Transgenderism Comes to the PCA?

A Sober Look at the PCA Report On “Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church” before the 45th GA.

How can there be multiple conflicting views that are all in accord with Scripture?  By condoning multiple practices and views, the committee does not clarify and allows those who would undermine the church’s standard to continue to practice without any constraint. It is difficult to address aberrant views and practices since those who have them will declare themselves to be orthodox.  The committee has failed to draw any clear lines of demarcation and thus has given license to those who would not follow our standards. All too often toleration of many things becomes the toleration of everything.


The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders and deacons…. In accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order 7-2).

What is confusing about this language?  What is unclear?  This language is crystal clear, everyone understands it, and frankly that is the problem.  There are many in our denomination that do not like this language that they have taken vows to uphold. When taking their vows, candidates to become officers acknowledged that they “approved of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of biblical purity” (BCO 21-5 (3) and 24-6 (3)) and further they “promised subjection to their brethren in the Lord” (BCO 21-5 (4) and 24-6 (5).

In order to fulfill these vows, such men must change the meaning of words to which they have pledged to be faithful.  It is hard to read carefully the report of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving In The Ministry Of The Church (AICOWSITMOTC) and not conclude that in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) of 2017 words (or at least the words which some find to be contrary to their views) no longer have meaning.

We have seen how quickly our society has moved to change the meaning of words – gay, marriage, is, and most recently man and woman.  In taking these actions history is disregarded or reinterpreted to support the change in meaning of words. Regrettably the PCA is not immune to this spirit of our age as evidenced by the AICOWSITMOTC.

There are several examples of this tendency to obscure rather than clarify in the committee’s report:

  1. Speaking of churches … “others have installed an unordained diaconate made up of men and women (a disputed practice in our denomination)” [page 2402].

Actually this is not “a disputed practice” in our denomination. This is a forbidden practice since (a) deacons can only be men, (b) deacons must be ordained and (c) this very “practice” has been expressly forbidden by the General Assembly and the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). There cannot be an “unordained diaconate” since deacons must be ordained and thus an “unordained diaconate” cannot exist. To characterize this practice as a mere dispute gives cover to those who would engage in forbidden, unconstitutional actions.

After expressly acknowledging the existence of these forbidden practices, the committee later states in its Recommendation # 4 that “[t]here is at least anecdotal evidence that some PCA churches are choosing not to establish an ordained diaconate, even with qualified candidates, because the church wishes to be free to establish a body of unordained servants, both male and female.”

This is not merely “anecdotal.” In the opening of its report, the committee stated without qualification that “churches have installed.” Moreover, this practice has on more than one occasion been the subject of SJC cases as well as General Assembly condemnation when reviewing presbytery records.  The committee meekly says that this practice “seems poorly aligned with the spirit … outlined in the Book of Church Order”. Instead of condemning this practice as dishonest and a subterfuge, the committee gives cover to those who are undermining our church’s standards: “[t]he Book of Church Order does not specifically prohibit the practice of going without ordained deacons.”

Contrary to the mandate given to the Committee, the Committee fails to investigate, analyze and expressly condemn such practices.

  1. In responding to the overture of Westminster Presbytery, the committee states “[t]he ad interim committee is not proposing any BCO changes to the General Assembly” [2405, see also 2402]. This statement is directly contradicted by AICOWSITMOTC recommendations 3 and 7

Recommendation # 3: “The committee advises sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to consider making overtures to the General Assembly identifying appropriate Committees and Agencies in which women should serve as members and amending The Book of Church Order to allow women to do so” [2460].

Recommendation # 7: “[T]hat presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women” [2462].

Curiously this recommendation is supported by reference to the 1938 PCUSA Digest, not the Bible or the Confessions.  The committee’s language is telling: “[w]hile it would not represent an office, it would recognize those whose lives have been given in service.”  There would be “advanced training” and it “may redress an inequity in compensation that mostly affects women.”  In essence it will be an office, but the committee will not call it an office.  With no explanation, the committee claims that “[n]o BCO changes would be necessary” and that this new non-office “could apply to deaconesses, women staff members who have theological decrees, or others as determined by the General Assembly.”  How is this done without changes to the BCO?  Permanent change in our denomination is supposed to come about through changes to the BCO not declarations from study committees.

