The study committee report on the role of women in the ministry of the church, approved by the 45th General Assembly of the PCA, asks its Sessions and presbyteries to consider nine recommendations. With the first and last of these adjudicated at the assembly itself, only the second through the eighth require any reflection now. Previous segments have dealt with recommendations two through five. This article deals with the sixth recommendation from the committee, the revised and approved version of which states:
That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.
To arrive at its final form, this statement underwent a revision on the floor of the Assembly. Its original version read:
That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses.
The revised statement is a vast improvement over the original for several reasons. First, by removing the exclusive focus on women in the original statement, the revised version focusses instead on all unordained members. Thereby it removes any hint of the fragmentation of the church into groups.
Second, it narrows the scope of appointment of these unordained women and men to the ordained diaconate of the church, not leadership in general. Whereas the original recommendation would be introducing something new, the revised version is already reflected in the existing Book of Church Order of the PCA. In essence, the revised report asks churches to select and appoint women to be assistants to the deacons. This revision is simply a restatement of Chapter 9, Section 7 of the BCO, although its force may be a little stronger. The report moves from the “may” of the BCO to the implied “ought” of the recommendation.
Third, it removes unnecessary controversy from the recommendation. The last clause in the original recommendation inexplicably includes a reference to deaconesses. This inclusion is inexplicable because it is not a recommendation, but a statement. The Assembly deleted this clause in order to remove any potential controversy that including such a statement might produce. The revised recommendation will cause few churches in the PCA any heartburn. However, it still seems a strange recommendation to make. Here are a few observations:
First, it is impossible for any presbytery to be able to carry out this recommendation. The presbytery does not have a diaconate, and therefore cannot select and appoint anyone to it. Perhaps the inclusion of this court is simply an oversight from the floor amendment. Whatever the reason, its inclusion is not significant enough to warrant any further discussion.
Second, this recommendation states the obvious and is therefore unnecessary. I will grant that most of my associations within the PCA are with confessional, conservative men, but I have gotten to know some men whose convictions align themselves more with the progressive proponents in the PCA. Among neither group have I ever encountered any who would say that the unordained men and women of their congregations should not help the ordained diaconate, or Session for that matter. Certainly, there can be no formal appointment for those who help the Session, but the very nature of the shepherding ministry of the church is that men and women be equipped for ministry (Cf. Eph. 4:11-12). It does not seem a necessary observation to make, because it is so basic to the life and ministry of the church.
The original formulation of this recommendation does present problems through its focus on women, its desire to expand the appointment of women from helping the deacons to the leadership more generically, and through its reference to deaconesses, but with these removed very little remains against which objection can arise. Granted, due to the recommendation’s obvious statement, it has very limited value in helping the church working through this issue, but in all this recommendation is relatively benign.