A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) is a sister denomination to my own EPC. ECO began as a church in 2012, composed of congregations departing from the PCUSA. I have a few friends ministering in ECO, and I have made some efforts at better institutional unity between our churches. At the EPC’s 2017 General Assembly I sat on the Standing Committee (i.e. temporary committee limited to that meeting) on Fraternal Relations. I convinced the rest of the committee to recommend to the Assembly, that the Permanent Committee on Fraternal Relations should be instructed to begin dialogue with ECO aimed at forming a fraternal relationship. This recommendation was approved by the Assembly and encouraging work has begun in that direction.
I mention this to make clear that I like ECO. My hope is that the EPC and ECO formally unite as one church. But there are some significant barriers that need to be overcome if that union is to occur. The most substantial barrier is the issue of confessionalism and doctrine…
The EPC prides itself on allowing differences in “non-essentials” among its churches, and this has included the thorny issue of the eternal fate of people who die in infancy.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states,
Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
The Confession strikes an agnostic position that borders on a tautology: elect infants dying in infancy are the ones who are saved. This position allows for a great deal of flexibility, since the who and how of election for those incapable of being outwardly called is not identified.
In 1903 the PCUSA added a declaratory statement to the beginning of the WCF which functionally amended it. The declaration stated, in part, that,
…with reference to Chapter 10, Section 3, of the Confession of Faith, that it is not to be regarded as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost. We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how he pleases.
This declaration had the effect of eliminating flexibility from confessional subscription. Now only one position, namely that all who die in infancy are elect, was permitted. The EPC formed in 1981, and had to choose which amendments and alterations to the Westminster Standards it should adopt. The Declaratory Statement was one of the items considered…
Guy Waters’ essay at Reformation 21 earlier this month prompted my recent batch of posts on ministers taking exceptions (i.e. expressing disagreements) with their church’s doctrinal standards. In 1788, the American presbyterian church issued a statement of eight preliminary principles of church polity, generally attributed in authorship to John Witherspoon. These preliminary principles since then have either been explicitly part of the governing documents (as in the PCA) or been sprinkled throughout and affirmed in the governing documents (as in the EPC) of American presbyterian churches.
The second of these principle states,
When ministers are granted exceptions to their church’s confessional standards the church is allowing personal disagreement with its doctrine on the part of the minister. In considering the question of exceptions, I have been looking at the freedom of the minister to teach the exceptions granted to him. An error sometimes made is the ordaining presbytery attempting to prohibit the minister from teaching his own views. But often an opposite and equal error occurs: the minister believes that since he is granted an exception from the church’s doctrine, his congregation does not have to practice the church’s doctrine.
Let me use my church, the EPC, as an example. The congregations of the EPC follow the denomination’s constitution, which includes the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. These confessional standards inform and determine the practice of the church. Exceptions to the confessional standards are exceptions of personal belief when ministers take their ordination vows. There is no element in that process to allow congregations, the constituent parts of the denomination, to institutionally reject the constitution of the church. Just as a presbytery may not bind the conscience of a minister when granting an exception, the minister may not bind his congregation to his disagreements with the church’s doctrine…
Over at Reformation 21, Guy Waters, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary-Jackson, argues forcefully that a presbytery has the right to tell its members that they are not allowed to teach any exceptions they may have to the Westminster Standards. Waters is addressing this in the context of the PCA, which is similar to my own denomination. I previously wrote on this subject within the EPC, but I believe that the overarching principals are the same.
While Waters was helpful in showing that the PCA has a record of formally stating that presbyteries have this right (a matter in which I was evidently incorrect), he does not adequately address the issue of conscience as it relates to ministerial vows. When ministers take their vows of ordination, they sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Standards as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. This ordination vow is the same between the PCA and EPC. That pledge can only be made in sincerity if there is an implied “except where I have informed my presbytery that I disagree.” Otherwise it is disingenuous…
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