A Brief (Maybe Incomplete) History of Women in the RPCNA
Last year our congregation celebrated 150 years of gospel ministry. It was quite the milestone! For a century and a half our congregation has been led by godly ministers and committed elders, and served by compassionate deacons. But as I reflected on our history and those dedicated to our continuing witness there was a group of people whose fruitfulness, I believe, will only be known on the day of Jesus’ return: women. Our congregation is what it is today because of godly mothers and grandmothers of the faith who tirelessly, humbly, and selflessly served the interests of Jesus for the sake of future generations. As a father of four little women I’m so glad these godly saints are still remembered with a smile and serve as an imitable example of those who have inherited the promises by faith.
The denomination I’m privileged to pastor in, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), has a history, I believe, of being both biblically faithful and pastorally sensitive to the role of women in the church. I know that topic is like a minefield and one misstep in today’s society may set off a chain reaction. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to recognize the progress, sometimes regress, and hopefully more progress as the church strives to honor the only King and Head, Jesus Christ.
Below I’ve highlighted what I understand to be some of the history of the RPCNA’s position on the role of women in society, in the offices of the church, and in the life and service of the church —:
The church needs to be careful how much it interferes with matters that are best left to the state. The Westminster Confession of Faith biblically teaches: “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical” (31.5). Nevertheless, because the Bible says things about civil government the church should feel the freedom — in making known the whole counsel of God — to declare even these things.
On the whole the RPCNA has not spoken at great length about the role of women in civil society. In fact, in 1990 a committee of Synod noted that there is a biblical basis for role distinctions between men and women in the family and church but, they wrote, “we have found no clear exegetical grounds for extending these to society in general.” However, the RPCNA has spoken to two important issues relative to women’s place in society.
First, in 1917 the Synod issued a statement in full support of women’s suffrage — a right not granted federally until 1920. Synod’s resolution reads: “Woman’s suffrage is not a question within the Covenanter Church. In this Church women have equal voting rights with men. But it is still a question in civil life. The fact that practically every one inducted into civil office in the United States must give allegiance to our National constitution which contains no reference to Jesus Christ as King of Nations or to His law as the basis of our civil law, constitutes the reason this church cannot endorse the exercise by either men or women of the right of franchise as long as the Constitution remains as it is. This position however in no way militates against the belief of the great majority of our ministers and members that suffrage is a God given right to women; that the women of the United States have the intelligence to know what should be done, the morality to do right and the independence to express their opinion in civil affairs when called upon to do so; and that in a day of world crisis when our country is asking her womenhood to share the burden of sacrifice, service and sorrow, both wisdom and justice demand that they should have equal rights with men in the use of the ballot. Therefore, be it resolved, that this Synod give its endorsement to the principle of Women's Suffrage.”
Second, the RPCNA has spoken strongly against women serving in combat roles. In 1998 Synod said: “It is our conviction that Biblical teaching does not give a nation warrant to employ women for military combat.” A few years later in 2006 the Synod adopted the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Church (NAPARC) statement on women in combat which asserted in even stronger language: “The Word of God gives no warrant expressed or implied that women are to be conscripted into or employed for military combat roles, but rather they are to be defended by men and keep from harms way that they might fulfill their biblical callings and duties under God.”
In Church Office
Until 1979 the RPCNA was a three office church, believing the continuing offices of the New Testament were minister, elder, and deacon. In 1979 it was determined that “Scripture teaches that there is one office of elder and that there exists within that office the two prime functions of ruling and teaching.” Since then the RPCNA has held to the two office view of elder and deacon. There have been several pivotal times in our history where we have discussed women in office.
In 1888 the Pittsburgh Presbytery referred a question to Synod about the right of women to ordination in the office of Deacon. The question arose because the McKeesport, PA congregation had elected a woman, Martha J. McConnell, to the office. Before she could give "conscientious acceptance" to her election, the matter was referred to Synod. The question was sent to a committee who oversaw the disposition of several papers that were submitted to Synod. Their response, which at the time did not present exegetical or theological arguments, was simply to assert: “Your committee would reply that such ordination is in our judgment in harmony with the New Testament and with the constitution of the Apostolic church.” By a vote of 93 to 24 the Synod approved ordaining women to the office of deacon. It was noted in Our Banner: "The most progressive cannot find fault with Synod in this matter, though doubtless many of our conservatives have been taken by surprise."
There was concern from some that this problematic question did not get the deliberate and scholarly attention that it should have. Writing in the denominational magazine Our Banner, D.S. Faris said: “I wish to state those facts which, to my mind, prove that Synod reached its conclusions, not by means of deliberate and sober examination of the whole subject in all its bearings, but by ‘sentimental overflow.’ […] The Synod was borne along by the wave of popular sentiment, and did not act like a deliberative and judicial body.”
