Women in Combat, Presbyterianism, and Cases of Conscience

Presbyterianism has its advantages. One of those advantages is giving the church a framework by which to answer difficult questions. Last Thursday Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all U.S. military combat positions–infantry, armor, reconnaissance and special operations units–will be open to women, with “No exceptions.” As this new policy goes into effect and women begin to be integrated into these jobs there will be significant ramifications. Already, Army Secretary John McHugh has suggested that if the goal is “true and pure equality,” then Congress will need to decide if women will have to register for the draft. Josh Earnest said on Friday that the White House is trying to figure out “if additional reforms or changes are necessary in light of this decision.”

This is a huge decision. Since at least half the population is female, since many of us are parents of daughters, or have served in the armed forces, or amuse ourselves by playing armchair politicians, or are citizens of the U.S., I imagine we have some strong feelings about this issue. But how should the church approach this topic? At this critical juncture we’re going to need to answer some important questions. There are two that immediately come to my mind: 1) does the church even have a right to interact with the political sphere, and 2) can it be demonstrated that the Bible speaks to this issue. Of course, different ecclesiastical traditions probably have different answers. But guided by the Westminster Confession of Faith, Presbyterianism is given a framework by which to address these two questions. Without providing a yea or nay answer–you can regard this as me thinking out loud–I want to further introduce these two questions with more clarity from a Presbyterian perspective.

The first question that needs to be addressed has to do with what issues the church should concern itself with. From the trivial to the consequential there are any number of matters affecting the order and security of society that the church should not be involved in. For instance, our community is thinking of repaving some of our streets. We have a local government to make those decisions and they ought to do it without the church interfering. Or, as another example, it is not within the scope of the church’s ministry to determine how to exact punishment on those who break the law. It’s the civil magistrate “who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

This is a principle that Presbyterianism has always recognized. The church and state are, in the words of James Bannerman, “essentially different, and rightfully independent the one of the other.” Though they are both “put under the dominion of Christ in the character of Mediator,” the church and state have different origins, powers, and administrations. Noting this distinction the Westminster Confession of Faith 31.5 says: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with the civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

Now, this statement may seem to exclude almost any and all interaction the church may with the political sphere, but that isn’t a necessary conclusion. Reflecting on this John Murray wrote: “To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions.” He went on to say: “The functions of the civil magistrate, therefore, come within the scope of the church’s proclamation in every respect in which the Word of God bears upon the proper or improper discharge of these functions, and it is only misconception of what is involved in the proclamation of the whole counsel of God that leads to the notion that the church has no concern with the political sphere.” His point is rather simple. Because the role and duty of the civil magistrate is contained in the whole counsel of God, the church may speak to that in keeping with its duty to proclaim that counsel. This does not mean that the church is practicing politics or transgressing the distinction between it and the state but it is, in fact, functioning ecclesiastically.

This means that if the church wishes to speak to this issue it might–despite what the secular mindset believes–have a right to do so. But if it will, it must be accomplished by showing this to be an issue that is addressed by the counsel of God–namely, the Bible. This is the second question and the church must not assume but prove the answer.

It is necessary to stress this as we think about our engagement with the political sphere. Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3 rightly notes that the church is to “ministerially determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience.” The language here is precise. By saying they are to “ministerially determine,” the Confession is intending to limit the authority of the church. As A.A. Hodge commented: “[The powers of synods and councils] relate simply to the declaration and execution of the will of Christ. And in no instance [is it] legislative.” Or, as Robert Shaw explained: “Christ is the alone Lord and Lawgiver in his Church; so that their business is only to apply and enforce the laws which he has enacted.” So, in acting ministerially the church has a great burden to demonstrate that this is an issue addressed by the Bible.

Of course, if one searches the Scriptures for an explicit, “Thou shalt not enlist women in combat,” you will come up empty handed. Are we to conclude, therefore, that the Bible is completely silent? Again, that need not be a forgone conclusion. The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 says: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” We don’t need an explicit statement if it can be shown to be a good and necessary conclusion drawn from Scripture.

