On the Ordination of Women (Revised)

Note: This new post is intended to replace the original post of the same name, previously published on July 2, 2012.  I have determined that the previous post, which is archived here, is inadequate for its purpose, contains at least one inaccuracy, and no longer reflects my thinking on the subject.  This new post exegetes the pertinent texts more thoroughly, represents the arguments for the ordination of women more accurately, and evaluates these arguments more critically.

On February 14, 1974, Ministerial Candidate Walter Wynn Kenyon, who had then recently graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with honors, stood before the Pittsburgh Presbytery, seeking ordination as a Teaching Elder in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) and to be called as a pastor in one of the churches within the Presbytery’s jurisdiction.  When asked if he were willing to ordain women who might be elected to the Session of the church that was seeking to call him, he said no, explaining that on the basis of I Corinthians 14.33-34 and I Timothy 2.12, he did not believe that it was Scripturally permissible to ordain women to teaching offices in the church, in particular the offices of teaching and ruling elder.  Mr. Kenyon stated that he would not have a problem working alongside ordained women in Presbytery or on the Session of the church to which he was called, but he could not, in good conscience, participate in the ordination of women, and if it were the will of the Session to ordain women despite his objection, he would not prevent it and would ask the Presbytery to send another teaching elder to officiate at the ordination.

Although Pittsburgh Presbytery voted to proceed with Mr. Kenyon’s ordination by a vote of 147 to 133, one of the presbytery’s teaching elders, Rev. Jack Martin Maxwell, on February 25 initiated a complaint against the decision.  On March 6, Pittsburgh Presbytery issued a “Stay of Execution,” effectively postponing Mr. Kenyon’s ordination until the case against him was finalized.  The Judicial Commission of the Synod of Pennsylvania and West Virginia tried the case and on April 19 decided that the vote to ordain Mr. Kenyon was irregular and should be rescinded.  Mr. Kenyon appealed the decision, and early the following year the Permanent Judicial Commission of the UPCUSA in the remedial case of Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh sustained the Synod Judicial Commission’s ruling.  The PJC emphasized the following points in its decision:

  1. “Discrimination against women within the United Presbyterian Church on the basis of their sex is forbidden by the Constitution of the Church.
  2. “The nature of the authority of presbytery in the licensure and ordination of candidates.
  3. “A minister’s refusal to participate in the ordination of women has unacceptable implications for the Church at large.”

Regarding the Synod’s ruling, the PJC wrote,

We recognize the heavy burden borne by Synod in overruling the majority vote of a presbytery on a question of ordination.  However, presbytery’s power is not absolute.  It must be exercised in conformity with the Constitution.  In other words, our polity is a government of law, rather than of men.

In considering the gravity of the question, we are mindful that conscience can be in conflict with polity.  But it is important to recall that the decision to present oneself as a candidate for ordination is voluntary.  A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience.1

Mr. Kenyon was by no means the only individual in the UPCUSA who believed the ordination of women to be unscriptural.  Some ordained ministers in the UPCUSA were already facing litigation because of their opposition to the practice, and even those who were not keenly felt unwelcome in light of the PJC ruling.  On July 29, 1975, a number of teaching elders and churches withdrew from the UPCUSA and joined with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a denomination that had come into existence only a year and a half earlier and which excluded women from ordained office in its Book of Church Order (§24-1).2  Other teaching elders and churches opposed to the ordination of women also withdrew in 1981 to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which ordains women as well as men who oppose women’s ordination,3 although most of those joining the EPC who opposed the ordination of women were coming from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

The Teaching of Scripture on the Ordination of Women

The clearest teaching in Scripture on the subject of the Ordination of Women comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his first epistle to his young disciple and associate, the Evangelist Timothy, he wrote,

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.  Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. —I Timothy 2.8-15

Immediately preceding this passage, Paul is discussing prayer, urging Timothy that his congregation should be making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings…for all people,” especially those in places of authority, so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (vv. 1-2).  On this basis, he teaches that men in the congregation ought to pray peaceably, and the women ought to present themselves modestly and with good works.

He then proceeds to instruct women to learn quietly and submissively in the context of worship and prohibits them from teaching or exercising authority over men, citing the creation order and the Fall from Genesis 2-3 as his reasons for the prohibition (this reasoning will be explained in further detail in the next section).  Finally, he says that the woman “will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (v. 15)  The Greek word translated here as “saved” is σωθήσεται, the future passive indicative form of σώζω, meaning “to save,”4 which Paul commonly uses to refer to redemption from sin and death (Acts 16.31, Rom. 5.9-10, 8.24, 9.27 [Is. 10.22 LXX], 10.1,9,13, 11.14,26, I Cor. 1.18,21, 3.15, 5.5, 7.16, 9.22, 10.33, 15.2, II Cor. 2.15, Eph. 2.5,8, I Thess. 2.16, II Thess. 2.10, I Tim. 1.15, 2.4, 4.16, II Tim. 1.9, Tit. 3.5).  As he elsewhere emphasizes, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3.28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8-9), so it cannot mean that a woman is saved in this sense by bearing children.  Neither does it mean that she is saved by the birth of the Child (i.e., Jesus), for no one is saved by His birth but only by His atoning work on the Cross.  Rather, this is a continuation of Paul’s allusion to the Creation and Fall accounts in vv. 13-14, specifically to the woman’s created purpose in childbearing (Gen. 1.27-28, 3.16, I Cor. 11.11-12), likely as a remedy for the sins of being idlers, gossips, and busybodies, for which he rebuked the Ephesian women (younger widows specifically) later in the epistle (I Tim. 5.13-14), for he also emphasized the woman’s need to “continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

It is no mere coincidence that this passage immediately precedes the qualifications for the offices of elder (or bishop)5 and deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13); thus, it is quite clear that Paul is here exercising the Apostolic authority granted him by God to exclude women from these offices, which are explicitly intended to teach and exercise authority over the Church.  This exclusion is further emphasized in the qualifications for these offices, which require, among other things, that an elder or deacon be “the husband of one wife” (Gk. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα; I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), literally a “one-woman man”.  The point Paul is making in this specific requirement is that officers in the Church must be monogamous men, faithful and content with their wives, although it should not be construed to exclude single, unmarried men (or widowers), for then it would exclude not only unmarried apostles and evangelists such as Paul and Timothy, but also the Lord Jesus Himself.  However, it should not be missed that the noun used here is ἀνήρ, the Greek word for adult male or husband, not ἄνθρωπος, the Greek word for human being, commonly translated, “man”.

Paul is not here teaching that women should never instruct men under any circumstances, nor is he teaching that women should never instruct males in church settings, as one of the members of Pittsburgh Presbytery examining Mr. Kenyon implied.6  After all, in his second epistle to Timothy, Paul commended the faith of his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (II Tim. 1.5) and enjoined him to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it (i.e., his mother and grandmother) and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings.” (II Tim. 3.14-15)  Likewise, Scripture recounts that Priscilla and her husband Aquila, after hearing the eloquent Evangelist Apollos preach at Ephesus, took him aside to explain the Gospel more accurately (Acts 18.24-26).

In a passage similar to his instruction to Timothy, Paul in his first epistle to the Church in Corinth wrote,

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
—I Corinthians 14.33-38

Again, Paul should not here, or in I Timothy 2.11-12, be construed as absolutely forbidding women to speak during the worship service, for elsewhere in the same epistle he wrote, “but every wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (I Cor. 11.5, emphasis added), thus implying that it is not only permissible for a woman to speak during a worship service, but that she is actually encouraged to do so.  Considering his injunction against women serving as elders and deacons in I Timothy 2, it seems likely that Paul in I Corinthians 14 is only excluding women from the task of regularly preaching and teaching the Word of God during a church worship service, which is one of the tasks specific to the office of elder (I Tim. 3.2, 5.17, Tit. 1.9).  After all, he raised no objection to the Evangelist Philip’s four unmarried daughters, who prophesied to him while he was staying for several days with Philip in Caesarea (Acts 21.8-9; cf. Joel 2.28-29, Acts 2.17-18).

Gender Roles in the New Testament

Paul’s injunctions against the ordination of women in I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14 must be understood within the framework of what the Scriptures—especially the New Testament—teach about the specific roles men and women in the Church of Jesus Christ are called by God to fulfill.

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) is her husband (or man; Gk. ἀνήρ), and the head of Christ is God.  Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.  For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.  But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.  For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.  For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.  That is why a wife (or woman) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (or messengers; Gk. ἄγγελοι).  Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.  And all things are from God.  Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?  Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.  If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. —I Corinthians 11.3-16

Paul is here not dictating women’s fashions or hairstyles—or men’s either, for that matter7—for at the end of this passage, he said, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God,” meaning the literal practice of head coverings could be dispensed with if it became a matter of contention.  Moreover, in today’s society we do not think it unseemly of women to worship with their heads uncovered or their hair cut short—or of men wearing a hat or growing their hair long.  His point was that women ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, inasmuch as a man is the head of his wife, and his rationale for this was the order and purposes of God in the creation of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Paul’s first statement is, “the head of every man is Christ,” that is, man “is the image and glory of God” and was created directly for His purposes.  Genesis 2 records that God created Adam directly from the dust of the earth (v. 7) and placed him in the Garden of Eden for the purpose of tilling and keeping it (v. 15), whereupon He gave him permission to freely eat the fruit from any of the trees in the Garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was forbidden upon pain of death (vv. 16-17).  Then He declared, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (v. 18)  Consequently, He brought all the animals dwelling in the Garden to Adam, so that Adam could exercise the dominion God granted him over His creation in Genesis 1.28 by naming them.  “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” (vv. 19-20)

Then Paul states, “the head of a wife is her husband,” that is, “woman is the glory of man” and was created by God to fulfill man’s need of “a helper fit for him.”  Hence, Genesis 2 continues with God’s creation of a woman from Adam’s rib (vv. 21-22).  Then God brought her to Adam, who named her woman, saying, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (Heb. ishshah), because she was taken out of Man (Heb. ish).” (v.23; see also Gen. 3.20)  And just as naming the animals demonstrated man’s dominion over them, so his giving her the name of woman demonstrated his headship over her, even before the Fall.

From the beginning, it was not God’s intention that man’s headship over woman should be onerous.  However, the Fall brought a curse upon the relationship between man and woman: “To the woman (God) said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.  Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” (Gen. 3.16)  This same wording is used in Genesis 4.7, where God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  The similarity of these passages indicates that the woman’s desire for her husband is a desire to dominate him, usurping the headship over her delegated to him by God, and that man’s rule over his wife will likewise be afflicted by his own sin.  Hence, in this fallen world in which we live, woman will chafe at man’s headship over her, and man’s headship over woman will be burdensome and onerous, and even abusive, both because of sin.

But this sinful tendency in fallen man’s exercise of authority over woman does not negate the command of God given through the Apostle Paul: Woman is still commanded by God to submit to man’s authority, both within the Church and within the Covenant of Marriage (I Cor. 11.3-16, 14.34-35, Eph. 5.22-24, Col. 3.18, I Tim. 2.8-15, I Pet. 3.1-6).  To be sure, no woman should remain in an abusive relationship.  Paul teaches that, “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.  In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.  God has called you to peace.” (I Cor. 7.13-15)  For a man to abuse his wife demonstrates that he is an unbeliever and is not willing to live with her, and she should not be enslaved to his abuses.  Nevertheless, Scripture unequivocally teaches that women are to humbly submit themselves to the rule and authority of the men appointed by God both in the Church and in the Christian home.

The Disciples of the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry often disputed among themselves as to which of them was the greatest.  On one occasion, He reproved them, saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you.  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-27)  And at the Last Supper, He demonstrated this type of leadership by washing their feet—a task typically performed by the lowliest of servants (Jn. 13.1-15).  It is this sort of leadership that He expects, both in the Church and in the Christian home.

After admonishing wives to be subject to their husbands, the Apostle Peter wrote, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (I Pet. 3.7)  Paul had even more to say:

Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (quoted from Gen. 2.24)  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. —Ephesians 5.25-33 (see also Col. 3.19)

In his Epistle, James, the brother of our Lord, wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (Jas. 3.1)  And as the Lord Himself said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Lk. 12.48)  Authority and leadership is something that the Lord does not give lightly, and of those to whom He entrusts it, He will require a greater account.  It is a tremendous privilege and responsibility to be entrusted with the care and nurture of other souls, and the One to whom we are responsible will require an accounting for the neglect, misuse, and abuse of this authority.

Within the economy of the Christian home, the husband and father is entrusted with the care and nurture of the souls of his wife and children.  He is to love and honor his wife as Christ sacrificially loves and honors the Church.  He is to raise his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, without provoking them to anger (Eph. 6.4, Col. 3.21)  As a husband, he represents Christ to his wife, just as she represents the Church (Is. 54.5-8, 62.1-5, Jer. 2-3, Ezek. 16,23, Hos. 2-3, II Cor. 11.2-3, Eph. 5.22-33, Rev. 19.7-8, 21.2,9-11, 22.17)—and these roles are not interchangeable, as nowhere in Scripture does the wife represent Christ, nor the husband the Church.  And as a father, he represents God the Father to his children.  Fulfilling these roles is a tremendous responsibility and a high and noble calling, as a husband and father must provide for his family.  He must show the love of Christ to his wife, empowering her to exercise her own God-given gifts and talents for ministry.  He must teach his children the ways of the Lord, not only teaching them the content of the Bible, but also teaching them to trust and respect the Word of God, and to live out the teachings of holy Scripture in his daily life with them and their mother.  Much has been entrusted to him, and much will be required of him.

Likewise, within the economy of the Church, the elders and deacons are entrusted with the care and nurture of the souls within the congregation.  Indeed, among the requirements for these offices are that not only must an elder or deacon be the husband of one wife (I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), but also “he must manage his own household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive” (I Tim. 3.4-5,12, Tit. 1.6).  Proven ability in representing Christ to his wife and God the Father to his children is a prerequisite for a man to serve as an officer in the Church.

That women are excluded from the offices of elder and deacon, in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, is by no means meant to disparage the value of godly women who have been gifted with the ability to teach, to lead, or to offer wise counsel.  Indeed, they may have superior gifts to many men who faithfully serve as officers in Christ’s Church.  But it is the prerogative of God alone, speaking as He does through His holy, inspired, and authoritative Word, to determine who is eligible to serve as an officer in His Church, and who is not.

Reasons Commonly Adduced in Favor of the Ordination of Women

In the 20th Century, a tremendous cultural shift occurred in the United States and Western Civilization regarding women’s roles in society.  Whereas women hitherto were expected to aspire to become housewives and stay-at-home mothers, they are now encouraged to pursue careers outside the home alongside men.  Thus, as women began filling professional roles traditionally filled only by men, such as doctors, attorneys, lawmakers, scientists, and the like, the question was raised whether they should not also become pastors as well.

In mainline Protestant denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)) and its predecessors,8 that had already compromised the authority of Scripture in order to accommodate worldly beliefs and practices, there was little resistance to opening the offices of teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon to women.  The General Assembly of the (northern) Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) voted to open the offices of ruling elder and deacon to women in 1930 and to likewise open the office of teaching elder in 1956, while the General Assembly of the (southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States voted to open all three offices to women in 1964.9  As noted above, the PJC of the UPCUSA ruled in 1975 that it was no longer permissible to ordain men who opposed women’s ordination to the office of teaching elder, and this precedent continued into the PC(USA) after the 1983 reunion with the PCUS.  Today, the Session (or governing body) of a PC(USA) congregation is required to “consist of equal numbers of men and women,”10 and the attitudes of many teaching elders and seminary students in the PC(USA) are decidedly hostile toward Christians who hold that Paul’s injunctions against the ordination of women are still authoritative for the Church today.

Although mainline Protestant churches that had already compromised the authority of Scripture were quick to embrace the ordination of women, others that still held a high view of Scripture also made peace with the practice.  Some of these, reading Paul’s clear injunction against the practice in I Timothy, reasoned that if Scripture was wrong on teachings, such as women’s ordination, that did not directly impact the integrity of the Gospel message, perhaps it was also wrong on other teachings that did.  Thus, they began descending the perilous slippery slope leading inexorably to Theological Liberalism and the irrelevant cult of the pursuit of relevance.

Still other Evangelical churches and denominations with a high view of Scripture have made peace with the ordination of women but have not followed others, like the PC(USA), down the path to Gospel infidelity.  Such include the aforementioned Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians,11 a new denomination founded in 2012 as a result of a split from the PC(USA) over the latter’s change in ordination standards to remove the requirement that officers in the denomination “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”12

In support of their position, Evangelicals with a high view of Scripture, who nevertheless endorse women’s ordination, including respected seminary professors and other scholars, cite other passages of Scripture in favor of the practice, and while seeking to respect Paul’s Apostolic authority, they interpret his injunctions against it in light of these passages.  In the debate over women’s ordination, Evangelicals who favor the practice are identified as Egalitarians, for their emphasis on the equal standing of men and women before God, while those who oppose it are identified as Complementarians, for their emphasis on the specific, complementary roles defined in Scripture for men and women to fulfill.

“I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach or to Exercise Authority over a Man”

The Westminster Confession of Faith admits, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”  And further, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”13

The clearest passage of Scripture addressing the ordination of women is I Timothy 2.8-15, quoted above, and v. 12 in particular: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Naturally, it is the passage most debated between egalitarians and complementarians, and the most contested word in this passage is the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν, the present active infinitive form of αὐθεντέω, which is translated as “exercise authority” in the ESV and the NASB, “usurp authority” in the KJV, “have dominion” in the ASV, “have authority” in the RSV, the older NIV, the NKJV, and the NRSV, and “assume authority” in the 2011 revision of the NIV.  Thayer defines it as, “to govern one, exercise dominion over one.”14  What makes this Greek word particularly contentious is that it appears only here in all of the New Testament (and nowhere in the Greek Septuagint), and there are only five or six extant extra-Biblical Greek texts contemporary with or predating Paul that use the word αὐθεντέω, and none of them seem to have the “neutral” meaning of “exercise authority” or “have authority”, translations that rely more heavily on the relative abundance of αὐθεντέω occurrences in post-Constantinian Greek texts.

John Jefferson Davis, Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in an article discussing the interpretation of I Timothy 2.12, referenced a 1984 study by theologian George W. Knight, III, noting that of 329 occurrences of αὐθεντεῖν and its cognate αὐθέντης in Ancient Greek texts, “prior to and contemporary with the first century, αὐθεντεῖν often had negative overtones such as ‘domineer’ or even ‘murder’ or ‘perpetrate a crime’; only during the later patristic period did the meaning ‘to exercise authority’ come to predominate.”  Davis then cited a 2004 study in which New Testament scholar Linda Belleville “carefully examined the five occurrences of αὐθεντεῖν prior to or contemporary with Paul and rendered these texts as follows: … ‘commit acts of violence’, … ‘the author’ (of a message), … ‘I had my way with him’, … ‘powerful lords’, … (and) ‘Saturn…dominates Mercury’,” and noted that in all but the second of these examples, “a neutral meaning such as ‘have authority’ is not in view.”15

In December 2011, Al Wolters, Emeritus Professor of Religion at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, published an article, in which he contended that a Greek astrological text called the Methodus mystica, which uses αὐθεντέω, and which Knight had dated to the 15th century AD, ought to have been dated to between 100 BC and about 50 AD, on the basis of its reference to crucifixion (which Constantine had abolished in 337 AD), the absence of “any vocabulary characteristic of later popular Greek,” and the attestation of Greek scholars conversant with Greek astrological texts as to the time in which certain astrological methods referenced therein were in use.  The passage in question states, “one who is superior (αὐθεντοῦντα) to these in his occupation, and yet earns nothing.”  As Wolters observes, “there is nothing in this passage which suggests that αὐθεντέω has either a pejorative or ingressive connotation.  It simply refers to the way a person is superior, in terms of professional expertise in a given τέχνη (trade or craft), to others in the same business.  There is no suggestion that the former is thereby abusing the latter, or doing them an injustice.”  Wolters continued his article with an examination of the use of αὐθεντέω and its cognates in early Greek astrological texts, including the “Saturn…dominates Mercury” quote that Davis and Belleville cited from Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika (Tetrabiblos), and then concluded,

The foregoing survey of early astrological texts, almost all of them roughly contemporaneous with the NT documents, demonstrates that the use of αὐθεντέω in the Methodus mystica is not unusual.  In fact, it is consistent with the way both the verb and its cognates are generally used in astrological texts before about 200 AD.  The αὐθέντης word family seems to be used throughout to refer to authority or dominance of some kind.  Given the relative paucity of αὐθέντης “master” and its cognates in this time period, it is their use in these astrological texts which is particularly relevant for understanding αὐθεντεῖν in I Tim. 2.12.16

Continuing to cite Belleville’s study, Davis observed,

that a variety of pre-modern versions of the Bible translate this word not simply as “have authority” or “exercise authority,” but with some negative sense, e.g., the Old Latin: “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to dominate (dominari) a man”; the Vulgate ‘neither to domineer over a man”; the Geneva Bible (1560 ed.), “neither to usurpe authority over a man”; the Bishops Bible (1589), “neither to usurpe authority over a man”; and the King James Bible (1611) “nor usurp authority over a man.”  In none of these cases can the translators be suspected of having a modern, “feminist” bias in translating αὐθεντεῖν with a negative sense of “domineer” or “usurp authority.”  These instances show that the “traditional” translation of αὐθεντεῖν as “exercise authority” is neither uniform nor self-evident in the history of interpretation; if anything, it could be argued that the burden of proof is on the (now) “traditional” view to justify its translation choice.

It should also be observed that Paul, had he the ordinary exercise of ecclesiastical leadership and authority in mind, had at his disposal a number of words that could have served in this sense, notably προΐστημι.  This word, occurring eight times in the New Testament and used six times by Paul in reference to church leaders (I Tim. 3.4,5,12, 5.17, I Thess. 5.12, Rom. 12.8), can have the senses of “manage, conduct, rule, direct, be concerned about,” and connotes the “normal” and “expected” type of leadership that should be exhibited by those selected to lead.  The fact that a highly unusual and ambiguous word is chosen in 2.12 would be consistent with an unusual set of circumstances in the context to which the text is addressed.  It will be argued below that these circumstances, as indicated by clear references in the pastoral epistles themselves, involve women who are being deceived by false teachers and, as such, are not suitable for the exercise of teaching or ruling authority in Ephesus.17

After examining Paul’s citation of the creation account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, both in I Timothy 2 and elsewhere, passages of “clear references in (Paul’s) epistles (that) involve women who are being deceived by false teachers,” and an extensive examination of Deborah’s leadership in Judges 4-5, all of which are assessed below, Davis concludes that the best translation of I Timothy 2.12 is, “I do not permit a woman to teach in a way that domineers over men.”18  However, this interpretation does not fit the Greek grammar of this passage, nor does it fit the immediate context of I Timothy 2.8-12, nor does it fit the context of this passage as preceding the requirements for elder and deacon in I Timothy 3, specifically that any individual who would fulfill one of these offices must be a “one-woman man,” as noted above.

The Greek text states, “διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ εἶτα έν ἡσυχίᾳ,” that is, “I do not permit (οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω) a woman (γυναικὶ) to teach (διδάσκειν) nor (οὐδὲ) to αὐθεντεῖν a man (ἀνδρός), but to be in silence (or quietness; ἡσυχίᾳ).”  Davis’ construction would use αὐθεντεῖν to qualify διδάσκειν to mean that Paul is forbidding women to teach in a particular way, but from the text, it is clear that Paul is forbidding women from both διδάσκειν and αὐθεντεῖν as two distinct but related activities.  In defense of his construction, Davis states, “In the New Testament, pairs of nouns or noun substitutes (e.g., infinitives) connected by a ‘neither…nor’ (δὲ…οὐδὲ) construction can define a progression of related ideas or define a related purpose or goal.”  Again citing Belleville’s study, Davis references Matthew 6.20 and Acts 17.24-25 as examples of this grammatical construction, and says that if this was Paul’s intention, then the meaning would be interpreted as, “I do not permit a woman to teach with a view to dominating a man (or to teach men in a dominating way).”19  Although some neither/nor passages can be interpreted this say, others cannot (e.g., Mt. 10.24, 24.21, 25.13, Lk. 6.44, 12.24, Jn. 1.13, 11.49-50, 16.3, Acts 8.21, 9.9, 24.18, Rom. 9.16, I Cor. 2.6, II Cor. 7.12, Gal. 3.28, 4.14, I Thess. 2.3, 5.5, I Tim. 6.16, Heb. 13.5, II Pet. 1.8, Rev. 5.3, 7.16).  Neither can I Timothy 2.12.

If we insert Davis’ meaning into the text, then we would conclude that Paul is saying that women should dress modestly, adorn themselves with good works, learn quietly and submissively, not teach men in a domineering way, and be quiet.  This begs the question, why, in between admonishments that women ought to learn quietly and submissively and that they should be quiet, is Paul saying that they ought not teach men in a domineering way?  Why not simply say that women ought not to teach others in a domineering way?

Davis claims that Paul’s choice of “a highly unusual and ambiguous word” like αὐθεντεῖν suggests that he was addressing “an unusual set of circumstances” that Timothy was facing in the Church at Ephesus.  However, that is not the Apostle’s stated purpose at the end of Chapter 3: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.” (I Tim. 3.14-15)  In other words, the teachings about which Paul has been writing in this epistle, at least to this point, are intended as normative principles to be applied to all the churches, not instruction on how to address unusual issues that Timothy was facing in the Church at Ephesus.  In defense of his position, Davis points out that Paul, in both of his epistles to Timothy, addresses the issue of false teachers in the Church (I Tim. 1.3-11, 4.1-5, 6.3-10,20-21, II Tim. 3.1-9, 4.1-4).20  However, of the specific names of troublemakers Paul mentions (I Tim. 1.19-20, II Tim. 2.16-18, 4.14), not one of them is feminine.  Neither, for that matter, does Paul identify any examples of women falsely teaching in the Church at Ephesus (compare Rev. 2.20-23).  He mentioned young women—young widows in particular—who were susceptible to false teaching (I Tim. 5.11-15, II Tim. 3.6-7), but he made no mention of women—young or otherwise—who were themselves false teachers.  Elsewhere, he commanded that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2.3-5), and it is likely that he had this task in mind when he wrote to Timothy about enrolling older widows (I Tim. 5.3-10).

As noted above, Paul’s injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men immediately precedes the requirements for elders and deacons in I Timothy 3, including the requirement that officers be a “one-woman man” (Gk. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα).  And preceding this injunction, Paul was exhorting prayer for all people, especially governing authorities, and the proclamation of the Gospel, for such “is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.” (I Tim. 2.1-7).  Again, these are normative principles that Paul clearly intended as standard practices in the Church and not to address specific issues Timothy was facing in Ephesus.  It is not in keeping with this context that Paul should be forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men in a way that is limited to a specific error that he was addressing in the Church at Ephesus.

Further, Paul is excluding women from the specific tasks of teaching and exercising authority—tasks of spiritual oversight that are particular to the offices of elder and deacon (Acts 20.28, Heb. 13.17, I Pet. 5.1-5), which follow—over men.  Given that Paul had commended women prophesying within the context of worship and of otherwise giving sanction to women teaching men (a subject taken up at greater length, below), it seems apparent that Paul, in forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men, just before he gives the requirements for the offices of elder and deacon, is thereby, in effect, forbidding women from occupying these offices—even if he does use the word αὐθεντεῖν rather than προΐστημι.  Even if one agrees that αὐθεντεῖν has a pejorative meaning, like “usurp authority” (KJV) or “assume authority” (2011 NIV), the fact that Paul requires an elder or a deacon to be a “one-woman man” or “the husband of one wife” (emphasis added) means that Paul, by his apostolic authority, is saying that God is reserving these offices exclusively for qualified men, and his proscription in I Timothy 2.12 is meant to emphasize this.

Finally, Davis mentions that if Paul had “the ordinary exercise of ecclesiastical leadership and authority in mind,” he “had at his disposal a number of words that could have served in this sense, notably προΐστημι.”  Conversely, if Paul had the meaning “to domineer” or “to dominate” in mind, he likewise had a number of words at his disposal that had this specific meaning, such as κατακυριεύω or κατεξουσιάζω,21 both of which the Lord Jesus used in reference to the manner in which powerful men among the Gentiles ruled over others, when He was admonishing His disciples who had been arguing about which of them was greatest (Mt. 20.25, Mk. 10.42; for κατακυριεύω, see also Acts 19.16, I Pet. 5.3).

Paul’s Citation of the Genesis Narratives of Creation and the Fall

Paul states that his reason for not permitting women to teach or exercise authority is rooted in the order of creation—Adam was formed first (Gen. 2.7), and then Eve (Gen. 2.21-22)—and in the events of the Fall—Eve was deceived (Gen. 3.13), but Adam was not—indeed, God held him accountable, chastening him for “having listened to the voice of your wife and having eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it.’” (Gen. 3.17)  He not only ought to have refused to eat the fruit himself, but he also ought to have exercised the spiritual oversight over his wife, which God had entrusted to him, by refuting the serpent’s deceitful arguments—after all, he was not deceived, and he was present with her while the serpent was beguiling her (Gen. 3.6)—and thus keeping her from becoming a transgressor.

Again, Paul’s statements in I Timothy 2 must be read in light of what he says about headship in I Corinthians 11, where he likewise grounds his reasons in the order and purpose of man’s creation: Man was created first (v. 8), in order to do the work that God had appointed for him (Gen. 2.15), and then woman from man (v. 9), in order to fulfill man’s need for a helpmate comparable to him (Gen. 2.18,20); and not the other way around.

Within the economy of the family, God created the man to be the head of the wife and the wife to be the helpmate of the man, as illustrated from Genesis 2.  He is responsible for exercising loving, godly leadership of her and their children.  He will be held to account for his exercise of that leadership, to the extent that if he fails to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, if he fails to show honor to his wife or to live with her in an understanding way, his relationship with the Lord is impaired, and his prayers will be hindered (I Pet. 3.7).  Under the old covenant, a man had the authority to nullify any vow made by his wife or unmarried daughters on the day he first heard of it but was otherwise responsible for fulfilling any vow they made (Num. 30.3-16).  And under the new covenant, a man’s godly leadership in the home is a prerequisite for him to serve as an officer in the Church (I Tim. 3.4-5,11-12, Tit. 1.6).  As a husband, a man is appointed by God to the spiritual oversight and care of his wife, even if his wife’s spiritual maturity and gifts of leadership exceed his own, and the Lord will hold him to account.

Likewise, the wife is responsible for respecting and submitting to her husband’s authority, as unto the Lord (Eph. 5.22-24, Col. 3.18, I Pet. 3.1-6).  This does not mean that the husband may force his wife to submit to his authority, nor that he may act toward her in a controlling or abusive way; he is required to love her as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5.25-33, Col. 3.19, I Pet. 3.7), and what the Lord Jesus told His disciples about modeling the world’s ways of leadership (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-29), as referenced above, most certainly applies to husbands.  Nor does it mean that a man should disregard his wife’s gifts in leadership, wisdom, or management, but a wise man should seek to encourage her to develop and employ them in respectful, God-honoring ways.  To be sure, a woman ought not to obey her husband if he tells her to sin, nor should she remain in a home with an abusive husband.  But just as the Lord will call a man to account for his treatment and care of his wife, so too will He call a woman to account for her submission to her husband’s authority.

Again, God from creation has charged the husband with his wife’s spiritual oversight and care; He has not charged the wife with the spiritual oversight over her husband.  It stands to reason, then, that if God has not charged a woman with the spiritual oversight over her husband, he would not charge her with the spiritual oversight over other men either.  And Paul confirms this, forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men, citing the creation order for this, immediately before he enumerates the requirements for the offices of elder and deacon.

