Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Presbyterians Together, No. 3

One more point on this whole matter. There has been some sort of confusion by friends of the Presbyterians Together document on why some have been claiming that the place to settle doctrinal issues is in the courts of the church. On more than blog I have read the claim that the church's courts are a last resort for those who can't resolve their issues peaceably.

But this claim betrays a lack of understanding of the basic principles of Presbyterian polity. One of the key principles of that polity is this: I, as an individual minister, have no authority to declare doctrine on my own. Rather, it is only as the church is gathered in its "courts" is there any authority to exercise "judgment," which includes not only discipline, but also the duty of declaring doctrine.

This is what the PCA Book of Church Order covers in chapter 3, "The nature and extent of church power (or authority)." The BCO makes the point that ecclesiastical authority is exercised in two ways: there is the power of order, which is exercised "severally" (or individually) under a grant from presbytery; the power of order covers things such as preaching the Gospel, administering the sacraments, and exercising pastoral care. And there is the power of juridiction, which is only exercised jointly as church courts (BCO 3-2) and covers matters such as doctrine and discipline (BCO 13-9, 14-6). In both instances, I only have authority as a minister as it is granted or exercised with other presbyters who exercise oversight over a larger part of Christ's church.

This is why when candidates for ministry apply for membership in our presbyteries, they appeal to the presbytery allow their scruples of conscience in reference to the Westminster Standards. Presbyteries have the authority to determine whether such scruples conflict with the Standards (BCO 21-4). As a private individual or as a single minister, I have no authority to determine that on my own for my brothers. We must hear the presbytery's voice on the matter as they rule "jointly" as a church court.

And so, far from being a "last resort," the church's courts should be the first place we go when we begin to raise biblical or theological issues that appear to raise questions about a church's consensus on certain doctrinal matters. This is the case for two reasons: we can't trust our own understandings on these matters for we may be self-deceived; and we must hear the voice of the church on matters of doctrine and discipline.

After hearing the church's voice, it may be that our consciences are convinced that the Word of God teaches a contrary position to the declared doctrinal position of the church; and if so, then we have to determine one of three actions: whether we will seek to change the church's consensus by working to see the church amend its doctrinal standard; whether we will submit to the brothers; or whether we will follow our consciences into a different church communion.

Whatever may be the case, we must begin to deal with these issues in a Presbyterian fashion. And that means we must demonstrate our commitment to love for our brothers by bringing these issues to the notice of the larger church in ways appropriate to our polity. And it also means that we need to forsake our understanding of the church's courts that appears to be drawn from American jurisprudence (i.e., as litigious bodies of punishment) and view them instead as the place where God's Spirit dwells to guide the entire church in matters of "judgment," which include the weighty doctrinal matters under discussion today.

[BTW--the best single source for understanding Presbyterian polity remains James Bannerman's The Church of Christ. While you may find the two-volume Banner of Truth version on the used book market, it is currently only available in a paperback version published by Westminster Discount Books and you can buy it at Westminster Seminary Bookstore.]

4 comments:

R. Scott Clark said...

Dear Sean,

Amen!

rsc

R. Scott Clark, D.Phil
Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology
Westminster Seminary California
"For Christ, His Gospel, and His Church."

rsclark@wscal.edu
http://www.wscal.edu/clark

Mark said...

I'm not sure why you're referring to "scruples." In our presbytery candidates are asked if they have "exceptions" to the Standards. Those exceptions are noted and the candidate is either admitted and thus allowed to teach and preach those exceptions or he is deemed unfit (doctrinally) for office and voted down.

So when you write:

"After hearing the church's voice, it may be that our consciences are convinced that the Word of God teaches a contrary position to the declared doctrinal position of the church; and if so, then we have to determine one of three actions: whether we will seek to change the church's consensus by working to see the church amend its doctrinal standard; whether we will submit to the brothers; or whether we will follow our consciences into a different church communion."

I would point out that this first option means: get ordained and permitted to teach and preach this exception. This has been the practice that I was taught in seminary and it was the unquestioned practice in Pacific NW Presbytery, Mid-American and then North Texas Presbytery as well as this one. It is also the testimony of all my acquaintances who go into other presbyteries. If they think the Westminster Confession is in error in what it restrict us from on the Lord's Day, they say so at Presbytery, and then, if received, are free to teach and preach their exception.

(The only reason that the Sabbath statement hasn't been changed in the WCF, as far as I can tell, is not because even a large minority agrees with it, but because everyone reveres the WCF as some sort of sacred document that must not be touched even when it is wrong, or because there is no clear and obvious formula that many can agree to as a replacement statement.)

I have witnessed once, and occasionally heard of pastors granted admission into a presbytery while restricted from preaching and teaching their exception. But these are rare cases. In the one instance I witnessed it was done because the exception was regarded as more serious than paedocommunion or Lord's Day ethics.

Personally, though, I agree with the substance of your remarks in that I have never thought that we should say the courts are a last resort. Going to the Church courts should take place, for example, long before a church decides to publicly claim on their website that a member in good standing of another presbytery is "aberrant" in his teaching. Leaving the courts as a last resort seems to simply allow for various forms of "circularizing."

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Mark:

As you probably remember from your time at the seminary, "scruples" is simply the 1729 Adopting Act language; of course, it is the same thing as what we mean by "exception." I kinda like the "scruples" language better, because it gets at the conscience issue involved--i.e., my conscience has a "scruple" regarding a particular confessional issue.

Of course, you are correct as well that the BCO doesn't currently grant presbyteries the authority to restrict a man's teaching his allowed exception. My three-fold option doesn't cover this option; so, I probably ought to go back and amend my post. I personally would like to see an overture that attempted to amend the confession, perhaps on the Lord's Day issue (though I do not have a scruple concerning the WCF's teaching there). I personally think amending the confession would be preferable to having an "unofficial" confession within the confession, because you would bring the wisdom of the entire church to bear on a particular doctrinal matter.

And I agree the substance ofw your last paragraph--namely, when the presbytery (and even the higher courts) speak authoritatively on a doctrinal matter, it does provide a manner of protection for ministers from accusations, unless there is an attempt to make a more formal case in the church's courts. But even such a step, as painful as it may be, would be preferrable to the scenario that you describe in your final two sentences.

Best,
Sean

Mark said...

Sean, pardon my hurried post. I should have told you that (somewhere!) I picked up a distinction between a scruple and an exception. I thought a scruple was a concern about wording without disagreement. Something like a concern that some might misunderstand something stated in chapter 1 of the WCF to teach that we must use only the received text of the time of the Westminster Assembly. A scruple would be a statement that the subscriber does not think the chapter is meant to bind us to that era's text.

So I had some sort of distinction in mind that was probably not accurate.