It should be noted from this report that the 16th GA did not declare paedocommunion as an allowable exception. The report declared that “classical Reformed theology has been virtually unanimous in judging that covenant children ought not to be brought to the Lord’s Table before the age of discretion.”
Though it has been described as “the closest thing the PCA has to purgatory,” it has been my privilege the past two years to serve on the PCA Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Just in case you are unaware, this committee reviews the minutes of the 79 PCA Presbyteries to see that all things are done decently and in order, and in a manner consistent with our denomination’s constitution. Two topics were of particular interest this year: paedocommunion and the question of women serving as deaconesses or unordained deacons.
In January 2010, Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNW), examined an ordinand who expressed disagreement with WLC 177 which states that the Lord’s Supper is to be administered “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” In expressing his disagreement, the candidate espoused the position that Scripture nowhere prohibits young children from coming to the Lord’s Table, and that only the practical matter of inability to take solid food should prevent them. The Presbytery found the candidate’s exceptions to be “more than semantic but not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4). It further empowered the man to be given “full liberty to preach and teach” his position.
When the RPR committee met in May 2011, it judged that the PNW granted an exception which is “out of accord and hostile to the system of doctrine or striking at the vitals of religion.” The committee’s report was not unanimous, however. A minority of committee members disagreed, and drafted a minority report. When the General Assembly met June 7-10 in Virginia Beach, the report was presented by the RPR chairman, and the GA also heard arguments in favor of the minority report. After some lively debate, the minority report was voted down handily.
General Assembly approved the following in citing Pacific Northwest Presbytery for the exception of substance regarding granting an exception on paedocommunion:
Presbytery granted an exception which is out of accord that is, “hostile to the system or striking at the vitals of religion” (RAO 16-3.e.5.d). The exception of substance [as stated by the candidate for ordination] was this:
I believe that scripture nowhere prohibits young children from coming to the Lord’s Table. If they have been baptized, I think that the only thing that should prevent an infant from coming to the table is the very obvious issue of those able to take solid food. We are nowhere invited to speculate as to whether others are truly in the covenant of grace, except through church discipline.
My exception is to the phrase “and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.
This recommendation was approved by an overwhelming majority of commissioners, some estimating it to be at least 95% of the commissioners.
In my opinion, this was the proper course of action. Not only do our confessional standards differentiate between the meaning of Baptism (the sacrament of initiation) and the Lord’s Supper (the sacrament of nutrition and continuation), they also explicitly forbid the administration of the Lord’s Supper to young children (though admittedly, no precise age is given).
In 1988, the 16th PCA General Assembly approved a Report of the Ad-Interim Committee to Study the Question of Paedocommunion. This report observed that “classical Reformed theology has been virtually unanimous in judging that covenant children ought not to be brought to the Lord’s Table before the age of discretion” (Appendix T, page 516, 16th General Assembly). That assembly voted down a very ably written minority report, and adopted the committee’s report, which stated: That the PCA continue the practice defined in our standards and administer the Lord’s Supper “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.”
Moreover, those who found themselves holding to paedocommunion were admonished to “make known to their presbyteries and sessions the changes of their views since their ordination vows.” This statement suggests that one would not be ordained while holding this position, but only come to it later, since it is described as a “change since ordination vows.”
It should be noted from this report that the 16th GA did not declare paedocommunion as an allowable exception. As stated above the report declared that “classical Reformed theology has been virtually unanimous in judging that covenant children ought not to be brought to the Lord’s Table before the age of discretion.”
The matter of women serving as deaconesses or unordained deacons stems from a resolution approved by Metro Atlanta Presbytery (MAP) in April 2009, setting forth six possible ways for local churches to interpret Book of Church Order 9, the chapter on deacons. This resolution was judged to be an exception of substance (the most serious kind of exception), which warrants a response from presbytery. MAP’s response to the 38th General Assembly was deemed to be unsatisfactory, in that it failed to sufficiently address the provisions of the BCO, particularly chapter 9. This ruling of “unsatisfactory response” was included in the RPR committee report to the 39th General Assembly and was approved without dissent. This action requires MAP to respond again to the 40th GA in Louisville next year.
As I see it, the GA ruled properly in this matter. The positions set forth by Metro Atlanta fall under the general heading “if it is not explicitly forbidden in the BCO then it is permitted.” The difficulty with this position, of course, is that the BCO is not generally a manual that forbids but one that instructs and positively sets forth just how things should function in our Church. When it states how things ought to be done, it does not offer or present a corresponding negative statement concerning all the things that are therefore forbidden, nor could it do so. It seems that the best “exegesis” of the BCO is to seek to follow its wisdom and teaching, not to search out all the possible ways around it as long as they are not expressly forbidden.
Perhaps an analogy would be helpful: If I instruct my children to wash the family minivan with sponges and dish soap and I return and find them using steel wool and bleach, would they be right in saying to me, “You didn’t say we couldn’t do that!” No, I would fault them for failing to carefully follow the instructions I gave them, trusting that they understood that the positive instructions implicitly ruled out whatever other creative options they may come up with. When it comes to our beloved Church, the best course of action is to follow our constitution as we have received and embraced it; then work toward constitutional changes through the courts of the church, if our desired goal is to proactively change the provisions.
Milan Norgauer is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and currently serves as pastor of Northwoods Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne, Wy.