  1. Committee recommendation # 8: “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and unrepresented women in the PCA….The committee affirms, therefore, that even if women are in a lower tax bracket, they are to be embraced as valuable, of equal dignity and worth, and included in various ministries of the church.”

Although tax policy was not in the committee’s authorization, the committee nevertheless uses the highly charged language of the secular feminist left in making their final recommendation while offending PCA churches who are faithfully proclaiming the gospel (the PCA … has yet to see the demographics in diverse communities reflected in the local churches).

  1. The committee consistently uses the term “deaconess” in its report and repeatedly claims that such term is valid [e.g. 2461]; however, the PCA has not used such a term. When BCO 9-7 was amended only a few years ago, the PCA rejected using the term deaconess.  The correct term is “assistants to the deacons” and applies to both men and women. It is troubling that a study committee would not use the terms set forth in our BCO but instead seeks to legitimize a term that has been rejected by the PCA.

Many churches in the PCA do use the term deaconess but there is no warrant for such practice in the BCO.  In fact the use of the term is not only unwarranted but also misleading.  More often than not, the churches using the term tend to use the word “deaconess” interchangeably with “deacon.” On their websites and written materials, these churches do not distinguish between these two groups and often have a single group of people which is misleadingly referred to as a diaconate although it includes unordained women.

This is not only confusing to non-PCA people but also to those who are members of PCA churches. An anecdotal example from my own experience illustrates this point. Earlier this year, when having dinner with a group of fellow PCA members, we discussed mutual friends that had recently joined a local PCA church.  Someone asked if the church in question was in fact a PCA church, I said yes they were.  A woman at the table commented “they have women deacons at that church.”  I said “you mean deaconesses” and they replied “yes women deacons”.  I then explained that they were NOT women deacons but should be called assistants to the deacons since our BCO did not recognize women deacons.  Immediately two other women at the table said they were glad that I had explained the matter since deaconess for them meant woman deacons.  I noted that I agreed with them and that the term was an inappropriate one and should not be used in our denomination because it only confuses and misleads rather than bringing clarity.

The term deaconess is understood to mean a female deacon.  In our denomination this is not possible and for that reason the term is not used in our BCO.

Actor – Actress                                                     Prince – Princess
Shepherd –  Shepherdess                                    Steward – Stewardess
Headmaster – Headmistress                             Waiter – Waitress
Sempster – Semptress                                         Deacon – Deaconess

  1. The committee minimizes the orthodox PCA view as being one of “personal conviction” rather than constitutional fidelity. Without clearly setting forth our confessional standards, the committee alleges that they (the committee members and presumably the practicioners and advocates of aberrant/diverse views) are all confessionally pure. “This diversity of opinion refers not to the inclusion of views out of accord with our confessional position but regards a number of subsidiary mattes such as the role of women in diaconal ministry… (2401].”  “All members unreservedly embrace our denominational standards affirmation of complementarianism in the home and church.” [2402].

The committee declares that:

“Some in our denomination believe that the office of deacon should be open to women, and thus that women should be ordained as deacons” [2401]

“Others favor a distinctive ordained office of deaconess” [2402]

“some simply view deaconess as the title for a qualified, unordained woman who assists the offices of the church in their work” [2402] and

“others have installed an unordained diaconate made up of men and women” [2402]

Although acknowledging that these views may require BCO changes and are disputed, the committee fails to declare any of these position to be out of accord with the PCA’s confessional position thus implying that all of these views are not only acceptable but also confessional while diminishing the BCO’s clear Scriptural exegesis that “in accord with Scripture, these offices are open to men only”[BCO 7-2].  The Scriptural position of the PCA is declared to be merely a “personal conviction” [2401].

In addition to the misleading language contained throughout the report, there are other concerns as follow:

  1. The Formation of the Committee

The creation of the committee has already been critiqued by men more capable than I.  See Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery to the 2017 General Assembly and ‘PCA General Assembly Should Not Approve CMC’s Recommendation to Form a Study Committee on Women Serving in Ministry’ by Aquila and Barnes in June 7, 2016 Aquila Report. Their arguments are clear and the committee’s report demonstrates why the committee should not have been created in the first place.

