The EPC occupies a rare place in Reformed evangelicalism. We allow for the ordination of women, but we do not require our officers to affirm women’s ordination, nor require churches to ordain women, and permit presbyteries to have male-only teaching elders. This subject is one of the few the EPC has formally identified as a “non essential” where there is room to disagree.
The EPC is not unique in our approach. The Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC), which is an official ecumenical partner of the EPC, has a very similar position. Unlike the EPC, which was founded in 1981 and has had this position on women’s ordination since then, the CRC is a church with its roots in the Neo Calvinist movement in the mid-19th century and only began allowing women’s ordination 25 years ago. That led to schism and the formation of the URCNA. For the EPC, the issue is one we have settled from the outset: freedom for all views. For the CRC, the ordination of women is seen as part of a larger trajectory, for good or for ill.
How’s that going? Following the CRC’s recent adoption of their human sexuality report, a group has emerged calling for the church to adopt a third way, allowing room to agree to disagree on LGBT issues. They cite the CRC’s success with women’s ordination as an example of this possibility. CRC Pastor Eric Van Dyken assessed the state of things recently, and this excerpt is worth including at length…
This was originally posted in February, 2022 but I edited and wanted to re-up the essay.
Starting from the position that Jesus here, in what is often called the Great Commission, appoints every individual Christian to go and share the gospel as the central mandate of the church and Christian life ignores Matthew on his own terms. The 11 apostles are specifically identified as the ones who received this command from Jesus; the question is, What does that commission have to do with the church today? What does it mean to be a Great Commission church?
We see two things are given here. The first is the authority that Christ has received over all heaven and earth. The second is the command given by Jesus to disciple all the nations. The command to disciple is linked to the authority given to Christ. Because Jesus has received authority, he is giving the task of discipleship. The task given and those who received the task is intertwined with the nature of the authority Christ received….
I had the privilege to present on the subject of evangelism during a lunch session at this summer’s EPC General Assembly. My talk was sponsored by the Westminster Theological Society, which was an honor. Unfortunately, I’m a technological doofus and failed to hit the right button on my mic to record the talk. Below is a rough paraphrase of my talk: “Christians Need To Be Evangelized, Too”. I started my talk by reading Isaiah 60:1-6.
To be evangelized, eugelizoed, is to be gospeled. To evangelize is do the working of gospeling. There is a need to do this for Christians, and not just because of the volume of ignorance in our churches. There would be nothing more disheartening for a pastor than to survey his congregation with the question “What is the gospel?” and read the results. Those of us who have done officer interviews and ask this question have far too been dismayed as we are met with answers focusing on personal experience, transformation, and comfort, not the affirmation that the gospel is the good news that Jesus is king and that he has inaugurated his kingdom through his death and resurrection…
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…
I recently became aware that J. Gresham Machen authored a counter-affirmation to the Modernist Auburn Affirmation (see Stonehouse’s biography of Machen, page 357). The second and fourth points neatly dovetail into the case I’ve been making about the EPC and confessional interpretation. While the doctrines under consideration in the EPC do not strike at Nicene Christianity, and thus the stakes are lower than in the 1920s, the contours of the debate are similar: Who should interpret the church’s doctrinal standards, and what should that interpretation be? Machen’s counter-affirmation, reprinted below, could be helpful.
A Counter-Affirmation designed to Safeguard the Corporate Witness of the Presbyterian Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, having been made cognizant of an Affirmation signed by one hundred and fifty ministers in protest against the action of the General Assembly of 1923, and being convinced that the Affirmation will have an effect detrimental to the unity and corporate witness of the Church, desire to make the following answer:
I. The constitution of the Church, though it does not claim infallibility for itself, clearly does claim it (in the pledge required of all officers) for the Scriptures. This fact is ignored and in effect denied in the Affirmation.
II. The right of interpretation of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession does not mean that any officer of the Church may interpret the Scriptures or the system of doctrines described in the Confession as he pleases. Every interpretation must confirm to the meaning of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession where the meaning is clear. The interpretations for which toleration is asked in section IV of the Affirmation, on the contrary, reverses the plain meaning. Thus the Affirmation really advocate the destruction of the confessional witness of the Church. To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all.
III. In section IV of the Affirmation, the five points covered in the pronouncement of the General Assembly of 1923 are declared to be “theories” which some of the signers of the Affirmation regard as satisfactory but which all the signers unite in believing not to be the only theories allowed by the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures allow the Virgin Birth, for example, and the bodily resurrection of our Lord to be regarded both as facts and not as facts. We protest against any such opinion. The redemptive events mentioned in the pronouncement of the Assembly are not theories but facts upon which Christianity is based, and without which Christianity would fall.
IV. We believe that the unity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America can be safeguarded, not by a liberty of interpretation on the part of the officers of the Church, which allows a complete reversal of perfectly plain documents, but only by maintenance of the corporate witness of the Church. The Church is found not upon agnosticism but upon a common adherence to the truth of the gospel as set forth in the confession of faith on the basis of the Scriptures.