A recommendation of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church, adopted by the 45th General Assembly, called on sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to “consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.” The recommendation, however, didn’t specify which committees and agencies would be appropriate.
Two presbyteries responded by presenting overtures to the 46th General Assembly. Overture 26 from Tennessee Valley would allow a percentage of non-ordained members (which could include women) to serve on the Covenant College board. Overture 13 from Nashville Presbytery proposed a similar percentage of non-ordained members on all agency boards.
Both proposals were defeated.
All in the PCA agree that authority to make governing decisions should be restricted to ordained elders.
Debate in both the Overtures Committee and on the Assembly floor centered on the authority of PCA boards and whether they exercise the kind of authority reserved to elders. A majority on the Overtures Committee concluded they do; in support of that view, they cited the action of the 1989 General Assembly, which drew a similar conclusion in response to a comparable overture.
For many, the vote raised questions — in part about PCA policy and polity — and also about the biblical view of authority in the church, and who is to have it.
The Authority of Jesus
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, His authority impressed the crowds. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the crowds were astonished because “He was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:29). They were also amazed at His authority to cast out demons (Mark 1:27) and, most remarkably, when He claimed authority to forgive a paralytic’s sins — and then backed up the claim by healing him. Matthew 9:8 reports, “They praised God who had given such authority to man.”
Jesus makes the definitive declaration of authority just before His ascension: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” One of the many implications of this, Paul tells us in Colossians 1:18, is “He is head of the body, the church.”
The Authority of Christ in the Church Is Delegated
But how, after His ascension, does He continue to exercise His authority as head of the church? We have His Word, of course, but it doesn’t provide direction for the church’s day-to-day decisions. How does He lead through those decisions?
According to Scripture, He delegates His authority. In one sense, He has delegated it to the entire church. In Matthew 28, for instance, He gives the church His Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This is more than a command; it grants the church authority to disciple, baptize, and teach.
But throughout the Epistles it becomes clear that Christ delegates governing authority in the church to particular leaders, overseers, or elders (the words are synonymous). In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we see that this office is reserved to spiritually mature men. Paul underscores the point in I Timothy 2:12, where he states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Later, on two occasions, he associates teaching and exercising authority with the work of the elder (1 Timothy 3:2, 5; 5:17). And note that Paul does not tether this prohibition to some local problem so that it might not apply elsewhere; he ties it to the order of creation and its distortion at the Fall (1 Timothy 2:14-15), thereby making it a universal principle.
The PCA’s Application of the Principles
The PCA’s understanding of the passage is spelled out in our “Book of Church Order” (BCO), which states, “The power which Christ has committed to His church vests in the whole body. … This power extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His church.” Here again, it’s worth noting that these officers are both appointed by Christ and chosen by the people of the church. Voting for church officers, then, is not an exercise in democracy, but in discerning God’s call on the man being selected. Though the BCO (with Scripture) recognizes two offices, elder and deacon, it recognizes that elders alone are granted authority to govern (BCO 7-2, 8-3, 8-8).
These elders govern the church collectively (rather than individually). While individual elders exercise what the BCO calls “power of order” (BCO 3-2), their governing authority is exercised jointly in what the BCO calls the “power of jurisdiction” (BCO 1-5, 3-2). This governing authority is exercised in what are called graded courts.
PCA Pastor Sean Michael Lucas in his book “What is Church Government?” provides background for the term “court.” It is not, Lucas writes, a court of law, but a royal court. Elders gather to make decisions with their King, who is spiritually present. The courts are “graded” in the sense that they are organized in distinct spheres: The Session governs a local church; the Presbytery governs the regional church; and the General Assembly governs the denomination. These courts exercise interdependent rather than independent authority, meaning the decisions of the lower court are subject to review by the higher court, which routinely reviews its records, investigates member complaints, or reviews judicial appeals.
