Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Church Power and "High Church" Presbyterianism

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.


Dave Sarafolean said...

Until recently I was unsure of the term "High Church Presbyterianism." Over on Green Baggins' blog (9/15 FV Discussion) John Meuther (comment #12) gave this definition for those unfamiliar with the term:
John Muether said,
September 18, 2007 at 1:37 pm


Simply put: if a high-church Anglican takes Episcopalian practices seriously, a high-church Presbyterian takes Presbyterian practice seriously. Specifically, a high view of the visible church and its ordinances (see WSC Q/A 88). It also means resisting the corrosion of those practices from assimilation with low-church evangelicalism. See Darryl Hart’s article, “Is High Church Presbyterianism an Oxymoron?” in his anthology, Recovering Mother Kirk.

John Muether

I bring this up not to contradict the author's post but to show a broader definition of the term. While low church evangelicalism makes too little of the Word, sacraments and prayer, Meuther would argue that the FV is a corrosive influence because it makes too much of the sacraments and blurs doctrinal lines of the WCF. Church power and authority are surely a part of this discussion but they seem to be a symptom of the illness but not the illness itself.

Dave Sarafolean
Christ Covenant Church PCA
Midland, Michigan

Anonymous said...

Authority and submitting to it are integral parts of the world God has created. Man wanting not to submit to it was really the problem in the Garden. God ordains authority in family, churches, business and civil governance.

It's not a matter of the authority always being right. A private in the military doesn't obey his commanding officer because he thinks the officer is always right. He doesn't because because he always wants to. The authority is to be respected or God will chasten those who disobey. Disunity, slander, inefficiency and anarchy are the results of "each man doing what is right in his own eyes."

In Presbyterian polity, I am thankful there are so many avenues of appeal and so much deliberation and due process. It is more than in most institutions.

Desiring to critize process and people when we are not getting our way is the carnal instinct of fallen human beings- particularly when we can do so with no accountability. Submitting, somehow joyously, to God and to our fellow man is what God calls us to.

Those who lead and teach are held to an even higher standard in that regard.

In the final analysis, it's not about our views of what constitutes "high church ecclesiology" but it is about contending for truth within the authority structures God has ordained and how our lives reflect the faith and repentance evidenced by the Holy Spirit's work in us- to leave peaceably with others, even when we don't think the other person is right.


Michael said...


I don't think anyone's saying that they don't want to be held accountable. Both Steve Wilkins and Peter Leithart have readily submitted to the investigations done by their respective presbyteries. Also, the fact is that there have not yet been any charges brought against any minister in the PCA on this issue. Thus, no one has refused to submit to a trial.

Also, I don't think that the vote of this year's assembly carries the weight that you're attributing to it. Certainly, a report should be taken as the advice of that particular assembly. However, the report does not carry the weight of our constitutional documents, nor does it bind presbyteries, sessions, or ministers to a certain interpretation of the Westminster Standards.

Michael Saville

barlow said...

"even after the opportunity to debate a motion to postpone/recommit"

I'm not really sure we had such a debate. We had a series of pro and con statements limited by time and punctuated by the occasional erroneous accusation that remained unchallenged.

Further, there was no minority report, and so all of the careful, step by step presentation of the committee report was one-sided. I also think it is arguable that the report was "improved" in the presentation of it. For instance, I personally appreciated a lot of the clarifying statements you made on the floor, Dr. Lucas - I wish those clarifications were in the document itself.

Anyway, I think we're too quick to label those who object as going against church authority. When a body has a disagreement, and the committee that settles the disagreement does not contain people on both sides of the issue, it isn't so easy to conclude that the church has spoken on the basis of a presentation followed by minimal discussion and a vote.

Steven W said...

This reminds me of the political sphere where if one objects to policy he is criticized as being anti-American.

Our forefathers, both politically and ecclesiastically, were objectors to majority policy. They didn't have a confession to serve as an epistemological and exegetical filter. They compared tradition and practice in light of Scripture and wished to reform from within.

If one continues to object, but stays and submits (or is kicked out), then he is doing what he is supposed to do. We aren't Roman Catholics (are we?).

Anonymous said...

It is simply my opinion that " High Church" Presbyterian simply implies the opposite of what is trying to sweep our Presbyterian denominations now " Low Church/ Evangelical, Non Denominational" types.

Many of these churches and offshoots do not even recite the Lords Prayers, Creeds, Sing Hymns, Take Communion very often, Wear Robes..and somewhat veer off from some of the core of Presbyterian values, beliefs and worship.

I personally think this is horrible! When I walk into a Presbyterian Church I want to feel im in a Presbyterian or Reformed Church ..not in a Baptist, Anabaptist, Seeker Friendly, or Non Denominational Charismatic Church! It is high time we take a stand and return to our roots! What is sweeping the Presbyterian Church now IS NOT PRESBYTERIANISM!

Anonymous said...

So... the error when studying the Culdee to establish the CoS the founders made all clergy priests rather than bishops. Interesting, the bible speaks only of deacons and Presbyters in functional Episcopal orders. However, there was a plurality of decision making which the founders did get right.

Abbot +David