WRF Member Dr. William S. Barker Offers Comments on the PCA Report on Women in Ministry
Comment on the “Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church to the 45th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America” by WRF Member Dr. William S. Barker Professor of Church History Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), former President of Covenant Theological Seminary, and former Moderator of the PCA General Assembly
Over a generation ago my mentor, Dr. John W. Sanderson, referring to a colleague’s able exegesis of the Pastoral Epistles, commented that now that we have a clear exposition of what women are not to do in the church, it is time that we have a study of what the Scriptures encourage women to do in service of Christ and his church. This Report, at long last, gives us such a positive and constructive study of the roles of women in the ministry of the church.
The study assumes throughout a complementarian view of the roles of women and men (equals but with distinct callings and roles), saying at the outset that the PCA is “joyfully and confessionally committed to the Bible’s teaching on the complementarity of men and women” and citing in its first paragraph Gen 1:26-28, 1 Tim 2:12, 3:1-7, 5:17, Eph 4:11-13, 5:23-31 and 22-24,33. It seeks to “foster a robust complementation position and practice that creates a culture which welcomes and encourages the ministry of women.” Its climactic Chapter 4 (of 5) is entitled “Encouraging a Robust and Gracious Complementation Practice.”
Almost half of the Report is contained in Chapter 2, “A Biblical Foundation for the Roles of Women in the Church,” giving detailed exposition of 1 Tim 2 because this passage is at the center of the discussions and offering four possible interpretations of 1 Tim 3 as to whether this reference to women is with regard to an office. Striking in the Report’s exposition of the Scripture is its balance in encouraging women’s ministry, yet noting the biblical boundaries (women engaging in prophecy but not in the priesthood in the Old Testament, women teaching but not engaged in formal preaching throughout the Scriptures).
Chapter 3 wrestles with the issue of ordination, with special reference to the office of the diaconate. Here there is much use of material from church history, including references to the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ (the first six Books of which are usually ascribed to the 2nd and 3rd centuries—so very early practice) with its descriptions of the ordination of deaconesses, and references to Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ with mention of Geneva’s use of unordained deaconesses. There is also mention of 19th-century Lutheran use of deaconesses and citation of the RPCES Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Church, but further reference might have been made to the German Reformed Church practices in the 19th century (which I believe Benjamin B. Warfield mentions), to the PCA’s 1978 Report of the Sub-Committee on Diaconal Ministries ('PCA Digest: Position Papers 1973-1993,' ed. Paul R. Gilchrist, pp.159-181), and to the decades-long experience of sister NAPARC denomination the Reformed Presbyterian Church, North America (“Covenanters”) with women in diaconal ministry.
In its climactic Chapter 4 the Report describes “The Problem,” “The Solution,” and “The Process.” Recognizing the diversity of practice within the PCA on details of women’s ministry, while at the same time emphasizing consensus on the complementary roles of women and men, with the official teaching/ruling eldership still restricted to men, the Report sets forth a variety of ways in which the exercise of women’s gifts might be expanded.
While no amendments to the Book of Church Order are proposed by the Report, the concluding Chapter 5 contains a Pastoral Letter and eight Recommendations, some of which suggest overtures that might be made by sessions or presbyteries to the General Assembly. Of most immediate impact might be Recommendation 3, which encourages overtures to General Assembly “identifying appropriate Committees and Agencies in which women should serve as members and amending the Book of Church Order to allow women to do so.” Recommendation 4 counsels against the practice (in some PCA congregations) of having no ordained deacons so that women and men can be appointed to work together in such diaconal service. Recommendation 6 urges the establishment of unordained deaconesses “to assist the deacons in their labors,” having them commissioned as some already are for missions and other kinds of service. Such recommendations are constructive and careful to maintain consistency with Scripture’s complementation depiction of the roles of women and men.
The Ad Interim Committee is to be commended for its positive and constructive approach to the use of women’s gifts in the church. If the PCA General Assembly should adopt the Report and its eight Recommendations, it is difficult to predict the impact. It certainly does not represent the beginning of a slippery slope toward full egalitarianism of women in all the offices of the church. It may, however, potentially open a door to an explosion of the use of the gifts of women (at least half of the population) in the PCA, to the great benefit of the church and the kingdom. Godly women in our circles have always found ways in which to serve, but too often have not had avenues of service clearly recognized. Now perhaps younger women will be encouraged to have ministries of mercy, of teaching, and of their other gifts more fully exercised to the glory of our Lord.