BCO 11-2 outlines three kinds of governing authority exercised by these courts: (1) The authority to “frame symbols of faith, bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in practice, within or without the Church, and decide cases of conscience.” (2) “The right to require obedience to … Christ,” which includes judging who’s qualified to become a communing member, who’s fit for ordained office, and deciding matters of church discipline. (3) The power “to establish rules for the government, discipline, worship and extension of the church” so long as these rules are consistent with the Scriptures.
Is All Authority Governing Authority?
It is at this point — consistency with Scripture — that most disputes about governing authority have arisen: At what point in our form of government is there freedom for those who have not been ordained to church office to serve? Is there authority other than governing authority that is open to any member in good standing?
All in the PCA agree that authority to make governing decisions, meaning those who chart the church’s course, should be restricted to ordained elders. This would include commissions of those courts (a commission is a smaller group empowered to complete the business of the court). The most prominent example is the General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission, which has been granted the authority to make final decisions on disciplinary cases brought to the Assembly.
Most in the PCA would agree that not everyone who exercises some sort of authority must be ordained. For example, most churches do not require all Sunday School teachers to be ordained. These teachers are given responsibility by their session to teach; consequently, they are granted authority to carry out their responsibility.
Authority of Committees,Commissions, and Boards
Most in the PCA would agree that not everyone who exercises some sort of authority must be ordained. For example, most churches do not require all Sunday School teachers to be ordained. These teachers are given responsibility by their session to teach; consequently, they are granted authority to carry out their responsibility. As they do, they act under the governing direction of the session and are accountable to it. Similarly, many responsibilities at the General Assembly are carried out by unordained staff. A number of our missionaries are not ordained. Most teachers at PCA schools are not ordained, nor are some professors at Covenant College and Covenant Seminary. Yet they all exercise limited delegated authority granted by a church court, and all are subject to that court.
Most of the discussion at the denominational level centers on the program committees (Administrative Committee, Discipleship Ministries, RUF, MNA, and MTW) and the boards of the PCA agencies (Covenant College, Covenant Seminary, Ridge Haven, the PCA Foundation, and Retirement & Benefits). Currently, members of those committees and boards must be elders, except in the case of the Foundation and Retirement and Benefits, which allow deacons to serve.
Some wonder whether this is required by our understanding of governing church authority. The question may be put two ways:
(1) Does our form of government require, in principle, that members of these committees and boards be elders? (2) Do these committees and boards act with governing authority, or is their authority limited by the directives given by a governing authority?
The BCO addresses these questions in three places.
BCO 15-1 provides a general statement about the function of committees as contrasted to commissions: A committee is appointed to consider, examine, and report. Commissions, however, are authorized to deliberate and conclude the business referred to it.
The ordination process illustrates the difference. In most presbyteries, a Credentials Committee examines candidates for ordination. This committee has the authority to conduct the exam; however, it does not have the power to approve it. Only the presbytery can do that. Once the candidate is approved, the presbytery then appoints a commission to carry out the ordination. The commission’s action becomes the action of the presbytery. It has governing authority that the Credentials Committee doesn’t.
BCO 14-1.7 goes beyond this general principle to address the role of General Assembly permanent committees specifically: “The Assembly’s Committees are to serve and not direct any Church judicatories [courts]. They are not to establish policy, but rather execute policy established by the General Assembly.”
From this it would appear that committees (and agency boards, which, as dictated by the PCA Corporate Bylaws, bear a similar relationship to the General Assembly) do not exercise governing authority. This explains why Committees of General Assembly Commissioners annually review Permanent Committee minutes; they’re ensuring that committees are following the Assembly’s directives.
However, BCO 14-1.10-12 limits membership on Permanent Committees to elders, and the PCA Corporate Bylaws do the same for boards. This suggests that these committees and boards exercise a form of governing authority, and the Assembly itself has on two occasions (1989, 2018) rejected proposals that would open these bodies to unordained members (women in particular) on that basis.
These three BCO provisions set the framework for the current debate.
Larry Hoop is a teaching elder who writes about polity for byFaith. He has recently co-authored an overture calling for non-ordained PCA members to be allowed to serve on committees and boards.