PCA Goes Back to Where It Started: Women’s Ordination

Meanwhile, the shrinking PCUSA makes plans to recover its identity.
PCA Goes Back to Where It Started: Women’s OrdinationAllison Shirreffs
The Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly 2016

One of the reasons that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) left the Presbyterian Church in the United States 40 years ago was because the new denomination opposed women in church leadership.

Last week, the PCA General Assembly voted to form a committee to take up the issue again. The seven-person committee will look at the biblical basis and theology of ordination and of the office of deacon, then report back to the General Assembly any changes to consider.

In the meantime, PCA churches are encouraged to promote the participation of women “in appropriate ministries.” The denomination currently does not appoint female members as elders or deacons.

Joseph Pipa, president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, lodged a protest against the committee, according to the PCA’s online magazine byFaith.

New Geneva Theological Seminary president Dominic Aquila and PCA pastor Andrew Barnes also opposed it.

“What is being overlooked…in this recommendation is that the ‘biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination,’ ‘the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon,’ and ‘the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses’ have already been studied, explored and settled,” they wrote. “Not only has this been expressed in past General Assemblies, but the PCA’s Constitution is already clear on what the PCA believes Scripture teaches on these issues.”

Contention over the PCA’s stance against female ordination isn’t new. In 2009, the general assembly narrowly voted (446–427) against creating a committee to study women’s roles. Even before that, the denomination argued over whether commissioning “deaconesses” to help male deacons is tantamount to ordaining them. (Tim Keller argued for commissioning, and not ordaining, deaconesses.)

In 2011, the general assembly clarified that “these assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church and, as such, are not subjects for ordination.” Since then, arguments on the issue have quieted down.

Part of the renewed attention this year may stem from the PCA’s steady growth (albeit slower than at first). Over the last five years, the denomination has added 68 churches, 374 ministers, and almost 19,000 members. The PCA now has 370,000 members.

Some of those churches and members come from the country’s biggest Presbyterian group, the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA. As today’s version of the original Presbyterian denomination the PCA split from, the PCUSA continues to ordain women and has extended church offices to non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.

The 1.5 million-member PCUSA, which also met last week, continues to shrink, losing 187 congregations and more than 95,000 members last year. Some of its decline over the past few years stems from the ordination issue. Conservative Presbyterians have left for the PCA or more recently formed spinoffs, like ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which ordains women, but not gay clergy in relationships.

Despite falling membership, giving to local missions was up by almost $7.7 million—a trend that echoed recent reports from the Southern Baptist Convention.

The PCUSA voted to create two committees to look into big-picture changes. The first will “develop a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation,” while the second will look into more immediate “national structural changes” that could “carry the Presbyterian church (USA) through the next part of the 21st century.”

Some of those changes are urgent, especially for the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). An agency review found that it had “an unclear sense of identity and purpose,” “lacks a theological foundation,” and “is driven in decision-making by resources rather than vision and strategy.”

The PCUSA also voted to add the Belhar Confession to its Book of Confessions. By a vote of 540–33, the denomination approved the 50-year-old confession, which was written in South Africa by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during apartheid. The Belhar, which focuses strongly on unity, has been a point of contention for the Reformed denominations. (The Reformed Church in America uses it as a statement of faith, the Christian Reformed Church of North America uses it as an “ecumenical faith declaration,” and the PCA does not officially recognize it.)

Subordinationism (Out Of The Blue!)

Support for subordinationism is found in the fact that God ‘sent’ his Son

“If we interpret Jesus’ sonship in terms of its human analogy, we cannot stop at mere subordination.  We have to go on to infer, first of all, that the Father exists before the Son and, secondly, that the Father generates or gives being to the Son.  Both of these inferences were drawn by the Arians, but neither of them is tolerable.”


In the present parlous and precarious state of British theology it’s hard to imagine a controversy suddenly erupting over the question whether within the eternal trinity the Son is subordinate to the Father.  In American Evangelicalism, however, that’s exactly what’s happened.  A web-war (or at least a skirmish) has broken out over this very question.  On the one side stands Dr. Wayne Grudem, whose advocacy of subordinationism has been well known ever since the publication his Systematic Theology away back in 1994.  On the other, stand Dr. Liam Golligher and Dr. Carl Trueman (both originally from Britain, of course), who have used Mortification of Spin, the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, to speak out strongly against Grudem’s views; and he, clearly stung by the criticisms, has posted a response on the website of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organisation dedicated to promoting the view that while women are by nature equal to men they are subordinate in role.  This order, it is argued, reflects an order in the eternal Trinity itself..

