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

An observation about subscription to confessional standards and then granting of exceptions to parts of the standards.

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?

 

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.

James J. Cassidy is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is pastor of South Austin OPC in Austin, Texas. This article is used with permission.



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