Original Post July 2, 2013
On June 20, 2013 the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, the mainline (liberal) and oldest Dutch Reformed denomination in the US removed the “conscience clause” from its Book of Church Order. That clause enabled conservatives in the RCA to dissent from the practice of ordaining females as ministers, elders, and deacons and yet to remain in the RCA. This clause had been in effect since 1980 as a means to preserving a measure of peace in the RCA over a contentious issue. Now, presumably, conservatives, who understand 1 Timothy 2 (and other passages) to limit special offices in the church to men who meet the biblical qualifications face a crisis: to split or stay?
This action of the General Synod did not surprise anyone who has paid attention to the history of Christianity in the modern period. Theological liberals typically begin by asking for tolerance for their views in the church. Then, once they gain positions of leadership and influence, they tend to be less tolerance of dissent. In this sense the adjective “liberal” is misleading and ironic. Historically, they’ve been anything but liberal, i.e., tolerant of dissent. So, following the pattern of the PCUSA before it, which unceremoniously bounced J. Gresham Machen from its ranks in 1936 through a sham ecclesiastical trial, the RCA is shutting down dissent.1 Over the last 25 years, the Christian Reformed Church, which split from the RCA in the 1850s, has followed the lead of the RCA. The two denominations have been moving toward union and the CRC has been preparing by bringing itself into conformity with the RCA on various matters (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism Q. 80) and even publishing radical articles in its denominational magazine. As the CRC and the RCA continue the path toward union, conservatives in the CRC are likely to face this issue either in the CRC or as a result of union with the RCA.
Closer to our NAPARC neighborhood, confessionalists in the PCA are wondering out loud what the handwriting on the wall says. Following a series of disappointing outcomes at the 41st PCA General Assembly, one confessional minister (Teaching Elder or TE in PCA terms) has suggested that he may not be in the PCA much longer. I’ve spoken with several very concerned ministers and ruling elders (REs in the PCA ) about their concern over the direction of the PCA.
Those disappointing outcomes include a refusal to address the ruling by the Standing Judicial Commission that effectively exonerated TE Peter Leithart, who openly advocates the Federal Vision doctrines. The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) contains the following language:
34-5. Heresy and schism may be of such a nature as to warrant deposition; but errors ought to be carefully considered, whether they strike at the vitals of religion and are industriously spread, or whether they arise from the weakness of the human understanding and are not likely to do much injury.
The PCA General Assembly itself voted, in 2007, to say, in effect, that the FV doctrines do, in fact, “strike at the vitals of religion.” Nevertheless, in subsequent ecclesiastical trials and processes, none of the advocates of the FV have been found guilty of contradicting the teaching of Scripture as summarized in the Westminster Standards (the confession and catechisms of the PCA). This despite the fact that the very same Standing Judicial Commission, which has the authority of the General Assembly, had previously faulted Leithart’s presbytery for not finding a presumption of guilt and proceeding to trial. Things seem to have changed rather dramatically in the PCA since 2007. In this aspect, the picture has changed since I addressed it in January.
There are other concerns. This past GA seems to have decided that administering communion (paedocommunion) to infants is a tolerable exception to the Westminster Standards. Some, perhaps many, confessionalists in the PCA perceive that they are being pushed to margins and sometimes through parliamentary procedure. The PCA has a large and complex Book of Church Order (BCO) and some of its provisions are vague as church orders often are, in order to grant the body a measure of freedom when addressing difficult issues. When trust between the members of a deliberative body (e.g., General Assembly) breaks down, however, what once was liberty can become (or be perceived as) tyranny as minority views are ruled out of order. You can read some of these discussions here and here.
There is open talk in the PCA about whether a split is advisable. Some are calling for more dialogue (here and here) and patience. Some are calling for outside mediation. The moment, however, we begin to say to one another, “Now is not the time to talk about leaving” is the time to talk about leaving. No one says, “don’t talk about leaving” unless people are talking about leaving. No one calls for a mediator unless there is trouble.
The question was recently put to me this way: among the vows ministers take in the PCA, one is to uphold and defend the gospel and another is to submit to the brethren. The question is how to relate the two. Both are important but, I argue, if we value them equally we shall enter into an endless loop. Whenever the gospel is corrupted (e.g., the Federal Vision) and someone complains about it, he can be told, “submit to the brethren.”
The only way out of the loop is to prioritize our ministerial and membership vows. Our first priority must be to the gospel (sola gratia and sola fide) and to the sole, unique, and primary authority of God’s Word (sola Scriptura). These are biblical and Reformation basics. These are the sine qua non (without which nothing) of a Protestant church. If we place submission to the brethren on an equal footing with our adherence to the Gospel, how shall we not become Romanists? To refuse to prioritize the Gospel and Scripture over submission to the brethren necessarily prioritizes the latter over the former two.
This is not a call to dispense with submission to the brethren. Let me be perfectly clear. Sola Scriptura without any idea of submission to the brethren is tending to Anabaptist individualism, it turns sola scriptura into biblicism, i.e., the attempt to read Scripture as if no one else has ever read it or to read it in insolation from the church.
