When Stephanie Hathorn arrived at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi, and started attending a PCA church for the first time, she wanted to use her teaching gifts but didn’t know where she fit as a woman. Feeling out of place, she questioned whether she was in the right church.

While classes such as systematic theology helped solidify her Reformed theology, a message from her pastor at Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mike Campbell, led to a new perspective. “I remember him saying, ‘Instead of defining what women can’t do, we need to start defining what they can do.’ I realized that Reformed theology was not limiting me, but guiding me,” recalls Hathorn.

Despite initially bristling against what she perceived as limitations on women in the PCA, Hathorn now revels in her understanding of women’s roles. “God did not place women in a one-down position, but in a helpmate position,” she says. “Tim Keller describes it like this: ‘To help someone is to make up what is lacking in him with your strength.’ What a glorious, complementary position we are given as women! We pick up where a man’s role ends, or where a man is unable to meet certain needs.” Hathorn now uses her gifts at RTS, where she assists with program development and serves on the leadership team for the African-American Leadership Initiative. In addition to her counseling practice, she co-leads parent-training sessions for church members and neighbors in the surrounding community.

Can-do Attitude

Hathorn’s story reflects the kind of shift the PCA as a denomination hopes to make — from focusing on what women can’t do in ministry, to exploring what they can do.

At the PCA’s 42nd General Assembly in June, the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) set forth women’s roles in the church as one of the urgent topics for the denomination to address. The CMC formed a subcommittee to make recommendations for giving women a greater voice and more visible roles in the denomination, while preserving its position on male-ordained leadership in governing.

Paul Kooistra, formerly Mission to the World coordinator and now Erskine University president, serves on the subcommittee. He says, “Our basic position is clear: We do not ordain women. But that position does not give much guidance on what the role of women should be.”

Mike Ross, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, chairs the subcommittee. He puts it this way: “We know what we can’t do. That’s very clear. We don’t want to do what the Bible says not to do. But we haven’t given much thought to what we can do. What are the positive expressions of women’s roles, living within the boundaries of God’s will? We haven’t really thought that through creatively.”

Ross emphasizes that the committee’s work is not driven by women clamoring for positions of authority or by younger people who are disgruntled with the denomination. “The older guys are raising this issue,” says Ross. “Not one guy on this committee is under 55. … We want to look at whether we can see women as helpmates throughout all layers of Christian life.”

Finding a Place

Diane Preston has witnessed an increasing presence of women on the Covenant Seminary campus during her 23 years there. She says that if the question of women’s roles was an easy one, we would have solved it long ago. “Some denominations have solved it by ordaining women,” she says. “I would contend they sacrificed Scripture to make a place for women. We will not sacrifice Scripture, but we haven’t found a place. That’s not a good answer either.”

Part of the difficulty of finding “a place” for women in the PCA is not only its theological perspective, but also the size and budget constraints of its churches. Preston says, “PCA churches are middling to small. They will typically hire a senior pastor, then an assistant pastor, and the third hire will be a youth or worship leader.” So it wouldn’t be until the fifth or sixth hire that a woman would be considered, and most PCA churches don’t have that many staff positions. For seminary-trained women who want to work in vocational ministry, they usually find their place outside the local PCA church, Preston says. Many female seminary graduates are serving in parachurch ministries, ministering overseas, starting businesses, or working in counseling centers.

Within local PCA churches, there is currently great divergence of opinion on what women’s roles should be, says Ross. “Some churches allow women to teach mixed gender classes, while some find that violates Scripture. Some churches involve women in public worship, singing, leading pastoral prayers, reading Scripture. Some churches commission deacons and deaconesses, while others ordain deacons. These are the types of questions we’re going to examine.” Whatever the answers to these questions, Ross and Kooistra both hope that the outcome of the subcommittee’s work will be affirming and encouraging of women. “A church that is not providing ways for half its people to use their gifts seems to be a church that limits itself,” observes Kooistra. “God doesn’t discriminate when it comes to gifts.”

A Slippery Slope?

While many in the PCA applaud efforts to enlarge the profile of women within the denomination, many are also cautious. Many evangelical denominations have begun to ordain women in the past few decades, and some fear that any step toward more involvement of women will lead down this slippery slope. “The spirit of the age is going to push the church further and further toward the ordination of women. For many denominations, this has been the watershed of demise. We don’t want to follow this path.” Ross reassures, “We don’t have to fear. No one is asking us to close our eyes so that we can ordain women.”

At the same time, Ross proposes, it is possible to unnecessarily limit women by following the slippery-slope argument. “We want to have good, prayerful, positive reflection on this. … We don’t want to cave into the spirit of the age; but at the same time we don’t want to just affirm what we said in 1973 [when the denomination was founded].”

The subcommittee recognizes that helping the denomination grow in this area is challenging. That’s why it has sought transparency at every step of the process. “We let people know that we were beginning to study these issues — we were very open about it before we even formed subcommittees,” says Ross. This CMC subcommittee has no power to enact changes. Rather, it will present a sort of “white paper” with recommendations to the General Assembly in June 2015.

In the meantime, Ross asks that PCA members pray for the subcommittee and ask the Lord to lead it. “We’re not trying to slip anything through the back door,” he says. “We want to do the right thing.” Ross acknowledges that the PCA is one of a dwindling number of denominations that hold to the position that women can’t be ordained. But, like Stephanie Hathorn, perhaps the PCA can shift its focus to everything women can do.

Susan Fikse is a wife, mom, and freelance writer who has been a member of the PCA’s female contingent since 1989. You can find more of her writing on Twitter @SusanFikse.