Presbyteries, as an institution of the covenant of grace, do well to remember the limits of their competence and authority and to remember the Christian liberty of their members to disagree with the cultural, poltical, social, and economic opinions of her ministers and ruling elders.
According to the PCA’s denominational magazine, By Faith, the Potomac Presbytery (PCA), on March 19, approved an overture that makes what Presbyterians call “in thesi” statements (which the Dutch Reformed call doctrinal deliverances) against political violence. It is as “Overture 26.” It articulates 17 reasons why the PCA should go on record as officially, as a denomination, opposing political violence. Among them:
- The PCA has spoken to other “pressing moral issues” e.g., abortion
- The civil magistrate is ordained to keep order
- Peacemakers are blessed, Christians are called to do good and to live in peace with all
- WLC 135 interprets the sixth commandment to require gentleness etc.
- Christ’s kingdom is spiritual in nature
- There is an increase in political violence in the USA
- Christian symbols have been involved in some of that violence
- Some members of the PCA serve in the military and police forces and are called to keep the peace
- The 49th PCA General Assembly has spoken to these issues
Be it further resolved, that the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America condemn political violence and intimidation in unlawful expressions, especially that which is illicitly done in the name of Christ; and
Be it further resolved, that the Moderator of the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America appoint a commissioner to pray for peace in our nation and that the Church of Jesus Christ would be instruments of that peace; and
Be it finally resolved, that the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America encourage her members to “seek peace and pursue it” in the public square (Psalm 34:14); to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); and to pray for peace and for “all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:2).
Analysis and Response
Ecclesiastical actions like this one raise a serious question about the nature, vocation, and mission of the visible, institutional church: Has Jesus Christ, as the only head of the church, authorized his church to make such statements? The traditional Reformed view and the official view of the PCA is articulated in Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Overture 26 cites this section of chapter 31 and applies it generally to the spirituality nature of the Kingdom of God and it is certainly true that the Kingdom is essentially spiritual. Our Lord Jesus said this in John 18:36, “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (ESV). There Jesus explicitly repudiated the use of violence to advance the interests of his kingdom.
The overture, however, does not directly address the specific intent of WCF 31.4 nor does it address the limitations placed on the visible church in this section. The Potomac Presbytery is an ecclesiastical assembly and thus falls under the rubric “synods and councils.” According to the confession, what sort of business is the church, as an institution, authorized to address? The divines answered this question: “nothing but that which is ecclesiastical.” It is not immediately obvious how political violence is an “ecclesiastical” matter. Further, because the divines knew how often the visible church has been tempted to inject herself into what are essentially secular and civil matters, they specifically prohibited the church, as an institution, from meddling “in civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” The divines used the word “intermeddling.” Overture 26 does not answer the obvious question here: how is it that, in Overture 26, Potomac Presbytery is not “intermeddling” in the affairs of the commonwealth? Political violence is manifestly a civil affair that concerns the commonwealth. Muslims, Jews, and pagans have as much interest in opposing political violence as does the Potomac Presbytery. Thus, it is not evident what special interest the presbytery has here or what special expertise the presbytery brings to this question.