Connectionalism and Confessional Exceptions
Can EPC Presbyteries exercise authority over a local church’s election, ordination, and installation of officers? On the one hand, local congregations have the irrevocable right, in perpetuity (BoG 6-2, 25-2B), to elect their own officers. On the other, there are numerous restrictions and mandated procedures for how that election process should be done (e.g. BoG 10-10 on nominating procedures, 11-3 on preparation, and 12-6 on examinations). Each court of the church is required to annually submit its minutes to the court above it. So Sessions need to submit their minutes to their Presbytery, and the Presbytery must review those minutes to ensure the local church is in conformity with the EPC’s constitution. If the local church is not, the Presbytery is allowed to require a revision to the church’s practice to meet the EPC’s constitutional standards. This process is called “Review and Control” (BoG 2-4).
What this means is that a Presbytery has the authority to tell a local church that their election, ordination, and installation of officers did not conform to the EPC’s constitution and a correction is necessary. Any action of one court may be appealed to a higher court, so if a local church disagreed with a Presbytery’s instruction to revise their practice, the local church could appeal to the General Assembly. This is a feature of the review and control process (BoG 16-3, 19-4A.7) and follows the guidelines for appeals (BoD 13) and complaints (BoD 14).
Interestingly, BoG 16-3 is the only reference in the EPC’s constitution to connectionalism. This is mentioned in the 2021 report on connectionalism in the EPC, which observes that connectionalism is fundamentally about the mutuality of review and control in our church’s polity. It is secondarily about the broader spirit of cooperation. The implication is that a Presbytery’s oversight of a local church’s election of officers is foundational to the EPC’s connectionalism.
Which raises the issue of exceptions. As I mentioned here, there is no mechanism in the Book of Order to allow Ruling Elders and Deacons to take exceptions. BoG 12-4 expressly applies to Teaching Elders and requires Presbyteries to act (i.e. vote on a motion) to allow or disallow any stated exceptions. If this were to apply to Ruling Elders and Deacons, that would mean that local churches would need to include in their minutes that exceptions were allowed or disallowed. And if that action is in the minutes of the Session, it falls under the purview of review and control by the Presbytery.
In both the EPC’s official guidance on adopting the Westminster Standards and the explanatory statement appended to The Essentials (both of which are non-constitutional), it is made clear that only exceptions which do not infringe upon the system of doctrine of the Westminster Standards are to be allowed. In other words, Presbyteries have the authority to determine whether a local church erred in allowing an exception. Since allowing an exception would be an action (i.e. vote on a motion) of a Session, a member of the Session could file a complaint (BoG 14-1, 14-2) with the Presbytery if the member believed the Session erroneously allowed an impermissible exception. So, a Presbytery either through its exercise of review and control or through its adjudication of a complaint, has the authority to determine whether a church needs to revise its action in electing, ordaining, and installing an officer who takes an exception to the church’s doctrine. In the Book of Government‘s chapter on limits in perpetuity, 25-2A affirms this principle: The church may make no rules binding the conscience of biblical interpretation, but officers voluntarily limit the exercise of their conscience to the bounds of the Westminster Standards. The church has the responsibility to enforce this.
This is the true spirit of connectionalism: to ensure that the doctrine and polity of the church are secure, and that local congregations are in conformity with the teaching of the greater church (cf. WCF 31.2, cited in the EPC’s paper on our understanding of connectionalism).
Now, if Ruling Elders and Deacons are not able to register exceptions, as I argued previously, this is something of a non-issue. Just as long as the local church follows the rest of the ordination procedures, including the sincere taking of vows, the process of review and control will only ever affirm a church in its actions. It is still possible that a member of the Session could formally complain to their Presbytery that a newly elected officer holds views that infringe on the system of doctrine and was illegitimately installed, but that kind of review is exactly what Presbyteries are for.
What About Teaching Elders?
Unlike with Ruling Elders and Deacons, BoG 12-4 clearly applies to Pastors and requires Presbyteries to vote to allow or disallow exceptions. Presbyteries are subject to review and control as well, just this time with the General Assembly (cf. BoG 20-4B.7). And all General Assembly actions, including approving minutes (i.e. the actions of Presbyteries) are subject to debate and votes. And all Presbytery actions, including allowing exceptions, are eligible to face complaints filed with the General Assembly.
This is the essence of connectionalism: Lower courts are subject to higher courts (BoG 16-3), who exist first to “ministerially determine controversies of faith” as well as to “receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same” (WCF 31.2). Connectionalism is about accountability. Sometimes the EPC likes to speak about connectionalism in terms of love and collaboration, which are good, but it is first about holding each other accountable in doctrine and practice.
Which is why the EPC’s manner of recording exceptions is frustrating. In the 1990s there was an ongoing debate in the EPC about allowing exceptions. The solution crystalized in 1999, which lead, among other things, to the 2001 paper on receiving and adopting the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. The debate centered on freedom of conscience and upholding doctrinal standards, and the settlement reached is the current status quo of the denomination. Following 2001, there were still still scuffles over this issue, partially from the fact that Presbyteries were recording the nature of the exceptions they voted to allow. In other words, by placing those exceptions in their minutes, these Presbyteries were submitting to the review and control of the General Assembly, which was in turn having to debate whether the allowed exceptions were truly permissible. The General Assembly did not want to hash this out and wanted to keep this issue at a Presbytery level, and so in 2003 passed Act of Assembly 03-09.4, which prohibited Presbyteries from recording taken exceptions in their minutes.
This has allowed the settlement from the 1990s to endure, but has also struck at one off the core tenets of connectionalism and the unity of the church. General Assemblies are to exercise review and control over doctrine, which is the first responsibility of a church council in a connectional denomination.
