Archive for May, 2008

In a recent comment about the current discussion of the role of women in the church, Jim Jordan mentioned his Rite Reasons essay #41, “The Triune Office Reconsidered.” You can read it below.

Also check out Jordan’s essays “Liturgical Man, Liturgical Women” parts one and two. He says, “My thesis is that the differences between men and women are, by creation design, fundamentally liturgical and only secondarily biological and psychological. To put it another way, my thesis is that the physical and psychological differences between men and women are grounded in their differing liturgical roles.”


Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 41
Copyright (c) 1995 Biblical Horizons

Traditionally, the three offices in the Presbyterian churches have been teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon. These have been associated with priest, elder, and Levite respectively. We have seen that the deacon is in fact an apprentice and assistance elder.

We have also seen that Levites as well as priests went through a warrior stage and then matured to an elder stage of life. Levites were not mere assistants to the priests. At the tabernacle and temple, yes, that is what they were. But the Levites were also scattered in Israel for two other purposes. They maintained their own cities, including the cities of refuge, and they served as pastors of local synagogues throughout Israel. They were pastors and educators. As pastors, they ministered the Word of God in local assemblies. And because they were to teach Israel the Law of God, we can easily imagine that their cities were libraries and schools. In the cities of refuge, they maintained courts to try those accused of capital crimes, functioning essentially as defense attorneys “against” the prosecution brought by the avenger of blood and his local ruling elders.

Thus, the Levites did everything the New Covenant pastor does, except the sacraments, which were the unique duty of the priests. In the New Covenant, these two functions are joined, and so the New Covenant equivalent of both Levite and priest is the teaching elder.

This makes for two offices: ruler and pastor, with diaconal assistant/apprentices for each. Is there a third office?

We can begin by saying that the question does not come from nowhere. God’s triune personhood is replicated all over human life, and so it is proper to ask if it is also replicated in ecclesiastical office. Moreover, we can rather easily see that ruling elders “image” the Father primarily, and pastors “image” Christ primarily. Is there an “office” that images the Spirit primarily?

I believe there may be: the elder woman. In today’s climate of opinion, it is risky to suggest this, and I know in advance that there will be those who perversely twist what I am about to set forth in order to accuse me of error; but so be it.

First of all, an elder woman is not a ruling or teaching elder. She is not a pastor. “Churches” that have “woman pastors” are at best only Bible studies. When the “woman pastor” serves bread and wine, she is only serving bread and wine. There is no covenant renewal, and no sacramental blessing from Christ. This is because women cannot be pastors.

Note that I did not write that women may not be pastors, but that they cannot be. You and I cannot flap our wings and fly, because we don’t have wings. It is not a matter of permission but of fact. Similarly, men cannot get pregnant and have babies (except in movies). It is not a matter of permission but of fact. Just so, women cannot pastor churches. God did not design them for this purpose, and so they are simply unable to do it. Only a man can represent the Divine Father and Husband to the congregation. Similarly, women cannot rule as elders in the Church. It is not a matter of law but of fact.

With these caveats in mind, however, we must do justice to the “office of women” in the Church as the Bible sets it out. (more…)


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By now you probably have the Offertory essay. Any discussion? I received one question asking this: “If Jesus is the bloody firmament that protects all on the earth, how can the magistrate have the right to exercise the death penalty? Isn’t the criminal protected?”


My answer, part 1: The same is true in the Old Covenant, for the blood of the Day of Coverings covered the firmament temporarily.


My answer, part 2: God has given to the more mature human race (after the Flood) the right/duty to remove from the earth and sent up to Him certain kinds of criminals. These people are removed from the protection of the bloody firmament, and they had better be In Christ, not merely Under Christ, at the time of their death, else they will lose all grace.

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Error in Dates

The latest letter said that Peter Leithart and I will be attending the Rosenstock-Huessy Conference, and Peter will be giving a paper, at Dartmouth College June 11-12. That should have been JULY 11-12. Also, we will be at Tri-City Covenant Church the following Sunday, JULY 13. The contact information remains the same. For Rosenstock, contact Mark Huessy at mark@erhfund.org; and for the Church, Rev. Tom Clark at 603/692-2093.