Dr. Grudem’s posting adds nothing to what has long been known about his views, but his language is still capable of raising theological eye-brows and, indeed, hackles.  He speaks, for example, of the primacy of God the Father: a term which immediately suggests to us Brits that the relation between the Father and the Son is akin to that between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a mere Bishop.  Then, in line with this, he speaks of the Son being eternally subordinate within the Trinity, of the Son Being eternally subject to the authority of the Father, and of the Son being eternally submissive (and, as such, the role-model for a woman’s submission to her husband).

It has to be stressed at once that Dr.Grudem is firmly committed to the doctrine of the eternal deity of the Son and does not see his emphasis on subordination as in any way detracting from the belief that the Son is equal to the Father in his being and in all his attributes.  There can be no doubting his sincerity on this point.  Nor can there be any doubt that his views are broadly in line with those of a long succession of distinguished theologians.   There was a strong subordinationist strain in the ground-breaking trinitarianism of Tertullian (circa 170-220 a.d.), and its echoes can still be heard not only in the Nicene theologians (including Athanasius) but also in such later writers as John Owen, Daniel Waterland and Charles Hodge.

Grudem also cites Calvin as another who shares his wave-length, but in this instance he offers no direct quotation, relying instead on a statement from Richard Muller to the effect that, ‘Calvin certainly allowed some subordination in the order of the persons.’  No wise man is going to dispute an interpretation of Calvin with Dr. Muller, but ‘some’ subordination may not quite amount to subjection and submission.  Besides, we may well ask whether when he conceded ‘some subordination’ Calvin was being consistent with himself.  As B. B. Warfield pointed out, the tendency of Calvin’s treatment of distinctions within the trinity was towards equalisation rather than subordination, and any suggestion that the Son derived his essence from the Father (the foundation of Nicene subordinationism) was anathema to him.  Indeed, he laid such emphasis on the self-existent deity of the Son that he was accused of heresy by his enemies, who charged him with teaching that the Son, no less than the Father, was autotheos: not only God in his own right, but God from himself.  As it happens, this is exactly what Calvin intended to teach, arguing that if we ascribe deity to Christ it must be self-existent deity, since there is no other.  Besides, the Father and the Son are not merely one generically, like two members of the human species.  They are one and the same numerically: one divine being, not two.  Once we take this position we have to accept that the Father and the Son are not only ‘the same in substance’ but also ‘equal in power and glory.’ (Shorter Catechism, Answer 6).  This leaves little room for subordination.

But does the very fact of his being ‘Son’ not itself point to Christ’s being subordinate to the Father and under his authority?  This, after all, is how sonship was understood in the ‘ancient world’, where, we are told, fathers still had ‘familial leadership’ even when relating to adult sons.

It was to avoid this implication that some modern Evangelicals (notably James MacArthur at one period in his career) were reluctant to endorse the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Christ.  They feared it played into the hands of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  But this is scarcely necessary.  For one thing, whatever was the case in the ‘ancient world’, the Jews did not conceive of sonship as implying subordination.  This becomes clear in John 5:18, where Jesus’ calling God his Father is immediately taken to mean that he was making himself equal with God (Jn. 5:18); and for the Nicene theologians, despite their endemic subordinationism, sonship meant first and foremost that the Son was of the same nature as the Father.  This was the foundation of the homoousios: ‘such as the Father is, such is the Son.’ (Athanasian Creed, 7.  This creed, despite its name is, of course post-Nicene)).  Community of nature, not role-subordination, was the primary meaning of sonship.

Besides, ‘Son’ is not the only title the New Testament applies to Christ.  In John 1:1, for example, he is expressly called ‘God’ and this is repeated in Romans 9:5, which speaks of him as, ‘God over all, blessed for ever.’  This title certainly caries no connotation of subordination.  Nor does the title ‘Lord’, which is applied to him repeatedly, not only to express the idea of his lordship over creation, but also to denote him as the one who has ‘the name above every name’.  He is the LORD, Yahweh, before whom every knee will bow (Phil. 2:11. Cf. Is. 45:23).  More than any other divine name, this one conveys the idea of self-existent, inexhaustible, ever-blazing deity, and we must surely hesitate before ascribing subjection and submissiveness to the one who bears it.  If we can be so confident in drawing inferences from the title, ‘Son’, what inferences shall we draw from ‘God’ and ‘Lord’?

