Christian Feminism? (XVI)
Power and Decision-Making
John Smed from Grace Vancouver has written a paper that is disturbing for a number of reasons. Rev. Smed is (unofficially) the network leader for PCA church planting in Canada. Formerly, Rev. Smed was with the PCA’s Mission to North America in Atlanta. He entitled his paper “The Genius and Joy of Lay Leadership.” If I thought Rev. Sam Downing’s paper pointed in the wrong direction with City Presbyterian’s hiring of a woman with the title of Minister of Congregational Care, I believe Rev. Smed’s paper is even worse and more far-reaching—but predictable. More and more we’re hearing about using women in the local congregations and a number of PCA churches have women performing all kinds of tasks during the worship service as well as serving as Deacons, some simply want to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to it hoping it will all go away. I don’t and it won’t.
In addition to resurrecting some of the worn-out texts that actually don’t address the issue and never have and giving us some examples that are, quite frankly, baffling, there seems to be a hidden agenda or underlying current throughout Rev. Smed’s paper. In short, what Rev. Smed doesn’t explain is often more disconcerting that what he attempts to explain.
Before I begin to walk you through this paper let me make a qualifying and clarifying remark or two. First, I can imagine that some might dismiss what I have written up to this point as nothing more or less than extrapolated “slippery slope” or “domino-effect” arguments. Let me take just a few moments, therefore, and explain why that is not the case. In my life I have served congregations in three different countries: Holland, Canada, and my native United States. As a member of the Reformed Church (art. 31) in Holland I watched as the older Reformed Church that Bavinck and Kuyper helped unify in 1892 went the way of all flesh. Whether you want to call it a slippery slope or a domino effect, there was a clearly defined, easily discernible progression—or better, regression.
It all started when members of that Reformed church became embarrassed about their Three Forms of Unity and viewed them as more of a liability than they did an asset. They were, in a word, stuffy, stodgy, man-made documents that placed more impediments in the way of Christianity’s “cultured despiser” than they did good. My study time in Holland was at the height of the feminist movement worldwide and a number of feminist notions had infiltrated the old Reformed Church. In addition, men refused to accept their God-ordained task of leading. Very gradually; quietly a movement began to have women serve as Deacons. A number of seemingly plausible arguments were put forward to have women serve—many of which are still being repeated today and even more upsetting being presented by Rev. Smed in his paper—and there were all kinds of qualifications to the effect that there would not come a time when the “boundary” of women as Deacons would be violated. The promise was made: it would be Deacons only and no farther. Voices of protest were raised, but ultimately they were stifled. After all, these were the voices of traditionalism; they didn’t really understand like the new enlightened spiritual intelligentsia did. Times had changed, the culture had changed, and the Reformed Church needed to become substantially more contemporary, hip, with it.
Two years later, the Reformed Church was debating the question of women Elders at its Synod. Within the shortest time, women serving as Elders was a “done deal.” From there it was only a small step to women serving as pastors. At each step there was a high degree of predictability. Each time the dictum was pronounced: This far and no farther! When I finally left Holland in the early 1980s they were in the throes of discussions about ordaining practicing homosexuals—most congregations permitted practicing homosexuals to the Lord’s Supper. This process; these steps can, I believe, be termed a slippery slope that anyone should have seen coming. Possibly they did, but just didn’t want to be bothered. Now they are more than bothered because the Reformed Church in Holland has long since gone the way of all flesh.
When I moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1984 I was a pastor in the Canadian Reformed Church. I also knew several Christian Reformed Church colleagues. It wasn’t long before the “women’s issue” raised its head in the CRC, but the CRC had already cut itself off at the knees in the 1970s when it tacitly denied the full authority and inspiration of Scripture. Things were set in motion and there was no turning back. The point here is this: What occurred in Holland recurred in the CRC in a parallel fashion that was quite eerie. In retrospect, there was an almost one-to-one correspondence between how the matters developed in Holland and how the CRC followed suit.
