The EPC’s Confession of Faith and Women’s Ordination

Recently I have been pressed on two fronts about the ordination of women in the EPC. The first concerns my claim in Women’s Ordination in the EPC: Learning from the CRC that “[Women’s ordination] is not addressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and so lies outside the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures.” I have been challenged on whether this is an accurate representation of the Confession and Catechisms. The second concerns the absence of the topic in What the EPC Can Learn from the PCA, with some stating that for the EPC to grow numerically and to grow in doctrinal and confessional rigor requires repudiating the ordination of women.

In regards to the first claim, I have several starting presuppositions. First is that the Westminster Divines were familiar with and well-versed in the Reformational documents and debates on both the European continent and colonial America, and that these informed their deliberations and finalized standards. The second is that the Divines, as Puritans and scholastics, did not make theological or liturgical assumptions, but rather developed and defended their assumptions. The third is that the Divines were trying to forge a Puritan/Presbyterian consensus built on the pre-existing English, Scottish, and Irish Reformational confessions and liturgies. The fourth is the acknowledgement that the Assembly published more than the Confession and Catechisms, and so all of the Standards produced were intended to be taken as a unit. Yet, these additional documents were only ever adopted in Scotland, even if they influenced things in Ireland and America. The fifth is that the specific vow and formulation about “the system of doctrine” is not from the Assembly itself, but was developed by the Irish Presbyterian Church in the early 1700s and has been part of the American subscription formula since the founding of the American Presbyterian Church.

The System of Doctrine

Simply put, nowhere in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms is the issue of women’s ordination addressed. At no point in these documents are the criteria for ordination ever laid out. The closest the Confession and Catechisms ever come to this is WLC 158, which says that the word of God “is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.” The nature of that gifting and what “duly approved and called” means are never specified in the Confession or Catechisms. If someone either affirms or rejects the ordination of women there is no place in the text of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms for them to lodge a disagreement and ask for an exception to be allowed.

Oftentimes someone will argue that the Confession and Catechisms are silent on this issue because the ordination of women was unknown in 17th century and no one would have even considered its possibility (with the implication being that this is an invisible, yet present, component of the text). This is simply untrue. The issue was known at the time and left unaddressed, and not because the Westminster Divines assumed everyone was on the same page. The Hussites in Bohemia had historically been open to women preaching and administering the sacraments, were active for centuries by the 1640s, and well known to the Puritans. The Scots Confession (1560, §22) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1564, §20) both addressed the subject and asserted that women may not preach, teach, or administer the sacraments. The Second Helvetic Confession was the most broadly accepted Reformed confession throughout the 16th century and the Scots Confession was one of the documents informing the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly. While these two confessions primarily had the actions of Roman Catholic midwives baptizing infants in view, a practice that had faded by the 1640s following the Council of Trent, the practice of laywomen taking on the duties rightfully reserved for ordained ministers was not unknown.

This was still a live issue in the British church at this point. In the New England colonies, Anabaptist and radical groups had a freer hand, and women like Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer were famously preaching and teaching both and men and women prior to and during the Westminster Assembly. The Divines were in contact with their colonial peers, and some, including Simeon Ashe, William Rathband, and Samuel Rutherford were not only in active correspondence with the churches in New England, but also wrote books in the 1630s-40s addressing the theology and ecclesiology of those churches. Closer to home, the radical movements including the Quakers were growing in the 1640s-50s. While these accelerated in the 1650s, they were not unknown in the 1640s (see: Mary Dyer) and the Westminster Assembly was still in session in the 1650s when the Quakers became prominent. These include the “Valiant Sixty”, with Margaret Fell, Mary Fisher, and Elizabeth Hooten among their number.

The point is not that the Westminster Divines were egalitarians, but that they were aware of women’s ordination and women preachers, and did not include the topic in the Confession and Catechisms. Interestingly, neither the Congregationalist (Savoy Declaration, 1658), nor the Baptist (Second London Baptist Confession, 1689), nor the American Presbyterian (1788) revisions to the Westminster Confession addressed the topic, and all three of these groups were very aware of women’s ordination. We vow subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, not to the opinions of the Divines, no matter how valuable and insightful those opinions might be.

Now, sometimes it’s replied that the Westminster Standards also included the Form of Presbyterial Church-Governance, the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, and the Directory for Family Worship of God, that these teach that only men should be ordained, and since these were intended to go with the Confession and Catechisms, the statements of the Confession and Catechism (e.g. “duly approved and called”) must be read in light of these other documents. Now, it’s true that these additional Standards assume male-only ordination in their wording, but at no juncture do they assert it as a matter of doctrine or biblical teaching. Yet even acknowledging that the wording of these Standards assume male-only ordination does not mean that the Confessions and Catechisms also teach the same. The Form and Directories are forms for practice, and were never designed to be confessed as scripture’s teaching in the same way as the Confession and Catechisms. For instance, the Westminster Confession is silent on the question of episcopacy versus presbyterianism, and is also compatible with congregationalism. This was intentional, even if the Assembly was predominantly presbyterian and also drafted the Form of Presbyterial Church-Governance. The existence of this document does not modify WCF 31 (“On Synod and Counsels”) to teach presbyterianism when that doctrine is absent from the text of the Confession. The Form and Directories were never adopted outside of Scotland (though the Directory for the Publick Worship of God was the guidance for the American Presbyterian Church from the 1720s until the 1780s) and yet the Confession and Catechisms have always been understood in the Presbyterian tradition as a cohesive system of doctrine on their own. The Confession and Catechisms summarized the beliefs of the church, the Form and Directories its rules for practice. And our ordination vows are vows of subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures, not that the system is contained in the other documents published by the Assembly yet not even adopted by our own churches.

