A few people have asked me for my impressions of the 2009 PCA General Assembly. It’s easy to say it was smaller than usual, without fireworks, and in a very pleasant place—but I know what people are really asking is what I thought of the vote on the study committee regarding women’s roles in the church. So here goes.
I went to the General Assembly (GA) seriously doubting the wisdom of any study committee on the generic topic of women’s roles. No one knows what the outcome of such a committee might be. It might conclude that women should have more breadth of ministry opportunities in the PCA, but it could just as easily conclude that there should be more limited opportunities. So there should be no presumption that an appointed study committee would automatically have adopted a broader position.
As speakers who both favored and opposed the study committee said during the course of the floor debate (and during the evening forum which focused on the narrower issue of the wisdom of “commissioning” women deacons), the Book of Church Order (BCO) leaves most decisions regarding women’s ministries to local church sessions. Tim Keller reminded us during the informal evening forum with Ligon Duncan (in which both men provided our church an exemplary model of charitable and informed discourse) the BCO only identifies three things as out of bounds for women: moderating a congregational meeting, being licensed to preach, and serving in an ordained office.
All attempts to impose further limitations as a national standard have failed. Two attempts failed this year: the Standing Judicial Commission denied a complaint that attempted to deny ordination to a man whose views relating to women and the diaconate were allowed by his presbytery, and the Committee on Constitutional Business, the Administrative Committee, and the Overtures Committee all identified as non-constitutional an attempt to tell churches in a presbytery whom they should ordain.
Dr. David Coffin, who presented the grounds for the Overture Committee’s majority, rightly reminded us that we are all protected by the history and commitments of the PCA that give local churches the right to make decisions about matters that are not specifically addressed in our constitution. A study committee could create havoc if it tried to create some sort of list of what women could or could not do in every church, in every setting, in every circumstance. Even though the list would have no constitutional authority, it would be referenced as something the GA “approved” and consequently could be used by some as leverage to either loosen or tighten standards for local churches.
Thus, I would have personally opposed any study committee that only had some vague mandate to define women’s roles for all local churches. The only reason I supported the study committee overture this year was that it was—in my opinion—wisely amended in the Overtures Committee from the original versions that came from the presbyteries. The amendment asked that the study committee only produce a “pastoral letter” on women’s role in local churches.
A pastoral letter clearly has no binding authority. It would allow those who feel they have not been allowed to address this subject to express themselves, but such a letter would not change any standards. Still, even a pastoral letter is risky. While pastoral letters have been wonderfully effective in calming past controversial issues, they can have the status of “church policy” for those who do not fully understand our standards.
I supported the letter because it is obvious to me that a large part of our church is feeling that it is being denied a voice on this important concern. I hoped the pastoral letter approach would allow us to hear each viewpoint with a clear understanding that the letter’s conclusions would be non-binding. Whether we are talking about a local church or the entire denomination, a refusal to listen to half of the body because we have the votes to end the discussion is not healthy long- term. Whether this concern should have outweighed the risks of a pastoral letter is a judgment call over which good men may differ. I bear no ill will toward those fathers and brothers (of both broader and narrower perspectives) who voted against the pastoral letter because they felt the risks were too great. I believe that a sovereign God directed His people in a close vote that was best for His church at the time.
Because we presently have no official General Assembly forum to discuss women’s roles, our present strictures and freedoms remain in effect. No doubt there will be future overtures that address these issues, but I imagine those who recognize there are not sufficient votes to bring legislative change will seek to bring about change by judicial action. When matters are put before the Standing Judicial Commission only a small number of men with a concentrate of perspective can have far-reaching effects through judicial precedents. We should pray that the Lord will continue to provide wise and fair-minded leaders for these important judicial posts.
In essence, nothing changed at this year’s General Assembly regarding the role of women in the PCA. Attempts to limit roles were defeated. Attempts to discuss roles were also defeated. The only change that I observed was a changing of the guard. Beneath the notice of most was the clear evidence of a generational shift in those pastors and ruling elders who were serving on the Overtures Committee and many of the Committees of Commissioners. This can only spell good things for our church’s future as those who have often felt left out of denominational efforts clearly made an effort to make a difference with active participation, persuasive words, and significant numbers. Such efforts will guide where we ultimately go.
Dr. Bryan Chapell is the president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.
For another point of view, please see Those Who Want to Re-visit Women’s Roles Have Been Heard here.