In a recent essay, I tried to make the case from Westminster Confession 31.4 (in the American version; 31.5 in the 1648 edition) that the current transgender crisis does not fall under “cases extraordinary,” and thus, ecclesiastical assemblies should not be petitioning the government in that matter.1 I made a similar argument against a PCA overture regarding political violence. Here, I want to add to that argument for the spirituality of the church, and wade into the recent Christ the Center discussion with a dear friend and HRA board member, Brad Isbell, on WCF 31.4. In the discussion, as I heard it, Camden Bucey and Brad seemed to agree that the transgender madness plaguing the West does fall under the heading of “cases extraordinary,” so that the visible church is authorized by the Standards to make a humble petition for redress. It was not clear to me if Ryan Noha took a position, but Jim Cassidy argued the other side—I do think Cassidy is correct and I want to explain why. Overall, it is an excellent, gracious discussion and I commend the brothers to you.
Clearing Up A Bad Inference
Before I begin, however, I want to reply to an inference that some seemed to draw from my last essay on this topic. Some inferred that my understanding of the WCF and the spirituality of the church means that I am unconcerned about the transgender madness enveloping society. That simply does not follow. I have often writtten about and warned the church about the current phase of the sexual revolution for several years. The HRA co-hosted a conference by Rosaria Butterfield last summer, and I helped to organize the first conference (for Abounding Grace Radio) a few years ago. It is possible to be opposed to the sexual revolution, as I am, and uphold the spirituality of the church, which is an attempt to try to keep the visible church on task and on message. We can and must do both things.
The issue before us is not whether political violence is wrong. Of course it is. The issue before us is not whether the current transgender madness is a good thing. Of course it is not. Both are destructive, and the mutilation of children by virtue-signaling parents is against nature and ought to be prohibited by law. The issue before the visible church, as an institution, is the nature of the visible church. The question is this: what has Christ commanded the church to do and to say? WCF 31.5 (1648) says:
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth; unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
I am quoting here the article as it appears in the 1648 edition of the Confession. The punctuation in the American revision (as published by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) is different.
Establishing A Confessional Baseline
The first thing we ought to do is to recognize the general limitation imposed by the Assembly: ecclesiastical assemblies ought to “handle” or “conclude” “nothing but. . . ecclesiastical” business. It seems clear now that many who think of themselves as Reformed have little sympathy for this general rule. This seems especially true among those who are advocating for Christian Nationalism of the Wilson-Wolfe variety. There are others, however, who, though not Christian Nationalists, nonetheless seem sure that the church as an institution ought to speak to a range of issues (e.g., women in combat on the right or political violence on the left). It is a great temptation to use the church as a megaphone for one’s social concerns. The mainline Protestant Churches have been doing this for a century. They are nothing but the baptized version of the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. They have largely given up the historic Christian faith and the divinely-given mission of the church. The recent reports about the incredible shrinking of the liberal mainline PCUSA should be a warning to them, but they will continue to do what they have done for the last century or more.
Those in NAPARC who think that they can do on the social-religious right what the mainline has done on the social-religious left with a different outcome read history differently than I do. Further, they have a different understanding of the spirituality of the church than I do. They think that it is fine for the PCUSA to have 127 social position papers. For them, the great problem is not the proliferation of papers—rather, the positions taken. I say that there is no way to square that approach with the first clause of WCF 31.4/5 (American/1648). Few, if any, of these are ecclesiastical in nature. The PCUSA herself calls them “social issues.”
The PCUSA has made a post-Machen career of handling and concluding business that is non- or extra-ecclesiastical. Again, this is not to say that the issues that Christians want to address are insignificant. Many of them are significant, but has Christ called His church, as an institution, to speak to every significant issue? If that is so, then what do we say about Jesus and His Apostles? Do they pass that test? Where did Jesus or His Apostles speak to any of the social issues plaguing first-century Greco-Roman culture? Certainly, we have not a shred of evidence in the New Testament of the church as an institution speaking to the many issues in the culture at the time. The list of those issues is just as great as ours today. Indeed, the lists are not all that different. Chemical abortions were widespread. Human trafficking was a problem. The abuse of the poor and marginalized was an issue. The Roman government was an expert in cruelty. Do we forget that they crucified not only Jesus, but also thousands of others (including, if tradition is to be believed, the Apostle Peter, and him upside-down)? It is possible that Paul alludes to, and implicitly speaks against, the Greco-Roman practice of slavery in Philemon, but the very fact that we have to draw an inference from a possible allusion is telling. Certainly, Scripture calls us to be different from the world, and Paul regularly drew implicit contrasts between the prevailing culture (e.g., sexual immorality, idolatry of the state, ethnolinguistic segregation) and the Christian ethic, and so should we do today. That is rather different from the visible church, an institution, speaking authoritatively to social issues on behalf of the entire denomination.