Now Davis argues that the foregoing argument “fails to take into account the way in which the apostle Paul draws implications from creation texts in ways that are specifically related to his pastoral and theological concerns for specific churches and congregations.”  First, he draws a parallel contrasting how Paul cited Adam’s sole culpability for bringing the curse of Original Sin on the entire human race, with no mention of Eve, in Romans 5.12-21, with how Paul cites the creation accounts in I Corinthians 11.2-16 for defining women’s conduct and apparel in worship, how he cites Eve’s deception as an example of the Corinthians’ susceptibility to false teachers in II Corinthians 11.3, and how he references the creation and fall accounts in I Timothy 2.8-15.  According to Davis, in the early chapters of Romans, Paul “is especially concerned with the ‘global’ and universal relevance of the gospel, and consequently reads Genesis 3 in terms of Adam’s disobedience that led to condemnation for all people.”  In the Corinthian epistles, however, “Paul makes different applications of the creation narratives that are specifically related to the problems of this local assembly.”22  And II Corinthians 11.3 is especially to be contrasted with I Timothy 2.8-15, in that in II Corinthians, Paul cites as an example “the deception of Eve” as a way to express his concern about “the danger of the entire Corinthian congregation (or its [male] leaders) being deceived by false teachers,” whereas in I Timothy 2, he “references…the deception of Eve” within the context of a letter he “is writing to a church in Ephesus in which he is concerned that some of the younger widows have already ‘turned away to follow Satan’ (I Tim. 5.15), and is aware of ‘weak-willed women’ in Ephesus who are burdened by sins and have not learned the truth, their homes being infiltrated by false teachers (II Tim. 3.6-7).”  On the basis of this contrast, Davis concludes,

This comparison of II Corinthians 11.3 and I Timothy 2.12(-15) shows that Paul does not have a “one size fits all” hermeneutic when reading and applying the Genesis narratives of creation and fall: “Eve” can be seen as a figure of women in Ephesus or as a figure for an entire church in Corinth—because the local circumstances differ, though false teaching is a danger in both settings.  Applications are drawn from Genesis in a church-specific and contextually sensitive way.23

Continuing his argument, Davis draws another comparison between false teachers in I Timothy 4.1-5 “who…require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (v. 3), and Paul’s concern in Romans 14 about the unity of the Roman church being imperiled by members judging one another over dietary practices, specifically where “one person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (v. 2).  Paul clarifies, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean,” but nevertheless, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14.14,21).  Davis points out that whereas in Romans 14, “Paul urges that a central redemptive concern for the unity of the church and respect for Christian conscience in secondary matters take precedence over any individual’s ‘creation right’ to eat meat, … in Ephesus, Paul (is) more insistent on the ‘creational right’ to eat all foods because the denial of this right is coming from false teachers who are in danger of abandoning the faith and following deceiving spirits (I Tim. 4.1).”

Then pulling the two comparisons together, Davis argues,

Just as in one circumstance a creational right to eat (I Tim. 4) does not lead to an unqualified permission to eat in another instance (Rom. 14), so it could also be the case that a creationally endorsed prohibition (I Tim. 2.12-13) of women exercising ecclesiastical authority does not imply prohibition under different circumstances.  In both cases, it is here being argued, Paul applies creation texts in a contextually sensitive manner and in a way that is concerned to preserve the apostle’s core values: sound doctrine and the preservation of the apostolic deposit of faith, the unity of the churches, and harmony and good order in the Christian family.

On this reading of I Timothy 2.11-15, Paul is indeed prohibiting women in Ephesus from exercising ecclesiastical authority and would not support their “ordination,” the reason being that false teachers pose a grave threat in Ephesus and women are being misled by false teachers and straying after Satan.  Paul sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis 3 and the deception of women in Ephesus, just as he sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis and the deception of the congregation in Corinth.  In different circumstances, where women are sound in the faith and their lives consistent with the apostolic core values of congregational unity and harmony and good order of the family, the way would be open for their exercise of ecclesiastical leadership.  The general, “transcultural” lesson that should be drawn, then, from the Genesis texts, in light of their contextually differentiated uses in I Timothy 2 and II Corinthians 11, would be that whenever and wherever either women or men are being misled by false teachers, they should not be ordained as church leaders; soundness in the faith is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for service as an elder or deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13).24

There is a significant difference between Paul’s reference to Eve’s deception in II Corinthians 11.3 and his reference to the same in I Timothy 2.12-15 that Davis overlooks.  In II Corinthians 11.3, Paul is using Eve’s deception as an example to which to compare the way in which the Corinthians were being led astray by false teachers, whereas in I Timothy 2.12-15, he is using it, together with the creation order, as his reason for prohibiting women from teaching.

In this regard, there is a stronger parallel between I Corinthians 11.8-10 and I Timothy 2.12-15 that Davis does not explore in depth.  In both of these passages, Paul is using the creation order of man then woman as his reason to command that “a wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” in the one case, and that he “does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the other.  It may very well be that Paul in I Timothy 2.12-15 referenced Eve’s deception because of the deception of some of the younger widows in the Church at Ephesus, as referenced elsewhere in the epistle (I Tim. 5.11-15), but this is by no means certain, as he does not reference it in this passage, and it does not explain his reference of the creation order as part of the reason for his prohibition.

Further, Paul’s reference to the Creation and the Fall accounts in I Corinthians 11.3-16 and I Timothy 2.8-15 argues against treating both male headship and the exclusion of women from exercising spiritual oversight over men as limited to addressing specific circumstances in particular congregations, and not binding on the Church of Jesus Christ today.  Unlike the issue of false teachers that Paul was addressing in II Corinthians 11.3-15, these two passages involve commands regarding the relationship of men and women within the context of congregational life, a relationship that was ultimately defined by the Creation and the Fall in Genesis 2-3.  This has far greater bearing on the interpretation of these texts than superficial observations regarding parallels between the contexts in which Paul references creation texts.

False Teachers and the Role of Women in First Timothy

Paul references false teachers in Ephesus in three passages in I Timothy (1.3-11,19-20, 4.1-5, 6.3-10,20-21), and in I Timothy 5.11-15, he says that younger widows “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not,” and further, that “some have already strayed after Satan.”  In addition, in II Timothy 3.6-7 he says that certain ungodly men in the last days will “creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”  Davis concludes on the basis of these passages that these younger widows have “strayed after Satan” because of the influence of false teachers (although Paul does not draw that specific conclusion, for their “straying after Satan” might very well have been on account of their being “idlers, gossips, and busybodies”), and on that basis urges that Paul’s injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men must have been made solely to address this issue, and where this issue is not present (as if it were not still a problem in the 21st Century Church), then the injunction no longer is in effect.25

The presence of false teachers in the Church has been a problem in every age and was not in any way restricted to the Church at Ephesus in the First Century, for it is a problem that still persists to this day.  Indeed, other epistles besides I Timothy address the problem of false teachers in the Church as well (II Cor. 11.3-15, Gal. 1.6-9, 5.1-15, Col 2.4,8,16-23, II Tim. 2.16-18, 3.1-9, 4.1-4,14, Tit. 1.10-16, II Pet. 2, II Jn. 7-11, Jude 4-19, Rev. 2.14-16), including one epistle the Lord Jesus wrote to the Church at Ephesus that commends her for how she has addressed the issue of false teachers within her pale (Rev. 2.2,6), and another He wrote to the Church of Thyatira, which was tolerating a woman who was a false teacher (Rev. 2.20-23).  Yet none of the authors of these epistles cited the false teaching within the churches to whom their epistles were addressed—or the susceptibility of women who were members of these churches to false teaching—as a reason to categorically forbid women from teaching or exercising authority over men.  Neither, for that matter, did Paul in I Timothy 2.8-15.

The younger widows to whom Paul referred in I Timothy 5.11-15 had been identified as “idlers, gossips, and busybodies”—character traits that would exclude them from the offices of elder or deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13, Tit. 1.5-9).  Yet of the older widows who were to be “enrolled” were those who had no family to support them, were at least sixty years old, had been the wife of only one husband, had a reputation for good works, had reared children, had shown hospitality, had demonstrated service within the church community, and had cared for the sick (I Tim. 5.3-10).  This “enrollment” may have entailed additional service that Paul mentioned to Titus, that “Older women…are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Tit. 2.3-5)  They would have met the character requirement for the offices of elder and deacon, Paul’s reference to younger widows “having already strayed after Satan” did not include them, and yet Paul’s injunction against women teaching and exercising authority over men encompassed them as well.

Kenneth E. Bailey, the late prolific author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, agreed with Davis on the provisional/temporary nature of Paul’s injunction in I Timothy 2.12 and the negative meaning of αὐθεντέω, with a similar approach to the reason Paul might have “permitted no woman to teach, or to lord it over the men.”26  After referencing the susceptibility of young widows and weak women to false teaching in the Ephesian church (I Tim. 5.15, II Tim. 3.6-7), Bailey turned to the account in Acts 19 of Paul’s first visit to Ephesus and the great riot the silversmith Demetrius incited among the Ephesians, claiming that the Gospel message Paul was preaching constituted a threat to the worship of Artemis, the virgin Greek goddess of the hunt, the moon, and chastity, which was centered in the temple dedicated to her in Ephesus (not to mention a threat to his own livelihood as a crafter of idols).

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus had a large footprint, measuring 221 feet (67 m) wide × 425 feet (130 m) deep and supported by 127 columns that were 65 feet (20 m) high, architecturally dominating the city.  The Cult of Artemis was ruled by a cadre of virgins and castrated men, who oversaw a caste of virgin priestess/slaves dedicated to the goddess’ service.27  The worship of Artemis was the central reality in the life of Ephesus; Ephesian commerce was inextricably linked to the Temple, and “the entire town set aside one month a year for ceremonies, games and festivities connected to the cult.”

Bailey pondered the type of male/female relationships that might have developed in an environment dominated by a virgin cult, and how that might have affected male leadership and women’s attitudes in Ephesus.  Certainly, we can see how a false prophet, influenced by a virgin cult, might “forbid marriage” (I Tim. 4.3), if given a voice in the Church.  Bailey surmised that, “In Ephesus some women had acquired absolute authority over the men in the church and were verbally (and perhaps theologically) brutalizing them.  Paul calls for a halt to this dehumanizing attack.”28

The underlying assumption behind Davis’ and Bailey’s arguments is that Paul intended the injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men as a temporary, local injunction, not intended as normative principle applicable to all the churches and not applicable in cases in which the peculiar circumstances facing the church in which Timothy served no longer exist.  However, Paul clearly stated in I Timothy 3.14-15 that what he had hitherto written in this epistle was intended so that, “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.”  Further, the paucity of examples in Scripture of women teaching or exercising authority over men, within either the New Testament Church or Old Testament Israel, also speaks against Davis’ and Bailey’s assumption, and it is to these examples that we now turn.

Biblical Examples of Women Teaching or Exercising Authority over Men

Those in favor of the Egalitarian position urge as consideration for their contention that women, as well as men, who otherwise meet all the requirements for elder or deacon given in I Timothy 3.1-13 and Titus 1.5-9 (the requirement to be “the husband of one wife” being an obvious exception; compare I Tim. 5.9) ought to be considered as candidates for these offices, cite a number of examples in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of women teaching and/or exercising authority over men, or fulfilling offices that entail the regular teaching and/or exercise of authority over men.  Some of these examples are legitimate cases where women do, in fact, teach or exercise authority over men, whereas others are much more dubious, and those examples in which women demonstrably teach or exercise authority over men will be evaluated for the criteria of whether these women actually exercised regular spiritual oversight over men, which is part of the work to which elders in particular, and also deacons, are called.  These examples, in the order in which they appear in the Scriptures, are as follows:

  1. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, was identified as a prophetess (Ex. 15.20), and she claimed that the Lord had spoken authoritatively through her, in addition to having spoken through Moses, and on that basis, she contended against her brother for his having married a Cushite woman (Num. 12.1-2).29
  2. Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess whom the Lord appointed to judge Israel, after the Canaanites had been oppressing His chosen people for twenty years (Judg. 4-5).30
  3. Huldah, the wife of Shallum, was a prophetess through whom the Lord was pleased to speak His Word to King Josiah of Judah after the rediscovery of the Book of the Law in the Temple, following the idolatrous reigns of Kings Manasseh and Amon (II Kg. 22.14-20, II Chron. 34.22-28). 31
  4. The unnamed wife of Isaiah the prophet was identified as a prophetess (Is. 8.3).32
  5. Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, when she sang the Magnificat (Lk. 1.46-55), thereby became “a teacher of theology, ethics, and social justice,” to not only the women of the Church but also the men, when Luke recorded her song in his Gospel account.33
  6. Anna, the widowed daughter of Phanuel, was a prophetess who gave thanks to God for the presentation of the infant Lord Jesus at the Temple and “spoke of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2.36-38).34
  7. Priscilla (or Prisca), the wife of Aquila, together with her husband, “explained to (the Evangelist Apollos) the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26).35
  8. The four virgin daughters of the Evangelist Philip prophesied (and presumably did so before the Apostle Paul; Acts 21.9).36
  9. Phoebe, whom the Apostle Paul commended to the Church at Rome, is identified by him to be a deacon (Gk. διάκονος) of the Church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16.1).37  (The subject of women in the diaconate is addressed below, separate from this present discussion.)
  10. Junia, the wife of Andronicus, together with her husband was identified as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16.7 NRSV).38
  11. The older women (Gk. πρεσβύτερας) identified in I Timothy 5.1-2 alongside older men (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) ostensibly served on the (council of) elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) that laid hands on Timothy at his ordination in I Timothy 4.14.39

Prophetesses.  Of these examples, slightly more than half of them (#1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #8) are women who are designated prophetesses or women who prophesied.  Apart from Deborah, whose unique case will be examined at the end of this section, there is no evidence that any of them were tasked with exercising spiritual oversight over men, which was what Paul proscribed women from doing in I Timothy 2.12.  Huldah came the closest, through whom the Lord was pleased to declare His Word by means of her private prophecy to Josiah King of Judah, but she neither spoke a command to him, either to do something or to not do something, nor is there evidence that she rebuked him for any sin, nor is there any evidence that Josiah sought regular spiritual counsel from her, as he did from the High Priest Hilkiah.  Similarly, Deborah prophesied privately to Barak when she delivered the Lord’s command to him (Judg. 4.6-9).  And Miriam’s only prophecy was a direct repeat of the first verse of Moses’ song, and it was sung only to the women who followed her with tambourines and dancing (Ex. 15.20-21; compare Ex. 15.1).  None of the prophetesses recorded in Scripture had a ministry where they proclaimed the Word of God publicly to all men and women alike, such as the ministry of the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Further, it is noteworthy that none of them—not even Deborah—prophesied without the named authority of a man with spiritual oversight over her: Moses was named in Miriam’s case,40 but otherwise either the prophetess’ husband or father was named in each case.41  This is the intent behind Paul’s commands regarding head coverings—the head coverings demonstrated that the woman did not prophesy or pray without “a symbol of authority on her head,” indicating that her father, brother, or husband was a God-appointed authority over her (I Cor. 11.3-16), even if she was a long-time widow, like Anna.  Thus, there is no evidence that any of these prophetesses (except potentially Deborah) had regularly taught and exercised authority over men in the manner for which men called to the office of elder/overseer or deacon are expected to do.

Priscilla.  Likewise, with the case of Priscilla (also called Prisca; #7), who, with her husband Aquila, approached and “explained to the Evangelist Apollos the way of God more accurately.” (I Cor. 18.26)  This couple appears a half dozen times in Scripture (Acts 18.2,18,26, Rom. 16.3, I Cor. 16.19, II Tim. 4.19), and in four of these verses, her name is listed before his.  Egalitarians want to make much of this, implying that she was the leader in the relationship, but far more likely she was the more loquacious and sociable of the two.  In point of fact, when they are first introduced, Aquila is named first (Acts 18.2), and she is never named apart from him.  The passage at hand reads,

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus.  He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed (Gk. κατηχέω) in the way of the Lord.  And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught (Gk. διδάσκω) accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained (Gk. ἐκτίθημι) to him the way of God more accurately. —Acts 18.24-26

The key points of this are, that Apollos was “competent in the Scriptures, he had been instructed in the way of the Lord, … he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus,” and yet, “he knew only the baptism of John.”  To understand the extent of Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation of the way of God to him, we need to understand what was meant by “the baptism of John.”

The phrase, “the baptism of John” (Gk. τὸ βάπτισμα [τὸ] Ἰωάννου), appears eight times in the New Testament (Mt. 21.25, Mk. 11.30, Lk. 7.29, 20.4, Acts 1.22, [10.37], 18.25, [19.3]), and was defined by the Apostle Peter as, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” (Acts 10.38)  In regard to the meaning of this phrase, Calvin wrote, “Luke comprehendeth all (John’s) ministry under this word, not only because doctrine is annexed unto baptism, but also because it is the foundation and head thereof, without which it should be a vain and dead ceremony.”42  John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” in order that they should “believe in the one who was to come after (John), that is, Jesus.” (Mk. 1.4, Lk. 3.3, Acts 13.24, 19.4)

Yet John’s baptism was insufficient, for it only pointed to the Christ who is to come, namely, Jesus.  To be sure, Christ was present at the time John pointed to Him, but His work, which gives baptism in His name meaning, had not yet been accomplished.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.3-5)  John had been beheaded by Herod while he was in prison, more than a year before the Lord Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead,43 before Jesus began to teach His disciples that He must be delivered into the hands of sinners, killed, and raised on the third day.

When Paul revisited Ephesus during his third missionary journey (he had left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey, while he returned to Antioch; Eph. 18.18-22), subsequent to Apollos’ preaching mission there, he found a dozen disciples—perhaps discipled by Apollos himself—who had only been baptized into John’s baptism and had neither received the Holy Spirit nor even heard of Him.  Upon hearing this, Paul rectified the situation by baptizing them into the name of Jesus, after which they received the Holy Spirit and began exhibiting the charismata—supernatural gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying (Acts 19.1-7).

By Apollos “having been instructed in the way of the Lord,” Calvin inferred, “that he understood the doctrine of the gospel, because he both knew that the Redeemer was given to the world, and also was well and sincerely instructed concerning the grace of reconciliation; and yet had he been trained up only in the principles of the gospel, so much as could be had out of John’s institution.”44  Thus, it seems that Apollos suffered from the same shortsightedness as the twelve Ephesian disciples Paul baptized, namely, that he failed to recognize the significance of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his own need to be baptized into His name, and it is likely that this was the subject of Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation.

Of I Corinthians 18.24-26, Bailey wrote, “Clearly Priscilla is ‘team teaching’ the theology with Aquila and the student is no beginner, no fledgling catechumen; rather he is the famous, eloquent preacher of Alexandria.”  And further, “Priscilla had theological authority over her student Apollos.”45  Remember that Apollos had been well-trained in the Scriptures and the early proclamation of the Gospel, as presented by John the Baptist, and the Gospel that he was teaching from the pulpit during his ministry in Ephesus was accurate, if not adequate, for it lacked the centrality of the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ and our union with Him through baptism in His name.  Thus, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and expounded (Gk. ἐκτίθημι) the Scriptures to him, just as the Lord Jesus did to Cleopas and another disciple on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24.27), “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Lk. 24.46), and that all whom He called should be baptized into His name (Mt. 28.19).  This was a one-time instruction and correction meant to clarify Apollos’ understanding of the Gospel he was preaching.  It was not as if he was submitting to Priscilla regularly teaching (Gk. διδάσκω) from the pulpit, as he had been doing in Ephesus prior to her and Aquila’s arrival, or to her exercise of discipline over him, nor did she have a public preaching ministry, such as Paul’s or Apollos’, as if she were in the office of elder/overseer.

Mary.  Likewise, the simple fact that Mary’s Magnificat is recorded in Scripture for the edification of men and women alike (#5) does not mean that she is in the office of elder/overseer either, regularly preaching and teaching the Scriptures and exercising discipline in the Church.

Junia.  With respect to Junia (and Andronicus) being identified as an apostle in Romans 16.7 (#10), there are a number of interpretive difficulties: Is the name translated Junia feminine or masculine?  Are the pair prominent among the apostles, or well known to the apostles?  And exactly what, in this passage, does Paul mean by “apostle”?

The name Junia, as it appears in the United Bible Studies Greek New Testament (3rd ed., corrected, 1983) text, is masculine in form and as such would be translated Junias (Gk. Ἰουνίας), and is thus found in the ASV, RSV, & NASB, in which case Junias would not be the wife of Andronicus but a brother in Christ instead.  However, Thayer indicates that Junia, the feminine form found in the KJV, NIV, NRSV, & ESV, is linguistically possible.46  Bailey observed that no Latin commentaries on Romans prior to the late 13th century referred to Junia as Junias, and the late eminent Reformed theologian Roger Nicole noted accordingly that the earliest commentator who referred to Junia as Junias was Aegidus de Columna (ca. 1245-1316).  Bailey further observed that the name Junias has never appeared in any Greek or Latin text, that the shift in the European Church to call Junia Junias occurred between the 13th and the 16th centuries, and that the same shift occurred in the Middle East in the 19th century.47  Despite what the UBS text says, the evidence points to Junia being a woman and the wife of Andronicus.

Secondly, are Andronicus and Junia “prominent among the apostles” (NRSV), or “well known to the apostles” (ESV)?  The Greek reads, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις.”  According to Thayer, ἐπίσημοι means “marked” and has both positive and negative connotations.  The negative meaning is “notorious” or “infamous,” whereas the positive meaning, which is what Paul clearly intends here, is “of note” or “illustrious.”  The meaning, however, hinges upon the word ἐν, a very common preposition with a great many meanings, depending on context.  One possible meaning, and the one most commonly used in modern Bible translations of Romans 16.7, is “in,” “among,” or “with,” in the sense of, “that with which a person is surrounded.”  Examples of this meaning include: Mark 8.38, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in (Gk. ἐν) this adulterous and sinful generation;” or Galatians 1.14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among (Gk. ἐν) my people” (see also Mt. 2.6, 11.11, Mk. 9.50, Lk. 1.1, Jn. 1.14, 13.35, Acts 2.29, I Cor. 3.18, 5.1).  Thus, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις,” would mean, “illustrious among the apostles,” in the sense that Andronicus and Junia would be included in their number.  Obviously, this is the meaning favored by Egalitarians.  Another possible meaning, and the one used in the ESV translation of Romans 16.7, is “with, among, in the presence of,” with the sense of to.  Examples of this meaning include: I Corinthians 2.6, “Yet among (Gk. ἐν) the mature we do impart wisdom;” or Matthew 21.42, “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in (Gk. ἐν) our eyes.”  Thus, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις,” would mean, “of note to the apostles,” in the sense that Andronicus and Junia would be esteemed by the apostles but not included in their number.48

Although the second sense is linguistically possible and coheres with the idea that the word apostle (Gk. ἀπόστολος) in its customary use in the New Testament is synonymous with the Twelve Disciples (with Paul replacing Judas), the first sense actually has greater attestation from the early Church.49  For example, the Fourth Century Church Father John Chrysostom said in one of his homilies concerning the reference to Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7, “And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing.  But to be even amongst these of note, just consider what a great encomium this is!  But they were of note owing to their works, to their achievements.  Oh! how great is the devotion (φιλοσοφία) of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”50

So then, what, exactly, does Paul mean by calling his kinsmen, Andronicus and Junia, “apostles”?  Does he mean that they are invested with the same foundational authority with which he, Peter, John, and others were invested by the Lord Jesus, such that, “whatever (they) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever (they) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16.19, Jn. 20.23)?  That they were enumerated among “the apostles and prophets” that constituted the foundation on which Christ built His Church (Eph. 2.20)?

In commenting on Romans 16.7, John Calvin wrote,

(Paul) calls them Apostles: he uses not this word in its proper and common meaning, but extends it wider, even to all those who not only teach in one Church, but also spend their labour in promulgating the gospel everywhere.  He then, in a general way, calls those in this place Apostles, who planted Churches by carrying here and there the doctrine of salvation; for elsewhere he confines this title to that first order which Christ at the beginning established, when he appointed the twelve disciples.51

In its most basic sense, the word apostle (Gk. ἀπόστολος) means, “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders,”52 and it is used in this sense in John 13.16, II Corinthians 8.23, and Philippians 2.25.  It is used of the Lord Jesus in Hebrews 3.1, and elsewhere in the Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and Revelation, it is exclusively used of the Twelve Disciples who were later named Apostles, except in Acts 14.4,14, where the Evangelist Luke uses it of Paul and Barnabas.  In Paul’s Epistles, the Apostle sometimes uses the word apostle in this sense, including in passages where he refers to himself as an Apostle, but often he uses it to refer to those engaged in missionary work (I Cor. 4.9, 9.5, Gal. 1.9, I Thess. 2.6), including Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7.  Thus, when Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle,” he does not intend it in the same sense of the Twelve Apostles (and those known and endorsed by them) who wrote the New Testament Scriptures that form, together with the Old Testament Law and Prophets, the foundation upon which Christ builds His Church (Eph. 2.20).

Women Elders in Ephesus.  With respect to older women serving on the council of elders alongside men in the Ephesian Church (#11), Bailey’s argument for this proposition is convoluted, tortured, and by no means conclusive.  It does not flow from a plain reading of the text and depends entirely on fitting the fourth and fifth chapters of I Timothy into an “inverted parallelism:”

In regard to our text, if we observe the larger section in which (I Tim.) 5.1-2 appears, the following outline emerges:

1. These instructions (as a minister) 4.6-11

     2. Timothy and the elders (and the young) 4.12-5.2

          3. Older widows (and the young) 5.3-16

     4. Timothy and the elders 5.17-20

5. These rules (in regard to ordination) 5.21-22

Bailey proceeds to identify #1 & #5 and #2 & #4 as two pairs, based on their indentation in this scheme, with #3 as the center, and his argument is focused on the perceived parallels between #2 & #4.  First, he wants to group the first two verses of I Timothy 5 with the topic Paul is discussing in 4.11-16, which is personal instructions to Timothy, particularly about the example he is to set for the Church in Ephesus, which is under his pastoral care, while 5.1-2 are further instructions on how, as a young pastor, he is to treat older and younger men, and also older and younger women.  The following section, 5.3-16, is a discussion on the enrollment of widows, which is expanded upon above, and while this discussion flows naturally from the first two verses of I Timothy 5, the instructions in these two verses align more with the last six verses of the preceding chapter.  Thus, there is no logical reason that we should not agree with Bailey on this point.

However, Bailey has an agenda behind making this alignment.  In I Timothy 4.14, Paul tells Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) laid their hands on you.”  And in I Timothy 5.1-2, he is saying, “Do not rebuke an older man (Gk. πρεσβύτερος) but encourage him as you would a father.  Treat younger men like brothers, older women (Gk. πρεσβύτερας) like mothers, younger women like sisters, all in purity.”  Bailey describes this conjunction, saying, “Paul first mentions the elders who have ordained Timothy (4.12-16),” namely, “elders who are not criticized.  He then discusses the difficult elders (5.1-2).  These are obviously people whom Timothy is sorely tempted to attack.  He is told, ‘Don’t do it.  Treat the πρεσβύτερος like a father, he is advised, and the πρεσβύτερας (plural) like mothers.”

Then he draws a parallel between I Timothy 4.11-5.2 and 5.17-20, saying, “Thus the two topics of ‘helpful elders’ and ‘difficult elders’ appear in” both of these passages.  In the first two verses of this latter passage, Paul is enjoining Timothy to honor elders who rule well, especially elders who exercise the ministry of teaching and preaching.53  Then in the latter two verses, Paul cautions him to be wary of charges made against an elder, but then to rebuke those elders who persist in sin before the entire congregation.  Then he concludes, saying, “In each case the good elders are mentioned first and the difficult elders second.  Thus paragraphs 2 and 4 can be seen as parallel discussions of ministry.  If this is true, the πρεσβύτερας in 5.2 are women elders ordained and engaged in ministry in Timothy’s congregation.”54

In making this analogy, Bailey is overly simplistic, reading the “good elder/bad elder” scheme into both of these passages.  While it is true that in both I Timothy 4.14 and 5.17-20, Paul is undoubtedly referring to ordained elders, who have been appointed after having met the requirements detailed in 3.1-7, as opposed to older men (πρεσβύτεροι can be translated as either “elders” [a term interchangeable with “overseers”] or “older men,” depending on context), in 4.14 the elders are not the subject of discussion but are only mentioned with respect to Paul’s instruction not to neglect the gift Timothy received when they laid hands on him, whereas in 5.17-20 the elders are themselves the subject of discussion.  Moreover, in 5.1-2, the natural reading of πρεσβύτερος is “older man,” especially when seen in conjunction with “younger men,” “older women,” and “younger women” in the same passage.  Bailey would have us believe that in 5.1-2 Paul was discussing how Timothy ought to be treating colleagues in “formal ministries,”55 but this is a forced interpretation, when it is clear that Paul is instructing Timothy on how to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (I Tim. 4.12)  Further, if Paul had elders specifically in mind in I Timothy 5.1-2, rather than older men, why would he categorically tell his young protégé there to not rebuke an elder but then in 5.20 to rebuke in front of the whole congregation an elder who has proved himself an incorrigible sinner?  Thus, there is no evidence that women served as elders in the Church of Ephesus, especially given Paul’s proscription of the practice in I Timothy 2.12 and the requirement that an elder be a “one-woman man” in I Timothy 3.2.

Deborah.  What, then, about Deborah (#2)?  Not only was she accounted a prophetess, but she “was judging Israel” during the Canaanite occupation under the command of Jabin, the king of Canaan, and Sisera, the general of his army.  “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4.1-5).  She summoned Barak, the general of the Israelite army, and ordered him to assemble the army at Mount Tabor and meet Sisera and the Canaanite army at the Kishon River, where the Lord promised to give him the victory (Judg. 4.6-7).  And after Israel’s victory over Sisera and the Canaanite army (Judg. 4.12-24), Deborah and Barak led the Israelite nation in worship (Judg. 5).  Of her, Davis wrote,

In Judges, Deborah appears as a “second Moses” figure whose authority derives from the God of Sinai.  The case of Deborah poses a special dilemma for the “traditional” reading of I Timothy 2.12: If it is true that Paul’s use of creation texts is intended to prohibit all women in all circumstances from exercising authority over men in the covenant community, then the apostle is forbidding what God has in this instance permitted—and this would amount to a contradiction within the canon itself.56

Deborah alone of all the women in the Bible was approved by God to exercise authority over men in deciding disputes between them.  However, she did so in the time of the Judges, in days when “there was no king in Israel, (and) everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17.6, 21.25), and as John Piper and Wayne Grudem have pointed out, “The period of the judges is an especially precarious foundation for building a vision of God’s ideal for leadership.”57  None of the priests who served in the Tabernacle or the Temple were women.  Athaliah was the only ruling queen in either Israel or Judah, and she attained her position through usurpation and not by the anointment of God (II Kg. 11.1-3).  And although there were prophetesses in Old Testament Israel, none of them, not even Deborah, were invested with the same magisterial authority as prophets such as Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.

Deborah’s judgeship over Israel was unique in other ways as well.  To begin with, unlike all other prominent judges in the book, there is no explicit statement that God had raised her up (compare Judg. 3.9,15, 6.14, 11.29, 13.25, 14.6).  Instead, the text simply states that she was judging Israel during the time of Canaanite occupation under Jabin and Sisera and gives the details as to where she was when the Israelites came to her for judgment (Judg. 4.4-5).  Further, God had no intention of delivering Israel from the Canaanites by her hand, as He had delivered His people from their oppressors by the hands of other judges—Othniel (Judg. 3.9-11), Ehud (Judg. 3.15-30), Shamgar (Judg. 3.31), Gideon (Judg. 6.14, 7.1-8.21), Jephthah (Judg. 11.29,32-33), and Samson (Judg. 13.5,24-25, 14.4,19, 15.14-17, 16.28-30).  Rather, He chose to deliver Israel by Barak, to whom He delivered His command by Deborah’s prophecy (Judg. 4.6-7).  Yet it was Barak, not God, who wanted her to accompany the army, and he received a consequence as a result, namely that it would be a woman, Jael, who slew Sisera, and he would not get the glory (Judg. 4.9,17-22).

Finally, Davis’ argument that Paul’s prohibition of what God had permitted in Deborah constitutes a contradiction within the canon of Scripture is answered by Calvin, who wrote in his Commentary on I Timothy 2.12,

If any one bring forward, by way of objection, Deborah (Judg. 4.4) and others of the same class, of whom we read that they were at one time appointed by the command of God to govern the people, the answer is easy.  Extraordinary acts done by God do not overturn the ordinary rules of government, by which he intended that we should be bound.  Accordingly, if women at one time held the office of prophets and teachers, and that too when they were supernaturally called to it by the Spirit of God, He who is above all law might do this; but, being a peculiar case, this is not opposed to the constant and ordinary system of government.58

Paul’s “Great Vision” of Gender Equality?

