Christian Feminism? (XIV)
The Place and Roles of Women in the PCA
We’re continuing in our evaluation of Rev. Sam Downing’s paper entitled “The PCA and Gospel Ministry in an Urban, Egalitarian Environment: Toward a Theologically Accurate, Culturally Appropriate Apologetic.” In this particular installment I’m also going to include more comments from Dominic Aquila, who is a member of Rocky Mountain Presbytery where this discussion recently took place.
For those just picking up the discussion with this issue I should point out that RMP met on April 27, 2007 to assess the use of the term “minister” that Rev. Downing’s church (City Presbyterian) applied to Sara Bartley, whom City hired on in 2004, giving her the title “Minister of Church Life.”
Rev. Downing’s explanation of why City made this decision is filled, to my way of thinking, with “loaded” language. I’ll give a few examples of what I mean. In his opening sentence under the heading, “Female Staff at City Presbyterian,” Rev. Downing informs us that City made a “strategic” decision to hire female staff. Such a decision is distinguished, one would suppose, from a non-strategic decision. This is a kind of buzz word lingo. We no longer plan to plant churches in the PCA we have “strategic” planning meetings. In actuality they are no different from the older formats of the meetings we used to hold, but it just sounds a lot better; more cutting edge. In my own Presbytery we have had endless strategic planning meetings with little results.
I want you to understand that previously Rev. Downing has used the loaded language of giving women “meaningful opportunities,” which, once again, must be contrasted with the garden variety un-meaningful opportunities the rest of the PCA offers their women. Now juxtapose “meaningful opportunities” and “strategic decisions” to the more mundane “traditional assignments given to female staff within the PCA (such as administration, women’s & children’s ministry, etc.)” (Downing, 3). It sounds like most PCA churches just have their women sitting around parsing Latin verbs or something boring like that when they don’t have them mopping floors while they’re barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
A defense is given for hiring Sara Bartley is based partly on the fact that she was one of the first women to graduate from Covenant Theological Seminary, which is the official seminary of the PCA—as if that really matters—with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.). (Ibid.) Her duties as Minister of Church Life involve a number of tasks including mercy ministry and teaching. Let me pause there for a moment and make a couple of comments. Mercy ministry is a broad category. The Deacons in my home church function in accordance with BCO 9 and much of what they do is “mercy ministry,” while it is unquestionably biblical that every Christian should exercise mercy ministry. My problem here is the vague manner in which Rev. Downing’s description is left hanging in the air. For example, there are times when our Deacons visit members who are in financial need and agree to give them diaconal assistance. As often as not, these same Deacons will inquire about the family’s or person’s tithing and if they operate from a budget. We have had instances where the Deacons discovered erratic, compulsive spending habits and have had to speak with authority to those receiving help. Rev. Downing is unclear whether Sara Bartley engages in this type of mercy ministry. He does, however, include teaching in her list of duties, but qualifies it by saying that all the while she teaches she is not “directing.” (Ibid.) Huh? Is what she does non-directive teaching—whatever that is?
In his “observations” Dominic Aquila suggests that in RMP and other quarters in the PCA that “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 (at the RMP meeting—RG).” (Aquila, 1.) Accordingly, Aquila is convinced that such an approach to the title of “minister” results in “confusion of roles and functions.” (Ibid.) That is to say, “There is a lack of recognizing the distinctions between the special office gifts and the general office of believers.” (Ibid.)
This appears to be a truth that Rev. Downing and the other leaders at City Presbyterian are either unable or unwilling to explain to the congregation, which would be tantamount to teaching that congregation biblically rather than allowing the tail to wag the dog. Throughout Rev. Downing’s paper I was more than struck by his attempt to allow the cultural setting in liberal Denver to dictate what City did and did not do. He often speaks of doing what is “culturally appropriate in our context.” (Cf. pp. 3-4.) City occupies the position of being culturally relevant and aware and “not a narrow-minded, fundamentalist church.” To borrow from Tim Challies, City is putting the “fun” back in fundamentalist. He is even willing to go so far as to assert that “Sara’s position and role eliminated a significant barrier for her to the gospel.” (Ibid., 3.) This statement was made by citing a woman who was recently converted at City. One has to wonder what will happen to this woman if she ever learns the truth. She was good with everything in the gospel—definitive atonement, unconditional election, etc., but just couldn’t get her head around the “women’s issue.” Right. In Rev. Downing’s opinion, however, City has “effectively disarmed the women’s issue in our church.” (Ibid. Italics his.)
