largest metropolitan church in its presbytery, even if it is the most liberal. Nor has liberalism on gender issues proven an open-sesame to growth in other urban areas.
City Presbyterian Church: A Case Study
City Presbyterian (PCA) was planted in downtown Denver, CO in September 2001. It was a “scratch start” meaning there was no preexisting core group in place. From the outset City Presbyterian sought ways to reach its culture without compromising its Reformed theology and Presbyterian (PCA) polity. This presented a challenge, because the culture of downtown Denver is very politically and socially liberal (as are the vast majority of U.S. cities. ) An additional factor that makes Denver hostile to “conservative” religion is its close proximity to Colorado Springs, which is home to many of the leading organizations and ministries on the Religious Right such as Focus on the Family. (A bumper sticker once popular around Denver read “Focus on your own damn family!”) This creates a very polarized environment and generates an extraordinary amount of skepticism and cynicism toward any church that would adhere to orthodox, theologically conservative Christianity.
If this is hard, imagine how much harder it was for the Apostle Paul. Yet where does the Apostle Paul make such laments? Where does he soft-peddle father-rule (or any other biblical doctrine) for the sake of the Gospel?
In other words, the demographic of downtown Denver is not at all conducive to planting a typical PCA church. So the challenge City Presbyterian faced was how to reach out to a culture that would be inherently hostile toward its policy of not ordaining women as church officers.
Again, why place all the blame on the PCA’s “policy of not ordaining women as church officers?” The real scandal to Denver’s surrounding culture starts with the Cross. Once someone understands that following Jesus means losing his life, losing his egalitarianism is small potatoes.
The solution to this problem was found in making a proper distinction between our theology and our church culture. Our theology meant we would not ordain women as church officers.
Why “our theology” rather than “our obedience to God” or something similar? In other words, why isn’t it phrased this way: “Faithfulness to God and His Word require that we not ordain women as church officers”?
But the church culture at City Presbyterian prominently values the gifting and calling of women. The result has been a congregation that is very atypical of the PCA: roughly evenly split between political liberals and conservatives with a significant number of conversions…
Really? And how many of them are “non-Anglo?” And what does it mean that members in City Presbyterian are “political liberals?” That they are pro-abortion? That they are pro-sodomy? That they favor women serving in the military? In combat positions? Being drafted? And so on.
We can’t imagine bragging that our congregations are evenly split between political conservatives and liberals. Are the issues generally at stake in debates between political liberals and conservatives in the public square matters of indifference to biblically reformed Christians?
When a PCA pastor has a Democratic judge confess faith in Christ and begin to attend his church, when the pastor meets with him and explains the requirements of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over his life and specifically tells him he will have to honor the Lord over his party in matters of sexual ethics, sodomy, the unborn, the defective, the elderly, etc., is he wrong to do so? And has this judge been wrong to work since in a way that demonstrates growing submission to the Lord Jesus, and growing denial of the central tenets of political liberalism?
It’s Discipleship 101 that those who belong to Jesus will come under His Lordship, and that His Lordship will change everything in their lives—including their political commitments.
Of course this doesn’t mean they will become Republican, but it does mean, for instance, that they will begin to care about and defend the unborn.
And of course, note that City Presbyterian also “is very atypical of the PCA” because her “church culture… prominently values the gifting and calling of women.” This is the basis of her being “evenly split between political liberals and conservatives with a significant number of conversions…”
Yes, in other non-urban, non-contextualized, non self-reflective, non self-critical, non-engaged, homogenous, politically conservative, ordinary PCA churches led by fuddy, dowdy and benighted teaching elders, “the gifting and calling of women” are not “prominently value(d)” leaving most of the women of childbearing age barefoot and pregnant. Oh, of course… the writer didn’t actually say that, did he?
…particularly among those who come from either a “liberal” church background or no church background at all. Perhaps most surprising is that a majority of our members would likely consider themselves egalitarian in their views of women in church leadership!
We brag about this? Doesn’t every PCA teaching elder know that egalitarianism is the very antithesis of God’s creation order of the sexes as expounded by the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul in 1Timothy 2:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)
How can we read this and then brag about our church being filled with egalitarians?
