Presbyteries: Don’t Grant Exceptions You Don’t Want Taught

At their General Assembly last week, the Presbyterian Church in America voted to allow presbyteries to forbid ministers teaching their exceptions. This does not appear to be a formal position of the PCA; the denominational committee that reviews presbytery minutes approved a presbytery forbidding the teaching of exceptions, and then the GA voted to affirm that committee’s approval.

I think this was a mistake. I have written extensively on exceptions and scruples, but the core of my argument is that if a presbytery allows an exception, the minister is vowing to subscribe to the Westminster Standards except where he disagrees. Even though the word “except” is not in the vows, it is implied by the granting of an exception. Otherwise the minister would be lying in his subscription vows. Yes, the church sets the rules on what can be taught, but those rules are enforced through the ministerial vows which have excluded the subject to which the minister took exception. Since the presbytery has granted the exception, to forbid a minister from teaching his conscience is a violation of his conscience, which in and of itself contradicts the Westminster Confession.

Here’s a case study on the impracticalities of this.

If a candidate for ministry takes the most common exception (recreation on the Lord’s Day) and the presbytery forbids him from teaching his view, there are three potential scenarios. It is easy to imagine a congregant asking this pastor what his view is on recreation during the Sabbath. Pastoral discretion will have been hampered by the presbytery’s gag order. In the first scenario, the minister teaches the Confession’s view as scripture’s teaching, contrary to his own convictions. This would violate his conscience and be a form of deception since he would not be “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speak[ing] the truth, and only the truth…in all other things whatsoever” (WLC 144). In the second scenario the minister would simply avoid addressing the subject. This is probably not possible in a Presbyterian church, and is certainly not advisable for a pastor charged with teaching the whole counsel of God. The third scenario is the pastor teaching the Confession’s view, only to then tell his congregants that he cannot affirm what he just taught. This would spare his conscience, but would undermine the integrity of his message and de facto be teaching his exception.

Simply put, if the presbytery does not want an exception taught, don’t grant the exception.