SJC's preliminary documents concerning use of "Minister" as title...

(Tim) A year ago, we published a critique of a paper by then-PCA pastor Sam Downing of City Church (Denver) defending his decision to call a woman with an M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary to serve on his staff as Minister of Church Life. (Pastor Downing's congregation recently voted to affiliate with the Reformed Church in America and Rocky Mountain Presbytery will act on the matter at their April 24/25 meeting.)

As a defense of most things feminist and the necessity of urban PCA church plants following his lead in this direction, Pastor Downing's paper left the men of Rocky Mountain Presbtytery little choice but to initiate discipline aimed at bringing Pastor Downing and his mission church back within the fold of biblical orthodoxy on sexuality. What wasn't so clear was the best tack to take.

Those with a biblical commitment to church discipline know how often disciplinary cases are decided on technical and procedural matters that seem, in the final analysis, to have little to do with the point at issue. So it has been with this case...

Taken in its entirety, Pastor Downing's paper is a technicolor demonstration of how far a PCA teaching elder can move from biblical orthodoxy in matters of sexuality, at least, without having to leave the denomination. And it's particularly telling that Pastor Downing has been able to do this as the pastor of a mission church, given the greater accountability of such men to the denomination's church planting arm (Mission to North America) and their own presbytery prior to particularization.

Nevertheless, slippery doctrine and polity are, after all, slippery, and Rocky Mountain Presbytery was of two minds in addressing Pastor Downing's practice. As it turned out, the heart of the issue the presbytery adjudicated was whether it was within the bounds of our Westminster Standards and denominational polity to have a woman serving in a pastoral position holding the title "Minister." With most decisions dealing with Pastor Downing and his mission church being decided by a couple votes, Rocky Mountain Presbytery voted to allow the title “minister” to be used for any church staff member, whether male or female. Thus Pastor Downing escaped censure.

A member of presbytery then appealed their presbytery's decision to the PCA's Standing Judicial Commission. Receiving the appeal, the SJC appointed three of its members to serve on a Judicial Panel which would study the case and bring back a Proposed Decision to be received and acted on at a meeting of the full SJC this coming October.

Here then are the proposed Majority and Minority Decisions issued by the Judicial Panel earlier this week. The Panel recommends the SJC dismiss the complaint, finding no fault with Rocky Mountain Presbytery's action.

Download sjc_proposed_decision.pdf

However, a proposed Minority Decision has also been submitted to the SJC by Pastor Bill Lyle and Ruling Elder Jay Neikirk (Pastor Lyle was one of the two Panel members voting in the majority). The proposed Minority Decision recommends the complaint be sustained, thus overturning the Presbytery’s decision. Both the proposed Majority and Minority Decisions will be presented to the full SJC October 16-17. After discussion, the SJC will vote on which to approve. With amendments, it's possible the SJC's final decision will not look anything like either of the present documents.

There are many churches and pastors within the PCA sympathetic to Pastor Downing's kinder, gentler feminism. This year, the test of our church's will in such matters will come in the form of an overture from Philadelphia Presbytery asking General Assembly to reconsider our Book of Church Order's prohibition of women deacons.

Yes, I can make a case for deaconesses (not women deacons) as well as non-ordained men and women being called "Minister" in a local congregation. But men of discernment should know what's going on among us, seeing how closely it parallels what's going on in the world in which we live. Predictably, there are pastors and elders within the PCA who are undermining our ecclesiastical confession of God's order of creation. Love for them, their congregations, and the glorious Bride of Christ should cause us to tell them "No."


I note incidentally that Page 5, lines 29-32 state the opinion that churches should not use the names of ordained offices except for those who hold that ordained office. That seems eminently sensible to me, yet at least a few PCA churches have unordained deacons, whether male or female.

As far as "minister," BCO is the victim of generations of terminology differences. BCO references to "pastor" or "minister of the gospel" ought all to be amended to "teaching elder" for the sake of consistency.

Does the SJC get the last word, or will their decision be up for debate by the GA in 2009?