If we bragged about our church being an entry point for egalitarians, and how all of those who have entered are then discipled into affirming father-rule and repenting of egalitarianism, that’s to be commended. That’s worth bragging about! But that is clearly not what’s being bragged about, here. Rather, it’s City Presbyterian’s great success in helping those with egalitarian commitments come into and stay within their church without having to give up their false ideology.
So why would they join a PCA church?
Some have assumed that City Presbyterian must be “cutting theological corners” or otherwise hiding our polity in regard to women’s ordination.
Note, it’s almost always a matter of “women’s ordination,” rather than the meaning and purpose of sexuality.
Actually, the opposite is true. Every member of our church is required to attend a six hour Introduction to City Presbyterian class before joining, at which time we go over the PCA’s polity and stance on women’s ordination. We also include in the class syllabus a theological paper by staff member Sara Bartley articulating and defending the complementarian position. There is no “bait and switch” – everyone who joins our church knows and understands where we stand on this issue.
The answer instead is found in the way we have structured our church life. First, we are careful to treat women as equals within the church, rather than merely assent to their equality.
The uncharitable implication is that any PCA church (not to mention the Church across the centuries of church history) which does not have women leading and teaching men in places other than the pulpit on Sunday morning does not “treat women as equals,” but merely “assent to their equality.”
Thus women are allowed to use their gifts in a number of ways, all of which are both biblical and permissible according to the PCA BCO, such as: reading scripture, offering prayers, assisting with ushering during worship services , helping teach adult Sunday School, leading Community Groups (small groups that meet during the week), serving on the Finance Team (which oversees the church budget), and assisting the pastoral staff in ministering to women in the congregation.
But, given the philosophy demonstrated in what’s been written above, why limit women in City Presbyterian to only “helping teach adult Sunday school?” To only “ministering to women in the congregation?” The real question is whether there’s anything about sexuality as God made it that would lead City Presbyterian to have men teach men in Sunday school; that would cause City Presbyterian to have men lead men in their Community Groups; that would cause City Presbyterian to have men assist the pastoral staff in ministering to men of the congregation?
And if City Presbyterian grants that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, then everything written above would have been written in a different way to communicate a different—indeed, a biblical—thrust.
So yes, there are many areas of church life in which women may exercise their gifts, including reading Scripture, praying, greeting, ushering, etc. But the true egalitarian won’t for one moment be content with being tossed such bones. Having women teach men in Sunday school may get close; and having women lead Community Groups may get even closer to stroking our resident egalitarians where they itch. But make no mistake about it: nothing will do until father-rule is dead in the home, church, and society.
In other words, unless a woman were to feel strongly called by God to be ordained as an elder (and the vast majority do not) she will not be denied a meaningful opportunity to use her gifts in the life of our church.
So an egalitarian woman who DOES “feel strongly called by God to be ordained as an elder” (and there are some who do feel this way, by the writer’s own admission) is being “denied a meaningful opportunity to use her gifts?” How else are we to read this sentence?
To relegate all the godly mothers-in-Israel through the centuries who have given themselves to the ministries of raising children, teaching other women, teaching children, praying, and washing the feet of the saints to the category of those “denied a meaningful opportunity to use (their) gifts in the life of (the) church” is a terrible insult to this work itself, as well as to those who did this work without complaining. In fact, insofar as these are the works that the Holy Spirit calls women to in the Word of God, to speak dismissively of them as “not meaningful” is an assault upon the Holy Spirit Himself Who constantly calls women to this summary of godly womanhood:
A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old, having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works; and if she has brought up children, if she has shown hospitality to strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has assisted those in distress, and if she has devoted herself to every good work. (1 Timothy 5:9, 10)So an egalitarian woman who DOES “feel strongly called by God to be ordained as an elder” (and there are some who do feel this way, by the writer’s own admission) is being “denied a meaningful opportunity to use her gifts?” How else are we to read what has been written above?
