Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part III: Where can we go?
Chapter 6 – Practical Principles for a Competitive Church
Chapter 6 is a brief review of three significant episodes in the life of the Presbyterian Church. Weston is looking to our history for clues on how to be a church that deals with competition in a healthy way.
The first episode is the conflict that arose in 1729 between competing groups in Pennsylvania and New York about total subscription by ministers to the Westminster Confession. Some did not believe certain aspects of the confession to be as essential as others, while others wanted total allegiance. The compromise solution was to allow individuals to declare they had scruples with portions of the confession and let the governing body decide if the issues were essential or not. If the disputed issue was deemed non-essential, then everyone was to welcome the dissenting minister into ministry.
Weston sees an act adopted in 1758 as ancillary to the 1729 decision. Fractious conflict had developed in the years leading up to 1758 with some actively seeking schism. In an effort to address these concerns the following act was adopted:
That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with, or passively submit to, such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always, that this shall be understood to extend only to such determinations as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine and Presbyterian government. (86)
The second episode is the controversy of the 1920s examined in earlier chapters. Concerning the decisions of the 1920s, Weston writes:
They settled on three points that all have resonance for today: (1) that no governing body of the church can, by itself, declare essential doctrine; (2) that tolerating difference in nonessential doctrine is a basic constitutional principle of the church; and (3) that church officers have a right to the freedom of conscience that protects dissent, but not defiance and schism. (88)
Weston goes on to show that in ways parallel to events of the mid-eighteenth century, the general assemblies of the 1920s and 1930s, after developing a strategy for addressing essential doctrine, went on to address the problem of those who actively promoted schism.
The third episode is our current dilemma. The present Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force is modeled on the Special Commission of 1925 with one very notable exception. The Special Commission was made up almost exclusively of loyalists. The present Task Force is made up mostly of people who have been clearly identified with one or the other wings of the church. As it is a task force and not a commission, it was not bound by the representation standards of the Book of Order. While it is a very diverse group balanced between men and women, there are two Ministers of Word and Sacrament for every elder. Weston sees the task force as an extension of our Presbyterian heritage in trying to find a balance between essential standards and toleration of differences.
As I read this brief historical overview and reflected on our current divide, it strikes me that our current problem differs in a significant way from the two previous cases. The first two cases were largely addressing theological or doctrinal positions with little direct implication for ongoing ethical behavior. The current controversy goes directly to the question of what constitutes ongoing ethical behavior for ordained persons in the denomination. To me, that adds a whole other layer of complexity.