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Fault Lines, Part Two: A Question to Ask and Positions to Consider

It is vital to ask a tough question before I explore the ways in which the various cultures within the PCA that I described in my last article may respond to the question of women deacons/deaconesses. We have to truthfully answer the ‘why’ question before we move to the ‘what’ question. Is the issue of a woman’s role in the church as a deacon or deaconess a question motivated by an abiding concern to be more Biblical, or is it motivated by embarrassment with regard to our stated position when it comes to how the world views the PCA? Before someone shouts, ‘False dilemma!’ let me hasten to note that I am certain that some people may believe the current stance of the PCA banning women from holding all ordained offices, including deacon, and not currently officially recognizing an order of non-ordained deaconesses is indeed Biblically inaccurate and that they sincerely wish to see this changed whatever the world thinks of how we handle this matter. Yet this question must be faced because those who do often argue for this change do so out of a stated desire to ‘more effectively’ interface with our contemporary culture, a society dominated by a feminist mindset and agenda. Often some very nice sounding theological jargon (like ‘being missional’ or ‘incarnational’) is employed to dress up this concern; no one wishes to appear to be a mere appeaser, or as Paul would put it, a ‘man-pleaser’ (maybe he should have been more prescient and written ‘feminist pleaser’).

This question cuts both ways however. Those who simply don’t wish to even discuss the matter might equally be accused of cultural and theological arrogance. If upon reflection we find that our current practice does indeed fall short of what Scripture commands then we should be prepared (and eager) to change. Simply saying, ‘We don’t do it that way around here’ is no shelter for anyone claiming to be Reformed.

So then, cultural capitulation and ecclesiastical arrogance should not be allowed to govern the reasoning and conclusions the PCA reaches on this matter. Just because someone says, ‘We can’t effectively reach the Bay area without this change’ (as though the power of the Gospel depends on the purity of our polity), or, “We don’t do it that way in Mississippi” (as though that big river is the one that must be crossed to find the home of orthodoxy) is an insufficient basis for making a determination about this important question. Those who want to enter into the debate must ask first why they wish to champion the position they hold. Neither the maintenance of Reformed tradition nor the appearance of being culturally hip are very good reasons for starting a study committee.

That noted, I turn to the various PCA tectonic plates and the possibility of their collision over this issue. How will each of these respond to the question?

Obviously, the grid I am suggesting is a generalization, and there is overlap among these various sub-communities. What I think is vital to recall is the distinctive that worship makes as these groups wrestle with the issue. Lex Orandi Lex Credendi must be kept in mind. That old Latin phrase means in essence that the way we worship shapes the way we believe. It is a truth born out in experience over the centuries and a phenomenon observed by ecclesiastical sociologists of all stripes. From David Wells to Benedict XVI we have ample writing to demonstrate the reality that the culture of worship often drives the bus of belief. Informal, pop worship can lead to a view of God that is also informal and ‘pop’, a view in which God exists to entertain the congregation. In this model, the personal experience of worship as getting goose bumps to line up and fly in formation becomes the standard of evaluation for the effectiveness of the worship service. The Revivalism of 19th century America reshaped the Church and her culture of worship – right down to the architecture – and her view of the Faith. I don’t think I will meet with widespread opposition when I assert that Anabaptist belief and practice is the dominant evangelical culture in America, long ago displacing the older communities that arose out of the early Reformation – Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed. These latter communions, often in an effort to play catch up with their brothers, are now adopting worship styles that are not congruent with their stated theology of God and worship. This abandonment of their ancient practice (lex orandi) will reshape their ancient faith (lex credendi) into something virtually unrecognizable to those who were around long enough to witness the transition from one generation to the next.

