The Women’s Question and The Confessions

August 9, 2012

The issues have been confused for years and I’m ready to stop out for a couple of days from the marriage curriculum and address a question that keeps coming up. The second form of the question popped out in the one-minute speech of a GA commissioner, who said, basically, that if it were up to the Book of Confessions, she would never have been ordained. The first form of the question, around for years, asks: “The Bible requires silence of women in the church, yet we ordain women. Why can we not ordain committed homosexuals despite the prohibition of homosexual practice in the Bible?”

So today let’s start with the one-minute speech (fast forward to 39:40). The commissioner claims that a strict application of the Confessions would mean that women could not be ordained. But I challenge this claim on two counts:

First of all, when the decision to ordain women as teaching elders was made in the predecessor bodies (UPCUSA in 1955 and PCUS in the 1960s), there was no “Book of” Confessions; both bodies embraced the Westminster Standards alone. Westminster makes no statement whatsoever that prohibits or limit the ecclesiastical role of women; it is silent on the subject.

Secondly, when the Book of Confessions was adopted in 1967 by the UPCUSA, it compiled two ancient creeds (Nicene and Apostles’), four reformation confessions (including two that the English church replaced with Westminster), and one contemporary declaration (Barmen) into our confessional collection. A search of those seven creeds, catechisms, and confessions yield two passages of prohibition of women’s ministry. From The Scots Confession (BOC 3.22):

The Right Administration of the Sacraments
. . .  we abandon the teaching of the Roman Church and withdraw from its sacraments; firstly, because their ministers are not true ministers of Christ Jesus (indeed they even allow women, whom the Holy Ghost will not permit to preach in the congregation, to baptize) and, secondly, because they have so adulterated both the sacraments with their own additions that no part of Christ’s original act remains in its original simplicity.

And from The Second Helvetic Confession (BOC 5.191):

THE MINISTER OF BAPTISM. We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.

But there’s more. At the time of the adoption of the Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 was also drafted and included. One of its particular objectives was to affirm the equality of all people (regardless of social-economic status, race, or sex [NB: not sexual practice], based on Galatians 3:28). It was this declaration that compelled the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in 1975 to declare affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement. In fact, that decision (Maxwell et al. v. the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in the matter of Walter Kenyon) stated explicitly that our form of government derives from our confessional faith:

“Our form of government must be inseparably connected to the faith we profess. The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of people before God is thus essential.” (Minutes of the General Assembly, UPCUSA, 1975; 257)

The significance of this piece of history is that the church made a confessional affirmation intentionally to reverse statements within previous Reformation confessions. They chose to keep the text of the Second Helvetic and the Scots confessions intact, but to speak to the concern of the 1960s about social equality in C67 and later to the controversy regarding women’s ordination in A Brief Statement of Faith (10.4, 64) adopted upon reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS:

The same Spirit . . . calls women and men to all ministries of the Church. 

So the GA commissioner spoke in error, that the Confessions alone would have prevented her ordination. The opposite is true, and not just conceptually but in historical experience. Our confessions formed the defining piece of the puzzle, “compelling” the GAPJC to make affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement for service in the church.

In summary, this is one of those cases of “evolving theology” reflected in the Book of Confessions. The church chose to include “women and men” in the Brief Statement of Faith (10:4), for instance, and not change the reference to women clergy in 5.191 (2nd Helvetic, Ch. XX). This was done as a result of intentional action at the GA level to include women in the manifold ministries of Christ. It was a conscious choice to revise the confessional witness to be consistent with Scripture’s witness about women. With this revision, the church could continue to practice the discipline of faith shaping a way of life.

Tomorrow, applying the same rationale and method, can we affirm the ordination and/or marriage of committed homosexuals on the basis of an inconsistency within the Book of Confessions?


