Liberty In Non-Essentials: Sin in the EPC

What is sin? Sin is many things, but at its core sin is lack of conformity to and violation of God’s law (cf. WSC 14, WLC 24). Doing what God forbids is sinful and not obeying what God commands is sinful. Christians often disagree about what God has required in his word, which is why confessions of faith are valuable. A confession of faith is a statement of belief about what God’s word teaches. For the EPC, we believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter catechisms contain the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. We confess that these documents faithfully represent the truth of God’s word. Other churches may disagree with us, and some in the EPC may disagree with parts of these documents (more on that in a minute), but this is the chief role of a confessional system: affirming what the church believes God has revealed to us about himself and our duties towards him.

The EPC’s motto includes “In Non-Essentials: Liberty”. The idea in the motto, and very much the reality in the EPC’s culture, is that we foster liberty towards one another in areas of non-essential doctrines. People have the freedom to not only disagree with each other on these non-essentials, but are also able to have different non-essential practices. The most notable example of this is the ordination of women. Our constitution says, “Since people of good faith who equally love the Lord and hold to the infallibility of Scripture differ on [ordination of women], and since uniformity of view and practice is not essential to the existence of the visible church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has chosen to leave this decision to the Spirit-guided consciences [of individual church bodies].”

The ordination of women is a non-essential, so differences are allowed. But here’s the kicker: if you don’t believe the ordination of women is biblically valid, then to ordain a woman is to do something contrary to God’s word. The term for that contrariness is sin. It’s true from the other side as well – denying the affirmation of what God permits (placing your conscience above God’s word, albeit unwittingly or out of misplaced conviction and interpretation) by blocking the ordination of women is sinful. All churches have versions of this reality, where there is a doctrine or practice deemed non-essential where the differing sides consider the alternative sinful. Mark Dever helpfully wrote about this several years ago regarding the issue of infant baptism and his friendship with Presbyterians.

“Liberty in non-essentials” really meaning “liberty in sin” probably makes many faithful EPCers uncomfortable. But that’s what “non-essential” allows for: disagreement over understanding what God reveals and requires, which by definition is allowing for disagreement over whether the issue at hand is sinful. This allowance on the ordination of women has been present in the EPC since our founding, and so we probably don’t think of it as “agreeing to disagree” over whether it’s sinful, perhaps additionally because those who believe this is an essential mostly left and joined more like-minded denominations. But all the same, since our founding the EPC has relegated the issue of the sinfulness of the ordination of women to “non-essential” status.

What makes it possible to deem the ordination of women a non-essential, however, is our confessionalism. The Westminster Confession and catechisms do not speak to the issue of ordination, meaning the topic lies beyond the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. The EPC does not confess a scriptural teaching on the subject.

Which brings us to exceptions. “Exceptions” is the term for places where EPC ministers disagree with the Westminster Confession and catechisms. Their presbyteries then vote to either allow or disallow the disagreement. Presbyteries have discretion in permitting disagreements as there is no binding guidance from the denomination. The only official guidance from the EPC is a commended paper that says allowed disagreements should not be about “‘essential’ components of the Reformed system”. The paper says it is the duty of presbyteries to examine and determine what constitutes that system. In other words, the spirit of the EPC is that exceptions should be allowed (liberty!) for non-essential doctrines in the Westminster Confession and catechisms in a non-uniform way as determined by presbyteries.

The most common exception is to WCF 21.8 and WLC 117, 119, which prohibit recreation on the Lord’s Day. I’ve never heard of an EPC presbytery disallowing this exception. I would also wager that a significant majority of EPC pastors have taken some version of this exception.

Though the relationship between non-essential doctrines and allowing ministerial disagreements with the Westminster Confession and catechisms is procedurally and doctrinally fuzzy, the EPC as a church does not take exceptions to its standards; to do so would be the church disagreeing with itself, not to mention a confessional amendment without any formal process. So when the EPC confesses WCF 21.8 and WLC 117, 119, we are confessing that God’s will for us in scripture is that we are to rest from our recreations on the Lord’s Day. Leaving aside the debates over what constitutes biblical rest and worldly recreation, we confess that God’s law requires rest and forbids recreation on the Lord’s Day. To recreate on the Lord’s Day is lack of conformity to and transgression of God’s law: sin. In fact, for WLC 119, the actual question is “What are the sins forbidden in the fourth commandment”! To allow an exception on this point is to allow liberty in what our church believes to be sin. To shorten that: it allows liberty in sin.

Now, when I have made this point to other leaders in the EPC, I typically get some sort of response like “We never allow exceptions to sin!” Interestingly, that response typically comes from former PCUSA pastors. Of course those who take the exceptions don’t believe they’re sinning; the whole point is that they think our confession of biblical teaching is off here. But that is the point: they are stating a disagreement with what our church believes is sin. Even if the majority of EPC pastors hold to this exception, the EPC as a church confesses that God’s law prohibits recreation on the Lord’s Day. And any transgression of God’s law is sin.

Like with the ordination of women, recreation on the Lord’s Day is a functional non-essential in the EPC. And like the ordination of women, to fall on different sides on the issue is to disagree on whether the practice is sinful. Unlike the ordination of women, recreation on the Lord’s Day is a confessional issue. That means that those pastors who don’t take the exception, even if they are in the minority numerically, are siding with the official position of the church. Asserting that someone who recreates on the Lord’s Day is sinning is not rude, divisive, or uncharitable. It is consistent with the church’s confession of scripture’s teaching. Since presbyteries are granted discretion in allowing exceptions, that also means denying an exception on this doctrine is not violating liberty in non-essentials, but disagreeing over whether this constitutes a non-essential departure from scripture’s system of doctrine.

