While all of the proposed amendments to the Book of Church Order (BCO) received about three-fourths (or more) support at the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCAGA50), Item 1 (i.e., Overture 26), is most likely to receive a measure of debate and discussion in the presbyteries. The context of the debate leading up to PCAGA50, in Overtures Committee and on the Assembly floor, however, can help us to understand the proposal and why it takes the current narrow form that it does.
First, the language of the proposed amendment to BCO 7-3 regards titling of unordained people by the simple addition of a sentence (which is underlined):
BCO 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 shall not be referred to as, or given the titles of, the ordained offices of pastor/elder, or deacon.
The Need for Item 1
The Reformed Tradition has long placed a high value on polity and ordination. Confessional Presbyterians also place a high value on words and what they convey about ordained officers in our churches. Those who support the proposed amendment share a duplex concern that the doctrine of ordination has been downplayed as of late, and that there is a consequent confusion and disorder around the offices of elder and deacon in the PCA. Some of this downplaying is evidently unintentional (e.g., in the use of the words “pastor” and “minister” to describe unordained ministry staff), but perhaps some is intentional (e.g., in the case of the diaconate).
Members of our congregations visit or transfer to other PCA churches and find unordained people listed as “pastors” and “deacons.” Some of these well-meaning staffers and volunteers could not be properly ordained in our polity. In such cases, unordained persons are occasionally listed on church websites and weekly bulletins as “youth pastor” or “women’s pastor.” More frequently, we find egalitarian lists of “deacons” which include both men (either ordained or not) and women (not ordained) who function together as a board of deacons for their church. These confusing practices cause many onlookers and visitors to question the practical weight, then, of ordination when the difference between an “ordained deacon” and an “unordained deacon” may be reduced to a mere asterisk in the bulletin.
The Overtures Committee Debate
In Overtures Committee, the argument for the original overture 26 was presented as making explicit what was already implicit in our Standards, giving greater clarity to the proper titling of our ordained officers. Leading up to the 50th General Assembly, some leveled an objection to this overture that it is already implicit in our Standards that only those who are ordained should use these titles. They appropriately asked, “Wouldn’t this be mere redundancy in our BCO if we all already understand this principle?”
During the debate in the Overtures Committee, however, one man spoke against the overture saying that churches should be able to use these titles how they wish, especially if an unordained woman was in charge of women’s ministry. In such a case, he argued, she should be able to be titled: “Women’s Pastor.” This argument against the overture seemed to have the opposite effect of that which the speaker intended, evidently convincing some commissioners that making that which is implicit in our Standards more explicit in order to counteract the apparent confusion over how some churches use ordained titles for unordained persons.
The original proposal, however, was seen by others as a bit too broad. The original read “unordained people shall not be referred to as, or given the titles connected to the ordained offices of pastor/elder, or deacon.” Teaching Elder Timothy LeCroy shared his notes on the overtures before the 50th General Assembly, and reflected this concern, in writing: “I do not support this amendment because it’s too broad. The phrase,”titles connected to,” is the sticking point.”  The original broader construction seemed to allow some ambiguity as to whether only the three words listed were in view, or any other term connected to them.
This was a valid concern, especially since the BCO in Chapter 8 lists many titles “connected to” the ordained office, including the titles of “teacher” and “evangelist.” Certainly, the intent would not be to stop calling unordained Sunday School leaders “teachers.”
Consequently, the mover of the overture amended the original language to delete those two words “connected to.” In so doing, he sought to address this objection against the apparent ambiguity of the original broader construction. Deleting these two words was the most significant change to the overture as originally submitted, resulting in the final form of Item 1, which was then more narrowly aimed at the titles of the two offices of elder and deacon. This enabled the overture to win wider support in the Overtures Committee, as it eventually went on to pass easily on a lopsided vote, with over two-thirds supporting it: 91 to 44.
The General Assembly Debate
When the overture was sent to the floor of the Assembly, the rest of the commissioners had the chance to debate and consider the more modest proposal. One Teaching Elder asked, “If someone asked you ‘Does the PCA have female pastors and elders [or deacons]?’ how would you answer?” The answer at this point would have to be rather involved – we have women who are called pastor as “woman’s pastor” and others who are called “deacon” – but none are ordained. But then ordination is robbed of any significance beyond that asterisk on a bulletin or website.
An objection raised in floor debate was that “pastor” or “elder” or “deacon” in certain iterations in Scripture can mean “shepherd,” “older person,” or “servant” respectively, and so limiting these terms is illegitimate. Certainly, the Bible does call those in literal fields “shepherds” (in Older English “pastor”) and refer to the wedding helpers in Cana as “deacons” or “servants” in John 2.
Another speaker at General Assembly had a helpful word on this issue, noting, “As we move from biblical language, it is necessary that we would have a technical sense of certain words.” Hence these words for Elder and Deacon would be the technical definition as our BCO denotes biblical offices. This does not mean that we cannot talk anymore about shepherds or servants, but we should avoid using the three words our BCO uses in a technical way as formal titles apart from ordination.
These arguments in favor of Overture 26 as amended seemed to carry the day, as the Assembly was even more than the Overtures Committee supportive of the proposed change to the BCO, passing it with a nearly three-fourths vote of 1427 to 481.
A Modest Proposal for Common Ground
The current proposal is, then, a modest one. It is one, however, that certainly does not satisfy everyone. On one side, there are those who want freedom to use technical titles in ways that are potentially unclear, for cultural or theological reasons. And on the other side, there are those who believe that the BCO should explicitly prohibit the use of other titles that can likewise cloud the biblical offices, as our Standards do not presently include a long list of possible labels such as “shepherdess,” “minister,” “deaconess,” or others. In fact, if Item 1 passes the presbyteries and the 51st General Assembly, the most radical changes in churches may just be more clear labels of who is a “Youth Pastor” (and is ordained) and who is a “Youth Director/Coordinator” (and is unordained staff); or, who is in the ordained diaconate as distinguished from those who should properly be called deacons’ assistants or other titles under BCO 9-7.
While such changes seem small and – perhaps to some – pedantic, they ought to be considered as helpfully didactic in that they teach something. Confessional Presbyterians hold to a high view of ordination and to fidelity to God’s ordinances in the church. Teaching our people a high view of office must start with being clear on the issue of who holds that office and who does not.
The aim of Item 1 is to help calm some of the division caused by a loose use of titles, and reserving in our polity the terms “deacon,” “elder,” and “pastor” to the ordained biblical offices they denote. This intends to make clearer to those in our churches across the denomination our doctrine of ordination. While the proposed change to our BCO may not fully satisfy either extreme, it will hopefully help us all to live together more peaceably.
 One might then ask, “Why is “pastor” included?” Chapter 20 of the BCO goes on to speak of the “election of pastors,” and the BCO specifies for teaching elders the various designations of “pastor” (12-1, 22-1) or “senior pastor” (23-1), “associate pastor,” and “assistant pastor” (12-1, 22-1). Thus, “pastor” has come to be particularly associated with the ordained office of elder, and it is thus included to clarify who is ordained as an elder, and who is not.