But the drawing of such inferences is itself a dangerous thing.  If we interpret Jesus’ sonship in terms of its human analogy, we cannot stop at mere subordination.  We have to go on to infer, first of all, that the Father exists before the Son and, secondly, that the Father generates or gives being to the Son.  Both of these inferences were drawn by the Arians, but neither of them is tolerable.  The Son is co-eternal with the Father; and the Son is self-existent.  This is why the fathers of the early church, despite their tendency to subordinationism, distinguished clearly between ‘begotten’ and ‘originated’.  ‘The Son,’ they said, ‘was not agennētos (unbegotten), but he was agenētos (unoriginate).’

Advocates of subordinationism also find support for their case in the fact that the ascended Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father.  But is this not to forget that the heavenly Session of Christ applies to him not as the eternal Son, but as the incarnate Mediator, who is rewarded for his obedience by being highly exalted (Phil. 2)?  Furthermore, in Revelation 7:17 the Lamb stands not at God’s right hand, but in the centre of the throne, and although this again applies to him as the victorious Mediator it is inconceivable that he could occupy this position were he not already co-equal with the Father (and with the Holy Spirit).

This equality is emphasised even more strikingly in Revelation 22:1, where the River of the Water of Life flows out of ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb.’  In the first instance this proclaims that the Son, equally with the Father, is the source of redeeming grace, but it also highlights the fact that the monarchy (the absolute sovereignty of the one God) is not the monarchy of the Father alone.  It is the monarchy of the Trinity, and the Son who became the Lamb is at the heart of it.

Further support for subordinationism is found in the fact that God ‘sent’ his Son.  But such a sending can hardly imply that Jesus’ mission into the world rested on a submission to authority, as if there was no difference between the way that he was sent and the way the prophets, for example, were sent.  God certainly sent ‘his servants the prophets’, but they were sent by an imperious divine commissioning which precluded their own initiative (2 Pet. 1:21).  In the case of the Son, however, his heart was in his mission from eternity, his love not one step or one degree behind that of the Father.  It is this love of Christ that St. Paul describes as ‘surpassing knowledge’ (Eph. 3:19); and it is to it, too, that he ascribes his own salvation.  The Son of God loved him and gave himself for him (Gal. 2:20)

All this has to be said, of course, without detracting in any way from the love of God the Father, but, equally, the love of the Father must not be regarded as initiating our salvation irrespective of the love of the Son and the Spirit.  We have to speak of homo-agapē (one and the same love) as well as of homoousios (one and the same being).

When we look at the great kenosis passage (Phil. 2:5-11) it is very hard to see it in terms of Christ simply submitting to authority.  He was not commanded to make himself nothing.  Instead, his epic journey from glorious pre-existence through abysmal humiliation to magnificent exaltation is firmly rooted in his own ‘mind’ and in his own morphē.  Far from being of the essence of his relationship with the Father, his servanthood was a voluntary expression of his interest in others (Phil. 2:4) and of his heartfelt concern for their salvation.  Not only did he serve beyond the call of duty.  His entering upon his service was not a duty at all.

All the other alleged instances of subordination follow from this initial assumption of the servant-form and of the self-limitation it involved. He comes into the world as Mediator; he intercedes with the Father as Mediator; he receives revelation as Mediator; he receives the gift of the Spirit as Mediator; he will sit on the judgement-seat as Mediator; and it is as the Mediator, the Last Adam, the Head of the Church, that he will be eternally subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:26-28).  This is precisely what the Mediator does with the glory that God gives him: he glorifies the Father (Jn. 17:1).

The talk is of ‘role-subordination’, and the language is deliberately chosen to safeguard the Son’s equality of nature with the Father.  But what ‘role’ did the Son play in eternity, when there was no world to govern or redeem?  Was sonship itself a role?  Hardly.  It was of the very essence of God; and God was love.  Was, then, the Son’s love of the Father an act of submission or an exercise in subordination; and if so, what of the Father’s (and the Spirit’s) love for him?  Have we, indeed, any right to read the concept of ordo (a Latin word which means ‘rank’ or ‘class’) back into the eternal being of God?  Far safer, surely, to worship the triune God under the rubric of the Athanasian Creed (25): ‘none is before, and none is after; none is greater, and none is lesser.’

