Shall We Trust Church Courts Implicitly?

In his excellent commentary, The Confession of Faith, Archibald Alexander Hodge wrote the following concerning Chapter XXXI, Of Synods and Councils:

As we have seen in the last chapter, all Church power is vested by Christ in the Church as a whole—not as a mob, but as an organized body. As organized, the Church consists of presbyters or bishops and the people, and the people are represented by lay or ruling elders. This necessarily gives origin to the session or parochial presbytery, consisting of bishop or pastor, and the ruling elders or representatives of the people. In this body the entire ecclesiastical power of the whole congregation is vested. It admits candidates to the sealing ordinances, exercises pastoral care and discipline over the members, and regulates public worship. (A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961, p. 373).   

The power of the church is vested in the whole body. Thus, those who govern receive their authority to do so from those who are governed. It is not the other way around (though that is too often the way that Presbyterians think). Those who rule in the church, whether teaching elders or ruling elders, are both alike chosen by the people. Their authority to govern was conferred on them by their election. This point is frequently not considered enough. The US Constitution is almost identical to the principles of Presbyterian church government. Our mayors, governors, state and federal rulers are elected by the people and they are accountable to the people. The government of the people is by the consent of the governed. For that reason, the Preamble to the Constitution begins with these words: 

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 There is no such Preamble to the Book of Church Order of Vanguard Presbyterian Church or any other denomination of which I am aware. Of course, there is a reason for that. All true branches of the Church universal acknowledge that government does not originate with the governed, but with the One who has ultimate government over them—Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the Church. It is He who has vested the authority of Church government in the whole body. Therefore, the first principle we must acknowledge is that church government does not originate with the church courts or synods—session, presbytery, and General Assembly. The power is described and defined in the Word of God. Christ is the One who gives that power to believers as they are united together into a local church. This principle mitigates the wrong idea that church power is hierarchical or top down. 

Last week I ran across a change to the BCO of a particular unnamed denomination concerning the nomination and election of church officers. After clarifying the typical process of receiving nominations from the members, training those nominees, examining and approving those nominees, and presenting those who are found to be Scripturally qualified to be officers to the congregation for election, that BCO says: “Notwithstanding the above, the Session may render a decision on Christian experience at any point in the process, and based on that decision, may judge him disqualified for that election.” Someone might ask: Well, what is wrong with that? Doesn’t the Session have such authority? And aren’t we supposed to trust and submit to the Session (or, the presbytery; or, the General Assembly)? In other words, are not members of the church supposed to give the court implicit trust in all their decisions unless it can clearly be shown that they acted with wrong motives or malice aforethought? Well. . . NO! Here is why.

In the words of Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3: “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and have erred. Therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help to both.” There are many instances in which I have heard or read that church sessions, presbyteries, or General Assemblies have asked for total submission in such words as these: “Just trust your session in the decisions we make, whether you know what we have done or why we have done it. Just trust us.” Those are not the words of officers who understand that they are responsible to the people they govern or that there is One who is over them—Whose rules the session must follow implicitly. Those are the words of spiritual abusers who often act in secret and use guilt manipulation to silence any criticism. Submission to our leaders is not total. It is only as extensive as obedience to Christ requires of us. We submit to our leaders only to the extent that such obedience does not require us to disobey Christ. There are very definite limits to such obedience to our leaders or trust in them. 

Concerning the BCO change referenced above, we must note the following. First, that change effectively takes the right of choosing the officers of a congregation away from the people and puts it squarely in the hands of the members of a session. The session then becomes a self-perpetuating cabal. They may be known, but their actions are secretive. If the session disapproves a nominee for any reason at any time they can cloak their reasons for doing so under the “Christian experience” loophole. In this respect, that loophole is large enough to march a 200,000,000 man army through it. “Christian experience” can be used to mean anything or everything that a session wants it to mean. The action can be taken by the session with no recourse given to the congregation. 

Second, that BCO change denies the congregation the right of dissent. Without the right of dissent, a society ceases to be free. Even if the action becomes known, the members of a congregation have no way to effectively file a complaint with the higher court because the BCO gives the session the unfettered right to decide however they desire concerning the candidacy of any officer nominee.

What if the United States was like that? What if the President, Vice President and the Cabinet had the power to approve or disapprove the ability of any person of any party from running for office on the basis that their character and experience was deemed deficient? What if those officials could take that action without giving any reason for why they did so? Would the citizens of the US blindly agree that we simply have to learn to trust our leaders since they claim to want what is best for us? Thankfully, we are not at that point in this nation—not yet. What if social media could cancel any person for any reason that they deemed sufficient without recriminations? Oops. We are already there. What if school boards could support the LGTBQ movement and silence the free speech of Christians? Oops. We are already there. What if the President of the US signed an executive order requiring chaplains to support the crazy “I feel like a female today” movement contrary to their religious beliefs and consciences? Oops. We are already there. I could go on and on.  

Now, if the conservatives in denomination X are really serious about taking back control of their denomination, they should do this. Put forth an overture to delete that new addition to the BCO that gives sessions total control over the election of church officers. That new rule is a clear and present danger to the future and well-being of the denomination regardless of what is ever decided on the same-sex attraction intrigue. If that rule remains in place, there is absolutely no hope for that denomination regardless of any other votes. Another overture to forbid men from being qualified to become officers if they claim to be same-sex attracted will probably go down in defeat once again, if tried.   

I am thankful that Vanguard Presbyterian Church does not have such a stupid rule and never will (since all changes to our BCO require that someone prove the Scriptural necessity of such a change before it can be received for consideration). Meanwhile, the BCO change referenced above is proof that that denomination has already adopted the basic principle of cancel culture—the ability to cancel anyone at any time for any reason that one deems necessary. It is very sad when the Church adopts the ways of the world. The mission of the Church is to establish the rule of Christ on this earth—not to become like the world. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often taught—the Church is only attractive to the world when it is different than the world. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

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