At its Winter Stated Meeting, held January 8, 2000, in Sweetwater, Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Presbytery (TVP) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) declined to institute a judicial investigation of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee, or to instruct the Session and Pastor that they must cease from the practice of women's preaching. The Presbytery, rather, gave its blessing to two resolutions in an overture from Cedar Springs, which allow that unordained people may "speak" on occasion in public worship. Taken together, the actions appear to grant approval to female preaching. The action on these matters prevailed by an estimated two to one margin.
The issue of women preaching has been bubbling in the PCA for almost a year, ever since it came to light that a woman had twice preached at Cedar Springs in August 1998. The Senior Pastor of the prominent Knoxville congregation, John Wood, publicly defended the practice in an interview in the March 1999 edition of P&R News. Since that time, charges have been brought against him by four PCA presbyteries, which petitioned the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over Mr. Wood. The unusual Constitutional procedure, of having the Assembly exercise original jurisdiction over a minister, was invoked after Tennessee Valley Presbytery had failed to act in the matter.
One of the presbyteries which has been taking the lead in the matter is Western Carolina, home of Dr. Morton H. Smith, the PCA's first Stated Clerk. At its March 1999 stated meeting, the Presbytery communicated with Tennessee Valley, expressing concern over the report of a woman having preached in one of its pulpits and asking for an investigation. Tennessee Valley Presbytery did not formally respond to its neighbor in western North Carolina, either after TVP's April or after its July stated meeting. Within two and a half weeks after TVP's failure in July to act on the matter, three PCA presbyteries-Western Carolina, Calvary, and Ascension-had petitioned the Assembly for original jurisdiction over Mr. Wood.
October saw further action. Tennessee Valley voted, without formal investigation, to vindicate the Cedar Springs Session, but also declared that female preaching is inappropriate. Eastern Carolina Presbytery later that month joined in asking the Assembly to assume original jurisdiction in the case of Presbyterian Church in America vs. John Wood.
The Cedar Springs Session reacted to the TVP meeting by sending a letter to the Presbytery. In that letter, the Session averred that it saw nothing wrong with its having had a woman to fill the pulpit, and it announced that the church had scheduled a woman to be the plenary speaker at its missions conference in 2001.
At its November 1999 stated meeting, Western Carolina sent yet another letter to Tennessee Valley. After noting the action taken by Cedar Springs, the communique asked TVP to "intervene" and to "require the Cedar Springs Church to comply with the PCA's position on this issue."
The Western Carolina letter was only one of several communications which brought the issue to the attention of Tennessee Valley Presbytery at its January meeting. Also before the court were three overtures, the aforementioned letter from Cedar Springs, and a protest.
First to be considered was the overture from Cedar Springs, which asked for approval of three resolutions: "1. The ordinary preaching and teaching ministry in the worship services of our churches is to be by those 'sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office' (WCF Larger Catechism, Q&A 158). 2. However, Sessions are permitted by our Constitution to invite unordained persons to speak on those occasions when they believe that it would be glorifying to God and good for the people (Directory for Worship, 53-6). 3. For the peace and health of our churches, the word 'preaching' should not be used to describe the speaking of unordained persons."
In arguing for his Session's overture, Mr. Wood attempted to explain that the controversy was essentially a misunderstanding of words, that is, a matter of semantics. He defended having a woman perform the ministry of the Word on the grounds that the only preaching women are prohibited from engaging in is "authoritative teaching." Mr. Wood argued that "authoritative" preaching is only that which is done by an ordained minister. Therefore, he concluded, "she is not preaching because she is not presenting authoritative teaching." By way of illustration, he added that "just because it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, doesn't mean it's a duck." During his attempted defense of the notion that a woman who fills the pulpit is not preaching, Mr. Wood suggested that his use of terminology was not "Clintonesque."
Presbytery then delayed further consideration of the Cedar Springs overture, in order to take up the other two. The first of these was from the Session of Wayside Presbyterian Church, Signal Mountain, Tennessee. This document declared that "the Constitution of the PCA defines preaching as a broad general term meant to cover all kinds of public proclamation and teaching of the Word: for example reading, expounding, declaring, beseeching and bearing glad tidings." The overture also said that the PCA Constitution "states that all authority in the Church is only ministerial and declarative, and therefore whoever proclaims the Word of God in the church is by that very preaching exercising authority over all who hear, including the Session, which is not lawful for women to do." Two resolutions were proposed in the overture: "1. The Tennessee Valley Presbytery exhort the Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, and all our churches, to cease and desist from inviting unauthorized persons, men or women, as 'plenary speakers' in their designated worship services, as this practice is contrary to the Constitution of the PCA. 2. The Tennessee Valley Presbytery at the same time encourages laymen and women to participate in the worship services by praying, testifying, singing and so on, but not usurping the place of verbal authority granted the minister of the Word in our Constitution."
