The issue of female preaching, which has been troubling the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for most of 1999, has not been resolved, and refuses to go away. No fewer than four presbyteries have filed charges against the Senior Pastor of a prominent PCA congregation. And the four officers of the General Assembly's Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), to which the case was referred, have now decided that the case is judicially out of order.
The controversy began early in 1999 when Presbyterian & Reformed News broke the story that a female staff worker at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee, had twice preached at Sunday evening worship services in August 1998. In March 1999, Western Carolina Presbytery consequently adopted an overture to the General Assembly, asking it to counsel churches and presbyteries that female preaching should not be engaged in. The Assembly answered the overture in the negative, on the basis that the lower courts should first deal with the issue; but gave as grounds that female preaching is indeed un-Biblical.
Also adopted at Western Carolina's March stated meeting was a letter to Tennessee Valley Presbytery, to which Cedar Springs belongs, asking the presbytery for an investigation.
At its April stated meeting, Tennessee Valley postponed consideration of the matter until the July stated meeting. At its meeting on July 13th, the presbytery ejected the church press as it discussed the issue behind closed doors, but came to no conclusion.
One week later, Western Carolina petitioned the General Assembly for original jurisdiction over Cedar Springs' senior pastor, John Wood, to answer two charges: "That he has violated the Biblical teaching of worship as understood by the Presbyterian Church in America, which is to be led by men under the Headship of Christ, in having a woman fill the pulpit, preach, give instruction and exhort from the Word of God, which is specifically forbidden by [Larger Catechism] 158, which answers the question, 'By whom is the Word of God to be preached?' by saying, 'The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.' (See also: BCO 7-2; 19-1; 22-5; 22-6.)"; "That [he] has violated the clear teaching of the Word of God, which says that women are to keep silence in the church, and are not to exercise authority over men (I Cor. 14:34; I Tim. 2:8-15; 4:13), in violation of the Second Commandment as interpreted by our Standards . . . ." The Book of Church Order (BCO) references state that church offices "are open to men only"; and that only "[a] ruling elder, a candidate for the ministry, a minister from some other denomination, or some other man" may be licensed to preach.
Four days later, Calvary Presbytery, located in the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina, took up the identical petition. Under PCA rules, judicial process normally is entered before the presbytery of which he is a member. However, the action by these two presbyteries triggered a provision of the Book of Church Order which mandates the assumption of original jurisdiction by the General Assembly "if the Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal and two other Presbyteries request the General Assembly to invoke original jurisdiction."
One week after that, on July 31st, Ascension Presbytery, located in northeast Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania, and western New York, adopted a similar petition. This petition added two charges: violation of the Fourth Commandment (with regard to profaning the Sabbath) and violation of the Fifth Commandment (with regard to the ordination vow of "being subject to the brethren in the Lord"). On October 16th, Eastern Carolina Presbytery, located in the eastern part of the Tar Heel State, adopted a similar petition (though without the "Whereas" clauses).
Meanwhile, on October 12th, Tennessee Valley Presbytery adopted two seemingly-contradictory resolutions. One of them stated that female preaching is inappropriate. The other vindicated the Session of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, declaring that there had been no violation of denominational standards.
The Session of Cedar Springs, on October 25th, adopted a letter to Tennessee Valley, asking that the Presbytery clarify its previous stance. The letter also said that the church had scheduled a woman to be the plenary speaker at its 2001 Missions Conference.
At its stated meeting on October 28th, Calvary Presbytery declined to reinforce its prior action with regard to Mr. Wood. Western Carolina Presbytery, at its stated meeting on November 5th, did address Tennessee Valley Presbytery once again, urging that court to take disciplinary steps against the Cedar Springs Session, and enunciating that the case against Mr. Wood is not affected by any action which Tennessee Valley has taken.
On November 22nd, the Cedar Springs Session took further action by adopting an overture to Tennessee Valley. The Session is asking the Presbytery to give its blessing to non-ordained people, including women, filling the pulpit on an occasional basis, and to declare that such occasions not be viewed as "preaching."
Founded in 1973 in reaction to the liberalism of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), or Southern Presbyterian Church, the PCA from its beginning has maintained opposition to women's ordination. Traditionally, advocates in the PCA of the men-only ordination view have appealed to Scriptural passages such as I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians 14:34 for justification of their position.
However, others in the PCA have interpreted those passages in such a way as to allow for women to speak in public worship, so long as they are under the authority of the (male) elders. In the eyes of many observers, the novel interpretation effectively undercuts much of the Scriptural foundation against female ordination.
According to the PCA's Book of Church Order, all judicial cases are given to the 24-member Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). According to a letter dated November 29, 1999, the four SJC officers voted to find the case against Mr. Wood out of order. According to informed sources, at least two of the presbyteries which brought charges against him will have called meetings in December to consider addressing the SJC on the matter.
[For details on this story, see inside.]