[Note: The item below expresses the views of the individual to whom the material is ascribed and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.]
Some Brief Thoughts on the PCA report on Women in the Church
WRF Member Rev. David Robertson
Senior Minister of St. Peter’s Free Church of Dundee, Scotland
The PCA committee reports on the role of women in the church will doubtless cause some controversy when it is reported to this year's general assembly. Although I have no idea why! It is balanced, biblical and gives a variety of different viewpoints whilst providing clear teaching and guidance for the denomination. It may be that there are those who will read between the lines and find some concern for a potential downgrade, and I suspect that there are those who will think that it does not go nearly far enough and who will be disappointed at its conclusions. As a member of a sister church, with a great many friends in the PCA, I'm very interested in this report. What follows is not a comprehensive analysis just a few reflections.
Firstly I want to say I am grateful for the report – it is a very useful summary of the biblical, historical, theological and contemporary positions. It will be very helpful in the future as a resource. Those who produced it should be commended for their hard work and the clearly prayerful, biblical and detailed manner in which they went about it.
Secondly as someone from another culture it is clear to me that there are underlying cultural questions that I am qualified to comment on. But I thought it might be helpful for our Reformed brothers and sisters in different parts of the world, to see how we in St Peters, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland, approach this issue. The Free Church is wholeheartedly committed to the doctrine of the Westminster standards and our practice must fit in with that as a subordinate – always subordinate to Scripture.
As such, like the report, we do not believe that (whatever the culture says), women can be ordained as elders within the church. Ministering it with in a contemporary context in which a large number of people come from outwith the church, I am often asked about this. It is a question that should be taken seriously and not automatically dismissed. I remember one German lady who had just been converted who asked me why women did not preach or were not elders in the church. I asked her to write the Kirk session with her questions and they responded in an excellent manner. They asked Rev Alistair I McLeod, a professor in what was then the Free Church College, to present a paper to the congregation along similar lines as the committee's report. It was for congregational purposes and so was not nearly as detailed. But I always remember her response at the end – she said she could not agree, and yet she thought that what was presented was biblical. She was also deeply appreciative of having been taken seriously and she accepted that her previous suspicion that we were a bunch of misogynistic, patriarchal male bigots, was wrong! In other words we were doing what we did because we believed it was biblical, not because it reflected our culture.
However I do not believe that the idea that women should never take part in any leadership in the church is biblical. In my predecessors day, (I am in the church of Rev Robert Murray McCheyne), he appointed Bible women to evangelise and visit in the local area. I grew up in a tradition where it seemed as though women were not allowed to do anything, except work in the church kitchen, unless you happened to be a female missionary in a foreign land. Then you were permitted to speak, even in the church. I always found it quite amusing that, when one particular lady missionary from our home congregation spoke about the work and always brought in a word of Scripture, that was warmly welcomed. It seemed as if you were a nurse in Africa you were able to speak, but if you were a nurse in Scotland it would have been a sin!
Another example of a woman teaching was in what is now known as Edinburgh Theological Seminary. When we didn't have a New Testament Greek professor there was a very capable woman who was certainly the best Greek teacher, and so it was obvious that she should teach our students biblical Greek. Surely that principle applies in other areas? What would be wrong with a woman teaching in her area of expertise in an adult Sunday school class – given that this is done under the authority of the local kirk session?
Another issue that came up early in my ministry was the whole question of women being silent in the church. I have never yet met anyone who thinks that that is an absolute prohibition. Do we really think that women should not sing? I think the report deals with this particular aspect very well. It is clear from the New Testament that women prayed and prophesied - Therefore in my own church we are quite happy to have suitable gifted women pray in public and also read the Scriptures. Equally there is no problem in women giving some of the notices, sharing their testimony or giving the children's talk. The only things the women do not do is that which is reserved for the elders and the Minister.
Like many churches in the United States we have women involved as part of our staff. This can be done in an administrative or indeed a pastoral role. In fact the greatest need in my congregation at this moment is for a woman's pastoral worker – this is because of the continued growth of the congregation and the particular societal constraints on men working with women.
What about ordination? I must admit I'm not a big fan of the term. The discussion in the report on this I also found particularly helpful. We do not ordain women as elders or ministers. Although I personally would be in favour of ordaining women as eacons, that is not the position of the Free Church, and so instead we have the diaconal assistants. In effect they fulfill the same function as deacons. There is a sense in which we set apart (ordain?) women in other roles as well – Sunday school teachers, clerk to the deacons court, church office manager etc.
One of the beauties of the New Testament church - is that it lacks the detail and organisation of the Old Testament temple. It is therefore able to be much more flexible in different cultural contexts. This does not mean that we make things up according to our culture – it rather means that there are basic biblical principles that we then have to apply in the context of that culture. In this regard I take as my basic principles - the following, which I think are also reflected in the report.
1) Men and women are equal in Christ. There is no difference in that regard.
2) We are equal but different in other respects. Equality does not mean sameness – hence the complementarian position. But the working out of what it means to be complementarian will vary in different cultures.
3) The Lord has ordained that only men can be elders in his church. Everything else is open.
I once heard of a Professor who told his students “David Robertson is a feminist by nature and culture but constrained by his understanding of the Bible.” I think he meant it as an insult, but I take it as a complement. Here I stand, I can do no other. My conscience and practice should be determined by Scripture, not by tradition or culture. But that works in different ways – some times we take our culture as absolute and interpret Scripture through its eyes. Instead we must always be taking our culture (including our church cultures) and judging it through the eyes of Scripture. This PCA report does that. I commend it to the wider Church.
Minister of St Peters Free Church
Associate Director of Solas Centre for Public Christianity
10th May 2017