In the PCA, the HCs, the NPs, and the STs, will be less likely to embrace any change on the role of women in the Church as officers, or as non-ordained deaconesses. The EPMs however have already shifted the culture of their worship to accommodate what they understand to the demands/needs/desires of their market-niche/audience/community/parish. That strategic decision to reshape the worship culture of the church for accommodation with the demands of the contemporary society sets these churches on the path towards a more ready acceptance of change with regard to women’s roles – even advocacy for such change – because they have come to grasp the significance of ‘branding’ in the world’s church mall. If a church is viewed as being ‘anti-woman’ (at least as defined by feminists) it loses credibility – and perhaps viability – in certain ‘markets’ of outreach. Thus the matter of the way in which the Church relates to the world, the mystery of how she is ‘in’ the world without being ‘of’ the world, lies at the heart of the discussion. Many EPM’s will not countenance for a moment the notion that Scripture alone must determine this matter. Oh to be sure, Scriptural arguments will rolled out in defense of the position stated, but one must again ask if this ‘exegesis’ has been done to defend a culturally relevant position, or if the new position on women arose from the exegesis.

HCs find themselves in an interesting position. They will be mindful that Scripture must be determinative (indeed, in many ways radically so), but they will also be aware of the contribution women have made in Scripture and in Church history (especially in the early centuries), together with carefully stated concerns over the ministry of sacraments. With regard to the latter, because the HCs are very concerned about worship and sacramental ministry, they won’t be asking simply ‘Does this mean women can preach?”, but “Does this mean that women may assist in the distribution of the bread and cup?”, and “Does this mean that women may be readers in the Lord’s Day Liturgy of the Word?” The issue of ‘office’ will be important, but of supreme importance will be how such an office appears before the Church in worship. Thus, while potentially accepting the idea of an order of deaconesses who are different from deacons and are not ordained (and thus in a certain measure of agreement with EPMs), they may not accept women as liturgical readers or as participants in sacramental ministry.

NPs will be on the lookout for any evidence of modernity creeping into the Church, and eager to root it out. I suspect that the views of John Knox on women ministers will supply the sermon ideas for some of my brothers in this grouping. In certain ways, the NPs can, like the HCs, be accused of re-prisitinating a certain era and advocating for this. They too, like the EPMs, might be accused of simply doing exegesis with a view to a previously determined conclusion. They will need to make sure that they do all that is possible to show that such an accusation has no grounds, pleading their case on the basis of the inspired text and not simply on the confessional tradition, rich and in accord with Scripture as it may be.

And what of the STs? They too must have an ad fontes movement, taking seriously the Scriptural case for women deaconesses offered by those who see things differently than they have always held to be true. Yet the STs distinctive concern with preserving a ‘Christian America’ culture may prove to be a great influence as well. STs will be very mindful of the feminist political agenda, and may conclude that this agenda, which is often seen to be an attack on a traditional southern way of living, is cause enough for the dismissal of any call to consider the role of women in the Church. The ‘slippery slope’ argument – that allowing for deaconesses today paves the way female ruling and teaching elders tomorrow – will find widespread appeal in ST congregations.

Thus both STs and NPs will be able to make common cause on this issue, though perhaps from slightly different perspectives, against the EPM initiative. The HC concerns may well alienate them from ST and NP leadership, their very different worship cultures contributing to a certain level of unfortunate suspicion between leaders in these communities. As of today it almost impossible to imagine the NPs and STs countenancing any change to the BCO on the role of women in the church, or tolerating the use of the word ‘deaconess’ or ‘minister’ with reference to women in the church. It is equally hard to imagine the EPMs long tolerating the status quo as they train an emerging group of young leaders and urban church planters. One can imagine the HCs fairly divided and filled with a certain degree of wrangling over the issue for years to come, one group allowing for deaconesses, the others saying ‘Never’ to make sure the tide of feminism is stopped at the gates, no matter what the cost.

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PCA Fault Lines and the Approaching Ecclesiastical Earthquake, Part One: Introduction

Covenant Seminary President Bryan Chappell will lead an important presentation and discussion concerning the future direction of the PCA at the PCA’s General Assembly in Dallas this summer. The stated reason that this seminar needs to take place (and it does, and will be excellent in Dr. Chappell’s able hands) is because of the increasingly controversial and divisive issue of the role of women in the Church’s ministry. The past few years have witnessed several prominent ministers and congregations depart from the PCA over the current stance of the denomination on this question. Other congregations freely use the term ‘deaconess’ to refer to women in their churches who carry forward ministry related tasks, and this makes some in other congregations very uncomfortable. At least two Presbyteries have offered Overtures for this year’s GA to form a study committee to look into this matter, reporting back to the GA the following year. Thus the issue will shortly be noted as a front and center issue, rather than a simmering controversy discussed only quietly and in private. Looking ahead to Dr. Chappell’s seminar, I thought it might be helpful to say up front the way I see it. This opening article, written before I knew about Dr. Chappell’s seminar, offers my take on why this matter  is so potentially explosive.

