Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We're only as Presbyterian as we want to be: part 1

Part one: the FRUIT of the problem

Anyone who pays much attention to the PCA at a level broader than the local church is aware that there is usually some topic afoot that is a matter of discussion and debate. I've heard and read troubling comments recently with regard to decisions that bodies of the PCA are facing, and actions they are taking (both in my local presbytery and at the General Assembly level).

Let me say on the outset that my comments here have nothing to do with my position on any of the issues. What I observe here holds true on either side of any issue, and is true of me as much as it is true of you. I'm not trying to pick a fight over a certain topic, or pick a fight at all. Rather, I want to reflect on a realization I've been challenged by, and perhaps use my own (admittedly limited) self-awareness to nudge you in a direction of being similarly self-aware.

In a recent debate about the restructuring of a presbytery-wide ministry, one Ruling Elder stood and testified for several minutes about the participation his Session and congregation had in bringing that ministry into his local area. He mentioned his own role, and how he had zealously recruited support and financial contributions for the local branch (including donations from his own pocket). Then he concluded: he was so opposed to the idea of restructuring that if presbytery moved in that direction, he would not rest until his Session joined him in abandoning all support for the local branch of this ministry!

Several things were evident in his testimony. Clearly, this was a man who was invested in the ministry in question. He was equally clear in his commitment to the current structural system. And it was also plain that no reaction was "off the table" for him should things go against his wishes.

The last point is what troubles me. In essence, what he was saying was, "if this body-- a court of the church, to which I have made vows and commitments-- votes in a manner other than what I rise to speak for, I will no longer participate in the work of this body in this particular area."

This approach to church life, the "take my ball and go home" method of diplomacy, is nothing new. Indeed, as my friend Greg Thompson once commented, protestantism itself is based on "the premise of having one foot out the door." But when it is so common an encounter-- when every issue that has a significant amount of disagreement inherent to it is looked upon as a reason to divide-- it is deeply troubling.

What is more, it seems to be increasingly common for the dissenters to openly and casually dismiss the work of the courts of the church. In the past month I witnessed a discussion on a blog, consisting of eight or ten dominant voices and as many quieter supporters, wherein they considered the action of a PCA presbytery (of which none of them is a member). A complaint had been filed in that presbytery against the teachings of a member Teaching Elder, and the presbytery responded by receiving the complaint, acknowledging it, and appointing a committee to investigate the accusations. The committee performed its work over the ensuing six months, then made a thorough report to the presbytery. Upon receiving the report, the matter was further discussed by presbytery and acted upon by an almost-unanimous vote.

The contributors to the blog disagreed with the decision of the presbytery. Their conclusion? Obviously the presbytery was wrong! In fact, they went on to suggest, if not openly claim, that the investigative committee must have been a "stacked" body, and that the members of that presbytery were ignorant of the real issues at hand. They even went so far as to insinuate that most of the members of that presbytery must have been taken in and "snowed" by a deceptive element within them.

Now, these men may be right about all of it: the presbytery may have erred in its decision, and the reasons for its error may be nefarious. The courts of the church do err, and it is incumbent upon the members of the church to watch out for this. My point, though, is that these men have set themselves above one of the appointed courts of the church in the decision. They know better than an entire presbytery!

I've seen, heard, and read similar things at even higher levels. Some years ago, the PCA voted to allow "good-faith" subscription to the Westminster Standards in the ordination of Ruling and Teaching Elders. This means that there is allowance for "exceptions" to the Standards that are more than just differences of wording; for example: how strict must a Christian's observance of the fourth commandment be? Some Teaching Elders hold to a looser observance than the Westminster Standards clearly prescribes. The General Assembly's vote to allow such exceptions means that any Teaching Elder who holds the exception in my example should be able to be received in any presbytery of the PCA.

But this is not the case. There are presbyteries in which such an exception will prevent them from ordination; in fact, some presbyteries will not accept the credentials of a Teaching Elder who is ordained in another PCA presbytery for such an exception! It would appear that the only "good-faith subscription" allowed in these presbyteries is one holding to the decisions of the General Assembly.

Why is this a problem? Because it is a violation of the vows of ordination. When a Teaching Elder is ordained in the PCA, he is asked to take the following vow:

3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity? (BCO 21-5)

When a presbytery as a body refuses to accept "good faith subscription" in the examination of ordinands, its members are failing to act in accordance with vow #3. When a Ruling or Teaching Elder grumbles against the actions of an appointed body (rather than taking proper action of appeal), they are sinning in the breaking of their ordination vows.

Now, they will argue that another vow compels them to do so:

6. Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account? (BCO 21-5)

They look to vow #6 and argue they are standing for the truths of the Gospel and the purity of the church. To this I would respond with several points.

First, not every debate is a matter of threat to the truth of the Gospel or the purity of the church. Some people act as if every vote to amend our Book of Church Order is a threat to the purity of the church, and every exception to the Westminster Confession is selling out the Gospel. But both of these documents warn strongly and sternly against elevating them to anything close to such a canonical level.

Second, within the same vow is the same urgency regarding the peace and unity of the church as regarding its purity. Thus, we must be as zealous in our attendance to peace and unity as we are about purity, and just as vigilant.

Third, I'm certain that it's possible to adhere to all vows at the same time (inasmuch as it's possible for any of us to keep any of them!). So those presbyteries that disagree with "good faith subscription" ought to follow proper presbyterian order (outlined thoroughly in the BCO) in accordance with #3, if they have a conscience about #6. Likewise, those Elders who doubt the actions of a court of the church have proper procedures for appealing them.

In practice, however, it is clear that we are only as presbyterian as we want to be. In part two, I'll talk about the root of the problem.

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