Liberals in our denomination have been demanding the creation of a women’s study committee for years.  These demands were resisted as being both unnecessary and potentially harmful and the advocates were encouraged to bring up their concerns via overture.  Knowing that the makeup of the General Assembly tends to favor more liberal positions, the overture route was not followed.  The result in this case is a report that gives full cover to those who would practice contrary to the PCA’s clear standards.

  1. The Committee does not even represent those who would be most affected by its report

The critics of the committee note that it has an unconstitutional makeup; however, there is also another concern with the makeup of the committee. How can a committee that is supposed to be analyzing “the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon” not even have a single man on the committee who is a deacon? Moreover, there is no indication that the committee even interviewed or spoke with a deacon.  Supposedly deacons would have the greatest interest in such a committee, yet while including all other groups – liberals, “deaconesses”, GA moderators, etc,, this one key group was omitted.  Strange indeed that the very individuals that would have the most to contribute to the discussion are not included.

One would expect the committee to at least have acknowledged the work of the thousands of ordained deacons in our denomination and to give them a word of thanks and praise for the hard and often unappreciated work that they are doing quite effectively in our denomination.  Instead of recognizing the call of the these men and the use of their God- given gifts on behalf of the church, the committee  has remained silent, while giving support and comfort to those whose policies and practices undermine the office of Deacon and our denomination’s appreciation for that office.

  1. Wrongful Assumption of Constitutional Power

In its response to Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery and ruling upon its own legitimacy, the committee has aggrandized power unto itself which is unconstitutional.   The committee is merely a study committee and was not given any power to address overtures and constitutional questions.

An overture challenging the constitutionality of the committee’s formation and existence was referred to the committee to answer.  For the committee to answer the challenge is in itself an answer since if the committee lacks constitutional basis it would have to refuse to answer because it would lack the authority to do so. By answering, the committee assumed that it had the power and removed any impartiality or objectivity. To avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the committee should have refused the reference and deferred it to an objective third party.

It is as if the fox is writing a treatise for vegetarians on why eggs and chicken are part of healthy diet.  It should be obvious that a temporary committee cannot be granted the authority to rule on its own legitimacy.  As a member of the committee the General Assembly’s clerk should have recused himself from ruling on this matter and certainly should not have referred the matter to a committee of which he was a part when the constitutional legitimacy of the committee itself was in question.

  1. Review of Scripture

I will not comment on the Committee’s exegesis other than to note that it is curious for a PCA Committee to cite Old Testament prophetesses [2406-2408] and a vague early church reference to deaconesses performing nude baptisms by immersion [2442].  One wonders if these too are subsidiary matters with a diversity of acceptable views to be addressed by future study committees.

The Scriptural exegesis and study has already been done many times and the PCA’s conclusions are expressed in BCO 7-2.

  1. Ignoring of Recent Church History

In its report, the Committee while looked at the Apostolic Constitutions, church councils, Calvin, Lutheran tradition, the Church of England, the American Methodist Episcopal Church, the Mennonties, etc.  However, there is no mention of American Presbyterian history and the PCA’s own history.

American Presbyterian History and particularly the sad demise and fall into apostasy of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America should serve as a warning to the PCA; however, there is no indication that the committee members took any note of this history or the introduction of women deacons (deaconesses) into the denomination.  Today approximately 90% of the “deacons” in the PCUSA are women. In fact the ordination of women by the PCUS was specifically cited as a reason for the formation of the PCA.

“We have called ourselves “Continuing” Presbyterians because we seek to continue the faith of the founding fathers of that Church.  Deviations in doctrine and practice from historic Presbyterian positions as evident in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, result from accepting other sources of authority, and from making them coordinate or superior to the divine Word.  A diluted theology, a gospel tending toward humanism, an unbiblical view of marriage and divorce, the ordination of women, financing of abortion on socio-economic grounds, and numerous other non-Biblical positions are all traceable to a different view of Scripture from that we hold and that which was held by the Southern Presbyterian forefathers.

