Christian Feminism? (XII)
I have had the privilege to serve God’s people in three different countries: Holland, Canada, and my native United States. Everyone of those churches have subscribed to confessional statements. In Holland and Canada we subscribed to the Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort); here in the States (and Canada as well) the Presbyterian Church in America holds to the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Larger Catechism, and Westminster Shorter Catechism).
In neither the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, nor the Canadian Reformed Church, nor the PCA have I ever witnessed the elevation of one of these confessional statements to the status of being on a par with Scripture. But I have heard people in the Christian Reformed Church, the UPUSA, and even some PCA members talk about the need to revise the Reformed confessions. As often as not, this type of thing occurs when there is a new theological wind blowing. For example, in 1967 a Neo-Orthodox, Barthian wind blew in the PCUSA (old name UPUSA) so a new confessional statement was formulated. Judging by the current condition of the PCUSA, it did not have a positive effect on living a godly life.
The Christian Reformed Church began seriously to question its spiritual heritage and the need to evangelize and to break out of the “Dutch ghetto.” The upshot was that there were rumblings about either getting a new confession that was “up to date” where women were able to take their rightful place in the congregation or jettisoning their traditional Three Forms of Unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort). The “rightful” place of women ended up being that women became Elders and Deacons, while men were able to abdicate their God-given roles of being the spiritual leaders in their homes and in the church. During the 1980s the CRC witnessed a number of congregations breaking off from the mainline denomination and forming “Orthodox” or “Independent” Christian Reformed Churches. The United Reformed Church is the outgrowth of the very untenable and unbiblical positions that arose—unchecked—in the CRC. The PCA has broken off all fraternal relations with the CRC as have other truly Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
Last year at the PCA General Assembly I spoke with a PCA minister who was “manning” a booth. It took next to no time before he suggested to me that the PCA very much needed either to revise/ revamp its Standards or to cobble together a new, different, and better set of Standards that more reflected contemporary scholarship and our contemporary situation and also some correctives that dispensed with offensive language. When I pressed my colleague on precisely what we needed to revise I got the standard reply that it was offensive to call the Pope the antichrist.
Another part of the usual fare in these types of conversations is that those who are Truly Reformed seem to elevate—in the case of the PCA—the confessions to the level of Scripture itself. While this is patently absurd, this type of accusation gets a hearing and has its proponents. In a recent email to me, last year’s Moderator of the PCA General Assembly, Dominic Aquila, made the following astute observations: First, he cites the PCA Book of Church Order 29-1, which clearly states, “The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice.” Aquila’s clear and reasonable point here is that “As a confessional church its members have agreed together to interpret Scripture within a certain framework.”
Second, Aquila draws our attention the equally clear teachings of the Westminster Standards as well as the BCO that Scripture is supreme. This means that Scripture is the absolute authority for the church. The result of “signing on the dotted line” for pastors is that “A confession by definition includes and excludes by the system it has chosen to understand and interpret Scripture.” For those who have changed their minds since taking their ordination vows, there is a way open, which is to make those changes known to their respective Presbyteries. Until such time, their colleagues should be able to operate on the premise that their fellow-pastors are holding to what they promised and vowed to uphold. Clearly, this has numerous implications and applications for those in the so-called Federal Vision who disdain and deny the Covenant of Works taught in the Westminster Standards.
Third, Aquila is spot on when he observes that in the PCA “While there is a general appreciation and commitment to Reformed theology, its language and concepts are perceived as being too narrow and restrictive.” Insightfully he adds, “It is interesting to observe, however, that those concerned about restrictive language have heir own precision for issues that they believe are important to them. That which is called old is dismissed as ‘tradition,’ which allows for this tradition to be set aside for supposedly more modern language and constructs.”
I have prefaced my comments with these words from Aquila precisely because he was part of a discussion in Rocky Mountain Presbytery in April of this year that discussed the contents of Rev. Sam Downing’s (PCA, Denver, CO) paper entitled “The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment: Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic,” which we began to examine in our last issue. In this installment I want to delve more deeply into Rev. Downing’s section called “City Presbyterian Church: A Case Study.”
The Challenge Before Us
Rev. Downing informs us that the Denver PCA church plant, like Johnson & Johnson started from “scratch.” The intention was to reach the socially and politically liberal culture of downtown Denver without compromising Reformed theology and Presbyterian (PCA) polity (p. 2). An additional difficulty facing the plant was that Denver is hostile to “conservative” religion since it is close to Colorado Spring that is the stomping grounds for “Religious Right” organizations and ministries such as Focus on the Family. In a parenthetical remark Rev. Downing points out the following: “A bumper sticker once popular around Denver read “Focus on your own damn family!” (Ibid.)
