An Overture on Titles & Ordination

By Brad Isbell | April 27, 2023

The Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) contains no glossary, but maybe it needs one. This is not to fault the BCO’s early-70’s authors — no previous generation of Presbyterians had trouble figuring out what most of the words meant, including those words that denominate the offices and officers of the church. Few presbyters have had the foresight to peer into the ecclesial future and preemptively or prophetically prevent future problems. That being the case, the PCA has often had to tighten up things that have come loose, knock out dents with the brute force of committee-produced tools, or bolt new parts on. Usually, this is done by way of an overture — a request to amend the constitution of which the BCO is a part.

To understand the effect of these as-needed, post-accident, construction-by-committee repairs, modifications, and additions to the BCO, it may be helpful to picture a large early-70s station wagon, not unlike many parked, no doubt, outside of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in 1973 when the PCA was formed — a Family Truckster, if you will (if you get the movie reference). Like the family wagons from the days of leisure suits, the BCO is big; it is traditional, being based on earlier editions of the old Southern Church’s standards; it is clunky, not always aesthetically pleasing, and not good in the curves. Some parts fall off. Others have the tacked-on look of a tasteless trim package or an ill-chosen accessory. Still, the BCO family wagon is reliable, and it has served the PCA family well. But its authors could not foresee a postmodern future where churches would contextualize not just their styles of presentation and worship, but even their polity.

Tightening up the Book of Church Order may take the form of addition or deletion, prescription or proscription. This year one overture requests the addition of 23 words to BCO 7-3 which concerns the misuse of ecclesial titles. The proposed addition is in bold:

No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein, or receive official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scripture. Furthermore, unordained people should not be referred to as, or given the titles connected to, the ecclesial offices of pastor, elder, or deacon.

There is nothing complicated about the PCA’s polity. There are two offices (elder and deacon) and one of those offices (elder) is divided into two classes (ruling and teaching). That’s it. All officers are ordained. No unordained person is or can be an officer. The overture in question would clarify what the founders of the PCA knew and understood — offices are serious business (being, as the BCO Preface reminds us, gifts from the ascended Christ) and officeholders ought to be properly identified and honored. Offices and officeholders should be called by their proper names and titles, no more and no less. When a name or title is given to one with no right to bear it, the rightful bearers of the name or title are dishonored, and the very integrity and definition of the office in question is degraded.

Pastor, for instance, may mean anything an independent megachurch wants it to mean. Such is not the case in the PCA with its prescribed and well-defined polity. In chapter 4 of the BCO we are told that the officers of a particularized local church are “its teaching and ruling elders and its deacons,” and that “the church Session…consists of its pastor, pastors, its associate pastor(s) and its ruling elders.” In every case, the BCO use of “pastor” refers to an ordained elder. Thus, calling or portraying anyone as a pastor in a PCA church — whether in verbal, written, or online communications — who is not credentialed and ordained as a teaching or ruling elder is a violation of our order and a denigration of the office.

Just a day or two after the abovementioned overture appeared on the PCA General Assembly website, someone pointed out to us a PCA church with a “Pastor of Women.” It is possible that an ordained teaching elder (probably an associate or assistant pastor) might be given such a title in a church’s organizational structure, but in this case, the “Pastor of Women” is a woman, so clearly not ordained, not an elder, not — it must be said — a pastor.

Calling a woman a pastor in the PCA is mostly new. There was a controversy about 15 years ago around a church that used the title “minister” for a woman. While never disciplined, this church eventually decamped to the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a mainline egalitarian denomination. In the 1990s there was some controversy in a presbytery or two where churches used the title “minister” for unordained persons. This was opposed on the grounds that those who are merely staff members (not under the supervision of presbytery as teaching elders are) should not do the work of pastors. “Minister” is a synonym for pastor or teaching elder in the BCO, chapter 21 of which is entitled “The Ordination and Installation of Ministers.”

This is not to say that no PCA church has or does refer to an unordained female as a youth minister or youth pastor, but there seems to be general agreement that applying the title of pastor or minister to unordained persons is counter to our polity. More typically, unordained men or women are referred to as directors of this or that, indicating a staff role rather than an ordained office. As to the other office in the PCA, it is undeniably true that a number of PCA churches do refer to women as deacons (not just deaconesses, a role with no BCO approval) or represent them as being full members of the diaconate — the board of deacons.

Overture 26 from Northwest Georgia Presbytery might seem unnecessary given the small number of unordained supposed “pastors” in the PCA, but it has both offices (i.e., elder and deacon) in view. While some wrongly seem to think that the office of deacon is relatively unimportant, any fudging on the definitions of either office (and the concomitant issue of ordination) is a big ecclesial deal. The overture also does what the 1973 BCO did not do: look ahead down the corridors of denominational time or down the slippery cultural slope and get ahead of things for once.

Some in the PCA are not content to contextualize their presentation, liturgy, or worship — they also feel the need to contextualize polity for an egalitarian cultural mindset that has no patience for the biblical doctrines of office and ordination that are found in our BCO. Their ecclesial innovation can only harm the peace and purity of the church in a connectional church. Presbyters at this year’s General Assembly in Memphis have the opportunity to tighten up the PCA’s polity and to protect its future as a presbyterian church faithful to the Scriptures.

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