Besides the foregoing, Evangelical Egalitarians will often cite other Scriptures in support of their contention that women ought to be ordained to the offices of elder and deacon.  While there are a number of such passages, many of them are directed toward abuses wrongly perceived in genuinely Biblical complementarianism but present nonetheless in some, if not many, who claim to be complementarians but fail to observe the Lord’s commands regarding Biblical leadership and how men are to treat women, both in the home and in the Church.  But there is one particular passage that Evangelical egalitarians regard as the lynchpin of their philosophy.

In Galatians 3.28, the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Egalitarians latch onto this passage—in particular the third proposition therein—and absolutize it, holding to it as the central passage by which all passages of Scripture touching on the relationships of men and women must be interpreted.  In the context of building his argument that Paul in I Timothy 2.12 was speaking against female-dominance attitudes from the Ephesian culture that were infiltrating the church, Bailey wrote, “Two wrongs do not make a right.  The great standard set in Gal. 3.28 affirms that ‘in Christ…there is no longer male and female’ (NRSV).  Progress toward that goal of full equality cannot be made if either gender is asserting de-humanizing power over the other.”  And again,

Verses 11-12 (sic) are as follows: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  Difficulties continue: What is meant here?  This text appears to be in direct clash with Gal. 3.28 on the one hand and Rom. 5 and I Cor. 15.21-22 on the other.  Gal. 3.28 (as noted) says that in Christ there is no more “male and female” (NRSV).  Paul is quoting Gen. 1.27 and affirming that in Christ this order is no longer relevant.  Here, apparently it is significant.  This is indeed a crux interpretum.  Yet in this text Paul is angry and is surely not attempting to write a calm dispassionate essay that can be critically compared to what he wrote decades earlier in another time and to another situation.

And Bailey concludes his article by writing, “In this manner all the NT texts considered can be seen as supportive of the great vision in Gal. 3.28 where ‘in Christ…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”59

Bailey and all egalitarians who use Galatians 3.28 in this manner are taking it out of context and are using it to justify a position that Paul never intended it to say.  In Galatians Paul was writing to rebuke the Churches of Galatia for listening to the Judaizers, who insisted that circumcision (a token representing the principle of keeping the whole Old Testament Law), in addition to faith in Christ, was necessary for salvation.  In Galatians 3.15-4.7 he was emphasizing the priority of God’s Promise to Abraham, which was the patriarch’s by faith, over the condemnation of the Law.  In the immediate context, Paul writes,

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. —Galatians 3.23-29

What Paul is saying here is that Christ has abolished the condemnation of the Law for all who are found in Him.  Men and women in Christ have equal standing before God as brothers and sisters, “joint heirs of the grace of life” (I Pet. 3.7), without one standing to inherit more than the other.  Paul is not saying that Christ has abolished gender roles and responsibilities which were defined for our race by God before the Fall, at Creation.  If that were the case, we would not see such passages as I Corinthians 11.3-16, 14.33-38, Ephesians 5.22-33, Colossians 3.18-19, II Timothy 2.8-15, and I Peter 3.1-7, where such distinctions are maintained in the Church.

In a similar passage, Paul was enjoining the Corinthian Church to unity and rebuking the attitude some of its members had regarding the possession (or lack of possession) of spiritual gifts: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12.12-13)  Likewise, Paul enjoined the Colossian Christians to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3.5-11)

In neither of these passages did he think it necessary to include the male/female dichotomy, as he did in Galatians 3.28.  It stands to reason that if the abolition of gender roles was God’s “great standard” or His “great vision,” we should see many more such passages in the New Testament.  But it is not, so we do not.

Women in the Diaconate

The argument that women ought to be ordained to the office of deacon is predicated upon two texts.  First, in the middle of his list of qualifications for deacon, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Their wives (Gk. γυναῖκες) likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” (I Tim. 3.11)  γυναῖκες (the plural of γυνὴ), as noted above, can be rendered as either “wives” or “women,” depending on context, and the possessive pronoun “their” is not present in the Greek text of this passage but was added by the translators of the ESV (likewise KJV, NIV, NKJV), who believed that the context of the passage indicated that γυναῖκες should in this case be interpreted to mean the wives of the deacons.  Thus, the verse has also been translated, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (NASB; likewise ASV, RSV, NRSV, 2011 NIV)

Second, in his greetings at the end of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (Gk. διάκονος) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron (Gk. προστάτις) of many and of myself as well.” (Rom. 16.1-2)  Similar to the multiple meanings of γυναῖκες mentioned above, διάκονος can also be translated as “deacon,” as it is in Philippians 1.1 and I Timothy 3.8,12.  Thus, Romans 16.1 has also been translated, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” (NRSV)  However, of the twenty-nine or thirty60 instances of διάκονος in the New Testament, the most common translation is “servant.”61  Of Phoebe, Roger Nicole wrote,

Phoebe is called a “deacon” (note the masculine form related to an office rather than the gender of the person who holds it) of the church in Cenchreae, “who has been a benefactor (from προΐστημι, ‘to rule, to help’) of many people,” including St. Paul (vv. 1-2).62

Likewise, Bailey wrote,

Phoebe is called a deacon (διάκονος) not a deaconess.  The evidence for the feminine use of this masculine form is slight.  Most likely this masculine ending is used because Phoebe was ordained to a clearly defined ministry, that of deacon (διάκονος).  Thus the formal title appears.  Another reason is that the Aramaic word is shammash, which is used to describe the High Priest officiating in the temple at the day of atonement.  But the feminine shammasha means a prostitute.  The need for an honorable title would dictate the use of the masculine in the church where a significant number had Aramaic as a part of their linguistic heritage. …

In the contemporary scene Cranfield concludes, “We regard it as virtually certain that Phoebe is being described as a or possibly the ‘deacon’ of the church in question, and that this occurrence of διάκονος is to be classified with its occurrences in Philippians 1.1 and I Timothy 3.8 and 12.”  We would add to this that in I Tim. 4.6 διάκονος is applied to Timothy himself where it is usually translated “minister.”  While recognizing that Romans is written when the church’s ministry was in an early and more undefined stage, Dunn feels that “servant” is inadequate.  He writes, “διάκονος together with οὖσα points more to a recognized ministry…or position of responsibility within the congregation.”  Paul refers to himself and to Apollos as διάκονοι in I Cor. 3.5.  Furthermore, Phoebe is called a προστάτις over/to many.  This word was applied to the leader of worship in Graeco-Roman temple as well as to a governor, a chieftain and the leader of a democracy.  Dunn argues for patron/protector, or leader/ruler.  A ninth century Arabic version translated this phrase, ‘qa’ima ‘ala katherin wa ‘alayya’, in authority over many and over myself as well.63

In addition to egalitarian Evangelicals like Nicole and Bailey, who believe that the offices of both elder and deacon ought to be open to women, there are complementarian Evangelicals who believe that, although the office of elder is denied to women based on the foregoing arguments, Scripture seems to permit, and even commend, women to the office of deacon.  For example, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America deny the offices of teaching elder and ruling elder to women but open the office of deacon to them, and the Presbyterian Church in America, which currently reserves the office of deacon exclusively for men (BCO §24-1), is wrestling with the issue.64

Edmund Clowney, the late Professor of Practical Theology and President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after arguing against the ordination of women to the office of elder, argued for the ordination of women to the diaconate.  Quoting from the ASV, he said of I Timothy 3.11,

This verse occurs in a passage that gives the requirements of church officers: first bishops (I Tim. 3.1-7), and then deacons (3.8-10,12-13).  Verse 11 is located in the middle of the passage that describes the deacons.  Clearly this is not a description of women in general: the verse describes either women who are deacons or women who are wives of deacons. …

An argument against referring to this text to the wives of deacons is the fact that there is no similar description of the wives of bishops in the preceding verses.  The absence of the possessive pronoun (i.e., “their”) is also significant.  More striking is the use of “likewise” or “in the same way” (ὡσαύτως), which was used in verse 8 to relate the requirements of deacons to those of bishops.  Evidently three parallel sections of qualifications are aligned: for the bishop (3.1-7), for deacons “likewise” (3.8-10), and for women “in the same way” (3.11).  This mention of deacons’ wives comes before the requirements for male deacons are resumed in the next verses (3.12-13).

Further, the requirements listed for the women in 3.11 are remarkably parallel to the requirements for deacons in general (3.8-10).  Paul seems to point out that these requirements apply to women deacons as well to men, before going on to describe the further requirements for men, and then concluding with a statement of the reward of faithful diaconal ministry.65

Another complementarian who agrees that women ought to be ordained to the diaconate, Thomas Schreiner, the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Professor of Biblical Theology, and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees with Clowney that γυναῖκες should be translated as “women,” and that Paul’s use of ὡσαύτως signifies a brief transition to women who serve as deacons.  He then goes on to say,

Third, another argument in support of female deacons is from silence, but it’s an important one.  The argument goes like this: If the reference is to the wives of deacons, why does Paul omit a reference to the wives of elders, particularly since elders exercise pastoral oversight and overall leadership in the church?  It would seem the character of the wives of elders would be even more important than the wives of deacons—and thus focusing on the wives of deacons, but not on the wives of elders, is strange.  Yet if the reference is to female deacons, we have an elegant explanation for why the wives of elders aren’t mentioned—for the wives of deacons aren’t included either.  In other words, Paul isn’t referring to wives at all, but to female deacons.

Fourth, the character qualities required for the women in I Timothy 3.11 are also mandated for elders and male deacons, which makes sense if an official capacity is intended.  Just as deacons are to “be worthy of respect” (I Tim. 3.8), so too female deacons must “be worthy of respect” (I Tim. 3.11).  Elders are to be “self-controlled” (I Tim. 3.2), and female deacons must also be “self-controlled” (I Tim. 3.11).  Two other character qualities are required of female deacons: They are not to be “slanderers,” and they must be “faithful” (I Tim. 3.11).  Such qualifications point to official responsibility.66

Conversely, Guy Waters, the James M. Baird, Jr., Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean of the Houston Campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, disagrees with Clowney’s and Schreiner’s arguments.  Although he notes that γυναῖκες could be translated as either “women” or “wives,” he does not find significance in the absence of a clarifying pronoun (i.e., “their”).

Paul could be referring to the wives of deacons or to a separate group of women altogether.  Conceivably, women in such a group could hold the office of deacon, could hold an office (“deaconess”) alongside that of the diaconate, or could be a chosen body of assistants to the deacons.

It is noteworthy that Paul refrains from assigning a title to these women as he earlier has to elders and deacons (I Tim. 3.1,8).  No matrimonial qualification is assigned to these women, as for elders and deacons (I Tim. 3.2,12).  No provision is made for testing these women, as for elders and deacons (I Tim. 5.22, 3.10).  Paul immediately resumes his discussion of the diaconate in I Timothy 3.12-13.  All these things point away from understanding I Timothy 3.11 as speaking of women holding either the office of deacon or a parallel office.

Paul, rather, may be describing the qualities that must characterize wives of deacon candidates.  In light of the sensitivities surrounding deacons’ work, and in light of the fact that wives may be called on to assist their husbands—particularly in addressing the needs of the church’s women—one could see why Paul might have desired that the church be satisfied with the character of a candidate and his wife as they assessed his suitability for the diaconate.67

Writing on the subject of Phoebe, Clowney said,

C. E. B. Cranfield concludes that the form Paul uses in Romans 16.1 speaks of a “deacon” in the official sense.  The present participle of the verb “to be” is regularly used to identify an office (Jn. 11.49, Acts 18.12, 24.10).  The addition of the name of the church in Cenchreae fits this identification: “Phoebe our sister, being also deacon of the church in Cenchreae…”  If διάκονος were being used in the general sense of “servant” we might have expected “servant of Christ.”

The reference of διάκονος to an office is further supported by the fact that Paul goes on to describe how Phoebe fulfilled the office.  She was a “helper” to many, including the apostle himself.  The Greek term προστάτις was sometimes used in the sense of “patron,” someone with the social position and means to protect the defenseless.  Perhaps Phoebe’s “business” at Rome included the defense of widows or orphans.

The charge Paul gives the Roman church concerning Phoebe does not merely commend a friend to their fellowship.  He formally requests recognition for Phoebe, and full support for her activities.  How do we define “office” if not as a function that requires public recognition for its proper exercise?  If Paul had not called Phoebe a διάκονος at all, the fact of his commending her for support by the Roman church in her work indicates that she was entitled to formal recognition in any case. …

Since Paul excludes women from authority in the church (I Tim. 2.11-15), and presents order appropriate to the “household of God” (3.15), he makes no provision for women when he gives the qualifications for the office of bishop.  Women are not called to rule in the family or in the family of God.  But Paul does make provision for women in the office of deacon, and recognizes Phoebe as active in that office.68

Schreiner has very little to say on Romans 16.1-2.  Because the passage includes the words, “of the church at Cenchreae,” he is inclined to think that διάκονος in this passage means “deacon” rather than “servant,” especially “since Phoebe is designated as a ‘patron’ (ESV) or ‘benefactor’ (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.”69  Waters likewise has little to say on it, saying only, “It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of ‘deacon.’  The context of Romans 16 requires only that Paul be commending Phoebe as a dedicated servant of God’s people.  It does not require that she was a church deacon.”70

The office of Deacon is an office of service—hence its name.  Although the name is not directly applied to them in the text, it is generally believed that the seven Greek men in the early Church, who were appointed to oversee the daily distribution of the financial support that the Church was raising to support the widows in her midst (Acts 6.1-6), were the first men appointed to this office.  Accordingly, the Apostles commissioned the office, saying, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (Gk. διακονέω) tables.” (v. 2)  The office of Deacon is a position of responsibility, with the authority to call men and women of the congregation to assist them in their task, as needed.  Thus, they exercise authority over men, as well as women.

Deacons are also required to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (I Tim. 3.9)  Although deacons are not expected to regularly teach, as are elders (I Tim. 3.2, 5.17, Tit. 1.9), two of the seven men first appointed to the office did (Acts 7.2-53, 8.4-40).

Finally, deacons are required to “be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” (I Tim. 3.12)  As Waters observed, if Paul had women deacons in mind in 3.11, rather than deacons’ wives, one would have expected him to have required them to be “the wife of one husband,” as he did of enrolled widows (I Tim. 5.9).  A wife is called to assist her husband in ruling their household, but ultimately he, not she, is responsible to God for ruling his household well.

Thus, the Scriptures indicate that God, through the Apostle Paul, calls on His Church to reserve the office of deacon, like the office of elder, for qualified men.  That Paul calls Phoebe a διάκονος no more means that she had been called to the office of Deacon than the fact that he called her a προστάτις means that she exercised authority over him, as Bailey suggests.


Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
—I Timothy 2.11-15

Paul, in making this statement immediately prior to establishing the prerequisites for ordination to the offices of elder and deacon, both of which require the officeholder to be “the husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3.2,12), is clearly stating that he is excluding women from these offices, which do entail teaching and exercising authority over both men and women.  Further, his statement in I Timothy 3.14-15, that, “I am writing these things to you so that…you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth,” demonstrates that what he has written about men’s and women’s roles in I Timothy 2, as well as the prerequisites for office in the Church, is intended as a normative principle to be applied to all the churches.

Reading I Timothy 2.11-15 in the greater context of the teachings on gender roles in the Old and New Testaments, it is clear that Paul is not saying that women should never pray, prophesy, or speak in church, nor that they should never give instruction to men.  Neither, for that matter, should it be construed that women are Scripturally forbidden from holding places of authority in secular offices.  However, in the context of the Church and the Christian home, woman is placed under the headship, or the servant leader authority, of man, who is commanded to love his wife as his own flesh—and as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5.25, I Pet. 3.7)—and to treat “older women (in the Church) like mothers (and) younger women like sisters, all in purity.” (I Tim. 5.2)  Man’s authority over woman must be exercised with love and gentleness, as the Lord Jesus demonstrated, and not in an onerous, overbearing, or demanding way, as the Gentiles were wont to do (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-29, Jn. 13.1-15), for “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14.12; see also Mt. 12.36-37, 16.27, Heb. 4.13, I Pet. 4.5)

The case for the ordination of women to the offices of elder and deacon is weak.  It is predicated upon the assumption that Paul in I Timothy 2.11-15 was addressing a situation in which women in the Church of Ephesus, where Timothy was serving as pastor, were teaching and usurping authority over men, despite the absence of any reference to that effect in either of Paul’s epistles to Timothy, or in his epistle to the Church at Ephesus, or in the Lord Jesus’ own epistle to the Church at Ephesus (Rev. 2.1-7), similar to “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2.20).  It is further predicated upon the assumption that if these assumed conditions were not present, then Paul’s injunction against women teaching and exercising authority over men would no longer be in effect, and there would then be no Scriptural reason for women not to teach or exercise authority over men in the offices of elder or deacon, despite the paucity of examples in Scripture and Church history prior to the 20th century of godly women actually doing so.

To be sure, there are those within the pale of the Church who disagree with these conclusions.  Some of these loosened their understanding of Paul’s injunction regarding women teaching or exercising authority over men, and that precipitated loosening other doctrines as well, leading down the slippery slope to doctrinal compromise and theological liberalism.  Others had already compromised on other theological doctrines more central to the Gospel, and so compromising on Scripture’s teachings against ordaining women was done without a second thought.  But this is not true of all who have made peace with women’s ordination, for there are still genuine Christians who hold to Biblical inerrancy and the Gospel of salvation from sin and death by the grace of God through faith in the person and atoning work of Christ on the Cross, who nevertheless believe arguments advanced by scholars such as Kenneth E. Bailey, John Jefferson Davis, Walter C. Kaiser, and Roger Nicole that teach that women ought to be ordained to the offices of elder and deacon.  And irrespective of my arguments made against them in this post, I have deep respect for the scholarship of each of these godly men.

It is important to remember that the Scriptures’ teaching that women ought not teach or exercise authority over men, or to be ordained to the offices of elder or deacon, is of secondary importance, not primary importance.  One is not required to believe that Scripture teaches that women ought not be ordained in order to trust in the person and work of Christ for salvation from sin and death.  Neither, for that matter, should the issue of women’s ordination be a cause for separating oneself from a particular church.  And one’s beliefs on women’s ordination—one way or the other—ought not be a hindrance to membership in a particular church or for partaking of the Lord’s Supper at a particular church.  The Lord includes in His Church both men and women who do believe in women’s ordination and men and women who do not.

Nevertheless, gender roles in Scripture have revelatory significance, as representing the union of Christ and the Church (or of God and the Old Testament people of Israel), wherein the man represents Christ (or God) and the woman represents the Church (or Old Testament Israel).  The ordination of women to the offices of elder and deacon cannot but have the effect of diminishing the significance of this aspect of God’s revelation.

The Apostle Paul enjoins us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4.3)  While it is likely that denominations that hold to women’s ordination will never be organizationally united with denominations that do not (at least this side of heaven), Christians who disagree on this subject ought to disagree charitably, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We ought not hold negative stereotypes of one another but make an earnest attempt to understand the other’s viewpoint, even if we do not share it.  And at the end of the day, especially if neither side has convinced the other, we ought to be able to sit down at the table and take bread together.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! … For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133.1,3)


1     G‑6.0106b (2) UPC, 1975, p. 254, Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Rem. Case 1); accessed 1 Feb 2021.  Note: Although the PC(USA) was still hosting the transcript of the case of Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh at the time this blog post was being drafted, the PC(USA) has since removed it from its website.

2     “This Day in Presbyterian History: July 29: Ascension Presbytery (PCA)”; accessed 1 Feb 2021.

3     EPC Position Paper: Ordination of Women, Adopted by the Fourth General Assembly, June 1984; accessed 1 Feb 2021.  The EPC holds that, “While some churches may ordain women and some may decline to do so, neither position is essential to the existence of the church.  Since people of good faith who equally love the Lord and hold to the infallibility of Scripture differ on this issue, and since uniformity of view and practice is not essential to the existence of the visible church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has chosen to leave this decision to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as elders and deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as ministers.”

4     Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1879; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979, 1981), pp. 610-611.

5     The name given to this office in Greek is ἐπίσκοπος, which is normally translated as “bishop” or “overseer”.  However, in the parallel passage in Tit. 1.5-9 where Paul again enumerates the qualifications for this office, he wrote, “I left you in Crete, so that you might…appoint elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) in every town as I directed you. … For an overseer (Gk. ἐπίσκοπος), as God’s steward, must be above reproach.”  Likewise, in Acts 20.17-38 Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) of the church to come to him.  And when they came to him, he said to them: … ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Gk. ἐπίσκοποι), to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’”  Thus, it is evident that Paul uses the two names interchangeably to refer to the same office.  Further, in I Tim. 5.17-18 Paul makes a distinction between elders who rule only and those who labor in teaching in addition to exercising rule: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”  On the basis of this passage, Presbyterians refer to members of the clergy as “teaching elders” and to laymen appointed to assist the clergy in ruling the church as “ruling elders”.

6     G‑6.0106b (2) UPC, 1975, p. 254, Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Rem. Case 1).  The exact question was, “If the candidate does not believe that women should teach, I come to the very practical question as to how he would staff his church school?”

7     The practice of Orthodox Jewish men wearing kippah (or yarmulke) skullcaps during worship was developed subsequent to Paul’s teaching in this passage.

8     The PC(USA) was formed in 1983 by a merger of the UPCUSA and the PCUS.  Similarly, the UPCUSA was formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church in North America.

9     Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015), pp. 207-212.

10   “Articles of Agreement between the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” §8.1 in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order, 2015-2017 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA), 2015), p. A-7.

11   The ECO Essential Tenets document §III.D, which is part of that denomination’s constitution, states, “The ministries of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king—reflected in the church’s ordered ministries of teaching elders, deacons, and ruling elders.  We affirm that men and women alike are called to all the ministries of the Church.”  And again, the ECO Polity (its equivalent of the Book of Order) §1.0603.c states, “(The session shall) train, examine, ordain and install those men and women chosen to serve as elders and deacons.”  To the best of my knowledge, as of this writing, the ECO has not faced a challenge to this position through either the examination of a candidate for office, or the discipline of an officer, who disagrees with the denomination’s position on the ordination of women.

12   The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order, 2007-2009 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA), 2007), §G-6.0106.b.  §G-6.0106.b was removed from the PC(USA) Book of Order, after three previous failed attempts to do so, by a vote of the 2010 General Assembly (373-323-4) and the subsequent ratification by a majority of presbyteries (97-74), precipitating a massive split in the denomination, with nearly all departing congregations changing their affiliation to either the EPC or the ECO.  At the end of 2009, the PC(USA) had 2,077,138 active members; eleven years later, that number had fallen by forty percent to 1,245,354.

13   Westminster Confession of Faith I.7,9.

14   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 84.

15   John Jefferson Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives” in Tim Krueger, ed., Correcting Caricatures: Revisiting the Biblical Ideal for Men and Women in Ministry (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012), p. 20, emphasis original.  Thayer quotes three of these occurrences in his Lexicon (op. cit.).

16   Al Wolters, “An Early Parallel of αὐθεντεῖν in I Tim 2:12” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec 2011), pp. 673-684.  The translation of the text is Wolters’ own.  Alternative translations by other Greek scholars that Wolters gives before his own are, “one who has full command (αὐθεντοῦντα) of everything in an art but gains nothing” (Robert Schmidt), and “one who exercises authority over all in the trade and pays no consequences” (John R. Werner).

17   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 20, emphasis original.

18   Ibid., p. 23.

19   Ibid., pp. 24,25, n. 18.  Mt. 6.20 states, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  And Acts 17.24-25 states, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands.”  By Davis’ and Belleville’s argument, “where thieves do not break in and steal” (Gk. ὅπου κλέτται οὐ διορύσσουσιν οὐδὲ κλέπτουσιν) becomes, “where thieves break in with a view to steal;” and “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (Gk. οὐκ ἐν χειροποιήτοις ναοῖς κατοικεῖ οὐδὲ ὐπὸ χειρῶν ἀνθρωπίνων θεραπεύεται προσδεόμενὀς τινος) becomes, “does not dwell in human temples with a view to being served by human hands.”

20   Ibid., p. 24.

21   Thayer defines προΐστημι as, “to be over, to superintend, preside over, “to be a protector or guardian; to give aid,” or “to care for, give attention to.”  He defines κατακυριεύω as, “to bring under one’s power, to subject to one’s self, to subdue, master,” or, “to hold in subjection, to be master of, exercise lordship over.”  He defines κατεξουσιάζω as, “to exercise power over, wield power.”  (Lexicon, pp. 332, 339, 539.)

22   Davis apparently overlooks Paul’s “global” use of the creation and fall in I Cor. 15.21-22 in the context of his defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ—hardly a “local” problem limited to the Corinthian Church.

23   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” pp. 20-21, emphasis original.

24   Ibid., pp. 21-22, emphasis original.

25   Ibid., pp. 20-22,24.

26   Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” in Correcting Caricatures, p. 33.  The translation quoted here is Bailey’s.

27   My original post on the Ordination of Women incorrectly referred to the priestesses of Artemis’ Temple as cult prostitutes.  I apologize for the error.

28   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 32-33.  This is, of course, pure speculation on Bailey’s part, based upon a runaway extrapolation resulting from an insistence that αὐθεντέω must necessarily mean “dominate” or “domineer,” an interpretation that does not at all fit the context of the passage in I Timothy 2, as previously discussed.  It is, however, characteristic of some of the absurd things Bailey puts forth in his argument.

29   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Walter C. Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” in Correcting Caricatures, p. 9.  Roger Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” in Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 2, (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2006), p. 6.  Although the text identifies Miriam as a prophetess, no prophecy of hers is recorded in Scripture.  The words she sang in Ex. 15.21 are identical to Moses’ words in v. 1.  Moreover, although she and Aaron contended in Num. 12.2 that the Lord had spoken through the two of them, no words that He might have spoken were attributed as coming through her.

30   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” pp. 22-25.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 9.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

31   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 9.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

32   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

33   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” p. 27.

34   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

35   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27,33.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

36   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” p. 28.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 10.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

37   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27-28.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

38   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-30.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

39   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 29-30.

40   According to later Jewish tradition, Hur, who assisted Moses in Israel’s early days in the wilderness (Ex. 17.10-12, 24.14), was accounted Miriam’s husband.  However, Scripture neither states this anywhere nor records whether or not Miriam was ever married.

41   Isaiah’s wife, mentioned only in Is. 8.3, was simply identified as “the prophetess.”  Although she may have been a prophetess in her own right, the appellation might have been applied to her simply because she was the wife of a prophet.

42   John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, Volume Second, trans. Henry Beveridge, Esq., in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 201.

43   The Lord Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation before the Passover (Jn. 19.14ff.), and He had been informed of John’s death just before the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mt. 14.13), which occurred during an earlier Passover (Jn. 6.4).

44   Calvin, Commentary on Acts, Vol. II, p. 200.

45   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27,33.

46   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 306.

47   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-29.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

48   Thayer, Lexicon, pp. 210,242.

49   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-29.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

50   John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily XXXI, trans. J. B. Morris & W. H. Simcox, rev. George B. Stevens, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 11: Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans (Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994,1999), p. 555.

51   John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 546.

52   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 68.

53   As an aside, Paul in I Tim. 5.18 cites Scripture as support for financial remuneration for teaching elders, quoting Dt. 25.4 (Old Testament) and Lk. 10.7 (New Testament) and identifying them both as “the Scripture.”  This is an indication that the Apostles recognized each others’ works as Scripture, on the same level of authority as the existing Old Testament Scriptures.  (See also II Pet. 3.15-16.)

54   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 29-30, emphases original.

55   Ibid.

56   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 23.

57   John Piper & Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Piper & Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), p. 72.

58   John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XXI (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 67.

59   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 34,35 (emphasis original).  Bailey’s assertion that Paul in I Timothy “is angry and is surely not attempting to write a calm dispassionate essay,” whereas in Galatians, where he wrote, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves” (5.12), he was supposedly being calm, dispassionate, and not angry, is an absurd attempt to eisegete an attitude of anger and frustration into I Timothy 2 that is patently not there.

60   Although the UBS text uses the word συνεργός (translated “coworker” in the ESV) to describe Timothy in I Thess. 3.2, some manuscripts use the word διάκονος.

61   The ESV occasionally translates διάκονος as “minister” (II Cor. 3.6, Eph. 3.7, 6.21, Col. 1.7,23,25, 4.7), and once as “attendant” (Mt. 22.13), but in none of these passages would the meaning be changed if the word “servant” were substituted.

62   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

63   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27-28,35.  Citations in the quoted text are: C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 374; and J. D. G. Dunn, Romans, Vol. II (Waco, TX: Word, 1990), pp. 886ff.

64   On March 13, 2019, the Presbytery of Metro New York overtured the PCA General Assembly to revise portions of the Book of Church Order to allow women to be ordained as deacons.  However, Metro New York withdrew the overture prior to the 2019 Assembly.

65   Edmund P. Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), pp. 232-233.

66   Thomas Schreiner, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? Yes.” (The Gospel Coalition, 19 Feb 2019; emphasis original); accessed 15 Apr 2021.

67   Guy Waters, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? No.” (The Gospel Coalition, 19 Feb 2019); accessed 15 Apr 2021.

68   Clowney, The Church, pp. 232,233.  Citation in the referenced text is from C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. II (Edinburgh:T & T Clark, 1986), p. 781.

69   Schreiner, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? Yes.”

70   Waters, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? No.”

On Abortion

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled seven-to-two that state restrictions on abortions is unconstitutional.  The subject of the case before the Supreme Court was a series of Texas statutes that criminalized abortion, thereby preventing a single pregnant woman, identified as Jane Roe in the case, from procuring one.  The argument made before the Court was that these laws violated Ms. Roe’s right of privacy implicitly guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States, which states,

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Since the Supreme Court ruling in 1973, there have been more than 62 million deaths of unborn children from abortion procedures conducted in the United States alone.1  According to Worldometer, there have been 420,917 deaths as a result of COVID-19 in the United States since February 2020,2 a statistic noted by the US media that exceeds the total number (418,500)3 of American civilians and military personnel killed during World War II.  However, it is still less than half of the number of abortions (862,320) performed in the United States in 2017.4

Now the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, as quoted above, clearly states that no state may legalize the deprivation of any person of life without the due process of law.  Yet in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, although it is admitted that, “if this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the (Fourteenth) Amendment,” it was decided that legal evidence cited in the ruling, “together with our observation, … persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.”5  Thus, in this damning statement, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that unborn children cannot be considered persons under the law, and as such are not entitled to protections against the deprivation of life guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Declaration of Independence famously confesses, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Note what this says: Human beings are endowed with the right to life by their Creator, not by the Court.  And more than that, the Declaration confesses that this right is unalienable, and that in so ruling, the Court wrongfully deprived unborn human beings of a right that is unalienably theirs by the endowment of the Creator of the human race, God Himself.

However, as Peter and the Apostles declared before the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of First Century Judaism, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge,” (Acts 4.19), and again, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5.29)  Thus, if we agree that all human beings are endowed with the right to life by God, then it behooves us to turn to God’s Word to learn at what point He has determined that human life and personhood begin.

In Psalm 51.5, David wrote, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  David, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,6 said that it was he himself that his mother conceived, not some non-person fetal tissue matter that did not become him until sometime later.  Likewise, David said in Psalm 139.13-16,

For you (O LORD) formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
   my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
   the days that were formed for me,
   when as yet there were none of them.

In the second of the four Servant Songs that appear in his book, the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant” (Is. 49.5).  The Servant in this and the other three songs (Is. 42.1-9, 49.1-7, 50.4-11, 52.13-53.12) is none other than the Lord Jesus, of whom God His Father said in the very next verse, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49.6)  Again, according to Isaiah, it was the Lord’s Servant—Jesus—whom God formed in His mother’s (i.e., Mary’s) womb, not a lump of cells that did not become the Person Jesus until sometime later.

In his book, the Prophet Jeremiah wrote that the first word of the Lord that came to him was, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1.5)  If before he was born Jeremiah was not a person, how, then, could the Lord have consecrated him to be His “prophet to the nations”?

