EPC Ruling Elders and Confessional Exceptions

All ordained officers in the EPC are required to vow that they “sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of [the EPC] as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”. Like many other Presbyterian denominations, the EPC has long debated how to handle its officers disagreeing with parts of the Westminster Standards. For Teaching Elders (pastors), the EPC has determined they may declare disagreements (exceptions) and the Presbytery may allow those exceptions (see BoG 12-4). The exceptions have to be stated and the Presbytery has to vote to allow or disallow them.

The formal guidance that the denomination provides on this can be found in this paper; however, the paper only gives broad principles and allows significant interpretive latitude to presbyteries.

So, that covers pastors. What about Ruling Elders (lay elders) and Deacons? Interestingly, the EPC’s Book of Government does not provide any mechanism for Ruling Elders and Deacons to register and be allowed exceptions. BoG 12-4 only applies to Teaching Elders. The paper that guides the denomination on this subject, as well as the non-constitutional, but still official “Explanatory Statement” appended to the constitution, mentions that ordaining courts of the church (which includes the Session/elder board of the local church) may allow exceptions which do not infringe on the church’s system of doctrine. The constitutional ordination vows for Ruling Elders and Deacons also require them to inform their Session if, post-ordination, they find themselves out of accord with that system of doctrine. That’s the same vow Teaching Elders take (albeit with their Presbytery), but with pastors that lack of accord receives additional definition in BoG 12-4 (developing any disagreement requires reporting). Constitutionally, for Ruling Elders and Deacons, it is only developing a disagreement that amounts to infringing on the system of doctrine that needs to be reported. And the kind of disagreement that amounts to a violation of the system of doctrine is not an allowable exception, by the terms of their constitutional vows, as well as the official guidance and “Explanatory Statement.” To be out of accord with the church’s system of doctrine means that you cannot be an officer of the church.

So simply put, there is no avenue for Ruling Elders or Deacons to register and be allowed to hold an exception to the church’s doctrine. Most churches still intuitively apply BoG 12-4 to the Session and their officers, and there is some conventional wisdom to that. But no Session has been constitutionally authorized to allow exceptions. Yet, that does not mean that Ruling Elders and Deacons have to agree with every statement or wording in the Westminster Standards to be ordained, or that they are held to a higher standard of doctrinal conformity than Teaching Elders.

Teaching Elders need to have their exceptions allowed or disallowed because they are tasked with teaching the doctrines of the church. If they disagree with a doctrine they’re supposed to be teaching, the Presbytery needs to know and make an informed decision on whether they’re going to tolerate that. Not so with Ruling Elders and Deacons. They are tasked with upholding and executing the ministry of the church (which includes teaching) in accordance with the church’s doctrine. Individual scruples with the church’s doctrine won’t disrupt that. But views that violate the system of the church’s doctrine, that strike at the essentials of Westminsterian theology, will.

In practice, what that means is that Sessions aren’t deciding whether they’ll allow the disagreements Ruling Elders and Deacons have with the church’s doctrine, but whether the Ruling Elder and Deacon are able to affirm the system of that doctrine. This might seem like a small difference, but the application is significant. Ruling Elders and Deacons do not need to register every disagreement or hesitation they have with the Westminster Standards. If they can affirm the system, even while disagreeing with smaller aspects of it, they can be ordained. No need for the Session to vote on whether they’ll allow an exception or for a potential Ruling Elder or Deacon to agonize over whether their small disagreement disqualifies them.

In our church, we ask Ruling Elder and Deacon candidates if they can truthfully and heartily affirm and fulfill their ordination vows. If the answer is yes, we’re good to go. If they have disagreements with specific issues that they think need to be addressed, or wonder whether their disagreements amounts to an infringement of our church’s doctrinal system, they ask. As a Session, our question is whether this disagreement strikes at the core of our doctrine or disrupts our ministry practice. If not, we’re good to go. At no point are we voting on whether to allow or disallow a particular disagreement like presbyteries do with exceptions. I have found this frees our nominees from anxiety, prioritizes the core of our church’s doctrine, orients us to think about the role of the church’s doctrine for the practice of ministry, and sidesteps a culture viewing our confessional documents as agree/disagree propositions.