As a result of this we have seen a number of men and women with strong egalitarian convictions join our church, some of whom were also converted to Christ within City Presbyterian. Though they strongly disagree…
Note well the present tense, here. They are converted and they continue to have “strong egalitarian convictions.” It would be absurd for the writer to be using “egalitarian convictions” simply to refer to those who want women to preach and serve as ruling elders. Egalitarianism is much, much more. So why no mention of these souls coming to repent of their egalitarianism? Is this not part of the “If any man is in Christ, he’s a new creation” promise of the Holy Spirit? Or does the leadership of City Presbyterian lack the faith to believe such a tenacious cultural sin could ever be rooted out of the hearts of new converts?
…with the PCA’s stance on women’s ordination…
Again, why “the PCA’s stance on women’s ordination” rather than “the Biblical doctrine of father-rule?” Or even, “the Biblical doctrine of male teaching and ruling elders?” It’s always “the PCA this” and “the PCA that”—never “God has commanded this in His Word.”
…they have chosen to make City Presbyterian their church home because the culture of our church affirms their God-given spiritual gifts.
More likely because City Presbyterian doesn’t rub their noses in Scripture’s teaching concerning the meaning and purpose of sexuality—and particularly that central doctrine of the Garden of Eden, father-rule.
Female Staff at City Presbyterian
In keeping with our philosophy of ministry City Presbyterian made a strategic decision to hire a female staff member whose responsibilities go beyond the traditional assignments given to female staff within the PCA (such as administration, women’s & children’s ministry, etc.) In November 2004 we hired Sara Bartley, one of the first women to graduate from Covenant Theological Seminary (the official seminary of the PCA) with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.)
(Tell us again why the PCA’s only seminary grants women the professional degree universally recognized as the prerequisite for pastors/teaching elders?)
Her areas of responsibility include not only women’s & children’s ministry but also assimilation, discipleship, outreach/mercy ministry and teaching.
So does she teach and exercise authority over men, or doesn’t she? That’s the question, isn’t it? Let’s get to the point and frame the issue as the Holy Spirit frames it. In her position at City Pres., does Minister Bartley teach and exercise authority over men? Let’s deal with the principle God has given us rather than piddling our time away talking about being an usher and counting the money and making budgetary decisions. Does she or does she not teach and exercise authority over men? This is the Holy Spirit’s question.
Sara’s arrival greatly reassured many of the women (and men) in our congregation who were egalitarian and seeking evidence that women’s gifts and calling were indeed going to be taken seriously within our church.
There it is again—”taken seriously.” We look to people with anti-biblical egalitarian commitments for their judgment on whether women’s gifts are being “taken seriously.” “Have you stopped beating your wife yet, Mr. Brown?” and all that….
As we began to consider what job title to give Sara (obviously she was not going to be ordained as an Assistant or Associate Pastor) we realized we had a unique opportunity to reach out to our skeptical, liberal and egalitarian community by giving Sara a job title that was an accurate reflection of her responsibilities and was culturally appropriate to our context. Thus we gave her the title “Minister of Church Life.” This title is both commensurate with her education and an accurate reflection of her responsibilities which are serving/ministering and not “directing.”
What follows is simply a pile of legalistic nitpicking—very sad reading. We’ll hold ourselves to one final comment below.
The response to Sara’s title within our congregation was overwhelmingly positive. Those who considered themselves egalitarian saw this as evidence that we were “putting our money where out mouths were” and not treating Sara as a second-class staff member, even though she obviously was not going to be ordained. Furthermore, a number of women (and men) who were sitting on the fence about committing to our church made the decision to formally join. Also, visitors who were not from evangelical backgrounds reported that Sara’s title and position reassured them we were not a “narrow minded, fundamentalist church” despite being part of a conservative denomination. (One woman who was converted recently within our church reported that Sara’s position and role eliminated a significant barrier for her to the gospel.) In other words, we have effectively disarmed the women’s issue in our church, so much so in fact that no groups within the church are even discussing it, much less fighting over it.
It has been asked if giving the title “minister” to a female staff member is a violation of the PCA BCO. The answer is ‘no’ for two reasons. First, according to BCO 7-2 "The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders and deacons. Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders and ruling elders." Sara is neither an elder nor a deacon; she has not been ordained to either office and is not seeking ordination. Other than as an employee of City Presbyterian she has no official standing within our Presbytery or the PCA.
