Male led, Presbyterians work on hearing the voices of women

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The very male General Assembly of Australia (GAA), the peak body of the Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA), received a report on how the church can listen more carefully to the voices of women at its meeting in Hurstville in Southern Sydney last week. A list of reforms was passed without dissent in contrast to the vigorous debate on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country earlier in the GAA ‘session.’s meeting.

Visiting the GAA, this observer could only see one woman in the members’ area. The GAA is made up of commissioners (members) who are elders and ministers from state and presbyteries (regional bodies). The church’s “complementarian” theology reserves these offices for men. The Other Cheek understands there might be three of four churches at most in NSW with female elders, and a rule change to line up with the other states was unexpectedly delayed a few weeks ago.

On Men and Women in Ministry and Leadership in the PCA, a report to the GAA by the Women’s Ministry Committee of the PCA begins with an explanation of complementarian theology, following the structure of a similar Healthy Complementarianism report in NSW.

Introducing the report, Queensland Minister James Snare told the GAA, “What we have presented to you in our report … is a theological vision with recommendations for what complementarianism partnership in action could look like in our local churches.”

Beginning with Genesis 1, the report notes both men and women together bear the image of God and together share dominion over the Earth. Referencing God saying in Genesis 2, “I will make a helper suitable for him,” the report says, “It is important to have a clear understanding of what a ‘suitable helper’ is,” The word translated here as ‘helper’ (ֵע ֶזר ) does not contain an inherently diminutive or subordinating idea. The person who is most frequently described as being an ֵע ֶזר , or as the source of ֵע ֶזר , in scripture is God himself.” [The Hebrew font may not have been captured here.]

The report lays out a biblical theology that includes reserving eldership for males but notes that women spoke and acted prophetically in the history of Israel. Key verses in the New Testament 1 Tim 2:11-12 is rendered as Paul’s personal prohibition on women teaching or assuming authority over a man.

A footnote conveys the balance sought in the paper “While this paper holds to a position of the exclusivity of men in the office of eldership, the committee wants to recognise and appreciate the valuable gospel work that has been done by female elders across the PCA. The committee recognises that there are still active female elders in the PCA, and the committee commends the service that they have offered to God and his people. It is the hope of the committee that based on our theological reflections and the recommendations that we are making that women will continue to be able to serve and lead across the PCA and be more encouraged than ever to do so.”

A survey found some barriers to this outcome in the PCA.

  • Less than 50% of women believe that women:
    • are consulted by the elders regarding the direction of this church.
    • are encouraged to develop their theological training in their local church.
  • More than 30% of women in our churches feel limited in what they can do in church.
  • More than 50% of people in our churches cannot affirm the statement,‘Women trust the elders in this church with issues specifically related to women (e.g. domestic violence, sexism)’.

This despite positive findings:

  • The vast majority of people either tend to agree or strongly agree that: o women’s ministries are valued by the elders of their local church. 
  • Women are encouraged to participate in the conduct of services. 
  • Men and women work well together in their local church.

Finally, the survey results reveal a “communication gap” evidenced by significant differences between male and female responses on these topics”.”

  • Men and women work well together in this church.
  • Women trust the elders in this church with issues specifically related to women (e.g. domestic violence, sexism).

A long list of practical suggestions on how to improve the ability of the courts (committees) of the PCA to listen to women form the third part of the report. These were incorporated into “deliverances” (motions) and passed without question and without dissent. 

These deliverances included an endorsement of the report’s combination of complementarian theology and commitment that men and women should work together in the church.

The GAA recommended that Ministers and elders “examine their ministry practice … with respect to the roles that women can fulfil, including at Sunday Services and in Public Worship such as Bible reading, leading the congregation in prayer, song leading, sharing a testimony or word of encouragement, leading aspects of the service (1 Corinthians 11, 14), leadership roles outside of the office of eldership, and other ministry roles through the week.”

“Sessions,” bodies made up of local church elders and ministers, are recommended by the GAA to consider:

  • Setting up a women’s advisory group whom they liaise with on specific issues.
  • Inviting key women of their church to its Session meetings for a discussion that would inform its decision-making.
  • Choosing to appoint some key women in their church to a ‘co-worker’ position and give them the privileges of an associate while Session sits.
  • Prioritising a female staff worker in the early stages of growing a pastoral team.
  • Providing training for women in ministry and discipleship skills 

State Assemblies committees are asked to “to proactively include suitable women in their membership.”

Giving women “associate status” when the local church session meets would give them voice (but no vote). Advisory groups and having women at session meetings have the same aim – but the possibility of electing women in a similar manner to elders is not suggested in the report.

Queensland Minister James Snare pointed out in his speech, introducing the report, that these motions should “provide clear guidelines that are in accordance with scripture, and which should shape the culture of how men and women work together in our churches, and shape local ministry strategies,” while providing for local freedoms.

The motions passed with no dissent at the GAA, giving a picture of a strongly complementarian denomination seeking innovations within the bounds of their doctrines to allow the voices of women to be heard despite their all-male “courts” (committee structures).