Part III – The Theology of the Church
The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, The Church and its Confessions
The Presbyterian Church (USA) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions. In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.
~ Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order (F-2.01)
Critics have charged the most significant theological difference in the new Form of Government (nFOG) is that the authority of scripture has been changed based on the removal of G-6.0106b which required ordained elders to “lead a life in obedience to Scripture.”
This is a very misleading charge.
Jack Haberer addresses “guidance” versus “obedience to” in the panel discussion video below. Jack was working with The Presbyterian Coalition to bring fidelity and chastity language to the Church in 1996 when the “Fidelity and Chastity” amendment was approved by the General Assembly. But he and others who had worked to bring this language to the Church were surprised that “obedience to” scripture had been included with the amendment when it came out of the subcommittee of the committee at General Assembly who was working on it.
Jack and others knew that language of “obedience to” scripture was going to be a problem because it was not in the Book of Order at the time, or at any other time that he knew of. Previously the Book of Order had said we were to be “guided” by scripture. “Obedience to” scripture has also not been our confessional language, either.
One of the reasons Jack believes we have traditionally used language of being “guided” by scripture is because, “the Bible has too often been used as a hammer, taking one text out of context, to say you have to obey that, and you have to obey that, and most especially by men toward women.” He goes on to say we have a long history of being a little bit more cautious than this when speaking about the role of scripture. Our obedience is to God, who has inspired the scriptures, and we are to totally obey God, understanding God’s will as the scriptures guide.
Removing the requirement from the Book of Order for a candidate for ordination to lead a life in “obedience to scripture” does not mean we are a denomination where anything goes. The PC(USA) has simply returned to the polity we had in place before G-6.0106b was included in 1996.
Just as it always has been, it is the the right and obligation of an ordaining, installing, and enrolling council to prayerfully and pastorally examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office on a case by case basis. Councils are required to be guided by scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates (G-2.0104b).
Some people claim there are no denomination wide standards in the PC(USA) but that’s not true. We have standards in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Of course what people who say this really mean is we do not list behavioral standards, specifically sexual behavior standards such as fidelity or chastity like we did from 1996 to 2010. There were, and still are, many other behavioral standards we could list such as idolatry, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, lying…The problem with naming behavioral standards is deciding where the list starts and where the list stops. And how many pieces of pizza constitutes gluttony? How much work constitutes breaking the sabbath?
What we chose to say instead is
“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates” (G2-0104b).
Rather than a predefined list of standards we have long ago decided it is better to give individual commissioners the freedom to vote their conscience when assessing any candidate for ordination, installation, and admission on a case by case basis, after what should be a thorough and rigorous examination.
Permanent Judicial Committee cases like Larson and Parnell have upheld this decision.
One of the hallmarks of our Reformed tradition is the sovereignty of God. In the end, when choosing between naming behavioral standards and leaving room for the sovereignty of God, the PC(USA) chooses to lean on our tradition and leave room for the sovereignty of God to work within each council and every candidate.
Just this week I was listening online to a sermon by a pastor in ECO who said he is continuing to learn from scripture even after being immersed in it for forty five years. In his sermon he said he had always read a passage one way but this last week he totally changed his mind. He saw the same scripture he had immersed himself in for forty five years differently. That’s the danger of insisting on one interpretation, sometimes God shows us a new understanding.
Nevertheless, even today without a predefined list of standards or biblical interpretations, any commissioner whose conscience does not allow them to vote for a candidate following their examination, including for reasons related to fidelity and chastity, is under no obligation to vote for the candidate.
The notion that by removing the requirement to lead a life in “obedience to scripture” means anything is acceptable in the PC(USA) is simply not true and to suggest otherwise is at best uninformed.
Now then, one last thing to keep in mind about our confessions, they are subordinate standards. The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity tell us,
“These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to instruct, counsel with, or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in the confessions. Moreover, the process for changing the confessions of the church is deliberately demanding, requiring a high degree of consensus across the church. Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02)
Watch as The Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church San Diego and one of the three primary writers of ECO’s Essential Tenets, describes our confessions as being prone to error at a presentation to Los Ranchos Presbytery in the spring of 2013.
Contrary to what you may have read or heard the nFOG doesn’t cause the confessions to be any less of a reliable exposition or summary of the timeless truth the Bible teaches. The risk of human error has always been inherent in our confessions. Recognizing that the confessions “appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time” (F-2.01) only acknowledges that risk, it doesn’t increase it.
For example, the Westminster Confession, referred to by some as the gold standard of Presbyterianism, was written at a time (1647) when the social and cultural assumptions of their time precluded the possibility of Protestants marrying “Infidels, Papist (Catholics) or other Idolaters: Neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked.” Divorce was only permitted for “adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied.” And remarriage was not allowed with any of the first spouse’s close blood relatives.
Many faithful Christians would say it is right and good that these social and cultural assumptions in the Westminster Confession were later recognized and revised.
Let’s #StayPCUSA together.