Can EPC Congregations Renounce Jurisdiction?
No, they cannot. Sorta.
This will be my final post for awhile on EPC-polity insider baseball. I can’t keep boring all of my half-dozen readers.
The context and explanation of this question and answer are important for EPC polity. The “renunciation of jurisdiction” is a constitutional principle of the EPC that is a natural consequence of our ecclesiology. Courts of the church (Sessions, Presbyteries, the General Assembly) have spiritual jurisdiction over their constituents (members of the local church, pastors and churches of the presbytery, the presbyteries of the church; BoG 16-2, BoD 1-11, 4-2.) Each court only has authority – which is spiritual in nature and only relates to the function of the court – over the people that belong to it. So local church X does not have authority over the worship and membership of local church Y. Nor does local church X have authority over people who are not members or participants in its worship.
This is relevant to the issue of church discipline. A local church may only exercise discipline over people within its jurisdiction: members and participants in the life of the congregation. But the EPC is not a cult; no one is ever compelled to remain a member of an EPC congregation…
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)…
Sacraments and Ruling (Lay) Elders
Modified from a text conversation.
Why should only Teaching Elders (pastors) and not Ruling Elders (lay elders) administer the sacraments? Why are the sacraments (normally) not properly administered otherwise? Here are the broad strokes of my reasoning, with particular application to the EPC. A more detailed breakdown can be found on pages 30-38 of the document linked in this post.
Biblical theology: The sacraments are part of the churchly ministry granted to the apostles (e.g. Matthew 16:19, 18:18-19, 28:19; John 20:23; 1 Corinthians 4:1, 11:23). The authority to administer sacraments is not entrusted to just anyone in the church. Teaching Elders as pastors stand in continuity with this apostolic ministry (i.e. apostolic succession) – e.g. Romans 15:15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:27-29, 14:1; Ephesians 2:20-22, 3:7, 4:9-11; 1 Peter 5:1. Whatever Ruling Elders are, they are not an apostolic, sacramental office. Pastors (or bishops, or ministers, or Teaching Elders, or whatever your preferred term) do stand in ministerial, apostolic succession, and therefore do have a sacramental nature to their office. Teaching Elders have been authorized by Christ to administer the sacraments, Ruling Elders have not…
Presbyteries: Don’t Grant Exceptions You Don’t Want Taught
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.
When Human Sexuality and Anglican Polity Meet
The College of Bishops of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) released a pastoral statement on human sexuality and identity in mid-January. At the time, I thought about assessing it here, like I did with the Nashville Statement, the PCA’s report on human sexuality, and the CRC’s report on human sexuality. But the ACNA statement seemed so benign that there was not much that I thought I could say. The statement held that there is no guarantee, though there is the possibility, that Christians experiencing same-sex attraction will see an end to that attraction in this life. No comment is made on whether same-sex attraction or orientation is itself sinful or needs to be something repented. The statement even-handily evaluated the ways in which “same-sex Christian” or “gay Christian” are used, but then said, “We do not believe it wise nor commendable to adopt categorically the language of ‘gay Christian,’ or ‘same-sex attracted Christian’ as the default description for those who experience same-sex attraction…