Reservations about PCA Overture 13: Women and the Boards of the PCA

Overture 13 proposes significant actions that will undo features of the PCA’s polity which its founders explicitly rejected from the polity of the church the PCA left.

Overture 13 has not presented convincing reasons for the General Assembly to approve the proposed changes. And it should be noted, that adopting the proposed changes will have the effect of upsetting the healthy balance of church governance adopted by the PCA. I urge the ordained office bearers who will serve as Commissioners to the 46th PCA General Assembly to vote to answer Overture 13 in the negative.

 

In response to the Presbyterian Church in America’s 45th (2017) General Assembly’s adoption of recommendation 3 of the Report of the Ad  Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church,[i] Nashville Presbytery has sent up an overture to be considered this year which brings the PCA to a watershed moment.

Recommendation 3 called for “sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly to strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.”

Overture 13 calls for the implementation of that recommendation by proposing amendments to the BCO and the PCA Corporate Bylaws that would allow for one third of the membership of the Boards of all five agencies of the PCA to be comprised of non-ordained men and women.

The changes which Overture 13 propose to our polity need to be seen in historical light, in order to descry the momentous shift they would represent in the PCA.  In Morton Smith’s book, How the Gold Has Become Dim!, Published by the Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church in 1973, Smith catalogues features of the government of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) at the founding of the PCA that represented departures from the historic position on church government.  One such feature is the establishment of what were termed “youth delegates” in 1970.  Smith describes the function of these delegates as well as his objection to them as follows:

“Such delegates have the right of debate and vote in the Standing Committees of the Assembly, and they have the privilege of the floor, without the right of vote in the Assembly itself. They are thus actually permitted to participate in the preparation of the Assembly’s actions, though they are excluded from the final vote by the Assembly itself. There is absolutely no ground for such an approach to Church government in the Bible, or in historic Presbyterianism. This so-called “democratic” approach to Church government tends to negate the Biblical government by presbyters, who are the called of Christ, and are His gift to the Church for its proper rule.”[ii]

The proposed change offered in Overture 13 is essentially the same in nature as the practice of “youth delegates” in the PCUS prior to the founding of the PCA.  If passed the proposed changes will include non-presbyters with the right to vote and debate in the standing committees of the Assembly which have been incorporated as boards of our agencies.

In light of Smith’s comments about the practice of “youth delegates” in How the Gold Has Become Dim!, it is a significant fact that when the founders of the PCA first drafted the Book of Church Order (BCO) they explicitly reserved the membership of the standing committees of the General Assembly to ordained officers of the Church, self-consciously reversing the practice of the PCUS that the PCA had left.

Overture 13 proposes significant shift that would undo features of the PCA’s polity which the founders of the PCA explicitly rejected from the polity from the PCUS. Such an important decision needs to be weighed carefully before the PCA as a denomination rushes ahead to implement it.

It is true that not every feature of our church polity is something which has what Presbyterians call a jus divinum standing behind it.[iii]  There are many features of our church government which, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts things, are circumstances “common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence…” (WCF 1.6).

While we cannot prove from Scripture by good and necessary consequence that the General Assembly of the church should have a committee which is entrusted with overseeing the retirement, benefits, and insurance of its employees, nevertheless we recognize that it is within the liberty of the PCA to erect and maintain such a committee as a circumstance of church government as a matter of Christian prudence.  But this ecclesiastical leeway is circumscribed; it is not a license to devise any new measure we wish in our church government.  The WCF applies a helpful qualifier to this discretionary power of the church in the details of its polity.  Such circumstances are to still be ordered “according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.”

That is a crucial limitation.  Certain innovations to our polity could outright violate the PCA’s accepted general principles of biblical polity, could undermine them, or could create significant internal tensions.  Consequently, just because Overture 13 brings before us matters dealing with committees and boards, which have been erected by the discretionary power of the Church to order circumstances of its polity, that does not mean that the function and structure of those committees do not need to be carefully shaped by the general principles of biblical polity.

The overarching question concerning Overture 13 is whether what it proposes would create contradictions, subversions, or unhelpful tensions with the accepted general principles of biblical polity.  I would argue that it does create such things in several key ways.

Further, there are also a variety of troubling questions which need good and strong answers before the PCA proceeds with a massive overhaul of its polity, which Overture 13 proposes.

Which Committees Are “Appropriate Committees?” 