The Westminster Divines used the verb “intermeddle” to characterize those unwanted position papers. The PCUSA has been intermeddling in civil affairs for a century. This is not a pattern that the PCUSA or any other confessional Reformed denomination should seek to imitate. Their use of “intermeddle” is instructive. It tells us that the bias of the church should be to keep quiet on almost everything. Women in combat is a civil or secular matter, not a matter for the church. If the church wants to revise her confession to articulate more clearly what she confesses regarding nature and sex, that could be a thing. The Early Church Fathers spoke against the Gnostics and affirmed the goodness of nature. We are beset by pagans and evangelicals who are more influenced by Gnosticism than they realize. There is a case to be made that the church should confess to her members and to the world that she believes that the world was made by God and He made it good. It is fallen, but that fact does not obliterate the divine intention nor the goodness of creation per se. It may be wise for the church to confess that God created humans male and female, and that there are fixed boundaries to reality that are divinely established, reflected in nature, and mere conventions—or not endlessly plastic as the postmodernists tell us. So, the spirituality of the church does not mean that she must remain mute regarding the challenges of our times. It is a limit, however, on what the church, as an institution, may say to the magistrate.
The Divines were specific about the sphere on which the church, as an institution, is not ordinarily speak supposed to speak: “civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” Issues such as political violence, the sexual revolution (in all its facets), and women in combat are all inarguably “civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” Christians are affected by them, but they are not uniquely affected by such matters. This helps us to understand “cases extraordinary.” That phrase was not intended to be taken to mean, “Wow, that is really bad. The church should say something.” The Assembly met at the behest of Parliament (to which I will return), and it did so during the English Civil War. For most of us, cannon balls being launched toward our town—one can still see damage in Oxford from the war—would seem to be “extraordinary,” but not so for the Divines. They meant something different.
The visible church may be affected, but I contend that she may petition the magistrate when she is uniquely affected by a decision or policy of the magistrate. When might that be? The Covid lockdowns of churches are one such case. Even secular courts were able to see that policies that closed churches but left open casinos, were flatly discriminatory against religious gatherings and speech. The civil magistrate had no authority to close Christian churches.2 Arguably, the church, as an institution, had a right to petition the magistrate for relief, which some did, and they won.
The persecution of Christians and Christian churches is another ground for a humble petition of the magistrate for relief. Persecution is contrary to the nature of the state, the principal function of which is to preserve public safety. When a magistrate either persecutes the church (as she did frequently during the Patristic and Reformation periods) or tolerates the persecution of the church, he is failing to uphold a natural duty and the implied contract between citizens and the state. Self-defense and safety is a natural, God-given right. This was part of Calvin’s case for the lesser magistrate. The Continental Congress was a lesser magistrate to which Americans appealed for relief from the abuses perpetrated by the British crown. Should, for example, the State of California turn a blind eye to Antifa-style attacks on churches, we would have a right to appeal to the Sheriff of San Diego and to the Escondido Police Department for relief and protection and, of course, all citizens retain the natural right of self-defense. The doctrine and practice of the spirituality of the church is not a recipe for pacifism.
Sorting Out Semicolons
Punctuation as we know it developed gradually during the middle ages. In the period when the Divines were writing, the rules for spelling and punctuation were not standardized, and they had as much to do with reading a text aloud as they did with reading a text to oneself. In the podcast episode that stimulated this essay, the brothers were discussing semicolons and how they affect our understanding of WCF 31.4/5. It was argued that the final clause WCF 31.4/5, “if they be required thereunto by the Civil Magistrate,” controls only what comes after the last semicolon. In other words, the phrases “or by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience” are the only phrases to which “if they be required thereunto” controls.3
After the noun “commonwealth” the Divines inserted a pair of semicolons. In modern English, usage the semicolon is mainly used in two ways: to set off a list or to add a short thought to a sentence. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS, 17th edition) says:
In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would…
She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no sea water-resistant watch would do.
Though a gifted writer, Miqueas has never bothered to master the semicolon; he insists that half a colon is no colon at all. 4
The CMS gives examples of other uses, like after conjunctive adverbs such as however, hence, whence, thence, indeed, etc.5
The accuracy of Jesse’s watch was never in question; besides. . . .
