So it begins: “Historically there have been very few requests for an exception about a specific teaching. But following Synod 2022’s decisions regarding human sexuality, particularly in affirming the confessional status of the church’s traditional understanding of marriage, some Council members have been seeking a process to file an exception, indicating their difficulty with that decision.”
The CRC’s approach to scruples and exceptions, “gravamen”, has differed from the confessional subscription debates in Presbyterianism. No more. Now, at least for the Council of Delegates (denominational executive committee), “When a delegate requests an exception, the Council’s executive committee will make a decision on whether or not to grant it, based on the centrality of the belief for which the exception is sought and the member’s agreement not to publicly contradict, teach, or act against the synodical position.”
The resistance to this recommendation hits all the familiar beats…
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…
PCA Pastor David Cassidy has written on the problem of presbyteries granting exceptions but forbidding them to be taught (something I’ve written about a lot, most recently here). Cassidy says that the PCA is great because it is a “good faith subscriptionist” denomination, not a strict subscriptionist church, and this change in policy makes the PCA de facto strict subscriptionist. He, correctly, notes that presbyteries cannot bind the conscience of ministers in this way, and so the recent move by the PCA is incorrect. But something he fails to consider in his piece is that the alternative to grant-and-forbid is outright denial: if an exception cannot be granted while simultaneously banning its teaching, the presbytery has the right to deny granting that exception. That doesn’t change in any scenario, and I know plenty of presbyteries where exceptions are only granted because they believe they can forbid its teaching. If this option goes away, fewer exceptions will be granted, and the PCA will become far closer to a strict subscriptionist church than it is under the current arrangement. In fact, the PCA will grow more divided culturally as each presbytery varies in what exceptions it allows (goodbye recreation on the Sabbath!), a problem that doesn’t exist in stricter denominations.
Being a big tent denomination means allowing strict subscriptionists to not only belong to the church, but to practice their convictions of strict subscriptionism and being ok with that.
At their General Assembly last week, the Presbyterian Church in America voted to allow presbyteries to forbid ministers teaching their exceptions. This does not appear to be a formal position of the PCA; the denominational committee that reviews presbytery minutes approved a presbytery forbidding the teaching of exceptions, and then the GA voted to affirm that committee’s approval.
I think this was a mistake. I have written extensively on exceptions and scruples, but the core of my argument is that if a presbytery allows an exception, the minister is vowing to subscribe to the Westminster Standards except where he disagrees. Even though the word “except” is not in the vows, it is implied by the granting of an exception. Otherwise the minister would be lying in his subscription vows. Yes, the church sets the rules on what can be taught, but those rules are enforced through the ministerial vows which have excluded the subject to which the minister took exception. Since the presbytery has granted the exception, to forbid a minister from teaching his conscience is a violation of his conscience, which in and of itself contradicts the Westminster Confession.
Here’s a case study on the impracticalities of this.
If a candidate for ministry takes the most common exception (recreation on the Lord’s Day) and the presbytery forbids him from teaching his view, there are three potential scenarios. It is easy to imagine a congregant asking this pastor what his view is on recreation during the Sabbath. Pastoral discretion will have been hampered by the presbytery’s gag order. In the first scenario, the minister teaches the Confession’s view as scripture’s teaching, contrary to his own convictions. This would violate his conscience and be a form of deception since he would not be “from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speak[ing] the truth, and only the truth…in all other things whatsoever” (WLC 144). In the second scenario the minister would simply avoid addressing the subject. This is probably not possible in a Presbyterian church, and is certainly not advisable for a pastor charged with teaching the whole counsel of God. The third scenario is the pastor teaching the Confession’s view, only to then tell his congregants that he cannot affirm what he just taught. This would spare his conscience, but would undermine the integrity of his message and de facto be teaching his exception.
Simply put, if the presbytery does not want an exception taught, don’t grant the exception.
I need to add an addendum of two pieces to part one of my call to confessional renewal in the EPC.
First, in regards to Christ’s headship over the church, I said, “Any pastoral candidate taking exception to the statement, ‘And the claim of any man to be the head of the Church is unscriptural and is a usurpation dishonoring to the Lord Jesus Christ,’ should be barred from ministry. Anyone unwilling to say that it is unscriptural and sinful to claim the headship of the church should not be in a position to shepherd the church.”
Some have asked if this means I believe this should an “essential”, i.e. something elevated from within our confessional system that is non-negotiable. The answer is a qualified no. This is the lone instance where I argued that something should be added to the WCF rather than being replaced or deleted. The Westminster Standards are not a haphazard or total compilation of biblical data, but contain the system of doctrine found in the scripture. Therefore, if something is to be added to the Standards, even if it is being returned after previous deletion as in this example, a case needs to be made that it represents a truth that is part of the system of doctrine found in the Bible. A counter example could be helpful: How many judges are there in the Old Testament? 12? 14? 16? There is a definitive biblical answer, even if that answer depends on a variety of factors (e.g. what counts as a judge?) But this doctrine, while biblical, is not part of the Bible’s system of doctrine, nor would disagreement on this proscribe someone’s ordination to the pastoral office…