Under the rules of the SJC there has to be a significant minority vote to bring to the floor of the GA

The debate about who should bear the title 'minister' or 'pastor' is unfortunate. While the term 'teaching elder' is a step in the right direction I like what I see in the United Reformed Church -- a pastor is called a 'Minister of Word and Sacrament.' No one ought to bear the title 'pastor' or 'minister' unless they will be regularly preaching God's Word and administering the sacraments. This would eliminate unordained youth pastors (call them youth workers) and all sorts of unordained assistant pastors (music, worship, family, etc.). Such a designation might also reduce the number of men laboring outside the bounds of the PCA in works that are not primarily dedicated to 'Word and Sacrament' ministry.

If some of the pastors in this Presbytery voted for and not against the title of Minister, then perhaps this is reflective of their larger relationship to the BOC, and hence the doctrines, creeds, and confessions of the church. Is there a bigger issue here? Are there other churches besides City Presbyterian that are in danger?

How it saddens me to see our churches engaging in legal fiction semantics. It is very clear what the church meant by conferring the title of minister on a female. It meant, for all intents and purposes, that she was to be regarded as a gospel minister, and that the church was taking exception to the PCA's (and the Bible's) strong and clear teaching that the office of minister is reserved to men.

Frankly, I prefer the title minister to pastor, because it highlights the servanthood role of the teaching elder. It ought never to be conferred on a woman.

Mrs. Berman and Sarafolean,

The problem is that the PCA is out of step with historic Presbyterianism with its two-office view. The titles "Ruling Elder" and "Teaching Elder" (and the ridiculously cacaphonic abbreviations of "TE" and "RE," which i refuse to use and cringe when i hear) only serve to reinforce this two-office view that demurs from seeing or recognizing the Minister of Word and Sacrament for what he is. The URCNA and their references to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament is only following through with the historic practice of the Reformed Church down through the ages. The Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the ARP Church, and many, many other historic Presbyterian denominations continue to use these well-attested titles. You will not, however, find references to "TE So-and-so" until the mid-to-late twentieth century.

My suggestion would be not to rewrite the BCO (because it is a complete, unorganized mess after all the revisions and amendments and deletions that have taken place), but to adopt a historical BCO. We have adopted the American revision of the WCF, which is an older confession that the Presbyterian Church in this country once held as its highest standard (not the collection of confessions that the PC(USA) uses today), so why not adopt an old BCO? I have an original copy of the BCO and Confession from the mid-1800s (1847, if my memory serves me correctly; it was the BCO that the reunited Church kept in place after the Old Side/New Side split was mended), and i would be perfectly willing to give it up to anyone to have and use for whatever purpose if it could mean having that very neat, organized, tidy, and succinct BCO would become the BCO for the PCA. In it, there is no question about who Ministers of Word and Sacrament are; they are even referred to a local bishops, which is also the historic Presbyterian way to look at the office of a pastor, who oversees the ministry and leads the elders in ministering to the congregation.

So, i just say that any other suggestions for action just put a band-aid on the problem. The real problem is how the PCA looks at Church offices in general. Until we clear up that elder and deacon are "lay" offices and the Minister of Word and Sacrament is a clerical office, we will have all kind of lay people being called "minister of such-and-such." I do believe we should be addressing feminism. I happen to be one who thinks that women may indeed be deacons, but i think that a good compromise would be to have a distinct office of "deaconess," as Tim suggests, to be given official recognition in our Church. But let's address why Southern Presbyterians (which is where this all comes from, in the old PCUS) are so out of step with historic Presbyterianism in general on this and so many other issues.

I would be hard pressed to defend the PCA's alleged two-office (but really two-and-a-half-office) view against the three- or four-office views from previous generations of Presbyterians. To be honest, I can't really defend setting the sacraments apart to the minister/pastor/bishop/teaching elder, and from looking at the "proofs" of that concept given in WCF 28.2 (Matt 3:11; John 1:33; Matthew 28:19) and WCF 29.3 (Matt 26:26-28 and Synoptic parallels; 1 Cor 11:23-26) it would not appear that the Divines could either. Their position seems to me a reflexive holdover from the Romanism which ruled England only a hundred years prior to their work.