Many of these ecclesiastical happenings suffered from the law of unintended consequences; nobody expected them to end up where they did. One of the key issues involved, you guessed it, “women in office.” Things turned out badly in the CRC; so badly that the PCA severed its ecclesiastical connection with that denomination. When I spoke to my colleagues in the CRC about what I had just witnessed in Holland they smiled knowingly, patronizingly and accused me of the slippery slope argument. Homosexual ordination is next in line. In addition, it was fascinating to me that when I talked with some of my CRC colleagues early on they were very concerned about the disturbing issues in their denomination. Just before I left Canada in 1994 I conversed with a number of them that had stayed in the CRC polishing as it were the brass on the Titanic about the staggering spiritual problems and their reply was, “What problems?” Spiritual Novocain. They were numb and impervious to what was occurring.
What was the experience in the PCUSA except the same old thing? So what I’m saying is that there is perhaps an illegitimate use of the slippery slope/domino effect theory, but there is also a reasoned, historical version of it as well. To paint every argument that seems like a slippery slope argument with the same brush isn’t wise.
Second, it is being argued that that’s not what the PCA is all about and those who are just opening the door for women Deacons (deaconesses) and more female participation in worship have no intention of ending up with women Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. Perhaps, but in any case this approach sounds like Hillary Clinton’s health care program with an ecclesiastical sauce poured over it. You’ll always be able to find some who believe that as bad as socialized medicine is—and take it from someone who has lived in two countries that had it, it is bad—we can make it work here. That was Hillary’s approach. Sure, it’s been a dismal failure in Europe and in spite of Michael Moore and the Hollywood elite who think it’s great in Cuba, the idea is that we can make it work here. The Canadian, Bill Gairdner, describes Canada’s ailing, failing health care system this way: “regular cost overruns, long line-ups for surgery, experts leaving the country, patients dying as they wait for service, lack of equipment, wage clashes between professional staff and hospitals, fee-schedule battles between physicians and the government, Charter challenges…it goes on and on. I believe it. One of my congregational members was found dead behind his chair one morning. He had waited eight long years for a heart transplant and finally died.
And like it or not, this is where some in the PCA want to take us with their “suggestions” on how we can do things better and involve our women more. Please don’t get me wrong: wherever Scripture clearly permits the use of the gifts of women and men, I’m all for using them. But to this point, neither Rev. Downing nor Rev. Smed have made a convincing case for what they envision as biblically permissible and allowable according to the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order. That is precisely what we will be investigating, then, for the next while as we wade through Rev. Smed’s suggestions and his exegesis of the pertinent texts—which, is meager. In fact, I came away from reading Rev. Smed’s paper with the idea that 95% or more of his objections could have been eradicated if he had simply read Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood or Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism or Kassian’s The Feminist Gospel, which he might very well have done.
The Opening Salvo: A Personal Conversation
Rev. Smed’s paper begins by presenting us with an italicized narrative that describes a conversation he had with a young woman. His home church, Grace Vancouver,—not Grace Presbyterian Vancouver—had been meeting for about five years when this encounter occurred. The young woman walked into Rev. Smed’s office—not study—one Sunday after church and said, “I love the atmosphere of this church and all that is going on here. You seem to be doing a lot of good things in the community. The service was really encouraging” (p. 1).
Then the woman wanted to know about women leading in Rev. Smed’s congregation. “Can they be pastors?” she asked and continued, “You must get this question a lot.” Rev. Smed informs us that this was actually the first time in five years that he had heard such a question. She retorted by asking him why he thought the question of women’s ordination had not come up at Grace Vancouver. “Are people not free to ask?” she wanted to know. Rev. Smed’s answer was: “In a church where men and women are free to lead and participate in every aspect of ministry, the issue of ordination and church office does not seem to be hugely important.” We’ll leave the words, “free to lead and participate in every aspect of ministry” for later and simply move on for now.
