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WRF Member Clair Davis Offers Some Suggestions About the Role of Women in Our Evangelical Churches

WRF Member Clair Davis Offers Some Suggestions About the Role of Women in Our Evangelical Churches

The most crucial and controversial issue in the evangelical world today is ‘role of women.’  Our secular culture is becoming clearer on this. The Federal Reserve now has a woman chairman, and there is a real possibility of a woman president in two years, not to leave out the German Bundeskanzler.

(I remember meeting the first woman physician in Iowa). There is no question today about whether many women have strong gifts of leadership, so how should we translate that into the life of the evangelical church?  (The American understanding of slavery was considerably distorted when to the biblical practice was added a natural theology of racial inferiority. Not too long ago that was also the case in the church’s evaluation of women: not only did Scripture oppose their leadership in the church but a natural theology of feminine instability was added to attempt to strengthen that argument. Today both those pitiful additions to Scripture are no longer credible).

The power-word may be ‘ordination,’ but I doubt it should be. (I recently was asked to do the Lord’s Supper and a licentiate preached. That was in a very structured church, so all I needed to do was to read a paragraph in the liturgy, which the licentiate wasn’t allowed to do.  If that’s ordination, I doubt it needs that much attention).  The question isn’t who may be ordained, but rather who will have a part in leading the church.

Where the focus needs to go now is in coordinating the women’s activities that already exist into the rest of the life of the church. How may women leaders have a seat at the elders’ table, and how may elders have a seat at the women’s table?  B. B. Warfield saw well those issues some 125 years ago:

There is rapidly arising, in the natural course of affairs, a strong incitement toward in some way reducing to churchly character and to some sufficient form of ecclesiastical oversight, the whole sphere of woman’s work. Woman’s work does not wait to be organized. Women have already organized their own work in the church; and with a zeal and success which shame the prevailing apathy of Christian men, women have worked out for themselves a whole series of institutions which, while the church sleeps, may perchance grow fatally to overshadow its official and authorized agencies. To shut our eyes to the dangers inhere nt in these gigantic voluntary associations would be as silly as it might prove to be suicidal. Nor is it an adequate annulment of these dangers to plead that the loving loyalty of our women to our church system has shown itself to be as great as their loving zeal for God’s work. This is true, and deserves highest praise. But we must bear in mind the important principle pointed out by one of the brothers Hare--that the essential character of no theory or institution is adequately expressed in its inaugurates, since they make the institution, while it is the institution that makes the next generation of its administrators. The essential principle of every organization comes out sooner or later in its working; and independent and voluntary agencies show sooner or later that they have both independence and will of their own. There lie within the bosom of the great beneficent organizations of woman’s work, as they are at present developing without adequate points of union with the official church machinery, many hidden dangers to the church’s whole structure and efficiency, some of which can scarcely fail to shake the church of the next age, unless some way be now discovered by which the whole system may be not merely recognized, but, in a Scriptural manner, incorporated into the body of the church’s own activities, subjected to its lawful courts, and organized in accordance with its essential structure, so that it may become a harmoniously working part of the one organic whole.   (From The Presbyterian Review 10:38, 1889, 283-93).

What Warfield describes was more comprehensive than it is now. Then there were very few women in the professions or politics and so most of their society-changing activities such as ‘temperance’ were of a churchly cast. But what he says is still relevant. How should we today correlate women’s Bible studies or counseling or family home groups with the more formal life of the church? I hope that most elders’ meetings would include women’s representatives from their activities, and the other way around. (While women need to speak up, I doubt they would need to vote, since we want unanimous decisions anyway. To make the air clearer, men should always take the notes and make the coffee, inferior though their results might be).

More ambitious but still necessary, how should we coordinate church life with that of para-church or trans-denominational work? (Almost all of my working life has been in trans-denominational seminaries with faculty and board from many different denominations. Today many such schools routinely include women on their boards. Trans-denominational can easily mean trans-gender!). 

Gender issues can easily relate to denominational cooperation. I still mourn for the collapse of the grand dream of the 1970’s of Joining and Receiving: then we thought that we didn’t have to agree on everything before we could unite in serving the Lord. But Covenanters found that too threatening to their exclusive psalmody, the OPC too threatening to their style of General Assembly, and the CRC was excluded for their ordination of women. Now many evangelicals are finally leaving our PCUSA mother church and are not finding their way into our denominations but are starting all over again with their own ECO; otherwise they’d have to fire their women clergy. If all denominations are going to stay so firmly committed to their little ‘distinctives’ does that fatally doom their working together?

Could more informal fellowships develop, similar to those seminaries? My New Life church put together a network with its daughter churches and we met regularly. I remember especially a meeting where we considered how to screen people who’d be working with our kids. It was just wonderful, but there were some who said we were building an alternate presbytery. As I talk with present and former students, it feels like I’m into many alternate things myself anyway, anytime I talk with someone about church life.

How would it work to do something bigger, a get-together with all the Reformed people in your neighborhood, trans-everything? Including reps from all the para groups? To pray for each other and to learn from each other? Could we do that when some are exclusive psalmody and others not? Some with paid women leadership and others not? One reason I think that worth doing is because in 2008 my PCA rejected a study committee on women deacons, partly because they were concerned about the famous slippery slope. If denominational options like that aren’t going to happen, why not regional ones? Maybe with presbytery encouragement, but not necessarily? From my seminary experience I know that so many students decide they want to keep building on their friendships for the rest of their lives with conference calls and summer retreats together. If those trans-denominational friendships work for students, why not for all of us?

Regionalism is pretty much the essence of American Presbyterianism anyway. One is not really a minister of the PCA anyway, but of his own presbytery. (You get re-examined whenever you move, and learn quickly how your new presbytery values other things than your old one did). Could a trans meeting like that be open to all the leaders in that region, some ordained and some not? With some ordained men, some not; some ordained women, some not? (I was in a session that invited an unordained Baptist to meet with us. We couldn’t ordain him but needed his wisdom). Would that lead to something horrible, like giving in to female leadership? I don’t see how if it’s group consensus we’re thinking about. But with the Lord’s blessing it could well lead to deeper understanding of what taking the lead is all about, couldn’t it? I believe so. Ordained women could come to see how unordained women can lead, and the unordained could see that ordination by itself doesn’t bring strong leadership.

There may be better plans. I’m listening. But whatever we do, we just can’t squelch anyone’s gifts, and definitely not substitute some natural theology (the way we’re used to think about women) for the Bible. Nor do we want perpetual division between us veterans and the newbies just leaving the PCUSA, just because of their ordained women. I hope I’m wrong, but sometimes I think that the natural attrition of churches leaving us for other denominations is speeding up, and that it’s getting harder to sell theological students on our narrow agendas. What do you think?

I like doing things ‘decently and in order,’ what Warfield had in mind, and put to work presbyteries and denominational committees on all of this. But since 2008 I don’t see it happening, do you?  Nor is the Joining and Receiving vision alive and well. Those seminaries are happy without direct denominational ties, and set an example for us, that we don’t have to outgrow. We have long enjoyed our three-value logic: not only can something be right or wrong but it could be just irregular.  This is all that comes into my head and heart as I try out on you these suggestions.   


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