In addition to being politically and socially liberal, apparently the good folks in Denver can’t think very well either. The organization of Dr. Dobson focuses on the family and not anyone person’s in particular. It seems that like most liberals, the people in Denver are very thin-skinned and their disdain for the “Religious Right—whatever and wherever that is. I still haven’t been able to locate the headquarters—blurs their vision so that they can’t read well either. But in short, the main problem was that Denver was a polarized environment and generated an extraordinary amount of skepticism and cynicism toward any church that would adhere to orthodox, theologically conservative Christianity. (Ibid.)
As I read Rev. Downing’s paper I began to see his dilemma. Where I live in Southern California is nothing like Denver. Why, SoCal is known for its conservative politics, which is why Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein are our Senators. We are also in possession of such political stalwarts are Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, and a host of other Hollywood elitists not to mention our theologically conservative Robert Schuler and Rick Warren.
What more than disturbs me from Rev. Downing, however, is the following: “In other words, the demographic of downtown Denver is not at all conducive to planting a typical PCA church.” (Ibid. Italics mine). What’s that supposed to mean? What constitutes a “typical” PCA church or church plant? As I read that I felt as if I were being set up for an apologetic for why Denver has a woman on staff with the title “minister.” I believe I was correct. According to Rev. Downing, the challenge that faced City Presbyterian “was how to reach out to a culture that would be inherently hostile toward its policy of not ordaining women as church officers.” (Ibid.)
It would be easy to head down at rabbit trail with the preceding quotation. The discussions in the PCA about the place of women are important, but I’m coming to believe more and more that they are limited to certain age groups, certain seminaries, certain church plant “models,” and sometimes are limited to a small percentage of PCA congregations. Again, if I am off base, I would very much like for someone to write to me and let me know. I have asked at least twice for some concrete examples of what all the kerfuffle vis-à-vis the place of women in PCA churches is all about and I have yet to receive one reply. The rabbit trail here is twofold: the so-called “women’s” issue and the “engaging the culture” issue.
My response to Rev. Downing’s perceived challenge was: That’s it? Your challenge was how to reach out to a culture that’s inherently hostile to the non-ordination of women? You’re kidding, right? How about the challenge of reaching out to a culture in the United States that is inherently and explicitly hostile to God and the resurrection? Stated as it is, Rev. Downing gives the impression that if he could just get this Religious Right view of women off the table the gospel might be more palatable to the raw, pagan, cultured despisers of Christianity in Denver. With the women’s issue out of the way, they could experience their Rocky Mountain high.
Like the (perceived) misuse and abuse of women issue in the PCA, the “engaging” the culture motif seems more like talk than anything else. In the times I’ve spoken with colleagues who were hot to trot about engaging the culture the matters tended to resolve themselves around pretty simple, “been done before” solutions. For seminary students, I would say that until you’ve tried it for ten years, don’t come around advising me how it should be done.
The impasse for Rev. Downing was reached, however, when a proper distinction was made between the PCA’s theology and our church culture. (Ibid.) Again, if you read carefully, there is a shift in Rev. Downing’s meaning from PCA to the local situation in Denver. When he writes about “our theology” he is referring to the PCA; when he mentions “our church culture” he’s talking about Denver. In principle, that’s not a problem because each local congregation somewhat bears the stamp of the local culture, but that is not always the case and it is not always desirable. If the surrounding culture is loopy and goofy, it would not be prudent for a PCA church to emulate the culture since there are already enough liberal churches prepared to do that very thing and that are in fact accommodating our (immoral) culture.
At any rate, the upshot of Rev. Downing’s challenge has been the founding of a congregation that is very atypical of the PCA. What is that exactly? In City Presbyterian Church’s case study it means this: “roughly evenly split between political liberals and conservatives with a significant number of conversions, particularly among those who come from either a ‘liberal’ church background or no church background at all.” (Ibid.) In one sense, this is to be applauded. Real conversions in any church are welcomed. I am a little concerned about the content of the phrase “political liberals” however. Does Rev. Downing mean that there are a number of members in his church who are pro-choice? Pro-homosexual? Modern political liberals are all over the map, but a number of the planks in their political platform are in glaring contradiction to biblical truth.
Rev. Downing throws us a curve ball when he says that “a majority of your members would likely consider themselves egalitarian in their views of women in church leadership!” (Ibid. Italics mine.) Of course, in terms of males and females being equal in terms of their creation in the image of God and of their participation in salvation, we’re all egalitarians. I am not aware of males in the PCA treating females as inferior beings. They are simply making a distinction between ontological equality and economical and/or functional ones. Given the recent discussion in Rocky Mountain Presbytery, Aquila makes the following observation: “There is an ecclesiastical egalitarian spirit prevalent (as opposed to a gender egalitarianism, referring to the equality between men and women). This spirit is the notion that every believer must be on an equal footing. There is a certain emotional appeal, as opposed to a rational one, that no one in the church should be over anyone else, or appear more important than anyone else. This is an anti-clerical spirit, a word that was even used a number of times in the course of the debate.” (Aquila, p. 1.)