But it's not a pressing point for me; I'd rather get the PCA back on track with respect to Biblical gender roles and Creation, and safeguard justification and the ordo salutis.

Speaking affectionately, the use of 'gender' and 'roles' is the whole ballgame. Both are social constructs, infinitely malleable.

Sex, on the other hand, is the bifurcation God our Creator gave us in the womb and marked in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall with priority, order, and authority.

Gender is a continuum a man or woman can place himself on at will. Role is a hat we take on or off as the need arises. Sex, on the other hand, is hard and soft body parts that new parents focus their eagle-eyes on during the ultra sound.

I accept that friendly amendment, Tim!

Tim said, "Yes, I can make a case for deaconesses (not women deacons) as well as non-ordained men and women being called "Minister" in a local congregation. But men of discernment should know what's going on among us, seeing how closely it parallels what's going on in the world in which we live."

In other words, though you yourself can make a biblical case for it, you won't permit others to do it because you know what's "really going on"?!?

The thing that bothers me most is not your position but your claim to clairvoyance, your self-confidence in your own discernment in knowing "what's really going on" (the TRUTH) and the implicit challenge to the discernment of anyone who disagrees with you positionally. You admit that you can see that there is room for slight diversity (BIBLICALLY!!!) on these questions but then restrict anyone from coming to these conclusions because you can see their hidden agenda and the bottom of the slippery slope? Well, though I dismiss the slippery slope argument as a logical fallacy, on your own terms, you should realize that there are two ways to slide down a slippery slope: one to anti-Scriptural liberalism and one to anti-Scriptural legalism. The prophetic ability that you are claiming in this post is distrustful and unloving. Whether or not your foretelling of the future and clairvoyance of people's real motives might at some point in the future challenge the PURITY of the Church, your manner of argument and your restriction of other's consciences is destructive to the PEACE of the Church PRESENTLY. (Why doe we in the PCA always default to the preservation of the PURITY while caring relatively little about the PEACE of the Church?)

Secondly, it really is unfair, not to mention inaccurate to wed together men and women committed to biblical authority and non-Christian feminists who have different agendas, different conclusions, different "texts", and different ultimate commitments. It shows your either haven't read (which I doubt), or have failed to really listen to the evangelical egalitarian authors and pastors who decry this connection. But, you're not only making one false connection (evangelical egalitarians are basically equal to non-Christian feminists) but you are making two (PCA complementarian Pastors who have slightly different applications than YOU are basically equal to evangelical egalitarian authors/pastors who are basically equal to non-Christian feminists.) Wedding fellow PCA Pastors who would allow a woman to hold the office of deacon to the larger cultural confusion over sexuality is uncharitable, it's cynical, and it's patently false.

(Oh, and Trey, though I'm not well versed in the 1847 version of the BCO, if it got rid of the TE/RE silliness in the PCA, I'd be all for it.)


At the risk of boring everyone else:

If your "BCO" is an 1847 edition, then it is a PCUSA publication. And as the PCUSA entered the 1850s, that denomination recognized the faults of their Book of Order and so in 1857, established a committee to revise the Rules of Discipline section.

That work was never adopted, but with the Old School split at the start of the War, the PCUS had reason to continue the work and they built on that 1857 work for over 20 years before adopting their first BCO in 1879. Much of what the PCA has today still reads very much the same, as you can see from touring through the BCO section on the PCA Historical Center's web site [cf. link embedded in my name below].

Movement toward reunion of Old & New School in 1869 delayed any work on revision of their Book, but the success of the PCUS effort, glowingly acknowledged on all sides, prompted them to take up the task, and by 1884 the PCUSA also had a revised Book.

So in the spirit of good-natured argument, my points would be that everyone back then saw the need for revising the old Book that had last been revised in the 1820s, that much of what we have today in the PCA still dates to 1879 [PCUS] and occasionally even back to 1789 [PCUSA], and that as times and issues change, so too the need to revise [or better: hone] the Book of Church Order.

