Having spent most of my adult life ministering in the broad evangelical world that comprises a variety of independent churches, entry into an ecclesial world that believes in local, regional, and national expressions of the same church came like a breath of fresh air. But the euphoria of finding myself in a church whose elders (teaching and ruling alike) subscribe to a common confession of faith—which goes deeper than the typical “statement of belief”—soon evaporated with the dawning realization that here is a church that operates through a plethora of committees with a massive set of procedural rules. To the newcomer, they can seem overwhelming; and to the young and restless, they can appear outdated and redundant.
I know from bitter experience, in churches similar to mine, where conservative leaders withdrew from active life in the wider church and solely focused on their own local congregations and special interest groups. In doing so, they left the organization of the church in the hands of those who were less pure in their grasp of the gospel and, in the long term, lost the church they knew. In other words, our involvement in the courts and committees of the church is an expression of our faithfulness to our vows as ministers and elders and a measure of our love for Christ’s church. The temptation to push back against the system is immense. But once you face a difficulty or crisis in your life, session, congregation, or presbytery, then you discover that the system works to the glory of God and the good of His people.
Joining with a Committee
The committees of the church are so important! Most presbyteries have a pastoral committee, which serves the needs of our fellow elders. They provide shepherding care for ministers and their families and are the natural place to go when you feel under ministerial pressure or a temptation of one kind or another. Serving on the credentials committee (sometimes called the theological examination committee) of your presbytery, as I do, is a great opportunity to meet and measure young men pursuing ordination. Such a committee also gives an acute insight into the health (or otherwise) of the seminaries that feed our churches. It’s amazing how easily error creeps in and careless expressions of theology, if not corrected early on, can lead to further error as time passes.
Benefits of a Presbytery
Not only do we believe presbytery to be a vital part of biblical polity, presbytery itself can serve the church in many ways. Occasionally, another church in your presbytery may give you cause for concern. It may be a theological novelty, the introduction of some liturgical practice that is out of step with our Reformed tradition, or the ordination of a man who holds views not in keeping with an ordained minister in the PCA. From time to time such matters may be handled poorly at presbytery level (for whatever reason). What recourse do you have? In our system of government we have a higher court and (for example) you could lodge a protest and send it up to the General Assembly for adjudication. I’ve had cause to be encouraged by such a move.
If charges are brought against a session or minister, he (or they) need not stand and fight alone. The session and/or minister may call on presbytery to investigate the charges and rule on the matters. When a godly group of brothers has investigated and reported to the wider body, and then offered rebuke or guidance in the fruit of repentance, it is a moment of solemnity and healing. One gets a sense of God at work in the very system He has given us.
Suppose a minister or a session sins? Both happen. If a minister fails, he must go to his presbytery and his brothers in ministry. And if he is truly repentant, then it is to them he must confess his sin or errors. It’s a blessed thing to see the outpouring of love when such honesty is rewarded by extraordinary grace and compassionate discipline. To be guided by one’s brothers in what the fruit of repentance looks like is a great encouragement for the fallen. Even where restoration to office is inappropriate, the commitment to care in an ongoing manner is often a great comfort to the offender and a witness to their hurting family.
The National-Level Churchman
On the national level, commissioners from churches make decisions at General Assembly (GA) that set the course of future decades in the work of ministry. GA is not a minor irritant or an opportunity for simply catching up with old friends; it’s a vital component in preserving the health and faithfulness of the ecclesial body we call home. Some mock the “politics” of it (perhaps with some cause!), but the stakes are often higher than simply political maneuvering.
The courts of the church are the proper arenas for discerning theological, ecclesial, liturgical, and ethical differences among us. They provide a place where strong opinions may be expressed without offense being taken and every participant is brought back again and again to the magisterial authority of God’s Word and the ministerial authority of our confession of faith.
Our church, the PCA, is a precious jewel, a gift of God to us. It’s worth fighting for the courts, the committees, and the assemblies of our church as they are the God-given theaters in which truth may be established and righteousness pursued to the glory of God.