When Denominations Disappoint: Setting Priorities

The answer to denominational disappointment is to begin setting one’s house in order

There are other priorities that must be set too. Confession trumps church order. The latter is nothing but a tool to allow the church to do its proper work before the Lord. If a church order becomes so cumbersome and complex as to require canon lawyers, then we have lost a major Reformation battle. Remember, the Reformation inherited a highly complex canon law (the medieval Book of Church Order, if you will). Calvin addressed the problem of the authority of these documents in Institutes 4.10 in several sections (e.g., 1–5). He argued for the priority of the Word over church order.

 

On June 20, 2013 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the mainline (liberal) and oldest Dutch Reformed denomination in the US removed the “conscience clause” from its Book of Church Order. That clause enabled conservatives in the RCA to dissent from the practice of ordaining females as ministers, elders, and deacons and yet to remain in the RCA. This clause had been in effect since 1980 as a means to preserving a measure of peace in the RCA over a contentious issue. Now, presumably, conservatives, who understand 1 Timothy 2 (and other passages) to limit special offices in the church to men who meet the biblical qualifications face a crisis: to split or stay?

This action of the General Synod did not surprise anyone who has paid attention to the history of Christianity in the modern period. Theological liberals typically begin by asking for tolerance for their views in the church. Then, once they gain positions of leadership and influence, they tend to be less tolerance of dissent. In this sense the adjective “liberal” is misleading and ironic. Historically, they’ve been anything but liberal, i.e., tolerant of dissent. So, following the pattern of the PCUSA before it, which unceremoniously bounced J. Gresham Machen from its ranks in 1936 through asham ecclesiastical trial, the RCA is shutting down dissent. 

Over the last 25 years, the Christian Reformed Church, which split from the RCA in the 1850s, has followed the lead of the RCA. The two denominations have been moving toward union and the CRC has been preparing by bringing itself into conformity with the RCA on various matters (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism Q. 80) and even publishing radical articles in its denominational magazine. As the CRC and the RCA continue the path toward union, conservatives in the CRC are likely to face this issue either in the CRC or as a result of union with the RCA.

Closer to our NAPARC neighborhood, confessionalists in the PCA are wondering out loud what thehandwriting on the wall says. Following a series of disappointing outcomes at the 41st PCA General Assembly, one confessional minister (Teaching Elder or TE in PCA terms) has suggested that he may not be in the PCA much longer. I’ve spoken with several very concerned ministers and ruling elders (REs in the PCA ) about their concern over the direction of the PCA.

Those disappointing outcomes include a refusal to address the ruling by the Standing Judicial Commission that effectively exonerated TE Peter Leithart, who openly advocates the Federal Vision doctrines. The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) contains the following language:

34-5. Heresy and schism may be of such a nature as to warrant deposition; but errors ought to be carefully considered, whether they strike at the vitals of religion and are industriously spread, or whether they arise from the weakness of the human understanding and are not likely to do much injury.

The PCA General Assembly itself voted, in 2007, to say, in effect, that the FV doctrines do, in fact, “strike at the vitals of religion.” Nevertheless, in subsequent ecclesiastical trials and processes, none of the advocates of the FV have been found guilty of contradicting the teaching of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards (the confession and catechisms of the PCA). This despite the fact that the very same Standing Judicial Commission, which has the authority of the General Assembly, had previously faulted Leithart’s presbytery for not finding a presumption of guilt and proceeding to trial. Things seem to have changed rather dramatically in the PCA since 2007. In this aspect, the picture has changed since I addressed it in January.

There are other concerns. This past GA seems to have decided that administering communion (paedocommunion) to infants is a tolerable exception to the Westminster Standards. Some, perhaps many, confessionalists in the PCA perceive that they are being pushed to margins and sometimes through parliamentary procedure. The PCA has a large and complex Book of Church Order (BCO) and some of its provisions are vague as church orders often are, in order to grant the body a measure of freedom when addressing difficult issues. When trust between the members of a deliberative body (e.g., General Assembly) breaks down, however, what once was liberty can become (or be perceived as) tyranny as minority views are ruled out of order. You can read some of these discussions here and here.

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