A Deliberative Body
Part 2 - One Reason Why the Old Side/New Side Debate is Important for Today

In the first part of this article, I attempted to lay out the biblical call and necessity of unity in the visible church. One implication is that the church needs a particular type of government to guide the church when there are differences that threaten division. The Jerusalem Council is a scriptural example of the unity of the church being preserved by the government of the church. That government was marked by deliberation with decency and order which sought out a conclusion to matter. That conclusion was then applied to the body in order to foster unity in the church.

This second part will turn to 18th century American Presbyterianism to provide another example of this process at work. The division and subsequent reunion of the Old Side and New Side Presbyterians shows how deliberation in Presbyterian government can lead to unity and also the demands that church government make upon the members thereof.

In 1727 an overture was presented to the Synod by John Thomson that called for the adoption of the Westminster Standards as a confessional standard for all ministers. It was pushed off to the following year, and then once again. But in 1729 the overture was finally debated at the Synod. It called for all ministers to “declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster…and do also adopt the said Confession and Catechisms as the confession of our faith.”[1]

The debate hinged on the necessity to protect the church from theological drift and the necessity to protect the church from unchecked authoritarians. The result would be the Adopting Act of 1729, a compromise which would hold the peace for a time.

The historical context for the debate was that the Presbyterian church had been growing. The demand for qualified ministers began to outstrip the supply. Along with this need came the question of how to maintain consistency in the increasingly diverse Presbyterian churches. Some argued for stricter theological integrity. Others argued for greater piety and evangelistic zeal. And as pressure began to build in that precarious peace, along came a series of revivals and the arrival of George Whitefield with the Great Awakening.

In 1738, the synod, exercising its authority over the churches, voted that all ministerial candidates needed a degree from an established university in Great Britain or from Harvard or Yale. This was in part a response to the creation of a new school for ministerial training which specialized in a different type of pastoral training. That school was the Log College. It had been started in 1727 by William Tennent Sr. It tended to emphasize the experiential over the doctrinal. This didn’t sit well with those who favored a stricter subscription to Westminster. Presbyteries began to take sides. The New Brunswick presbytery, home of the Log College, easily ordained its graduates. The Presbytery of Lewes in Delaware ordered a thorough investigation to test the knowledge of the Log College’s graduates.[2] In 1739 the Synod decided to examine ministers strictly and not allow itinerant ministers. In 1740 that overture was overturned. Largely the two sides were asking two different questions of ministers. “Were you properly trained in theology?” or “Have you had a proper religious experience?” This difference resulted in a split in 1741 between the Old Side and the New Side, and the formation of two Synods.

Almost immediately there were hopes to heal the split. The 1742 Synod of New York approved a motion for a conference with the Synod of Philadelphia in order to “try all methods consistent with gospel truth, to prepare the way for healing the said breach.” But all those efforts were found to be “vain and fruitless.”[3] Each side began submitting the criteria for the other’s repentance or restoration. Neither side seemed inclined to budge.

In 1749 a proposal was made for peace and union between the two Synods. Various unresolved issues hindered the union but both sides agreed that it was desired because, “We all profess the same Confession of Faith and Directory of worship.”[4] Therefore, the Synod of New York proposed that in order to preserve the common peace, “every member give his consent to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Directory, according to the plan formerly agreed to by the Synod of Philadelphia in the year 1729.”[5] Over the next several years, a plan of reunion was hammered out. On May 29, 1758, it was finally adopted by both synods and a reunion intended to move the whole body forward in love was effected.

Both Synods affirmed their commitment and subscription to the Westminster Standards, “strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the ministry, that they preach and teach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto.”[6] This mutual agreement on a theological foundation seems to be the starting point for all discussions of unity among the church. Though there was some debate in 1729 about the Adopting Act (and there has been considerable debate among historians since) it seems that both Synods were in agreement about what it meant to “approve and receive” Westminster as an “orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine” and to “strictly enjoin it upon all our members.” One finds very little debate in the Synod’s minutes on this matter or any record of exceptions being requested or granted after 1729. It seems the reception and adherence to the Standards was uniform and “strict.”

This reunion was brought about through the conclusive work of a deliberative body. The elders gathered and debated. They reasoned from the Scriptures and sought to apply God’s Word to that particular situation. A conclusion was wrought through a majority vote, and that vote became the action of the whole body. With this conclusion came an expectation of how the members of that body would then respond. “Each member shall either actively concur 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.”[7]

These three responses (active concurrence, passive submission, or peaceable withdrawal) ensure a healthy unity in the church. They prevent a minority from exercising tyranny over the majority. They prevent the majority from binding the conscience of the minority. Because the conscience is protected, it ensures that the unity reached is not false. These responses also protect against prolonged disagreement bubbling over into open animosity in the church, an animosity which harms the church and brings disrepute to Christ.[8]

Once a conclusion to a matter has been reached, those who disagree shall either submit to the decision or peaceably withdraw. This does not allow for simply resubmitting an overture again and again and again with hopes of a different outcome. When a matter has been decided, the member has to accept it. If he cannot accept it, then he must leave. This also does not allow for active and vocal opposition to decisions of the body. Pamphleteering, blogging, or campaigning against conclusions reached by the body are divisive and strike at the unity of the Body. It is a rejection of the will of the body and an attempt to badger the body into submission to the minority. There are appropriate ways in which reason and remonstrance can be made against a decision. But it must be modest and short-lived.

True unity in the visible church requires a deliberative body discerning the will of God through the Scriptures. These three responses allow honest deliberation and debate to reach true and faithful conclusions to matters which honor Christ and support the visible church.

The issues before the Presbyterian Church in America today are not new. There are earnest and faithful men who disagree on the best way to move the church forward in faithfully fulfilling her mission. These differences manifest themselves in a variety of ways and in a variety of issues. The temptation of the moment is to view each and every decision as a zero-sum game. This strikes at the unity of the church. There would be constant splintering of the body if we gave into this temptation. But there are real differences in important ecclesiastical issues, and the body must reach conclusions about these matters of doctrine and Presbyterian government. To ignore this would result in a false unity which is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The unity of the church demands a deliberative body that reaches conclusions about the issues of the church. But the process of a deliberative body makes certain obligations upon the members of that body. When decisions are made through deliberation, each member shall either actively concur, passively submit, or peaceably withdraw. For the good of the church, the hope is that we would strictly enjoin one another in a strong and clear commitment to our theological standards. There is much that binds us together. But if one continually finds himself actively resisting, protesting, or grumbling about the actions of the body, then perhaps it is time for that person to peaceably withdraw. All of this is for the unity of Christ’s church

[1] Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America: Embracing the Minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, from A.D. 1706 to 1716, Minutes of the Synod of Philadelphia, from A.D. 1717 to 1758 … (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1841), 94, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/Sabin?af=RN&ae=CY101632224&srchtp=a&ste=14.

[2] Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, 56.

[3] Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 162.

[4] Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, 202.

[5] ibid.

[6] “Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America 1706-1788,” accessed July 19, 2019, https://ia800208.us.archive.org/31/items/recordsofpresb00pres/recordsofpresb00pres.pdf, 286.

[7] ibid.

[8] I was first pointed to this by the discussion in: Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2011), 136–40.