The young woman informed Rev. Smed that she was following an ordination-track in seminary so that she could become an ordained pastor in her denomination—which remains anonymous in the article, but given that he’s in Canada, it could be the Anglican Church. Even though we never are told which denomination this actually is—which would have been helpful—Rev. Smed “had first hand experience with these churches.” (Ibid.) Well, that’s fine and I don’t really have to know which denomination it is, but what I found discomforting was Rev. Smed’s response to the woman’s statement. “I suggested that there might be important reasons for a woman to seek ordination in her church. ‘You are part of a clergy and elder dominated church. In a number of your churches very little significant ministry or leadership takes place outside the ranks of clergy and elders.’” (Ibid.)
Whoa! If Rev. Smed is convinced biblically that women’s ordination is forbidden—and we must assume that he is because he’s PCA—then why on earth would he make an exception for her particular denomination? If it’s biblically prohibited, it’s prohibited across the board, universally—period. Are we now going to make exceptions depending on the denomination? One gets the impression that according to Rev. Smed’s interpretive methodology women’s ordination might be a “no-no” in his denomination, but if you are ever a part of a clergy and elder dominated church then it’s okay. Besides, who decides when a denomination has reached the outer limits of being a clergy and elder dominated church? Is this hermeneutics on a sliding scale or worse yet a double standard?
Who decides what constitutes “significant ministry” or “significant leadership” in other churches? Does “significant” mean “the way I’d do it”? But there is more: “It is not only women, but non-ordained men who are left out of key leadership roles and responsibilities. Holding office is where all the action is. Everyone else is expected to be a spectator—waiting for ministry initiatives and decrees to come from on high. The elders become the narrow part of the funnel, blocking the leadership and giftedness of God’s people. I think I would feel the very same as you if I were a layperson in your tradition.” (Ibid.) Quite honestly, I find it hard to believe that statements like this would come from a PCA pastor. Please allow me to address why I’m saying this.
First, any pastor and Elders know that some non-ordained men are left out of key leadership roles and responsibilities for any number of reasons. Some may be brand new Christians, others might be struggling with various doctrines, still others might be derelict in their tithing to the congregation, and yet others might be under “silent censure” by the Session because of a particular egregious sin. At best, Rev. Smed’s statement was unguarded and un-nuanced.
Second, as a pastor I have rarely, if ever, thought of being an office bearer as “where the action is.” Other thoughts come to mind but “where the action is” isn’t one of them. I believe that the office entails enormous responsibilities and the spiritual requirements often, quite frankly, terrify me. Holding office often means spending hour upon hour trying to help a married couple keep their marriage from unraveling, going to hospitals and nursing homes to bring the gospel, conducting funerals, and a host of other “action” items. I’m not arguing that a man or woman in the congregation cannot visit someone in the hospital or in a nursing home. In fact, I think that’s a good idea. My problem is the manner in which Rev. Smed distorts the nature of the office by describing it as “where the action is.” I know with my own Session we spend a good deal of time attempting to shepherd God’s flock, in prayer for them, and striving to be biblical office bearers. I’m convinced that no one on the Session at Grace Presbyterian Church thinks of what he does as “where the action is.”
Third, I believe it is incorrect to suggest that PCA churches expect everyone who is not holding office to be a spectator. At least the churches I’m aware of are rather constantly encouraging others to be an active member of the church. In Lord’s Day 21 (Q/A 54) of the Heidelberg Catechism, the question reads: What do you believe concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ? Here’s the answer: I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life. And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it. (Emphasis mine.) Christians are called to be living and active members of the Church of Christ. This, too, is a misrepresentation on Rev. Smed’s part of how churches in general function.
