On Churches Not Allowing Exceptions

As I mentioned in my previous post on exceptions, Michael Lynch argued that in the Reformation the personal views of ministers were subordinated to the confessions of the church. To become a minister of the church was to affirm the church’s doctrine, and Lynch argues, the church therefore had the right to prohibit a minister from teaching his conscience if it conflicted with the doctrine of the church. I think Lynch gets it wrong, since the Reformation-era churches would not allow a man to become a minister if he had any disagreements.

This can be seen in the rules for ordination in Scotland at the end of the Reformation. The ordinand was to be examined in “his knowledge of the grounds of religion [the confessional standards of the church], and of his ability to defend the orthodox doctrine contained in them.” At the installation service, the presiding minister was to “demand of him who is now to be ordained, concerning how faith in Christ Jesus, and his persuasion of the truth of the reformed religion [the contents of the Westminster Standards], according to the scriptures.” These are the ordination vows, to which the candidate was to answer in the affirmative. These processes assume agreement with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and do not leave room for exceptions.

I know a minister who moved from Scotland and became a pastor in the ARP. A friend once asked him what exceptions he took, and the minister replied that he had never been asked for his exceptions. This is because the ARP still does not allow ministers to take exceptions to the Confession. It does, however, allow elders and deacons to take exceptions (8.11.c, page 45¬†of the Form of Government) because ministers are the ones charged with teaching, and therefore must be able to teach all of the church’s confession.

This remains the case for the Free Church of Scotland, which requires both ministers and elders to vow agreement with the whole doctrine in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (pages 3-4). The Free Church also “does not regard her Confession of Faith, or any portion thereof, when fairly interpreted, as favouring intolerance or persecution, or consider that her office-bearers, by subscribing it, profess any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.” The Free Church, along with the ARP, can say this because no minister disagrees in private with the church’s public doctrine when taking his ordination vows. Of course, a minister could lie, but the only way that would become known is either by admission or by teaching contrary to the church’s doctrine. When exceptions are added into the mix, the Free Church could no longer claim this position if it forbid the teaching of those exceptions.