Second, although the word “minister” (lower case ‘m’) is sometimes used in the BCO as a synonym for a Teaching Elder, basic exegetical principles teach us to never assume that a given word is always used with the same meaning in all places. The use of a word in context must determine its proper meaning. A prime example of this is found in Romans 16:1 where Phoebe (a Greek feminine name that clearly refers to a woman) is called a “diakonos of the church in Cenchrea.” This word may be translated as "servant", “deacon” or "minister." The only way to determine which meaning is implied is by studying the context of its usage. Which use did Paul intend? If we assume that Phoebe was not an ordained church officer, the question is really moot. Paul did not hesitate to call her a diakonos and it must have been abundantly clear in the context of her local church exactly what Paul meant when he used this title to draw attention to a woman who played a significant public role in the life of the Roman church.
Similarly it is clear in the context of City Presbyterian that we do not use the title “minister” to refer to Sara as an ordained teaching elder. Furthermore, on our staff directory (which is printed on the back page of every Sunday bulletin) the title “Rev.” is used only before the names of the ordained staff. Furthermore Sara does not preach, administer the sacraments, or perform any of the other functions that are the exclusive domain of the ordained staff. On any Sunday when an ordained staff member is not available to lead worship a substitute teaching elder is brought in to preach and administer the sacraments.
Another example of this may be found in churches across the PCA where non-ordained staff are given titles such as “Youth Minister” or “Worship Pastor”, etc. Similarly we have chosen a job title for Sara that accurately reflects her ministry, is culturally appropriate to our urban context and is consistent with the practice of the Apostle Paul himself in commending Phoebe’s ministry within the church at Rome by calling her a diakonos.
[For Further Consideration See the Appendix The Use of the Title “Minister” for Unordained Staff]
Acts 16:1-3 as the Paradigm for Appropriate Cultural Exegesis
The practice of giving a female staff member the title of “minister” is also in keeping with a cultural apologetic employed by Paul in regard to his disciple Timothy. Acts 16:1-3 reads:
“And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”
Paul was a vehement opponent of the Judaizers, who were attempting to force Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision as necessary for their justification. Paul saw this for what it was – a violation of the gospel itself. Thus it must have seemed surprising to many of his contemporaries that he would have Timothy circumcised, for fear that many would misinterpret this act as compromising an important theological principle. Yet the passage makes clear that Paul was distinguishing between an unalterable theological principle and a ministry strategy. The principle was: circumcision is not necessary for justification. The strategy was: circumcise Timothy so he will be able to effectively minister to the Jews.
At City Presbyterian we are making a similar distinction between a principle and a strategy: we do not ordain women as church officers (principle) yet we give our women significant ministry opportunities within our congregation in other, appropriate venues (strategy.) Sara Bartley is not an ordained teaching elder (principle) yet she carries a job title that effectively enables her and our church to minister in a secular, skeptical, egalitarian context (strategy.)
Pastor Downing’s use of the Judaizing controversy and Timothy’s circumcision to justify winking at the errors of feminist egalitarians in his church—and specifically the promotion of a woman into a pastoral position where it seems evident that she will teach and exercise authority over men—is breathtakingly audacious. But we grow weary of responding and will stop with this comment….
The Apostle Paul spent his life and blood fighting against the Judaizing heresy, and he had the brand marks of Jesus to prove it (Galatians 6:17). Those today who compare themselves to the Apostle Paul, claiming his pastoral decision to have Timothy circumcised as justification for their own decisions to compromise, ought to be prepared to show themselves faithful in suffering for their opposition to that contemporary heresy.
So, for instance, if Pastor Downing is claiming to be making a pastoral judgment that it’s best to put a woman forward in leadership in his church, calling her “Minister” and having her involved in exercising authority over men in order ultimately to oppose the egalitarianism of his new converts, it would enhance his credibility if he could show some marks of suffering for Jesus in this battle.
This would make clear that, while this one compromise lines up on one side (and compromise is not always bad), the vast bulk of his ministry lines up in opposition to egalitarianism and every other sort of sexual anarchy.
Sadly, we have no such evidence. Rather, the evidence provided in this document is of a witness more like the witness of Peter in the Judaizing controversy; Peter who fearing man stood aloof from the Gentiles and moved his seat to the other side of the aisle. Paul rightly resisted Peter to his face for such “hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:11-13).