There are other priorities that must be set too. Confession trumps church order. The latter is nothing but a tool to allow the church to do its proper work before the Lord. If a church order becomes so cumbersome and complex as to require canon lawyers, then we have lost a major Reformation battle. Remember, the Reformation inherited a highly complex canon law (the medieval Book of Church Order, if you will). Calvin addressed the problem of the authority of these documents in Institutes 4.10 in several sections (e.g., 1–5). He argued for the priority of the Word over church order. The latter must always serve the former and when it does not it must be discarded. That’s what they did. The Reformation church orders were typically quite brief (30–90 articles). The Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort has 86 articles. They made small booklets. By contrast, the BCO makes a sizable volume.
There is too a tendency among ministers to look at presbytery (in Dutch and German churches, classis) and synod (or GA in presbyterian terms) the way we used to look at elections for class president in school. The temptation is to let the enthusiastic “go-getter” go get it. That’s a mistake, especially when presbytery and GA devolves its authority to committees and those committees become controlled by men who may be more latitudinarian (here, here, here, and here) about theology, piety, and practice. The consequence of leaving church business (beyond one’s congregation) to others may be that one may have to leave the church.
Now may or may not be the time to talk about leaving the PCA. That is for others to decide but it certainly is a time to set priorities and to decide on principles. If one prioritizes adherence to one’s denomination no matter what, then the outcome is predictable. For decades now conservatives in the PCUSA, and then in the CRC have drawn lines in the sand. Often, when those lines have been crossed, new lines are drawn. Eventually, there’s no more beach, only rocks and the incoming tide. In the CRC that tide will be the closing of remaining conscience clauses. The recent actions of the RCA demonstrate that liberalism has a time limit. The clock is running.
Perhaps the clock has begun to tick in the PCA? It is unclear what, if any avenues of appeal or complaint remain to confessionalists in the PCA in the Leithart matter. The SJC meets again in October and there seems to be some hope of a reversal then. If there is none then those who prioritize submission to the brethren over fidelity to the gospel will find themselves living cheek by jowl with ministers who’ve been declared to be in good standing by the SJC, whose distinctive doctrines (i.e., the FV) they find not only odious but that truly strike at the vitals of religion. In that case something necessarily must give way. If submission to the brethren trumps all, then one must find a way to say that the FV or paedocommunion is not really that serious. That is what happened in the PCUSA. Over time, those “conservatives” who stayed ceased being noticeably conservative. This is why “conservative” is not enough.
This is what happens to those who remain in borderline and mainline denominations. One can only resist for so long. Rebels, even though they think of themselves as rebels, begin to conform to their surroundings. This is why Paul says that bad company corrupts good morals. Context matters. Plausibility structures change our perception.2 That conservative scholar who takes a job at a mainline school, after a while, begins to sound like a mainliner. That “conservative” congregation that would never have considered a female minister in the 70s now thinks their female minister is just terrific.
An exhortation to the “winners” at this year’s GA: Be careful for what you wish. You may get it. Looking on from the outside, it seems to me that some thoughtful confessionalists are really upset about not only the outcome but also about the process. Secret email lists and decoder rings are attractive but they are harmful. Political gerrymandering isn’t churchly. Of course I cannot tell if it has actually occurred but the perception that it has occurred and that it is unjust certainly exists. This raises (not begs) the question whether those who favor tolerating paedocommunion and the FV are willing in the PCA without their more confessionally-minded brethren.3
The answer to denominational disappointment is to begin setting one’s house in order. It does not mean leaving just yet but these things cannot be sorted out without the right priorities and principles:
- The Word of God and the Gospel
- The Confession of the Church
- The Church Order (submission to the brethren)
If Reformed folk reverse this order they stand to lose more than a denomination or two.
1. For more on what happened to Machen see N. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir; D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith; Edwin J. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict; J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism.
2. This is a link to a Wikipedia entry. It was relatively sane at the time I linked to it. I take no responsibility for whatever silliness exists by the time you click on this link.
3. The expression “to beg the question” means to assume the conclusion in the premise. E.g., “When did you steal that car?” It does not mean “to raise” or “to ask the question” even though it is frequently abused that way.
Kevin DeYoung, an RCA minister, writes about the removal of the conscience clause:
What’s at stake? It’s hard to know for sure. Presently there are no quotas forcing churches to ordain women, but clearly removing the clauses spells trouble for complementarians. 1) Some conservative students are already blackballed for their views on women’s ordination. Removing constitutional protections makes their ordination process even more difficult. 2) Our ministerial vows make clear that we will conduct our work according to the Book of Church Order. Now that the BCO affirms women’s ordination (which it has for years) without an explicit allowance for those who disagree (what just changed), it remains to be seen where complementarians can make their vows in good faith. 3) Ministers who refuse to participate in the ordination of women open themselves up to the possibility of discipline.