Taking Exception

The question is whether a Presbytery possesses the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception.

A Presbytery had examined and approved a candidate for ordination. In the course of that examination, the candidate declared a difference with Westminster Larger Catechism 109.[1] Having approved the candidate for ordination, the Presbytery subsequently approved a motion that the candidate “not be allowed to teach his exception to LC 109.”[2]

 

At the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (CRPR) presented its annual report. The Assembly tasks this committee with reviewing the minutes of each of the PCA’s Presbyteries. CRPR relays to the Assembly any constitutional irregularities that it believes it has found in those minutes. One alleged irregularity became the occasion of some debate on the floor of this year’s Assembly.

A Presbytery had examined and approved a candidate for ordination. In the course of that examination, the candidate declared a difference with Westminster Larger Catechism 109.[1] Having approved the candidate for ordination, the Presbytery subsequently approved a motion that the candidate “not be allowed to teach his exception to LC 109.”[2]

CRPR recommended that the Assembly find this action of Presbytery an “exception of substance.”[3] A minority of the committee disagreed and argued that Presbytery was within its rights to forbid the ordinand from teaching his exception. After hearing from both the committee and the minority, the Assembly debated the matter. The Assembly ultimately adopted CRPR’s recommendation to find the Presbytery’s action an “exception of substance.”

The Issue

What was properly at issue in this debate? Here it is crucial to define the question. The question is not whether a difference with LC 109 constitutes an acceptable exception in the courts of the PCA. Nor is the question whether it is under any circumstances permissible for an officer to teach an exception to the Westminster Standards. Nor is the question whether the Presbytery, in this particular situation, acted prudentially. The question is whether a Presbytery possesses the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. This question is both important and wide-ranging. It touches not only upon the inherent rights of particular church courts, but also upon the relations among the courts of the church. It raises questions of the nature and purpose of confessions, of the relation of officers to the church, and of the liberty of conscience of those who subscribe to the church’s standards.

We will argue that Presbytery does possess the power to instruct one of its members or licentiates not to teach a difference that the court has determined an exception. There are four interrelated considerations that will help us to see that Presbytery has such a power.

1. The Nature and Purpose of Confessional Standards

The first concerns the nature and purpose of confessional standards. The Westminster Standards are, of course, “subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God.”[4] They “sink below the authority of the Scripture.”[5] What, then, are the Westminster Standards, and what purpose do they serve in the PCA? According to the nineteenth century American Presbyterian, Samuel Miller, a creed or confession is “an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the Holy Scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity.”[6] It is “a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches…which a certain portion of the visible catholic church agree in considering as a formula by means of which they may know and understand one another.”[7] Miller highlights two important dimensions of a confession in the life of the church. First, a confession is a statement of the church. It is not the opinion of a private individual or individuals. Neither is it a declaration of a particular assembly of the church’s leadership. It is a public and official declaration on the part of the whole church with respect to what she believes the Bible to teach.[8] Second, the purpose of a confession is to maintain and promote unity. Since the church’s unity is necessarily founded upon the truth of Scripture, confessions afford invaluable aids to the church to comply with the apostolic command to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Creeds and confessions do not merely serve as tools to ascertain the orthodoxy of candidates for office. They promote the church’s unity by declaring, up front and in writing, what one may expect to be taught (and not taught) within the church. They mark the boundaries within which those who teach in the church are expected to function.

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