The Gift of Confessional Elders (2)

Part 1

Before we can see how and why our elders need to be confessional we needed to understand, in the first place, what an elder is. Next, we need to understand what it means to be “confessional” and then, in the third place, we need to understand what it would mean to be a “confessional elder.”

The adjective, “confessional” is not one with which everyone is familiar.

By “confessional” I mean:

adheres to the understanding of Scripture, to the doctrine, to the theology, piety, and practice of the Christian faith articulated in and intended by the those secondary, ministerial documents adopted by the Reformed churches.

Here are some resources on this:

Recovering the Reformed Confession
The Real Question is Whether There is an Objective Definition of “Reformed”
The Problem of the Minimalist Definition
Why the Focus on the Confessions?

As I understand the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches they were intended to be confessing bodies. As Darryl Hart. The original intent in the 16th and 17th centuries was that all the members confess the faith, in the same way, to the same extent.

From the body of confessing people, then, the intent was that men who meet the qualifications for the office of (ruling) elder should be selected from the congregation. [For a defense of the doctrine that Christ bestowed three offices upon the church see the essay by Derke Bergmsa in John Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church]

Theoretically, there shouldn’t be any non-confessional men in our congregations. In reality, of course, the level of apprehension of the confessions of the faith will vary from pew to pew. So, if there is an issue with finding confessional elders, it begins with the prior problem of educating men and families and covenant children, i.e., covenant households.

We can do remedial education of course. This is what often happens in Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. It’s called “elder training.” To be sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with elder training. There is much to know as an elder that one will not usually learn in a children or adult catechism class. Nevertheless, too often elder training has to begin with those things that should have been learned earlier.

This intellectual apprehension of and heartfelt commitment to the church’s understanding of and application of Scripture is essential for the eldership. As the rulers in Christ’s visible church they have to make the most important decisions in the life of the church (e.g., church discipline, calling a minister, doctrinal and practical questions in the life of the church) and they must make them on some basis. In a confessional Reformed congregation, that basis must be God’s holy, inerrant Word as confessed by the churches.

Implied in this approach is that that our elders must also have a thorough understanding of and hearty love for Scriptures as God’s Word. It needs to live in our elders. They need to live in it. They must be hearing it (in public worship) and reading it (at home) and they must be explaining it to their families and others as they have opportunity. They must be gospel men who also love and understand the proper roles and uses of God holy law. Though they are no replacement for Scripture (which they cannot do. Scripture is the basis and the confession is simply a ministry of the Word) Our confessional documents summarize all these things for us. Thus, we don’t set confession and Scripture against each other. We confess the Scriptures. We confess what we do because that is what we understand Scripture to teach.

If our elders do not understand thoroughly the Reformed confessions and take them to heart then they are likely to make some of the most important decisions based upon another understanding of Scripture. In America, that competing interpretation has tended to be the broadly evangelical or revivalist (or fundamentalist) interpretation of Scripture. The first step away from the confession is not typically “liberalism” but evangelicalism, the turn to feelings (QIRE) or the turn to rationalism (either the autonomy of the intellect or the quest to know what God knows the way he knows it, i.e., refusing to settle for divine revelation in Scripture). In a sense, this thorough and hearty embrace of the church’s confession is a way of measuring maturity and capability to lead. By embracing the confession fully an elder has testified implicitly that he is reading the Scripture with the Reformed churches and not isolation from or contradiction to the churches.

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  1. Dr. Clark, when you stated that “theoretically, there shouldn’t be any non-confessional men in our congregations,” and made several other references to confessional membership, I’m sure you’re well aware of the distinction between most (not all) modern Presbyterian churches and those of the Dutch Reformed confessional heritage.

    There are some denominations (the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for example) which specifically forbid local congregations from requiring anything for membership beyond a credible profession of faith and the standard agreement to submit to the authority of the elders — c.f. Form of Government V.C.1.a, “The session shall not impose additional conditions for membership.”

