*This article was written as a training guide for elders in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church*
Throughout the Church’s history there has been a tension between holding unity within a worshiping community and, likewise, holding to a purity of doctrine. This is not an easy thing to do. Paul writes extensively in the New Testament about the cultural and theological differences between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. He tries to alleviate the cultural tensions between the two, yet, sadly we have record of house churches in Rome from the 4th century in which Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are still separately recorded. Ouch.
Theological unity within a congregation is difficult because we know we are people with various thoughts, convictions, and experiences. As well, as children of the American experience we seek to respect one’s freedom of conscience. No one wants to enforce group think, but rather to appreciate the unique input one may offer in the midst of a loving community of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Likewise, communities of faith must seek some degree of pure (think of clear and specific) doctrine as we proclaim truth in a noisy and diverse world. What is truth, and what are the boundaries of that truth? This can get tricky, especially when we deeply love and share fellowship with a person or family who hold to a different idea or understanding of truth.
Our Reformed tradition of faith has recognized that we seek a purity of doctrine in the midst of diverse and broken people. This can be hard, but it can be done. And when done, we share an even deeper unity.
How, then, does a governing body like a Session make sure their incoming leaders’ beliefs and practices do not disrupt communal unity or doctrinal purity? We do so by asking officers to “sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church.”
When an officer, not an inquiring member, but an officer, is called to lead in ordained office, he or she is examined on their faith beliefs and their Christian practice in relation to the unity and purity we hope to achieve as a church. Conversation and training ensues as to where one’s belief system sits, and if it is within certain boundaries; as well, Christian practice (lifestyle, morality, etc) are reviewed.
For Evangelical Presbyterian Church churches we have said that the boundaries of faith and practice are threefold:
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) (and accompanying catethisms)
The Essentials of the Faith
In one’s ordination vows, elders are asked to “receive and adopt” the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Second, an elder vows to inform the ruling body of any exception to the WCF they hold. The first vow pertaining to this is as follows:
3. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?
Sometimes, however, in the midst of the lengthy WCF someone disagrees with an article, or even more than one. Does this mean we do not want this person as an ordained leader on the Session? Maybe, maybe not. The same situation applies for pastors as members of Presbytery. Does a particular Presbytery want to accept a pastor who holds certain disagreements with the WCF? Maybe, maybe not.
A Session or Presbytery can easily decide that we cannot accept an officer who denies the work of election, but we can certainly be yoked in shared leadership if we differ on worship style or the civil authority of the Pope (see WCF 23). Navigating the difference between what are the “deal breakers” and the “non-important elements” can be tricky, but the good news is we have guidance.
The EPC Book of Order allows for the Session and a Presbytery to decide the limits and bounds of its adoption of the articles of the WCF by an individual elder.
We find in the EPC Book of Order G-12-6 : The examination of a Candidate for Ruling Elder or Deacon…
The Session shall confer with each person elected to office in the local church to determine if that person feels called to office and is willing to serve faithfully. The Session shall examine candidates for ordination to the office of Ruling Elder or Deacon on 1) personal experience of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ and progress in spiritual growth, 2) theology and Sacraments of the Church, 3) the government, discipline, worship, and history of the Church, and 4) an understanding of the office to which one is elected.
And in the EPC Book of Order G-12-4: Exceptions to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms…
The Candidate or transferring Teaching/Ruling Elder shall provide a written statement of any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of this Church, and the Session/Presbytery shall act to allow or disallow the exceptions. The Session/Presbytery shall not allow any exception to the “Essentials of Our Faith.” Following ordination, should the Ruling/Teaching Elder develop exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, he or she shall report those exceptions to the Session/Ministerial Committee and Session/the Presbytery shall act to allow or disallow these exceptions
Scrupling has been the method by which the Reformed tradition has found the balance between the unity and purity of a governing body. A scruple is when an incoming, or currently serving, officer makes known to the Session they have a personal objection to an article within the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Scrupling regularly occurs on the Presbytery level, and less often on the Session level. Yet, it is not inappropriate or a problem per se. Rather, it is a great opportunity to have a conversation about that which we believe in a civil and loving manner, affirm our collective truth as a church, and move forward in Christian love.
When I was examined in the EPC Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean I declared a number of scruples, and was passed unanimously after an examination and discussion of those scruples..
In fact, scrupling is not a one-time thing, or only for those coming up for ordination. Our shared ordination questions ask that we are always mindful of evolving beliefs and our spiritual growth throughout the term of our ordination, which is lifelong. Scrupling is not just for the newly ordained. Question number 4 is such:
- Do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with the system of doctrine as taught in the Scriptures and as contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Session/Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?
So, while we have not as a Session engaged in scrupling in recent memory, we embrace this faithful practice of the Reformed church in order to secure our generational faithfulness and proclamation of truth long into the future.