New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery meets – hears report on Women as Teaching Elders in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church

“Hard-liners need not apply. We are going to be a different kind of denomination than the hard-lines followed by the PCUSA and the PCA.”

More like a family reunion than a presbytery meeting, the commissioners to the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery of the EPC (NWTP) gathered on June 22 in the sanctuary at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church for its 6th stated meeting.

Editor’s Note: When the 27th General Assembly of the EPC authorized the creation of the NWEPC, it established a five year period in which former PCUSA churches could move into the NWEPC to recover from the ardors of their departure from other denominations, to formulate and put into practice the vision of the NWAC constitution, and to prepare to move into full membership in the EPC through the appropriate geographic presbytery. The five year period ends at the adjournment of the 32nd General Assembly, circa July 1, 2012.

Teaching elders Randy Jenkins, presbytery moderator; Andy Curtis, presbytery ministry network mission mobilize; and Ken Glaser, pastor of Orchard Christian Fellowship in Londonderry, N.H., led the worship service that convened the presbytery meeting.

Following the message culled from Psalm 78, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart, with skillful hands he led them,” prayers were offered from across the sanctuary.

Continuing in an attitude of worship, the presbytery convened with prayer, established a quorum, approved the docket, and then heard a report from the Committee on Women’s Ordination from Teaching Elder Gerrit Dawson of First Presbyterian Church, Baton Rouge, La., and Ruling Elder Trish Dietz of Bay Presbyterian Church, Bay Village, Ohio.

Dawson offered personal thoughts, “It is significant that we are meeting in this city. It was here nine years ago that Dean Weaver and a handful of others walked out of a meeting and across the hall to dream what we now know as the New Wineskins Initiative, then the New Wineskins Association of Churches. And it was here, in this city, that three years ago, the EPC GA took an exception step of hospitality and created space to incubate the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery. And so, we are here today.”

From the beginning of the relationship between the EPC and NWTP, there has been an open awareness of a diversity of understanding as it relates to women serving as teaching elders. As the body moves from the transitional phase into “becoming one,” congregations in the NWTP are making their way into EPC presbyteries.

That reality elevated the conversation at last year’s meeting of the EPC GA to the forefront, which resulted in the formation of the interim Committee on the Ordination of Women Teaching Elders.

Dawson and Dietz served on the committee from the NWTP. Dawson admitted, “It was testy from time to time.”

He then went into teaching mode, reminding commissioners that “In the EPC there are three fundamental rights: The right of the church to own its own property. The right of the church to elect its officers. And the right of a presbytery to determine its membership through examination of candidates for the office of Teaching Elder.”

It is rights two and three that are brought into conversation with one another and sometimes in seeming opposition when the ordination of women to the office of teaching elder is considered.

Dawson shared, “What we hoped for was a solution that would work both ways, without one side trampling the other.”

Dietz echoed, “There was great concern, great interest and great compassion for New Wineskins congregations who have or might in the future choose to call women as Teaching Elders. We witnessed a miracle when the Spirit brought us to a sweet spot where we could agree. The Lord sought us to be obedient and submissive to Him.”

They then shared the points of the proposal:

“A guiding principle of the EPC from its beginning has been our declared intent to allow liberty on the women’s ordination question. It is in that spirit that the interim committee has approached our responsibility. The committee members hold a diversity of views that reflect the ethos of our denomination. The challenging task assigned to us is to help facilitate the EPC’s continuing commitment to liberty on this question while working within our constitution as we move forward. The issue of women’s ordination, particularly as it applies to clergy, has been a test of our genuine commitment to the EPC motto: ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.’

“At the beginning, we must acknowledge the fundamental principles that inform the EPC’s liberty on women’s ordination. The Biblical Principle: The Holy Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. This authoritative Word is true in all that it teaches. The Ecclesiastical Principle: Women’s ordination is a non-essential issue about which faithful believers may have honest differences of Biblical interpretation and practice. One’s view of women’s ordination is not an essential element to the catholic faith, Evangelical Protestantism or the Reformed Tradition. The EPC has always affirmed that women’s ordination is a matter of Biblical interpretation, not Biblical authority.”

“The EPC is dedicated to Christian freedom within the bounds of Presbyterian polity on this subject, which has sharply divided Evangelicals and Presbyterians. The General Assembly in 1984 adopted a preliminary position paper on the ordination of women (approved as a position paper in 1986) that stated: “…while some churches may ordain women and some may decline to do so, neither position is essential to the existence of the church. Since people of good faith who equally love the Lord and hold to the infallibility of Scripture differ on this issue, and since uniformity of view and practice is not essential to the existence of the visible church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has chosen to leave this decision to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as Elders and Deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as Ministers.” This position complements the EPC constitution: “The particular church has the right to elect its own officers” (Book of Government 7-2). This right is guaranteed in perpetuity to all churches in the EPC. Similarly, the authority of presbyteries to determine their membership is granted in the constitution.”

Dawson then added, “Hard-liners need not apply. We are going to be a different kind of denomination than the hard-lines followed by the PCUSA and the PCA.”

“The solution that came to our committee, to several members all at once, born out of struggle and within 30 minutes of despair, when we started with ‘what if?’ What if a church desiring to call a woman as a teaching elder but was in a presbytery that does do so, what if that church and that presbytery could both be provided relief?,” Dawson said.

The proposal before the assembly provides that possibility.

Practical question: Does every particular woman have to go through a process to establish the position of the presbytery at that time or do presbyteries take on an official position in relationship to women as Teaching Elders? It was agreed that that spirit of the agreement is the latter. The places where the issue is most alive are the presbyteries of Mid-America, Central South and Florida.

Dawson continued to explain that those three presbyteries all recognize that this is likely to change by majority vote over time. Dietz then affirmed that regardless of conviction on this issue, there is an open mutual willingness to work alongside women in ministry.

A female candidate asked, “Do we anticipate that women Teaching Elders nominated to serve on committees would endure a recurrent fight?” Answers were offered out of recent experiences at the national level and from a positive experience in the Presbytery of the East regarding the reception of Teaching Elder Betsy Rumor. Dean Weaver testified to his experience of shared prayer in submission to the will of the presbytery.

The time concluded when Teaching Elder Bill Dudley recalled his experience of weeping at the EPC GA three years ago when the NWTP was created. “I do believe this opportunity has the potential to exceed that. The unanimity of this committee is miraculous.”

The 30th General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church convenes June 23 and one of the recommendations before the commissioners will be the report of the interim committee on ordination of women teaching elders. At that time, the proposal will be forwarded for a vote by the co-chairs of the committee, Teaching Elder Sandy Wilson and Teaching Elder Jim Dixon.