WRF Board Member Dr. John McClean Offers an Australian Perspective on the PCA Study Committee Report
A Response to The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Study Committee Report on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church
by WRF Board Member Dr. John McClean, Vice Principal of Christ College in Sydney, Australia, and Convenor of the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales
Recently, the “Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church” of the Presbyterian Church in America released its report for consideration by the PCA Assembly in June. I’ve been asked to make a few comments about the report for WRF. These comments are below and are separately attached as a .pdf file.
The decision to establish the Committee was controversial (I understand), and perhaps there are provocative elements to the report which I cannot see. Viewed from afar, it’s a good read. It is encouraging to the PCA thinking about similar issues to ones we face in the Australian church (and it is interesting to notice differences between our discussions).
I’m an outsider to the American discussion, since I’m in the ‘other’ PCA (Presbyterian Church of Australia) which has quite different history and context.
The Australian Church opened eldership to women in 1967 and approved ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in 1974. In 1977 the majority of the denomination joined the Uniting Church of Australia — which has continued to ordain men and women and will not ordain men who do not agree with that policy. In 2003 it approved the ordination of people in same-sex relationships.
The Presbyterian Church, which continued as a smaller body, took a very different path. Over the years it has become more decidedly evangelical and has owned its confessional heritage far more fully. That has led to revisions in its decisions about women and ordination. In 1991 the General Assembly of Australia decided that women would no longer be eligible for ordination as ministers. (Those already ordained retained their status and the last inducted woman minister has recently retired).
In something of a political compromise, the decision about women serving as elders was left to each State Assembly. Most of the State churches have determined not to have women elders, though the New South Wales Church, in which I serve, still allows this and a significant minority of congregations have women elders. We also have non-ordained Deaconesses who are approved and commissioned by Presbyteries.
Some of our churches have women preaching on a regular or semi-regular basis, though none as the minister of the church. On the other hand, some of our churches would not allow a woman to preach and in at least one recent case a Presbytery refused to approve an appointment of a women ministry assistant whose job description included preaching.
The vast majority of the ministers in the PCNSW — and I think most of the elders — are complementarian; but there is quite a bit of variety in how that works out in different congregations.
The Sydney Anglican Diocese is a major influence among reformed Christians in our city and state, and it has does not ordain women as presbyters (priests) or have female rectors of its churches. It does have women (and men) ordained as permanent deacons and many churches have women deacons, and other women, serving on the church staff. Sydney Anglican circles continue to debate whether women should preach to mixed congregations. One of the most recent iterations of the debate focussed on the book Hearing Her Voice by John Dickson [see here and here for some of the debate].
I rehearse these details of my local context to help explain my response to the report. Nevertheless, perhaps an outsiders view will be interesting and even helpful.
Here are some of the things I like about the report.
It is happily complementarian (which simply means it is committed to the view that men and women are to work together and share gifts while “the eldership is to be composed of qualified men who are entrusted by Christ with the ministry of the authoritative teaching and ruling of the church for the building up of the whole body”). It doesn’t try to hide that and is positive about this being the view taught by the Bible.
It is positive about promoting rather than limiting what women do, within complementarian convictions.
It acknowledges differences on issues which, I assume, are controversial in the American church: women as deacons, women teaching, the role of women in public worship and women serving on the boards and agencies of the denomination. I gather that the committee itself was divided about some of these practices. The report affirms they are subsidiary issues and deals with them cautiously, allowing freedom for different approaches. It briefly surveys the mixed approaches to the roles of women in teaching, diaconal ministry and public worship — as I outlined above, I work in an even more mixed situation. The approach of clear basic commitments and accepting variety in the details is wise.
It has thorough and thoughtful survey of the biblical material about the role of women in the church. None of it is new discussion, and it has been collated in innumerable reports and books; still, the report summarises the material well. It has more detailed discussions of the key NT passages (1 Corinthians 14; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 3:8-11; Acts 6, and Eph 5:21-33). With these it goes into more detail about the various views which it summarises and assesses well. It argues for a complementarian view, and at least shows that the biblical evidence can be understood consistently that way. (The debate about interpretation and application is more complex than just this material, and the report doesn’t claim to be a full discussion of the debate).
The report takes ordination seriously and seeks to understand what it means, if it is rightly applied to deacons and if that would exclude women from the diaconate. In this discussion it gives a useful survey of views of ordination. It also has a stimulating historical survey of women and the diaconate, including the various forms of the office of deaconess.
The major conclusion of the report is to encourage “robust and gracious complementarian practice”. It recognises that redemption includes the gifts of men and women flourishing “within the bounds of the distinctions declared in His Word”. It makes a serious attempt to suggest ways in which women can be involved in the service of the church. The principle it sets out is that churches should “observe faithfully all the biblical teaching about the range of ways in which women may use their gifts, and not to be bound by traditions that may be merely cultural.” I assume that it is pointing to the fact that complementarian churches can be overly cautious about what women do.
The reports stresses that “the primary need is the encouragement and respect of the church’s male leadership who can either nourish or break the heart of a woman who is trying to serve God.” That is, the key to women being really engaged in the ministry of the church is the attitude and actions of the eldership.
The report recognises that there are different views of the appropriate teaching roles of women, and describes two schools of thought on the committee. It encourages Sessions to identify and encourage the teaching gifts of women in their congregations, operating within the bounds that the Session determines. Two suggestions in the area of church direction, which our churches would do well to consider are, encouraging Sessions to include women in Session discussions and “preferring women for non-ordained staff positions”.
So what’s wrong with the report? (You know that’s coming, don’t you!) I’m not sure there is anything I’d say is “wrong”, but there are a couple of areas I wonder about.
For all the encouragement for women to teach, the report could offer more creative examples of this. Most of the examples seem to me to be things many complementarian churches are already doing. (But maybe that is where the Presbyterian Church in America context is different).
I also found the discussion of whether deacons are to be ordained and whether the diaconate exercises authority perplexing. The report acknowledges that this issue is shaped by the historical practices of the American church. Nevertheless, I cannot see a strong case for a clear difference between ordination and commissioning or that ordination must imply granting authority, or that diaconal work exercises authority of the type the Bible grants to the elders of the church. The important point is, surely, to be clear about the nature of each office. As to whether the offices are ordained or commissioned and what those actions mean, I am not convinced there is enough biblical evidence to establish certain conclusion.
The report is an encouragement for every church with similar convictions to work at helping men and women work together well, and to encourage rather than discourage women serving. I commend it for your study.