The pastor of Wayside Church, Marshall St. John, began his argument in favor of the overture by reminding the court of a fundamental tenet of all Protestant theology, namely, that the authority of all preaching resides in and is derived from the Word of God. He explained that if his wife preached his sermon, it would be no less authoritative, because she would be speaking the Word of God. Dr. St. John also mentioned that in the Reformed tradition the Word of God is especially known in its proclamatory form, that is, as what is preached.
Several of the presbyters seemed confused about this point, and one teaching elder, the Rev. Mr. Dennis Griffith, Chairman of the Presbytery's Mission to North America Committee, even objected to it. After some debate, the Signal Mountain overture was voted down.
Following lunch, the Presbytery considered the overture from the Lookout Mountain (Ga.) Reformed Presbyterian Church, which was presented by its pastor, Kevin Skogen. Mr. Skogen allowed Mr. Wood to contend that there was no real basis for the overture. Mr. Wood repeated his earlier explanation that a woman may preach (that is, may stand before the congregation in worship and perform the ministry of the Word) because "it is not authoritative teaching." Preaching as authoritative teaching can be done only by an ordained minister because his office gives his message authority. Mr. Wood said that the PCA's Constitution speaks of preaching only as authoritative teaching; however, he added that the New Testament does have instances of preaching as non-authoritative teaching, but offered no support for that assertion. Because of the PCA Constitutional position, Mr. Wood said that Cedar Springs would refrain from calling the ministry of the Word performed by a woman "preaching," and expressed regret that they had done so in the October letter sent to TVP.
After long debate, the overture was not adopted.
At that point, Mr. Wood presented and spoke to the overture from Cedar Springs. After much discussion, TVP adopted two resolutions. The first was modified by adding the word "males," so that the Presbytery affirmed that the regular preaching was to be done by "males 'sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.'
A similar attempt to amend the second resolution, so that it would read that "Sessions are permitted by our Constitution to invite unordained males to speak" in public worship, was defeated; and the original version as proposed by Cedar Springs was adopted. In speaking against the attempt to amend the second resolution, Mr. Wood declared that that would be an extra-Constitutional imposition on the church, which would not be right, especially since it would be against "standing practice" in the PCA. In support of that notion, he alluded to three other prominent PCA congregations-Perimeter in suburban Atlanta, Coral Ridge in Fort Lauderdale, and Redeemer in New York City-where, it was suggested, women do speak on occasions.
The third resolution, that "the word 'preaching' should not be used to describe the speaking of unordained persons," was not adopted.
The debate on these matters was spirited and lively. At one point, the Rev. Mr. Jim Barnes had a colloquy with Mr. Wood, asking him what exactly he would call it if a woman sat in her study for several hours exegeting the Word and putting together her notes in homiletical form and then stood before the congregation on Sunday morning and delivered the message. Mr. Wood replied that because the woman was not an ordained minister, she would not be preaching, if by preaching is meant "authoritative teaching." Mr. Barnes then asked Mr. Wood if he would define preaching, if preaching is not the exposition of the Word. Mr. Wood did not provide a definition of preaching and stated that the PCA does not agree on any definition of it.
The Rev. Mr. David Hall read from I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14, both of which enjoin women to silence and forbid them from public ministry of the Word. Mr. Wood objected to that reading; and, referring to one of his professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, said: "Gordon Fee taught us that the Bible does not mean what it says, but it means what it means."
During one part of the debate, the Rev. Mr. Tim Rake objected to the notion of "non-authoritative teaching." He told the court that in the church, the house of God, only the Word of God is to be spoken, and it is always authoritative. He strongly urged the presbyters to recognize that preaching is always and only the public proclamation of the Word of God, and therefore is authoritative. Everything else, he said, is opinion, and that is not welcome or appointed in God's house.
One of the few ruling elders who spoke was Dr. Frank Brock from the Lookout Mountain (Tenn.) Presbyterian Church. (See separate box for his comments.-Ed.)
Towards the end of the meeting, Presbytery received
and spread on the minutes a letter of protest from the Rev. Dr.
King Counts. However, even this act generated controversy, as
the Rev. Dr. Paul Gilchrist, former denominational Stated Clerk,
asked that the title of the protest drop the words "Advising
the Review and Control Committee of the General Assembly."
Dr. Counts kindly acceded. Dr. Gilchrist also objected to the
statement in the opening paragraph of the protest that "no
judicial proceedings or investigation by the Presbytery ever occurred."