PCA Fault Lines and the Coming Ecclesiastical Earthquake


For some years our family lived in western Kentucky, not far from the New Madrid fault line that runs north-south through the central United States. We were regularly warned about the danger of a major earthquake, the kind that occurred in 1811-1812 which re-directed the Mississippi River and formed Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. It was an almighty shake up that very well could be repeated. We never felt more than minor tremors, one occurring just a few weeks ago in that region of the country.

Fault lines are boundaries, places where the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth meet – and sometimes move, causing the great earthquakes which can devastate wide areas. These underground lines are well known and in some cases visible to trained eyes. Yet the surface appears to be safe to most observers, the underlying faults not readily recognizable. When tectonic plates – the massive, irregularly shaped slabs of solid rock that make up the earth’s lithosphere – shift and collide along the hitherto hidden fault lines, the energy released causes massive devastation. The minor tremors often experienced in the fault line regions are reminders of what lurks beneath.

It seems to me that some ecclesiastical geological surveying is in order. It appears to many that some fault lines are running beneath the surface of the Presbyterian Church in America, occasionally showing themselves with the eruption of various disputes. It has to be said that most of these in recent years have been what one might describe as ‘minor tremors’ (though to the people directly involved they might have felt rather dangerous indeed). Issues like the length of the days in creation, theonomy, spiritual gifts, and the more recent controversy about the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision theology have indeed demanded a lot of attention from PCA elders and congregations, and yet have been rather tame disputes in comparison with other titanic conflicts in Church history. But is ‘the big one’ coming? I think so.

In the past I have described the PCA as consisting of a few prominent groups: TRs (Truly Reformed), the BRs (Barely Reformed), the URs (Urban Reformed), and the LRs (Liturgically Reformed). Tim Keller has suggested a paradigm of ‘Transformationalists’, ‘Doctrinalists’, and ‘Pietists’. Keller’s incisive analysis captures the picture in broad terms, and I think it is certainly helpful. Nevertheless, the TR, BR, UR, and LR distinctions strike a chord at the practical-emotional level because they describe approaches to worship as well as approaches to society. TRs, BRs, URs, and LRs might all be engaged for cultural transformation, but their differences on worship would ultimately alienate them from one another.

Yet this demarcation also masks the more substantial divisions that exist in the PCA. The recent FV controversy highlights this. The BRs and TRs were able to make common cause against people they perceived to be common opponents, and thus one might fairly conclude that the fault line running between the TR tectonic plate and the BR tectonic plate is surprisingly narrow and lacking in the capacity to become the epicenter for a massive shift. But neither the TRs nor the BRs could make common cause with many of the LRs, primarily because the LRs viewed those condemned in the FV-NPP Report as on their side of the fault-lines. Why? The culture of worship. The URs were largely silent in the last conflict, not from lack of conviction either way, but probably because they saw the FV controversy as a conflict between two kinds of TRs, and the outcome would not in any way affect their worship culture. And that is where the real divide in the PCA exists – worship and sacraments.

Let me suggest that this worship demarcation is a much more critical fault line that runs through the lithography of the PCA landscape beneath the previously mentioned groupings and it is this line that provides the context for the considerable shift that I believe may well take place. This lithographic survey highlights four key ecclesiastical cultures in the PCA which I have labeled in this way: HCs (Historical Catholics), NPs (Neo-Puritans), STs (Southern Traditionalists), and EPMs (Evangelical Postmoderns). There is some crossover among these groups; there are NPs who are also STs. But it should also be noted that the chasm between each of these groups is also quite wide. There does not seem to be a place where, for instance, the HCs meet the EPMs, or the EPMs meet the STs. What is characteristic of each grouping indicates why a place of meeting would be very difficult. Some of this is due in no small part to the underlying history of the Reformed movements. The differences between the British and European Continental churches and theology (and the unique approaches that exist between the European communions, notably between the Kuyperians and Schilderians), all contribute to this divergence. Those from a Scottish heritage for instance could never bear to have portions of the English Book of Common Prayer used in their services, nor could the Dutch Reformed ponder for long a Scottish style Presbyterian polity.

