On Exceptions and Preliminary Principles of Presbyterian Polity

Guy Waters’ essay at Reformation 21 earlier this month prompted my recent batch of posts on ministers taking exceptions (i.e. expressing disagreements) with their church’s doctrinal standards. In 1788, the American presbyterian church issued a statement of eight preliminary principles of church polity, generally attributed in authorship to John Witherspoon. These preliminary principles since then have either been explicitly part of the governing documents (as in the PCA) or been sprinkled throughout and affirmed in the governing documents (as in the EPC) of American presbyterian churches.

The second of these principle states,

In perfect consistency with the above principle [God alone is lord of the conscience, and binds it through scripture], every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.

This principle is explicitly part of the PCA’s constitution, and the EPC affirms its essence in G.2-3, 25-2.A (a paragraph addressed by me here), and D.4-1. Waters argues that this principle means that ministers being required to teach their exceptions is not a violation of their conscience, as they are freely submitting to the church, which may set whatever requirements it wants upon its ministers and members. Waters points out that a misuse of this right by a church “does not nullify the legitimate use of this right. When a man seeks office in the church, he agrees to be examined according to the qualifications set by the church. When the church admits a man into office, the man agrees to hold office on the terms set by the church.”

Waters’ position is that this principle means that any requirement placed upon a minister by a church, even if the church errs in making that requirement, is still valid and does not injure the conscience of the minister since the church has the right to set ministerial admission requirements. Therefore a church may require a minister to teach his exceptions, even if this is a misuse (which Waters denies) of the church’s right. The problems with this interpretation are several.

First, this is a second principle, following in “perfect consistency” with a first principle that God alone is lord of the conscience, which he governs by his word. The church confesses what God’s word teaches in its doctrinal standards. When ministers take ordination vows, they subscribe to that confession of faith, exceptions excluded. This second principle, being consistent with the first, limits the right of the church to place requirements on ministers to what is taught in scripture as confessed by the church. Since the church has granted an exception, functionally excluding the disagreeable doctrine from the confession to which the new minister is subscribing, a proper exercise of its rights delineated in the second principle cannot include requiring ministers to teach their exceptions.

Second, Waters’ argument that misuse of a right does not nullify a legitimate use of that right misdirects from the question at hand. The point in contention is whether requiring ministers to teach contrary to their convictions is legitimate. Waters implies that even if this were a misuse of the church’s right, since the right itself is valid, the (mis)use of it must stand. This conclusion would only be produced by a poor reading of the second principle, which merely affirms that if the church misuses its right, the right remains, even if the use was incorrect. By analogy, Congress has the right to pass laws, even if the laws they pass are found unconstitutional. Congress still has the right to continue to pass laws, but the fact that it has that right does not mean unconstitutional laws previously passed must remain in force.

Third, the content of the Westminster Standards contradicts this interpretation of the preliminary principles. The second principle does not mean that the church can impose any requirements it wants, but only requirements that are derived from the word of God, set by the church, and not set by the civil authority. A church could not require a minister to sin as a requirement for ordination, since that would violate scripture. Nor could a church could not require ministers to wear red on Tuesdays, except in June, without being in error since that requirement goes beyond scripture. Breaking with the Roman Catholic church and allowing ministers to marry is the most obvious example of the Reformers affirming this point. The Reformers pointed out that required celibacy of ministers was unbiblical, and therefore unenforceable by the church, even when priests had previously had taken vows of celibacy. This is explicit in WCF 22.7 and WLC 139.

What this third observation means is that the PCA and EPC cannot just carte blanche require whatever they want from ministers. Beside the fact that there are no mechanisms in their respective books of government for a presbytery adding requirements to ministers willynilly, neither church has the right based on the preliminary principles to require absolutely anything of their ministers. Their requirements of doctrinal subscription from ministers must be derived from scripture and expressed in the church’s doctrinal standards. Any other requirements unjustly bind the conscience of the ministers and go beyond scripture. When a confessional exception is granted to a minister, the requirement to hold, and therefore teach, that doctrinal point is waived. Otherwise the ordination vow of subscription makes no sense, and contradicts WCF 22.3,5 that a man is not to bind himself in oath or vow “to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be.”