In Luke 1.13-17, the Angel Gabriel announced to the Priest Zechariah that his wife in her old age (i.e., past menopause) would conceive and bear a son whom they should name John.  And Gabriel said of John, that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (v. 15)  If John the Baptist before he was born was not a person, then how could he have been “filled with the Holy Spirit, (while still in) his mother’s womb”?  Or again, why should he have “leaped for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing the greeting of Jesus’ mother to his own mother (Lk. 1.39-45)?

Likewise, in Luke 1.26-38 Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would miraculously conceive and bear a son whom she should name Jesus, that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”  To Joseph also the angel said, “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Mt.1.20).  The child formed in Mary’s womb by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit was a Person—the Son of God.  And afterward, Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk. 1.41),7 marveled, saying, “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1.43)  That is, “Why should the one who carries my Lord within her womb bring him into my unworthy presence?”  If He was not a person before He was born, then why, while He was still in His mother’s womb, was He accounted to be someone’s Lord?

These verses demonstrate that God regards the child formed in a woman’s womb to be a person.  Moreover, the unborn child’s life was protected under the Law, which regarded the taking of his or her life as murder.  In Exodus 21.22-24 it was written, “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm,” that is, that there is no harm to the mother or to her child who was birthed prematurely, “the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.  But if there is harm,” again, to the mother or the child, “then you shall pay life for life,” etc.  In other words, if striking a pregnant woman results in a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or the birth of a child so injured that he or she dies shortly thereafter, the one who struck her would be guilty of the unborn child’s murder and would face a murderer’s punishment.

The Hebrew phrase translated as “children come out” here is yeled yatsa, which literally interpreted means “child (or children) depart”, obviously intended to say that the child (yeled) is departing (yatsa) from the mother’s body, irrespective as to whether that departure is via birth, stillbirth, or miscarriage.  Some translations of the Bible (e.g., RSV, NASB) translate yeled yatsa as “there is (or she has) a miscarriage,” and are worded so as to state that only further (italicized in the NASB to indicate that this word does not appear in the Hebrew text) injury (i.e., to the mother only) is subject to the penalties stipulated in vv. 23-24, and that the only penalty that the miscarriage itself carries a fine to be levied against the one who struck the mother, such “as the woman’s husband shall impose on him”.  However, there is no linguistic reason to believe that yeled yatsa could not refer to a premature birth or stillbirth as well.  Had Moses specifically meant “there is a miscarriage,” he would have used the specific Hebrew word that means that, namely shakol (which has a more general meaning of “bereave”), as he did just two chapters later (Ex. 23.26; cf. Gen. 31.38, II Kg. 2.21, Job 21.10, Hos. 9.14).  The Hebrew word yatsa is a general word, commonly used in the Old Testament, that means to depart, to come out, or to go forth, and is nowhere in Scripture translated as “miscarriage”.  In fact, in Genesis 25.26 & 38.28-30, it is used of live births.  The context of the use of the word yatsa in Exodus 21.22 militates against restricting its meaning to “miscarriage”.

Exodus 21.22-24 is evaluating whether or not lasting harm (Heb. ason) has occurred when a pregnant woman has been struck.  Ason only appears in three other verses in Scripture (Gen. 42.4,38, 44.29), where it is used to describe the lasting harm that Jacob fears that his youngest son Benjamin might suffer, were he to accompany his brothers down to Egypt.  Further, the text of Exodus 21.22-24 omits any specific reference to the recipient of the lasting harm—whether to the mother or to the child who proceeds from her after she has been struck—leading logically to the conclusion that the condition of the law is whether either the mother or the child has received lasting harm from the injury.  If the pregnant woman’s child is born alive without having received injury from the blow that she had received, then no lasting harm has been done to the child.  On the other hand, if she miscarries, lasting harm has, in fact, been done, terminating the life of the child, and the one who struck her is legally culpable for the child’s death and subject to the law’s penalty, namely, “life for life”.

To be sure, only the violent causation of miscarriage is penalized in Scripture; elsewhere in Scripture miscarriage is regarded only as a tragedy, with no fault attributed to the mother or to anyone else (Gen. 31.38, Ex. 23.26, II Kg. 2.21, Job 21.10, Hos. 9.14).  Miscarriage is a sad fact in this world lost in sin and is itself a curse of the Fall.  Had our first parents not fallen, there would be no miscarriages, no stillbirths, and no infant deaths in this world.  This is not to say that miscarriages, stillbirths, or infant deaths are punishments for specific sins committed by the children’s parents, any more than that a man should be born blind because of his parents’ sin (Jn. 9.1-3).  But the sad fact of miscarriages will remain until the Lord Jesus returns in glory and makes all things new.

Conversely, abortion is a sin, because it is the deliberate taking of a human life made in the image of God (Gen. 9.5-6, Ex. 20.13).  It is not justified for any reason, except in the rare event that it is necessary to save the life of the mother (e.g., cases where the zygote attaches to the fallopian tube instead of the wall of the uterus).  As tragic as the loss of a child through a miscarriage is, it is horrific that a mother should deliberately choose to terminate her unborn child’s life, and even moreso that it should be encouraged by medical professionals whose job is supposed to be to save lives, not take them.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
   the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
   are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
   who fills his quiver with them!
—Psalm 127.3-5

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.
—Deuteronomy 30.19-20


1     The National Right to Life Educational Foundation reported that as of January 2021, there had been 62,502,904 abortions performed since 1973.  This number is based on the numbers reported from 1973 to 2017 by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, which contacts abortion clinics directly to collect this data, with an additional three percent added to account for an estimated 3% to 5% undercount by the Guttmacher Institute for the years 1973-2014 and an additional 12,000 abortions per year for the years 2015-2020 to account for abortions that the Guttmacher Institute admits it might have missed in its count.

2     Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/, accessed 22 Jan 2021 11:15 am CST.

3     Source: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war, accessed 21 Jan 2021.

4     As reported by the National Right to Life Educational Foundation, with data from the Guttmacher Institute.  2017 is the last year for which the Guttmacher Institute has published this data.

5     Source: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/410/113, accessed 21 Jan 2021.

6     The Lord Jesus, like the Apostles after Him, confirmed that David in writing the Scriptures attributed to him was “in the (Holy) Spirit” (Mt. 22.43-44, Mk. 12.36, Acts 1.16, 4.25-26), meaning that what he wrote was the very truth of God. As Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God (lit. God-breathed; Gk. Θεόπνευστος)” (II Tim. 3.16), and as Peter wrote, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (II Pet. 1.20-21)  Thus, Christians believe that all Scripture was written under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and is therefore the final authority as to God’s self-disclosure to humankind.

7     See the previous footnote.

Does It Matter that Jesus Christ Was Born of a Virgin?

In the Nicene Creed, one of the few documents adhered to by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, we find this statement: “We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ…who…was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Likewise, the Apostles’ Creed, also accepted by the same three major branches of the Church of Jesus Christ, affirms, “I believe…in Jesus Christ (God’s) only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”  In this, the Creeds affirm only what is explicitly stated in the first chapter of both the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke, namely, that Mary, the betrothed wife of Joseph, a poor carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee, when she conceived the Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, was a virgin, and the conception was nothing short of a miracle.  Luke tells us that,

In the sixth month (of Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist) the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin (Gk. παρθένος) betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin (lit., since I do not know a man)?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And the angel departed from her. —Luke 1.26-38

Very shortly after Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Mary, she left her home in Nazareth to visit her kinswoman (likely an aunt or older cousin) Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk. 1.5-26,36), and stayed with her for three months.  As Elizabeth’s due date approached, Mary returned home (Lk. 1.39-56), and by this time it was quite likely that her own pregnancy was showing.  Joseph, her betrothed husband noticed this, and he knew that he was not the father of her child, from which fact he deduced that she had been unfaithful to him.  She might have told him about Gabriel’s appearance and announcement, but her testimony could not be corroborated if she had, and Joseph could not have been ignorant about how babies are conceived.  Then as the Apostle Matthew wrote,

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin (Gk. παρθένος) shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (quoted from Is. 7.14)

(which means, God with us.)  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus. —Matthew 1.18-25

Under the Old Testament Law, a woman was required to remain a virgin until she was married (this is still an expectation of Christian women, as fornication, or sexual intercourse outside monogamous heterosexual marriage, is still classified as a sin against God).  If an Israelite man were to marry a woman, and if he “did not find in her evidence of virginity” (e.g., blood does not spill when the hymen is broken), and her parents were unable to produce “the evidence of her virginity” (i.e., the soiled bedsheets from her wedding night) before “the elders of the city in the gate”, then she was to be stoned to death, “because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house.” (Dt. 22.13-21)

Had he pressed his rights, Mary would have been stoned to death.  But “Joseph, being a just man (not to mention gracious and compassionate) and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Had he gone through with this, Mary’s life and that of her child would have been hard, and no just and upright man would have her as wife, but the two of them would still live.  But another angel (or possibly Gabriel once more; Matthew does not identify the angel by name) appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, that the child in her womb had been miraculously conceived and would somehow “save his people from their sins,” and asked him to continue with the betrothal and marry her.

This would have been a burden on Joseph, as marrying a pregnant woman tacitly meant that he was accepting the responsibility of fathering her child, for presumably no angel appeared to anyone else in Nazareth to clarify that the Lord Jesus had been conceived miraculously, without his earthly parents having had sexual intercourse.  It meant that he would be accepting the public shame for having treated a daughter of Israel dishonorably, and this would have had social repercussions, likely including the loss of business in his carpentry trade.  Nevertheless, Joseph did wed Mary, and they abstained from sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born.1

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Virgin Birth

But why, then, was it necessary for the Lord Jesus to be born of a virgin?  Two complementary answers can be found in Scripture, the first of which is: To fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  In Matthew 1.23, the Apostle explicitly states, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” and then he quoted Isaiah 7.14, which states, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

One of the most common objections to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14 is that the Hebrew word commonly translated “virgin” in this passage is almah, which means “young woman”, rather than bethulah, the more common Hebrew word for “virgin”, for almah can be used also to refer to a young mother and does not specifically denote virginity.

For reference, the word almah appears seven times in the Old Testament.  The first of these appears in Genesis 24, where Abraham is sending his oldest servant to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had emigrated with his father and nephew many years before (Gen. 11.31), in order to seek a bride for his son Isaac among his kindred.  In v. 14, the servant prays to the Lord, saying, “Let the young woman (Heb. naarah; also in vv. 16,28,55,57,61) to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”  Then Rebekah, who would become Isaac’s wife at the end of the chapter, came out and replied exactly as the servant had asked the Lord that she should reply.  In vv. 42-44, where he was relating this to her father and brother, he said, “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water.  Let the virgin (Heb. almah) who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’” etc.  Given Middle Eastern cultural standards, especially of prominent men like Abraham, the servant would certainly not be seeking a wife for his master’s son who was not a virgin.  And in any case, Scripture confirms that Rebekah was a virgin, saying, “The young woman (Heb. naarah) was very attractive in appearance, a maiden (Heb. bethulah) whom no man had known.” (v. 16)

The second appearance of the word almah occurs in Exodus 2.1-10, where Moses’ mother set him in an ark of bulrushes in the Nile River, from which Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out.  Moses’ sister Miriam then went up to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked if she should summon a Hebrew woman to serve as a wetnurse for Moses.  “And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go.’  So the girl (i.e., Miriam; Heb. almah) went and called the child’s mother.” (v. 8)  Given that Moses at the time was a three-month-old infant, and that their brother Aaron was only three years older than he (Ex. 7.7), Miriam was, in all likelihood, somewhere between five and ten years old and was hardly expected to be anything but a virgin.

The word almah next appears in Psalm 68, in which David is singing of God routing His enemies.  About two-thirds of the way through, David writes,

Your (victory) procession is seen, O God,
the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them virgins (Heb. almah) playing tambourines. (vv. 24-25)

There are only three examples of women playing tambourines in celebrations like this in the Old Testament.  The first was in Exodus 15.20-21, where Miriam led the women of Israel in playing tambourines, singing, and dancing, after the Lord had destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the midst of the sea.  Miriam by this time was in her late eighties and was no longer a virgin (unless she had never married; Scripture does not indicate one way or the other), and the Hebrew word used here for “women”, nashim, is commonly used in the Old Testament of women generally and is not restricted to virgins or even to young women.  The second was in Judges 11.34-40, when Jephthah’s only daughter came out of his house upon his return, after the Lord had given him victory over the Ammonites, after he had made his horrific vow to offer up whomever or whatever came out of his door upon his return: “Then Jephthah came home at Mizpah.  And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.  She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” (v. 34)  And after he had grieved his vow and told her what he had promised to the Lord, she agreed that he had to follow through on it, asking only for two months to spend with her companions and bewail her virginity (Heb. bethulim).  In the third, women (Heb. nashim) were recounted singing, dancing, and playing the tambourine (I Sam. 18.6-7).  Elsewhere, prophets are mentioned playing the tambourine (along with other musical instruments; I Sam. 10.5), but most often when tambourines are mentioned in the Old Testament, no mention is made of who is playing them.  Thus, there is no cultural reason that almah in Psalm 68.25 must be restricted to unmarried women (i.e., virgins).

The fourth instance in which the word almah occurs is in the words of Agur in Proverbs 30, in which he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin (Heb. almah).” (vv. 18-19)  Although in this context, almah could certainly mean “young woman”, it has greater meaning if “virgin” is intended.

The fifth and sixth occurrences are found in the Song of Solomon.  In Song 1.2-3, the Bride says, “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore, virgins (Heb. almah) love you.”  Likewise, the Beloved says in Song 6.8 after having praised the Bride’s beauty, “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins (Heb. almah) without number.”  It would be highly improper, even in the erotic Song of Solomon, for the almah to include young married women among those who would aspire to be loved by (and thus wedded to) the Bride’s Beloved or whom the Beloved might consider adding to his harem.  Thus, in both of these passages, almah must mean “virgin”.

In Isaiah 7, the Lord through the prophet is assuring the wicked King Ahaz of Judah that the Lord will not permit the allied kings of Israel and Syria to conquer Jerusalem, although they were besieging it.  Indeed, He promised, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim (i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel) will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.” (v. 8)  Then Isaiah invited Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign that He would accomplish what He promised, but Ahaz refused, saying, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”  Then Isaiah replied,

Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin (Heb. almah) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. (vv. 10-17)

At the Lord’s instruction, Isaiah had brought his young son Shear-jashub (whose name means, “a remnant shall return”) with him when he came to Ahaz, as a physical illustration of the prophecy.  To be sure, Shear-jashub was not the fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, for neither was he born of a virgin, nor was he God manifested in the flesh—Immanuel, God with us.  But he was a sign that pointed to that future reality that had to wait more than seven hundred years for its fulfillment.

The Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 was a promise of deliverance from the Lord.  Temporally, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy in delivering Jerusalem from the besieging Israelite and Syrian armies.  But ultimately He fulfilled the prophecy in delivering His people from sin and death in the sacrificial death of Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, just as Isaiah had foretold.

Now some still charge Matthew with mistranslating almah as παρθένος, in order to find an Old Testament passage to corroborate his teaching that the mother of Jesus was a virgin.  However, Matthew did not translate this passage at all.  To be sure, the Church Father Papias claimed, “Matthew put together the oracles (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”2  English New Testament scholar John W. Wenham similarly opined, “My own undogmatic view is that Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, between A.D. 33 and 42; Mark in about 44, followed shortly thereafter by a Greek translation of Matthew.”3  However, no texts of Matthew’s Gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic have been found, and other New Testament scholars have noted that Matthew does not read like a translation from these languages.  Regardless of how he might have written the Gospel account bearing his name, he did not translate Isaiah 7.14 out of the original Hebrew.  The text of Matthew 1.23 in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament matches the text in Isaiah 7.14 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) word-for-word, and the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy Jewish scholars (according to tradition; hence its name) at Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC), thus predating Christ’s birth by more than two hundred years.

Jesus Christ Had No Human Sire

It might seem overly obvious, but its profundity is not always understood: Jesus of Nazareth had no human sire; no man’s Y-chromosome was part of His physical makeup.

In the context of His excoriating criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He commanded, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (v. 9)  Now in this, He was criticizing them for accepting the usage of pretentious titles, not forbidding anyone from addressing their earthly fathers by that title.  But at the same time, it is profoundly true in His case that He does have only one Father, who is in heaven.  Accordingly, we nowhere see Him in Scripture addressing or even referring to Joseph as His father.  To be sure, the Gospel writers refer to Him as Joseph’s son, but only to connect Him with His descent from David, and even then they do so only with qualification.  Matthew writes, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt. 1.16), rather than, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the father of Jesus, who is called Christ.”  Likewise, Luke writes, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.” (Lk. 3.23; emphasis added)  The men and women of Nazareth thought Him to be Joseph’s son (Mt. 13.55, Lk. 4.22), but they either were not aware of His virgin birth or did not believe it if they were.  And what is most striking is that when Mary said upon finding Him sitting in the Temple after He had been missing for several days, “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress,”4 He answered, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (or about my Father’s business)?” (Lk. 2.48-49)  To be sure, Joseph functioned as Jesus’ father as He was growing up, but he was not actually His father.

In ancient mythologies, there were copious examples of gods coming to Earth in various forms and impregnating women.  But this was certainly not the case with the conception of the Lord Jesus.  As Gabriel told Mary, after she had asked how it could be that she could conceive a son when she was a virgin, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 2.35)  Again, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me.’” (Heb. 10.5; quoted from Ps. 40.6 LXX)  This body was created supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in the same manner in which the body of Adam was created supernaturally from the dust of the earth and the body of Eve was created supernaturally from the rib of Adam (Gen. 2.7,21-22).  And in this supernaturally created body, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was Himself God, the eternal Son of God, was made flesh (Jn. 1.14).  “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2.6-7)

Now as it is written, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15.21-22)  And again, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  Yet despite the fact that all we who are born in Adam sin and therefore die, that we all were conceived in sin and born in iniquity (Ps. 51.5), Jesus Christ alone, out of all humanity, was born without sin (Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).  He was “born of woman” (Gal. 4.4), the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the Serpent (Gen. 3.15, Heb. 2.14), but He was begotten by no man.  Now both Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s prohibition of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3.6).  Yet it was Adam’s sin alone that was imputed to his posterity, for Scripture does not say, “As in Eve all die,” nor yet even, “By Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” but, “As in Adam all die,” and, “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  Thus, by being born of woman, He shares in Adam’s nature, but because He was begotten by no man, He does not share in Adam’s Original Sin.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ was conceived before Joseph and Mary had been married.  Thus, at the time He was conceived, had Mary engaged in sexual intercourse with a man, she would have been defiled by sexual immorality and adultery, regardless of whether she had been a willing participant or not.  In Genesis 34, we read how a prince of the Hivites either seduced or raped Dinah, the only daughter of the Patriarch Jacob named in Scripture, and afterward, “Jacob heard that (this prince) had defiled (Heb. tame) his daughter Dinah.” (v. 5; also vv. 13,27).  Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel referred to the commission of the sin of adultery as a man “defiling (Heb. tame) his neighbor’s wife” (Ezek. 18.6,11,15, 22.11, 33.26).  The Angel Gabriel said that the Lord Jesus “will be called holy—the Son of God” (Lk. 1.35); but it would have been far less than holy—not to mention radically out of God’s character—had He been born of a defiled woman, to have been “born of sexual immorality” (as the scribes and Pharisees may have insinuated when they said this in Jn. 8.41).  Thus, to deny that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, as the Scriptures teach, is tantamount to blaspheming the character of God.

Consequently, because He was born of a virgin, the Lord Jesus alone was suited to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1.29).  For the lambs used in the Old Testament sacrifice were required to be “a male without blemish” (Ex. 12.5, Lev. 1.10, 22.19-25).  “But it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (or lambs, for that matter) to take away sins” (Heb. 10.4), for they do not share in our human nature.  Only man ought to die to pay the penalty for his sin, but no one begotten by man can pay the penalty for man’s sin, because not one of them is “without blemish,” that is, without sin.  So then, Christ alone, because He was born of woman but begotten by God (Jn. 3.16) and not man, and thus sharing our nature but not our sin, is eminently suited to be the sacrifice that bears the wrath of God poured out in just penalty for the sin of the entire human race.  “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’ (quoted from Gen. 2.7); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” (I Cor. 15.45-47)

Controversy over the Virgin Birth in Early 20th Century American Presbyterianism

In the 1920s, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth figured somewhat prominently in the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  The Theological Liberalism that had come to dominate the Protestant Church in Europe in the Nineteenth Century came to American shores in the decades following the Civil War, and its influence was soon being felt at the seminaries of the Mainline Protestant denominations.  In 1876, the PCUSA’s Union Theological Seminary in New York called as its Chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages a young Presbyterian pastor named Charles Augustus Briggs.  Briggs, who had been educated at the University of Virginia, Union, and the University of Berlin, quickly became controversial for championing the Literary/Historical Critical Method.  Upon his appointment to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union on January 20, 1891, he delivered an inaugural address in which he declared, “We find there are errors of transmission.  There is nothing divine in the text—in its letters, words, or clauses. … I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption, upon which no mind can rest with certainty.”5  Then he proceeded to belligerently deny Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Isaiah wrote all of the book attributed to him, and that Biblical prophecy was a genuine prediction of the future.  Subsequently, he was brought up on charges of heresy before the PCUSA General Assembly that year, which vetoed Union’s appointment of him to the Biblical Theology Chair.6  The following year, the General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Oregon, issued what has become known as the Portland Deliverance of 1892, which stated,

The General Assembly would remind all under its care that it is a fundamental doctrine that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and infallible Word of God.  Our Church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error.  The assertion of the contrary cannot but shake the confidence of the people in the sacred Books.  All who enter office in our Church solemnly profess to receive them as the only infallible rule of faith and practice.  If they change their belief on this point, Christian honor demands that they should withdraw from our ministry.  They have no right to use the pulpit or the chair of the professor for the dissemination of their errors until they are dealt with by the slow process of discipline.  But if any do so act, their Presbyteries should speedily interpose, and deal with them for violation of ordination vows.7

In October the same year, Union rescinded the General Assembly’s right to veto its faculty appointments, although it professed continued fidelity to the PCUSA.  Then in 1893, Briggs was brought before the General Assembly again, which overwhelmingly voted to suspend him from the ministry “for propagating ‘views, doctrines, and teachings’ contrary to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and standards of the church and in violation of his ordination vows.”8  Union subsequently disaffiliated from the PCUSA, although it still continued supplying graduates to fill Presbyterian pulpits.9

Despite the resolution of the Briggs heresy trial and the withdrawal of Union Theological Seminary, Theological Liberalism continued to plague the PCUSA, and the trouble only grew worse.  Soon, not only were the reliability and authority of the Bible being openly criticized, but many primary doctrines as well, including the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Although Briggs believed the Biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth,10 some of his students did not.  In 1910, a case came before the General Assembly in which three graduates of Union Seminary had been ordained to the ministry, despite having refused to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Because the PCUSA Book of Order allowed candidates to state scruples (or take exception) to the Westminster Standards, and because New York Presbytery accepted the men’s scruples against being required to affirm the Virgin Birth (as stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 22), the Assembly dismissed the complaint and drafted and approved a Doctrinal Deliverance consisting of the following five articles, with which all candidates for the ministry would henceforth be required to affirm:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  Our Confession says (Chapter I, Section 10): “The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.”

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up “himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God.”  The Scripture saith Christ “once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit.”  (Cf. the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 25)

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that “on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession.” (Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Section 4)

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles.  This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35).  These great wonders were signs of the divine power of our Lord, making changes in the order of nature.  They were equally examples, to his Church, of charity and good-will toward all mankind.

These five articles of faith are essential and necessary.  Others are equally so…

Resolved, That, reaffirming the advice of the Adopting Act of 1729, all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate for the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, unless he declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of the Confession.11

The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1916.12  Then on May 21, 1922, Theologically Liberal Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in the pulpit of New York’s First Presbyterian Church, during his candidacy to become the church’s next senior pastor, in which he criticized the PCUSA for “shutting the doors of Christian fellowship” against those who held a different “point of view” of the doctrines enumerated in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Regarding the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in his sermon

Fosdick allowed that many devout Christians believed that the virgin birth was an historical event, that “it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into the world except by a special biological miracle.”  But, he argued, many others within the evangelical churches accepted another point of view.  These Christians held that “those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in His birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”

He addressed the rest of the doctrines in the Deliverance similarly.13  Fosdick’s sermon set off a firestorm of controversy in the PCUSA.  Naturally, a complaint on the subject came before the General Assembly the next year.  Although many commissioners (including all but one of those serving on the Bills and Overtures Committee that first argued the case) wanted to take no action, since New York Presbytery was already investigating the complaint, the 1923 Assembly voted by 55% to reaffirm the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 and “to take such action…as will require the preaching and teaching of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith.”14

Following the decision of the 1923 General Assembly, a committee of eleven Theological Liberals in the PCUSA drafted their own declaration, entitled, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, more popularly known as The Auburn Affirmation,15 written in six articles, which took special aim at the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  The first article of the Affirmation attacked the first article of the Deliverance, denying the Doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture:

There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept “from error.”  The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not to be found in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any of the great Reformation confessions.  The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.  We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,” spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.  We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (Conf. I.ii).16

Likewise, the fourth article in The Auburn Affirmation explicitly rejected any attempt to identify any specific teaching—especially those in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910—as “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards”:

The General Assembly of 1923 expressed the opinion concerning five doctrinal statements that each one “is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards.”  On the constitutional grounds which we have before described, we are opposed to any attempt to elevate these five doctrinal statements, or any of them, to the position of test for ordination or for good standing in our church.

Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.  Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.17

The committee that drafted The Auburn Affirmation began seeking signatures in November 1923.  By May 5, 1924, when the second printing was produced, they had collected 1293 signatures.  Naturally, a complaint against the Affirmation was brought before the 1924 General Assembly, as were a complaint against two Union Seminary graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained the year before, despite their having denied the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and a complaint that Fosdick should be removed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  But the Assembly voted to take no action against any of the three complaints and, in fact, invited Fosdick to join the PCUSA.18  However, as church historian George Marsden has pointed out, the invitation the Assembly extended to Fosdick was “in effect an invitation for him to let himself be tried for heresy.  This move, in fact, ensured Fosdick’s resignation from his New York pulpit.”19

Despite the tepid response of the 1924 General Assembly, matters came to a head at the General Assembly the following year.  Complaints against the ordination policies of New York Presbytery—and the two Union graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained despite their denial of the Virgin Birth—were brought before the Assembly again.  The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled, “that inasmuch as these two could not affirm their belief in the virgin birth, a doctrine repeatedly affirmed by previous assemblies, the presbytery should have deferred their licensing.  As such, (the PJC) returned the matter to the presbytery for appropriate action.”  In response, Henry Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, read a prepared statement at the invitation of the Assembly Moderator, saying, “The sixteen commissioners of the Presbytery of New York, on behalf of the said Presbytery, respectfully declare that the Presbytery of New York will stand firmly upon the constitution of the Church, reaffirmed in the reunions of 1870 and 1906, which forbids the Assembly to change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry, without submitting such amendment to the Presbyteries for concurrent action.”  By “change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry,” Coffin clearly meant the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Fearing a denominational schism, Moderator Charles Erdman proposed “that a Commission of Fifteen members be appointed to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest, and to report to the next General Assembly, to the end that the purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured.”  The Assembly passed the proposal unanimously.20  The Commission Erdman appointed presented an interim report the following year and a final report to the 1927 General Assembly, both of which were heavily influenced by The Auburn Affirmation.  The final report, which was approved by the Assembly, stated,

(I)t seems quite clear…that, granting for the moment the authority of the General Assembly, acting in any capacity, to declare broadly that an article is essential and necessary, it would be required to quote the exact language of the article as it appears in the Confession of Faith.  It could not paraphrase the language nor use other terms than those employed within the Constitution, much less could it erect into essential and necessary articles doctrines which are only derived as inferences from the statements of the Confession.21

In effect, the Doctrinal Deliverance approved by the 1910 PCUSA General Assembly, and reaffirmed by the 1916 and 1923 Assemblies, was rendered null and void by the 1927 Assembly, with no authority to prevent candidates for pastorates and professorships in the denomination who disagreed with any of its articles from being ordained and installed.  In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA with the United Presbyterian Church in North America) abandoned all pretense of doctrinal conformity when it replaced the Westminster Standards with a Book of Confessions and removed its requirement that all officers in the denomination should promise to “sincerely receive and adopt the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”.  After 1967, officers in the UPCUSA (or the Presbyterian Church (USA) since the 1983 merger of the (Northern) UPCUSA with the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States) are asked to do no more than to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and (to) be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God”.22  Today, the PC(USA) thinks nothing of ordaining officers who do not believe the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Four denominations have resulted from divisions in Mainline American Presbyterianism since the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the 1920s.  Of these, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires officers to strictly adhere to the Westminster Standards.  While most presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America allow candidates for office to declare a few more scruples than most presbyteries in the OPC, they also require officers to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, which more generally ensures that unbelief masquerading as unique interpretations cannot be used as justification for scruples against doctrines such as the Virgin Birth.  And the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians both have a document enumerating essential tenets with which all officers in the denomination must affirm without exception, and which tenets include the Virgin Birth.23

Is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth Essential to Christianity?

In 1906, the great Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary was asked to answer the question, “Is the doctrine of the supernatural birth of Jesus essential to Christianity?”24  To put this question another way, “Would Christianity be substantially different if the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth were removed from the Bible?”  Dr. Warfield answered that it depends entirely on what “Christianity” means.  The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America determined for itself in 1927 that the Virgin Birth is not truly essential, and its present-day successor, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has not determined any differently.  But then again, the “Christianity” that is preached and taught from the majority of PC(USA) pulpits and seminary classroom podiums today is a far cry from the Christianity that the Bible proclaims.

The Christianity that the Bible proclaims is supernatural, revelational, and redemptive.  Christianity is supernatural, in that it comes from God and not from man (Mt. 16.15-17, 21.24-27, Gal. 1.15-16).  Christianity is revelational, in that it is God revealing Himself to men and women—through His creation of the physical world around us and in the moral nature of man (Ps. 19.1-6, Rom. 1.19-20, 2.14-15); through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which come from Him alone and not from the men who wrote them down (II Tim. 3.15-17, II Pet. 1.19-21); through His supernatural intervention in the natural world by way of miracles (Mk. 2.10-12, Jn. 5.36, 12.37-38, Acts 2.22); and chiefly through the incarnation of His eternal Son in the man Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1.9,14,18, 3.31-36).  And Christianity is redemptive, in that it is God, through the ministrations of Jesus Christ, redeeming lost men and women from bondage to sin and death and reconciling them to Himself (Lk. 19.10, Jn. 12.32, II Cor. 5.18-21).

Now the Gospel accounts teach that Jesus Christ performed many miracles when He walked the Earth, as attested to by many who witnessed them (Mt. 4.23-25, Jn. 3.2, Jn. 6.10-14, Acts 2.22); that He was raised bodily from the dead and appeared afterward to many eyewitnesses (Mt. 28.9-10,16-20, Lk. 24.13-51, Jn. 20.11-23,26-29, 21.4-23, I Cor. 15.3-8); and that He ascended bodily into heaven in the presence of His disciples (Acts 1.6-11).  And the Gospel accounts also teach that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of a young woman from Nazareth in Galilee who had never had sexual intercourse with a man.  If one believes the supernatural accounts attested to by the eyewitnesses, then one should not have a problem believing that the God behind the miracles, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is also capable of creating a zygote in the womb of a virgin.  Yet the same men who objected in The Auburn Affirmation to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Incarnation…of our Lord Jesus Christ,” meaning efforts to commit the PCUSA to the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, also objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the (bodily) Resurrection and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power (i.e., the “mighty miracles”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.”25  And although they claimed, “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the (Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910) as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion,” they fully intended to persuade the denomination to open the office of teaching elder to men (and later women) who disbelieved the supernatural basis for Christianity, in their denial that God has ever intervened supernaturally in human history.

