Lady Preachers in PCA Pulpits?

Presbyterianism is pretty simple. As the name suggests, presbyters (elders) are essential to the church. Congregations elect qualified men to ensure that the means of grace (word, prayer, and sacraments) and discipline are maintained. These men—one or more of whom is an elder qualified and approved to preach—constitute the local session, and are accountable to higher courts that have the oversight of larger geographical areas (regional presbyteries and synods or general assemblies). The various local churches and courts are vitally connected primarily by a common confession of faith and a common church order—not primarily by experience or ardor (more about that later).

Bonds of love and trust between churches in a presbyterian denomination rely on common belief and common, accountable order. Essential to that order are the clear definitions of office and preaching. And this is why the fact that women are filling pulpits and expounding Scripture at the center of stated Lord’s Day worship services in the PCA is so troubling, and why it bodes so ill for the peace, purity, and sustainability of the PCA.

Yes, you heard correctly: Women have recently preached (by any commonsense definition of preaching) in PCA churches, and PCA women (including pastors’ wives) have preached in churches of other denominations. I will not post links to videos and websites here that prove this contention (though hundreds are aware of them and they are not hard to find), since there are active or pending complaints and communications about these incidents at presbytery levels. One thing is certain—you will hear about some of these cases before long.

Why is this happening? Previously-stated justifications given for women expounding the Scriptures during stated Lord’s Day worship services involve finely-drawn distinctions between teaching and preaching. Some have contended that there is nothing in our standards that absolutely says women cannot read, give the sense of, and apply Scripture during a worship service. They might even say that the Westminster Divines or authors of the PCA Book of Church Order never defined preaching as clearly as they should have.

Is it surprising that the divines did not defend truths and concepts that were not under attack, nor define subjects about which all 17th-century Christians were agreed? Likewise, one reasonably assumes that the founders of the PCA assumed that women would never be preaching in PCA churches so long as the office of elder was limited to men.

Why is it that women are barred from preaching in conservative Reformed churches? Our sisters can speak well and even produce impressive spiritual experiences when they speak. They can study and have biblical knowledge and wisdom just like men. So why not preach?

The short answer is that our scripturally-faithful books of order limit preaching to those men who are called and approved to the teaching office of elder, or else to those who are in training for the office and under the care of presbytery. The Larger Catechism provides some clarity:

Q. 158. By whom is the Word of God to be preached?

A. The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.

Note that there is no distinction between the office of teaching elder and the act of preaching.

Also, consider this: Preachers in a presbyterian system do not operate strictly at the pleasure of the congregation or local session. Per the PCA Book of Church Order, the question of who preaches is not up to the local church alone:

19-1. To preserve the purity of the preaching of the Gospel, no man is permitted to preach in the pulpits of the Presbyterian Church in America on a regular basis without proper licensure from the Presbytery having jurisdiction where he will preach. 

Note that preachers are assumed to be men—no other possibility was contemplated. Presbyerian preachers are presumed to be elders in the church and all elders are men. Of course, in the PCA our Book of Church Order also says that deacons (the other ordained office) are only to be men. It could well be that allowing churches to maintain unordained boards of deacons (creating a novel, unisex quasi office) or allowing churches to present females as “deacons” on their websites has encouraged a certain ecclesial creativity—a creativity that may prove to be destructive to our doctrine of ordination, office, and preaching.

The increasing prevalence of women, children, and unordained men reading Scripture in public worship and leading in other elements of worship (including recitations and confessions) may have opened the door to females preaching…or doing something very like it. Here the broad, maximalist interpretation of Westminster Larger Catechism 156 comes into play:

Q. 156. Is the Word of God to be read by all?

A. Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the holy Scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages.

The common understanding of the Westminster Divines, scholars of the Assembly documents, and presbyterian churchmen until very recently was that the reading of Scripture in public worship was closely connected to preaching, and thus ought to be done by ministers or elders. The modern desire for inclusivity and representation is likely related to the allowance of non-ordained (or non-ordainable) persons to read Scripture in public worship. The same could now be said for the allowance of such persons to preach, which is to read, give the sense of, and apply Scripture in the Lord’s Day services of the church.

To be sure, cases of women preaching in PCA churches or PCA women preaching in other churches are quite rare. Diaconal innovations are, however, not so rare, and female “shepherdesses” or sessional advisers (who may end up looking like officers) are also growing in popularity. If the slippery slope (total depravity + gravity) was really a thing, we might really have something to worry about!

One of the things the PCA does have to worry about is whether she can remain united given her current course. Divisive issues of sexuality and identity (E.g. Revoice) have already brought the PCA near to a breaking point. And just as many elders seemed resigned to live with the gender-related female deacon/deaconess issue, a handful of PCA churches pushed the gender issue even further with these recent incidents of female preachers in or from the PCA.

Now is the time for moderates, missionals, and progressives alike to respond swiftly and decisively as these cases appear, and to have the courage of conviction to stand against women/lay preachers in the pulpit. Failing to do so may extinguish the glimmers of hope that recent developments in the Revoice-Side B controversy have produced. And inaction would cause even more distrust and cynicism about the state of discipline in the PCA.

For those who know the history of presbyterianism in America, the struggle between order and ardor may seem familiar. Interestingly, movements where personal experience trumps biblical discipline—from Roman Catholic mystics to radical anabaptists, enthusiasts, revivalists, and charismatics—have often tended egalitarian in ethos. “Little things” like office and ministerial qualifications seemed to stand in the Spirit’s way. If it was difficult to see the sense in presbyterianism’s precise doctrine and persnickety (though simple) church order in previous centuries, how much more so today?  

Being presbyterian is inconvenient at the best of times. Being authentically presbyterian when an egalitarian culture is so decidedly against the truths of God’s word and his design for his church is hard. And though it is hard and unpleasant work, faithful churchmen must call to account those who would deviate from God’s blueprint for His church and her worship. 

Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, and board member of MORE in the PCA..

Related Links

"The Necessity of Preaching" by Ryan McGraw

"Preaching for the Broken" by Mark Johnston

"Brothers, Ordain Your Deacons" by Adam Parker

"The Supremacy of Christ" by Sarah Ivill

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 

Image: "Low Church Devotion" (1852) by Adolph Tidemand