Ordination and the promotion of woman church officers in the PCA...

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Under the post, "Rachel Miller's straw men...," a debate unfolded over the proper ordination of church officers. I believe in regular-old ordination as Presbyterians do it, with the necessity of a call, the vote of presbytery following their examination of the candidate and approval of his call, the laying on of hands, and prayer. This is how we ordain church officers in Clearnote Fellowship (sessions hold the examination of elders) and it was how I was ordained, also. That said, a couple comments.

First, when one of the two congregations I served in Pardeeville, Wisconsin voted to leave the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), the joint board of elders of both churches had spent the previous year or so determining whether or not to leave the PC(USA), and if so, what denomination to transfer into? After looking at a number of denominations, our list shortened to the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Presbyterian Church in America. We announced to the two congregations that we believed we should leave the PC(USA) and we scheduled a vote on the matter for a couple months later. We also told our PC(USA) presbytery of our intentions.

For years I had been serving in presbytery leadership, but it did not matter: when we informed them of the coming vote, John Knox Presbytery sent in a special ops team to try to destroy the churches...

It seemed clear from their tactics among the souls of the churches that they might well file charges against me for leading the churches out of the denomination and I might be stripped of my ordination. This possibility being on the elders' minds, we asked the stated clerks of the EPC and PCA how they would respond to the PC(USA) refusing to transfer me, stripping me of my ministerial credentials, instead? If we sought to enter their fellowship with our senior pastor defrocked, would they require him to be re-ordained?

The stated clerk of the EPC, Ed Davis, answered that the EPC was concerned to maintain good fraternal relations with the PC(USA) and would therefore require me to be reordained. The stated clerk of the PCA, Paul Gilchrist, answered that the PCA would not recognize the defrocking and would not require me to be reordained.

When Paul Gilchrist was informed of Ed Davis's response, he wrote Davis a letter expressing his disapproval. He said any stripping of a pastor's credentials by the PC(USA) at the end of a lengthy conflict over denominational affiliation would be purely political and ought not to be dignified by the EPC.

All of us were impressed, not so much that Stated Clerk Gilchrist said the PCA would not require my reordination, but that he was indignant over the willingness of the EPC to curry favor with the PC(USA) by recognizing the validity of their stripping of a pastor of his ordination as discipline for his leading the souls under his care out of a denomination that approved of abortion and was on the cusp of normalizing gay weddings and gay church officers. Not surprisingly, then, in the fall of 1992 we transferred from the PC(USA) to the PCA where the congregation continues to serve the Lord as Grace Presbyterian Church, Pardeeville, Wisconsin. 

So what is ordination and what significance does it have in present controversies? No one can argue that the process of ordination and defrocking of pastors has ever been free of naked ambition and political machinations. Consider that those early reformers of the Roman Catholic Church of the twelfth century, the Waldenses, were the ones who laid hands on (ordained) the fifteenth century successors of Reformer Jan Hus known as the Bohemian Brethren. Thus the Brethren laid claim to true apostolic succession. 

Back in the eighties, James Hurley, a prof at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, worked hard to change his denomination's polity to allow for church officers who were women. The bleeding edge of that effort in presbyterian polity, recently, is the office of deacon, so Hurley served as chairman of a study committee that kept petitioning the general synod of their denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod, to rewrite their constitution to allow for women deacons. Hurley was the chairman of the women deacon study committee, and as part of their work they brought a lengthy statement on ordination. Predictably, it was not supportive of ordination, yet parts of it are helpful for the continuing debate and here is an excerpt.

In connection with the effort of Hurley to get approval of woman officers in the RPCES, two things: first, Hurley's multiple attempts failed; and second, Hurley's attempts and failures have been widely misrepresented by Tim Keller and his fellow pastors trying to bring woman officers to the PCA today.

Observations from Presbyterian Law and the RPCES FOG [i.e., "Form of Government"]

Presbyterian history shows that the exact nature of valid ordination has been debated. A. J. Hodge's volume What Is Presbyterian Lawprovides evidence that the church has recognized that prayer and the laying on of hands are appropriate, but that the laying on of hands is not essential to ordination (Hodge, A.J., What Is Presbyterian Law, 1907, p. 309). The stress on the nonessential nature of laying on of hands seems to stem from the Reformation conflict with Rome over the importance of external observations. Charles Hodge, in his volume on Church Polity, provides further information on this matter. Regarding the significance of laying on of hands he remarks:

"The Committee of Bills and Overtures reported an overture from the Presbytery of South Alabama on the subject of ordaining elders and deacons with the imposition of hands. The committee recommended that it be left up to the discretion of each Church session to determine the mode of ordination in this respect.

"Under the old dispensation and in the Apostolic Church, the imposition of hands was used on all solemn occasions to signify the idea of communication. It is a fitting and becoming ceremony whenever the rights and privileges of a sacred office are conferred; but there is evidently no necessity or peculiar importance to be attached to it. There would seem to be something of the leaven of the Popish doctrine of the communication of a mysterious influence, producing the indelible impress of orders, still lurking in the minds of some of our brethren. If grace, in the sense of divine influence, was given by the laying on of hands, then indeed, it would be a serious question when that ceremony should be used. But if grace, in such connection, means what it often means in Scripture, and in the language of the English Reformers, office, considered as a gift; then it is obviously a matter of indifference, whether those in authority express their purpose of conferring a certain office by words or signs, or by both."

"Turrettin remarks, that in reference to ordination and the appointment of church officers, we must distinguish between `essential, and accidentals.' To make forms essential is the essence of formalistic ritualism, and utterly subversive of God's law, and of the best interests of the State and of the Church. What is marriage but the covenant between one man and one woman to live together as man and wife, according to God's ordinance? Wherever this covenant is made, there, in the sight of God, and in fero conscientue, is marriage. Different States have enacted different laws prescribing the forms or circumstances which should attend this contract and the modes in which it shall be attested; and it is the duty of all living under such laws to conform to them. But suppose that from ignorance or recklessness any of them are neglected, is the contract null and void? To answer in the affirmative is to trample the law of God under foot. For a long time the laws of England required that all marriages should be solemnized in church by an episcopally ordained minister, and within canonical hours. While these laws were in force, it was the duty of all Englishmen to obey them. But suppose any man was married by a Presbyterian minister, after twelve o'clock, noon, would his marriage in the sight of God be void, and would it be pronounced void by the civil courts, without doing violence to the divine law? In like manner, ordination is the declaration of the judgment of the Church, through its appointed agents, that a certain man is called to the ministry. The Church directs that this judgment shall be signified in a certain way, and with certain prescribed solemnities, such as laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Suppose any of these prescribed formalities are neglected; suppose the presbytery omit the laying on of hands, (as we have known very recently to be done,) is the ordination void? No man but a Papist or Puseyite would answer, Yes. In the case of a ruling elder, the choice of the church, and the consent of the person chosen, is all that is essential. The rest is ceremonial. Prescribed forms should be observed; the neglect of them should be censured. But to make them essential is, in our view, to abandon the fundamental principle of Protestantism and of common sense. It would invalidate the acts of half the sessions in the country." (Hodge, Charles, Church Polity, pp. 295, 297).

This historical material should help us maintain a proper view of ordination and free us from emotional responses to laying on of hands which would see it as the sacred essential of "ordination."

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!