Likewise, it is the accounts recorded in Scripture that teach us that the Lord Jesus Christ was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.  Yet The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they likewise objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible,” by which they meant the “assertion…that the writers (of the Scriptures) were kept ‘from error.’”  And further, they believed that, “The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.”  Thus, it stands to reason, that if the Scriptures can and do err, that if Matthew and Luke in particular were not supernaturally kept from error, despite having been “inspired of God,” then their claim that Mary was a virgin when the Lord Jesus was conceived in her womb might also be in error, and that “all who hold most earnestly to the great fact and doctrine” of “the Incarnation” and yet who disbelieve in the “particular theory” of the Virgin Birth, “are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”

But what is overlooked here is the question that, if the Bible does, in fact, err, then in what meaningful sense can the Bible be considered to have been “inspired of God”?  Is not God omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and omnipotent?  If so, then He lacks not for knowledge, wisdom, or veracity—or for the capability of ensuring that the Bible communicated exactly what He wanted it to, if He did, in fact, inspire it.  And it says something derogatory about the character of God, if we confess that yes, He is omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and eminently capable of ensuring that the Bible communicates exactly what He wants it to, and yet that that same Bible contains errors.  Why, then, would He want it to err?  Furthermore, it takes an enormous amount of hubris to claim to be a Christian and then to turn around and claim that the Bible which the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ inspired contains errors, and then to use that claim as justification to disbelieve what the Bible teaches, including what it teaches about the Virgin Birth.  So again, not only does the “Christianity” that the Auburn Affirmationists want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural, it also denies that Christianity is revelational.

Finally, Scripture teaches that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2.1), and this applies to all men and women.  “For we have charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ (quoted from Ps. 14.1-3, 53.1-3)  ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ (quoted from Ps. 5.9)  ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ (quoted from Ps. 140.3)  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ (quoted from Ps. 10.7 LXX)  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ (quoted from Prov. 1.16, Is. 59.7-8)  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (quoted from Ps. 36.1)” (Rom. 3.9-18)  Moreover, the penalty that we deserve for our sin is the wrath and fury of God, and death (Rom. 2.7, 6.23).

And worse than this, there is nothing whatsoever that we can do that will appease the wrath of God poured out justly on us for our wickedness.  The Law of God requires that we “must be perfect, as (our) heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48), and He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1.13).  “The Judge of all the earth (must) do what is just” (Gen. 18.25), and what each of us has done deserves death.  “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21.8)  And if we think that we might escape His judgment because we have not committed any of these sins, we must remember that He counts hatred as murder, lust and divorce as adultery, and He requires us to fulfill everything we say we will do, to not retaliate against anyone who injures or maligns us, and to love our enemies.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5.21-48)  We have nothing to offer the Lord in exchange to recompense for our sins against Him.

For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
and our sins testify against us;

for our transgressions are with us,
and we know our iniquities:

transgressing, and denying the LORD,
and turning back from following our God,

speaking oppression and revolt,
conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands afar off;

for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter.

Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. —Is. 59.12-15

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64.6)  We have no righteousness of our own that we can use to atone for even the smallest of our sins (Phil. 3.9).  As the Psalmist confessed, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130.3)

This is the human condition, and we must grapple with it and understand it, before we can begin to appreciate the atonement that Jesus Christ has made on our behalf.  God is the potter, and every man, woman, and child is a vessel made by Him for one kind of use or the other—either a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction,” or a “vessel of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9.21-23).  But the vessels of mercy are no less guilty, no less sinful than the vessels of wrath, and therefore deserve the same fate.  In order to be used as vessels of mercy, they must first be washed clean, and they cannot wash themselves.

In the Old Testament, God provided His people with animal sacrifices—bulls, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons, all without spot or blemish—to offer up in atonement for their sins (Lev. 1-7, 16).  But these only “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 8.5,10.1), pointing to a better, more perfect sacrifice that could actually accomplish what the Old Testament sacrifices could not, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)

Thus it was that “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.5-8)  “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53.5-6, I Pet. 2.24-25)  He drank to the bitter dregs the cup of His Father’s judgment and wrath, poured out for the sins of the world (Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22), just as He said He would (Mt. 20.22-23, 26.39,42,44, Mk. 10.38,39, 14.36,39, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
—Hebrews 9.11-15

Christ made an atonement for sinful men and women when He died on Calvary’s tree, substituting Himself for the penalty richly deserved by filthy, unclean, wicked sinners like you and me.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5.21)  And then God raised Him from the dead in glorious demonstration of His victory over sin and death.  “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2.17)

And this is the Gospel: That Christ died on the Cross to bear the sins of many, making propitiation for the sins of all those whom God has chosen from before the beginning of the world, that whosoever believes in Him and trusts in His perfect, holy, sinless life, in His perfect atoning death on the Cross, and in His life-giving bodily resurrection from the dead will themselves be raised from the dead into a glorious new life when He returns at the end of human history to judge the living and the dead.

Yet again, all who endorsed The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they further objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Atonement (and) the Resurrection…of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  They thus denied the centrality of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Bodily Resurrection from the Dead of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Gospel.  Thus, not only does the “Christianity” that they want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural and revelational, it also denies that Christianity is redemptive in their rendering as optional the doctrines that are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Birth is supernatural—it comes from God and not from man.  The Virgin Birth is revelational—through it the Son of God was made flesh and manifested among us.  And the Virgin Birth is redemptive—through it came the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.  Therefore, the answer unequivocally is: Yes, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth is absolutely essential to Christianity.


1     The Roman Catholic Church holds that Mary continued in a state of perpetual virginity even after the birth of the Lord Jesus, finding greater significance in her virginal motherhood than that which Scripture ascribes to it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], 499-501,505-507).  In point of fact, apart from the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Scripture does not refer to Mary’s virginity at all.  Moreover, by saying that Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (Mt. 1.25, emphasis added), Matthew implies that Joseph did, in fact, have sexual relations with his wife after Jesus’ birth (although presumably not until after the forty days of her menstrual uncleanness had elapsed, as specified in Lev. 12; compare Lk. 2.22-24); after all, Joseph’s marriage to Mary would not be much of a marriage if he could never engage in sexual intercourse with his wife, especially when marriage is consummated by sexual intercourse.   And Scripture contradicts Rome’s doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity by referring to the Lord Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters (Mt. 12.46-50, 13.53-58, Mk. 3.31-35, 6.1-6, Lk. 8.19-21).  Rome counters this by claiming, “Against this doctrine is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.  The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.  In fact, James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’  They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 500)  However, this interpretation is forced, as the natural understanding of “brothers and sisters” are other children born of his parents, not children of “the other Mary”, whose familial relation with the Lord Jesus is pure conjecture on the part of Rome and is nowhere established in Scripture.  Moreover, in three of these passages, Jesus’ unnamed brothers are referenced alongside His mother, who is not named.  “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mt. 12.48-50, Mk. 3.33-35, Lk. 8.21)  The context of these passages does not suggest that these “brothers” are cousins, but rather the biological sons of Joseph and Mary, and thus Jesus’ half-brothers.

2     Papias, Fragment VI, in Alexander Roberts, D.D., James Donaldson, LL.D., and A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D., eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 155.

3     John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture” in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 449, n. 3.

4     This is the only instance in Scripture where Mary is recorded as referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father.

5     Charles Augustus Briggs, D.D., The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), pp. 31,35.

6     Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 23.

7     Quoted in Christopher K. Lensch, “Presbyterianism in America, The Nineteeth Century: The Formative Years” in WRS Journal 13:2 (August 2006), p. 8; online at https://www.wrs.edu/assets/docs/Journals/2006b/Lensch-Presbyterianism_America_19th_Century.pdf, accessed 16 Dec 2020.

8     Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

9     Paul Matzko, “Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs” (The Association of Religion Data Archives); online at https://www.thearda.com/timeline/events/event_252.asp; accessed 16 Dec 2020.

10   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

11   “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910”, online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html; accessed 16 Dec 2020.  See also George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), p. 117; Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

12   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

13   Ibid., pp. 9-10.

14   Ibid., pp. 74-75.

15   The Auburn Affirmation received that name, not because it was drafted at Auburn Theological Seminary, but because its chief architect, Robert Hastings Nichols, was a professor at the school (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

16   Robert Hastings Nichols, et al, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1924), Article I; online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/auburntext.html; accessed 18 Dec 2020.

17   Ibid., Article IV.

18   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 100,125-126.

19   Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 181.

20   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 151-152.

21   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 158-161.

22   Book of Order 2019-2021, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2019) §W-4.4003.c.  It is especially telling that the PC(USA) moved its ordination vows in the early 2000s from the Form of Government section of its Book of Order to the Directory for Worship, as if ordination vows were not something inherent to the government of the church but merely formalities of ordination worship services.

23   Although the ECO does this by reiterating that “He is born of the virgin Mary” (ECO Essential Tenets I.B), the same phrasing used in the Apostles’ Creed, the EPC Essentials of Our Faith Article 2 declares, “Jesus Christ, the living Word, became flesh through His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His virgin birth.”

24   Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Supernatural Birth of Jesus” in Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, eds., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. III: Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1932; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 447-458.

25   Similarly, in the year before my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, disaffiliated from the PC(USA) and affiliated with the EPC, a gentleman on the staff of the church who had graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was seeking ordination in the PC(USA), so he might receive a call as an Associate Pastor at the church, and in his statement of faith, he said he believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And one of the minister members of the presbytery with which Colonial was affiliated objected to this statement, saying that if he believed this, then he could not vote for him.

A Delicious Paradise: The World of Man Before the Fall

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth (Gen. 2.8,15-16); putting the creatures under his dominion (Gen. 1.28), and ordaining marriage for his help (Gen. 2.18, Mt. 19.3-9, Eph. 5.31); affording him communion with himself (Gen. 1.26-29, 3.8); instituting the Sabbath (Gen. 2.3, Ex. 20.11); entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience (Gen. 2.16-17, Gal. 3.12, Rom. 10.5), of which the tree of life was a pledge (Gen. 2.9, 3.22-24); and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death (Gen. 2.17, Jas. 2.10). —Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20

The Garden of God: The Habitation of Man Before the Fall

In prehistoric times, the Lord God planted a garden that He intended to be the first abode of humankind.  Of the events of these days we have no firsthand records, and the most reliable were written by Moses, the prophet of the Lord, many thousands of years after the fact, in the Book commonly called Genesis.

Moses says that God planted this garden “in Eden, in the east.” (Gen. 2.8)  A few verses later he gives another clue as to its location, when he writes,

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.  The name of the first is the Pishon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is the Gihon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.  And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.  And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Gen. 2.10-14)

Of these four rivers, we know for certain of only two—the Tigris1 and the Euphrates.  The text states that the Pishon “flowed around the whole land of Havilah.”  In the Table of Nations, Havilah was identified both as a son of Cush (Gen. 10.7), a son of Ham, and of Joktan (Gen. 10.29), a descendant of Shem, and Genesis later records that the descendants of Ishmael “settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria.” (Gen. 25.18)  Calvin opines that Havilah

is here taken for a region adjoining Persia.  For subsequently, in the twenty-fifth chapter, Moses relates, that the Ishmaelites dwelt from Havila unto Shur, which is contiguous to Egpyt, and through which the road lies unto Assyria.  Havila, as one boundary, is opposed to Shur as another, and this boundary Moses places near Egypt, and through which road lies into Assyria.  Whence it follows, that Havila (the other boundary) extends toward Susia and Persia. … Every thing which Moses asserts respecting gold and precious stones is most applicable to this district.2

Similarly unknown to us, the text states that the Gihon “flowed around the whole land of Cush.”  As noted above, the Table of Nations identifies Cush as a son of Ham (Gen. 10.6), one of the three sons of Noah, and Cush has traditionally been identified as Ethiopia,3 which gave rise to some of the ancients that the Gihon was to be identified with the Nile.  Calvin references the fact that “all interpreters translate this word Ethiopia,” and then further elucidates, explaining,

but the country of the Midianites and the conterminous country of Arabia, are included under the same name by Moses; for which reason, his wife is elsewhere called an Ethiopian woman.4  Moreover, since the lower course of the Euphrates tends toward that region, I do not see why it should be deemed absurd, that it there receives the name Gihon.  And thus the simple meaning of Moses is, that the garden of which Adam was the possessor was well watered, the channel of a river passing that way, which was afterwards divided into four heads.5

Based on the fact that the antediluvian river flowing out of Eden dividing into four was once the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and that the modern-day headwaters of those two rivers are found in what is today eastern Turkey, then it is likely that Eden was also located there.  However, the garden, the river that issued therefrom, and the divergence of said river into the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, as well as (possibly) the Pishon and Gihon Rivers themselves, have disappeared from the face of the earth, likely as the result of the Great Deluge that devastated the antediluvian world and nearly made the human race extinct in the days of Noah.  Calvin, however, does not agree with this assessment, writing,

From this difficulty (that the Tigris and the Euphrates do not have a single source), some would free themselves by saying, that the surface of the globe may have been changed by the deluge; and therefore, they imagine it might have happened that the courses of the rivers were disturbed and changed, and their springs transferred elsewhere; a solution which appears to me to be by no means to be accepted.  For although I acknowledge that the earth, from the time that it was accursed, became reduced from its native beauty to a state of wretched defilement, and to a garb of mourning, and afterwards was further laid waste in many places by the deluge; still, I assert, it was the same earth which had been created in the beginning.  Add to this, that Moses (in my judgment) accommodated his topography to the capacity of his age.  Yet nothing is accomplished, unless we find that place where the place where the Tigris and Euphrates proceed from one river.  Observe, first, that no mention is made of a spring or fountain, but only that it is said, there was one river.  But the four heads I understand to mean, both the beginnings from which the rivers are produced, and the mouths by which they discharge themselves into the sea.  Now the Euphrates was formerly joined by confluence with the Tigris, that it might justly be said, one river was divided into four heads; especially if what is manifest to all conceded, that Moses does not speak acutely, nor in a philosophical manner, but popularly, so that every one least informed may understand him.  Thus, in the first chapter, he called the sun and moon two great luminaries; not because the moon exceeded other planets in magnitude, but because, to common observation, it seemed greater.  Add further, that he seems to remove all doubt when he says, that the river had four heads, because it was divided from that place.  What does this mean, except that the channels were divided, out of one confluent stream, either above or below Paradise?6

However, we know from nature that an enormous amount of water eroding over an area for even a short span of time can effect tremendous geologic and geographic changes, and the amount of water washing over the Middle East in the Noachian Deluge has not been matched—let alone exceeded—in the millennia since its occurrence.  Therefore, it is extremely likely that the topography of the lands following the Great Deluge was significantly altered from what it had been before.

Moreover, there is a theological significance of the one river flowing out of Eden and then dividing into four, that is subverted if misinterpreted to mean that one or more of the referenced rivers did not originate in the river issuing from the garden but merely flowed into either that river or one of its distributaries.  The garden in Eden is the garden of God (Ezek 28.13).  As Geerhardus Vos points out,

The garden is “the garden of God”, not in the first instance an abode for man as such, but specifically a place of reception of man into fellowship with God in God’s own dwelling-place. … The correctness of this is verified by the recurrence of this piece of symbolism in eschatological form at the end of history, where there can be no doubt concerning the principle of paradise being the habitation of God, where He dwells in order to make man dwell with Himself.7

Vos here refers to the vision of John recorded in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation.  Here, John writes, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Rev. 21.3)  And again, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Rev. 22.1-2)  The one river is likewise presented in Genesis as flowing out of Eden—out from the presence of God, who dwells there—and then divides into four distributaries that water all the lands.  This symbolism loses its theological meaning, however, if the effluence of the four rivers is misinterpreted to mean (in whole or in part) a confluence.

The final thing to note about the first habitation of humanity is the presence of the trees.  Certainly, the Trees of Life and of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are specifically mentioned, but these have special theological significance that will be discussed later.  However, it is the trees—all the trees of the Garden—that give the Garden its paradisaical character, physically speaking. (Obviously, it was the presence of God in the Garden that gave it its paradisaical character, spiritually speaking.)  “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden…  And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen. 2.8-9)  Indeed, as the Lord elsewhere told the man, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.  You shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Gen. 1.29-30, emphasis added)  As Matthew Henry waxed eloquently about the trees of Eden,

(The garden) had all the best and choicest trees in common with the rest of the ground.  It was beautiful and adorned with every tree that, for its height or breadth, its make or colour, its leaf or flower, was pleasant to the sight and charmed the eye; it was replenished and enriched with every tree that yielded fruit grateful to the taste and useful to the body, and so good for food.  God, as a tender Father, consulted not only Adam’s profit, but his pleasure; for there is a pleasure consistent with innocency, nay, there is a true and transcendent pleasure in innocency.  God delights in the prosperity of his servants, and would have them easy; it is owing to themselves if they be uneasy.  When Providence puts us into an Eden of plenty and pleasure, we ought to serve him with joyfulness and gladness of heart, in the abundance of the good things he gives us.”8

In later passages of Scripture, the trees in the Garden of God became the standard of majesty and beauty against which the majesty and beauty of earthly kingdoms were compared.  For example, Ezekiel, in prophesying against the Egyptian Pharaoh, wrote,

Whom are you like in your greatness?
Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
and of towering height,
its top among the clouds. …

The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty.
I made it beautiful in the mass of its branches,
And all the trees in Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God. (Ezek. 31.2-9; see also Is. 53.3, Ezek. 28.13, Joel 2.3)

The Regulation of Man in the Garden of God: The Covenant of Life

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.27)

When God created the first man, Adam, He created him in His own image.  Just as the Lord Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15), so too was Adam, save that the divine nature of God was not joined with the human nature of Adam, as it was with the Lord Jesus.  And even as the Lord Jesus was “made like his brothers (i.e., us) in every respect” (Heb. 2.17), except “without sin” (Heb. 4.15), so too was Adam.  Like the Lord Jesus, Adam was created by God in the state of what theologians call Original Righteousness,9 and in him was not to be found any taint of sin, that is, his heart was not naturally inclined toward rebellion against God.  He was not created above the possibility of falling into sin and thus losing his condition of Original Righteousness, as Genesis 3 makes only all too clear, but in his original condition as constituted by God at his creation, he was not naturally disposed toward sin, as we are, and as he afterward became.

Nevertheless, although not predisposed to sin, Adam’s life in the Garden of God still had to be regulated, in order to ensure that he fulfilled the purposes for which his Creator had made him, and God issued this regulation in the form of a covenant.  O. Palmer Robertson, in his text on the covenants in Scripture, defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”10  Although no blood was shed in the establishment of this particular covenant, as there was in each successive administrative establishment of the Covenant of Redemption, it was a “life-and-death bond” sovereignly established and administered by God,11 with a specific condition—namely, the prohibition of eating the fruit from one particular tree—with the threatened consequence of death, to be executed on the same day as the violation of this covenant.

Now, the first thing to be noticed is that the word covenant (Heb. berith; Gk. διαθήκη) does not appear in Genesis until 6.18, where the Lord announces to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you.”  However, the absence of the term does not mean that God did not establish a covenant with unfallen man in the Garden.  As Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out,

All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.  In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is threatened.12

The second thing to be noticed is that theologians are not agreed as to what this covenant should be called.  The Westminster divines alternately called it the “Covenant of Works”13 and the “Covenant of Life”.14  Old Princeton preeminent theologian Charles Hodge followed the Westminster divines in their use of both terms, writing, “That covenant (with Adam) is sometimes called a covenant of life, because life was promised as the reward of obedience.  Sometimes it is called the covenant of works, because works were the condition on which that promise was suspended, and because it is thus distinguished from the new covenant which promises life on condition of faith.”  However, the name of the chapter in which this quote appears, as well as in the subheadings and the rest of the text of the chapter, Hodge exclusively used the name “Covenant of Works”.15  Berkhof mentions that it has been referred to “as the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of works.”  However, the nomenclature “Covenant of Nature” gradually fell out of use, as it was “apt to give the impression that this covenant was simply a part of the natural relationship in which man stood to God.”  Berkhof objected to calling it the Covenant of Life or the Edenic Covenant, because both names “might also be applied to the covenant of grace.”  And because of his argued unsuitability for the first three names, he preferred the name “Covenant of Works”.16  Vos, who labored at Princeton Seminary two generations after Hodge, also used this nomenclature, although he did not discuss the reason, other than to say that this was the name commonly given to it, and he neither mentioned any other name for it nor disputed it.17  Robertson objected to the name “Covenant of Works”, especially as contrasted with the “Covenant of Grace”, as the nomenclature “suggests that grace was not operative in the covenant of works,” and “that works have no place in the covenant of grace.”  Instead, he stated a preference for the names “Covenant of Creation” and “Covenant of Redemption”, respectively.18

Although I agree with Robertson’s objections to the terms “Covenant of Works” and “Covenant of Grace” and concur with his adoption of “Covenant of Redemption” for the latter, I disagree with his identification of God’s covenant with unfallen man with the Covenant of Creation.  In Jeremiah 33.19-26, the Lord references His “covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth,” and in Hosea 2.18 His “covenant…with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground.”  This context is much broader than the covenant God established with man in the Garden before the Fall, although the latter is undeniably an integral part—indeed, the chief part—of the former.  After all, the consequence of man’s violation of the terms of the first covenant had catastrophic ramifications for the greater Creation, which, on account of man’s sin, “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.20-21)  But the covenant in the Garden was specifically with man, not the whole Creation, signified and sealed by the Tree of Life, of which man in the Garden was free to eat, and conditioned by the prohibition against man partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—a prohibition that did not extend to birds or beasts.  The covenant in the Garden was intended to regulate the life of man, which was graciously given him under the terms of the covenant, whereas the Covenant of Redemption intends to restore to man the life he had in the Garden, and further to confirm him therein, just as he would have been confirmed, had he complied with the Lord’s injunction.  For had Adam remembered the Lord’s commandment during the serpent’s temptation, and not listened to the voice of his wife, who enjoined him to eat the fruit with her, instead gently rebuking her and reminding her of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminding her of His trustworthiness and questioning the trustworthiness of the serpent’s doubt-sowing words—for unlike her, he was not deceived (I Tim. 2.14)—our race would have been confirmed in the life of Original Righteousness, having come to the knowledge of good and evil by learning obedience, just as the Lord Jesus had (Phil. 2.8, Heb. 5.8; see also Mt. 4.1-11, Lk. 4.1-13).  Hence, the appropriate name for this covenant is the Covenant of Life.

As previously stated, the Covenant of Life was instituted to regulate man’s life in the Garden of God.  Specifically, we see three broad areas of man’s life that the Covenant regulated, namely: labor, worship, and marriage.


God did not create man to no purpose, but gave him meaningful work to do under the Covenant of Life.  Specifically, he “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Gen. 2.15)  So, contrary to the popular adage, the “world’s oldest profession” is that of gardener or farmer.  The negative and burdensome connotations often associated with labor today were completely absent from man’s life in the Garden; warnings against indolence (e.g., II Thess. 3.10-12) were completely unnecessary.  The ground was not cursed, nor did it yield thorns and thistles as a reward for man’s labor, for these were a result of the Fall (Gen. 3.17-19).  To the contrary, as Calvin wrote, “This labour, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness.”19  Likewise, Robertson notes, “Labor is to be seen as a principal means by which man’s enjoyment of the creation is assured. … Labor belongs integrally to the role of man made in God’s image.”20

More broadly, man’s work was not simply to have stewardship over the Garden alone, but over the whole earth.  “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1.28)  To be sure, the subjugation of and dominion over the earth was not intended to be an oppressive government or an abuse of the earth’s resources, as the rule and dominion of man is wont to be, this side of Eden.  Rather, it was to be a benevolent lordship, to the creation’s benefit, just as God’s Lordship is likewise benevolent to man, whom He made in His image.


On the cusp of their entrance into the Promised Land, Moses told the children of Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Dt. 8.3; quoted by the Lord Jesus in Mt. 4.4, Lk. 4.4)  This was no less true of man under the Covenant of Life than it is of man under the Covenant of Redemption.  Adam did not live by the fruit of his labor in the Garden of God alone, but by his fellowship in worship of the God who created him out of the dust of the ground.

On the day on which man violated the Covenant of Life, he “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen. 3.8)  From this we may infer that it was at this time of the day, after man’s labor for the day was complete, that the Lord was accustomed to commune with him.  But more than this, God Himself had set a pattern, whereby for six days He had toiled in the creation of the world, and on the seventh He rested (Gen. 1.3-2.2).  And further, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Gen. 2.3)  And it was to this specific pattern that He referred, when He gave the children of Israel the Fourth Commandment, that is, to labor six days and rest on the seventh, keeping the seventh day holy (Ex. 20.8-11).  Thus, in addition to meeting with man at each day’s end, it follows that God expected him to rest from his labor one day out of every seven, and to spend that holy day in communion with Him.


In the first chapter of Genesis, one finds a common refrain, wherein God has just created something according to His design, and then the text says, “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1.4,10,12,18,21,25)  And then, once His Creation was complete, with the creation of man and woman, the text says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1.31)  The whole of His Creation was not merely “good” (Heb. tob), but “very good” (Heb. tob meod).  As Calvin wrote of this, “On each of the days, simple approbation was given.  But now, after the workmanship of the world was complete in all its parts, and had received, if I may so speak, the last finishing touch, he pronounces it perfectly good; that we may know that there is in the symmetry of God’s works the highest perfection, to which nothing can be added.”21

Yet prior to this final pronouncement, there was something of His Creation that God said was not good, namely: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.’” (Gen. 2.18)  Now we know from Genesis 1.26-31 that God created mankind male and female, which was essential for the fulfillment of the blessing and commandment that He gave there, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.  However, from the narration in Genesis 2 detailing the specific creation of mankind, we know that He created man first, and then after an unspecified amount of time (which, if the “days” of Creation in Gen. 1 were literal twenty-four hour periods, would have had to have been no more than a matter of hours, for man and woman were both created on the Sixth Day) He created woman.  Thus, at the point in the narration when God made this pronouncement that man’s solitary existence was “not good”, Adam had no frame of reference to know that God intended to create others like him.

Then the Lord brought to Adam “every bird of the heavens” that He had created on the Fifth Day, and “every beast of the field” that He had created on the Sixth Day, in order to see what Adam would name them, and ostensibly to select a helper fit for him.  “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”  The motions of going through this “selection process” were solely for Adam’s benefit, for God knew from before He began His work in Creation that no animal could fulfill the role of Adam’s helpmate, and He had already planned to create a woman to be the “helper fit for him.”  So, as the Lord brought the birds and beasts to him, Adam could see that they came in pairs—male and female, as God had created them—whereas He had as yet created no female to correspond to Adam, and Adam could thus see and understand his own need for a mate.

Once Adam understood this, God put him into a deep sleep, during which He removed one of his ribs, closing up the place from which He took it with flesh, and then proceeded to transform Adam’s rib into a woman, in His last work of Creation.  In remarking on this text, Matthew Henry wrote,

The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.  Adam lost a rib, and without any diminution to his strength or comeliness; but in lieu thereof he had a help meet for him, which abundantly made up his loss: what God takes away from his people he will, one way or other, restore with advantage.22

Although woman is “the (physically) weaker vessel” (I Pet. 3.7), she is the helpmate fit for man, corresponding to his nature.  She is neither his superior nor his inferior, but is his intellectual equal, and yet is temperamentally different from him, with a different perspective than his, owing to the unique way in which God created her, as opposed to how He had created man.  These differences were ordained by God at Creation and are to be respected and celebrated.

Then the Scriptures state that after God transformed Adam’s rib into a woman, He “brought her to the man.”  Logically, given that Adam was sleeping during this act of creation, and that the woman was formed from his side, it follows that God created her lying next to him, cradled by his body as he slept.  And when they had awoken, Adam would immediately have known what God had done, and from where He had taken the woman He had formed for him.  Thus, in the first recorded poetry spoken by man in the Scripture, Adam said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman (Heb. ishshah),
because she was taken out of Man (Heb. ish).” (Gen. 2.23)

Following this, Moses declared, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24)  Make no mistake: God created woman to be the mate of man in a lifelong covenant of monogamous marriage, for the purpose of producing and raising children, which is the meaning of the man and his wife quite literally “becoming one flesh.”  Had man not fallen into sin, man and woman would have been happy and content with this arrangement.  The discontent that leads couples to separate or divorce, or for a person to take multiple spouses, to commit homosexuality, or to commit a plethora of other forms of adultery and fornication, finds its root in the sinful heart of man after the Fall, perverting the good and positive desires God planted in the heart of man before the Fall, which he uses for selfish and self-seeking reasons, and not for the purpose of glorifying God, the purpose for which He created man in the beginning.

This is not to say, however, that an individual woman’s worth is found only in her identity as her husband’s wife, as if Angela Golden should be loved and cherished solely because she is the wife of Loren Golden.  To be sure, I am joyfully obligated to love and cherish her for that very reason, but she is an individual created by God for His purposes, with thoughts and ideas of her own that have merit, and as I am called to love her as Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5.25-33, I Pet. 3.7), it is my privilege to encourage her to find ways and opportunities to employ the gifts with which our Heavenly Father has richly endowed her in ways that redound to His glory.

Finally, Moses remarked that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2.25)  The physical nudity of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall symbolized the spiritual reality that they had nothing to hide—no unworthy thoughts, desires, or memories of actions of which to be ashamed.  They were naked spiritually as well as physically, transparent with one another and with God in a way in which we, with all our sinful baggage this side of Eden, cannot be.  And this free conscience, allowing for the deepest intimacy without a sense of shame, is perhaps the greatest loss we suffered in the Fall, for its loss utterly disrupted our unimpeded communion with God, making us unfit to stand in His presence.

The Test of Man’s Covenantal Faith: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

As previously stated, Adam was created in the state of Original Righteousness, free from the taint of, and inclination or bent toward, sin.  He was disposed toward fulfilling his covenantal responsibilities—working and keeping the Garden of God, and exercising dominion over it and over the birds and beasts that dwelt there; resting every seventh day and enjoying regular communion with God; and loving, cherishing, and cleaving to his wife.  After all, these activities redounded to his own benefit, and he knew that God was providing for his every need.

Yet there was one thing that God had forbidden him, namely, the fruit from one particular tree, which was given the unusual name of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.23  “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.16-17)

The first thing to observe is that God Himself planted the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of His Garden—the same Garden in which He placed man (Gen. 2.8,15, 3.3).  It was not planted in the periphery of the Garden, but in its very midst, so Adam could not easily avoid it in his daily tasks of caring for the Garden.  It might be suggested, then, that the very presence of this Tree was temptation staring Adam in the face every day.  He likely could see the birds and beasts partaking of its fruit with no consequence, but it was denied to him.  One might ask why God might tempt him like that, why He did not forbear from planting it in the same Garden in which He intended to place the man whom He had created.  But “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Jas. 1.13-15)

The bare fact of the Tree’s presence in the midst of the Garden was, in and of itself, insufficient to tempt man to disobey his Creator’s injunction.  True, there was God’s threat of death on the day on which he partook of its fruit, but more than this, man was without sin when he dwelt in the Garden.  Sin perverts the good desires implanted in man’s heart at Creation and makes him desire that which is denied him, and Adam and his wife were free from its debilitating influence before the Fall.  They were content to obey God’s solitary injunction and freely partake of the fruit of every tree in the Garden except this one—until the day when the serpent sowed doubt and discontent in the woman’s heart (Gen. 3.1-3)—and one must not underestimate the power of godliness when found in combination with contentment.  “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (I Tim. 6.6-8)  Adam and his wife possessed this power, and it was recharged every evening and every seventh day, as they found their rest in Him.  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Heb. 4.9-11)

The second thing to observe is that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil had no intrinsic properties that could endow those who partook of it with knowledge of any kind, let alone the specific knowledge of good and evil.  To be sure, the serpent insinuated that it did, when he said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  Likewise, the woman believed that the fruit somehow did possess some kind of intrinsic properties to convey the knowledge that its name suggested, for she saw “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6).  Yet when they did partake of the fruit, and “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3.7), having come to the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3.22), it was not anything intrinsic to the fruit that brought them this knowledge, but the sudden realization that they had violated God’s solitary injunction in the act of eating the forbidden fruit, which act was evil, whereas to have kept God’s commandment would have been good.

The prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a test of man’s faith in God, quite similar to the Lord’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and the son of God’s covenantal promise, which Moses expressly stated was a test of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 22.1 ff).  Frequently theologians and other Bible scholars refer to this prohibition as a test of man’s obedience.  As Calvin writes, “Moses now teaches, that man was a governor of the world, with this exception, that he should, nevertheless, be subject to God.  A law is imposed upon him in token of his subjection; for it would have made no difference to God, if he had eaten indiscriminately of any fruit he pleased.  Therefore, the prohibition of one tree was a test of obedience.”24  Similarly Westminster, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works (Gen. 2.16-17, Hos. 6.7, Gal. 3.12), wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity (Gen. 3.22, Rom. 5.12-20, 10.5), upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen. 2.17, Gal. 3.10).”25  And likewise Berkhof, “The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional.  The condition was that of implicit and perfect obedience.  The divine law can demand nothing less than that, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating as it did, to a thing indifferent in itself, was clearly a test of pure obedience in the absolute sense of the word.”26  However, what this viewpoint overlooks is that what was on trial was not man’s obedience, but his faith.  Would man, when the veracity and trustworthiness of God’s Word was challenged, continue to put his trust in Him, or would he compromise his faith in God to the challenger?  To be sure, man’s faith has to work itself out in obedience to God’s command, but to focus on man’s obedience as the point of his probation is to miss the point entirely.  “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16.7)  Does Adam truly trust God?

Those who believe Adam’s probation to have been a test of his obedience are not wholly off-base, because faith is validated in outward works of obedience, as a public demonstration of trust in what one believes.  After all, it matters not that a man believes a particular bridge is structurally sound and capable of taking him to where he wants to go, until he demonstrates trust in what he believes by physically crossing it.  Likewise, Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15.6, Rom. 4.3, Gal. 3.6)  Yet it was not until the Lord tested his faith, by asking him to demonstrate his trust in His promises by sacrificing his beloved son Isaac, the son of God’s covenant promise to him, that his faith was validated (Gen. 22.12, Heb. 11.17-19, Jas. 2.21-23).  As Paul emphasized, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2.10)  And again, “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2.14)  The works we do are not approved, however, unless they are done from a motive of faith.

So it was with Adam.  He communed with God every evening and every seventh day, and he experienced God’s blessing in the fulfillment of his every need—a suitable environment that met his physical needs, meaningful labor, a mate corresponding to his sexual needs and his needs for human companionship and assistance in his labor, and above all else His own presence to fulfill his deepest spiritual need.  As a witness of every blessing, a recipient of every good and perfect gift, and whose every need was abundantly fulfilled, Adam had every reason to trust and obey God.  And left to his own devices, he would have blissfully continued in this existence, but without an opportunity to exercise his faith through trust in God’s Word in the face of opposition to His Word.

Enter the serpent.  Physically, a serpent was present, but it was not a mere animal that tempted Eve—especially not an animal lacking vocal chords and the ability to form human words with the shape of its mouth.  Rather, as Scripture elsewhere makes plain, this serpent was the tool of the principal demonic spirit known as Satan (literally, the Adversary) or the Devil (literally, the Accuser; II Cor. 11.3-15, Rev. 12.9, 20.2).  Just as the Lord gave Satan access to Job, in order to try his faith (Job 1.6-12, 2.1-6), He allowed Satan access to Adam and his wife.

The tempter’s first tack was to sow doubt in God’s Word.  He asked Eve, believing her to be more susceptible than her husband to his insidious words, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  This was an exaggeration, but it implied that the prohibition of the one tree was somehow unreasonable, and Eve’s reply indicated that she believed it was: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’.” (Gen. 3.1-3)  God had prohibited the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but said nothing about touching it.  Moreover, she shortened the penalty to, “lest you die,” whereas God has expressly stated, “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.17)  The Hebrew idiom translated as “surely die” is a repetition of the word “die”, indicating the certainty of the threatened punishment for violating the solitary injunction.  Thus, Eve’s omission of the repeated word constitutes a lessening on her part of the severity of God’s threat.  Now Scripture recounts that God gave this prohibition to Adam when He placed him in the Garden, before He created her, and so she may have learned of the prohibition solely from him.  However, given that God communed with both of them every evening and every seventh day, it seems unlikely, given how she worded her response to the serpent’s question, that the subject of the prohibition had not come up during any of those times.  Yet despite what God might have told her during these times, she may have continued to harbor doubts as to the reasonableness of the prohibition.

Then seeing Eve’s susceptibility to the implication in his question, the tempter outright contradicted God’s Word: “You will not surely die.” (Gen. 3.4)  On one hand, it would seem that Satan was correct in saying this, for neither Adam nor Eve died that day after eating the fruit.  Interpreters generally attempt to explain the seeming disparity between the expressly prescribed punishment in one or both of two ways: First is that what was envisioned in the penalty was a spiritual death, rather than a physical death, for Scripture elsewhere says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. … But God, … even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2.1-7; see also Rom. 7.7-25)  The second way is to say that on the day on which Adam and his wife ate the forbidden fruit, they became mortal, subject to death, as emphasized in God’s curse and the account of Adam’s death and the subsequent accounts of the deaths of his posterity (Gen. 3.19, 5.5,8,11,14,17,20,27,31, 9.29), excepting godly Enoch only (Gen. 5.21-24, Heb. 11.5).  Now it is true that man died spiritually on the day that he partook of the forbidden fruit, but this hardly does justice to the severity of the penalty of “you shall surely die”; nothing less than Adam’s physical death is envisioned here.  It is also true that man became mortal on that day, but this also falls short of the specified execution date: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (emphasis added)  The only reason that Adam and Eve were not summarily executed on the same day as their rebellion, in fulfillment of God’s Word, was that God provided and accepted a substituted sacrifice in their place and clothed them with its skin as a garment (Gen. 3.21).  However, this is getting into the Covenant of Redemption and will be discussed at greater length in a future post.

Finally the tempter told Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  This was a half-truth.  The words themselves were correct: their eyes were opened (Gen. 3.7), and they did become like God in knowing good and evil (Gen. 3.22).  But this knowledge, gained by violating the Lord’s commandment, did not benefit them in the slightest.  They became the recipients of God’s curse, they were expelled from paradise, and eventually they died (Gen. 3.16-24, 5.5), and all Creation was subjected to God’s curse along with them (Gen. 3.17-18, Rom. 8.20-22).  Eve thought “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6), but seeking “to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1.22), opening a floodgate of iniquity, “and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1.27)  “For as in Adam all die.” (I Cor. 15.22)  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5.12), “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5.19).

One will notice that Adam alone is afforded the blame for the Fall, not Eve, who was deceived (Gen. 3.13), nor yet the two of them together.  Adam “was with her” (Gen. 3.6) during the temptation, witness to the transaction between his wife and the serpent, but whereas “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”, “Adam was not deceived” (I Tim. 2.14).  He knew the command of the Lord, and the serpent’s words did not beguile him, as they did her.  He should have stood firm, reminded his wife of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminded her of the solitary injunction against eating the fruit from this particular tree, and challenged her reasoning for believing the serpent’s word above that of their Creator.  Yet he did not.  He “listened to the voice of (his) wife” (Gen. 3.17); he let her persuade him to eat the fruit against his better judgment.  As the head of his wife (Gen. 3.16, I Cor. 11.3, Eph. 5.23), Adam was responsible for her and for her conduct, as well as for their progeny and their conduct.  Thus, because of Adam’s sin, and Adam’s alone, all of humanity was made a race of fallen, mortal sinners, justly deserving God’s condemnation.

The last thing to observe with respect to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is that had Adam refrained from eating of its fruit and kept his wife from doing the same, he and his wife would have come to the knowledge of good and evil without losing their Original Righteousness.  It is good to obey the Lord and to refute the testimony of those who speak against His Word, and it is evil to listen to the voice of those who speak against God’s Word and follow according to theirs.  Had Adam overcome Satan in the Garden, as the Lord Jesus did in the desert, he and Eve would have learned this lesson by their faith worked out through obedience to the Word of the Lord, and thus come to a righteous knowledge of good and evil, qualitatively superior to the knowledge of the same that they gained by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.  And that makes their acquisition of this knowledge by the means they employed in the Garden all the more ironic.

The Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Life: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was planted in the midst of the Garden of God (Gen. 2.9), but unlike the other named Tree, there was no prohibition against man eating its fruit before the Fall.  Thus, when God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2.16), He included the Tree of Life in the scope of His permission.

The Tree of Life was a fitting symbol of the Covenant of Life, inasmuch as it signified and sealed the covenant blessings to man, in particular the blessing of everlasting life.  Thus, when man violated the Covenant by partaking of the fruit from the forbidden Tree, he forfeited all right to partake of the Tree of Life, and the Lord had to take steps to prevent him from doing so ever again.  “‘Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden … He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3.22-24, emphasis added)

The implication of the Lord’s statement, that by eating of the Tree of Life man would “live forever”, was that man was endowed with everlasting life at his creation, that it was his to lose, and that only by partaking of the proscribed Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Berkhof takes this a step further, observing that although Scripture nowhere states before the Fall that man had been given the gift of conditional immortality, “it is clearly implied in the alternative of death as the result of disobedience.  The clear implication of the threatened punishment is that in the case of obedience death would not enter, and this can only mean that life would continue.”27

Moreover, what we have in Christ’s work in Redemption is a reversal of the curse that God laid down on our race and all of Creation at the Fall, a restoration to us of the life man had in the Garden before the Fall, and our confirmation in that life, to ensure that we can never lose it again.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility (i.e., at Eden; see Gen. 3.16-19), not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.19-21, emphasis added)

Again, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem that will come when Christ returns victorious at the end of human history, “The dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”  This is what man had in the Garden of God.  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.3-4)  And if this were not enough, there is in the new Jerusalem “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city,” just as there was in the Garden of God the river that flowed out from the presence of God there to water all the lands.  “Also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22.1-2)

Finally, the Lord Jesus announced His purpose when He said, “I came that (my sheep) may have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10.10)  If this were not clear enough, He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3.16)  Likewise, He said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Jn. 11.25-26)  And as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Then comes the end, when (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’” (I Cor. 15.24-27)  Death will be destroyed.  Everlasting life, found abundantly in Christ, will be restored, just as it was in the Garden of God before the Fall.

Sadly, not all Christians believe that God created man in the Garden with conditional immortality, or that the penalty involved in violating the terms of the Covenant of Life was nothing less than the physical death of man on the day he violated those terms.  In particular, well-known Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, for whom I have a great deal of respect, and whose books I enjoy immensely (even if I strongly disagree with some of what he says), apparently believed that God had created Adam to be physically mortal.  In his first work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis created not one, but three races of unfallen beings (or hnau) on the fictional planet Malacandra (Mars, as it had been powerfully shaped in the popular imagination of the first half of the Twentieth Century)—the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi.  Also on Malacandra was a dangerous species of aquatic predator called the hnéraki, against which the hrossa, in particular, would band together to hunt, just as the hnéraki hunted them.  But even beyond the occasional death of a hross by a hnakra, the hrossa had a natural lifespan of “about 80 Martian years, or 160 earth years.”28  However,

except for some few whom the hnakra gets, no one dies before his time.  All live out the full span allotted to their kind, and a death with them is as predictable as a birth with us. … (Those who are near death are sent) off, to receive the last counsel of Oyarsa, to die, and to be by him “unbodied.”  The corpses, as corpses, will exist only for a few minutes: there are no coffins in Malacandra, no sextons, churchyards, or undertakers.  The valley is solemn at their departure, but I see no signs of passionate grief.  They do not doubt their (spiritual) immortality, and friends of the same generation are not torn apart.  You leave the world, as you entered it, with the “men of your own year.”  Death is not preceded by dread nor followed by corruption.29

Thus, in the microcosm of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, “A world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not (God’s) way.”30  Of course, Out of the Silent Planet is a work of fiction—and speculative fiction at that.  An author might write something in a work of fiction that he does not believe to be true and would not hold to it if challenged.  However, Lewis has a much larger body of non-fiction works, where what he says can reasonably be expected to represent what he believed.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis includes a chapter on the Fall of Man, in which he discusses, among other things, what he believed about Adam’s origin before the Fall.  At the beginning of this chapter he writes, “Christianity asserts that God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of their goodness; that one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.”31

So far, so good.  As a Calvinist, I might challenge his definition of free will, and his gloss leaves unexplained why a good creature of God’s should desire to avail himself of the possibility of evil, but such issues have been debated by Christians for most of Church history, and the Church has been divided along these fault lines for centuries.  The point is, Lewis believed, as do I, that God made man upright, morally good, but with the possibility of falling into sin and disobedience.

However, Lewis did not believe that God literally made man from “dust from the ground” (Gen. 2.7), nor woman from the rib of man (Gen. 2.21-22), as Scripture states.  “If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection.”32  Now on the face of it, Lewis might be saying, “If this is what you believe, I am not going to argue with you,” without committing to the doctrine of theistic evolution.  However, just a few pages later, he expanded on this, more clearly stating that he believed in theistic evolution:

What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but if it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture—a “myth” in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale.

For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.  He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated.  The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity.  But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.  Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me”, which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. …

Judged by his artefacts, or perhaps even by his language, this blessed creature was, no doubt, a savage.  All that experience and practice can teach he had still to learn: if he chipped flints, he doubtless chipped them clumsily enough.  He may have been utterly incapable of expressing in conceptual form his Paradisal experience. … I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised.  Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow-spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.

We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.  But sooner or later they fell.  Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as “accidents” (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.33

Lewis was enamored by the notion of Christianity as the “true myth”, a notion he shared with his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien,34 and he clearly regarded the early accounts in Genesis among the “myths in Holy Scripture”, for which he had “the deepest respect.”  He believed “the story in Genesis is a story (full of the deepest suggestion) about a magic apple of knowledge,” that pointed to a more pedestrian reality, as outlined above.  Yet he expressed disappointment that, in developing the doctrine of the Fall, the early Church Fathers regarded the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “simply and solely (as) a pledge of obedience,” devoid of any mythical significance.35

When taken together, Lewis’ claims in Out of the Silent Planet and The Problem of Pain show that he believed that God created man mortal, albeit positively good and in right standing and relationship with Him, which condition was lost when he fell into sin, but nevertheless mortal, destined to die eventually.  To be perfectly fair to Lewis, there is one passage of Scripture that seems to lend credence to this line of thought, where the Lord through the prophet Isaiah announces,

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,

and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Is. 65.17-20, emphasis added)

Immediately we are reminded of John’s parallel words near the end of the Apocalypse:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.1-2, emphasis added)

Rather than saying, “No more shall there be in it…an old man who does not fill out his days,” that “the young man shall die a hundred years old,” the Apocalypse says that in the New Jerusalem, “death shall be no more.”  How, then, are these two seemingly contradictory passages to be reconciled?  Is Lewis correct in teaching that God never intended to make man’s body immortal, but only his soul?  Is Christ’s work in redeeming man, restoring him to the original condition he enjoyed in the Garden of God, limited to a restoration of full spiritual life only, wherein he is once again in a right relationship with his Creator, the source of his life, but in which physical death is inevitable, albeit without its sting?  If Lewis interprets the Scriptures correctly, this would be the condition in which man in the Garden of God found himself.

However, Paul writes,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (I Cor. 15.20-26)

Paul in this passage (which begins with verse 12) is addressing the resurrection of the dead and likening it to Christ’s.  Just as Christ was raised from the dead, we who are found in Him will likewise be raised from the dead; in the manner in which Christ was raised, we, too, will be raised.  As he elsewhere said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.5)  Then Paul goes on to discuss the resurrection body.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. … Behold!  I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15.42-55; citations from Is. 25.8, Hos. 13.14)

Christ, having died, was raised immortal and imperishable.  “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (Rom. 6.9)  Likewise, when we who are found in Him are raised from the dead at His Second Coming, we will be raised immortal and imperishable, no longer subject to death either.

So, too, then, was man before the Fall immortal and imperishable, contingent upon his fulfillment of the terms of the Covenant of Life.  But man sinned, and in his sin, the imperishable put on the perishable, and the immortal put on mortality.  Yet the imperishable and immortal Christ without sin put on the perishable and the mortal, in order to reverse this curse and restore man to the imperishable, immortal nature he enjoyed before the Fall.

Man as a creature of God was created with a body as well as a soul, and that body God declared to be “very good” (Gen. 1.31).  The souls of those who have died in Christ have returned to God who gave them, there to await the resurrection from the dead, while their bodies suffer corruption in the ground (Eccl. 12.7, Rev. 6.9-11).  Yet a disembodied soul is less than a man, incomplete without a body.  Although “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Cor. 5.8, Phil. 1.23), it is not God’s design that man should be a disembodied spirit like an angel, but that man should live with Him forevermore in a body suited to that purpose, as he was originally fashioned in Eden.

So then, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” (Is. 65.20)  “Death shall be no more.” (Rev. 21.4)  “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Ps. 90.9-10)36  As Calvin comments on this passage in Isaiah, “But Christ comes to repair our strength, and to restore and preserve our original condition.”37  Likewise as Henry comments,

Believers through Christ shall be satisfied with life, though it be ever so short on earth. … As for old men, it is promised that they shall fill their days with the fruits of righteousness, which they shall still bring forth in old age, to show that the Lord is upright, and then it is a good old age.  An old man who is good, and wise, and useful, may truly be said to have filled his days.  Old men who have their hearts upon the world have never filled their days, never have enough of this world, but would still continue longer in it.  But that man dies old, and…full of days, who, with Simeon, having seen God’s salvation, desires now to depart in peace.38

But, “for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” (Is. 65.20)  Again, as Henry comments,

Unbelievers shall be unsatisfied and unhappy in life, though it be ever so long.  The sinner, though he live to a hundred years old, shall be accursed.  His living so long shall be no token to him of the divine favour or blessing, nor shall it be any shelter to him from the divine wrath and curse.  The sentence he lies under will certainly be executed, and his long life is but a long reprieve; nay, it is itself a curse to him, for the longer he lives the more wrath he treasures up against the day of wrath and the more he sins he will have to answer for.  So that the matter is not great whether our lives on earth be long or short, but whether we live the lives of saints or the lives of sinners.39

As stated, the Tree of Life signified and sealed the promise of the Covenant of Life—namely, everlasting life—to man before the Fall.  By this we must not suppose that the fruit of the Tree of Life was somehow endowed with mystical power to bless whomever partook of it with eternal life, much to Lewis’ disappointment, nor yet that the fruit possessed natural properties that would have enabled man to live forever, if he continued partaking of it, as Hodge suggests.40  Neither should we presume with Vos, based on the Lord’s statement in Genesis 3.22, “that man before his fall had not eaten it,”41 nor yet that there was a second injunction, albeit temporary, against eating of the Tree of Life also, the privilege to do so contingent upon man fulfilling the terms of the Covenant.  Rather, as Calvin observes, God

gave the tree of life its name, not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God.  For we know it to be by no means unusual that God should give to us the attestation of his grace by external symbols.  He does not indeed transfer his power into outward signs; but by them he stretches out his hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to him.  He intended, therefore, that man, as often as he tasted the fruit of that tree, should remember whence he received his life, in order that he might acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by the kindness of God alone; and that life is not (as they commonly speak) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God.42

The significance of the Tree of Life is sacramental, functioning in the life of the Garden of God under the Covenant of Life in much the same way as the Lord’s Supper functions in the life of the Church under the Covenant of Redemption.  God terminated man’s access to the Tree of Life after the Fall, not because its fruit would literally enable him to “live forever” (Gen. 3.22) in his fallen, sinful condition, but because in his sin, man had broken the Covenant of Life and forfeited its promise, and for him to continue partaking of the sign and seal of the broken Covenant would be to eat the fruit “in an unworthy manner,” to be “guilty of profaning” the Lord of the Covenant, who was represented in the Tree of Life, bringing “judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11.27-29).

The Once and Future Covenant of Life

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Eccl. 3.14-15)

Although man in his sin has abrogated the Covenant of Life and forfeited its blessings and promise, he has not—nor indeed could not have—destroyed the Covenant of Life, for God is the author of the Covenant of Life, and “whatever God does endures forever.”  That which has been, namely, the Covenant of Life, is that which is to be, for although God drove man from the Garden, He now seeks him, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10; see also Ezek. 34.11-16, Lk. 15).  God seeks fallen man in order to redeem him and to restore him to the Covenant of Life.

Moreover, the Covenant of Life has been fulfilled: The covenantal faith that was lacking in the first Adam, leading to the Fall, has been found in the second Adam, who continued to put His faith in God, when the veracity of God’s Word was challenged.  The second Adam truly trusted God, demonstrating and validating His covenantal faith in outward works of obedience: He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.7-8)  He was the ultimate substituted sacrifice that God provided and accepted in the place of the first Adam, and the source of our shame—our spiritual nakedness—is covered by His righteousness as a garment that is infinitely more durable than the garments of skin with which God clothed the first Adam and his wife (Job 29.14, Is. 61.10, Rom. 13.14, Gal. 3.27, Eph. 4.24, Phil. 3.9, Col. 3.10).

Further, it is of no accident that the Cross on which the Lord Jesus was hung is sometimes in Scripture referred to as a tree (Acts 5.30, 13.29, I Pet. 2.24), for Paul, referencing Deuteronomy 21.22-23, writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal. 3.13)  Nor is it a coincidence that the Lord Jesus, in His Bread of Life Discourse, said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6.53-56)  So then, taken together, the image of the Cross as a Tree and the image of the body and blood of Christ hung thereupon as “true food and…true drink” form a powerful image of the Crucified Savior as the Tree of Life, signifying and sealing to those of us in the Covenant of Redemption the promise of the Covenant of Life, with His body and blood represented in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 26.26-28, Mk. 14.22-24, Lk. 22.19-20, I Cor. 11.24-26).

Finally, in the Resurrection, in the new earth and the new Jerusalem, we see the restoration of everything man lost in Eden. The foundations of the city walls are “adorned with every kind of jewel,” the city gates are fashioned from pearl, and the city streets are “pure gold” (Rev. 21.18-21), reminiscent of what the Prophet Ezekiel wrote, “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering.” (Ezek. 28.13)  The presence of God fills the city, obviating the need for a temple, and providing all the light the city needs (Rev. 21.22-25).  The throne of God will be established in the city, where all His servants shall worship Him (Rev. 22.3-4), and from His throne flows “the river of the water of life,” just as it did in Eden. Along the banks of this river grows “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree (are) for the healing of the nations. … Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22.1-2,14)

Sin will be abolished, and we who are found in Christ will be transformed into His likeness and His glory, that we may be found fit to dwell in the new Jerusalem, for “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21.27)  Marriage between man and woman will be no more, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22.30, Mk. 12.25, Lk. 20.34-36).  However, the greater reality to which marriage in this world imperfectly points, the marriage of Christ and His Church, of God and His people, will be consummated (Is. 54.5-8, 61.10, Ezek. 16.6-14, Hos. 2.14-20, II Cor. 11.2, Eph. 5.22-33, Rev. 19.6-9, 21.2,9-11, 22.17), for the things in this world “serve (as) a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8.5, 10.1), and “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (I Cor. 13.10).

And gone will be the specter of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We will have been raised incorruptible, and sin will have no more dominion over us (Rom. 6.14, I Cor. 15.42-44).  “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” Jer. 31.34)  And as we shall all know the Lord, enjoying intimate fellowship with Him, and as no evil thing can enter the new paradise of God, there will be no tempter to try our faith.  We will know the difference between good and evil, and like the Lord, we will “know how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Is. 7.15)

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8.18)

Come, Lord Jesus, as you have promised (Rev. 3.11, 22.7,12,20), quickly come!


1    The Hebrew name of the referenced river is Hiddekel, which the Septuagint translates as Tígris.

2    John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Volume First, trans. Rev. John King, M.A., in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. I (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 123-124.

3    Indeed, the Septuagint translates the name Cush in Gen. 2.13 into Greek as Αἰθιοπίας.

4    Numbers 12.1; compare Exodus 2.15-22.

5    Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 124.

6    Ibid., pp. 119-120.

7    Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; reprinted Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, 1992), pp. 27-28.

8    Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I: Genesis to Deuteronomy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), p. 13, emphasis original.

9    For examples of Reformed teaching on Original Righteousness, see Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), Book I, Chapter 15; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (1872-1873; Reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 99-102; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; reprinted 1993), pp. 202 ff.

10   O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), pp. 4-15.  In his research, Robertson focused on the primary covenants in Scripture—God’s covenant with Adam before the Fall, His covenant with Adam after the Fall, His covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David, and His new covenant in Christ’s blood—with additional studies of the covenants implemented in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures surrounding Israel.

11   Ibid., p. 67.

12   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 213.

13   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2, XIX.1,6; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 30.

14   Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 12; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20.

15   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 117-122.

16   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 211.

17   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 23.

18   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 55-57.

19   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 125.

20   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 80-81.

21   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 100.

22   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I, p. 16, emphasis original.

23   Vos notes, “The phrase (in Hebrew) is not ‘knowledge of the good and the evil’.  It reads, literally translated: ‘knowledge of good-and-evil’, i.e., of good and evil correlated, mutually conditioned conceptions.” (Biblical Theology, p. 31)

24   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 125-126.

25   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2.

26   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 216.

27   Ibid., p. 213.

28   C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938; reprinted New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 156.

29   Ibid., p. 159.

30   Ibid., p. 100.

31   Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; reprinted New York: Harper Collins, 1996, 2000), p. 63.

32   Ibid., p. 67.

33   Ibid., pp. 71-75.

34   Justin Taylor, “85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien convinces C. S. Lewis that Christ Is the True Myth” (The Gospel Coalition, Sept. 20, 2016).

35   Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 66.

36   As an aside, it is curious that Moses, to whom Psalm 90 is attributed, and whom Scripture recounts to have lived to the age of 120 years (Dt. 34.7), whose father lived to the age of 137 years (Ex. 6.20), and whose successor lived to the age of 110 years (Josh. 24.29), should state that “the years of (man’s) life are (only) seventy or…eighty.”

37   Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Volume Fourth, trans. Rev. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. VIII, p. 400.

38   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. IV, p. 305, emphasis original.

39   Ibid.

40   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 125.

41   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 28.

42   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 116-117.

What Is in a Name?

What is in a name?  For most of us, ours was chosen for us before we were born.  As for my name, Loren James Golden: my first name was chosen simply because my parents liked it (and yes, I was actually named after Canadian actor Lorne Greene); my middle name was chosen because it was my father’s first; and my surname was my father’s surname—and my mother’s adopted surname upon marrying him—and my paternal grandparents’ before them, and my great-grandparents’ before them, etc. (although sometime around the Revolution it was apparently changed from Golding, possibly to distance my patriot ancestors from loyalist relations who supported the British crown during the War).  Our names represent our character and our identity, whether good or bad, and it is that character and identity that come to others’ minds when they hear them.  Some names are universally admired and adored (or nearly so) because of the people they represent, such as Mother Teresa or Jimmy Stewart, whereas others are just as thoroughly condemned, such as Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler.  Others are loved by some and scorned by others, whereas others still—most, in fact—are known to very few.

Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from the Lead Pastor, Rev. Jim West, of my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City—a weekly e-mail entitled, A Note from Pastor Jim, sent to members, former members, and friends of the church—stating that the Session (the governing board of elders in a Presbyterian church) was prayerfully considering changing the church’s name.  Mostly this is because of confusion over the name Presbyterian—most Christians do not know what “Presbyterian” means or the theological heritage for which it stands (indeed, many pew-sitting Presbyterians do not know that), and many Evangelical Christians in particular associate it with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which they regard as apostate, inasmuch as most of the leaders in that denomination have bent over backward to accommodate the denomination’s doctrine and policies to the ways of the unbelieving world, in contradiction to such passages as Romans 12.1-2, I Corinthians 1.18-25, James 4.4, and I John 2.15-17.  But even the name Colonial is being questioned, especially considering that the church is endeavoring to transition to a multiethnic congregation (in the mold of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), and “most African Americans have ZERO positive association with the word ‘colonial’,” associating it with “images of plantations and slaveowners.”  Pastor Jim also recounted that he almost declined to candidate for the position of Colonial’s Lead Pastor back in 2007, before he even visited the church, because the name gave him the impression that it was “a very old, formal congregation that (he) assumed would be petrified in its traditions and homogeneous in its wealthy, white, generally liberal membership.”  (Obviously, he visited the church and revised his opinion of it.)

This news came as something of a shock to me.  My last three church homes, representing nearly my entire adult life (from age 24 and on), are all Presbyterian—Eastminster Presbyterian in Wichita, Kansas (EPC; 1991-1996), Colonial Presbyterian (EPC; 1996-2014), and Denton Presbyterian in Denton, Texas (PCA; 2014-present), in all three of which I have been an active, contributing member (for details, see my post, One Presbyterian Layman’s Journey of Faith).  Obviously being Presbyterian is immensely important to me (after [1] being found in Christ and [2] being a member of a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church).  This is not to say that I would not regularly attend a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching, non-Presbyterian church if no Presbyterian congregation fitting that description was planted within a reasonable commute from my home.  However, I believe that the standards of classical Presbyterianism—the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms—“contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.3, §14-1.E.3; PCA Book of Church Order §21-5.2, §24-6.2), and being a member of a congregation that cannot affirm the Reformed interpretation of secondary doctrines (e.g., the Doctrines of Grace/Predestination, Covenant Theology, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Signs and Seals of the Covenant) would put me in the uncomfortable position of being at variance with the pastors and elders who would have authority over me, for the bare fact that these doctrines are of secondary importance does not mean that they are unimportant, for they are taught in Scripture.  Moreover, classical Presbyterianism, such as is expressed in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, has a certain high quality of exegetical preaching to which I have become accustomed in the past 28 years, and which I have rarely found outside of classical Presbyterianism, and I have a deep appreciation for the Presbyterian form of government, both of which would be greatly missed, were I to regularly attend a non-Presbyterian church.

I became aware of Colonial’s reputation as a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching congregation while I was still a member of Eastminster (when both churches were still affiliated with the PC(USA); both have since transitioned to the EPC).  When I secured employment in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, my thoughts immediately turned to Colonial as my next church home (I really did not seriously entertain any other possibility), and all the pastors at Eastminster recommended Colonial as well.  I felt some struggle in my first few years at Colonial, because my theological formation at Eastminster (which included taking distance learning classes at Reformed Theological Seminary) was essentially Old School Presbyterian (with which I have consistently identified ever since), whereas Colonial is basically a New School Presbyterian church.1  Nevertheless, I committed to Colonial and grew to love her, and when I secured employment in north Texas, it was at least as painful to leave Colonial as it had been to leave Eastminster nearly eighteen years earlier.

Quite apart from any sentimental attachment to the name Colonial Presbyterian Church that I might have, I believe it unwise for the church to change her name, either by omitting the name Presbyterian or by replacing the name Colonial.  Pastor Jim states that he loves the EPC, and that neither he nor the Session have any intention of abandoning their Presbyterian heritage, and I believe him.  However, to drop Colonial’s middle name would give the impression of embarrassment over, and a desire to distance the church from, the EPC and Colonial’s Evangelical Presbyterian heritage, irrespective of the Session’s intention.  Truth Matters, and Evangelical Presbyterianism is all about the Truth.  Rather than drop the name Presbyterian from the church’s name out of concern that it might be confusing to prospective visitors, it would behoove Colonial to publish on its website an essay on what, in her own words, Evangelical Presbyterianism is (the brief overview of what Colonial believes on the About Us page is limited to primary doctrines that are in no way unique to Evangelical Presbyterianism), and why it is important that Colonial is an Evangelical Presbyterian church.  (Update, February 22, 2020: Subsequent to my publication of this post, Colonial has updated her About Us page to include a section entitled, “Why Presbyterian?”, in which she does this.)

If anything, it would be worse for Colonial Presbyterian Church to change her first name than to drop her middle.  A name is much more than a label or a brand, more than something by which we introduce ourselves and others call us.  As stated above, it represents our character and identity, and Colonial’s character and identity are impeccable.  Colonial has a history and reputation of faithful preaching and community involvement, and that history and reputation are bound up with the name Colonial Presbyterian Church.  If Colonial were to change her name to Light of Christ Church, for example, it would be more descriptive of her mission statement, but the history and reputation bound up in the name recognition would be lost, even if the faithful preaching and community involvement remain unchanged.  Moreover, rather than focus on a perceived link between Colonial’s name and slavery in the antebellum South, why not instead identify Colonial Presbyterian Church as a colony of heaven planted by God to bring the light of Christ the Savior to a dark world lost in sin?  If Christ has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and (has) made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev. 5.9-10), and if Colonial is Better Together, striving to be “a multi-generational, multi-ethnic family,” cannot Colonial’s good name be used to illustrate the concept that, as a colony here on Earth of the Kingdom of the King of kings, the generational and ethnic makeup of Colonial ought to resemble that of the Kingdom whose colony she is?

