On Exceptions and the Binding of Conscience

A few years ago I was sitting in a presbytery meeting of the PCA where several candidates for ordination were under examination. All had taken exception to the Westminster Standard’s prohibition on recreation on the Lord’s Day, and those exceptions had been accepted by the presbytery. A few members of the presbytery informed the candidates that though the exceptions were granted, they were not allowed to teach them as they contradicted the confession. This elicited a large amount of discussion from the gathered presbyters, and the overwhelming consensus reached, and later affirmed at a following meeting after consultation with the PCA’s stated clerk, was that in granting the exception, the presbytery was allowing the candidates to teach what they believed. To do otherwise would be to bind their conscience to something they did not believe scripture commanded, which in turn would violate the Westminster Standards.

In other instances, I have seen candidates take exceptions where they affirm paedocommunion or reject that divorce is permissible under any circumstances. In both cases the candidates stated that they would bind their own conscience and refrain teaching these positions. My observation is that the presbyteries approved them only because of those assurances, although I know pastors who voted against allowing either exception or ordination on the grounds that you cannot forbid a minister from teaching what they believe.

The discussion between conscience and confession is an important one. Below is something I wrote on the subject in the context of my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This will get technical and possibly boring.

The Westminster Confession, which was not written with exceptions in mind, emphasizes two priorities on the relationship of vows and the binding of conscience.

Priority 1) Freedom of conscience is not a category reserved for where scripture speaks, so if the church prohibits teaching it sees to be false (e.g. recreation allowable on the Lord’s Day), it is not binding the minister’s conscience, but enforcing scripture’s binding of the minister’s conscience.

This is what WCF 20.2 has in mind when it says “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any way contrary to or different from his word in matters of faith or worship.” 

Priority 2) Since ordination vows require honesty and subscription to the Standards, that oath is only truly honest if it assumes that the exceptions have been granted. In other words, if I vow subscription to the Standards (not just as a broad system, but a system with specifics that require me to inform my church if my views change), that vow only makes sense if there is an implicit “which I understand to preclude the portions to which I take exception and the church has accepted.” Therefore to require someone to teach contrary to their vows is to sinfully bind their conscience.  This is affirmed by WCF 22.3.

The conclusions drawn from these principles are: a) If an exception is granted, then a minister shall be allowed to teach it, b) a minister may not necessarily be permitted to practice that exception, and c) the church may prohibit the teaching of something contrary to the Standards if the individual in question has not been granted that contradiction as an exception. The full reasoning is below:

1) The Standards do not define what ‘binding conscience’ means. WCF 30.2 states of the Church that “it is the responsibility of synods and councils to settle controversies of faith and cases relating to matters of conscience,” which indicates that the church can and should speak authoritatively (see WCF 20.4) on matters of conscience. This then is not the same as binding conscience, raising the question of what is.

2) God binding people’s conscience through his revealed will in scripture, and being enforced by the a) the church, and b) society/government, is affirmed by the standards. This is the subject of WCF 30, WLC Q&A 173, WLC Q&A 99.7, WCF 23 (especially 23.4), and WLC Q&A 91-148. This means several things.

First EPC G.2-3 (“For the Christian, the Scriptures are the ultimate rule of faith and practice. Thus, the Church may create no laws that will bind the conscience.“) is compatible with this if understood to mean that through its spiritual and moral jurisdiction, the church does not create its own laws, but rather enforces God’s binding of conscience as revealed in scripture (see EPC G.3-1 and G.3-3 on the authority of the church).

Second, EPC G.25-2.A is non-sensical: “The Church may make no laws to bind the conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture…However, those seeking ordination in the EPC, either initially or by transfer, voluntarily limit their free exercise of conscience to the lawful bounds of the Essentials of Our Faith, the Westminster Standards, and the Book of Order of the EPC.”

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are subordinate standards to, and are themselves rules for the interpretation of, scripture. We believe the Standards to be true and will discipline congregants who don’t follow them. WCF 1.9 even includes a rule for the interpretation of scripture! WCF 20.2 does not allow heresy to be located in the area of conscience, but WCF 20.4 does allow difference of opinion on how the church is run to be located there. In other words, the EPC BOO has merged these two arenas of conscience into one category in G.25-2.A. This is demonstrated by the statement that ministers “voluntarily limit their free exercise of conscience” to our constitution. Insofar as the Westminster Standards reflect God’s revealed will, and we believe they do, all people are bound by them in truth, and the church has the right to enforce them within its jurisdiction. We believe this is true in practice for our congregants as reflected in their membership vows in EPC G.8-3.B.3. Drawing a contrast between the ministers being bound to the truth of our constitution, and everyone else not being bound, demonstrates a flattening of the Confession’s understanding of conscience and undermines the truth that God binds the conscience of all people through scripture.

If G.25-2.A is intended to simply mean that our constitution is not scripture, but ministers have to voluntarily agree to them for the sake of conscience, the BOO actually ends up contradicting WCF 20.2: “And so, believing any such teachings or obeying any such commandments of men for conscience’s sake actually betrays true freedom of conscience. Requiring implicit or absolute, blind obedience also destroys freedom of conscience as well as the free use of reason.” The ministers would be sinning by limiting their conscience in accordance with the commandments of men, and the EPC would be sinning by requiring ministers to “voluntarily” bind their own conscience. That understanding would effectively make EPC G.25-2.A meaningless, since it would be saying non-EPC people don’t need to follow the EPC’s rules.

3) This means that a minister’s conscience is not being bound by his ordination vows. Ministers are affirming in their vows their call to ministry, their subscription to the Standards, and their submission to church polity. This is not the church binding their conscience, but enforcing the boundaries of God binding the conscience. In other words, the church is agreeing to provide a specific role for the minister that allows them to exercise their calling in accordance with God binding their conscience, as reflected in the Confession’s interpretation of scripture.

4) Which means that the church is not allowed to bar the teaching of exceptions by ministers. The church, by allowing the exceptions to the Standards, is effectively in its understanding allowing the minister to function as if scripture does not teach that which is being excepted. By placing the minister in that role, the church is affirming their right to speak, and that their exceptions do not violate God’s binding of conscience as revealed in scripture. If the church courts believe that a minister’s exceptions do transgress scripture, then the court should not ordain them. The alternative is effectively to require the minister to teach a position that he does not affirm, which does great damage to his conscience and the integrity of the office. This seems clear from the ordination procedures in EPC G.12 and G.13. Neither chapter allows room to add additional requirements upon a minister (i.e. you may take this exception only if you agree not to teach it). What a church believes “transgress scripture” to mean (e.g. either simply an incorrect view of what scripture teaches, or striking at the vitals/essentials of the faith, or disrupting the system of doctrine, or allowing for egregious error and practice) is up to individual courts and denominations to determine.

5) The church can prevent its lay members from teaching a position that contradicts the Standards by exercising its jurisdictional powers (e.g. admonish the person, prevent them from teaching a class, etc…). This is the church exercising its powers as described in WCF 20, 30, 31 and in EPC G-3. The same effect can be brought to bear on a minister by denying him ordination or by correcting him if he teaches in contradiction to his vows.

6) Granting an exception is not necessarily the same as giving permission to practice the exception in the life of the church. For instance, granting the exception allowing recreation on the Lord’s Day would include the church acknowledging that in his life, the minister may actually have recreation on Sunday. In granting the exception of paedocommunion, the church would not be granting permission to practice it. The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the local church, which is bound in its practice by the EPC BOO, including the Book of Worship, which outlines the proper practice the church shall follow, and it does not allow for exceptions.