Finally, some people argue that the prooftexts included with the Confession and Catechisms teach a prohibition on women’s ordination. The prooftexts were famously added to the Confession and Catechisms by the Assembly under Parliamentary duress and in haphazard fashion. A. A. Hodge and Chad Van Dixhoorn in their respective commentaries on the Assembly and its work talk about how basically any member of the Assembly could append a prooftext if they pleased. The prooftexts have limited helpfulness, and are historically of dubious constitutionality in the Presbyterian tradition. In the EPC they are not constitutional.

Even if the prooftexts were treated as a constitutional, they do not teach a prohibition on ordaining women. The two examples that are often invoked are WLC 126 on duties owed to superiors (citing Ephesians 5:22, 24) and WLC 158 (citing 1 Timothy 3:2) on who is allowed to preach God’s word. Regarding WLC 126, Ephesians 5:22, 24 does not speak to the ordination of women but to the relationship of husbands and wives. While (potentially) related theologically, these are distinct topics. However, the original version of WLC 126, and the version used by the EPC, does not include Ephesians 5:22, 24. The OPC seems to have added it, with the PCA following them in their edition.

On WLC 158, the citation of 1 Timothy 3:2 is for this clause, “The word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted”, and is clearly in reference to the “able to teach” requirement since that is the very doctrine being taught here by the WLC. Now of course the rest of the verse is also the divine word of God and is binding on the EPC, but the meaning of the phrase “husband of one wife” is not in view or defined here by the Standards, and to assert that the mere citation of this verse in WLC 158 prohibits women’s ordination is begging the question.

None of this is to say that the Westminster Divines approved of women’s ordination or wouldn’t have added something about the topic if they could see the future. Nor am I saying that the Confession and Catechisms require affirming women’s ordination or that churches (like the PCA) aren’t free under Westminsterian logic to have male-only ordination as their practice. My claim is straightforward: since it is not addressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the ordination of women is a topic that lies outside the system of doctrine taught in the scriptures.

Learning from the PCA on Women’s Ordination?

All that being said, why did I neglect to address the ordination of women in my post on what the EPC can learn from the PCA since we are shrinking and they are growing?

The first reason is that I am unsure that the ordination of women is actually a barrier to denominational or congregational growth. Besides the PCA, Pentecostals are the other group still growing in North America, and they often have women preaching and pastoring. Additionally, while the Anglican Church in North America is regularly debating women priests and has dipped in membership from their peak in 2017, they seem to have stabilized and had a slight uptick in membership over the past two years. They’re too young to really understand their trajectory (founded in 2009), but the ordination of women does not appear to have impeded their stability.

As some commentators pointed out though, women’s ordination has truly been a barrier for people considering joining EPC congregations who have instead landed in PCA or OPC congregations. It seems likely that the kind of person who values the combination of shared traits held by the PCA and EPC (a denomination, that is confessionally Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical) will also generally reject women’s ordination, and so is unlikely to attend an EPC congregation. I’ve witnessed this from people in my community and visitors to my church who haven’t stuck around, even though we only have male pastors.

Part of the reason for this phenomenon is that the broader evangelical and New Calvinist ecosystem is complimentarian, and male-only ordination is a hard boundary marker for the movement. But I don’t think that’s going to last. Tim Keller’s The Decline and Renewal of the American Church sees a crackup and reshuffling coming for evangelical networks that will reset the boundaries, and Aaron Renn predicts that this will eliminate complimentarianism as one of the boundary markers for evangelicalism. Maybe they’re wrong, but I’m not sure that women’s ordination will be barrier to numerical growth for the EPC going forward.

The second, and more important reason I did not address women’s ordination is simple: I was writing on what the EPC could learn (i.e. adopt and take) from the PCA, and we are not going to jettison women’s ordination anytime soon. Freedom on this point is basic to the EPC’s identity. We were founded in 1981, rather than joining a pre-existing denomination, so that we could have liberty on the issue of women’s ordination. It’s been included in our constitution as a non-essential since our start; in fact, it’s the only topic constitutionally granted that distinction. When we attempted to join NAPARC in the 1990s we declined to alter our constitution on this point even though we didn’t have a single woman pastor at the time. We’re not going to stop our practice of allowing the ordination of women, and growth in doctrinal and confessional rigor and faithfulness does not require us to change that.

This is an area where the PCA could actually learn from us: the EPC doesn’t make non-confessional issues a litmus test for ordination and is relaxed when people disagree with us about things that lie outside the scriptural system of doctrine.