With this in mind let me, for a moment, put aside the passages that speak to gender distinctions. With regard to this issue many have turned to prohibitions in the Old Testament against cross dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5), not seething a kid in his mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21), or, perhaps most popularly, God’s laws for warfare (Deuteronomy 20, see also Numbers 1:2-3, 1 Samuel 8:11, Deuteronomy 3:19-20) to show why women should not enlist for combat. Of course, many today will say that those are Old Testament laws that are no longer applicable to us today. Is that the case? Well, even this requires mature reflection. The Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 states: “To them [Israel] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In harmony with the progress of redemptive history the Confession teaches that some of those laws given to Israel were given to them as a political entity. When that nation ceased to exist so too did those laws. But it also recognizes there is a “general equity” to (some) of those laws. As Craig Troxel defined it: “Equity denotes justice which is administered according to what is right and fair as opposed to what is strictly demanded by the rules of common law.” From my understanding, this means there may be principles underpinning those judicial laws that transcend a certain time and place–Israel as a political body. Those principles are still to be enforced. As Robert Shaw wrote: “As far as it contains any statute founded in the law of nature common to all nations, it is still obligatory.” My point is this. Those Old Testament passages–such as the ones cited in Deuteronomy–may very well speak to the issue of women in combat. However, if they will be used, as they popularly are, it needs to be demonstrated how those laws have an abiding principle of justice that are grounded in the gender distinctions God has made and did not merely serve Israel as a political entity.

Again, it’s not my aim to answer these questions. My only intent is to reflect on them from a Presbyterian perspective–a perspective that is aided by the framework set forth in our Confessional standards. We may not always come to the same conclusion on these matters but we have the resources to work through them not merely as individual Christians but as a corporate body. That is an advantage that many non-confessional churches are going to lack as we continually feel the tightening grip of policies, regulations, and legislation.

I belong to the RPCNA who in 1998 adopted a resolution that stated there is no biblical warrant to employ women for military combat. However, given the current policy change and our need to shepherd the flock, it’s going to be important for us to clarify and articulate our position with more than emotional rhetoric or simple platitudes. And in so doing, to heed the wise warning of John Murray, “It is necessary to be reminded that great caution and reserve must be exercised by the church in making pronouncements regarding political affairs.  This caution is particularly necessary in connection with the pronouncements and resolutions of assemblies of the church. Hasty analyses and proclamations must be avoided, and great care must be exercised to ensure that pronouncements are in accord with and necessitated by the requirements of the Word of God. Too frequently the church has brought reproach upon the name of Christ, and has seriously curtailed its influence for good, by making pronouncements which are not supported by the requisite evidence or which are beyond the prerogative of the church.”


For more reading see: James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, v 1, pp 235-248; A.A. Hodge, A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith; Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith; John Murray, The Collected Works, v 1, pp 253-259; Craig Troxel, “Men in Combat Over the Civil Law: ‘General Equity,’ WTJ 64:2 (Fall 2002); Minutes of RPCNA Synod 2015 pp 134-145; Report of the Committee on Women in the Military and in Combat (OPC, 2001).

4 Comments

  1. Bob Hemphill December 8, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    Kyle, Someone in our congregation would like to subscribe to Gentle Reformation. Can you tell me how to do that? I receive the posts regularly, but I don’t know how to help someone else do that.

    • Kyle Borg December 9, 2015 at 9:12 am #

      Bob,
      If you go to the main page of GR on the left hand side you should see a button that says “RSS.” Have them click on that and follow the instructions to receive updates from the blog.

      Blessings!

  2. Daniel O'Connell December 8, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Women are already serving in combat as first responders to our communities.
    As policewoman federal officers and guards in our state and federal correctional institutions.
    I am far more alarmed at the number of Christian organizations that recognize same sex life styles and abortions as socially and morally acceptable.

    • Kyle Borg December 9, 2015 at 9:28 am #

      Daniel,
      Sorry if I wasn’t clear. My point was simply this. If the church wants to interact with the political sphere there’s two questions it must always ask: 1) Does it have the right to engage the political sphere, and 2) Can that interaction be informed by the Word of God. Different corners of the church answer those two questions differently. Presbyterianism–as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith–has a distinct understanding of the authority of the church and of its relationship to the state. Thus it will answer those two questions in a “Presbyterian” way. My point was to work out how Presbyterians should be thinking about the issue.

      I appreciate your note that women are “already serving in combat,” though I’m pretty sure, strictly defined, all those jobs are non-combatant as there’s a distinction between civil servants and the uniformed services. Aside form the fact that they can’t wage war, some of the practical distinctions would be that civil servants aren’t drafted nor do they face Court Martial for quitting the job. Of course, there’s overlap but it’s not necessarily a 1:1 correlation, is it?

      I too am concerned about the number of organizations that recognize same sex life styles and abortion as morally acceptable. Actually, I think the former issue is correlated to women in combat precisely because we’re a society that is continually erasing any gender distinction. Two symptoms, same problem.

      Cheers!

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