Co-Heirs and Co-Workers:
The Engagement of Women in Decision Making Forums
A proposal to insert the term “male elders” into The Code was passed in the PCNSW Assembly in July 2020 and is currently being reviewed for comment at Presbytery level. This proposal prompts and provides the PCNSW with a timely opportunity to review our current decision making processes and the nature of the forums in which decisions are made.
This paper is designed to be a brief discussion piece, offered in the hope of encouraging open and helpful dialogue. Its key concern is the way in which the PCNSW engages men and women in decision making processes and to ask whether the current mechanisms allow and encourage both men and women to partner together in the life of the church, for Gods glory and for our good.
Throughout the Scriptures the dignity and appropriateness of male/ female partnership is upheld; see Genesis 1:26-27 (men and women are both made in the image of God to co-rule Gods creation) and Genesis 2:19-25 (woman is “ezer”, the “helper” to man. The root words of ezer are “strong” and “rescue” or “save”- this Hebrew word is used most commonly to describe God as our “helper”, one who provides necessary help). The biblical narrative includes women such as Miriam (Exodus 15, Micah 6:4), Deborah (Judges 4) Ruth, Esther, Lydia (Acts 16) and Priscilla (Acts 18:26). Romans 16 includes Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis. All these are examples of “co-workers” who partner with men for the good of Gods people.
Complementarianism is an unofficial but widely held framework of ministry within the PCNSW. It affirms that men and women are equal in dignity and worth, providing complementary roles, skills, wisdom and insights necessary for the building up of the church. It reflects the biblical model of male/female partnership as “co-heirs” (1Peter 3:7) and “co-workers” and the good gifts of both maleness and femaleness. It is precisely in the diversity of God’s design for gendered humanity that we are equipped to fulfil our task as God’s stewards. It follows that decision making processes which lack the contribution of women will be poorer as a result.
If the biblical model presents men and women as co-workers, it follows that the engagement of women in decision making and their participation in leadership is a relevant question for us. This question needs to be asked of all levels of the church; local congregations as well as the courts of Presbyteries and state Assembly.
A. At the local church level, there are numerous ways in which women can potentially be involved in the life of the church. Although a majority of PCNSW churches practice male-only eldership, sessions can and in some contexts do, employ a variety of means to invite women to contribute and be consulted in decision making. Due to the proximity and longevity of relationships at the local church level, opportunities for the inclusion and consultation of women are potentially easier to create and navigate. It will be important for local church leadership to be intentional, thoughtful and proactive in the ways they engage women in decision making.
Strategies that may help achieve this could include the following:
- Congregational leadership teams
- Congregational meetings
- The inclusion of women in session meetings for part or whole of the meeting
- The inclusion of women in staff teams and committee of management
- Establishing an advisory group made up of a number of godly women
- Creating a team of women to assist with pastoral care and conflict resolution issues
Some churches have included the wives of pastoral staff and elders in some of their decision making processes. This may appear to be a first step but it will exclude single women and others who have worthy contributions to make, based on their own character and merits.
B. At the Presbytery level the involvement of women becomes more problematic. As a higher court, Presbyteries are made up of elders and ministers of churches and are therefore inevitably male dominated. Women lack the relational proximity to Presbyteries which they may enjoy at the local church level. In addition, there appears to be limited awareness among members of the PCNSW as to what Presbyteries actually do and what are the pathways for a lay person to approach their local Presbytery.
Two aspects of Presbytery governance currently lack the involvement of women but would be enriched by a process of male and female partnership.
a) Presbyteries are tasked with the authority to interview and approve candidates for ministry ordination. Candidates committees usually do not include women, despite the fact that women make up at least 50% of the congregations that these ministers will go on to lead. The insights and wisdom that women could offer to this important process is one example of an outworking of complementarian ministry which the PCNSW could develop. Presbyteries could appoint women as observers to a candidate committee but given that the Assembly appoints members of the church as full members of its committees Presbyteries could do the same.
b) Presbyteries have authority in complaints about congregations and disciplinary issues concerning ministers. Although the Conduct Protocol Unit provides support to complainants, the CPU is an advisory body only and does not have authority to make decisions. Therefore, female complainants currently have their allegations reviewed by male only courts whose members are often the peers and comrades of the men being investigated. The potential for a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest is an area of significant concern.
In addition, members of Presbyteries are not necessarily trained in trauma and abuse informed care, which could mean best practice outcomes are not met. The ways in which complainants experience the process and how they are communicated with throughout is vitally important. The involvement of wise, appropriately trained women would improve both the internal mechanics of the complaints process as well as the external processes of engaging with female complainants in ways that are pastorally sensitive and wisely informed.
Assembly Committees are another forum which could benefit from the increased involvement of women. Membership across the eighteen committees is comprised of mostly men, with the one exception being the Women’s Ministry Committee. Traditionally some committees have provided for the involvement of PWA Reps, however this is arguably not as practical as it used to be, nor isthe PWA representative of women’s voices more broadly. Most of the committees are required to have three ministers and three elders and may have up to three church members. Changing this ratio would allow for more female church members to be appointed to the committees. Engagement of women in these various decision making forums is an important issue and one that highlights the broader issue of how the PCNSW can engage with new voices, those belonging to women as well as men. Intentional engagement across generations, regions and ethnic voices are necessary too, as membership of current forums relies heavily on pre-existing relationships and connections, which may unintentionally exclude certain groups from participation.
Processes to encourage the engagement of women in decision making forums could involve both “bottom up” and “top down” strategies:
– Raising awareness of the practical outworking of complementarian ministry in churches across the PCNSW. Communicating biblical models that are inclusive, creative and effective.
– Clearly communicating the role of Presbyteries and the NSW Assembly. Developing transparency by outlining specific pathways for lay persons to raise issues and concerns.
– Including nominated female church members from each church in the courts of Presbytery and Assembly. Establishing a requirement that a minimum number of women be included in complaints and disciplinary issues as well as Presbytery’s Candidate Committees.
– Developing a database of PCNSW members, detailing professional expertise, skills and training so committees can interview and co-opt new members more effectively rather than relying on limited networks of pre-existing relationships.
– Local churches, Presbyteries and the Assembly developing specific policies of how they will pursue the intentional engagement of women in their decision making processes.
These observations and suggestions are made in the hope of encouraging productive and open dialogue, for the good of the body of Christ; seeking to bring light, not heat to these important issues. As Ephesians 4:15-16 exhorts us; “speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.”
On Behalf of the Women’s Ministry Committee