Questions and Concerns
Because the culture and ethos of City Presbyterian is quite different in regards to women than more traditional PCA churches, this invites a number of questions, some of which are answered below:
Q: Isn’t City Presbyterian’s more “egalitarian” church culture simply a result of “caving in” to cultural pressure?
A: No. We believe there is a distinction between being cultural sensitivity and cultural acquiescence. Our policies toward women are derived from our theology. Apart from the example cited in Acts 16:1-3, there are other occasions where the Apostle Paul appropriately adapted his ministry to be more culturally effective. See for example Acts 17 and how Paul changed his message and methodology when ministering to the religious Jews (verses 1-15) as distinct from the pagan Greeks (verses 17-32.) Note also the conversions that resulted from these adaptations (verse 34.) We have seen similar conversions within City Presbyterian as a result of employing Paul’s strategy of appropriate cultural adaptations.
Q: Won’t people be confused by the title “Minister” given to a female staff member and think she is ordained?
A: Anyone who worships with us for any length of time quickly learns she is not, and they observe that she does not preach or administer the sacraments. Furthermore, anyone wishing to join our church must complete a membership class where we carefully review our denomination’s polity in regards to women’s ordination.
Q: Is allowing women to teach adult men a violation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15?
A: It is not within the scope of this paper to outline an extended exegesis of this passage. However, it is an accepted practice in PCA churches and Presbyteries across the denomination to allow women to teach men, so long as they do not do in an “authoritative manner” (i.e. preaching) and do so with the oversight and approval of the Elders.
Q: Won’t people who move to Denver from more traditional PCA churches be offended by giving a female staff member the title of “Minister” and the unusual amount of latitude you allow women in your church?
A: We have a number of members who have transferred to City Presbyterian from other parts of the country and were members of more culturally conservative PCA churches. Once they understand that we do not ordain women to church office they generally have no problem with our choice of job titles or the very public role women play in our worship services. Indeed, more often than not the reaction is the opposite: they are encouraged to find a PCA church that takes seriously the gifts and calling of women and does not confine their ministry to the WIC or nursery. In the rare event they are unable to accept our practices there are five more traditional PCA churches in our area and a number of other more conservative Reformed churches which they may attend.
Q: Even if it is constitutionally allowable, is it wise to get so close to the “edge”? Wouldn’t it be easier to change her title to “Director” or something else?
A: In most PCA churches it would probably be very unwise to give the title “minister” to a woman, such a move would cause unnecessary consternation and offense. At City Presbyterian, in its particular context, it has proven to be extremely wise and useful. The congregation has reacted in an overwhelmingly positive manner to this, and many who would normally never darken the door of a PCA church have ended up joining, some of whom have joined after becoming Christians. Moreover, a title such as “Director” carries a “top-down”, corporate connotation which we feel would be out of place in our church context. We strive to teach our congregation that our church is a family where all members serve alongside one another, as opposed to an organization where the leaders function as employers. Ironically, one of the reasons we chose “Minister” for Sara’s title is that it is a much less authoritative-sounding title than “Director”. We have never intended to give our congregants the impression that Sara is “in charge of” anyone.
The New Testament shows us that Jesus was deeply concerned for the plight of those who were marginalized by the religious culture of his day (the poor, lepers, tax collectors, “sinners”, Samaritans, and women.) He went out of his way to minister to these groups at great personal cost to his reputation. The Gospels teach us that Jesus has a heart for political liberals, for feminists, and others who often feel ostracized by the evangelical church. And so must we. At City Presbyterian we are attempting to carry out the Great Commission in our context by exegeting our culture and finding ways to communicate the gospel with both integrity and cultural sensitivity. By God’s grace these efforts have borne much fruit, and many have been converted and joined our church that otherwise would never have imagined themselves being part of a traditional, evangelical church.
If the PCA as a whole is going to see similar results it must learn to develop effective, theologically accurate and culturally accessible ministries to an increasingly egalitarian culture. To do this it must learn to distinguish between principle and strategy, finding ways to work within its polity to create opportunities for women to use their spiritual gifts in meaningful ways. If it does not, it may miss an important and strategic opportunity to reach out beyond its traditional demographic to the emerging generation of men and women whose core values include taking seriously God’s word as well as God’s gifting and calling to women in the church.