Let’s look briefly at these groups as I observe them.

HCs (historic catholics) value the ancient Faith as expressed in the Creeds, worship in such a way that the Lord’s Table has a place of weekly prominence, and the liturgical structure images the more ancient practices of the Church. Scripture is taken very seriously, studied enthusiastically, and proclaimed faithfully. These congregations however see themselves first and foremost as part of the centuries deep and wide Christian Church which encompasses a far wider community than the Reformed, and takes seriously the call to work with other kinds of Christian congregations in their locality for the growth of the Kingdom. Often in favor of paedocommunion, HCs are determined to plant beachheads of kingdom renewal, appreciating their reformed pedigree and confessional allegiance, but never allowing that to trump Scripture when there is any apparent disagreement between the two. They would value Systematic theology, but not at the expense of Biblical theology, which would have pride of place in this theological scheme.

NPs (Neo-Puritans) value the Confession and Catechisms above the ancient Creeds, worship in what might be identified as a more Puritan- minimalist style, and have a liturgical structure which places the greatest emphasis on the sermon. Here Scripture is taken very seriously as well, and it is taught and proclaimed with vigor and devotion. These congregations see themselves as rooted not so much in a patristic Church tradition as in the Reformation itself, and may view with suspicion anything that is not part and parcel of that great renewal. They may work with other local congregations, but might also be reluctant to do so in the name of preserving the purity of the Gospel.

STs (Southern Traditionalists) might be described as exactly like the NPs with this notable exception: STs tend to be ready and able to work with other evangelical congregations in community wide evangelistic work and mercy ministry. In addition, their worship is somewhat more culturally conditioned as well, often with large choirs at the front of the worship space, and magnificent productions and spectacles presented that affirm America’s uniquely Christian history, as well as the expected Christmas and Easter pageantry. One person described these congregations as NPs with a smile. That is not fair to either group in fact. Their similarities in concern are genuine, but their differences in worship remain profound. Like EPMs, these churches will be happy to employ modern technologies of mass communication to increase their reach and (as they see it) effectiveness in getting the message out.

EPMs (Evangelical post-moderns) value contextualization and the constant search for the narrative of the people they serve, so that the narrative of Scripture can be communicated to those people. In a certain sense this is not post-modern; it does after all acknowledge a meta-narrative in both the community and the Scripture. But it is post-modern in its shape, for its methodology suggests that the narrative of the post-apostolic experience of the Church can be “mined” for examples without buying the whole parcel of the experience and history of that ancient Church. EPMs would thus be more than happy to quote an Augustine or Athanasius, while in the same breath roundly asserting that we must beware of the dead religiosity of the past. Worship here may best be described as experimental and open; the leaders are committed to the search for the appropriate words and vehicles to present the person and message of Jesus Christ within their cultural context and language. This may include drama, art, various musical styles and performances (though never classical), and innovative preaching and teaching presentations, often involving multi-media displays with power point and move clips. They are gladly open to work with Christians from other groups, and they tend to not be self-consciously catechetical and confessional, seeking to keep the doctrinal and dogmatic end of the Faith somewhat underground and on a very short leash.

Running throughout the PCA are fault lines around these theological and ecclesiastical tectonic plates. They await the one issue that will unleash the kind of energy that causes a massive shift, with the plates moving away from one another, causing a new alignment to occur. That issue is now on the horizon, and the low rumblings from deep beneath the surface can be heard as that issue moves closer to consideration. That issue is the role of women in the Church.

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In addition to the information on the right side of this page, I shall be teaching on church music and we shall be singing various kinds of things. Also, I plan to have a workshop or two on how to play piano/organ for worship, and if some of you would like to try your hand at playing for the conference singing, there will be an opportunity to do so. So, some of you might want to bring your pianist/musicians along this year. We will use the traditional Biblical Horizons Vesper service in the morning this year, as Matins.

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