Because some dissented from this decision of Synod a "small committee" was formed to “draw up a statement of the grounds on which Synod arrived at the conclusion.” That committee’s report was not adopted by Synod, but was published in Our Banner. After giving compelling exegetical and theological reasons for the ordination of women deacons, the committee concluded: “We accord to our female members their corporate rights more fully than any church of the Reformation, and in following up what has at our late meeting of Synod been so auspiciously begun, we may still further draw out into active operation the mighty moral force lodged in our devoted Christian women, and thus accomplish a work for which posterity will bless us.”
Miss. McConnell was ordained to the office of deacon on November 9, 1888. The write-up of the event published in Our Banner included the following: “A sermon was delivered by the Rev. Prof. W.J. Coleman from the text in Gen. 3:15, ‘I will put enmity between thee and the woman.’ The text was almost as novel as the occasion. The mere announcement caught the attention of all. In his discussion, Prof. Coleman gave a sermon which was adapted to and worthy of the occasion. The earnestness of noble women in the Lord’s work was partly accounted for on the ground that the Lord had put into woman’s heart a special enmity to the Evil One. This feeling the Devil recognized and reciprocated. Thus it was that in all parts of the world women had been kept in subordinate position; and even in the church had been for ages kept out of those positions of influence to which the word of God and the practice of the early Christian church admitted them. That this congregation had taken the first steps to reinstate women in this department of the Lord’s work was to their credit.”
Most recently, in 2002 Synod reaffirmed the position of women deacons. The committee, who provided exegetical arguments — primarily from 1 Timothy 3:11 — for retaining the position, concluded: “With the vast majority of commentators, we recognize that the exegetical considerations are balanced among the various views of same office, same work (women deacons), different office, similar work (deaconesses), no office, no work (wives helping husbands in general but not necessarily in their diaconal work). Nevertheless, overall, it seems to us that the balance comes to rest in favor of women participating in the work of the diaconate by ordination.” Since 1888 this position has been a distinctive of the RPCNA even among our most like-minded relations in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
The RPCNA has reached a different conclusion about women serving in the office of elder. Prior to the mid-twentieth century the question of women in the eldership was non-existent. Interestingly, upon the approval of women deacons in 1888 an editorial in Our Banner stated: "In the meantime it is to be distinctly understood, that Synod would as strongly deny woman's right to be ordained either as a minister or elder." Further, the final committee report on women deacons asserted that the issue of women elders was "never likely to come up for consideration in our church." However, in 1938 a paper was presented to Synod asking “Is it Scriptural to ordain women to the office of elder?” A committee was assigned to prepare an answer to the question which they did in the affirmative: “Accepting the New Testament Church as a pattern to be adapted to each peculiar need of the Church, we recommend that Synod permit Presbyteries to arrange for the ordination of women to the office of Ruling Elder where the need is imperative.” However, Synod referred this matter to a committee that was to report the following year. In 1939 the report was put off for another year but was appended to the Minutes of Synod.
Leading up to the Synod of 1940 there was a lot of discussion regarding women and the eldership. Professor John Coleman wrote a multi-part series in the Covenanter Witness defending the committee’s affirmation concluding that the day would come when this was practiced by the church. Revs. J.G. Vos and Philip Martin wrote and distributed a tract “Women in the Eldership,” which ably defended not ordaining women to this office. Rev. W.A. Akin wrote an editorial arguing against their ordination, and Rev. Tunis Oldenburgher went so far as to write that the very theory of women eldership was idolatrous: “It is the only word available that most clearly and most completely covers the facts.” Rev. W.J. McKnight wrote in the Covenanter Witness that the position of women in the eldership could not be maintained consistently while holding the Scriptures to be an infallible guide in all matters of faith and practice writing: “If the Church has to take sides with the Destructive Critics and deny the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures in order to confer eldership on women, we had better abandon the project.” In an anonymous editorial from a woman in the RPCNA it was stated: “For sometime, the undersigned — with others of Covenanter womankind — has been reading the pros and cons of a proposition not of their making: the introduction of women elders into the ecclesiastical body politic. How sad to think that our beloved, historic church is so unmanned that it is forced to face this unusual issue! […] I make bold to state for them, as well as for myself, that the female Covenanters of elder age — do not choose to run for that office and would refuse to take the oath of ordination if so elected!”