APPENDIX: The Use of the Title “Minister” for Unordained Staff in the PCA
In November 2004 City Presbyterian Church in downtown Denver, CO hired onto their staff one of the few women to graduate from Covenant Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.) degree. She was given the job title Minister of Church Life. Although it is a fairly common practice around the PCA to allot the title minister to non-ordained staff (for example, many PCA churches have non-ordained “Youth Ministers” or “Music Ministers”) it is a rare occurrence to give the title Minister to an unordained female. This raises two key questions which this paper will attempt to answer:
1. Is it a violation of the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) for one of its churches to give an unordained staff member (regardless of gender) the title “minister”?
2. Is giving the title “minister” to an unordained female the first step onto a “slippery slope” that might lead to an erosion of the PCA’s doctrine that only males may be ordained as church officers?
Question 1: Is it a violation of the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) for one of its churches to give an unordained staff member (regardless of gender) the title “minister”?
Titles of Church Offices in the BCO
It is important to point out that absolutely nowhere in the BCO does it state that the title “minister” may only be used for ordained elders. Thus the only way to reach that conclusion is via inference. However, examination of the BCO does not support that inference. First, the BCO lists two types of church officers. These are found in Chapter 7, Church Officers – General Classification: (7-2)"The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders and deacons. Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders and ruling elders." 7-2 then goes on the clarify the office of teaching elder: “Only those elders who are specially gifted, called and trained by God to preach may serve as teaching elders.” It is interesting to note that “Minister” is not a term used to delineate an official title of office. This may be seen at both Presbytery and General Assembly for example, when Presbyters are asked to identify themselves as either “teaching elder” or “ruling elder” when they register as delegates.
Second, within the office of teaching elder, the BCO further delineates between three classifications of teaching elder. These are found in BCO 22-1: “The various pastoral relations are pastor, associate pastor, and assistant pastor.” Again, it is interesting to note that the word “minister” is not used as an official title of office, but rather the word “pastor.” [It is important to note at this juncture that only the ordained staff at City Presbyterian carry the title of pastor.)
The Use of the Word Minister in the BCO: Title vs. Synonym
There are numerous examples throughout the BCO of the word “minister” being used in relation to the office of teaching elder. Among the many examples that could be cited, the following will suffice to illustrate the point: “Every church should be under the pastoral oversight of a minister, and when a church has no pastor it should seek to secure one without delay.”(20-2) “Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member.”(34-1) However, no where in the BCO is “minister” a title of office, but rather is used as a synonym for a teaching elder, not a title.
Indeed, when the BCO seems to be thinking about the various titles used for a teaching elder, there is a noticeable absence of the word “minister.” In chapter 8, The Elder: “This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor. As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, as an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder” and etc. (Italics are part of the original text.) Indeed, Chapter 8 goes on to use the following the following terms for a teaching elder, all of which are italicized in the text for emphasis: teacher, ambassador, evangelist preacher, and steward.
Not once does it use the word “minister” which is too broad of a synonym to describe the specifics of the office of teaching elder. A good analogy of the broad use of minister is the use of the word “soldier” which can refer equally to enlisted personnel and to officers. To call a general a soldier is not to deny that he is an officer, anymore than to call a private a soldier is to imply he is an officer. In this example, context must determine meaning. This is a standard exegetical practice in any context, including the bible.
Biblical Examples of the Use of “Minister” for Unordained Church “Staff”
In Romans 16:1 the apostle Paul publicly honors in his letter a woman named Phoebe. Though she is never identified as an employee of the church or a church officer virtually all commentators agree that she played a prominent role in the life of the Church at Rome, one which might indeed be analogous to church “staff” (paid or volunteer.) Paul calls her a “diakonos” of the church. In the noun form this word is translated into English as: "servant", “deacon” or "minister.” Translators differ as to which noun is employed. For example, in translating Acts 16:1 the NAS uses “servant”, the NRSV uses “deacon” and the NAB uses “minister.” Paul later uses this same word to describe himself in Colossians 1:25, “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God…” It is only by looking at the word in its immediate context as well as in the larger context of the bible that one may ascertain whether Phoebe, like Paul, was an ordained minister or merely an unordained lay minister. But in either case Paul uses the same word. He expects his readers to understand from the context what diakonos means in each use. (This why extreme caution is called for when using a narrative passage like Romans 16:1 to determine doctrine, such as the issue of women’s ordination.) In the context of a PCA church it is obvious from the context that a female “minister” is not an ordained teaching elder. (And this is certainly the case within City Presbyterian, where it is commonly known throughout the church that its female Minister of Church Life is not ordained.)