Rev. Downing contends that every member joining City must attend a six hour introduction at which time the PCA’s polity and stance on women’s ordination is explained. (Downing, 2.) Clearly, not all of the six hours is spent on this topic—at least I hope not—since if people are coming out of non-Christian or liberal Christian backgrounds time could be much better spent on more fundamental issues and doctrines in the church. Downing is adamant that there is no “bait and switch” in the process and that everyone who joins City knows where the church stands on the issue. (Ibid.) That being the case, one can only wonder why it is that Rocky Mountain Presbytery had this debate.
Rev. Downing offers some explanation. City has been careful to structure its church life in a particular fashion. What might that be? “First, we are careful to treat women as equals within the church, rather than merely assent to their equality.” (Ibid.) Well, that’s a relief! This truly is an atypical PCA congregation! It sounds as if most of us must be doing a pretty reprehensible job with the women in our congregation. Fortunately, for those of us who are still Neo-Neanderthals there is hope on the horizon if we will only pay close attention. In reality, I take both offense and exception to such an ill-advised suggestion. I happen to know quite a few PCA pastors and congregations and I have yet to encounter one that failed to treat women as equals within the church. They might not have worked that treatment out precisely in the manner that City has, but that hardly disqualifies them. Moreover, Rev. Downing has yet to demonstrate in a biblical fashion that City’s cultural treatment of women is in keeping with Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the BCO. In that sense, Rev. Downing would have been wiser to have withheld his premature judgment of his colleagues and their congregations.
Since he emphasized the word “treat” there must be more to this. My assumption is that many PCA churches in Rev. Downing’s opinion only give lip service to treating women as equals whereas City really does. His further explanation is that women at City “are allowed to use their gifts in a number of ways, all of which are both biblical and permissible according to the PCA BCO, such as: reading scripture, offering prayers, assisting with ushering during worship service, helping teach adult Sunday School, leading Community Groups (small groups that meet during the week), serving on the Finance Team (which oversees the church budget), and assisting the pastoral staff in ministering to women in the congregation. In other words, unless a woman were to feel strongly called by God to be ordained as an elder (and the vast majority do not) she will not be denied a meaningful opportunity to use her gifts in the life of our church.” (Ibid., 2-3. Emphases mine.)
In a footnote (no. 4), Rev. Downing contends that “Allowing women to assist in public worship is a commonly accepted practice throughout the PCA.” Really? No, I’m asking that seriously. Is this a commonly accepted practice or is Rev. Downing pulling his statistics out of the proverbial place? This is a serious matter if he is correct. For this is certainly not the way that the PCA came into existence. When did the transition take place? Who was responsible for it? Which GA approved it? Why isn’t this common knowledge in the PCA? From my contacts and experience I realize that more and more PCA churches are allowing it, but I was unaware that it is a commonly accepted practice. If this is the case, I’m quite possibly in the wrong denomination.
Lord willing, I intend to come back to this statement in the next installment and ask whether Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the BCO do, in fact, allow all that Rev. Downing has described. For my part, I’m convinced that they do not, but that must be substantiated. But for the time being I do want to make some quick, general comments on Rev. Downing’s closing remark: “As a result of this we have seen a number of men and women with strong egalitarian convictions join our church, some of whom were also converted to Christ within City Presbyterian. Though they strongly disagree (Emphasis mine) with the PCA’s stance on women’s ordination they have chosen to make City Presbyterian their church home because the culture of our church affirms their God-given spiritual gifts.” Ibid., 3.)
My initial response is: of course they strongly disagree because they have either come from a liberal church that has taught them little or nothing from Scripture or they were recently converted, which means that they knew nothing of substance about Christianity and their views on egalitarianism were taken from culture. I would hope that part of City’s goal would be to take these untaught liberals and biblically ignorant recent converts and equip them scripturally along the line of Ephesians 4:11ff. It would seem prudent and the pastoral thing to do to bring them to understand why the PCA has the stance that it does on women’s ordination. The pastor and Elders could spend time instructing both the old as well as the new members on the history of the struggle with the PCUSA and PCUS on this issue. They could show the members how many—if not all—of those battles about women’s ordination at the inception of the PCA are identical to our perceived “new information” now.
 Some believed that the language in Q/A 80 about the papal mass being nothing more than an accursed idolatry was far too harsh and needed to be softened and brought in line with a more tolerant spirit.
 I suppose if I were to be politically correct I would say that he was “peopling” or “personing” the booth rather than manning it.
 What else would you want to be in a Presbyterian or Reformed Church?
 I have received permission from Dominic to cite his assessments and observations of the Rocky Mountain Presbytery decision on the use of the title “minister” applied to a woman, debated on April 27, 2007.
 P. 2. Emphasis his.
 Ibid. Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 1:10 that declares that “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined.” Clear. In addition, the Preface to the BCO informs us that the Constitution of the PCA is “subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God,” while, in accordance w the Westminster Confession of Faith (31:3), believes that the Constitution of the PCA itself is fallible.
 Ibid., 3.