15 Responses to “The Women’s Question and The Confessions”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary we changed the Confessions to allow them to conform to what we truly find in Scripture. We cannot do that with any text of Scripture about homosexuality. And as Dave Moody would say, That is my 2 cents: )

  2. Jeff Ogden Says:

    While I agree with your analysis, Mary, I think this points out why we should have changed the text of the Confessions to reflect our actual practice. It’s too easy now to say that the Confessions are museum pieces of what we once believed and that we’ve evolved in our position. On the whole, I think the BoC was a bad idea. It’s too unwieldy as a teaching document and it creates too much wiggle room on doctrine. It was instrumental in our reaching our current confessional status: “There was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

    • revmary Says:

      No argument there, Jeff. The addition of a confession dilutes the impact of the rest. The adoption of a stable of confessions compounds that problem. I found it particularly interesting to note that the Westminster was actually written to replace the 2nd Helvetic and the Heidelberg in England. When we write new ones, we don’t take an old one out . . .

  3. Susan Adkins Says:

    How do you deal with Paul’s teaching against women teaching or holding authority over a man (1Timothy 2:11,12)? I’ve heard it explained that women weren’t educated back then, but now they are, so now it’s okay for women to teach in church. This answer does not take into account Paul’s own explanation for his instruction – which is in the next verses – that Eve was not ceated first and Eve was deceived. I really want to be able to articulate an argument grounded in Scripture that supports the leadership of women in the church so that I can counter the claim that since we don’t obey Paul in this matter, we don’t need to obey him in the matter of acknowledging that homosexual practice is sinful and forbidden. I would appreciate any light you can shed on this matter.

    • Jake Horner Says:

      There is a significant difference in the way Scripture speaks about the two issues. Scripture is unclear regarding ordination of women. One can make a reasonable argument from Scripture supporting either the egalitarian or the complementarian position. There are many examples of women in leadership roles in the Bible—Deborah, Jael, Huldah in the OT, Priscilla (Prisca), Phoebe, the Mary’s, Junia (whom Paul describes as ‘outstanding among the apostles’) in the NT.

      On the other hand scripture is unequivocally clear regarding homoerotic practice—it is never affirmed.

    • revmary Says:

      Ha-ha, my readers are well equipped, Susan! But I too will forward you a paper on 1 Tim 2. The topic of what Scripture does on the topic of women will be taken up in a day or two. But it is along the lines of what Jake said, in his comment here just now.

  4. Bruce Becker Says:

    Susan, please send me a letter or an e-mail with your street address and your e-mail address. I will send you exegetical studies that I have done resolving the discrepancies in Paul. Please note that in Acts 2.18 Luke edits his quote of Joel 2.28-32 to ADD the emphatic statement …”and THEY will prophesy…” (not in Joel). Why does he do so if not for the reemphasis upon “sons and daughters…men and women…” (Acts 2.17-18)?

    I wrote two papers for PRESBYWEB back in Spring 2007 about women’s ordination being a Reformed essential. Perhaps Hans Cornelder can dig them up in the PRESBYWEB archives.

    Luke was the NT proponent of women in ministry and he learned it from his association with Paul!

    Rev. Bruce Becker, Birchwood Presbyterian Church, 400 Meadowbrook Ct., Bellingham, WA 98226 PS– Mary, I pray it was not too cheeky of me to be answering your mail !!!!!!!!!

  5. Bruce Byrne Says:

    Susan, you’ll appreciate this article by Kenneth Bailey:

    -Bruce Byrne

  6. Bruce Byrne Says:

    Also, this:

    If you like this author’s work, click back to his “think tank” at the bottom link to explore other works of his.

    -Bruce Byrne

  7. reveds Says:

    I realize I’m setting myself up for trouble here (ala Kenyon), but here goes…
    I heard the following at a pastors conference: Reciting Romans 8:28 “for those who love God all things work together for good”, while theologically correct, is pastorally inappropriate during when someone has just lost a loved one.
    Could the same be said for women’s ordination today? It may be theologically correct, but because of the immaturity of the church (and not necessarily the women of the church) it is pastorally inappropriate. Perhaps it’s right, but the church isn’t ready for that freedom yet.

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