Does Polity Trump Theology on the PCA Standing Judicial Commission? Part Two

A continuing assessment of the PCA Standing Judicial Commission’s decision in Case 2012-5, Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on.

Read Part 1

There is an adage concerning judicial matters that says, “He who frames the question wins the case.” An outsider or a novice would look at the report of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission in Case 2012-5, Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery and probably conclude that the court carefully considered all the matters according to the Constitution of the PCA. Therefore, the decision has to be the right one. Au contraire; I beg to differ.

In Case 2012-5, the SJC made a fundamental error that obscured their real reason for denying the complaint, i.e., that the SJC now rules on the basis that church polity trumps theology. In its decision, the SJC wrote, in part, that “the Complainant failed to prove his case.” That statement is an unconstitutional standard. The Rules of Assembly Operations 17.1 require all newly elected SJC members to make a solemn vow before the General Assembly that, among other vows:

  1. I will judge according to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, through my best efforts applied to nothing other than the record of the case and other documents before me; and
  2. If in a given case I find my view on a particular issue to be in conflict with the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, I will recuse myself from such a case, if I cannot conscientiously apply the Constitution.

The Constitutional requirement for judging any and all judicial cases, which every SJC member solemnly vows to uphold, is to apply the Constitution to “nothing other than the record of the case and other documents before” them. Every SJC member makes that solemn vow both at his election to a term of office and before hearing or judging on every particular case. It is a standard with which every SJC member is very familiar because of the sheer numbers of times that they must solemnly vow to judge accordingly. Nothing else is more familiar to an SJC member than those vows from the Rules of Assembly Operations.

Those vows require that each SJC member read both the full record of the case in each judicial case and apply the relevant sections of the Constitution to that case. The oral arguments of either party at a hearing are not to be the basis for deciding a case. In fact, it was my experience as a member of the SJC for four terms that the members of that court almost always knew what their opinion of the merits of any case was before the actual hearing of the case. And that is the way it should be. The SJC members have to read the record of the case thoroughly before the hearing for any case. They also have to be familiar with every part of the Constitution. If an SJC juror cannot determine whether a complaint is to be upheld or denied on the basis of the Constitution applied to the record of the case, then such a juror is in over his head and should recuse himself in that case. If such a juror is continually in over his head, he should have the good graces to resign from the SJC. What should never happen is exactly what happened in Case 2012-5. No SJC juror, SJC panel, or full SJC should ever use as an excuse for making a decision in a judicial case that “the Complainant did not prove his case.” The onus is not on the Complainant. The onus is on the SJC members. It is their responsibility to decide cases and to decide them on the basis of the Constitution applied to nothing other than the record of the case.

The judgment of the SJC in Case 2012-5 was a standard that had never been used before in any judicial case by that court. In my fifteen years on the court, there was never a time when the oral arguments of either party were used as a basis for the judgment in the case. No, not at all. It was always the record of the case and the Constitution that were the only relevant matters of consideration. Even as certain members of the SJC began to shift the court towards the ‘polity trumps theology’ approach to judicial decisions no judgment was ever rendered on the basis of oral arguments of the parties. So, why did the SJC rule that way in Case 2012-5?

I cannot read the hearts and motives of the SJC members, but I can observe their actions. The one thing that was very apparent to me at the hearing in March of 2013 was that many of the SJC members did not want to deal with the theological issues involved. That is not just my opinion. SJC members made it clear to me that they were exasperated with me for making that case about theology. One juror even openly rebuked me for emphasizing theology in the presence of the full SJC and all the witnesses before declaring about himself, “I don’t know much about theology.” I wondered at that moment if the juror had forgotten that the Westminster Standards are part of the Constitution of the PCA and that those Standards are full of theology. It is the whole Constitution of the PCA that is to be applied to every case- and that Constitution includes the Westminster Standards as well as the Book of Church Order.

Well, here is a news flash for the SJC. Case 2012-5 was always about theology. It was about theology when Peter Leithart informed Pacific Northwest Presbytery that he disagreed with the PCA’s Ad-Interim Committee Report on the New Perspectives on Paul, the Federal Vision, and the Auburn Avenue Theology which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. It was about theology when Pacific Northwest Presbytery investigated his views. It was about theology when SJC Case 2009-6 was decided by the SJC in March of 2010. It was about theology when the SJC advised Pacific Northwest Presbytery that one of their options concerning Leithart would be to conduct a trial of his theological positions. It was about theology when both Leithart and Pacific Northwest Presbytery filled the record of the case in SJC Case 2012-5 with hundreds of pages of theological statements and quotes. It was about theology when the subsequent trial of Leithart included several hundreds of pages of testimony and examination concerning Leithart’s theological positions. In other words, I was not the one who made SJC Case 2012-5 about theology. It was always about theology.

