In an article recently published in byFaith magazine, Dr. Bryan Chapell, the president of the PCA’s denominational seminary, explained why he supported the effort at the 2009 General Assembly (GA) to produce a pastoral letter addressing the subject of women’s roles in the church. Chapell wrote:
“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.”
While Dr. Chapell’s article was wonderfully temperate, it seemed clear that he was disappointed with the outcome. As a PCA minister who was relieved by the vote, I thought that some attempt should be made to answer the concerns Dr. Chapell raised, and to set forth some of the concerns of PCA members on the other side of the study committee debate. In doing so, I hope we might continue to advance the current dialogue.
Dr. Chapell states regarding women’s roles in the local church that “a large part of our church is feeling that it is being denied a voice on this important concern.” While they may indeed feel that way, it is hard to see how. Over the past few years there have been several conferences in which members of the PCA have openly advocated for an expanded role for women in ministry, including the Synergy conferences which address women as “gifted for leadership” as well as books and blogs which openly promote and address “women in ministry.” It’s also difficult to argue that advocates for the study committee are being denied a voice when for the last two General Assemblies the most important debates have been over that issue. In fact, it was only last year at the 2008 GA that Dr. Chapell himself addressed the assembly at length arguing in favor of a study committee to examine whether women could serve as deacons. Members of the PCA who are in favor of re-visiting the role of women in the church certainly have a voice, and they are being heard. It seems that their disappointment stems not from not being heard, but not being agreed with. As a friend commented, it is as though we are being told, “I can tell you aren’t listening, because if you were, you’d agree with us.”
Personally, I believe the actual situation is not that we aren’t listening, but that we are, and that the majority are concerned with what we are hearing. Let me explain why:
1) Women are not a constituency, an interest group, a minority, or a monolithic block, and we do them a great disservice when we speak of them as though they are in the courts of the church. Additionally, we err if we assume that all PCA women, or even the majority of PCA women, are in favor of studying or re-examining the role of women in the church. At least one teaching elder speaking in favor of the pastoral letter at the 2009 GA said that his wife would be happy or even ecstatic if it passed. While that might be true, my wife, and many other PCA women I know would have been devastated if it had passed. We need to be willing to acknowledge that this is, ultimately, a theological issue over which both men and women in the PCA are divided.
2) Efforts like the recent one to revisit women’s roles in the church haven’t worked well in the past, and some concrete steps must be taken to explain how we will avoid the disasters that have befallen other evangelical denominations.
For instance, a brother minister recently shared with me that many years ago when the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) was considering whether to erect its own study committee on the role of women, a CRC minister assured him, “Don’t worry, we’ll never get to the point where we actually ordain women.” I’m sure the minister in question believed that, but the fact is that now, several years later, the CRC does ordain women to both offices and as a result, we found it necessary to remove them from NAPARC. How will we avoid following the same path to the same end especially given the strong similarities between our denominations? To date, I have not heard any serious acknowledgment from the other side of the debate that this could actually happen, much less a coherent strategy to prevent it. Instead, there seems to be the same kind of “that couldn’t happen to us” belief that the CRC once espoused.
3) We often hear statements along the lines of “none of us wants to see women ordained.” This language needs to be amended because clearly there are men and women in the PCA who do want to see women ordained. We’ve had at least two high-profile church plants, both of which were heavily subsidized by MNA, leave for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) over women’s ministry issues. This is especially alarming because the RCA is theologically to the left of the CRC. Clearly, while there are some complementarians in the PCA movement eager to revisit women’s roles in the church, we need to acknowledge that there are also egalitarians.
4) The real problem of the feminization of the evangelical church also needs to be acknowledged. If any study committee is really needed by the PCA, it is a study committee designed to figure out why men are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers and what we can do about it. In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2005), David Murrow cites the following sobering statistics:
• Just 35 percent of men in the U.S. attend church weekly.
• Women comprise more than 60 percent of the typical adult congregation on any given Sunday.
• At least one-fifth of married women regularly worship without their husbands.
• The majority of men attend services and nothing more.
• Men 18-29 are the least likely demographic group to be in church.
Any sort of objective view of the situation would tell us that American Christianity is in no danger of excluding females. Women already dominate in most denominations, and fewer and fewer denominations place any limitations on female ordination. For instance, our own congregation is boxed in on our street by a PCUSA church with a female pastor and a mostly older female congregation, a Baptist church also with a mostly female membership, and now a Pentecostal church also with a female pastor and a female congregation. Our congregation is one of the only churches in the area with a strong representation of young males, and not coincidentally we are also one of the last hold-outs committed to exclusively male leadership. Of all the problems evangelicalism is grappling with, excessive male involvement is not one of them, and certainly the available evidence indicates that as female leadership in the church waxes, male involvement wanes.
The above list of concerns is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it will go some way toward explaining why many of us were not comfortable with either the deaconess study committee or the pastoral letter on women’s roles.
Andrew Webb is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, N.C.