23 & 37: For Good Order, Sweet Ardor

A discussion offered for the deliberation of Eastern Carolina Presbytery

(TE Benjamin T. Inman, Assistant Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fuquay-Varina)


I address an argument recently offered for voting down Overtures 23 & 37. While I have not heard it expanded so directly, it has been implied in various discussions. It strikes the target.


“In the past, we have trusted local sessions entirely as to the character of their candidate they are putting forward for licensure and ordination. I don’t want that to become a practice on the floor of Presbytery, where a young man may stand before a room full of men he does not know and don’t know him. The local session is the right place to determine fitness for office with regard to the character requirements set forth in scripture.”

It is heartening to hear reference to the actual point of the amendments. While Overture 23 places specific attention on homosexuality, neither amendment addresses pastoral practice regarding any notorious sin. Rather than the nurture of members or even the discernment for receiving members, both amendments address only the qualifications and examinations for office. Sadly, the quoted argument is at odds with our polity and demonstrates our need for reform-- all the more urgent in our corrupt context. The offered amendments for the Book of Church Order (BCO) chapters 16 and 21 stipulate just such reform.



Why These Overtures Matter

23

Overture 23 gives a rubric for homosexuality in assessing officer candidates. It does not address the controversy of Revoice, although it does represent a view in contrast to some points elaborated in those conferences. This rubric would not be cited for the pending SJC case about Memorial PCA's hosting of the first Revoice conference. Qualification for office is simply not relevant there. Nor does it attempt an after-the-fact reconsideration of the recent SJC decision regarding Missouri Presbytery's investigation of TE Greg Johnson. One member of that SJC panel has opined from his well informed position that the amendment of overture 23 would not have changed the outcome. Despite the furor, sex and such is not the point of the amendments.


The rubric of Overture 23 is a common sense Presbyterian adaptation to our context. It does not promulgate a stricter sexual ethic or a narrower view of sanctification. It specifies qualifications for office exactly where they may well be misunderstood or challenged. Our society has largely and even unconsciously adopted new corrupt assumptions about homosexuality. Increasingly, evangelical opinion and institutions demonstrate an assimilation to these aberrant views; consequently, there is good reason for the PCA to specify its qualifications for office. Aspirants for office who do not share our convictions should have clarity from the start: the PCA is not congenial to what is affirmed in various evangelical connections. This is not shocking news in general, although it may be acutely offensive given the topic specified. Some people hate this more than predestination.


More happily, the PCA too can repeat the apostle and say of candidates for office, "and such were some of you." Men for whom homosexuality appears among the "earthly" things which they must put to death (Col 3:5), these men should have clarity as well. They should know: no shame or suspicion will attend being an example to the flock of God’s “perfect patience” to the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim 1:14), though they replace Paul's ringing "blasphemer" with a frank "homosexual." They should be no more embarrassed in disciplining homosexual sin than was Paul in excommunicating men "that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim 1:20).


37

Overture 37 directs presbyteries for examinations in the ordination of teaching elders. The topic is NOT homosexual Christians in the PCA but PCA officers in a precipitously degenerating society. As the ferment regarding racism, degradation of women and sexual exploitation of the vulnerable pricks our conscience with a longing for past healing and future fidelity, the PCA does well to question the rigor of officer examination. A renewed purpose and more careful process is recommended not only by doubt about the past. It is all the more commonsensical in a society with diminishing moral constraints in general, a society which is arguably most conspicuous in normalizing sexual corruption by simplistic correlation of consent with subjective identification.


The amendment of BCO 21 stipulates careful examination with attention to notorious matters (including but not circumscribed by sins sexual, relational, racial and financial). The specified matters have become observably notorious over the recent many years in the scandalous failures of Evangelical leaders, congregations and institutions. The scandal cannot be blunted: the adjectives evangelical, Spirit-filled -- even Biblical -- are no longer reassuring public marks of professed identity. Evangelical sins grieve us to remember semper reformanda,– which includes both the mysterious fecundity often called revival or renewal, and the clarifying reassertion of principles and practices regretfully neglected.


