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.