Furthermore, the semantic range of “minister” goes beyond its use as a title both in Scripture and in common contemporary usage. As a verb, “minister” is often used to describe the service of non-elders in the New Testament. Those who minister include women (Mt. 27:55; Mk. 15:40-41), government authorities (Rom 13:6) and angels (Mt. 4:11; Mk. 1:13; Heb. 1:14), as well as elders (Acts 20:34). The act of ministry is clearly expected of all believers, as Jesus himself warns that one of the indicators of a person’s genuine salvation will be his/her ministry to others (Mt. 25: 31-46). Paul writes that it is the responsibility of “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”. (Eph 4:11-12, emphasis added)
Churches and para-church organizations today use the words “minister” and “ministry” to describe nearly all of the work that is done by Christian individuals, groups and institutions. It is semantically incongruent to say that a person “does youth ministry” but cannot be called a “Youth Minister”, or that a person is the “Director of Women’s Ministry” who “ministers to women” but cannot be called a “Minister to Women”.
I conclude that “minister” and its variants do not necessarily denote the title or work of teaching elders alone, but are commonly understood to refer to Christian service in general, by all believers. It is not harmful or confusing for the PCA to use the term as liberally as God himself does in his Word, and as other Christians and Christian institutions do to this day.
Nowhere in the BCO is there an injunction that forbids using the title of “minister” for any but ordained staff. To infer this is to stretch the book far beyond its intent. What is clear is that it uses the word “minister” as a synonym for teaching elders. What is equally clear is that it does not assign the word “minister” as an official title of office for teaching elders, nor does it reserve the use of the word exclusively for teaching elders, nor does not it forbid the broader use of the word for other unordained staff. Such additional conclusions can only be reached through eisegesis. The Apostle Paul used the word “minister” in Scripture as a descriptive to refer to both men and women. Furthermore, it is a common practice within the PCA (as well as many other evangelical denominations that do not ordain women) to refer to unordained staff, including women, as “ministers.”
Question 2: Is giving the title “minister” to an unordained female the first step onto a “slippery slope” that might lead to an erosion of the PCA’s doctrine that only males may be ordained as church officers?
On the one hand this question is very understandable. There is a wide and growing concern within the PCA that its doctrinal standards concerning women’s ordination are being eroded, in part because the surrounding culture has become increasingly egalitarian and in part because many Reformed denominations have become egalitarian.
But on the other hand the question itself reveals a certain bias, namely “That which even appears to be a softening of the standards must necessarily be wrong.” The a priori assumption behind this question is analogous to the logic of Prohibition: because alcohol can become a “slippery slope” that leads some into addiction all alcoholic beverages should be made illegal for everyone. The slippery slope argument itself becomes a “slippery slope” which may in the end perpetuate a culture of fear where anything not immediately deemed “safe” is viewed with automatic suspicion and censure. The result of promulgating such a culture would be to stifle good and appropriate cultural exegesis that will hinder the PCA from employing appropriate creative strategies to more effectively communicate the gospel in an increasingly post-Christian, egalitarian culture.
A more appropriate question would be, “Are there adequate ‘firewalls’ in place to prevent the erosion of PCA polity on the women’s issue?” The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. The BCO is quite clear that only gifted and called men may be ordained as church officers. A vigilante approach of hunting down anything that doesn’t look complementarian is not helpful. Furthermore, the question must be asked: how many titles beyond what the BCO already uses (“Teaching Elder” and “Pastor”) must be “reserved” for the exclusive use of ordained clergy?
Should the PCA as a whole, or individual Presbyteries singly seek to formally restrict the use of the title “minister” to only ordained clergy this will effect numerous churches throughout the denomination that routinely allot this title to staff performing a variety of ministry functions.