Of course the document is far from perfect. That's why it is designed to be amendable. But it would be a huge mistake to revert back to an earlier BCO--it simply wouldn't work as well today as a whole document. For one, remember that you would be giving up the property safeguards afforded to congregations. On the other hand, nothing would probably please me more than to have someone someday construct a convincing amendment based on the history of a particular BCO paragraph, with the conclusion that an earlier wording was superior.


The peace of the church must flow out of the purity of the church. Godly purity will produce peace, but peace sought for its own sake will only bring compromise, negligence and ultimately, destruction. We should seek purity that we may have the peace of unity.

Andrew, I'm afraid you have argued with something I didn't say.

I believe with you that the Church (all of Christendom) can't have one without the other, which is my problem with the way that theological disagreement in the PCA is handled now. In the current ethos, almost anything can be seen as a threat to the purity of the Church (meaning PCA), and it is too-often equated with "whatever I disagree with".

But, things like character, rhetoric, community, loving people enough to be charitable with their views, are just as important to the overall health and mission of the Church as is protecting theological purity. Otherwise, theological purity becomes an end unto itself of an insignificant and inward-facing denomination. All denominations think themselves to be the protectors of purity, but to what extent their theology is actually biblical and Christo-centric can be determined not by asking them, or even by reading their confessional documents but by measuring their love for one another, their care for mission, the charitableness in their theological debate, the way they serve their community, their passion for justice and mercy, etc. "Pure" doctrine will drive these things instead of feed division, distrust, and eventual insignificance.


Godly purity is humble and focused on Christ. This does not mean that it is always soft, gentle, jovial, warm, "even handed" or "charitable."

Does Phinehas ring any bells?

Tim, isn't the overture to *study* the matter? That is not equal to *reconsider.*

Lane, in church history, Protestant church history, reformed Protestant church history, and presbyterian reformed Protestant church history, it's long been considered. And the conclusions of our consideration have long been written into our books of church order and confessions. So, taking the step of studying our past conclusions with an eye to the possibility of altering or adding to them is a reconsideration--literally, to consider again.

The issues surrounding the Federal Vision include many many things also that were studied before, just not in this particular combination. One could also say that we shouldn't have studied it there also, because we have the WCF and the BOCO. Denial of CoW isn't new, denial of visible/invisible church distinction isn't new, collapsing the visible church and election isn't new, messing with justification isn't new, etc. And yet we studied it (and rightly so). Is it a risk? Sure it is. But I honestly don't think that any report favoring women becoming deacons would pass. That might *not* be true in ten years. We have a better chance of coming to a good report now than we will later. My two cents.

I must have made myself unclear, Lane; I'm not opposed to General Assembly appointing a study committee on this issue.

But everyone needs to go into the debate and subsequent actions with eyes wide open, acknowledging that this is a step in a certain direction being led by men of a certain stripe. No, not all of them; and no, we can't say our knowledge of these things is infallible. Nevertheless, we have their papers and it would be hard to read them without knowing where they're headed.

All study committees are formed to either consider or reconsider a matter or matters. The study committee on creation was to reconsider what the understanding of chapter 4 of the WCF meant. The study committee on FV was to consider what FV meant vis a vis the PCA Standards. Neither study committee brought in their reports recommendations for amendments to the PCA Standards which would have either changed or clarified the Standards.

What might be different about this study committee is ,if the GA votes to erect one, on this issue that either in the majority or minority report there could be recommendations that would change our Standards and therefore change the way we understand what Scripture teaches.

By my lights, the Creation study committee did change "the way we understand what Scripture teaches" inasmuch as it explicitly declared a couple of recently articulated views to be as acceptable as the 24 hour view which was held by those who wrote WCF in the first place. That didn't necessitate a change in the wording of our Standards, but it did change the way we interpret WCF, since we have now declared that WCF 4.1 in saying "day" does not necessarily mean "24 hour period."

>What might be different about this study committee is ,if the GA votes to erect one, on this issue that either in the majority or minority report there could be recommendations that would change our Standards and therefore change the way we understand what Scripture teaches.

You could do it the way the FV study committee was done and guarantee no minority report...

A presbytery is free to reject someone who does not hold to a 24 hour 6 day view. I believe Westminster PCA Presbytery will not accept anyone who is not a 6 day creationist no matter what the study committee and GA said.