Recreation on the Lord’s Day is always going to be more personal and private than public and liturgical (“tossing a ball with my kids”, “relaxing in my garden”). Since it is such a common exception and is generally understood to be either an individual and familial habit, you don’t see people in the EPC voicing concern when fellow pastors recreate on the Lord’s Day. It is easier that way to accept a sinful practice as non-essential.

And all of this brings us to images of Christ. One of the other common exceptions is with WLC 109, “What sins are forbidden in the second commandment? The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” There are debates about what contexts this is applicable or what counts as a “representation” of God, but at its base the EPC confesses that making images of God is sinful.

This is not unique to the Westminster Standards but the whole of the Reformed tradition. The logic across the board is always the same i) God establishes how he is to be worshiped and understood, ii) God has banned images because they inevitably lead to idolatry, and iii) worship that God has established, especially the preaching of the word, is the sufficient means that God has established for us to know him and the use of images undercuts those means. David VanDrunen has an excellent article dealing with the biblical basis for this position. The Reformed confessional tradition speaks to this as well. Here are some good examples: The Second Helvetic Confession IV is lit, including, “Undoubtedly no religion exists where there is an image”. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 98 provides a great pastoral perspective, “But may not images be permitted in churches in place of books for the unlearned? No, we should not try to be wiser than God. God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word— not by idols that cannot even talk.” This logic permeates the Westminster Standards on worship: we are not wiser than God, and using images of God as a means to more effectively communicate the truth of God is to denigrate the word of God as foolishness. This is not a non-essential aspect of the Reformed system of doctrine.

Like with recreation on the Lord’s Day, creating or using images of God is typically allowed as an exception. It’s considered private and familial: maybe you’ll use the Jesus Storybook Bible with your family, or watch The Chosen, or enjoy the Sistine Chapel on a tour. A pastor disagreeing with the Westminster Standards and the presbyteries allowing this exception is not the same thing as the practice of that being allowed in the church. Neither the EPC nor its congregations can take exceptions: that’s the church disagreeing with itself. So, allowing the exception on images of God is understood as a non-essential because it is not allowing a change in church practice. Representing God with an image is sinful, but this is understood, like with recreation on the Lord’s Day, as an area with potential liberty for disagreement, since the church’s practice should remain unaltered in allowed disagreement. Of course the exception could always be denied, which would be the purview of any presbytery.

To sum up: the making images of God is sinful and contrary to the EPC’s confessional standards. There might be liturgical or pedagogical nuances to this within the Westminster Standards, but any use of images of God, either in worship or as a supplement or alternative to God’s word, is a sinful usurpation of God’s right to direct how he is to be worshiped. Taking this as an exception is culturally allowable as a non-essential since the practice of using images or the promotion of using images of God to those ends is not permitted by allowing the exception.

Cru’s Jesus Film Project uses images of Jesus; that’s the whole purpose of the movie. The movie website states “We believe film is the most dynamic way to hear and see the greatest story ever lived — so we are driven to bring Christ-centered video to the ends of the earth” and “When people come face-to-face with Jesus—when they see him smile, when they hear him speak in their own language, with their own accent—they are forever changed. We believe movies offer the most dynamic way to hear and see the greatest story ever lived” and “Film brings the story to life in ways that transcend written communication. This is true especially in oral cultures—places where written communication is scarce. When people see the life of Jesus portrayed on screen, it is life-changing.”

Contrast this with Romans 10:14-16, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” You may quibble over whether the Jesus film constitutes preaching or a presentation of God’s word, but there is no doubt that it employs images of God to accomplish this as an alternative to the preached word in the proclamation of the gospel. This is sin.

I don’t know what Erick Schenkel, former Executive Director of the Jesus Film Project, will be talking about at our GA banquet for World Outreach workers in a few weeks. But a reasonable deduction is that he will be talking about the Jesus film. The connection to the project is how the event has been promoted, and over the past year the Jesus film has been publicly lauded by other leaders in the EPC. It is inappropriate to have a sinful approach to ministry, sinful on the EPC’s own confessional terms!, promoted by the church, especially in the context of global mission.

The EPC is a charitable and friendly denomination, and that often translates into a relaxed posture on these kind of topics. Getting worked up over something like this can seem quaint, especially to those who joined the EPC from the PCUSA. But at issue is that the church is promoting something that its doctrinal standards say is sinful. Surely that incongruity can be appreciated by those who experienced something of that sort on a much larger scale.

Can the EPC continue to live together when one group is promoting what another believes is sin? We have with the ordination of women (a non-confessional issue) and recreation on the Lord’s Day (privately practiced, not promoted by the church). Will we be able to hold together when a vocal promotion of a confessionally divergent practice is met with a vocal denunciation of that practice as sinful? Can we maintain unity when there is disagreement over whether that practice is essential or non-essential? I hope so, but the best case scenario here is that the EPC’s practice better conforms to its doctrine going forward. That should be the objective: unity in the essentials and ceasing to promote non-essential stances that sinfully contradict our confession of faith.