Convenient Confessionalism

October 26, 2011

The current progression of situations in presbyteries, leading to actions contrary to the Word of God and inconsistent with historic Christian doctrine, has caused a crisis of conscience requiring some congregations to look for a way to disassociate from this waywardness. They need a way to live according to their consciences, shaped by the Word of God. Some have opted for relief of conscience through the adoption of ordination requirements or essential tenets in their procedural manuals.

What happens when a presbytery adopts a list of theological tenets it has agreed are essential to the faith?  What happens when a presbytery adopts ordination standards for itself, based on its understanding of Scripture and the Confessions? Let’s even add to the scenario: let’s say it can be demonstrated that there is a strong scriptural and confessional rationale for every single tenet and standard agreed to by the ordaining body?

Here is what happened in at least one presbytery with which I am acquainted: somebody piped up with a protest and filed a remedial case, saying, “You can’t do that! You can’t establish essentials tenets in advance. Those have to be identified on a case-by-case basis with every candidate!” Parenthetically, if our forebears had believed this was at the heart of the Reformed Tradition, we would have no creeds, confessions, or catechisms. But we do have such documents, because church leaders understood it was important to have our beliefs written down and agreed to, for the peace, unity, and purity of the church.

As a general rule, candidates inspire and move me with their orthodox statements of faith. But it also happens that presbyters suffer through the inarticulate statements of faith of candidates, who can be forgiven somewhat for inelegance but not for doctrinal error. However, when a teaching elder will not make a clear statement about substitutionary atonement when asked to clarify (see October 10 post here), a presbytery must exert its discipling muscle and guide the tongue-tied through an examination that contains no obfuscation or avoidance. We do have standards, which ordained officers have vowed to uphold; they are doctrinal standards (belief) as well as behavioral standards (practice). Theology matters, or at least it did in the PCUSA until recent PJC decisions suggested otherwise.

Now the Book of Order is changed, and judicial commissions at the Synod and GA level have failed to act according to their constitutional responsibility to warn and bear witness against error in doctrine within their bounds (G-3.0401c). As a result of this abdication of responsibility, presbyteries can pretty much do what they like theologically at the time of an examination for ordination or installation. If they agree to accept an errant doctrine in a candidate’s statement of faith, it’s done. And it’s unlikely that a higher judicatory will warn or rebuke them. The goal of the whole scheme to remove the fidelity and chastity standard as a requirement for ordination was “local option,” and that is what we have now. Ordinations can occur in one presbytery that cannot be affirmed in another.

Which leads us to convenient confessionalism: what virtue do these people feel they are exhibiting first, by refusing to allow the agreement upon some biblically and confessionally essential tenets, and secondly, by turning around and saying some other doctrine must be accepted? They are opening the front door to new ideas permissively, and then ushering the old out the back door so only the new ideas remain as the New Essentials. Only for a few minutes do the two views occupy the house together. Mark my words, the PCUSA of the future will hold no resemblance to the Reformed Tradition after this theological metamorphosis is complete. Then, it will be convenient for those not held to orthodoxy to become very dogmatic in their insistence upon a liberal point of view.

Dorothy L. Sayers, in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, claims, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church. . . . The plot pivots upon a single character, . . ..” The church will live into its calling if it holds fast to this drama, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and define its life around obedience to the Word become flesh, made known to us in the Word Written, Proclaimed, and Enacted. Sometimes Christ’s message is not convenient or welcome upon first hearing, but as we align ourselves with it in living, breathing obedience to our Savior, we shall find a dogma that shapes us and not we it.

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8 Responses to “Convenient Confessionalism”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Very well said Mary. I have watched my Presbytery go down this sad road. All confessional standards out the back door-now all we are called to do is listen and be congenial.


  2. Great blog, Mary. When truth is not an issue, process is deified.

  3. L. Lee Says:

    It is like a tidal wave that leaves distruction in it’s wake.
    Is there any hope in the next generation to come forward and “clean up” the mess? Do you see the next generation taking up a different torch or the same?
    Thanks for being a spiritual warrior in the battle!

  4. Rev. Ralph E Says:

    Substitutionary atonement is not an essential tenet. The atonement is an essential tenet, but substitutionary atonement is simply one theory of how atonement is accomplished. There have been at least three classic interpretations of the function of the atonement in the history of the church. Substitutionary atonement was the product of St. Anselm.

    • Matt Ferguson Says:

      “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; And that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3, 4).” Enough said

  5. Deborah Milam Berkley Says:

    So it sounds like, if that remedial case wins the day, we will eventually have as many doctrines as we have ministers. Eventually it will not even be worthwhile calling the PCUSA Christian. At least that is the logical course that would follow: when all “essential tenets” are acceptable on a case-by-case basis for each candidate, why should even Christianity be one of them?

  6. Peajay Says:

    Was it Richard John Neuhaus who said “Where Orthodoxy becomes optional it will soon become prohibited”?

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