Fourth, I’m unclear about what Rev. Smed means with “ministry initiatives.” If, for example, he means that a member of the congregation would want to begin a ministry to the physically and mentally handicapped I dare say not many Sessions would say No to that, unless the “ministry initiative” involved some really “squirrelly” or “off the wall” proposals. But what if the “ministry initiative” is to begin a “Christian Yoga” or “Christian Tai-Chi” class? That would be a different scenario. Other Sessions might object to the “ministry initiative” to install a Starbucks in the pastor’s study or the foyer of the church. The idea being floated—almost surreptitiously—by Rev. Smed is that the Session and the congregation are in a power struggle. This seems to me to hearken back to what Dominic Aquila was lamenting in an article he wrote. He correctly states that there is a mindset in certain sectors of the PCA that he describes as “an ecclesiastical egalitarian spirit.” He also asserts that “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.”
I say this because Rev. Smed chose to use the “spectator-motif” to illustrate the plight of those who are not where the action is. They are forced to wait for “decrees to come from on high.” (Ibid.) Again, I am both shocked and saddened that a PCA pastor would depict the church polity that he has given his word to support in such a fashion. Decrees from on high? Please! Is this what Rev. Smed believes PCA Sessions do? This juxtaposition of Elders and “serfs” is further portrayed this way: “The elders become the narrow part of the funnel, blocking leadership and giftedness of God’s people.” (Ibid.) Yep. That’s precisely why God placed Elders in both the Old as well as in the New Testament. There simply weren’t enough funnels blocking leadership and giftedness so God decided to erect a few more and call them Elders. Being a funnel, blocking leadership and the giftedness of God’s people, is where the action is; that and stopping, putting the kibosh on the elderly women in your congregation who want to exercise their ministry initiative by making a Muslim, Anglican, Tibetan, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian diversity quilt, make goat cheese by candlelight, or turn the nursery into a yak breeding farm in order to arrest global warming and decrease our carbon footprint.
What exactly does Rev. Smed mean that the Elders become the narrow part of the funnel—not a very flattering description that—blocking the leadership and giftedness of God’s people? How is giftedness determined? Who determines it? What if brother A is convinced that he possesses the giftedness to teach? Is that sufficient? Are there no criteria by which it can be ascertained if he actually is a competent teacher? I would add that in my own congregation if the man in question were not thoroughly Presbyterian—irrespective of giftedness—he would not be allowed to teach and that would be a Session decision. Rev. Smed’s sentence is so terribly vague that it is very unhelpful. At the same time, I would comment that this is precisely the problem I’ve run into with Rev. Downing and now Rev. Smed: unexplained generalities that just kind of hang in the air presupposing that everyone will both know and agree with what is being proposed.
Rev. Smed also explained to the young woman that “liberating the laity…is the preeminent value of effective church leadership.” (Ibid.) This story just doesn’t hang in the air, but rather is support for the thesis of his paper. (Ibid.) In our next issue we shall delve more deeply into what precisely Rev. Smed envisions for his church model. As a kind of “teaser” his concept looks like this: “In contrast to clergy and elder-centered leadership—where both ministry and leader decision are concentrated within and carried out by the formally ordained leaders of a church, the Biblical approach to effective leadership and a healthy church is for elders and deacons to multiply and deploy lay leadership. Liberating the laity is the genius and the joy of New Testament leadership.” (Ibid. Emphases his.) He’s convinced that what is needed is a “happy partnership of elders and lay leaders who work alongside each other in concert and fellowship is the key to building up the church and reaching the community for Christ.” (Ibid., 1-2.)
 I attempted to contact Rev. Smed by phone—as I did Rev. Downing previously—but he is on sabbatical until August 15th. In the case of Rev. Downing, I was connected to his voice mail and left a message explaining that I was planning to write about his article and that I would appreciate it if he could get back to me and discuss what I was going to write. To date, there has been no reply.
 Bill Gairdner, The Trouble with Canada, (Toronto: Stoddard, 1990), p. 299.
 John Piper & Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991).
 Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006).
 Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel, The Movement to Unite Feminism With the Church, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992).
 Aquila, 1.
 Ibid. Italics mine. The debate to which he refers took place at the April stated meeting of Rocky Mountain Presbytery.
Labels: Christian Feminism