Essential Issues and Legitimate Differences in the EPC

An open letter and accompanying theological paper on same-sex attraction and ministerial ordination have been making the rounds of the EPC this past week. There is much I could say on the substance of the letter and paper (my thoughts on the topic are well documented on this page, especially in my recent talk on same-sex attraction and pastoral care) but instead I wanted to highlight and engage an unassuming paragraph in the paper. This was written by Don Fortson, a retired professor of church history from Reformed Theological Seminary, who has worked extensively on American presbyterian history, and authored Liberty In Non-Essentials, the official history of the EPC. He also has written quite a bit on confessional subscription and authored the EPC’s official guide on adopting and receiving the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. What Fortson said in the paper is,

This [homosexuality and the ordination of celibate, same-sex attracted people] is not a liberty in non-essentials issue. The EPC position on women’s ordination, is put in the non-essential category because it is recognized that there are legitimate differences in biblical interpretation on this topic. Both sides agree that there are texts of Scripture that may be understood to support either position. This is not true of homosexuality; there aren’t any passages, anywhere in the Bible, that say anything positive whatsoever about homosexuality.

The EPC’s motto is “Unity in Essentials. Liberty in Non-Essentials. In All Things Charity.” This motto is the true creed of the EPC. It shapes the way we think and act more than other doctrinal statement, its informal status notwithstanding. And Fortson’s argument here demonstrates that — to persuade people in the EPC he argues that this is an “essentials” issue.

What is most revealing is the criteria for whether something is an essential vs. non-essential issue: are there “legitimate differences” in biblical interpretation on the topic? Now, what determines whether something is a “legitimate” difference? This is really just begging the question; if two groups disagree on an issue, its status as essential/non-essential boils down to whether those groups can agree that the other’s erroneous interpretation is legitimate? That’s not particularly cogent and makes “essential” issues a wax nose to fit the subjectivity of the interpreter. The only help that Fortson provides is that scripture should say something positive about a topic, which is simply an unhelpful hermeneutical device; try and bring that approach to bear on the Lutheran-Zwinglian debates!

Fortson’s argument then, is: i) If something is non-essential, we must allow it (otherwise we’re making it an essential). ii) If it is an essential, we must draw sharp lines around the issue (otherwise we’re making it a non-essential). iii) The way in which the essential/non-essential category is determined is whether there are legitimate differences in biblical interpretation. I think this line of argumentation is probably widely accepted in the EPC for determining where unity and liberty are held.

But what counts as legitimate differences in biblical interpretation? Exclusive credobaptism? Transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? The normative principles of worship? Dispensationalism? Arminianism? Paedocommunion? Foot washing as a sacrament? The historic episcopate? All of these diverge from the EPC’s doctrine and practice and are held by groups that we might otherwise describe as holding “legitimate differences” in biblical interpretation. Are these views and practices to be tolerated in the EPC? Among our officers? Fortson provides women’s ordination as an example, but there are plenty of people in the EPC who don’t think the other side has good, legitimate differences in biblical interpretation there, and yet we still hold together.

And it’s worth noting at this point that the EPC isn’t debating the issue of homosexuality, but whether someone who is celibate, committed to the biblical and historic, Christian ethic on marriage and sex, sincerely holds to the Reformed faith, and still finds themselves same-sex attracted can serve as an officer of the church. Are there no legitimate differences in biblical interpretation in this area? Who gets to decide and how?

The real problem here is using our motto as a quasi-creed. Elevating the essential/non-essential distinction as the grounds for deciding which positions and practices are embraced or rejected requires a rubric for determining what counts as “essential”. The “legitimate differences” cipher is a reductionist approach that is insufficient to guide the church.

Instead, we need to keep the Westminster Confession and Catechisms front and center. We vow that they contain the system of doctrine found in the scriptures, and a system of doctrine is far more robust than a theology-by-concordance “does the Bible have anything positive say about a topic?” approach. In this framework the essentials in which we are to have unity is the Westminsterian system of doctrine; the non-essentials are the things that lie outside that system. The main questions the church should then ask when confronting a new topic are, i) Do the Westminster Confession and Catechisms address this? ii) If something disagrees with the Westminster Standards, does holding it disrupt the confessional system of doctrine? Or is it peripheral to that system (i.e. something where exceptions may be tolerated)? iii) If it is a topic unaddressed, are there different approaches to the topic that are more or less compatible with our Standards? Can the Standards by good and necessary consequence provide guidance on this topic? If the Standards don’t speak to an issue, should the church still stake out a position as the Bible’s teaching on the issue? iv) Does this topic require the EPC to adjust its polity to maintain order and peace in the church?

The fourth point of criteria provides the church something missing from the essentials/non-essential categorization approach: prudence. The church is allowed to draw sharp lines in practice on non-essential issues if it’s necessary to maintain the good governance of the church (WCF 31.2). For example, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms do not prescribe a specific form of church government. Yet, the EPC is a presbyterian denomination that expressly states that “while this Presbyterian form of government is biblical, it is not essential to the existence of the true church” (BoG 2-2). In other words, we still draw sharp, definitive lines for our church’s organization and practice around non-essential issues where there are legitimate differences in biblical interpretation. Our entire Book of Order functions this way. Sometimes we do this where we believe the Bible teaches something absent from our confessional system (e.g. presbyterianism), and sometimes we do it because it makes good sense for the well-ordering of the church (e.g. prescribed steps in the ordination process). These are not essential things, but we still maintain them for our church’s good.

Approaching issues facing the church through a confessional lens does not inherently change the conclusion of the open letter or theological paper. What it gives us is a sturdier framework to theologize for the sake of the church using a shared starting point (the Westminsterian, biblical system of doctrine) rather than something amorphous and contested (legitimate differences in interpretation).