One of my best friends, a member of Denomination X, visited with my wife and me in Destin a few weeks ago. He was on his way to a gathering of college students. The next morning we went to breakfast before he had to head on his way. During our conversation he asked me this question: “Do you think Denomination X can be turned around?” I quickly replied, “No, I do not think so.” He asked, “Why? Is it because of one of the prominent issues facing the denomination?” My answer was this: “No, it is because of an issue that no one is talking about.” “What is that?” “It is the incremental change of the denomination from a grassroots denomination into a hierarchy by annual changes to the BCO, especially to the Form of Government.” Then, I began to explain to him why Denomination X being transformed into a hierarchy was such a problem.
When I was in Denomination X, there was absolutely no one that I could find that was even the least bit concerned about the creeping hierarchy of it. I once wrote a number of articles for a popular online magazine (that now will no longer print anything I write) and the editor of that magazine is one of the stalwarts in trying to take back Denomination X. He told me when I was writing an article about the hierarchical government of Denomination X, “Do not criticize the polity of Denomination X.” Therein is the problem. Even the champions for the reform of Denomination X do not want to touch the issue that is killing the denomination.
There are a number of ways that Denomination X has become hierarchical. First, the Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly is now the final word on all judicial cases, unless there are 1/3 of the voting commissioners of the SJC that vote against the majority report. The Assembly does not get a vote on those decisions that are passed by more than 2/3 of the members of the SJC. When I was on the Standing Judicial Commission from 1988 to 2010, the General Assembly had to approve the decisions of the SJC and could vote to replace the majority report with the minority report. Those days are over.
Second, the various permanent committees of the General Assembly control Denomination X administrativelynow. There are many examples of this. The home missions committee of Denomination X has been able to work it out that no presbytery or congregation will be allowed to start any mission church, with or without denominational funding, unless the potential organizing pastor has first been approved by the denominational “experts” at the General Assembly level. What that does is ensure that the only men ever approved to start churches are men who are in line with the hierarchy. No one wants to be a bad Presbyterian by disagreeing with all the “expert” knowledge of the denomination. I could give examples concerning the other GA committees, also.
Third, there is a committee of the GA called the Administrative Committee. It is composed of the Coordinators or some other member of the various other GA Committees, plus the Stated Clerk of the GA. The BCO of Denomination X gives that committee powers that Scripturally only belong to presbyteries. The Administrative Committee can refer business to the floor of the GA as if that committee was a lower court. In fact, it has more power than a lower court because it establishes the agenda for the whole General Assembly. What that means is that the agenda of Denomination X is coming from the top down, not from the lower courts up. That is hierarchy, pure and simple.
Fourth, there are very few meaningful votes that take place at the GA of Denomination X anymore. There is the election of the Moderator every year. Occasionally, there is the election of a new Stated Clerk or a Coordinator of a Permanent Committee. There are votes cast on the various overtures—mostly to the BCO. Then, there are votes on the elections of TE’s and RE’s to serve on the various committees. Sometimes, there are votes on special or ad-interim committee reports. All the other votes are votes simply to approve the reports of the various Permanent Committees which committees act autonomously from the GA. In other words, Denomination X does not have any control over its own Permanent Committees after electing the members of them. The tail wags the dog in Denomination X—not the other way around.
Time would fail me if I went into detail about all the hierarchical developments of Denomination X over the past 40 years. If you are able to find a BCO of Denomination X from the 1970’s or early 1980’s, just compare it with what the BCO looks like today. The Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) of Denomination X is now almost as large as the BCO of the denomination was in 1980. And no one knows what is in the RAO. But, if you have ever tried to stand up at GA and make a motion for some new business, you were promptly called out of order because what you were doing was against the RAO. Unexpected business is not allowed in hierarchical denominations and rules are made to prevent such unexpected business. The rulers do not like to be blindsided in hierarchies.
Now, some people might prefer the hierarchical system because of its efficiency. But consider this illustration for a moment. In a hierarchical system, Acts 15 would not have been allowed—which was the decision by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning the question of the circumcision of Gentile converts to the faith. That question arose from the church at Antioch and was brought to the Apostles in Jerusalem because of the disturbance caused among the Galatian churches by certain men from Jerusalem. Under a hierarchical system, the whole question could have been answered in this way: “Our mission committee has already ruled on this matter and circumcision is required for all believers. In fact, the men you call trouble makers were representing this body.” If the same matter was brought to the Assembly by an appeal or complaint, the Judicial wing could have ruled this way: “The matter is covered clearly in our confession andBCO and there is no need for further discussion.” That would have been a sham answer. In a hierarchy, the BCO is not the ultimate authority—nor is the confession nor even the Scripture. Why? Because hierarchies are the rule of men whereas true Presbyterianism is the rule of Christ. Understand what I am saying. I am not saying historic Presbyterianism has been the rule of Christ. It most certainly has not for the most part. Most Presbyterian denominations have quickly abandoned the Scriptural form of church government by a plurality of elders and swiftly moved to replace it with some hybrid form of hierarchy. True Presbyterianism has scarcely ever existed in this world. The reason is given to us in Psalm 2:2, 3—“The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’” Instead of “kings,” just substitute “denominations.” That is what denominations do. I have heard denominational “leaders” or “rulers” many times say, “We are the rulers. What we decide to do is right.” True Presbyterianism is just the opposite. It says, “We must do what Christ tells us to do in the Scripture and be silent where the Scripture is silent.” In 47 years in the ministry, I have never heard any committee chairman or “ruler” say the above in a Presbyterian church—nor in any other denomination. Therein is the problem with hierarchy. Men like to rule rather than be subject to Christ. Thus, they say in effect, “Let us go beyond the simple rules of church government in the Scripture. We need to make some rules that give us the power to make sure things go our way.”
So, what needs to happen to get rid of hierarchy in Denomination X? The present BCO with all its supplements needs to be totally replaced by the version that was adopted in the beginning. There would still be a lot of problems to be overcome even if that is done, but Denomination X will not and cannot be reclaimed as long as the hierarchy is left in place. I fear that some of the conservatives in Denomination X think that if they can just elect their leaders into the chief positions in Denomination X, then everything will be fine. That would be like to trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Power corrupts. Many of the teaching and/or ruling elders who are conservatives today will become progressives if enough power is given to them. Hierarchy corrupts and it always leads to theological liberalism. The answer is not in winning the floor battles of Denomination X. The answer is in scrapping the entire BCO of that denomination and starting over with a simple and Scriptural BCO. That is a huge task and it would just be the beginning. Once that is done, then the real work of reforming Denomination X can begin. Until that is done, the whole thing is a hopeless task.
Once again, someone will object that there are many faithful pastors and churches in Denomination X, so there is hope for the future. Yes, that is true that there are many faithful pastors and churches in denominations—for now. We cannot boast about tomorrow, though, and if history is any guide to us the future for those faithful churches is not bright. Someday their faithful pastors will leave or retire and it will become more difficult to find faithful successors. Meanwhile, the hierarchy will continue to push everyone into the same monolithic mold—a progressive mold. There will certainly be smaller victories by the conservatives, but the progressive trend of Denomination X will keep rolling along like a mighty river as long as the hierarchy is intact.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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