As Pastor Jim emphasized, the decision of the Colonial Session to discern the Lord’s leading as to whether the church should change her name or leave it as it is was not a frivolous one, nor one reached rashly, nor one on which the Session is of one mind.  As he said, “this is a very sensitive topic, (and) there are many strong feelings out there about our name, our history, our legacy, and our personal investment in this organization called Colonial (and Presbyterianism as well).”  More importantly than the decision as to whether to change the church’s name or keep it the same is the need to preserve Colonial’s peace and unity.  I cannot emphasize highly enough: This is not a decision worthy of splitting the church.  Colonial during this season of discernment needs all our prayers “that (Colonial) may all be one, just as (the) Father (is) in (the Son) and (the Son) in (the Father), that (Colonial) also may be in (God), so that (Kansas City and) the world may believe that (the Father) has sent (the Son).” (Jn. 17.21)  And may Colonial “complete (the Lord’s) joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2.2)

1 For the uninitiated, New School Presbyterianism is not Theologically Liberal Presbyterianism.  When the Presbytery of Philadelphia was formed in 1706 (the precursor to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, which was organized in 1788), it was an amalgam of two distinct parties—Scots-Irish Presbyterian immigrants and English Puritan immigrants who preferred the Presbyterian system of government (see Hart & Muether, Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729).  The Scots-Irish (Old School) were the group that lobbied for the adoption of the Westminster Standards in 1729 and were skeptical about open-air revivals and the charismata (especially speaking in tongues), whereas the Puritans (New School) had more pietist sensibilities, resisting subscription to any confessional standard and being more amenable to open-air revivals and the charismata.  This conflict persisted in American Presbyterianism for most of the first two centuries of its existence, resulting in the Old Side/New Side split of 1741-1758 and the Old School/New School split of 1837-1869, until it was eclipsed by the so-called “Fundamentalist/Modernist” controversies of the 20th century.  It could be argued that New School Presbyterians were more susceptible to Theological Liberalism than Old School Presbyterians, but it would be unfair to characterize them as Theological Liberals, as they, like Old School Presbyterians and unlike Theological Liberals, hold to Biblical inerrancy and believe in the primacy of preaching the Gospel.  Nevertheless, the undercurrents of the older conflict still persist today.  The PCA is predominantly (but not exclusively) an Old School Presbyterian denomination, whereas the EPC is predominantly (but not exclusively) New School.  Both denominations adopt the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard, but the EPC has authored a document entitled “Essentials of Our Faith” that outlines primary doctrines of the Christian faith, and requires her officers to “affirm and adopt” it “without exception” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.5, §14-1.E.5), while generally allowing greater latitude for officers to declare exceptions to secondary doctrines in the Westminster Standards (EPC Book of Order §13-6) than the PCA (PCA Book of Church Order §13-6, §21-4.f).

On the Sinfulness of Sexual Desire

In the past several decades, as activists seeking to normalize homosexual and transgender behavior—as well as other aberrant forms of sexual behavior that are not easily classified as abuse—Evangelicals have sought to draw a distinction between those who practice such things and those who merely are afflicted with the desire to do them.  Thus, in the ordination debates that raged in the Mainline Protestant denominations in the 1990s and 2000s, Mainline Evangelicals made a distinction between homosexuals, defined as those who were afflicted with same-gender sexual desires, and practicing homosexuals, defined as those who acted on those desires.  The point that they wanted to make was that homosexuality, like all forms of sexual expression outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is a sin, as defined by God’s Word (Lev. 18.22, 20.13, Rom. 1.24-27, I Cor. 6.9-11, I Tim. 1.9-10).  Thus, they argued, while it is a violation of God’s Word to ordain practicing homosexuals, it is not a violation to ordain non-practicing homosexuals.

This year, an attempt was made to introduce this distinction in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative denomination formed in 1973, before the ordination debate in the Mainline denominations reared its ugly head, threatening to further fracture the already faltering denominations.  This attempt came not in the General Assembly, but in the Revoice Conference, hosted by the PCA’s Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.  The Revoice organization’s stated purpose is, “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”  In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to have homosexual, transgender, bisexual, or similar desires, even to find one’s identity in these desires, just as long as one does not act on them.

Homosexuality, like these others, is a sin to be repented of and mortified, not a morally neutral condition of same-gender sexual attraction to be embraced and incorporated into one’s identity in Christ.  After Paul identified “men who practice homosexuality” (Gk. arsenokoitai and malakoi) among those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”, he wrote, “And such were (Gk. æte; note the imperfect [past] tense of the verb) some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6.9-11)  In other words, among the Corinthian believers were some who used to be homosexuals, but they repented of their homosexuality and turned to Jesus Christ in faith, and now they were no longer homosexuals.  This does not mean that they did not continue struggling with same-gender sexual attraction, but they recognized it for what it was—a desire to engage in sexual intercourse with a person who was the same gender as themselves—and sought to put that desire to death.  They did not find their identity—in whole or in part—in their sinful desires.

James explained this well when he wrote, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Jas. 1.13-15)  Our hearts are corrupt.  “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21)  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9)  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15.18-20)

All sin begins as desire in the human heart.  Again to quote James, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?  Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (Jas. 4.1-3)

Sin infects every aspect of our being, especially our desires.  We want what we want, regardless of whether it is right or wrong in the sight of God.  This is why so many men in positions of prominence in the culture—inside the pale of the Church, as well as outside—have been caught up in the day of reckoning that has come with the #MeToo movement.  They wanted what they wanted, and for a time they could take it for themselves with seemingly no consequences.  But “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Lk. 12.2-3)

Our identity must be found in Christ alone—not in what we do, not in our family or cultural relationships, not in our position or station in life, and certainly not in our sinful desires, for “the world is passing away along with its desires” (I Jn. 2.17).  So then, Paul enjoins us, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”  Rather, we are to “put off the old self with its practices and…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3.5-10)  We are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13.14)

This world is fraught with “identity politics”, wanting us to find our identity in our “sexual orientation” and in a “gender” that is not defined by having been made male (XY) or female (XX) by God, wanting us to state whether we prefer to be referred to with masculine or feminine (or neuter or plural) pronouns.  The world wants us to squeeze us into its mold of self-centeredness in all things sexual (and yet is surprised when people follow that to its logical conclusion and blatantly abuse others).

But we do not belong to this world; we belong to Christ alone.  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.1-2)

When Progress Founders: An Evaluation of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Efforts to Reform Itself

In the early-to-mid 2010s, the Presbyterian Church (USA) found itself facing an unprecedented (although not unpredictable) crisis: In the aftermath of the 2010 vote to ordain practicing homosexuals to the offices of teaching elder (Presbyterianese for minister), ruling elder, and deacon, and reinforced by the 2014 vote to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, hundreds of Evangelical congregations, representing hundreds of thousands of members, sought dismissal and/or disaffiliation from the denomination, so as to affiliate with an Evangelical Presbyterian denomination—especially the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians—while many thousands more Evangelicals quietly left their PC(USA) church homes for Evangelical churches—some Presbyterian and some not.

In the midst of this crisis, then-Moderator Heath Rada issued a “Call to the Church”, reporting that, in meeting with many congregations and Presbyterians in his functional role as goodwill ambassador for the denomination, he had met with a great deal of dissatisfaction with, and fundamental loss of trust in, the PC(USA) government. Then the PC(USA) bureaucracy responded in the most predictable way possible: It polled its membership (with the results published in a twenty-page report entitled, “When We Gather at the Table”), established three committees—“The Way Forward Commission”, the “All Agency Review Committee”, and the “2020 Vision Team”—and began a series of “Big Tent” conferences aimed at promoting unity among PC(USA) Presbyterians. Similarly, another group of PC(USA) leaders began a series of “NEXT Church” conferences to talk about the “exciting” opportunities about what God has in store next for the PC(USA).

Meanwhile, Evangelical Presbyterians have continued departing the denomination in droves, and the flagship publication of Evangelical Presbyterians, The Layman Online (formerly The Presbyterian Layman), has discontinued coverage of the PC(USA), while its governing board, the Presbyterian Lay Committee, has reorganized itself as Reformation Press, in order to function as a non-denominational ministry. Thus, for the first time in Presbyterian history, there is no Evangelical presence in the PC(USA) strong enough to thwart the Theologically Liberal leadership of the denomination from making genuine progress toward fulfilling the goals of its humanistic agenda. Thus, the hopes of the PC(USA) leadership in the denomination’s Louisville, Kentucky, offices for The Way Forward Commission, the All Agency Review Committee, and The 2020 Vision Team are especially high.

And yet, there are still PC(USA) leaders who are dismally disappointed that The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report to the 2018 PC(USA) General Assembly is preoccupied with reorganizing the way the denomination’s offices in Louisville—the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board—relate to one another and do business. Raymond Roberts, a Virginia pastor who co-chairs the PC(USA) Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, expressed his frustration that The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report “lacks theological substance, … does not address (the PC(USA)’s) most significant crisis,” and puts forward “two recommendations that depart from core Presbyterian principles.” With surprising insight and candor for a Theological Liberal, he wrote:

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lacked a compelling shared vision for decades. The drift that has resulted from this lack of vision is much more responsible for the recent loss of members than any General Assembly decision concerning sexual orientation. …

Making disciples of Jesus Christ is a core church function and for decades it has been obvious we are no longer good at it. Statistics don’t lie. The repeal of blue laws contributed to waning in Sabbath observance. Colleges that were formed, in part, to give congregational leaders and professionals a critical understanding of the Bible and the faith lost their denominational distinctiveness. Campus ministries disappeared. Church camps closed. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this visible, much-discussed decline, our denomination never ask(ed) how we ought to reform our approach to this core function in a changing world.

PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, on the other hand, applauds The Way Forward Commission’s work. He believes “that the most significant problem that (the PC(USA) is) facing at the national church level today is the belief that the corporate model of leading the church is the best leadership model. However, this model has proven to be an impediment to the transformation of our denomination for many years.” He blames this type of thinking for “membership loss, internal conflict, struggling mid councils, and a host of other negative outcomes.” He believes that changing the governmental structure in the manner recommended by The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report is instrumental in enabling the PC(USA) to “return to ‘being’ the church that Jesus intended us to be. A church focused on liberating those trapped by the winds of despair, while giving hope to those who need to hear a Word from the Lord.” Ironically, Nelson wrote, “change without transformation could simply be understood as ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’” Reading through The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report, it is difficult to see how these recommendations are not thus aptly described.

In response to reactions, such as Roberts’, to The Way Forward Commission’s Final Report, the Commission’s Moderator and the Moderator of The All Agency Review Committee wrote in a joint press release, “Our mandate (from the 2016 General Assembly) was limited to dealing with the dysfunctions in the form and structure of (the PC(USA)). We were never asked to explore or discuss vision or theology for the church. This work has been entrusted to our colleagues on the 2020 Vision Team.”

However, when one turns from the Titanic deck chair rearranging activities of The Way Forward Commission to The 2020 Vision Team’s Interim Report to the 2018 General Assembly, one encounters the Pollyannish PC(USA) Liberal thought silo, surrounded by thick, impenetrable walls. There is no theological reflection to be found here. There is nothing transformative to be found here. The Interim Report is full of Theological Liberal platitudes that fail utterly to grapple with the depth of human depravity before God, to show any genuine appreciation for the tremendous cost borne by Jesus Christ on the Cross in bearing the penalty for that depravity on behalf of sinners like you and me, to show any appreciation at all for the grave insult Religious Pluralism shows Him by allowing for fallen men and women to come to salvation from sin and death in ways independent of faith in His substitutionary atoning work on the Cross. There is no appreciation for the fact that the PC(USA) has no compelling reason to give anyone outside the pale of the Church why he or she should become a Christian, much less a Presbyterian. And there is no appreciation for the fact, as Roberts lamented, that the PC(USA) has patently lost the capacity to train disciples of Jesus Christ.

The 2020 Vision Team’s Interim Report identifies an “urgent need to address issues such as racism, poverty, income inequality, climate change, domestic violence, and human rights.” Most of these are, indeed, serious sins that afflict the human race, regardless of the fact that all of them are also causes near and dear to the heart of liberals—religious and secular alike. And to the extent that they are sins, they are violations of the Second Great Commandment, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19.18, Mt. 22.39, Mk. 12.31), and need to be repented of. But the First and Greatest Commandment is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Dt. 6.4-5, Mt. 22.37-38, Mk. 12.29-30) To be sure, fulfilling the Second Great Commandment is indispensable to fulfilling the First. After all, as the Apostle John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn. 4.20) However, one gets the distinct impression, listening to Theological Liberals talking about sin, that they believe that one demonstrates love for God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength solely by demonstrating love for one’s neighbor, as if fulfillment of the Second Great Commandment (in all the ways approved by religious and secular liberal consensus) was all that was necessary to fulfill the First.

To be sure, Theological Liberals object to this characterization, which is at the heart of Evangelical criticism of Theological Liberalism. But it is often noted that Evangelicals and Theological Liberals live and talk in their own thought silos, while being critical of the other, and yet not really engaging the other. They attend different churches, are often polarized by political affiliation, read books and articles exclusively written by authors with whom they agree, listen to sermons delivered by pastors of the same school of thought as themselves, really make no attempt to understand the other’s point of view, and thus do not really listen to the criticism of the other. This is truly tragic, for it means that they are close-minded—and close-hearted—to one another, and fail to love one another, as required by Christ (Jn. 15.12).

I am an Evangelical Presbyterian layman who has been a member of two different PC(USA) congregations (both of which are now in the EPC) and am now a member of a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America. I have observed interactions between Evangelical and Liberal Presbyterians most of my adult life, and I have made an attempt to understand Liberal Presbyterian thought. My criticism of Theological Liberal thought as follows is not intended to be mean-spirited, but is intended to help Liberal Presbyterians to see serious areas of weakness in Theological Liberal thought, especially as it relates to the current crisis in the PC(USA), and to present solutions to turn the denomination around—all from an Evangelical Presbyterian perspective—so that perhaps one day there can be genuine reconciliation.

Liberalism Versus Christianity

Theological Liberals will doubtless chafe at yet another argument pitting Theological Liberalism against Christianity. They will argue that they have successfully blended the two and personally see no inherent conflict between them. And yet the hegemonic influence of Theological Liberalism in the PC(USA) has so alienated Evangelical Presbyterians that they have departed in great numbers—some to increase the membership of Evangelical Presbyterian denominations (such as the PCA, the EPC, and the ECO), while others have departed to further swell the burgeoning worship attendance of non-denominational megachurches (which often do not have formal membership). Conversely, there has been precious little growth to offset these departures, and the majority of new members coming into the PC(USA) (apart from those transferring from other formerly Mainline Protestant denominations) are disaffected Evangelicals. The number of new conversions each year of those who have never had prior church affiliation is likely smaller than the number of PC(USA) presbyteries—and most of those are probably going into Evangelical remnant congregations. Liberal Presbyterianism is simply failing to produce a compelling reason for people outside the Christian Church to become Presbyterians.

Prior to the 1960s, there was social pressure in the United States to be thought of as Christian and to attend (at least occasionally) Christian worship services. At the same time, Christianity was coming under increasing attack in the academy—both in secular universities and also in Mainline Protestant seminaries. Consequently, there was a sizeable population of those who wanted to be thought of as Christian but could not bring themselves to believe in basic Christian doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, and especially the Inerrancy and Sufficiency of Scripture. The Mainline Protestant Churches—including the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (which merged in 1983 to form the PC(USA))—offered a comfortable church home to such as these.

However, beginning in the 1960s, it became increasingly socially acceptable not to be thought of as Christian, and today it is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable in some parts of the country to be affiliated with organized religion—especially traditional Christianity. At the same time, traditional gender roles have come under increasing attack, traditional marriage is falling apart with liberalized divorce laws, technology is enabling the spread of pornography to every home in America, and courts have increasingly upheld marriage redefinition and gender reidentification—all of which have contributed to a culture that is profoundly absorbed with the deified SELF. These trends are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the formerly Mainline Protestant denominations—including the PC(USA)—have continued to abase themselves, by accommodating these more recent societal changes, just as they had the changes in the early & mid-Twentieth Century, hoping to stave off membership decline, especially in the younger generations. But that desired outcome has not happened since the mid-1960s. They have only succeeded in alienating those in their respective memberships most in tune with Biblical truth—those who have not (significantly) compromised on fundamental Christian doctrine. Their message to the younger generation is: “See? We have done everything in our power to accommodate our message to what you already believe regarding sexual orientation and gender identification. Our track record might not be spotless, but it very clearly shows definite progress toward this goal. We see that younger Christians are especially attracted to churches that emphasize service over theology—and that’s what we do! Please don’t leave us!” In the words of National Review columnist David French,

There is a persistent belief among church-goers that a person should be able to get all the benefits of Christian community without any of the doctrines that make religion unpalatable to modern moral fashion. That’s in essence the mission statement of Mainline Protestantism.

And it simply doesn’t work. The Christian community and Christian service that people love are ultimately inseparable from the entirety of the Christian faith that spawned them. Carve out the doctrines that conflict with modern morals and you gut the faith. When you gut the faith, you ultimately gut the church.

It makes sense then that mainline denominations aren’t thriving. They’re dying. Without the eternal truths of the Christian faith, the church becomes just another social club. Why sacrifice your time and money for the same wisdom you can hear at your leisure on NPR?

Here’s the interesting thing: Some of the casual Christians who’ve fled the unsatisfying Mainline are joining more traditionalist churches and schools without changing their beliefs. They don’t become more theologically orthodox, they just crave the benefits of the more orthodox communities. Once in their new religious home, they exert the same kind of pressure for cultural conformity that helped kill the churches they fled. It’s the religious analog of the well-known phenomenon of blue-state Americans leaving their high-tax, heavily-regulated states for red America and promptly working to make it more like the place they left.

Liberal Hermeneutics

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2.13-14) Theological Liberalism latches onto the “zealous for good works” part of this verse but expends very little effort into understanding what “for his own possession” Biblically means, essentially taking it for granted that everyone who seems “zealous for good works,” irrespective of explicit faith in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is thereby part of “his own possession.”

Are we, then, “a people for his own possession” if our interpretation of His Word is lightly influenced by that Word and yet heavily influenced by personal prejudices and worldly philosophies? Consider how Liberal Presbyterians described their own approach to hermeneutics nearly forty years ago, and which description still accurately characterizes the Liberal Presbyterian hermeneutic today:

Disagreement over social issues rent the United Presbyterian Church. Strife over American involvement in the Vietnam War, escalation of the struggle for civil rights of minorities, and heightened awareness of unequal opportunities for women preoccupied the attention of many Christians. Many concluded that none of the previous theological systems adequately addressed these problems. Theology became issue oriented, and a diversity of approaches rather than a confessional consensus prevailed. Liberation theology…employed the social sciences to expose the political concerns of those groups whose interpretation of the Bible was viewed as a justification of human oppression. Others gave a higher priority to the need for clarity of philosophical concepts and consistency with scientific criteria (Process Theology was named as an example of this) than to continuity with confessional traditions. …

The social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology provide crucial insights for a thorough understanding of Scripture.1

Believing that the Bible in and of itself does not contain the solutions to perceived social problems, Liberal Presbyterians have turned to the wisdom of the world in the form of secular philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. And then, to baptize the solutions they have thus developed in a Christian cloak, they mine the Scripture for perceived support of these solutions, rejecting any passages that do not conform to them, especially any passages perceived as contributing to the “justification of human oppression.”

But secular philosophies and social sciences were not developed from a Christian worldview; they have neither a Christian understanding of the nature of sin nor an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God over both the social ills that prevail in this fallen world and also the redemption of—not just the remedy for—these same social ills. Indeed, the worldview of these philosophies and social sciences is fundamentally anthropocentric. They do not point to God and His Kingdom, but to man and his. And in adopting them as an authority to interpret, correct, and rebuke the Scriptures, Liberal Presbyterianism has itself become profoundly anthropocentric. Thus, worldly wisdom becomes the Procrustean bed on which Liberal Presbyterianism would make God to lie down—and non-Liberal Presbyterians, too, for that matter.

A perfect example of the use to which Liberal Presbyterians have put their Procrustean bed can be seen in the debacle that ensued in the Spring of 2017, when the Abraham Kuyper Center at Princeton Theological Seminary announced that it was awarding its annual Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life to Rev. Dr. Timothy Keller, then-pastor of the PCA-affiliated Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who is also a prolific author and popular speaker. The Kuyper Prize, which is accompanied by a $10,000 honorarium, is ostensibly intended to honor those who contribute to the “Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement,” which Keller exemplifies. As Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, wrote,

Unfailingly thoughtful and cerebral, frequently appearing in secular media as a religious and cultural commentator, Keller is one of the most influential pastors and Christian thinkers in America today. He is a guru of the rebirth of urban evangelical Protestant Christianity. His theology like his denomination’s is orthodox and Reformed. Keller typically avoids culture war issues and hot button debates. He affirms traditional Christian sexual ethics and marriage teaching but rarely speaks about it. His churches are full of New Yorkers who are socially liberal but drawn to his intellectually vibrant presentation of Christianity.

This announcement had scarcely been made, when PTS students and alumni vociferously protested it, not because Keller was not a Neo-Calvinist who actively engaged culture and society Biblically and theologically, but because he was the most prominent clergyman of a Presbyterian denomination that “does not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals”—a cause central not to Reformed Christianity but to Religious and Secular Liberalism. As one PTS alumna wrote in her blog, “An institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.” Another excoriated Keller in her Christian Century column for being “one of the loudest, most read, and most adhered-to proponents of male headship in the home. I am literally shaking with grief as I write this. I have spent years with women who have tried to de-program themselves after growing up in this baptized abuse. … I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

In response to “many (who) regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained, (which) conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA),” PTS President Craig Barnes wrote, “In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, (the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the PTS Board of Trustees, Rev. Keller, and I) have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.”

Tim Keller was in essence denied the Kuyper Prize (although he did “graciously agree to keep the commitment” to speak at the Kuyper Center’s 2017 conference) because Craig Barnes and other PTS leaders felt the need to aggressively restate PTS’s and the PC(USA)’s absolute and unswerving commitment to Liberalism’s tenets of inclusion of women and impenitent sexually immoral persons in ecclesiastical leadership, over against those, such as Keller and the PCA, who would exclude them on Biblical grounds (Lev. 18.22, Rom. 1.24-27, I Cor. 6.9-11, I Tim. 1.8-11, 2.12-3.16). In the aftermath of Liberal Presbyterianism’s momentous victories over Evangelical Presbyterianism in the PC(USA)’s 2010 and 2014 General Assemblies, and the subsequent disillusionment of Evangelical Presbyterians with the PC(USA), Barnes, the PTS Board of Trustees, and the Kuyper Committee had the unique opportunity—a Kairos moment, if you will—to extend an olive branch to Evangelical Presbyterians, to show us that we would be welcomed and affirmed in the PC(USA), despite the deep differences between us. Instead, they poured salt in an open wound.

Conformity to the World’s Ways of Thinking

What is egregiously absent from the Liberal Presbyterian hermeneutic is the Biblical warning against adopting the unbelieving world’s ways of thinking. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2) “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. … For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (I Cor. 1.20-21,25) “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas. 4.4) “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (I Jn. 2.15-17)

The first and most apparent danger of adopting the world’s ways of thinking, as Liberal Presbyterianism has done, is that it is rendered incapable of genuine Biblical reflection, incapable of receiving the whole of Scripture as the infallible Word of God, and thus incapable of heeding the Lord’s rebuke when it has wandered from His wisdom and His ways. Instead, Theological Liberals unquestioningly accept the inherent value of the world’s opinion, adopting it as their own, and viewing the Scripture—and those who look at the world through the lens of Scripture—through the lens of the world. Evangelicals seem muddled and backward to them, refusing to adapt themselves to the ways of the world—which Theological Liberals believe to be the way of the future and the way in which progress is measured. The future is coming, whether we want it to or not, they say, and those who refuse to adapt themselves to it, as Theological Liberalism has done, will quite simply not be in a position to speak meaningfully or relevantly to the world of the future. Thus, the opinions and beliefs of Evangelicals—and of Evangelical Presbyterians—are of no consequence to them.

And yet Mainline Protestant denominations like the PC(USA) are dying, and Theological Liberals are at great pains to explain why. If only we had a retooled vision, they tell themselves, we would grow. If only Evangelical Presbyterians stopped resisting the positive changes we have wrought for greater justice and inclusion, they could channel their passion for evangelism and mission in ways that could make the PC(USA) truly great. But it is not for a retooled vision statement that the people of God languish (Prov. 29.18), and Evangelicals’ fervor for evangelism and missions comes from a conviction that what the Bible says is true: men and women who die without trusting in the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ alone will be judged by an omniscient, holy, righteous, and just God for all the sins they committed in life and will be sentenced by Him to an eternity of torment and pain (Mt. 13.40-43,49-50, 25.41-46, Rom. 6.23, Rev. 20.11-15, 21.8, 22.15). Such is the fate we all deserve, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23), and the only hope for escape from this “second death” (Rev. 20.14) that anyone can possibly have is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 3.24-28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8-9). “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.12) The PC(USA) is languishing precisely because it has turned away from this compelling vision, from this prophetic and provocative Gospel message and endorsed competing visions and gospels that can make no eternal difference for anyone.

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10), but Liberal Presbyterianism regards the ways of non-Christian religions as equally valid paths to God as Christianity, as if the lost were not lost, because they adhered to a different religion. Moreover, Liberal Presbyterianism regards Hell and the Biblical doctrine of eternal punishment as outdated concepts, not to be taken seriously, despite the fact that the Lord Jesus Himself emphatically taught them. And so, the lost stay lost and are not brought before the Lord, in order that He might save them from their sins. “Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me.” (Is. 45.20-21)

A Call to Repentance

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? —Micah 6.8

This is the favorite verse of most Theological Liberals and one of the few passages of Scripture they commit to memory. But they constrain its requirements and think them fulfilled by a humanist metanarrative that they have written over the top of Scripture. Thus, it is “justice” to include women, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals in ordained office in the Church of Jesus Christ and to vociferously malign those who would exclude them on Biblical grounds. It is “kindness” to lobby the President and Congress of the United States to change their policies on immigration, climate change, gun control, and homosexuals and transsexuals serving in the US armed forces, and to side with aggrieved homosexual couples wanting to get “married” in court cases against Christian florists, cake bakers, and photographers who decline to offer their services to accommodate their “wedding”, but not to warn non-Christians against the wrath that awaits them if they do not repent of their sins and put their trust in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the only hope of salvation from sin and death. And it is to “walk humbly with your God” if one endeavors to love one’s neighbors by doing good works that do nothing more than make their lot in this life a little more comfortable, but do nothing to warn one’s neighbors against idolatry—or worse, to encourage it, or to imagine that God accepts the worship of other gods as if it were offered to Him. And so, Micah 6.8 is subverted to the service of the humanist metanarrative undergirding Theological Liberalism.

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and (mammon). —Matthew 6.24, Luke 16.13

The wisdom of this world is fundamentally at odds with God (I Cor. 1.18-25), and it has coalesced in the philosophy of humanism. In humanism, man2 is the measure: He defines his identity on his own terms. He believes in the essential goodness of the human spirit—especially his own. He believes that greater education is the key to overcoming fear and the social problems that plague this world. He is the hero who breaks down oppression, bringing equality and justice to all.

Yet humanist man, for all his bravado, is profoundly blind to his own faults and shortcomings: He fails to recognize the inherent corruption in the human soul—especially his own.3 He fails to recognize that he has set himself up as an idol in the place of God. If he is religious, he fails to recognize that he has subverted God to his own humanist causes, that he has usurped His authority.4 He aspires to be the liberator of the oppressed, but in his blindness and his rush to judgment, he is not above using the power of the state to oppress those who oppose his ideas of progress.

And so, Theological Liberalism would fain to hold Christianity and humanist philosophy together in tandem, to bow their knees to both masters. But which master do they love and extol, and which master do they hate and malign? “No one can serve two masters,” not even Theological Liberals. So, is it more important to be a Christian and serve and worship Christ the eternal Son of God as Master? Or is it more important to be a Liberal and hold Christ as an example of how to live, after having made Him to lie down on the Procrustean bed of almighty humanism and cutting off the doctrines He taught “that make (Christianity) unpalatable to modern moral fashion,” essentially making Him into a humanist mascot to be used, instead of the Master to be worshiped and obeyed?

O foolish Liberal Presbyterians! No amount of rearranging the denominational offices in Louisville—or in the synods, presbyteries, or sessions of the PC(USA), for that matter—nor any amount of work to come up with a new vision statement to encourage PC(USA) laity and clergy to greater efforts of social work, will avail to remedy the most significant problem facing your denomination today! You are estranged from God; you are not walking humbly with Him! You have become enamored with this present evil age and have adopted its attitudes, prejudices, and philosophies as your own. You would lead the world to solve its problems of racism, poverty, and domestic violence, but you are insensitive to the alienation, marginalization, and disrespect you have shown to Evangelicals in your midst—your notions of “inclusivity” leave much to be desired! For the sake of your own souls, I beg you to remove the plank from your own collective eye before you presume to remove the speck from your brother’s.

By the mercies of God, I implore you to repent of and repudiate the use of secular philosophies and ideologies to undergird your hermeneutical methods! They have not led you to a deeper understanding of God and the Christian faith, but quite the reverse. God does not correct His Church by speaking to her from the world, but by the words He has spoken through His prophets and apostles. By presuming to listen to God by filling your ears with the “crucial insights” of secular philosophies and social sciences “for a thorough understanding of Scripture,” you have drowned out the voice of the Spirit of God, conflating Him with the spirit of this present evil age.

Oh why do you curry the favor of the world, seeing that it does not love you in return? Men and women are not coming to you from the world as a result of your worldly preaching; you are not giving them a compelling reason to leave their secular lifestyles and be joined to you. The world finds you useful, in that it has an example to which to point, so as to ask Evangelicals why they could not be more like you, but they love you no more than they love them. I urge you to turn away from the idea that God is somehow pleased that you are compromising historic Christian teaching on the Atonement, the Resurrection, marriage, and human sexuality, and instead devote yourselves to the earnest study of His Word, repudiating the world’s influence, trusting in everything His Word says, using the hermeneutic principles of §6.001-§6.010 of your Book of Confessions, and neither the principles of §9.27-§9.30, §9.41-§9.42 of the same, nor those of “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”.

Do not be bitter toward Evangelicals who have broken fellowship with you, but consider their Spirit-led decision as a warning to you that you have strayed far from God, and that you need to repent of your worldliness. Do not be quick to judge pastors who lead congregations that seek the Spirit’s will whether to remain in the pale of the PC(USA) or to seek dismissal to the EPC or the ECO. Rather, ask yourselves how you have offended those congregations and what the Lord, quite apart from worldly wisdom, would have you do to reconcile yourselves to them.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is dying. Contrary to the vain and empty words of its Stated Clerk, it is not reforming. Reformation begins with reclamation of the Gospel of Salvation from sin and death by the grace of God alone through faith alone in the atoning death and life-giving Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and proceeds with a reordering of the life of the Church according to its doctrines. This is how the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th Century, and this has patently not been happening in the life of the PC(USA) so far in the 21st Century.

Yet reformation cannot begin by the will of man, but only by the will of God. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21.1) “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9.18) “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Ps. 127.1) I concur with Paul, who wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (Rom. 9.2-3) If you are an Evangelical reading this, would you please join with me in praying that the Lord would redeem and reform the PC(USA) to once again become a Bible-believing and Bible-preaching Church in which unbelievers repent of their sins and are converted unto Jesus Christ? “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (Jas. 5.16)

I anticipate anger, resentment, and denial from hardened hearts for what I have written here (assuming that it is actually read and not ignored by its intended audience). But I pray that the Lord would have mercy on the hearts of the leaders of the PC(USA), that they should repent of their worldliness and recover the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which they have lost through neglect. I pray that He would ignite a fire that would cleanse and refine the PC(USA), so that she should faithfully preach repentance and forgiveness in the name of Jesus once again, as she once did of old, but does no longer.