I once heard an employee of the denomination say that this was necessary so that the EPC did not descend into the petty-conflict culture of the PCA. But I have also heard ministers and elders who transferred into the EPC from the PCUSA and RCA cite the ability of the denomination to discipline doctrinally wayward elders or congregations as a reason to join the EPC. They had witnessed what occurs when classes or presbyteries were not held accountable in their old denominations and wanted that in their new home. While theoretically the General Assembly could still dig into a Presbytery’s actions or receive a complaint, without a statement of exceptions recording in the Presbytery minutes this desire for accountability has been thwarted by a stronger desire to just get along.
Can Presbyteries Actually Record Ministerial Exceptions?
As far as I can tell, this is the only time that the EPC has banned a piece of information from being recorded in a court’s minutes. I actually doubt that Act of Assembly 03-09.4 passes constitutional muster. The General Assembly is only allowed to direct lower courts in ways that conform with the EPC’s constitution and other rules (BoG 20-4B). BoG 19-5D instructs Presbyteries to “maintain a careful record of proceedings of the court” which “shall be submitted annually to the General Assembly.” The General Assembly does not possess the authority to restrict the constitutional obligation (careful maintenance of its records) of a lower court through a simple vote.
The General Assembly additionally needs to follow its own Rules for Assembly. These are the set of rules that govern the General Assembly. They are subordinate to the constitution, but are still normative for the Assembly. ROA 9-12 says that the General Assembly needs to examine Presbytery minutes “for conformity to [t]he constitutional standards of the church, as to substance of the action recorded.” How can the substance of allowed exceptions be evaluated if the exceptions are not recorded? The minutes are to include an accurate account of motions and actions taken by Presbyteries (ROA 9-2G.4, citing BoG 19-5D); how can the minutes and actions be accurate if the substance of the action is excluded?
Additionally, ROA 14-1 states that Robert’s Rules of Order shall be standard for parliamentary procedure unless specifically provided for in the rules. Under Robert’s Rules, while including commentary in minutes is not necessary and is likely improper, a statement of exceptions is not commentary. Robert’s Rules also allows for a written report to be included in an assembly’s minutes at that assembly’s discretion, and a Ministerial/Candidate Committee report including a statement of exceptions certainly fits that bill. The kinds of material to be included in Presbytery minutes and evaluated by the General Assembly includes these kinds of reports. In other words, Robert’s Rules allows for recording exceptions in Presbytery minutes and the Rules for Assembly never specifically provide for their annulment in relationship to exceptions. Notably, an act of assembly only requires a majority vote; amending the rules of assembly require a three-quarter majority vote. Using an act of assembly to prohibit what is allowed under the rules not only circumvents the rules, but has a substantially lower threshold.
Even if AoA 03-09.4 is constitutional, it only prohibits the statement of exceptions from being included in the minutes themselves; there is nothing in the act that prohibits a Presbytery from including a written report in its minutes which contain the statement of exceptions, an action permitted under Robert’s Rules.
Why would we want to start recording exceptions and subjecting them to scrutiny? Because it is our commitment to God’s word as understood in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms that unites us theologically for our teaching and practice. To deviate from that is to undermine the unity of the church and the effectiveness of our witness and worship. This is why connectionalism is so important: it is how the church practices mutual submission and accountability. Recording exceptions, practicing review and control, opening ourselves up to formal complaints about the allowances, and an increased number of debates in the EPC about exceptions are all risks to unity. But the unity being risked is a unity of live-and-let-live, surface level cooperation. Leaving a key area of connectionalism on the curb risks our theological and missional unity, which is far more important.
With so much emphasis put on conforming to the Westminster Standards, how can people escape from using those standards as a canon for the canon of the Scriptures? Even if you allow for just a few exceptions, it seems to me that since the Westminster Standards are used so heavily to understand the Scriptures, the Standards end up on too high a pedestal.
I ask as a person who was in the OPC for 30+ years.
Two thoughts. The first is that if the Westminster Standards are taken on their own terms they will not be elevated on par or above scripture.
The second is that the issue you raise may be culturally more common in P&R churches, but is inherent with any church that has a doctrinal statement or creed. Since the ante-Nicene period the church has had confessional/creedal statements that bind its people in some fashion. This is by design: there needs to be a consensus in the church on what the Bible teaches. That’s either the simple (Apostles’, Nicene creeds) the complex (the entire magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church), or somewhere in between (Formula of Concord, Baptist Faith and Message, Three Forms of Unity, the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, etc.). There can be good and bad cases made for which degree of detail is necessary and to what extent the statements guide the church, but this is something common to the entire church, not unique to the P&R world.
In the case of Presbyterian churches, the Westminster Standards are intended to reflect the biblical values of the church fathers and the Reformation as the lens by which scripture is understood. Perhaps we got our hermeneutics wrong, perhaps there is more information than what is biblically warranted in the Standards (I don’t think so), but all we’re doing is selecting our doctrinal statements in the same way every church does. This is freeing: it means that every debate on theological first principles in Presbyterian congregations does not need to be relitigated because our churches already share a common commitment to doctrine and interpretation. It also ensures that local churches are not captive to the interpretive or doctrinal whims of their local leaders. In my congregation, the people do not have to worry that I am going to lead them into some uncharted or maverick theological direction. I am bound and our church is committed to our doctrinal standard, which protects the congregation from being at the mercy of my individual (or our local church’s elder board’s) opinions.
And this is actually departure from the Westminster Standards is such a big for us. It represents leaders of the church drifting from our shared commitment, which undermines trust and sets us up for greater conflict.