Really? That’s a strong statement especially at this stage of the game. It might be just a tad early to determine whether the “women’s issue” has been effectively disarmed at City or in the PCA in general. City’s actions might have delayed or postponed the evitable rather than disarmed it. In addition, the actions might have merely clouded the issue or, worse, exacerbated it. Within the realm of possible scenarios, City might have created a controversy that will rage within the PCA in the coming years. I’m not a prophet so I don’t know for certain. What I do know is that PCA churches are increasingly believing that it is their calling to use women more and more in the worship services and to bring them on board as “deaconesses,” albeit it unordained Deacons.
This is being pushed in two ways. First, some voices are clamoring today that the PCA is elevating the creeds to the same level as Scripture. Right. We have no clue what a rich heritage the Reformation gave us so we are blindly returning to a Roman Catholic view of Scripture and tradition. Aquila is spot on when he writes, “Pitting Scripture against the Standards may sound clever, but this line of thinking misunderstands the relationship of Scripture and Standards.” (Aquila, 3.) Both in his paper and in his sermon to the 35th General Assembly Aquila made the valid point that “The PCA is a confessional church, and as such its officers have agreed together that the Westminster Standards are a faithful or standard exposition of the Scriptures. A confession by definition includes and excludes by the system it has chosen to understand and interpret Scripture.” (Ibid.)
More and more we’re hearing voices of the need to re-write our confessional standards. It is argued that what was valid in the 17th century is outmoded, outdated. What we need is something fresh; something more culturally relevant. Aquila rejoinder—and I join him 100% in this—is the following: “If one believes that the Standards have not interpreted Scripture correctly, then he has the right to propose amendments and let the church through deliberative assembly determine the matter.” (Ibid.) That is the Presbyterian, church orderly way to do it, not to carp and to whine because you no longer like the contents of the Westminster Standards that you vowed to uphold.
Something similar is happening with the BCO as well. In my own Presbytery (South Coast) we recently dealt with a transfer that informed us that he had no intention of ordaining men Deacons and that he would be having women Deacons as well; both would possess an unordained status. His belief that the BCO 24 was incorrect in applying authority to both Elder and Deacon. It is by no means a stretch to conclude that the authority of the two offices is different, but to assert that the Deacon is completely void of any ecclesiastical authority seems to miss the point badly. If you don’t like the BCO then follow the procedure outlined by Aquila and make use of the Presbyterian process. I fear that a spirit of pragmatism is growing in the PCA where local congregations just “do their own thing” irrespective of what the Westminster Standards or BCO say.
Aquila hits on a key point in these discussions when he says, “There is a lack of trust of historical precedence or theological precision. While there is a general appreciation and commitment to Reformed theology, its language and concepts are perceived as being too narrow and restrictive” (Ibid.) Who hasn’t heard or been involved in such a discussion at the Presbytery level? Aquila continues—and this is a crucial point—, “It is interesting to observe, however, that those concerned about restrictive language have their own precision for issues that they believe are important to them.”(Ibid. Italics mine.) In essence, “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.” (Ibid.) Aquila has just hit the nail on the head with this observation; it goes to the heart of the issue. This accounts, at least in part, why two members of Mission to North America (MNA) in Atlanta refuse to call illegal aliens illegal aliens, but opt for the trendier “undocumented workers.”Next week, Lord willing, we’ll finish this part of our discussion surrounding Christian Feminism off before moving on to other aspects of the problem.