If GA wanted to make sure that everyone would get in they would have changed the wording to chapter 4.

Andrew, are you really using Phinehas to suggest that we are not required to be fair and loving in theological debate? And, are you seriously ready to use Phinehas' manner of withstanding heresy at Peor to legitimate an unloving and harsh approach with brothers in our denomination who hold different views on the diaconate?!?


I'm suggesting that the demand that debate always be "charitable" is bunk. Loving-- yes.

Fair? We should conduct ourselves without partiality, but the complaint "this isn't fair" is too often the excuse of a man who knows that he's about to get his teeth knocked down his throat [theologically speaking, of course] and wants to end the discussion before he gets shown up.

I'm not speaking specifically about the issue of the diaconate, but more broadly about the expectations we have as to how Christians ought to conduct themselves, especially those called to leadership in the church.

Why is it that we always expect everyone to keep their gloves on?

David G, the PCA has never edited WCF, so its failure to do so on creation should not be mistakenly taken to reflect the sentiment of the church. Indeed, I count refusal to change WCF as one of our weaknesses. WCF was carefully worded by the Divines to address the burning questions of their day, which means that it contains linguistic loopholes with regard to the burning questions of our day, whether about deacons, or creation, or the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ. Would that we could revise it with the same care and erudition that went into the original document, but those circumstances seem unlikely to be duplicated unless God does a mighty work in our land.

As to a Presbytery's choice to ignore the GA's counsel on this or any matter, I am of mixed emotions. As a 24-hour man, I welcome the preservation of that doctrine in our pulpits and presbyteries. At the same time, the counsel of GA ought to be taken seriously by a connected church.

No we have not passed an amendment to the WCF. The only time I can think that one was proposed was i the report on Marriage and Divorce.

Study committee reports are the mind of the church at that moment. They should be taken with due weight. But as it is often pointed out on the floor of GA, they do not changed the Standards.

Part of the problem of thinking about amending the WCF there is still some of us around who recall how it was done in the PCUS. Plus do we have the kind of men who can do it in the right way?

>>there are still some of us around who recall how it was done in the PCUS. Plus do we have the kind of men who can do it in the right way?

Both good questions. One of my favorite bits of theological non-trivia is how the post-reunion 1983 PC(USA) Book of Confessions Westminster Standards read concerning the purposes of marriage. This new "Book of Confessions" split into two parallel columns at that point, one originating in the old northern and the other in the old southern denomination. The northern column had two purposes of marriage while the southern still retained the original three. Guess which one the northern had pulled?

The propagation of a godly seed, of course.

As to the second question, I think we have to do it, trusting the Lord for His wisdom and grace to do it right. In fact, we really ought not to appoint a study committee on women deacons until after we've done our work on sexuality. The general should precede the specific.

Tim, The Book of Confessions is certainly a mess but I was thinking about the drip of amendments which watered down the "hard stuff" of the WCF.

You are right about dealing with the issue of sexuality before women deacons.

Andrew, I'm using Edwards' definition of "charity" which is more or less synonymous with love.

I'm not concerned that there might be some who misconstrue love/charity to request that they be left alone, I'm concerned about my heart as I enter into theological debate - have I listened well, am I weakening or hardening another person's argument beyond what they are saying, have I given them the benefit of the doubt, have I taken them at their word or am I importing my personal presuppositions?

If both sides of this debate would ask the sorts of questions, theological debate would be a beautiful thing to behold.

On charity/love in debate and the example of Phinehas, remember the context. Phinehas slew a man who openly and defiantly brought a heathen woman into the camp to fornicate with her. If you run into a "teacher" of the Church who does something tantamount to that (and they do exist), then the situation is one of warfare instead of debate. In that case, the man is your enemy, not your neighbor.

Even then, we must take great care to not bear false witness against our enemies (which includes misrepresenting their arguments); in that case bearing true witness should be quite sufficient.

The doctrine of the creation order of sexuality is under fierce attack by such wolves, and also by misguided sheep who think the grass is so much greener on the other side of that "forbidden" sign. It takes some care to tell the difference.



Add new comment