David Cassidy says it is:
It’s time for a “swords into plowshares” day to dawn in the PCA. I don’t know that those who hold to strict subscription – or its defacto form of forbidding the teaching of allowable exceptions – can stay in community with good faith subscription brothers and build together. Perhaps not. But I hope so. After all, both love the Lord Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and his Church. Both are committed to the Great Commission. Both need one another. But neither can be animated by the condescending spirit of neo-fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has no place in our fellowship and will surely displace many. Indeed, that has already begun.
This is a strange way to think about one’s confessional commitment.
A church adopts a centuries-old confession of faith, in which the church has expressed its considered views on certain topics. Graciously, however, that denomination grants to candidates for her ministry the right to express reservations or to take exceptions to certain words, phrases, or views in the confession so long as they do not touch what the denomination regards as the “vitals of religion.” Curiously, the denomination does not define that term but still, at his ordination even the minister who has been granted some exceptions to the confession of his denomination takes an oath to uphold and defend a certain theology, piety, and practice.
The denomination has taken official positions on the views expressed in its confession and catechisms. Are those views “fundamentalist,” i.e., narrow and bigoted? The minister did not think so when he subscribed the Standards and swore to uphold them. Now he has registered his dissent on certain points but how is it that, should the denomination require him to remain silent on those things on which he dissents from the Standards, the denomination is now fundamentalist?
As far as I know, ordination to ministry in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches is a voluntary act. In all the ordinations I have witnessed since 1987, including my own in 1988, I have yet to see someone subscribe the doctrinal standards of the church while someone else holds a knife or a gun to his head.
Given that every candidate for ministry knows what the doctrinal standards are of his denomination when he applies for ordination and when he is granted exceptions to certain points, it is difficult to see how asking that minister, who, for whatever reason, cannot bring himself to subscribe to the Standards without exception, not to teach contrary to the standards is anything but eminently reasonable.
Make no mistake about it: teaching exceptions to the Standards is teaching contrary to the Standards. If one wants to teach contrary to the Standards, why join a denomination where they actually still believe the Standards? Why not serve in a denomination where the Standards are not really normative?
Consider the ruling elders, deacons, and laity in a congregation where the minister demands the right to teach contrary to the Standards. Those believers joined the church with the expectation that the ministers would uphold the Standards and not contradict them. Where are they supposed to go to hear the faith that they hold, the faith that their denomination says it holds, taught and defended? Why would the laity support financially a ministry, conducted in the name of their denomination, that contradicts what they confess?
If the minister objects, “But the points on which I disagree with the Standards are really quite minor.” If they are so minor, why did the church bother confessing a view? After all, the churches do not confess on every possible question so, it would seem that where the churches do confess that confession has some weight. If the disagreement really is minor, why is the dissenter demanding the right to teach contrary to the Standards? If these are minor points, why not remain silent about them for the sake of the peace and purity of the church? The demand to be allowed to contradict the Standards in the conduct of one’s ministry suggests that the dissenting minister regards them as significant. If they are significant then the question arises again, why is the minister in a denomination where the Standards are still sincerely held and taught?
If these issues are such that the dissenting minister feels compelled to teach contrary to the Standards then why does he not seek to revise the Standards? Why not pursue this matter in the courts and assemblies of the church? Perhaps the dissenter is right and the Standards are, in fact, out of accord with God’s Word? Is this not what Presbyterian and Reformed ministers do: seek the reformation of the church according to God’s Word? If the matter is not so severe as to require reformation through confessional revision, then, again, one wonders, why is the dissenter insisting on the liberty to teach contrary to the Standards?
How is it that the church is guilty of fundamentalism for requiring a minister, whom she has graciously admitted to her ministry despite his misgivings about her Standards, either to uphold the Standards or to be silent about his dissent? If one was hired to write for the New York Times but consistently promoted in columns and otherwise the views advocated in the pages of the New York Post, one can imagine how confused both the Times and the readers of the Times might be (and how delighted the publisher The Post must be).
One can only imagine how confusing it must be for the members of a congregation to hear a minister publicly contradict the Standards of the church of which one is a member. Imagine bringing a visitor to church:
Visitor: That was an interesting sermon. Is that what your church believes?
Member: Well, technically no. We actually disagree. We take the opposite view.
Visitor: That is odd. Why does your minister contradict what your denomination believes?
Member: Well, it is complicated. We were trying to be nice and accommodating but if we do not allow him to contradict us on this and other points he will call us fundamentalist and we cannot have that.
Visitor: Oh. Your church seems a little dysfunctional. Maybe you should get some family counseling.
Member: Maybe we should.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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