The issue of men’s and women’s respective and complementary roles in the life of the church is one that has invited perennial controversy. Sadly, that integral feature of mankind which God has designed as a great gift to His creation (see Genesis 2:18-25) has been a cause for disruption in the church in our day. The denomination of which I am a part – the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) – has recognized that there is a widespread confusion and dissatisfaction with regards to how gender roles are understood in modern evangelicalism, and rightly so. Evangelicals seem to be confused about what the Bible teaches about the roles of men and women in the life of the church.
The 44th General Assembly of the PCA decided to address this confusion by forming an Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church. As we prepare to come together next week to evaluate and discuss the report from this committee, many dear friends and former students of mine have asked me to produce an article with my response.
I write this article, as many will recognize, as one who was opposed to the appointment of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in The Ministry of The Church. I continue to think that the appointment of the committee was wrong on procedural grounds, even if well intentioned. Nevertheless, I thank the committee for its diligent work and desire to root its work in biblical exegesis and the historical practice of the Church. I also appreciate the pastoral tone of the report.
For the most part, I do not take exception to the committee’s exegetical work. I would, however, like to point out a few concerns. My first concern is with the sections dealing with women in the Old and New Testaments. With regards to the women in the Old Testament, the report draws certain conclusions that do not seem to be warranted by the text. For example, with regards to Huldah (2 Kg. 22:14-20) the report claims: “Huldah did not decree a course of action, but she proposed the course that king and nation followed” (Line 27, 28 page 2410) What evidence is there in the text that she proposed a course of action? Or as the report states with respect to women prophets: “However, they did serve as gifted leaders and teachers. Some had an exceptional ability to navigate situations wisely and train others to do the same. Huldah, Zipporah, Miriam, and Esther testify to the God-given talent and leadership ability of women in the Lord’s church” (Line 18-21 page 2410). Do the references to these women warrant such a broad-sweeping conclusion?
With respect to women prophesying in the New Testament, it would be helpful to note the distinction that John Owen made between the office of prophet and the gift of prophecy (Owen IV. 451, 452). The office of prophet, Eph. 2:20; 4:11, was an authoritative office in the church possessed only by men. It was only said of women that they prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). If a woman prophesied, she was a receptacle of God’s message and offered no comment. In 1 Cor. 14:29, Paul referred to the office of prophet. Hence, women would not be among those listed in verses 30-33. As to the prohibition in 1 Cor. 14:34, 35 for women to keep silent, the report says the prohibition applies only to preaching or passing judgment on prophecies (line 8 page 2416). The prohibition, however, seems much broader: “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the Law also says (see 1 Tim. 2:13, 14). If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” The word “improper is “shameful” or “disgraceful.” Asking husbands at home does not fit with passing judgment, nor would passing judgment by itself be shameful. Paul seems to prohibit any public speaking in worship apart from prophesying (in which the woman is only a receptacle for the Spirit) or unison speaking or singing. Paul’s reference to the law is unpacked in 1 Tim. 2:13, 14. Moreover, one should interpret 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 in light of Paul’s clear prohibition in Timothy. 2:11,12 for a woman “to remain quiet.”
I appreciate the report’s dealing with 1 Tim. 2:11-15. However, line 22,23 page 2418 is unguarded: “Paul sometimes lets women teach men. He permitted female prophets to speak in Corinth and listed female coworkers.” The first part is true, if one distinguishes informal teaching, like Priscilla and Aquila, but where does Paul allow a woman to teach a man in a formal setting? As to the second part, as is pointed out above, the New Testament does not refer to a woman as a prophet.
As to the grounds of Paul’s injunction, I would have liked to see the report deal with verse 14, where Paul gave as his second ground that the woman was deceived. There seems to be a direct correlation between Paul’s injunction and the woman being deceived. (I offer an interpretation of this in another recent article on this site). Moreover, there is a hint in verse 15, reinforced by verse 10, as well as Titus 2:3-5 and Mk. 15:41, that a woman’s primary role in the church is domestic, including teaching women and children, counseling women and children, serving, and assisting deacons.
The report does a very good job with 1 Tim. 3:11, although I wish they did not use the word deacon and women deacons in the narrative for the work of women. A reference to female deacons in the context of this report is not useful (line18 page 2427).
With respect to chapter four, encouraging a robust and gracious complementarian practice, I would have liked the committee to affirm that the wife’s calling is to be a helper corresponding to the need of her husband, with a robust endorsement of a married woman’s unique role in the home and thus her domestic role in the congregation (see 1Timothy 2:15).
Although approving a good portion of the exegesis, I have serious problems with several of the recommendations. I appreciate the pastoral tone of number 2, but it ignores the fact that there are some congregations in the PCA that are violating our standards: some churches are commissioning female deacons in a manner that is impossible to distinguish from ordination (reported on the floor of the 44th Assembly) and others are allowing women exhort in public worship. Moreover, in the blogosphere, some PCA women are pressing for ordination. It would be useful for the report to specifically and formally address and recommend that the Assembly prohibit these activities. In fact, a more thorough development of the arguments for male office bearers also would have been helpful.
Recommendation 3 goes against our historic commitment that we govern the church at presbytery and General Assembly levels by committees made up of ruling and teaching elders and not Boards or Agencies. I think the recommended overture is contrary to our founding principles. Surely women may and should serve on committees of the local church. Furthermore, they may serve as advisors for committees of Presbyteries and General Assembly. But there seems to be no warrant to place them in authoritative non-ordained positions at presbytery and General Assembly.
I concur with recommendations 4 and 6, although I find no biblical warrant for commissioning.
I think recommendation 5 is ill advised for two reasons: First, it does not consider the regulative principle of worship as to what should go into a worship service. Second, I think Scripture teaches that only ordained men and men being prepared for ministry are to have any leadership in worship (praying, reading scripture, administering the Lord’s Supper). I lay out the exegesis for this in my article mentioned above.
I am opposed to recommendation 7. The only grounds offered are the practice of the PCUSA in 1938. That denomination was well on the road to theological Liberalism at that time. Where is the Reformed historical and exegetical warrant for such a practice? In connection, I would never encourage a woman to get an M.Div. degree (line 20 page 2457). Moreover, with so many impoverished seminary students preparing for the ministry, it seems that the church’s priority ought to be to finance their training.
In recommendation 8, why single out women? The church should affirm all underprivileged members and use their gifts (James 2:1-7).
My desire to keep this response brief is not a reflection of my view as to its importance. Rather, I think – as I hope the content of my remarks make clear – that this is a crucial issue and worthy of discussion and clarification. I pray that these remarks contribute to further discussion of this important issue.
My suggestion is that the Assembly thank the committee for its work and send the report to the Presbyteries for study. The report establishes guidelines for in-depth discussion. If there are any substantive actions to be taken, they must come from the Presbyteries. Because, even if the report is adopted, it would have no binding significance. Moreover, if studied by the Presbyteries, Ruling Elders will be able to be involved in the discussion and any subsequent actions taken.