Presbyterian polity-- practiced by faith, and not by rote-- is our denomination's declared method to deter such shamefulness and harm. We believe that presbyterian governance-- which is to say presbyterian ministry and mission-- is not necessary for the existence of the church but for the well being of the church (BCO 1.7). If the church did not exist, it could not be so powerfully and publicly shamed; the issue is her well-being, her wholesomeness. Without disdain for the numerical majority of evangelicals who differ on the matter, we rightly and with expectation pray that God will bless their well-being without presbytery. The Presbyterian Church in America, by conviction– as grateful heirs of the church that replaced Bishops with Presbyteries– we claim to stake the matter on the officers serving rightly and faithfully in submissive plurality. For the PCA, the qualifications of officers are a fundamental for fidelity. This is why the amendments of Overtures 23 and 37 matter.



Why These Overtures are Reform

As do many, the argument here under review assumes that the BCO is presently sufficient. Sadly, it actually assumes practice at odds with that very standard. A question put to our presbytery must not be decided by contradiction of our standards-- in the guise of wisdom. While I will go on to criticize it, I appreciate the argument's attention to the actual point of the amendments. In this, it serves deliberation well. For better consideration, I repeat it:


“In the past, we have trusted local sessions entirely as to the character of their candidate they are putting forward for licensure and ordination. I don’t want that to become a practice on the floor of Presbytery, where a young man may stand before a room full of men he does not know and don’t know him. The local session is the right place to determine fitness for office with regard to the character requirements set forth in scripture.”

The argument's logic is coherent and champions a laudable concern; however, it ignores our polity. Look, there, that’s what a rubber stamp looks like when it has been well used. By arguing earnestly in the opposite direction, it demonstrates our need for reformation of both order and ardor.


A Reformation of Order: A Presbytery's Responsibility

The argument's concluding assertion is false. Sessions are not the right place to determine fitness for office in the case of Teaching Elders. A candidate continues as a member of a congregation, under session oversight like any member (BCO 18.4); moreover, the session only informs the Presbytery by endorsement at his petition to come under care (BCO 18.2). Coming under care as a candidate and the trials of ordination are different events with vastly differing significance (BCO 18.5). Endorsement is valuable, but it is not the mandated examination. Neither should be perfunctory.


As for the requisite examination of character for ordination, this our BCO assigns to the presbytery in BCO 21, per BCO 21.4.(a.1):


Trials for ordination shall consist of: a. A careful examination as to: 1. his acquaintance with experiential religion, especially his personal character and family management (based on the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:6-9) . . .

The amendment offered for BCO 16 is crafted to address the sea change on homosexuality throughout our society in order to exclude it from the offices and governance of the PCA. This is not culture war anymore than Paul asserting that all Cretans are liars when the appointment of Cretan elders is Titus' main task (Titus 1:5 & 12).


Whatever mechanics of ordination lie out of sight in the text of Titus, two points are clear.

  1. An authority, Titus not the Cretans, exercises a decisive discernment of character.

  2. That discernment is according to a standard at odds with the social norms.

It's not culture war; it's ordination of officers. It's not the local opinion; it is a superior church authority. Pastors and sessions may take offense that this sounds like Roman Catholic Bishop quackery, but our standards reply this is presbyterian plain . Semper reformanda.


The amendment offered for BCO 21 springs from the easily minimized provision just quoted above: “a careful examination . . . experiential religion . . . personal character . . . family management.” Without a common binding specification, character examination easily drifts towards the minimal. There is a common expectation that anything significant would have been settled before the arrival of presbytery’s focused attention. It is not surprising that the presbytery might err by prejudging a man.


