17
Jun
2017

When the Exception Becomes the Rule: An Observation from the Recent PCA General Assembly

The below observation is not a criticism of the PCA or the 2017 Assembly. I watched much of the Assembly on-line and was greatly blessed by so many of the things I saw and heard. So, this Assembly, for my purposes here, is an occasion for me to make an observation about subscription as such, and not the PCA as a denomination.

An interesting debate arose during the report of the committee to review Presbyterial records. I do not know the details, only that a Presbytery was cited for having an image of Christ on a worship bulletin. The debate came to the question of whether or not a Presbytery should be cited for this image when the PCA has been generally tolerant toward exceptions to WLC 109 (which explicitly forbids the making of images of any of the three persons of the Godhead). At least one speech—maybe two—said in essence: “it would be very incongruous of us to cite a Presbytery for doing something we have allowed as a denomination for years now.”

I am not a member of the PCA, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of that statement (is it in fact true that the PCA has been tolerant of exceptions to the WLC 109 for years now?). But assuming its veracity, for the sake of this post, the speaker actually made a valid point.

A point, by the way, which actually speaks against the practice of allowing exceptions to the standards in subscription.

How can a church be consistent, and at peace with itself, if it allows exceptions to its confessional standards and then levels disciplinary action against its members (specifically its ministerial members) on the basis of those standards? The speaker was making an argument (which was legit, at least on the surface) that if something is a tolerated exception for a few then it—in effect—becomes tolerated across the church. In other words, that section of the standards becomes—functionally—excised from the book.

The exception becomes the new rule.

Now, the good news is that the motion to cite that Presbytery ended up passing. But the bad news is that once a church allows for exceptions in one part of the church, that exception will end up binding the whole church. And what is worse, it will limit the church’s ability to discipline its members against the standards of the church, particularly relative to those sections that some are exempt from believing or practicing.

Some have said that we may allow exceptions to the standards so long as the person taking the exception promises to not teach or practice their actual convictions. I think that is a horrible attack on Christian conscience. How can we ask a believer to bury their convictions? If a believer does not do or proclaim (since he is called—especially if a minister—to declare the whole counsel of God) what he believes is biblical then he is in sin. Therefore to ask our brethren to not teach or practice their convictions is to ask them to sin. How cruel is that?

And then we become upset at them when we see them print pictures of Jesus. In some ways, their printing the picture of Jesus is not their fault—it’s ours (if we in fact allow them to take that exception in the first place). They are only living according to the new rule that has been established by the exception.

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9 Responses

  1. Good thoughts. I watched the debate as well and was disheartened to see how acceptable violating WLC 109 has become.

    A question: how does the PCA’s practice of allowing exceptions compare to the OPC’s practice of ‘scrupling’? I know of OPC men who ‘scruple’ various parts of the standards, typically regarding Sabbath prohibitions. Is there a meaningful difference?

  2. Good article. I’m a member of ARBCA, and while I don’t think that ARBCA has taken an official stance on this issue yet (our confessional standard is the LBCF 1689, which doesn’t explicitly mention it, and the Baptist Catechism, like the WSC, does not have the explicit language of WLC 109), I do believe that most of the ARBCA leadership and elders of member churches would affirm WLC 109. I suspect if it became a problem there would be a position paper issued to address it.

    I also have a good friend and coworker who is an elder in the PCA, and he said that while their church’s teaching elder does affirm the Westminster Standards’ position on the Lord’s Day, elders are not required to either affirm it or walk according to it. Has PCA leadership also considered that an allowable exception?

  3. I can’t speak for the PCA, John. As far as scruples, the OPC has no position on it. The OPC has no official position on subscription (i.e., how to subscribe). Its left to the Presbyteries. Culturally, few men take exceptions in the OPC, and when they scruple its usually over minor wording, etc.

  4. Many in the OPC hold positions that should be “scrupled” or “excepted,” but they do not. The practice has so deteriorated the meaning of subscription that it makes “good faith” and “strict” subscription indistinguishable.

    In my view, ordinand testing should have some specific questions open to change by GA committee. Permissible exceptions should be expected to be taught. The intentional ambiguity on a host of doctrines has produced this problem and ignoring it any denomination will make matters worse.

    Denominations need to overture on the Standards.

  5. Thanks Ryan. If by that you mean the church should change its standards rather than grant exceptions, I am in full agreement. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the standards should be changed (the Westminster Standards are great the way they stand – leave ’em be!). But if a church is self-consciously moving away from believing or practicing certain things, the church should alter the standards rather than grant exceptions. Its the more intellectually honest way to go.

  6. Jim, you said, “Some have said that we may allow exceptions to the standards so long as the person taking the exception promises to not teach or practice their actual convictions. I think that is a horrible attack on Christian conscience. How can we ask a believer to bury their convictions? If a believer does not do or proclaim (since he is called – especially if a minister – to declare the whole counsel of God) what he believes is biblical then he is in sin. Therefore to ask our brethren to not teach or practice their convictions is to ask them to sin. How cruel is that? ”

    A minister’s scruple or exception to the Standards should not be allowed to bind the consciences of all the members of his church. That is far more “cruel” (to use your word).

    Not only that, but in this particular case, having the pastor refrain from the use of images in the worship of his church cannot reasonably be interpreted as binding his conscience, unless he somehow believed that Scripture *required* him to use images. I certainly hope that no one is silly enough to try to make that argument.

  7. I encountered this in an extreme years ago in the old Northern Church and its Book of Confessions. After a staff person for the college group denied the authority of Scripture, I went to discuss this with one of the ministers. This minster backed the lady up 100% citing the Confession of 1967 that the Bible was written by men.

  8. For information, I think that very few, if any, PCA presbyteries would grant an exception to anyone who believes that it is appropriate to use pictures of Jesus in a worship service. At least the stated difference (the PCA term for scruple) that I’m familiar with are for its use in Sunday School materials. This has become an increasingly common difference, especially for recent graduates of reformed seminaries, and usually judged as “more than semantic, but not out of accord” with our standards. As a result of the exception granted by our presbyteries, men are allowed to teach and practice their difference. The debate on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) Committee minority report last week was both encouraging and discouraging. As Pastor Jim stated, the assembly came down on the right side of the issue, but that may be because some of the more progressive members departed early. The debate was somewhat misleading and discouraging because the distinction between teaching and worship was not made by either side in the debate. It also was discouraging because the majority on the RPR saw no problem with it. The PCA certainly made a major mistake when they voted for Good Faith subscription, and this will lead us to increasingly diverse theologies. If you haven’t read them a couple of good books on subscription are David Hall, ed. 1997. The Practice of Confessional Subscription. The Covenant Foundation, Oak Ridge, TN, and Ian Hamilton 2010. The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy. Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Scotland.

  9. Andy – then in that case the church has already surrendered the regulative principle. Why would any believe that images of Christ are allowable but not required if they believe in the RPW?

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