Dr. Gilchrist insisted an investigation had occurred. However,
Mr. Mark Wilson, a ruling elder who had been Presbytery Moderator
at the spring and summer stated meetings, immediately corrected
him and stated that no investigation had taken place.
One of the participants in the debate at the January
meeting of Tennessee Valley Presbytery was Dr. Frank Brock. A
ruling elder at Lookout Mountain (Tenn.) Presbyterian Church,
he is currently the president of Covenant College and has also
served the church as Moderator of the 23rd General Assembly.
We had included in our news story a summary of his remarks at
the presbytery meeting, and sent it to him in order to verify
its accuracy. Dr. Brock graciously responded in order to help
us paint a fuller picture. His responses is as follows:
"One of the few ruling elders who spoke up was Frank Brock. When asked what he said at Presbytery, he was willing to make the following statement:
'I spoke extemporaneously and cannot recall exactly what I said. I hate to see this issue debated on the basis of hearsay of extemporaneous remarks made at Tennessee Valley's Presbytery. Therefore, I reluctantly state in writing what I tried to say at Presbytery.
'I keep asking why this incident seems to have stirred up such a controversy. It seems to me that this is an example of the proverbial camel getting her nose under our tent. Aren't we as males exhibiting our own insecurity? After all, it was a group of male elders that asked a woman to speak because they wanted to hear what a woman had to say. What is wrong with this? Why do some men want to deny other men this authority? As men, we have an advantage in having Jesus as our example. He was the only perfect person who ever lived and He was a male. Yet He never asked people to listen to Him because of His maleness. Rather, He showed perfect male headship by giving us the example of submission to His Father. He did not teach or exemplify positional authority. If we would follow His example, we would be exhibiting biblical male headship. If we think that by passing some manmade rule about when or how women may or may not speak to men, we will be exhibiting condescension toward women that will create division between men and women for years to come. Such a rule will result in endless debate and the need for further adjudication in the church courts for years to come. The church will turn away many women and will be less biblical for that. The biblical issue is who may hold the office of elder. Our Book of Church Order is clear on this issue; it is males. This other issue--when and how a woman can speak in church to men without violating the principle of having authority over men--cannot be solved by rules passed at general assembly. We need to trust the local sessions' men, who have been ordained as elders under the authority of God's word, to know how to exhibit biblical headship when it comes to seeking the perspective of the women in the church. If it gets to the point where a session wants to ordain women as ruling or teaching elders, we will know it and we will know the difference between that and what happened at Cedar Springs. Let's not make a mountain out of a molehill. Let's concentrate on being godly men that women will gladly submit to. To the extent that a denomination can insure that its men will exhibit biblical headship, we have done so by restricting the office of church headship, ruling and teaching elder, to men. Our Book of Church Order is clear on this point. No matter what individual members of Cedar Spring's session may think, Cedar Spring's session is in accord with this position and we know it.'"
The following protest was received and spread on
the record of Tennessee Valley Presbytery (TVP) at its January
8, 2000, meeting:
We respectfully protest the actions of TVP at its
Oct. 12, 1999 meeting and the response by one of its members churches,
Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church (CSPC) on 10/25/99. At the
Oct. 12, 1999 meeting the TVP adopted an overture that "found"
(although no judicial proceedings or investigation by the Presbytery
ever occurred) that even though the Session of SSPC had invited
and was inviting women to preach in worship, nonetheless,
1. they were in accord with PCA standards;
2. they had not done anything injurious to the testimony
of Christ by having women preach in worship; and
3. they were submissive to the brethren on this issue.
At the meeting, several representatives of CSPC Session
admitted mistakes but resisted repenting or promising not to have
women preach in the future, citing the fact that their session
had not as yet acted officially in this regard. Assurances were
given by the CSPC elders, that a letter would be forthcoming,
before the next stated meeting of TVP, in which the entire session
would recognize its mistake in allowing the practice of women
preaching and teaching in the corporate worship.
Within two weeks, the CSPC Session met and sent a
letter to all churches in TVP with positions that appear to be
contrary to all three items above. Much to our disappointment,
rather than a humble apology or a promise not to offend in the
future, the letter indicates among other things that the CSPC
Suffice it to say, the tenets and tone of this letter
seem considerably different from what was conveyed at Presbytery.
The tone seems more one of willfulness and a desire to defend
women preaching in worship-which both the recent 27th General
Assembly and the recent meeting of TVP denounced-than it does
submissive to the brethren and in conformity with PCA standards.