The amendment for 21 does not replace an original stipulation that allowed prejudging by reliance on sessions. Rather, it elaborates towards faithful observance of our previous constitutional commitments (BCO 21.4. a.1). It may well require additional activity by some presbyteries, but it only requires significantly different actions if a presbytery has been previously negligent. The specifications of the amendment are not an act of innovation but an act of reform. They bind us better to our historic practice. Semper reformanda.


That historic practice replicates what is seen not only with Titus but also with Timothy: a superior authority conclusively addressing qualifications for office. While Christians do differ over Bishops or Presbyteries (although PCA courts cannot) both Bishops and presbyteries are traditionally admonished not to prejudge matters, most especially people. The “trust the local session entirely” view here criticized is in fact exactly a design for prejudging.


Prejudging a man is an easy and often subtle kind of foolishness-- even without a formal justification for it. It can be cultivated by long personal familiarity as well as by shallow inspection. Neither a small intimate group nor a large attentive group can dispense with a concern to avoid it. Care in ordination examinations– both theology and character– is not secured just because we nod at it’s lofty importance.


Where the apostle found it necessary to admonish Timothy’s practice, it is fitting for the BCO to frankly and with binding force admonish us. It is important to recognize that the Pastoral Epistles were to be heard by more than Timothy and Titus, be that by local leaders, by particular house churches or by the Ephesian/Cretan church at large. While he is admonishing Timothy, Paul is also enunciating what the church should expect from Timothy.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels, I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.

1 Timothy 5:21–22


The sincere assertion that sessions hold the responsibility to assess fitness of character for ordination in the PCA is false. Where this is embraced and practice in the PCA, it must be reformed. This may challenge various typical actions, but it is plain BCO black ink (or pixels). The offered amendments give our polity the rigor called for by the American church's experience with scandal over the last 30 years-- homosexuality included and only exceptional for the offense of being mentioned. Careful examination of candidates for ordination as teaching elders by presbytery must not be diminished by claims for the session, claims which correspond only to the convictions of congregationalism.


A Reformation of Ardor: An Elder's Affections

The alternative proffered by the argument under review invokes a virtue to commend usurpation of Presbytery’s responsibility: trust. “In the past, we have trusted local sessions entirely as to the character of their candidate.” Usurpation is not too strong a word: the man is a congregation’s member but in fact a presbytery’s candidate. That confusion should be corrected. More decisively, rejecting the errant practice is not distrustful; it is the wholesomeness of our polity. To the contrary, sessions ought to place their trust in the presbytery's scrutiny and conclusion regarding fitness of character for ordinands. Elders must be reformed (verb, not adjective; action not state) in their affections toward Presbytery.


Although not empowered to establish a man’s fitness, the session is not irrelevant. It may formally communicate with presbytery about a candidate’s character, officers may do so individually, and the right to speak on the floor of presbytery is weighty; however, the “careful examination” of character for ordination is the responsibility of the presbytery. If that examination has become perfunctory due to reliance on the opinion of particular sessions, presbytery is already under obligation by the BCO to remedy that de facto and surely well intended usurpation.


Even “trust but verify” reliance on sessions falls short as a half-way measure. Trust should run in entirely the opposite direction. The amendment of Overture 37 is added to BCO 21 precisely because the task of discernment is already entrusted to the presbytery in that chapter of the BCO. A very significant resistance to these amendments deserves to be pondered: the affections of PCA elders. We must be reformed in our affections towards presbytery and entrust our ambition for ministerial candidates to the Presbytery.


Ironically, the argument's terse rationale against the BCO’s practice is distrust for our polity. The candidate– of whatever age– does not know many of the court; however, he should know well that they are Christ’s officers acting on the fundamental principles of Christ's governance. Thin familiarity with or lack of conviction towards our polity may well hinder candidates and likely prompt distrust by them. Such an examination is not a counseling session, and standing under scrutiny by Christ’s officers is indeed sober business.


