What Do Good Faith Exceptions Do To The PCA?

Good Faith Subscription (GFS), the practice of allowing a man to assent to most of the Westminster Standards in “good faith” while allowing him to state minor differences in parts, has been practiced in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for almost 20 years.

The practice was officially amended into the PCA’s Book of Church Order when Overture 10 passed at the 31st General Assembly (see 2003 GA minutespp. 50-51, 54-56). This amendment required each candidate for the gospel ministry in the PCA to state in his own words any differences with the Westminster Standards (the Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as adopted by the PCA). Presbyteries are permitted to grant differences as “exceptions” to the Standards if the court determined that the difference “is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

Overture 10 from the 31st GA and overtures since adopted (see 2011 GA minutes, p. 25; 2012 GA minutes, pp. 63, 75, 105-107; 2013 GA minutes, p. 17) are unequivocally concerned with GA’s oversight of the peace, purity, and unity of the Church. However, to my knowledge, no one has systematically attempted to document how widespread the practice of “being granted exceptions” is or which Standards the practice touches, information that should be critical to GA’s oversight.

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Matthew Lee | “Exceptionalism in the PCA” | February 21st, 2024


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6 comments

  1. When I first encountered the Westminster Confession it did not occur to me that I could or should have any exceptions to it. In fact I did not consider myself a Presbyterian after accepting the Biblical doctrine of infant baptism UNTIL I had also agreed to everything it says about church government. So I worked on it until I was in agreement – I distinctly remembered wincing about the doctrine of the keys to the kingdom.
    Good Faith Subscription seems to me to be a recipe for a low trust culture. Which probably explains all the many ‘factions’ within the PCA which seem to be absent in other NAPARC denominations.

    • I think you can certainly find factions in any NAPARC denomination to be sure. Although the exceptions issue is difficult, it is true that practically pastors will take exceptions in other groups without mentioning it. At least with the PCA it is officially on record. The amount of OPC or even URC office bearers I’ve met who said they disagree with their standards on the sabbath etc is high.

      All this to say, yes, good faith could be a contributing factor to a low trust culture but it is not as damaging I think as full subscriptions with “silent” disagreement

  2. Does anyone know of particular PCA congregations/Sessions that report exceptions to the standards granted to RE nominees by the Session who examines them. If so, how is the congregation informed of those exceptions before the congregational meeting when the election will take place? We are having our first officer elections in 15 years in our congregation and the training will soon be completed and a slate presented in August.

    • I asked about RE exceptions once after overhearing a conversation that showed little regard for the 4th C. I was informed that REs do not specifically address this when ordained, but merely acknowledge general agreement with the standards.

  3. Great work by Matthew Lee. If a denomination is going to allow exceptions to its confessions (and there is a very long history of that in American Presbyterianism, unlike the much stricter Dutch Reformed approach to the Form of Subscription), a record needs to be made of those exceptions, and that record needs to be made widely available, not buried in hard-to-access minutes of presbytery meetings.

    A comment on this is relevant: “If anything, exceptions may be undercounted in my analysis. For example, Korean Language Presbyteries had twice as many flagged items as other presbyteries, but were three times as likely to have a man stating no differences. If KLPs are overrepresented in this sample, men who state no differences may be overrepresented as well.”

    I am all too aware of the issue here and the author has hit on an important point. Confessional subscription in Korean Presbyterianism works differently in actual practice from the way things operate in either the Dutch Reformed or the American Presbyterian world. That is not unique to the PCA, or to the heritage of ethnic minority presbyteries in older American denominations, and sometimes has been positive when the minority groups have remained conservative but the larger denominations did not. That wasn’t my own personal experience when I repeatedly refused many efforts over many years to get me to join the PCA, but it has historically been the experience of some other denominations so I don’t want to generalize from my less-positive experience to positive experiences that others may have had elsewhere.

  4. Im in a PCA church and I’m in a confessionally reformed church thankfully. I’m primarily dutch reformed but no URCNA churches in my area. Great pastor and great elders and deacons who know the standards. This is awesome but take a trip down south all the way to florida. There you’ll find a church by the name of spanish river. It is charismatic out the wazoo. The PCA has this broad tent approach which in my opinion is straight up embarrassing. I wish the PCA could take these churches and tell them to get with the program and become more confessionally reformed or we’ll just kick you out. I think there’s a big theological battle that’s about to go down in the PCA soon and if your reading this and your a reformed confessional presbyterian you better show up to general assembly and speak up against any non confessional nonsense that seem to be at the General assembly every year.

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