First, there has been no attempt in the rationale of Overture 13 to articulate what would demarcate committees upon which it would be appropriate for unordained men and women to serve from committees which would be inappropriate.  Would a particular form of church power exercised by a respective committee demarcate the difference?  I will argue below that all the Assembly’s committees actually do share in the execution of a particular species of church power, and that is the didactical power of the General Assembly.

If the only rationale that exists for the proposals in Overture 13 is that given by the Administrative Committee in the minutes of the 45th GA[iv] (i.e., that placing unordained men and women on such committees and boards is appropriate for the sole reason that those committees and boards are accountable to the General Assembly), then if some committees are appropriate, then all of them are appropriate.  If the driving principle of why it is appropriate for us to do this is ultimately that these committees are subject to the authority of the General Assembly, then there is no reason why we should not amend our constitution to allow for unordained men and women to serve all of our Permanent Committees because they are all subject to the authority of the General Assembly.

The argument is that the proposed changes offered in Overture 13 would not be placing women in a position to exercise ecclesial authority over men in contravention of Paul’s explicit command in 1 Tim. 2:12, because they are being placed on boards that are committees that are ultimately subject to the authority of the General Assembly.

If that is the case, why would this Overture stop where it does? Why would it not also revise the BCO, Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO), and Bylaws so that unordained men and women, can serve on all the permanent committees of GA?

Why not place non-ordained men and women on the permanent committees of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), Mission to the World (MTW), Mission to North America (MNA), and Christian Discipleship Ministries (CDM)? Furthermore, why not also amend the BCO to allow them to serve as representatives of presbyteries on the Nominating Committee, Review of Presbytery Records, Theological Examining Committee, the Committee on Constitutional Business, Interchurch Relations, and Overtures, since all of those are committees subject to the final oversight and approval of GA for their decisions?

Why couldn’t we elect non-ordained men and women to serve as Coordinators of our permanent committees and the executive directors or presidents of our agencies?

The fact that the Study Report recommendation 3 explicitly stated that the Assembly should “consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church,” means that the study committee has intuited that not all committees and agencies would be appropriate, indicating that the fact that such committees and boards are subject to GA is not enough to warrant the inclusion of unordained men and women on them.  Yet the study committee provided no guidance about how to sort out such proprieties.

Why Is Sub-Committee Participation Insufficient? 

Second, we certainly need to be vigilant about incorporating the gifts of our unordained men and women into the work of the church where it is appropriate.  To fail to do so would be to deprive the Body of Christ of the gifts which Jesus has distributed to our unordained men and women.  That would not only be a detriment to the church but a dishonor to Christ.

However, is it necessary to reformulate our BCO to allow for unordained men and women to serve on the boards and committees of the GA in order to do that? Unordained men and women can and already do serve on sub-committees of those committees (per RAO 4-10a). As such their voices and gifting are already incorporated into the work of the General Assembly as it is executed by our various committees under the immediate supervision of the ordained church officers who have been elected by the General Assembly to oversee those committees.

Why then is it necessary to reorganize the highest level of government and oversight within those committees (i.e., the actual committee/board itself) in order to allow unordained men and women to serve as voting members, such that it puts them in parity with the ordained elders on those boards/committees? Why is it necessary that unordained men and women be appointed as voting members of the permanent committees in order for their gifts to be utilized and their voices be heard?  Strong, clear, persuasive, biblically faithful ecclesiological reasons need to be articulated for such a change before we rush to implement measures that cause us to revert to a practice which the PCA founders deliberately rejected from the PCUS practice.

Does This Really Rise out of New Light Shed on Presbyterian Polity? 

Third, the fact that Overture 13 proposes that unordained men be allowed to sit on these Boards seems to be a mere collateral measure which is needed in order to implement the real goal, which is the inclusion of women on them.  In all likelihood, we would never even have considered allowing unordained men to sit on these Boards, if it were not a necessary piece of ecclesiological infrastructure to be put in place in order for women to serve on them as well.  And that should be a reason for great caution.  Are we doing this really and truly because we have discovered further ecclesiological light which our Presbyterian forbearers did not find?

If our current practice is simply a matter of unreflective chauvinism, then why did the founders of the PCA self-consciously remove the possibility of unordained men from hold voting membership on the Boards and Permanent Committees of General Assembly?  Why did they write our church constitution to require that one not just be male in order to be on these committees, but to be ordained officers and in almost all the cases elders?  Have we discovered new reasons which rise out of the principles of Presbyterian polity that call us to overturn that practice?