Semicolons are also used with “that is,” “for example,” “namely” etc.6
Our use and understanding of punctuation generally differs from that of the Divines. What the English call brackets and what we Americans call parentheses existed, in a form, before the Assembly but they were not widely used. The semicolons in the 1648 edition of the Confession seem to function more like parentheses than like semicolons as we use them now. The more I read the confession and learn about the history of punctuation—for example, M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (Berkely: University of California Press, 1993)—the less certain I am about what exactly the Divines were doing there but, in any event, it does not seem that we may read our usage back into theirs. 7
Finally, I want to address a weakness in my previous essay. I should have taken better account of the last clause: “if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” Even if we restrict that clause to everything after the last semicolon, it still limits rather strictly the instances in which the church may humbly petition the civil magistrate. When was the last time the magistrate asked for the opinion of the Christian churches in the USA on anything? I suppose it has happened, but I also suppose that it has been some time since it has happened. Certainly, the magistrate has not asked for the church’s opinion on women in combat, the transgender crisis, or any of the other 127 positions taken by the PCUSA. If the magistrate has to ask us to speak “for satisfaction of conscience” or “by way of advice,” then the visible church should not be speaking until spoken to—that is, if she is speaking to satisfy conscience or to give advice, which is what the PCUSA has been doing and what some in the the PCA are thinking of doing. If the requirement of the magistrate governs what is within the semicolons, then the church should not speak to “cases extraordinary” even after she is asked.
In any event, the first limit and the last in WCF 31.4/5 should be respected and not ignored when the church is considering taking a denominational position on a social issue, and thereby binding the conscience of all her members.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. The American revision of the Westminster Confession removed art. 2 of ch. 31, which authorized magistrates to convene synods.
3. It was not clear to me from the episode which version they were discussing so for the sake of ascertaining the sense of the authors of the original text, let us focus on the WCF 31.5 as published by the Divines.
4. The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 6.56.
5. Ibid., 6.57.
6. Ibid, 6.58.
7. Parkes writes,
When the Irish embraced Christianity, their zeal for the Bible, and other written sources of Christianity, led them to pursue a vigorous study of the Latin language, in which these texts were written. Since Irish is not a Romance language, its speakers tended to regard Latin, primarily as a written or ‘visible’ language used for transmitting texts: they apprehended it as much (if not more) by the eye, as by the ear. Consequently, and perhaps further encouraged by observations which they had found in the works of Isidore of Seville, they more readily perceived the written medium as a different manifestation of language, with its own ‘substance,’ and with a status, equivalent to, but independent of, that of any spoken opposite number, it may have had… These graphic conventions were derived from the processes by which the Irish had acquired their knowledge of the Latin language. They relied heavily on the works of ancient grammarians, which were based upon the perception of the word as an isolable linguistic phenomenon, and employed morphological criteria to establish a set of word – classes (which the grammarians called ‘ parts of speech’) . When Irish scribes, copied Latin texts. They soon abandoned the scriptio continua which they had found in their exemplars. Instead, they adopted as the basis for their scribal practices, the morphological criteria which they had encountered in the analyses of the grammarians: they set out the parts of speech by introducing spaces between words. This process is well advanced in datable manuscripts produced at the end of the seventh century, and beginning of the eighth century.
Parkes includes a number of plates (photographs) in this work, one of which is of a beautifully printed text from 1494 by P. Bembo and printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice. Parkes comments on the rise of the semicolon:
the first Latin text, printed by Aldus incorporates a number of punctuation and symbols developed or exploited by humanist scholars: vigiliae convexae (called ‘lunulae‘ by Erasmus) enclose a parenthesis, and the shortened vigiliae suspensiva… Is represented by the small, semi circular mark on the line, which is become familiar to the modern reader as the comma. The semi-colon symbol makes its earliest datable appearance in print in this book; since it is readily distinguishable from the sign used to indicate the abbreviation –que…, the sort must have been specially cut. This symbol appears to have originated in the humanist Circle, which included Pietro Bembo, and his father, Bernardo, as well as Aldus himself. In 1566, Aldus’s grandson, Aldus the younger, described the function of this symbol as falling between that of a comma and that of a colon, and hence its shape was determined by elements derived from each—the high point from the colon, the semi circular mark from the comma.
From Parkes’ explanation, I infer that it seems likely that the function of the semicolon in the 1640s, in England, may not have been well established or its meaning fixed. Remember, spelling was rather fluid—the same word may be spelled in different ways in the same paragraph in pre-modern texts—until the 19th century. The same seems to be true for punctuation marks. Punctuation in pre-modern Latin texts, with which the Divines were well familiar, has as much to do with how a text was to be read aloud as it did with how the text was to be interpreted grammatically.
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