PCA Overture To Distinguish Laity From Officers

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.

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Brad Isbell | “An Overture on Titles & Ordination” | April 27th, 2023


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  1. Brad: It seems as if the real battleground with overtures and trends has shifted to the presbytery level of the PCA and perhaps even to the session level. If a session or presbytery wants to sanction a heterodox practice, they really have no expectation anymore that they will be overruled by either the GA or the SJC. After the defeat of Overture 15 by the presbyteries, I find it hard to believe that any conservative overture will ever be approved by 2/3 of the presbyteries.

  2. This overture would not stop churches from having unordained women referred to as “deaconesses,” would it?

    I have gone back and forth on the “deaconess debate” for years and am comfortable belonging to a church that has them. For instance, the RPCNA will ordain women to the office, largely based on their understanding of 1 Tim 3:11, as indicated in their Testimony:

    “The permanent officers to be set apart by ordination are elders and deacons. The office of elder is restricted in Scripture to men. Women as well as men may hold the office of deacon. Ordination is a solemn setting apart to a specific office by the laying on of the hands of a court of the Church and is not to be repeated. Installation is the official constitution of a relationship between one who is ordained and the congregation” (Testimony 25:8);

    “The diaconate is a spiritual office subordinate to the session and is not a teaching or ruling office. The deacons have responsibility for the ministry of mercy, the finances and property of the congregation, and such other tasks as are assigned to them by the session…” (25:11).

    Leaving the (teaching and ruling) office of elder to men, as Paul makes clear in 1 Tim 2:12 and 1 Tim 3, I appreciate the RP’s consistency by not allowing for unordained quasi-officers as we currently see in the PCA’s unordained version of deaconesses.

    Regardless of which position is correct on deaconesses, the PCA still has a problem in allowing women to lead congregational prayer and publicly read the Scriptures in gathered Lord’s Day worship—things our Standards restrict to the (male) office of elder. I know there’s been debate here too which I believe Brad has helpfully addressed before on his site (it’s a stretch to see the “or some other persons” language as all of a sudden referring to women which are barred from serving in the office of elder), but I would love to see the PCA tighten up their stance and practice in this area as well perhaps by starting with a clarifying overture (I guess we need an overture every time we want to ignore or deviate from what’s explicit and clearly implied in PCA’s constitution) before dropping the disciplinary hammer.

    May the Lord bless and bring about biblical reform in all His Church, including the PCA—especially as GA approaches.

    • Brandon: The last few years have proven that there is no higher court willing to “drop the disciplinary hammer” on theological grounds. The SJC seems to only want to rule on procedural grounds. The GA is has rejected overtures which would move toward setting strict theological and practical limits. Therefore, each session and presbytery can reasonably expect to do as they please with impunity at least on this matter and probably others. Our “big tent” now demands that we allow broad latitude.

  3. I’ve yet to figure out why anyone thinks the PCA has ever had a group solidarity in sentiment and belief. From its inception it carried much of the baggage from the already dying PCUS. I am speaking as one who was born in the PCUS and was there until 1983. If there was consensus anywhere, it was limited to the deep south. If you travel outside of that region, you lose it. Thus, when you attend a PCA church when you are traveling you never know what you are going to get. That’s a fact. Or even just go across town in the same presbytery. In the case of my presbytery, it allows its presbyters to violate the 2 commandment, scrap the RPW, and call musicians Worship Pastors. So why now do we think we can all of a sudden create something totally new recipe using the same ingredients.

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