Or have we already determined for other reasons, having nothing to do with principles of Presbyterian polity, that we must put women in these places of church governance and we just need to figure out how to reformat our ecclesiology in order to accommodate this foregone conclusion?

General Assembly Committees and Diatactical Church Power

Fourth, in speaking with my fellow elders in the PCA on this matter I have heard the argument that placing unordained men and women in this committee or agency roles would not violate Paul’s injunction in 1 Tim. 2:12, or other aspects of our polity because it is not an authoritative exercise of church power. Typically, these arguments stress that because such boards and committees do not exercise a teaching function nor handle judicial process; therefore to place unordained men and women on them would not be to place them in a position in which they would illegitimately exercise authority over men in the church.  But this line of argument overlooks a historic way in which Presbyterian ecclesiology has categorized and defined different types of church power.

Reformed ecclesiology has traditionally conceived of church power being of three different sorts: 1. dogmatic power; 2. diatactical power; and 3. diacritical power.[v]

Dogmatic power is the power which the church has to proclaim divine truth, be it in through the preaching and teaching of the Word, or through the formulation of creeds and symbols. Diatactical power is the power of the church involved in the administering of the ordinances and government of the church. Diacritical power is the power of the church to discipline.

BCO 14-1 frames the relationship of the committees to GA this way: “The work of the Church as set forth in the Great Commission is one work, being implemented at the General Assembly level through equally essential committees.” For example, regardless of the fact that the Retirement and Benefits, Inc. (RBI) permanent committee is not teaching and thus not exercising dogmatic power, nor disciplining members and thus not exercising diacritical power, it is still exercising diatactical power.

Diatactical church power relates to the implementation of the circumstances of our polity.  It is about the oversight of all the circumstances of church government that extend beyond the general principles of biblical polity.[vi]  Hence the Board of an agency like RBI is exercising diatactical church power in that it is administering and implementing the one, unified governing work of the governing work of the General Assembly with respect to the circumstances of the retirement and benefits of the PCA.

When we ask, “what sort of ecclesial authority is exercised by members of the permanent committees of the General Assembly?” the answer is “The diatactical authority to implement the work of the General Assembly.” In this way it is a delegated ecclesial authority, but an ecclesial authority nonetheless.  The question then of course is whether that is such an authority that must be reserved for ordained officers. Our current form of polity does reserve that ecclesial authority for officer bearers, and the founders of the PCA self-consciously enshrined that reservation in our BCO over against the practice of the PCUS in its appoint of “youth delegates.”

All of the PCA committees and boards require its members to be elders, and having been elected by the General Assembly they are voting members.  There are only two exceptions: RBI and the PCA Foundation are allowed to have deacons serve as committee members.  This is an application of BCO 9-5 where, in dealing with financial matters, the higher courts of the church are allowed to appoint deacons to serve on committees.  This is entirely appropriate and a proper use of the specific sort of ecclesial power and authority which has been entrusted to the office of deacon in the courts of the church.  But, in all cases our current polity reserves membership on these committees to ordained church officers only.  And that is entirely fitting as these committees are exercising ecclesiastically authoritative diatactical power.

Allowing women on these committees would invest them with ecclesial power and infringe upon the general principle of biblical polity represented in the apostolic provision in 1 Tim. 2:12.  And as well, the addition of unordained men on committees would take an aspect of church power and invest it in the hands of those who have not been called to the exercise of diatactical oversight in the church.

Overture 13 seems to intuit this to a degree.  The overture expresses a desire “to maintain proper representation of church officers on the Boards of those Agencies.”  But if, as the overture states, “service on the Boards of Agencies …is among the appropriate places for godly women to exercise their gifts in the national church,” why is it necessary to include a provision that protects proper representation of church officers on these Boards or Agencies? If it does not present a conflict with our Presbyterian principles of polity to have unordained men and women serve as members on these Boards, why would it be inappropriate to open the possibility for the General Assembly to hand over the membership of those Boards entirely to non-officers?

The measure seems to be an incoherent compromise between the position that such Boards of Agencies do not require one to hold church office in order to be a member of them, and the position that such Boards of Agencies rightly should be exclusively comprised of officers of the church.

