In June, the elders and leaders of the Presbyterian Church in America gathered in Mobile, Alabama, for the convening of the 44th General Assembly. As a first-time voting member, I couldn’t have been more excited to participate! While the week was marked by superlative moments of satisfying labor, rich fellowship, and soul-stirring worship, I was disappointed by the court’s decision to erect a study committee regarding the role of women in ministry. The study committee, which will report its findings next year at the 45th General Assembly, was instructed to give specific attention to the following issues: “(1) The biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination; (2) The biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; (3) Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses.”
The objective of the proposal seems clear: the ordination of women to the office of deacon. For those of us who have a history in liberal Protestant denominations, it is impossible to ignore the ominous echoes of a painful past. Are the Scriptures so ambiguous regarding the role of women in the church to necessitate a study committee? I don’t think so. The Word of God addresses this issue abundantly, clearly, and definitively.
I) Does the Bible empower women to serve in the church?
Yes! Women are enjoined to labor in their local churches with great zeal and gladness! After meeting Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman returned home boldly testifying to the grace of God, and “many Samaritans from that town believed in [Jesus] because of the woman's testimony” (John 4:39). Mary, Mark’s mother, graciously invited the local church to use her home as a meeting place (Acts 12:12). Phoebe patronized the Apostle Paul’s ministry (Romans 16:1). Eunice and Lois faithfully catechized Timothy and passed on to him their sincere faith (2 Timothy1:5, 3:14-15). Pricilla with her husband Aquila discipled Apollos and “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Paul impressed upon Titus the necessity of women’s discipleship within the church (Titus 2:3-5). This is a small sampling from the myriad of ways in which God has blessed His church through righteous women.
By God’s grace, it doesn’t take an expert to see the precious and pious fingerprints of godly women on every ministerial surface of Westminster Presbyterian Church: the composition of our Lord’s Day liturgies and children’s bulletins; the arrangement and execution of our music; the directing and staffing of our nursery; the leadership and labor of the Christian Education, Missions, and Women’s Ministry committees; the preparation of the Lord’s Supper; the cleaning and beautifying of the church edifice; the nursing home ministry; the stocking of pew backs with visitor and prayer cards; and the participation in weekly prayer meetings; and biannual work days. Far from being feminist revolutionaries, these women are faithfully clinging to the examples of their godly ancestresses set forth clearly in God’s Word.
II) Does the Bible exclude women from any specific roles in the church? Yes.
A. Women are not to exercise teaching authority over men.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul called the congregation to return to a biblical understanding of gender identity and roles. Apparently, some of the women of that congregation had burst through the ramparts of reverence and propriety by assuming positions of unbiblical authority over the congregation. Paul explained, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). Paul was in no way forbidding women from active and joyous participation in congregational worship, but rather, he was forbidding their exercise of teaching authority over men in worship.
Similarly, he instructed Timothy, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (I Timothy 2:11-12). Was Paul a misogynist, sexist, chauvinist, or some other dreaded “-ist”? Of course not! Paul’s mind was thoroughly anchored in the Word of God and he grounded his anthropology (knowledge of man) and ecclesiology (knowledge of the church) in the creation account: “For,” he explained, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1Timothy 2:13-14). The roles of men and women in church reflect the roles of the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, in the first church.
B. Women are not eligible for ordination to the office of elder or deacon.
1) Elder- Paul instructed his protégé, Timothy, “Therefore an overseer (synonymous with “elder”) must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach...” (1 Timothy 3:2). Likewise, he charged Titus, “… appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:5-6).
2.) Deacon-When the Greeks accused the church in Jerusalem of neglecting the needs of widows within their ranks, the apostles gathered together all of the disciples, men and women, saying, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:2-3). If the office of deacon was truly designed by the Lord to be occupied by men and women, would the apostles not be guilty of sexism and partiality for instructing the disciples to appoint only men? The answer becomes clearer when one considers Paul’s words to Timothy, “Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (1 Timothy 3:12).
So, beloved church, it is our sacred duty to hold fast to truth and to pray! Pray that God would protect our denomination from the evils of both feminism and chauvinism. Pray that God would continue to raise up righteous women that Westminster might be increasingly furnished to glorify Christ Jesus in all that we do.