 Change in the Presbyterian Church in the United States came as a gradual thing, and its ascendancy in the denomination over a long period of time.  We confess that it should not have been permitted.  Views and practices that undermine and supplant the system of doctrine and polity of a confessional church ought never to be tolerated.  A Church that will not exercise discipline will not long be able to maintain pure doctrine or godly practice”(From “A Message to All Churches of Jesus Christ Throughout the World From the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church,” December 7, 1973).

It seems odd that a history of women deacons prepared by a PCA study committee would ignore the history of the denomination from which the founding churches of the PCA seceded.

  1. Ignoring of PCA HIstory

As indicated in the objections to the formation of the committee, the PCA has a long history of dealing with the matters which allegedly required the formation of the committee.  One must ask why a PCA “study” committee completely ignored the PCA’s own history. For example there was no mention of

  • The History of the PCA’s BCO including particular attention of Chapters 7, 9 and 24
  • The break with the Christian Reformed Church
  • The MNA controversy over women preaching
  • The Cedar Springs Church controversy
  • The decision to have no fraternal relations with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church
  • The departures of churches over these issues, e.g., City Church San Francisco, City Church Denver, etc.
  • SJC Cases 2008-1 and 2011-14
  • The 36th General Assembly Citations of Northern California Presbytery and Philadelphia Presbytery
  • The 39th General Assembly Citation of Metro Atlanta Presbytery

The Committee ignored the General Assembly’s rulings on the nature of the office of deacon as being “an office of authority.”

In rejecting an overture seeking to remove the word “obedience” from the congregational vow regarding deacons because the office is one of service and not of rule, the General Assembly stated that “[t]he Overture appears to misunderstand the nature of the “rule” referred to in BCO 7-2. In our judgment “rule” refers, not to any exercise of authority in the church, but to the overall exercise of government in the church belonging exclusively to the eldership.  Clearly some measure of authority (and therefore corresponding obedience on the part of the people) is required in the deacon’s calling to administer and direct the congregation’s efforts in service (cf. Acts 6; I Tim. 3:12; BCO 9-2) M26GA,201-202

  1. Misstating the Problem

In its section entitled “The Problem” the study committee makes a series of odd declarations with no supporting scientific research other than “some on social media assert” and a footnote referring to “the committee’s survey question” addressed to African American women.

“women’s meetings often become social clubs which neither “teach women to think biblically” nor “build community…”

“women are increasingly turning to para-church ministries, both for instruction … and to exercise their gifts…”

“women in the PCA may face an identity crisis”

This problem, if it even is “the problem” was not given to the committee to solve.  The problem of aberrant practices, however, is a clear problem that the committee failed to address.

  1. Failure to Clearly Set Forth Standards

I would hope that the Report of the AICOWSITMOTC would be rejected and ignored.  My concern is that the report will be adopted because of the few “good things” that it contains and later will be cited as a basis for even more aberrant views since it fails to clearly condemn them.

The General Assembly’s study committee report on creation should serve as a warning to the PCA.   Not wanting to deal firmly with aberrant views, the creation study committee much like the AICOWSITMOTC simply treated creation as a subsidiary matter, identified several conflicting views and declared them all to be within the pale.  The one good thing in the report was that is said that any view that Adam and Eve were not real persons and the parents of the human race was outside the pale.

Unfortunately, the committee failed to wrestle with the reality that some of the views that it endorsed were in fact capable of easily incorporating a view that Adam and Eve were not real persons.  Today, aberrant views on creation are often passed over and received as acceptable.  Careful questioning of candidates shows that candidates taking views other than the traditional 24-7 view are themselves confused and unable to clearly articulate their positions other than to say they are not 24-7.  Often their framework exceptions have room to declare Adam and Eve to be something other than real persons and sole parents of the human race.  On more than one occasion, I have had the sad experience of Christian educators and ordination candidates declaring that the PCA Creation Study Committee permitted this position when in fact the committee said that such a view was not acceptable.  Polyvalence and the endorsement of multiple and conflicting views as being acceptable does not bring clarity but confusion and if allowed to persist will harm the church.  The function of a study committee should be to bring clarity and to reaffirm distinct standards.  This has not been done by the AICOWSITMOTC.

  1. Poor and Ill-Advised Recommendations

The recommendations of the Committee do not solve the issues at hand in the PCA.  Instead the committee’s report obscures the issues, gives comfort and support to those who are rebelling against the church’s standards and adopts the language of secular liberals in identifying issues to be addressed.