What the SJC did in their decision in Case 2012-5 involved two things. First, they decided that unless there is clear error in the procedure or process used by the lower court then the SJC does not have the power and obligation of judicial review to make sure that the proper interpretation of the Constitution is being upheld. That is a position that is contradictory of BCO 39-3(4). That is how the SJC has established that church polity is more important than the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Scriptures.

Second, the SJC must have had some buyer’s remorse even about that position because they tried to augment it with the statement that “the Complainant did not prove his case.” In other words, they were at that point addressing the theological matters in a very oblique way. But the statement they made is unworthy of the highest judicatory of the PCA. The only question of any importance before the SJC in March 2013 concerning Case 2012-5 was this: Did Pacific Northwest Presbytery err in not censuring the theological views and teachings of Peter Leithart? To that question, there can only be a resounding yes by anyone who truly believes in the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. Yet, the SJC refused to make that judgment.

Recently, a ten-year-old member answered the first 47 questions of the Children’s Catechism during our worship service in Destin. As I listened to those questions and answers, it struck me that even a ten-year-old child who has learned the Children’s Catechism should be able to judge that Peter Leithart’s views are out of accord with the Constitution of the PCA. The answers to those catechism questions run counter to the testimony of Leithart in a number of places. Of course, there are many other errors in Leithart’s theology which are beyond those questions, but even that limited knowledge is sufficient to make the judgment that his theology is erroneous.

After that recitation, I told my congregation that the answers to those questions were the basis of my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision (which can be read about at http://www.exposingtherfederalvision.org). Should not all members of the SJC be able to make the same judgment that this ten-year-old girl could make? After all, they are all ordained elders in the PCA and have vowed that they sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the PCA as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.

There simply is no reason for any member of the SJC to hide behind the excuse that they cannot judge whether a minister’s views are out of accord with the constitution because “the Complainant did not prove his case.” It is the responsibility of the SJC members to step up to the plate and make that determination for the good of the denomination they serve by applying all the constitution (including the Westminster Standards) to “nothing other than the record of the case.” In SJC 2012-5, the court did not do that and their decision will live in infamy when the history of this period of the PCA is written. Many decisions of the SJC will be forgotten by future generations, but not SJC 2012-5. It was a case of great importance and it will be remembered.

Nonetheless, there are some people who will still say that the court did the best they could and gave their reasons for their decision. That is a frivolous response, in my opinion. Courts always render decisions and give some reason for their opinions. That does not make their decisions right, though. Is Roe vs. Wade right simply because the U S Supreme Court passed it? Or what about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage or Obamacare? The Jews gave a reason to Pilate for why Christ had to be put to death- “We have a law and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). Why even the old Soviet show trials always ended with carefully argued reasons to support their decisions. A carefully argued reason by the SJC is beside the point. There is only one question that concerns the SJC in any case: What does the constitution require in this case? Yet, that is the very question that the SJC studiously refused to entertain in SJC 2012-5. And their decision has done great harm to the PCA as a constitutional denomination that professes to hold to the Westminster Standards as their subordinate standards.

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on. These are serious matters and show that elevating polity above theology is an attack on the Gospel. In such a case, the basis of our denomination is no longer fellowship with one another based on the gospel of Christ. Rather, the basis of our fellowship in this denomination becomes our agreement with a form of church government. Church government is never large enough to unite us. Only the Gospel can do that. We cannot throw the gospel out for the supposed sake of peace.

Of course, the question in the minds of all those who hold sincerely to the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards is this: What can be done about the SJC? I think there are two things. First, Sessions and Presbyteries should watch the decisions of the court very carefully and be ready to overture General Assembly when unconstitutional decisions like SJC 2012-5 are rendered by the court. Second, all ordained elders should watch the votes of the various members of the court very carefully and the General Assembly should not re-elect members who appear to be dismissive of parts of the constitution. Commissioners can express their disapproval through their ballots and that will send an important message to the SJC. This second point will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do. It is in this way that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla.