Evangelical Presbyterian Church clears way for women to serve as pastors

The 30th General Assembly of the EPC has affirmed the denomination’s historic position on the “non-essential” nature of women as teaching elders and crafted a polity solution that provides for freedom of conscience.

The General Assembly met June 23-26 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colo.

Jim Dixon, senior pastor of Cherry Hills Community Church in Highland Ranch, Colo., and co-chair of the Interim Committee on Women Teaching Elders, sought in his introduction of the proposal to establish a historical framework for the conversation.

“I remember fondly the work of our birth, the crafting of our essentials. I remember our ethos and many of us had come out of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church (USA)) where ordination of women as teaching elders was mandated with quotas of women required on sessions. We were also aware of the stance of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) and we found ourselves somewhere in the middle. Our motto, ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity,’ matched up with our hearts.”

Dixon continued, “We had egalitarians (those favoring women as pastors) among us and we had complementarians (those not favoring women as pastors) among us, and we still do. Both view men and women as created in the image of God, but gifted and called differently. Both believe in the authority and infallibility of Scripture. Both seek to do faithful exegesis, and yet arrive at equally faithful albeit different interpretations. We all seek to serve Christ together in the EPC so we regard this as a matter of freedom.”

Dixon outlined the two goals of the committee: first, to provide relief for egalitarian congregations in dominantly complementarian presbyteries, and second, to provide immediate relief to the presbytery of Mid-America.

Dixon then read a message from his committee co-chair Sandy Willson, Pastor of Second Presbyterian in Memphis, Tennessee addressing some of the questions most frequently asked of him regarding the committee’s recommendations. Among them were:

· Why do we not also allow complementarian churches to leave dominantly egalitarian presbyteries? Answer: We are not trying to create uniformity of opinion in our presbyteries, but rather freedom of practice. It is only egalitarian churches in complementarian presbyteries whose practice is currently inhibited.

· Doesn’t our recommendation threaten to divide the EPC family? Answer: We think it actually unifies the EPC family.

· Aren’t the consciences of complementarian pastors and churches serving in egalitarian presbyteries potentially threatened?
Answer: No. We believe that every teaching elder and every church session that has joined the EPC has already agreed that we will happily serve together with women in the church courts, even though we may choose to speak or vote against their ordination. If it is a violation of one’s conscience to serve with women (whom others constitutionally elected and ordained), that person should not join the EPC.

Dixon then presented the committee’s recommendations to the commissioners, which were all discussed and approved by the assembly.

The first amendment reaffirms the historic EPC position and makes explicit what is implicit in the Book of Government adding an excerpt from the “EPC Position Paper on the Ordination of Women” to the constitution. If the action of the GA is ratified by a majority of EPC presbyteries and by the 31st GA, the amended language of Book of Government 2-2 will read:

“The officers of the Church as set forth in Scripture are: Teaching elders (designated by many titles in Scripture, including ministers and pastors), ruling elders and deacons. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church believes that the issue of the ordination of women is not an essential of the faith. 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 teaching elders.”

The rationale is that from the beginning, one hallmark of the EPC has been that it does not consider the ordination of women to be an essential of the faith. What is essential is the freedom of congregations to elect their own officers, guaranteed in Book of Government 7-2: “The particular church has the right to elect its own officers.” This right is balanced in EPC polity with the authority of the presbytery to concur with the call of teaching elders.

“The Position Paper on the Ordination of Women” has served as a de facto part of the constitution in EPC practice since it was adopted in 1986. The GA’s action seeks to concretize the position. It was noted that this action parallels the EPC’s history in relationship to the essentials of the faith. Language from the committee’s rationale:

“For many years the ‘Essentials of Our Faith’ served as a de facto part of the constitution in EPC practice while not formally being a part of the church constitution. The EPC eventually decided to add ‘Essentials’ to the constitution and make explicit what had in fact been EPC practice for many years. Likewise, we believe it would be a logical step to include the proposed excerpt from the ‘Position Paper on the Ordination of Women’ in the constitution to make explicit what is already EPC practice.”

The remaining recommendations address how the denomination will live within the reality that some of its presbyteries are majority egalitarian and some majority complementarian and that a tension exists between the right of congregations to call their own officers and the right of presbyteries to determine their own membership.

The recommendations of the committee were all adopted by the GA and will now descend to the presbyteries of the EPC for ratification. If a majority of presbyteries vote to affirm the GA’s action it will be submitted to the 31st GA, whose approval would place it in the constitution.

The questions, comments and debate were held with what can only be described as affectionate decorum. Minor amendments were offered and approved, particularly in relationship to the redefinition of a presbytery as a governing reality that was not necessarily geographic.

One commissioner stated that “the devil is in the details. Changing the definition of presbytery is for me an essential issue. We are changing our definition from geography to affinity that will invariably lead to issues that we will come to rue.”

Another offered, “I want to compliment the committee and support them. I am a complementarian (laughter). I don’t think that being Presbyterian is dependent upon geography, but on the binding of conscience. We accept people with different conscience on this issue. We do that purposely and we are now seeking to do that with integrity. We need a means of offering relief and I compliment the committee on their efforts.”

A third commissioner spoke, saying, “The differences in this room are miniscule. Praise God. We love each other and we’re free to disagree. As on this issue I’m 95 percent certain that my view is right. But there’s a 5 percent chance that I’m 100 percent wrong. I feel the work of the committee allows me to vote my conscience while still allowing for the possibility that I might be wrong. I want to express my support.”

The conversation continued with a commissioner rising in opposition. “I am also a complementarian. It seems like this is a one-way street. An egalitarian church can move but a complementarian church cannot. The hermeneutical principle is the essential for the complementarian. The gender role is the non-essential. So, why is there not parity? Right now, complementarian congregations in egalitarian presbyteries are already free in terms of practice. The same is not true for egalitarian congregations in complementarian presbyteries. The recommendations are designed to allow for freedom of practice for everyone.”

The committee co-chair addressed the concern by observing that “if your conscience is such that you don’t want a woman ordained in any presbytery, you have joined the wrong denomination.”

The conversation continued. All concerns were heard. Votes were taken. All the recommendations were approved and a special committee was formed to assist those presbyteries where immediate relief is deemed necessary. Grace prevailed.

Source: http://www.layman.org/News.aspx?article=27186 [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]