At the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR) presented its annual report. The Assembly tasks this committee with reviewing the minutes of each of the PCA's Presbyteries. CRPR relays to the Assembly any constitutional irregularities that it believes it has found in those minutes. One alleged irregularity became the occasion of some debate on the floor of this year's Assembly.
A Presbytery had examined and approved a candidate for ordination. In the course of that examination, the candidate declared a difference with Westminster Larger Catechism 109. Having approved the candidate for ordination, the Presbytery subsequently approved a motion that the candidate "not be allowed to teach his exception to LC 109."
CRPR recommended that the Assembly find this action of Presbytery an "exception of substance." A minority of the committee disagreed and argued that Presbytery was within its rights to forbid the ordinand from teaching his exception. After hearing from both the committee and the minority, the Assembly debated the matter. The Assembly ultimately adopted CRPR's recommendation to find the Presbytery's action an "exception of substance."
What was properly at issue in this debate? Here it is crucial to define the question. The question is not whether a difference with LC 109 constitutes an acceptable exception in the courts of the PCA. Nor is the question whether it is under any circumstances permissible for an officer to teach an exception to the Westminster Standards. Nor is the question whether the Presbytery, in this particular situation, acted prudentially. The question is whether a Presbytery possesses the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. This question is both important and wide-ranging. It touches not only upon the inherent rights of particular church courts, but also upon the relations among the courts of the church. It raises questions of the nature and purpose of confessions, of the relation of officers to the church, and of the liberty of conscience of those who subscribe to the church's standards.
We will argue that Presbytery does possess the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. There are four interrelated considerations that will help us to see that Presbytery has such a power.
- The Nature and Purpose of Confessional Standards
The first concerns the nature and purpose of confessional standards. The Westminster Standards are, of course, "subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God." They "sink below the authority of the Scripture." What, then, are the Westminster Standards, and what purpose do they serve in the PCA? According to the nineteenth century American Presbyterian, Samuel Miller, a creed or confession is "an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the Holy Scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity." It is "a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches...which a certain portion of the visible catholic church agree in considering as a formula by means of which they may know and understand one another." Miller highlights two important dimensions of a confession in the life of the church. First, a confession is a statement of the church. It is not the opinion of a private individual or individuals. Neither is it a declaration of a particular assembly of the church's leadership. It is a public and official declaration on the part of the whole church with respect to what she believes the Bible to teach. Second, the purpose of a confession is to maintain and promote unity. Since the church's unity is necessarily founded upon the truth of Scripture, confessions afford invaluable aids to the church to comply with the apostolic command to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:3). Creeds and confessions do not merely serve as tools to ascertain the orthodoxy of candidates for office. They promote the church's unity by declaring, up front and in writing, what one may expect to be taught (and not taught) within the church. They mark the boundaries within which those who teach in the church are expected to function.
These considerations help us to understand the ecclesiastical significance of candidates' stated differences to the Westminster Standards. In the judgment of the church, the Westminster Standards summarize the teaching of Scripture. For that reason, "an exception to the Confession, from the point of view of the Church confessing, is an exception to the teaching of Scripture (although obviously not from the point of view of the sincere exceptor)." When a candidate for ordination declares a difference that is subsequently deemed to be an exception, and when this candidate wishes to teach his exception, he is requesting that he be permitted to teach contrary to the church's understanding of the Bible. This is not to say that it is categorically impermissible for an officer to teach an exception to the church's standards. But it is to say that the church has both an interest in and the right to determine whether or not he will be allowed to teach this exception so long as he ministers within her bounds.
- The Relation of Officers to the Church
The second consideration comes from the relation of officers to the church. To begin, church office is not a right to which an individual is entitled. It is a privilege that the church grants to those whom it deems qualified. This point is underscored by the Second Preliminary Principle of the PCA's Book of Church Order (BCO):
"In perfect consistency with the above principle [i.e. of the true liberty of individual conscience], every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own."
This Preliminary Principle acknowledges that churches may misuse this right, but abusus non tollit usum-that misuse does not nullify the legitimate use of this right. When a man seeks office in the church, he agrees to be examined according to the qualifications set by the church. When the church admits a man into office, the man agrees to hold office on the terms set by the church. A minister or an elder does not function in the capacity of a private individual. He functions as an officeholder in the church. Even as his "commission is from Christ," it is also "through the church." Since "the church's organ, through which she officially performs her witnessing function as a body, is her ministry," the "official testimony [of church officers] is her testimony."
Because officeholders are, in this respect, the church's instruments, when the church admits a man to office, it is a reasonable expectation on the part of the church that an officer of the church would teach the standards of the church. It is, furthermore, a legitimate prerogative of the church to insist that he, so long as he is an officer in her bounds, refrain from teaching a particular doctrine that is contrary to the church's standards.
It is sometimes argued that setting the terms of office in this way violates the liberty of the candidate's conscience. This is a serious concern, not least because Presbyterians have historically stood in the vanguard of those who defend liberty of conscience. Does forbidding a man to teach his exception as a condition of holding office require him to violate his conscience?
The answer to that question is "no." Recall that church office is a privilege and not an entitlement. No individual deserves to hold office in the church. Furthermore, the church is free to set the terms of office how it pleases. Even when she errs here, the Second Preliminary Principle reminds us, the church "does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of her own." If a particular body's terms are not agreeable to the individual, he is not bound to agree to them. No earthly injustice is done to him if, for these reasons, he is not admitted to office. Moreover, he is free to affiliate with some other body whose convictions lie closer to his own. As J. Aspinwall Hodge, commenting on this Second Principle, observed, "This principle is essential to all organizations. Men are at liberty to refuse to be connected with a society, but if they voluntarily enter, they must submit to its terms of admission and to its laws."
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