Moreover, when it is noted that at least three other
PCA presbyteries have overtured the GA on this subject in the
past few months, it is difficult to maintain-as TVP sought to
do-that nothing injurious has happened.
We sincerely believe that many trusting TVP presbyters
gave the benefit of the doubt to a session that voluntarily began
the discussion with its own admission that things should have
been done differently (if nothing was wrong, such explanation
would not have been in order in the first place, since no charges
were pending). The presbytery was encouraged to "trust"
these brothers upon their own announcements that they would clarify
the matter, and be found in conformity with the PCA constitution,
and the resolution adopted by TVP that declared "openly and
plainly. . . that it is not proper for women to preach and teach
in the church's corporate worship."
The subsequent "clarification," however,
only showed an unwillingness on the part of the session either
to admit wrong or to promise subjection to the brethren. Under
any interpretation, they now profess to be unwilling to repent
and graciously seek harmony.
We can only interpret this latter action as a declaration
that CSPC will continue to invite women to preach in worship,
contrary to Scripture, and should the General Assembly fail to
take notice of that, such neglect may be an implicit encouragement
for any in the future who wish to have women to preach or teach
We believe that the next GA should be advised of
this (BCO 40-5) and the appropriate committee should seek redress.
We judge that the issue is of such substance as to warrant the
concern of the GA.
Desiring the peace within our bounds and not wishing
to either pursue judicial remedies nor perpetually occupy the
presbytery's time with [this] single issue, we therefore respectfully
and humbly ask the R & C [Review and Control] committee, under
the relevant sections of BCO 40-4 and 5 to redress this issue
and report its finding to the next General Assembly. We consider
this issue of great importance to the well-being and health of
the Church, one which warrants purposeful steps by the General
We do not accept criticisms which suggest that our
concern for biblical faithfulness in the preaching and teaching
of the Word of God in public worship, somehow indicates that we
lack evangelistic zeal or godly fervor for the salvation of the
lost. Or, that by bringing this protest, we are revealing a bitter,
litigious or unloving spirit. Nothing could be farther from the
truth. We bring this protest in sincere regard and respect for
our denomination, our presbytery, and the session of CSPC.
Dr. King Counts, who presented this protest, pastors
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Joining
him in the protest were the Rev. Mr. Bob Borger (First Presbyterian
Church, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia) and the Rev. Mr. Kevin Skogen
and Professor E. Calvin Beisner (Lookout Mountain [Ga.] Reformed
The Rev. Mr. Bob Borger, Pastor of First Presbyterian
Church, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, has offered the following comments
on the situation within Tennessee Valley Presbytery:
"There were approximately 100 presbyters,
many of them ministers, at the Tennessee Valley meeting on Saturday,
January 8th. I find it very curious that so many ministers in
a denomination l love very much could not agree on the definition
of preaching, when they had to do it the next day. How curious
that we were so befuddled as to what the definition of 'is' is,
what the definition of 'preaching' is. In Malachi, the priest
is supposed to guard knowledge; and here we find ourselves unable
to know what that
At its stated meeting on January 15, 2000, Louisiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) voted to urge Tennessee Valley Presbytery to "act . . . with Biblical and Constitutional integrity" with regard to the practice of women preaching.
The matter came before the Cajun State court by
overture from John Knox Presbyterian Church, Ruston, Louisiana.
As adopted by the Presbytery, the overture reads as follows:
Whereas due to the public nature of the letter from TE John Wood and his Session of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church dated October 25, 1999 to the Tennessee Valley Presbytery, it is our concern that this overture be handled in a timely and God-honoring manner; and
Whereas the Scriptures clearly teach that a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but is to remain silent (I Timothy 2:12); and
Whereas the PCA Book of Church Order should be interpreted consistently rather than a way that is contrary to the Scriptures; and
Whereas to permit a woman to preach or teach in the context of worship would be a gross violation of I Timothy 2:12 and BCO 53-6; and
Whereas the Session of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church has made it known that a woman has been invited to be the plenary speaker for the 2001 World missions conference,
Therefore Be It Resolved
that the Louisiana Presbytery urge the Tennessee Valley Presbytery
to consider it their duty to uphold BCO 40-4, and NOT "to
neglect to perform their duty, by which neglect heretical opinions
or corrupt practices may be allowed to gain ground;" we therefore
encourage the TVP to act upon this with Biblical and Confessional
What effect, if any, this latest overture will have on Tennessee Valley Presbytery remains to be seen. To date, the Tennessee court has refused to respond formally to either of two communiques sent by Western Carolina Presbytery, a neighboring bailiwick; and did not have the latest of Western Carolina's letters read to the commissioners.