This mitigating provision appears to be based on the intuition that ultimately the majority control of those Boards, which entails the ultimate governance and oversight of them, should rest in the hands of church officers.  But such a principle grates against any inclusion of unordained men and women on those Boards from the outset.

The Accountability of Committees and Boards to the General Assembly

Fifth, it has also argued that the amendments proposed in Overture 13 would present no conflicts with our polity, and more specifically not place women in a position to exercise authority in the church in a way that is biblically reserved for ordained officers, because the boards/committees of the agencies are directly accountable to GA as committees.

The Administrative Committee made such an argument as reported in the minutes of the 45th General Assembly.

“The Committees and Boards of Agencies of the General Assembly are not above the General Assembly, but are subject to the General Assembly. The Boards of General Assembly Agencies relate to the General Assembly as committees… Many PCA churches have sessional or diaconal committees on which women serve. The actions of sessional or diaconal committees are subject to the Session or Diaconate.  Likewise, the actions of the Permanent Committees and Agencies of the General Assembly of the PCA are all subject to the authority of the General Assembly, regardless of whether those permanent Committees or Agencies are separately incorporated.”[vii]

But does the fact that committees and agencies of the GA are accountable to and under the authority of the General Assembly by itself establish that these committees do not wield a form of ecclesiastical power and authority which, if placed in the hands of unordained men and women, would violate biblical principles of polity?

While Thornwell did not support erecting boards to oversee the church’s ministries, he did address his concerns when he wrote:

“They are clothed with plenary power to act and do as to them shall seem most advisable in all matters embraced in the general subject entrusted to their care. This ample investiture of power renders them to all intents and purposes ecclesiastical courts. They exercise dominion in the Lord’s house. To say that this is not their true character, because they are responsible to the General Assembly, would be to deny that the Presbytery is an ecclesiastical court, because it is responsible to the Synod, or to strip the Synod of its true character, because it in its turn is amenable to the Assembly.”[viii]

The fact that the committees and boards of GA are subject to GA does not in and of itself provide sufficient reason to dismiss concerns about whether or not it is proper to place unordained men and women on them, any more than the fact that presbyteries are subject to the review and control of GA would dismiss concerns about the propriety of unordained men and women serving as members of them.

The permanent committees and boards of are not commissions.  However, the BCO uses strong language to describe the work of the permanent committees and boards.  The permanent committees of GA are to “implement” (BCO 14-1, 3) and “execute” (BCO 14-1, 7).  They make many decisions that the GA never votes on, but rather are decisions that are entrusted to them to make and oversee.

Whenever the votes for the Nominating Committee come up on the docket at a General Assembly the floor always manages to fill up with otherwise absent commissioners.  The reason that many commissioners prioritize coming to the floor for that vote, while in the case of other votes they are content to catch up with friends or play golf, is because we all intuitively understand the power and authority invested in the permanent committees of the General Assembly. We all instinctively grasp that, the accountability of these committees to the General Assembly notwithstanding, they still have tremendous ecclesial power and authority in our denomination.

This is something which Charles Hodge put his finger on in one of his treatments of the Missions Board of the General Assembly of his day.  Hodge wrote, “The Assembly’s Board is an ecclesiastical body. It is the mere organ of the Assembly in conducting missions. All its members are appointed by that body, and its acts in the premises are virtually the acts of the Assembly.”[ix]

The accountability of the boards or agencies to the General Assembly as committees does not by itself provide ample grounds to dismiss the concerns of the impropriety of placing unordained men and women on them.  To use Hodge’s phrasing: the actions of those committees are still virtually the actions of the General Assembly.  The founders of the PCA self-consciously desired to return the immediate governance of such committees to the hands of office bearers, which was a distinct break from the practice that had been implemented in the PCUS. As Smith observed, the proper rule of the church belongs to the ordained officers and that rule in some measure is exercised by the committees of the General Assembly.  Overture 13 seeks to undo this principle.

The Disparity between Congregational Committees and GA Committees

Sixth, as seen above in the reasoning of the Administrative Committee, another line of argument in defense of Overture 13 is a comparison between the committees of congregations and the committees of the higher courts; the AC stated, “Many PCA churches have sessional or diaconal committees on which women serve. The actions of sessional or diaconal committees are subject to the Session or Diaconate.”  And if it is appropriate for this to happen on the committees of lower courts, then why not the higher court?

Leaving aside the question of the propriety of structuring the committees of sessions this way for a moment, another point should be considered: There is an important disparity between the committees of a congregation and the committees of presbyteries and GA, and that is in the matter of ordained delegated representation.

As the BCO stands now, with the exception of the two NAPARC (National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches) members allowed to serve on the boards of Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, they must still be elders in those denominations. All members of General Assembly committees and agencies are all approved by their respective presbyteries. Nominees for GA permanent committees and agencies are submitted by presbyteries, and are then elected by the GA.  RAO 8-4, d & e state:

  1. A typed biographical form must accompany each name submitted to the Nominating Committee. All nominees should be contacted by their presbyteries to ascertain their availability and willingness to serve prior to submission of names to General Assembly’s Nominating Committee.
  2. Presbyteries should send names of nominees on forms to the Stated Clerk’s office no later than four months prior to the General Assembly. The Stated Clerk will then make the forms available to the convener of the Nominating Committee.

There are rules that guide presbyteries regarding nominations to certain committees, and every elder submitted to the Nominating Committee has to be nominated by a presbytery, and when elected they represent the interests of the Church on their respective committees.

In contradistinction, in the case of congregational committees there are no elections by the members of a congregation to serve on church committees; no one on these church committees is functioning in the capacity of ordained church office. Only the ordained officers represent the Church with ecclesial authority.[x] However, with the committees of GA we are dealing with ordained officers (all elders except where deacons are nominated and elected in a couple of specific and defined cases), who must be nominated by their respective presbyteries, and who function with the authority of their ordained office.  The polity of the PCA affirms that church power is vested in the whole Body of Christ, but that power is exercised representatively in officers as the organs of the Body.   Note this principle in BCO 3-1:

“The power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth.  This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His Church.”

The wording of BCO Preliminary Principle 7 attests to this representative function of church officers:

“All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.”

As Morton Smith’s observed, the structure of polity which the PCA founders enshrined in its BCO self-consciously understood that the authority of voting membership on the committees of the General Assembly is the domain of the ordained office. This fits naturally and correctly with the way in which the membership of the committees of General Assembly are presently constituted, comprised of elders who represent the Church.

It would be a major incongruity with the general principles of polity adopted by the PCA to nominate and elect unordained men and women to committees and agencies, and then to give them authority as if they were ordained office bearers in the Church. The PCA chose a specific brand of Presbyterian polity that power and authority would be committed to ordained office bearers who would then exercise this power in its committees and agencies. To place unordained men and women on these committees and agencies would be a radical departure from what the PCA purposefully chose.

Conclusion

There are numerous reasons for the PCA to be cautious about approving the proposals in Overture 13. The PCA has chosen to exercise its discretionary power regarding how the Church should function under the general principles of biblical polity.

Overture 13 has not presented convincing reasons for the General Assembly to approve the proposed changes. And it should be noted, that adopting the proposed changes will have the effect of upsetting the healthy balance of church governance adopted by the PCA. I urge the ordained office bearers who will serve as Commissioners to the 46th PCA General Assembly to vote to answer Overture 13 in the negative.

Daniel Schrock is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Third Reformed Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Penn.

[i] The entire report can be accessed here: www.pcahistory.org/pca/2017_WIM_report.pdf

[ii] Morton Smith, How the Gold Has Become Dim!, (Jackson, MS: The Steering Committee for a Continuing Presbyterian Church, Faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith, 1973), pg. 75.

[iii] For a helpful explanation of the concept of jure divino church government see Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), pgs. 41-54.  For an account of how the concept of jure divino shaped the ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly see John R. de Witt, Jus Divinum: The Westminster Assembly & the Divine Right of Church Government, (Kampen: Kok, 1969), and also Wayne R. Spear, Covenanted Uniformity in Relgiion: The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners on the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).

[iv] M45GA, pg. 73

[v] See James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), vol. 1, pgs. 225-228.

[vi] For an explanation of diatactial power in relation to the circumstances of church government see Thomas E. Peck, Notes on Ecclesiology, (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee Publication, 1892), pgs. 121-123

[vii] M45GA, pg. 73

[viii] Thornwell, James H., “A Calm Discussion of the Lawfulness, Scripturalness and Expediency of Ecclesiastical Boards,” The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, vol. 7 (1841), pg. 151.

[ix] Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity, (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, 2001), pg. 430.

[x] For a succinct contemporary explanation of delegated church power see Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church, pgs. 58-63.