By Brad Isbell | May 31, 2023
Dozens of congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) communicate to the church and to the world that ordination is not essential to the holding of church office or to bearing the titles thereof. The two-office polity of the PCA is simple and clear; its on-the-ground manifestation is too often confused and confusing.
The confusion is apparent in at least two ways. First, dozens of PCA churches list, portray, or refer to women as deacons (not the sexed, informal term deaconess) or as members of the diaconate (see one church’s explanation above). The problem here is that every reference in the denomination’s Book of Church Order (BCO) to deacons refers to the ordained office, and ordained office in the PCA is limited to men. Furthermore, the diaconate is only mentioned in conjunction with the session of ordained elders. Saying there are unordained members of the diaconate (deacons) would seem to imply that there could be unordained members of the session (elders), and that could never be. Or could it?
At least one church in the PCA has a female “pastor” (see image below). Or we could also put it like this: One PCA church “has” a female pastor, since you can’t actually have an impossibility — pastors are ordained and no one in the PCA ordains women. But, apparently, a PCA church can assign the title of pastor to someone who is not and cannot be a pastor.
Ordination matters, according to the church in every age and to the PCA’s Form of Government (Part I of the BCO). Focusing on ordination reminds us that the issue is not ultimately about the sex of the officeholder. And ordination is an inescapable factor in Presbyterian polity. In the instance of the female “pastor” cited above, the fact that she is called a “Pastor to Women” is quite beside the point. The use of “Pastor” (whether of youth, music, administration, or outreach) is inappropriate for any unordained person. Non-ecclesial titles like “Director” or “Coordinator” have typically been used by PCA churches for unordained staff, whether male or female. Curiously, the “Pastor to Women” was referred to as “Director” several years ago, but now is called “Pastor.”
Titles seem to matter even more in these credentialistic days. They obviously matter to the givers of the titles and to those who receive them. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble? But does the actual meaning and definition of the title matter in an ecclesial-denominational context? Postmodern deconstruction questions the meaning of words (and titles are words) but also the meaning and understanding of texts — even of a text so dry and technical as the BCO. Postmodern deconstruction tries to find the meaning behind the glossary definition or might dwell on what a word or phrase should or could mean using critical methods.
The PCA BCO is actually quite clear about ecclesial office titles and definitions. Every instance of the words pastor or minister refers to the ordained office of elder. Every instance of the words deacon and diaconate refer to (and only to) the ordained office. The correspondence between the sign (title) and the thing signified is clear. And ordination is never divorced from office.
That some sessions by positive action or that some presbyteries (by the tacit approval of inaction) seem to approve of the deconstruction of office and ordination in the PCA is troubling enough. Possibly more troubling is what all this implies about the modern church’s ability to deal with the intersectional, queering-of-everything assault of pronouns and the supposed “lettered” multiplication of genders, including the big “T” — transgenderism. Words matter very much to the LGBTQIA+ crowd, even though their meanings seem to change daily. Just use the “wrong” one and find out. Words (including titles) ought to matter all the more to presbyterians since we believe that the words of our standards represent fixed biblical truths about the church and her Christ-given offices. And all of the bearers of those offices have vowed that they agree to follow the Church’s standards.
The culture asks (but cannot answer), “What is a woman?” The PCA asks, “What is a pastor or a deacon?” Are the pronouns of deacons and elders (and pastors) he/him since ordination is limited to men? The PCA must decide whether there are unordained offices and whether ecclesial titles matter at all. If she does not, we may witness a slow and difficult-to-reverse transition that undermines not just a part of our constitutional Standards but the very concept of fixed order.
But what is a deacon? One answer is that the office of deacon is essential; so essential in fact, that in a church without deacons, all their duties “shall devolve upon the ruling elders.” (BCO 9-2) This brings into question the practice of many PCA churches which (with no support from the BCO) forego ordination of deacons and merely “commission” deacons — a sort of hands-free ordination alternative (see one church’s explanation below). Wittingly or unwittingly, this alternative practice creates a new quasi-office or serves as a sort of “ecclesial disobedience” protest against the existing BCO provisions. The effect of not ordaining deacons (if allowed) will, in effect, change the meaning and undermine the authority of the BCO by ignoring or contravening it rather than using the difficult and slow (but honest) constitutional process.
An overture to this year’s PCA General Assembly would clarify the PCA’s order, emphasizing the plain meaning of the BCO rather than attempting to change it. Overture 26 from Northwest Georgia Presbytery. “Amend BCO 7-3 Regarding Titling of Unordained People,” would add the underlined words to an existing section:
7-3. 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.
As I have written before, honesty is the best polity. This overture is an honest attempt to bring order to our order and to help PCA officers honor both the Ninth Commandment and their vows of agreement with the PCA’s particular polity and subjection to their brethren in the Lord.
Brad Isbell is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN.
 In noting that the PCA office of deacon is limited to men, we do not denigrate other denominations (e.g., the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church [ARP] or the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America [RPCNA]) that explicitly allow and make provisions for females in the office of deacon.
 This folder contains links and screenshots concerning the PCA church that gives the title of pastor to a female. This folder gives a small sampling of the range of iterations of diaconates in the PCA. The data is from freely accessible public websites. No attempt has been made to contact the churches for explanations of these practices. It is assumed that the public-facing websites, videos, and documents of local churches express their actual practices and convictions. No offenses are alleged: it is for presbyteries and the PCA General Assembly to determine if churches are deviating from denominational standards of polity.
 The 2017/2018 REPORT OF THE AD INTERIM COMMITTEE ON WOMEN SERVING IN THE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH has an extensive treatment of commissioning. While largely descriptive and informational, the report suggests that “not to have a formal (ed. – ordained) diaconate” is a practice that “seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the two offices of the church outlined in the BCO.”