1 “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”, in Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture and Biblical Authority and Interpretation (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 1999), pp. 28-29.

2 That is, mankind. By no means do I mean to imply that women are somehow excluded from this definition.

3 It is said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” However, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21) And again, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9) Power does not corrupt the human soul; it only magnifies the corruption already inherent there, giving it greater capacity to do evil.

4 An example of this can be found in Douglas Ottati’s book, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2006), where he asks in the Introduction (p. x), “What do we mean today by traditional words such as creation, sin, grace, and salvation?” rather than what God, from His omniscient and eternal perspective, means by them in His Word.

Now Celebrating Fifty-One Years of Uninterrupted Decline by Mishandling the Word of God…

The Presbyterian Church (USA) this week published its annual membership data, showing that net membership losses in 2016 amounted to 89,893, making it the fifth year in a row in which membership losses exceeded 89,000, and the highest annual percentage loss (5.72%) yet.  At the beginning of 2012, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 1,952,287, which had fallen to 1,482,767 by the end of last year—a five-year decline of 24.05%.

In fact, the PC(USA) and its immediate predecessors, the (Northern) United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States, have been losing members ever since 1965, when the UPCUSA had a peak membership of 3,308,622, and the PCUS had a membership of 945,975,1 for a total membership of 4,254,597.  At the time of the reunion of these two denominations in 1983, the PC(USA) had a total membership of 3,131,228—a drop of 26.40% over eighteen years.  Over the entire fifty-one year period of the decline, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have lost a net 2,771,830 members, or 65.15% of the combined 1965 membership of the UPCUSA and the PCUS.

Two years ago, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition addressed a comment made by Theological Liberal Rachel Held Evans, who had said, “Just about every denomination in the American church—including many evangelical denominations—is seeing a decline in numbers, so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates.”  In response, Carter wrote, “The fact is that the percentage of people identifying as Protestant has declined since the 1970s while the total number of Protestants has increased (62 percent of Americans identified as Protestant in 1972 and only 51 percent did so in 2010).  Yet because of the population increase in the U.S., there were 28 million more Protestants in 2010 than in 1972.”  Carter noted that there was “a clear and unequivocal trendline: liberal denominations have declined sharply while conservative denominations have increased or remained the same.”  But more than that, the numerical losses experienced in the Theologically Liberal mainline Protestant denominations have been more than offset by the explosive growth of non-denominational churches.  “As of 2010, four percent of Americans (12,200,000) worshipped in a non-denominational church.”

So then, the losses the PC(USA) has been experiencing for the past half century are par for the course for the mainline Protestant denominations (such as the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but are an aberration when looking at American Protestant Christianity as a whole.  In 2016, the PC(USA) had total gains of 55,266 and total losses of 145,159.  Of these losses, 43,902 were certificate transfers to other churches, 26,193 were deaths, and 75,064 were identified as “other”, by which is meant that these people had at one time joined a PC(USA) congregation but were no longer coming and were thus cleaned off the membership rolls.  To be sure, some (if not most) of the former members in the “other” category have left Christianity altogether (more on that reason later).  But many will have gone to churches (especially non-denominational churches) that accept members by profession or reaffirmation of faith only and do not acknowledge membership transfers.  So, even as the PC(USA) and the other mainline denominations are imploding, more theologically orthodox congregations are growing, partly at the expense of the PC(USA).

To be sure, numerical growth does not always indicate a healthy church.  For example, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has a weekly attendance of 52,000 (more than the PC(USA)’s largest presbytery), but Osteen preaches the Prosperity Gospel and implies that the chief end of God is to glorify man and to enjoy him forever.  However, a half century of unmitigated decline definitely is not an indicator of a healthy church, either.
Clearly there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that the PC(USA) is doing church, but there is no evidence that the General Assembly Council truly understands this.  To be sure, Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II, like his predecessors before him, is doing damage control by trying to put a positive spin on the numbers.  However, some of his comments, to put it mildly, stretch credulity.

We are well-respected for our priestly and prophetic voice within Christendom.

Apparently the severance of relations with the PC(USA) by some of its overseas partners in the aftermath of the decisions to ordain practicing homosexuals and to allow its teaching elders to perform same-sex weddings has not convinced the GAC otherwise.  Nor, for that matter, has the fact that growing Evangelical denominations and non-denominational congregations shun the PC(USA), and that prominent Evangelical pastors preach against it, convinced them that their “priestly and prophetic voice” really is not very well respected at all.  And if it was as respected as Nelson said it was, why has nearly a quarter of the PC(USA)’s membership walked away from it in the last five years?

Our challenge is to see the powerful opportunities that are before us while declaring with Holy Spirit boldness that God is doing amazing work within us right now.

He has pruned two-thirds of the PC(USA)’s membership in the past half century so that it can grow more fruit (Jn. 15.2)?  In fact, most PC(USA) churches are not passing on the faith to others.  “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19.10)  But considering what a low priority evangelism is for the PC(USA), the PC(USA) clearly does not share this mission with Him.  I just don’t see the PC(USA) producing any good fruit (Mt. 7.15-20).

These efforts (to create ‘fellowships’ comprised primarily of non-white immigrants) alone could demonstrate our intentionality toward fulfilling our failed commitment (set by the 1996 General Assembly) to increase racial ethnic participation by 20 percent by 2010.

Yes, especially if the PC(USA) can hold onto enough of them, while continuing to alienate its predominantly ethnic white congregations by undermining the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, if these new “racial ethnic immigrant congregations” are truly being built up by sound Biblical preaching, it is only a matter of time before they, too, run afoul of the Theological Liberalism entrenched in power in the PC(USA).

We are not dying.  We are Reforming.

The PC(USA) is not being reformed according to the Word of God.  Most of its teaching elders “interpret” Scripture to be “the witness without parallel” to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (C-67 §9.27), but not itself the revelation of God, “the infallible rule of faith and life.”  The Word of God is “interpreted” to mean primarily (if not exclusively) God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

As a consequence, many PC(USA) teaching elders deny such basic tenets of the Christian faith as the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ on the Cross, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the ultimate return of Jesus Christ at the end of time, and the sole saving efficacy of faith in Jesus Christ.  Some even deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and at least one denies that God is a personal being.

As justification for their gross mishandling of the Word of God, they cite Chapter XX, Section 2a, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship.”  Because they “interpret” the Word to mean Jesus Christ and not the Scriptures, they believe themselves exempt from believing and teaching these doctrines, all of which are indispensable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And yet all these remain ministers in good standing in the PC(USA).  None of them could give a compelling reason why non-Christians should be Christians; after all, one cannot give what one patently does not possess.  Can it, therefore, be any wonder why former members of PC(USA) congregations have left Christianity altogether?

The PC(USA) is profoundly conformed to the “thought forms” (C-67 §9.29) of this world and is patently not being “transformed by the renewal of (its collective) mind,” and thus quite unable to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2)  Is there still any doubt as to why the PC(USA), contrary to Nelson’s baseless assertion, is dying?

1 The PCUS reached its zenith in 1968 with 957,430 members and also experienced modest membership growth in 1970 and 1972.  However, its membership gains were more than offset by membership losses in the UPCUSA, and after the foundation of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973 (when the PCUS lost 40,177 members), the PCUS experienced no further net membership gains.

One Presbyterian Layman’s Journey of Faith

Early Spiritual Formation

I was born into a family of Methodists.  When I was a few months old, I was baptized in the same Methodist Church in which my parents and maternal grandparents had been married, in which my mother had been baptized as an infant and in which she had been raised, and of which my parents and grandparents were members.  Growing up, my family attended United Methodist congregations in Wichita, Topeka, and Rose Hill, Kansas (except for two years in the mid-1970s, when we attended a Presbyterian congregation in Topeka,1 where my uncle’s2 family attended), and I became a communicant member of the United Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I was eleven years old.

In the 1970s, my mother’s parents and siblings left United Methodism for Baptist churches.  My grandmother took a child evangelism class, and I was her first subject.  Thus, at the age of seven I asked the Lord Jesus into my heart.  My sweet, godly grandmother had at least as a strong an influence on the formation of my faith as I was growing up as the churches my family attended, and from her I learned a deep respect for the Bible as the Word of God.

After I graduated from high school in 1985, most of the members in my graduating class who attended the same church as I moved away for college, while I stayed home and attended Wichita State University.  Seeking a church with a fellowship of Christians my own age, I began attending First Bible Baptist Church in Wichita, where my grandmother attended, and where my uncle3 was the teacher of the college-age Sunday School class.  After attending there a few months, I decided to get rebaptized.

This upset my mother.  Rather than risk upsetting her further, I stopped attending FBBC.  My church attendance over the next few years was sporadic, and I mostly attended the Methodist Church in Rose Hill when I attended at all, which was seldom.  After a couple of years, my mother suggested that I start attending FBBC again, which I did for a while.

In December 1987, the Rose Hill Methodist Church wanted to designate the Sunday following Christmas to be led by the college students who would be home for the holiday, and I received a call asking if I would be willing to deliver one of two messages that morning.  I was about to politely decline, but I distinctly recall an inner prompting that I should preach, using a handful of texts that outlined the Gospel message.

I continued attending FBBC afterward, but my attendance began growing sporadic again, and a few months later I learned that my uncle was no longer teaching the college-age Sunday School class, and I stopped attending.

In May 1988, my parents and I visited (on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary) the same United Methodist congregation in Wichita in which they had been married.  I learned that they had a college-age Sunday School class (which was much smaller than the one at FBBC), and so I began attending there and participating in Sunday School.  My church attendance began improving, and I soon transferred my membership from the Methodist Church in Rose Hill.

The senior pastor at this church was very charismatic, and although I enjoyed the fellowship of my Sunday School class, the way the Bible was handled from the pulpit bothered me.  About halfway through the service, the senior pastor would set his own context, into which the associate pastor read the Scriptures, and then after the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor would preach about whatever he wanted to preach about, irrespective of what the Scripture read that morning actually said.  After nearly a year, I visited another nearby Methodist church for a few months, which also had a small college-age Sunday School class; but the way the Scriptures were handled there was not much better than it was at the other Methodist church, and the college-age class there met less frequently, so I went back.  And so this continued for nearly three years after I left FBBC.  I was spiritually hungry but failed to recognize that I was being spiritually malnourished.

Into Presbyterianism

In the Spring of 1991, a few months after I had graduated from WSU with a mechanical engineering degree, I noticed that there was a large Presbyterian church in northeast Wichita with relatively new construction.  So I visited there on May 5, and what I experienced was profound.4  After the choir sang the morning anthem, the senior pastor (Dr. Frank Kik) read the Scripture, and then he preached on it, explaining its meaning in its original context and giving practical application to our lives today.  He preached in such a way that it was clear that he believed the Scripture to be Truth, to be the Word of God.  This was such a radical difference from what I had been feeding on at the theologically liberal Methodist churches over the previous three years.  This was how Scripture was supposed to be treated.  The following Sunday I attended the Methodist church for the last time (because I had a book I was borrowing for the Sunday School class that I needed to return), and after that, I began attending Eastminster Presbyterian Church regularly, transferring my membership there that Fall.

Eastminster was founded in 1957 as a new church plant of the United Presbyterian Church in North America (UPCNA), a theologically orthodox denomination that merged the following year with the larger, theologically liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), which in turn merged in 1983 with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)).  Dr. John Gerstner and his more famous pupil, Dr. R. C. Sproul,5 had been visiting theologians there, educating the members on historical Presbyterian theology and helping form Eastminster’s Evangelical and Reformed character.  In 1976, after an earthquake devastated a number of churches in Guatemala, Eastminster, which was then bursting at the seams, gave approximately two-thirds of its building fund to help rebuild the churches in Guatemala, keeping only one-third of what they had raised to fund a modest expansion of their cramped facilities.  But the Lord blessed Eastminster, and in the late 1980s it built a new, larger building on land it purchased in northeast Wichita, donating its old property to the Presbytery of Southern Kansas to establish a new congregation.

When I first started attending Eastminster, the PC(USA) was in the midst of the dispute over the Human Sexuality Report (HSR), a document prepared by a task force commissioned by the 1987 General Assembly to prepare a major policy paper on the subject of human sexuality, including an “understanding of the variety of expressions of human sexuality”.  The sexuality that the HSR promoted was perverse and essentially pagan, advocating that Biblical sexual morality be jettisoned in favor of a “justice/love” sexual ethic that essentially said that human beings should be free to explore whatsoever sexual experiences they desire, just so long as they are consensual to all parties involved.  Eastminster was poised to leave the PC(USA) for the smaller, more theologically orthodox Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) were it to have passed, but in the end the HSR was defeated by 534 to 31 at the 1991 General Assembly, and Eastminster stayed in the PC(USA).

My faith flourished at Eastminster, and I took to Reformed Theology as a duck takes to water.  I got involved in the life of the church, participating in the singles ministry, the chancel choir, Sunday School, and serving on the Adult Education Committee.  After a few years at Eastminster, I began taking distance learning courses from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Also at Eastminster I witnessed firsthand the pain suffered by a split in the Church.  In the late 1980s Eastminster had hired a Director of Adult Education named George Granberry.  Granberry had grown up in the Presbyterian Church6 and had earned a Master of Divinity degree from Denver Theological Seminary, but he was not ordained in the PC(USA) because he disagreed with the ordination of women.  (Indeed, it was partly because of Granberry’s position on the ordination of women and Eastminster’s potential move to the PCA that he had been hired.)  He was also a charismatic teacher and an effective leader who regularly taught one of the adult Sunday School classes.  In 1993 he left the Eastminster staff to start a new PCA congregation in Wichita, and he took a couple hundred members with him.  Several months after his departure, the tension surfaced in an Adult Education Committee meeting, when an elder who agreed with the ordination of women and a deacon who disagreed commandeered the meeting for several minutes when they got into an impromptu argument on the subject.7  In a recent sermon on Philippians 1.12-26, Eastminster’s new senior pastor mentioned hard feelings he had found from members who were still bitter about churches that had come out of Eastminster, but he said that he rejoiced, inasmuch as through them Christ is still being proclaimed, just as Paul rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed by those who preached Him out of envy or rivalry.  Likewise, I rejoice, regardless of the denominational affiliation, that Christ is proclaimed, whether by congregations like Eastminster or by congregations that came out of her, like Heartland Community Church.

In late 1996, a job change brought me to the Kansas City metropolitan area, and the pastors at Eastminster unanimously recommended Colonial Presbyterian Church.  I had first become aware of Colonial a couple years earlier, when The Presbyterian Layman published an article on the largest congregations by average attendance and giving, most of which were (and still are) Evangelical.8

Although Eastminster and Colonial are sister churches in many ways, Colonial had a different origin than Eastminster.  Colonial was founded in 1953 as a new church plant of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which merged with the UPCUSA in 1983 to form the PC(USA).  When Evangelical PCUS congregations began leaving the denomination in 1973 for the PCA, Colonial elected to remain with the PCUS and the PC(USA) to be “salt and light” to the denomination, despite its growing acceptance of Theological Liberalism.  Although the two congregations are indisputably Evangelical, Colonial is less Reformed in its theology than Eastminster, being more open to staff members who disagree with the historic Presbyterian interpretation of the Doctrines of Grace (i.e., Predestination).  Colonial also leans more toward Baptistic influences, accommodating parents who wish to dedicate their infant children without applying the sign and seal of Baptism.  Colonial has also been active in partnering with other Evangelical congregations in the city, irrespective of denominational affiliation, to present a unified witness to the city of the saving power of Jesus Christ.  Like Eastminster, however, Colonial had suffered through two church splits—the first was Heartland Community Church, which separated from Colonial in 1986, and the second was Covenant Chapel, which split in 1989.  Both congregations affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), although Heartland later transitioned to independency.

Shortly after I joined, Colonial purchased 127 acres of undeveloped land in southern Johnson County, Kansas, where it intended to build a second church building.  At the same time, Colonial established a second worship site that met at a local Catholic high school for several years before the building on the new land was complete.  At first, I worshiped mostly at Colonial’s original campus (the Wornall campus).  Later, I supplemented by also worshiping at the new campus (the Quivira campus) before settling to worship primarily at the Quivira campus.

My faith continued to grow at Colonial as I engaged in the life of my new church home.  Once I had gone through the new members class and had transferred my membership, I joined the choir.  I also participated in several short-term missions trips to Guatemala, to serve a school in the city of Cantel that Colonial supported, and I engaged in a men’s Bible study led by one of the associate pastors that meets every Friday morning at a local restaurant to study different books of the Bible.  I also served as the Deacon of Communion at Colonial’s Quivira Campus from January 2010 through December 2012.  It was also while I was worshiping and serving at Colonial that I met and married (at Eastminster) the love of my life, the former Angela DeYoung, and the first of two daughters was born to us.

Out of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

In January 2010, the Colonial Session went on retreat, intending to talk about the role of elder in the church.  But when they returned, they announced to the congregation that while there, they discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to a Season of Discernment, to seek the Lord’s will as to whether the Lord was calling Colonial to separate from the PC(USA) and to affiliate instead with a Reformed denomination more in line with Colonial’s convictions, or to stay and continue to be “salt and light” to Heartland Presbytery and the PC(USA).  The Session also discerned that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to get out from under nine million dollars in debt, largely incurred by the purchase of the Quivira Campus and the construction of a new church building there.  The Session decided to address the first of these two issues first, and they approached the Executive Presbyter of Heartland Presbytery to appoint an Administrative Review Committee (ARC) to enter into discussions with Colonial and to participate in four town hall meetings, in which the Session would present a case for Colonial to separate from the PC(USA), the ARC would present a case for Colonial to remain affiliated with the PC(USA), and then the congregation would have the opportunity to ask questions or make statements.  Because of scheduling conflicts, I was able to attend only the third of these meetings, which turned out to be the least confrontational of the four, but I did listen to the transcripts online.9

During the first town hall meeting, an inactive elder expressed a concern that Heartland had not been supportive of the three tenets of the Confessing Church Movement (of which Colonial was a part), particularly the tenet that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the only way of salvation.  He stated that Heartland’s inability to support this tenet bothered him greatly, so he asked the representatives of the ARC if this were something that Heartland would be able to affirm today.  In response, one of the representatives stood up and said,

Well, I think that the first thing that needs to be said is, as (Executive Presbyter Rev. Charles Spencer) said earlier, there is no one person that can speak for all of the hundreds of members of Heartland Presbytery.  And I think there are a couple of things that come to my mind.  And one is a very important part of the Book of Order, the Constitution of the PC(USA), “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”  There are those who would say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord,” and I would be one who would say that.  One reason being because what I know of God I know through Jesus Christ, my Savior and Lord.  But am I going to be so arrogant as to say, “I know everything there is about God to say the only way God can reach another human being is through Jesus Christ”?  I don’t know that.  I know that’s how God found me, and I believe very strongly in Jesus Christ.  But I think sometimes, frankly, we Christians—and we Presbyterians—become a little arrogant.  And the fact is, I think there is always something more—whether we’re talking about individuals, congregations, or presbyteries—there’s always something more to know about God and how God is working.  And I become uneasy when any of us—and I’ve been guilty of it myself—put too many restrictions on what we believe Scripture is saying or what God is doing, and that’s one thing I just think needs to be kept in mind and in balance.  I suspect a good number of people in Heartland Presbytery would say, “Absolutely!  The only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  But there may be others who see it a bit differently, and I don’t think they’re all heretics.  I just think some of us are at a different place in our spiritual journey and our spiritual growth, and I think we do well to remember, we have to leave room for that spiritual growth to take place wherever someone may be.

In other words, this ordained PC(USA) pastor implied that Jesus’ words in John 14.6 were not to be taken at face value, that it could be that people of other religions could come to the Father through avenues apart from Jesus Christ, and that those who took Jesus’ statement literally were “arrogant”.  Never mind the colossal arrogance that had to undergird the assumption that the Lord’s own words could not be taken at face value because we know better today.  If his intention was to persuade an Evangelical congregation not to leave the PC(USA), calling its plain interpretation of the Lord’s words in John 14.6 “arrogant” was hardly the way to go about it.

After the last town hall meeting, the Session and the ARC polled Colonial’s members with a non-binding survey as to whether they believed Colonial should remain affiliated with the PC(USA).  Out of a total of 1,713 members surveyed, 1,183 (69.1%) responded.  Of these, 1,079 (91.2%) said NO, and only 104 (8.8%) said YES.  Of these 104, 54 said that they would transfer their membership to another congregation, 19 said that they would stay with Colonial, and 31 said that they were undecided in the event that Colonial were to disaffiliate.  A few days after the survey results were published, the Administrative Commission of Churches Seeking Dismissal from Heartland Presbytery (AC), announcing their intention “to pursue reconciliation with ministers, members and congregations.”  On the same day, the AC sent a letter to Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session, reminding them of the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause,10 and threatening to “ensure that all property of Colonial Presbyterian Church continues to be held in trust for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

Notwithstanding the AC’s threat, Colonial asked for the AC to negotiate in good faith for terms of separation, with Colonial retaining control of its property.  But after two months of no response, the Session announced on August 7 that it had scheduled a congregational meeting on Sunday, August 22, to vote whether to separate from the PC(USA) and if so, whether to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  On the evening of Tuesday or Wednesday before the scheduled congregational meeting, Colonial’s lead pastor and clerk of session were summoned to appear before Heartland Presbytery, where they were grilled, and the Presbytery threatened to dissolve the pastors’ relation to Colonial, dissolve the Session, and appoint an Administrative Commission to serve as Colonial’s governing body in the event that the congregational meeting were not canceled.  The next day, Colonial filed for quiet title and for temporary restraining orders against Heartland in both Missouri and Kansas.  The congregational meeting took place as scheduled, and Colonial voted 927 to 27 (97.2% to 2.8%) to disaffiliate from the PC(USA) and 914 to 29 (96.9% to 3.1%) to affiliate with the EPC.  I voted with the majority on both of those votes.

Subsequent to Colonial’s change in denominational affiliation, Heartland Presbytery took Colonial to court in both Missouri and Kansas in an attempt to uphold the PC(USA) Book of Order’s property trust clause.  On June 9, 2011, the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruled that the PC(USA) has no legally-binding trust over Colonial’s property, and that the property belongs to Colonial; Heartland appealed the ruling.  On February 2, 2012, the Johnson County, Kansas, District Court ruled that inasmuch as Heartland and Colonial were Missouri Non-Profit Corporations, the Missouri courts were the proper venue for the property suit, and that the Kansas courts would abide by the findings of the Missouri courts; Heartland missed the deadline to appeal the ruling.  On June 26, 2012, the Western Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court ruling, that Colonial owned its property free from any legally-binding trust; Heartland appealed the ruling, but the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting the Appellate Court ruling stand.

In 2011 Eastminster sought and was granted dismissal from the PC(USA) to the EPC by the Presbytery of Southern Kansas.  Eastminster’s situation was different from Colonial’s, in that the PSK was less theologically liberal than Heartland, and Eastminster had given its old property to the PSK to establish a new congregation when it had moved into its new facilities in the late 1980s, which led to a much more gracious separation for Eastminster than Colonial.  Today, both Colonial and Eastminster are in the EPC’s Great Plains Presbytery.


In mid-2014 another job change brought me to Denton, Texas, on the northern edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  Denton County has no congregations affiliated with the EPC, and the closest (and the only one in the entire metroplex) is an hour’s drive away in Carrolton.  Highland Park Presbyterian Church, which disaffiliated from the PC(USA) in 2013 to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), is also an hour’s drive away.  Given that my daily commute to work is about forty minutes (and the same on the drive home), my wife and I decided against an hour-long drive just to go to church, so we sought a new church home in Denton.

There are five Presbyterian churches in Denton.  Three of these are affiliated with the PC(USA), one with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and one with the PCA.  The three PC(USA) congregations here in town are theologically liberal, meaning that none of them would be a good church home for my family.  The Cumberland Presbyterian Church broke from the PCUSA in 1810 over the latter’s (then) Calvinistic interpretations of the Doctrines of Grace.  The CPC has adopted a semi-Pelagian theology, with which I strongly disagree.  That left Denton Presbyterian Church, a young church planted in 2007 by a cooperative effort between the PCA’s North Texas Presbytery, Christ Presbyterian Church of Flower Mound, Texas, and the Southwest Church Planting Network.  Denton Presbyterian became a particular church in 2011, meeting on the campus of North Texas University in Denton.  Although my wife and I briefly considered a couple of non-denominational churches in Denton, we now regularly attend Denton Presbyterian (although we do make use of some of the programs at the much larger Denton Bible Church).

Such is the outline of my journey into Presbyterianism and out of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Today I am still very much a Presbyterian—just not a typical PC(USA) Presbyterian, which I never was.  My spiritual character was profoundly shaped by the two PC(USA) congregations of which I was a member; but then again, neither of them was a typical PC(USA) congregation either.  Indeed, had Eastminster been a typical PC(USA) congregation, it is extremely unlikely that I would be a Presbyterian today, and had Colonial been a typical PC(USA) congregation, my transition to the EPC or the PCA would have occurred sooner.  Angela and I worship and teach children’s Sunday School weekly at Denton Presbyterian, while we endeavor to raise up our two young daughters to be godly women of grace and a deep, abiding faith.


1     John Knox Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas, was affiliated with the UPCUSA.  It closed in 1987.

2     My father’s (now late) brother.

3     My mother’s sister’s (now ex-) husband.

4     My experience is perhaps best expressed in what Charles Wesley wrote in the third stanza of his classic hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” (The Methodist Hymnal, 1966, No. 527): “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

5     Dr. R. C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries and the host of the Renewing Your Mind radio broadcast.  Like his mentor, Dr. Gerstner, he was a theology professor at the PC(USA)’s Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Dr. Sproul left the UPCUSA in 1975 for the PCA after the Kenyon case, believing discipline to be a mark of the true church, and that discipline had failed in the UPCUSA.  Several members at Eastminster provided financial aid to help Dr. Sproul start Ligonier Ministries, long before he became nationally known.  He last taught at Eastminster on a Sunday evening in the Fall of 1991, on his way home from a Ligonier conference in San Diego, which was my first exposure to his teaching.

6     Specifically in Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, where I would later attend.

7     For my own position on the ordination of women, see my post on the subject.

8     Listed by size, Eastminster was ranked #25 on the list, and Colonial was listed at #20.

9     These transcripts, together with other resources, were posted on Colonial’s website during the Season of Discernment but have since been removed.

10    “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” (The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order 2007-2009; Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), 2007; §G-8.0201)

What keeps the ECO and the PCA from becoming one?

The ordination of women (please note that the linked post has been completely rewritten and expanded) is perhaps the greatest difference between the ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but it is not the only difference.

Confessional Standards

The ECO has adopted the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions as its confessional standard, whereas the PCA recognizes only the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its confessional standard.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery (or Session) the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”

Similar to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and unlike either the PC(USA) or the PCA, the ECO has adopted an “Essential Tenets” document, and it asks its officers to affirm, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document makes a distinction between “Doctrinal Progressives”, “Doctrinal Restorationists”, and “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition”.  It says, “Doctrinal Progressives understand the church’s confessional and theological tradition as an evolutionary development of doctrine in which the church’s expression of the gospel becomes richer in each succeeding age. In this view, contemporary theology and new confessions of faith are more developed, better expressed, fuller apprehensions of truth than the faith of previous centuries. Our way is the way.”  It is clear that the ECO is here referring to theological liberals in the PC(USA).  The “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document also says, “Doctrinal Restorationists understand the church’s theological and confessional tradition as a series of missteps leading to imperfect understanding and inadequate articulation of the gospel. In this view, a particular moment in the church’s confessional and theological tradition, such as … the seventeenth century Westminster standards, is the pure faith of a theological golden age. Their way is the way.”  It is fairly clear that the ECO is here referring to the PCA and other Reformed denominations (such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church) that use only the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard and require their officers to take ordination vows similar to the PCA vow quoted above regarding the Westminster Standards without much room (if any) for expressing disagreement with the Westminster Standards.  In contrast, the “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document states, “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.”  In a nutshell, the ECO is defining two extremes—the “Doctrinal Progressives” and the “Doctrinal Restorationists”—and then charts what it perceives is a middle path between the two extremes, saying that the Reformed understanding of the Confessions is this; that is, “Our way is the Reformed way.”  The PCA, I am reasonably sure, takes exception to the ECO’s definitions and its adoption of the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, making them a point of contention between the two denominations.

The Scriptures

Another major difference between the ECO and the PCA is in how it perceives the Scriptures.  The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”  By “as originally given”, the PCA means the original autographs as penned by the prophets and apostles, and the PCA requires its officers to believe that these autographs were so inspired by the Holy Spirit as to be without error, and by implication that our modern translations are trustworthy and reliable to the extent that they accurately deliver the message of the inerrant autographs.

The ECO requires its ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the unique witness to Jesus Christ and the authority for Christian faith and life?”  The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document further expands on this vow, stating,

The clearest declaration of God’s glory is found in His Word, both incarnate and written. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word, the full expression of the Father’s nature, and since in the incarnation the Word became flesh all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are offered to His disciples. The written Word grants us those treasures, proclaims the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and graciously teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son. We affirm that the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary also inspired the writing and preservation of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of God’s Word and illumines our hearts and minds so that we might receive both the Scriptures and Christ Himself aright.

Remember that the ECO requires its officers to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and (to) be guided by them in (their) life and ministry”, thus making the statement quoted here about “the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as the Word of God an extension of the ordination vow regarding the Scriptures themselves.

To be sure, the ECO vows do not preclude officers from believing the doctrine of inerrancy as required by PCA officers, but neither do they require them, as do the PCA vows.  Notice also that the ECO “Essential Tenets” document declares that the Scriptures are “infallible”; it does not say that they (or the autographs) are “inerrant”.  To the casual observer, this might seem like splitting hairs; after all, don’t the two terms mean that the Bible is not mistaken in what it says?

The difference is perhaps best spelled out in Positions 1 and 2 of a survey taken by the Presbyterian Panel in the summer and fall of 1979, the results of which were published in “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”.  Position 1 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is without error in all it teaches in matters of science and history, as well as in matters of theology.”  This position is essentially the doctrine required of officers in the PCA ordination vows.  Position 2 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals and reflecting their personalities, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is trustworthy in all it teaches in matters of theology and ethics, but not necessarily in matters of science and history.” (emphasis added)  The word “infallible” has been typically employed to say that the teachings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding theology and ethics, though not necessarily of science and history, are exactly as intended by God, whereas the word “inerrant” has been typically employed to say that the actual words of Scripture are exactly as intended by God, and therefore everything on which the Scriptures speak, including matters of science and history and not just of theology and ethics, are exactly as God intended.  Now, the immediate problem in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant in this sense is that there are minor contradictions in the Scriptures themselves, such as numerical discrepancies in the historical books (e.g., did David slay seven hundred Syrian charioteers under the command of Shobach, as in II Sam. 10.18, or seven thousand, as in I Chron. 19.18).  For this reason, those who hold to Biblical inerrancy (as I do) hold that only the autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were thus without errors, and that the later copies and translations of the same Scriptures are inerrant only insofar as they accurately reproduce the message of the autographs.

Now, even beyond this issue, there is a further stumbling block to many, in that some of what Scripture says is, to put it mildly, rather amazing—some would say incredible.  For example, all the patriarchs in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives by contemporary standards—Abraham lived to be 175 years old (Gen. 25.7), Isaac lived to be 180 years old (Gen. 35.28), Jacob lived to be 147 years old (Gen. 47.28), Joseph lived to be 110 years old (Gen. 50.22), and Abraham’s ancestors in Genesis 5.1-32, 9.29, 11.10-32 lived even longer still, with Methuselah living longest, dying at the age of 969 years (Gen. 5.27).  For this reason, some will say that whereas the teachings of Scripture regarding theology and ethics are 100% reliable, the teachings regarding science and history might not be (after all, people don’t live more than 120 years at the most).  The ECO ordination vows regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture allow ordained officers to take this position, whereas the corresponding PCA ordination vows do not.

In addition to the issue of the ordination of women, the differences in confessional standards and the requirements of officers regarding their beliefs about the reliability of the Scriptures are matters of serious contention between the ECO and the PCA and are the basic reason why these two denominations won’t “become one” anytime in the foreseeable future.