Examination should be encouraging and instructive, but it ought not be coddling. As the allusion goes-- no, presbytery isn't safe but it is good. If elders cannot say that about Christ's presbytery, why are they enrolled as members and why would they encourage men to come under care of presbytery as candidates? Cynicism and reticence to trust our presbytery as it deserves according to our doctrine-- the cold affections working in this demand reformation. If the Lord Jesus has entrusted His ministerial candidates to presbytery, there are human and holy affections which we must acquire from him to regard presbytery as does our Lord.


The argument's delicacy in commending the errant standing practice is unworthy of the character required in an ordinand and the members of the presbytery. It assumes a lack of robustness which is not fitting. Although it appears pastorally and psychologically sensitive, such a stipulation is at odds with our polity. Men who would live as Christ’s undershepherds ought not require handling by confidants for frank and purposive examination by Christ’s undershepherds. Submission is a character thing, not simply for a demonstration of honesty and simplicity but for a measure of settled trust in Christ’s polity and ordinances. The men preparing for the ministry among us are not likely to have more wholesome affections for presbytery than do we ourselves. Our affections must be reformed (verb, not adjective).


The resources of the presbytery are not unyieldingly blunt or reckless. Committees are commonly employed to arrange discussions on a manageable scale. Still, there is no familiarity or intimate history requisite for frank conversations about character. The amendment for BCO 21 includes such wisdom– without deferring to sessions and without requiring more than Christ’s officers with the fruit of the Spirit and a sharp sense of their responsibility. With the specification of the BCO 21 amendment, the resources are in hand. The apparent distrust of the argument under review ought not be endorsed. The legitimate concern is misconstrued by the argument, and it is well addressed in the amendment.

"In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, Presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates."

Such arrangements and commitments require that Christ's Spirit makes us like Him, and this most certainly requires repentance and renewal of graces when we assemble to act as more than a sufficient quourm. No App for this: our affections for presbytery must be reformed.


As evinced above, of course the man’s session may be involved through any of its TEs and its commissioners. Their familiarity and loyalty and affection are not out of place, but those same bonds produce their own gaps and limits. Confidence in our polity and in our candidates should prompt a man’s session to regard examination by the presbytery as a wholesome act of discernment– both in addition to their own and of greater significance than their own. Submission is a session thing too, as a simple and honest confidence in the Spirit's work through Christ's presbytery. Presbyterianism is rightly acting as charismatic as possible without the deception of continuing revelation. For this, we must be reformed in our affections.


A Modicum of Reformation for the PCA: Overtures 23 and 37


All goodness comes to us through the Word and the Spirit sent by the Father. Our qualified officers must be men full of the Spirit, and shaped by the Word, who call upon our Father. That is the substance of joint power, which invests presbytery with gravitas. Presbyterianism asserts that church governance must be more like our God than our individual hearts or particular experience. The promises of unity and the glory of its diversity rightly pitches our expectation on presbytery rather than a session for business beyond the local church. We ought not withdraw into the confidence and intentions of sessions, rather sessions should support and rely on the authority of the presbytery.


When we acknowledge the New Testament synonymy of presbuteros and episcopos, we refuse to elevate a Pastor or even the particular session like a Bishop of old. Their authority must be in submission to the constitution and the rightful oversight of presbytery; in fact, there are matters under presbytery’s responsibility to which neither individual elder nor particular session can speak conclusively. Amendments to the Book of Church Order are one example: presbyteries vote, sessions do not. Assessing the character of candidates for ordination as teaching elders is another: presbyteries do this, not sessions. This is not our bureaucracy; this is our Savior’s polity. With Paul and Titus and Timothy and our even yet unamended BCO, we must submit to this order with trust that the Spirit of Liberty works according to the richness of the Word to the glory of God the Father. The amendments of Overtures 23 & 37 are offered for this.


Will we aspire to the ardor that benefits from our order?


Semper corde nuncque reformanda.