In 1940 the report was put to a vote at the meeting of Synod. The motion to adopt the report — and the recommendation: "That Synod declare its judgment that the ordination of women to the office of Ruling Elder is not contrary to a reasonable interpretation of the Scriptures” — failed. In 1962 Synod reaffirmed that women may not be ordained to the office of elder. In 1965 it affirmed that those passages in the Bible about the silence of women referred to “the official public ordinances of the church’s worship and government.” In 1990 as there were intra-denominational discussions between those who believed women were being denied the use of their God-given gifts and those who felt that there was an unbiblical feminism “exerting injurious pressures upon the RPCNA." Synod reasserted the value of the standards of the denomination in relation to the discussions: “In exercise of its teaching authority and of its pastoral concern for the Church, hereby affirms that the present standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, as they bear upon questions of the roles and distinctions in the service of men and of women, are fully adequate for the guidance of the membership, congregations and courts of the Church to carry on the work of defending the truths of Scripture and refuting errors.” In 1994 because of ongoing discussions about women in the eldership Synod offered encouragement to those who do not have authority and responsibility to teach in the church, to have open dialogue about these matters. They recommended: “That sessions, presbyteries, and Synod be encouraged to conduct forums under the supervision of judicatories where all the communicant members of the church are encouraged to frankly and openly discuss issues confronting the church.”
In 1998 the RPCNA suspended its fraternal relations with the Christian Reformed Church in North America because of their 1995 decision “to open the offices of elder and minister to women.” The ground given for the suspension was, in part, because their decision conflicted with “our mutual adherence to the perspicuity of Scripture, and the infallible rule of hermeneutics that scripture is self-interpreting.” That suspension lasted until 2001 when the RPCNA severed our relationship with the CRC. Most recently, in 2018 Synod upheld a judicial censure from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies that indicated it is inconsistent with ordination vows to believe in women elders. Additionally, Synod did not sustain a complaint that the Midwest Presbytery was wrong to say women elders went against ordination vows.
In Church Life
Even though the RPCNA believes the Bible teaches the office of elder is restricted to men only, we have a long history of including women in the life and service of the church. In 1990 Synod strongly professed: “Women must never be regarded as second-class citizens in heaven’s commonwealth, no matter what distinctions of role or responsibility may be discerned. Men and women are equal in rank and heirs together of the grace of eternal life. This church and Christ requires the service of women as the Scriptures direct.” Feeling, however, that our principles were better than our practice in 1992 it was humbly resolved: “We, the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, deplore the verbal and physical abuse that has been inflicted upon many of the women of our church — our sisters in Christ — and the fact that at times, it has been stated or implied that they are second-rate persons, unworthy of respect, or in some way deficient. We are further grieved that prior actions or comment emanating even from officers of this church may have brought offense and humiliation upon our sisters in Christ. We ask forgiveness from God and from those women for our failures to appreciate the horrible reality of such sin, to uphold their honor, and seek justice in all the relationships of life.”
Since 1878 the RPCNA has understood that women may speak and lead in prayer during social prayer meetings. In 1895 Synod directed “that our Theological seminary is open to all pious and well educated young women of the church, who desire to hear the lectures of the professors, and study theology and receive special training for mission and evangelistic work. Also in 1895 Synod resolved “That we encourage the well educated young women of the church to engage in the study of medicine and surgery, so as to be qualified to be medical missionaries,” and in 1915 Synod approved two women for evangelistic work in China. In 1950 it was decided that women could serve as consultative members on the Mission Boards, and in the following year they were made full members. In 1963 Synod stated that the only committees or agencies women may not serve were those “engaged in making or clarifying the doctrinal stand of the Church” because they should only be composed of ordained ministers or elders (so non-ordained men are also not allowed to serve in this capacity).
In 1962 Synod noted that the RPCNA had never set specific limits “on the teaching of Sabbath School classes by women, as, for example, teaching a class where men are present.” In 1965 Synod asserted: “It is proper for women to participate in the informal activities of the Church, such as prayermeeting and the Sabbath school […] In short, the command, to silence refers to the official public ordinances of the church’s worship and government. For a woman to teach a class which includes men is not in itself improper — and maybe much appreciated — however where men are available and qualified, the ideal is to have men teach.” In fact, in 1986 the Synod encouraged a local session to modify their prohibiting women from teaching classes which included men because it was not, strictly speaking, in keeping with the position of the church. In 1975 Synod again reaffirmed “the legitimacy of women’s taking an active role in the life and work of the Body of Christ.” In short, that active role includes every aspect of the life and service of the church that is not restricted to the eldership.
I suspect the position of my denomination will find detractors across the spectrum — some saying (maybe yelling) “Too little!” and others “Too much!” As for me, I’m happy to be a part of a church that not only serves and protects women, but also values their gifts in the ministry and life of the church.