In a conversation happening elsewhere on the web (in which thankfully I am not taking part), the problem of church power and the longing to be "High Church" Presbyterianism has been central. It struck me in reading the back and forth that many Presbyterian and Reformed types love to talk about being "High Church" (whether with ecclesiology or sacramental views) when it supports their view of things, but hate it when it does not.
For example, in the old PCUS, conservatives abominated progressives' charges that the former were not loyal to their ordination vows when failing to support financially the church's missions and education programs. And yet, if the church corporate speaks under the guidance of the Spirit and lordship of Christ, doesn't that carry weight? Is that or is that not Christ's voice? Conservatives said, no, that was backroom politics; and they left the church.
Likewise, in more recent times, a certain denominational body adopted a study report with an overwhelmingly affirmative vote, standing firm for what it conceived to be doctrines under some measure of attack--justification, union with Christ, perseverance, election. There are those who have charged this denomination with abusing process and resorting to back room politics, even after the opportunity to debate a motion to postpone/recommit. So, did Christ speak through the church's action? Was the Spirit present or not? Many are saying no and are fighting the church's action.
Both examples are interesting because they get at the issues of church power or church authority, which for Presbyterian-types is a major issue of concern. In fact, James Bannerman's classic two-volume treatment on ecclesiology organizes itself around these issues of church power. And the reason this is the case is simple--most Christians are quite fuzzy on what the church's authority is and how they should respond to it. As a result, most conversations about church power devolve to independency on one side or "sacramental magisterium" on the other.
However, genuine Presbyterianism (especially in its "High Church" or "Old School" varieties) has historically represented a third option, melding together the recognition that the resurrected and ascended Christ has granted authority to his church (in line with congregational polities) and that this authority is delegated to representatives who act on behalf of Christ's people (in line with episcopal polities). Tied with this recognition is that "all synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both" (WCF 31:4); and so, church authorities make mistake and must be held accountable by Christ's people through a careful investigation of Scripture (WCF 1:6, 10). Yet when their counsel is demonstrated to be biblical, their voice is Christ's own voice.
And this is where the rub is coming in the conversation elsewhere in cyberspace. One party certainly appears to be saying--we are just a conversation and we want to change things in our respective denominations, but we don't want to be held accountable (which appears the position of congregationalism). Another party is saying--but what about the church? what about ecclesiology? Why are you not submitting to the voice of the church in your respective denomination? And this failure to communicate may be a failure to understand that at the heart of "High Church" ecclesiology is church power, centered in our respective Presbyterian denominations.