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 potential 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…
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…
As I mentioned in my previous post on exceptions, Michael Lynch argued that in the Reformation the personal views of ministers were subordinated to the confessions of the church. To become a minister of the church was to affirm the church’s doctrine, and Lynch argues, the church therefore had the right to prohibit a minister from teaching his conscience if it conflicted with the doctrine of the church. I think Lynch gets it wrong, since the Reformation-era churches would not allow a man to become a minister if he had any disagreements.
This can be seen in the rules for ordination in Scotland at the end of the Reformation. The ordinand was to be examined in “his knowledge of the grounds of religion [the confessional standards of the church], and of his ability to defend the orthodox doctrine contained in them.” At the installation service, the presiding minister was to “demand of him who is now to be ordained, concerning how faith in Christ Jesus, and his persuasion of the truth of the reformed religion [the contents of the Westminster Standards], according to the scriptures.” These are the ordination vows, to which the candidate was to answer in the affirmative. These processes assume agreement with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and do not leave room for exceptions…