  1. The committee recommends quota hirings – “the committee encourages preferring women for non-ordained staff positions” [2455]
  2. The committee recommends polyvalence in determining Biblical standards – “each session must determine what the non-negotiable biblical guideline are …and not to be bound by traditions that may be merely cultural” [2454-2455]
  3. The committee recommends the participation of women not only in the diaconate but also in the meetings of the session [2455]. The committee fails to note any reservations about such participation and further fails to address how these practices are undermining our church polity, e.g., single diaconate of ordained men and unordained/commissioned women, women voting in the diaconate, women chairing diaconates, women participating in session meetings (Eldresses?), etc.  Shall the congregation elect such women and commission them or shall “commissioned church workers” automatically be entitled to participate?
  4. The committee decrees that “from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.”

The committee fails to identify those views and practices that are NOT within scriptural and constitutional parameters and by implication whitewashes all of the views and practices discussed without critique in the report.  There are many views and practices which do not warrant respect or toleration; however, the committee does not identify a single one. This is a complete failure by the committee and does not promote a complementarian practice or the purity of the church.

Already presbyteries have ordained men who believe that the office of deacon should be opened to women.  Moreover presbyteries have also been ordaining men who also believe that the office of elder should be opened to women.  Who is ordaining such men?  Those presbyters who consider BCO 7-2 to be an accurate exposition of Scripture and more than personal conviction would not be voting to fill our denomination’s pulpits with men who consider church office open to anyone.  So who would vote in favor of such men? Clearly those who already disagree with BCO 7-2 regarding deacons would be the easiest to persuade that the understanding of the office of elder is a subsidiary matter involving personal conviction and a view that requires respect and tolerance.

This view of the office of elder was the basis of the request set forth in Overture 22 from the Philadelphia Presbytery to the 2014 General Assembly requesting a Study Committee.  Five years earlier this same Presbytery requested a Study Committee regarding women in diaconal ministry (see Overture 9 to the 2009 GA).  While both requests were denied by the General Assembly, it seems that Philadelphia Presbytery has now obtained their 2009 request with the declarations of the AICOWSITMOTC.  Will their 2014 request be next?

It is important to understand the thinking of those who would seek to revise our church’s standards. Quoting from an overture to the Philadelphia Presbytery seeking to legitimize aberrant practices,

Whereas it has become common practice in the PCA across many churches and presbyteries to allow churches to elect and commission women to serve as deacons equal to men serving in the office (which is out of order with BCO 9-7); Whereas the practice of commissioning women to the office of the deacon and ordaining men to the same office is inconsistent in its approach to office and therefore an injustice”.  The overture concluded by asking the PCA “to resolve the inconsistency and injustice by either (a) Allowing but not requiring individual congregations the constitutional freedom to ordain women as deacons, with equal status with men who are called and ordained to this office, or (b) Allowing congregations to commission men and women to the office of deacon in the church in equal standing, but not require congregations to ordain the men.”

Rather than clearly addressing this confused thinking and calling those who are in error to repentance and reformation, the committee’s report only affirms the confusion while encouraging tolerance and acceptance of the aberrant practices.

  1. Polyvalence – False Equivalence

How can there be multiple conflicting views that are all in accord with Scripture?  By condoning multiple practices and views, the committee does not clarify and allows those who would undermine the church’s standard to continue to practice without any constraint.

It is difficult to address aberrant views and practices since those who have them will declare themselves to be orthodox.  The committee has failed to draw any clear lines of demarcation and thus has given license to those who would not follow our standards. All too often toleration of many things becomes the toleration of everything.

This is not a new situation. Sadly the lessons of history are all too swiftly ignored when everyone is presumed to be orthodox

“At the outset we affirm and declare our acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as we did at our ordinations, “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” We sincerely hold and earnestly preach the doctrines of evangelical Christianity, in agreement with the historic testimony of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, of which we are loyal ministers. For the maintenance of the faith of our church, the preservation of its unity, and the protection of the liberties of its ministers and people, we offer this Affirmation” (Auburn Affirmation).

Dudley Reese is an attorney, and serves as a ruling elder in the Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Upper Darby, Penn.