    I’m guessing without knowing that there are OPC and PCA congregations which have de facto if not de jure confessional membership. However, what do we do with the reality that in significant numbers of Presbyterian congregations, there are many members who do not affirm infant baptism? Personally I don’t have a problem with Reformed Baptists, but there are a lot of other deviations from the Reformed faith that are considerably more serious but which are routinely accepted in Presbyterian churches.

    I’d appreciate seeing more about how you address this issue of handling confessional membership, given that the large majority of modern Presbyterians do not affirm that principle.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I am part of a church plant and am very concerned about the elders not only being confessional, but what exceptions if any they are able to take. Are you going to address this or able to point me to another resource ?

    • Hi Evan,

      That’s a good question. I hope that our elders would affirm all the confession. What part of it are we or they free not to believe? I understand that American Presbyterians regularly allow exceptions but they aren’t to touch the “system of doctrine” or “the vitals of religion.” As I understand things our confession is the system of doctrine. Nevertheless, if a ruling elder has a scruple about more than the form of expression in the confession it seems as if he should at least put that before the session/consistory and if it’s a matter of concern or if the local session/consistory is unable to adjudicate it then it should be put to the presbytery/classis for their judgment. That was the approach of the old Dutch Reformed churches.

      In the end no document can ensure orthodoxy if the body is unwilling to stand by what the church confesses. There’s no sure system but we can insist on integrity and openness. If a man dissents from the substance of what the churches confess then he should have the integrity to step down from office as a ruling elder in a Reformed/Presbyterian church.

      Does this address your question?

    • What I am wondering is in regards to this:

      “Theoretically, there shouldn’t be any non-confessional men in our congregations. In reality, of course, the level of apprehension of the confessions of the faith will vary from pew to pew. So, if there is an issue with finding confessional elders, it begins with the prior problem of educating men and families and covenant children, i.e., covenant households.”

      In the Dutch reformed tradition that I am a part of there isn’t much in the way of elder training nor are there elder examinations. Our church does have men’s leadership training though it is helpful, it is not specific to church leadership. For the office of elder there is a nomination process (outward call) and the men are asked to accept or reject the nomination (inward call) then the congregation is called on to make the final decision(second outward call?). I understand the nomination and selection process isn’t arbitrary, but I also don’t see whether there are objective, identifiable, standards against which the candidates are tested since there is no test or examination. What I am confused about is that if we have stringent screening processes over the qualification of pastors, why do we not have even remotely similar stringent screening processes over elders as they provide spiritual leadership and at the very least need to be able to teach? As a man who hopes to someday be called to be an elder I wonder how I determine if I’m qualified, and as a congregation member how can I determine if these men are qualified for the position?

      • Hey Brad,

        It’s a chicken/egg problem. The current system assumes that our men were thoroughly catechized as youngsters so no extra training is necessary. Of course, if we omit the thorough catehetical training then we can’t assume it, can we? So, we need to remedy the situation at both ends: train the candidates (and current office holders) in the confessions etc and resume a thorough catechetical program for the children. Why can’t our children memorize 129 questions and answers? Their minds are not broken. It won’t be easy but it can be done. If we do both we should be fine.

        We should have a screening process for elders. They have to meet the biblical tests. The church doesn’t make anyone and elder. The recognizes that a man is an elder. The church ordains him to office or installs him but only the Lord can create elders. We need to be willing to admit if we don’t have qualified men.

        There probably does need to be conversation about what the qualifications are. I’m grateful for Mike Brown ed. Called to Serve. This is a great resource for elder and deacon training.

  3. Scott, appreciate the post. What are your thoughts on theonomists serving as ruling elders within NAPARC? Is this an allowable exception to the Standards? Blessings

    • I think they should take an exception to WCF 19.4. Clearly a theonomist doesn’t believe that the Mosaic civil law has “expired.” One cannot affirm the “abiding validity” of the Mosaic civil law “in exhaustive detail” and its abrogation and expiration at the same time in the same way. FWIW, there’s a chapter on this in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

  4. Very good about the exception, Dr. Clark. I had to take an exception as a ruling elder because I do not hold to 24 hr creation as Scripturally required. For some reason, our denomination (PCA) does not have such a requirement for theonomists. Go figure. I wish I could have appealed to your excellent RRC, but it would have made no difference.

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