The Church’s Two Laws

By Brad Isbell | February 28, 2023

In the Presbyterian Church in America, there are but two offices: elder and deacon. All officers in the PCA are ordained; both offices (by definition) are filled by (and only by) ordained persons.

Officers are essential in many kinds of organizations inasmuch as they are legally required or for pragmatic reasons of function and efficiency. However, the officers of the church do not serve merely in order to please the secular government or to increase the effectiveness of the organization — they serve by Divine warrant and command. Thus they are not simply sworn in or signed up; they are ordained. Chapter 17 and other sections of the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) specify that those duly called to office are to be ordained, that ordination is by the laying on of hands, and that only qualified men are candidates for ordination to office.

There is more to becoming an officer than the laying on of hands by the elders — vows are the other essential part of officer-making. All officers vow that they approve of the polity of the PCA, that they will be subject to the courts of the Church (their brethren), and that they will strive for the purity, peace, unity, and edification of the church as a whole, which is to say the wider (not just local) Church. Therefore, these vows seem to require a scrupulous adherence to the rules, terms, and processes described in the PCA’s BCO, assuming that the written, stated law of the Church is the law of the Church. Such adherence is uncontroversially essential to the purity, peace, and unity of the Church, to say nothing of trust and true harmony among co-laborers in gospel ministry. Rule benders in organizations often joke that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission when supposed exigency “requires” non-compliance. But if forgiveness is required (due to actual offense), should not repentance (and new obedience) also be required, especially when that organization is a church with agreed-upon standards (the written law code of the church)?

But the law of what’s allowed is a thing. We all know that the posted speed limits on state and federal highways are honored more in breach than by strict obedience. Everyone knows what the “real” speed limit is, at least until flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror suggest otherwise and bring the driver back to the reality of the written law and the posted speed limit. Highway patrolmen are needed to more or less keep order on our roadways. In the church, there are no police per se. In fact, even Presbyterian churches pretty much run on an honor system. The review and control of presbyteries via review of records is mostly review, advise, and suggest, if that. Minor issues are often covered in love. Much patience is shown in more serious offenses. Major offenses are usually dealt with, but slowly, with much empathy, and with great deference to lower courts.

Moral issues of officers generally get more attention than process and polity peccadilloes. But what about when someone says, “We’re not following the rules because a lot of people don’t follow the rules, and we don’t think you’re going to stop us”? What about when the seeming law of what’s allowed begins to damage the fabric of our polity?

One fairly large and modern PCA church of the trendier type at least exhibits the virtue of honesty, even as its leaders brazenly violate basic principles of office and polity. After clearly stating on its website (here and here) that the church does “have” female deacons and that all of its deacons are officers, the church explains why, with the “why” hanging on a disputed and controversial Greek interpretation of two New Testament verses. As to the “how” of having something that cannot be had (according to the stated law of the PCA), the leaders of this particular congregation correctly explain that ordination for females is not allowed by the PCA BCO. Their solution, however, is to appoint or commission the female “deacon” “officers,” sans ordination[1] (a requirement for office). So far, not great but could be worse, right? Right, and now for the worse: neither are male deacons ordained. A fair reading of the BCO would suggest that the unordained “deacons” are not, in fact, officers at all. Thus we find two deprivations: the church deprived of one of the two offices of the church; and, qualified officer candidates (or quasi-officers) deprived of the privilege and blessing of ordination.

Some in the PCA downplay the “unordained diaconate” (the subject of a failed 2018 overture) as a rarity. The leaders of the church in-question disagree, saying “that many churches in our denomination, like ours, believe that the Bible does allow (females) to serve as deacons,” so “they ‘appoint’ or ‘commission’ both male and female deacons, rather than electing and ordaining any of them.” The phenomenon of one church doing what it believes the Bible allows until the BCO is changed would seem likewise to allow any number of aberrant practices in the meantime, perhaps including paedocommunion or even female preaching. But who could imagine such practices?

Ordination is a big deal for one reason: offices are a big deal. The preface to the PCA BCO is a beautiful composition of theological truth and good order. The first paragraph of the first page of the BCO extols Christ as King of the Church “ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints.”

Two paragraphs later the preface says that even polity is ordained by the ascended Lord:

Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.

The written law of the PCA is her understanding of what is “expressly set down” in Scripture for the church and/or that which godly men have inferred and deduced from Scripture. And all of that law — from doctrine to polity — is so important that nothing ought to be added or taken away from it unless and until it is changed by the open, orderly process laid down in our polity (and agreed to by all parties involved). The law of what the church allows ought to be exactly the same as her written law, for the written standards are those to which all officers have taken vows to uphold. Honesty is the best polity — not the honesty of admitting that one is deviating from the standards, but the honesty of vow-keeping and obedience.

[1] Many attribute the increase in the practice of not ordaining deacons to a 2009 PCA General Assembly seminar where pastor Timothy Keller admitted that his church had stopped laying hands on their deacons for pragmatic reasons. (

Brad Isbell is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN.