Friday, December 01, 2006

Bishops or Presbyterianism?

There seems to be some discussion going on about whether or not Presbyterianism functions any differently than Episcopal government. The discussion originated on Barlow Farms where Jon Barlow shows (or attempts to show) the PCA is really full of bishops. He has an interesting point about the branches of the PCA and their current state of control. Boar’s Head Tavern weighs in on the debate not once, but twice. The latest to join the discussion is the men at Reformed Catholicism. Interestingly, Reformed Catholicism expands the discussion to include Doug Wilson and the CREC. They reference what happened at Church of the King Santa Cruz, which has left the CREC. I know nothing about what happened in that situation, but here are a few links to let the readers make their own decisions. Reformed Catholicism makes a call for Presbyterians to come out of the closet and consecrate bishops. It is more honest, they believe.

In these small denominations (as the quote above demonstrates), influential men rule the day. Their disciples are often the very men that make up the rest of the presbytery. There is no rule of law in terms of Scripture other than the way the men in power see the matter. This is why parties are foolish to press matters in the ecclesiastical courts. The bench is loaded and the courts won’t come to the truth of the matter. . . . So, why not be upfront about it? Why not let the people know what is really going on? Consecrate your "bishops" and come out of the closet.

However, I would like to contend in favor of true Presbyterianism against bishoprics. The defense will be painful for some of my readers, but I think it accurate.

First, neither the PCA nor the CREC is truly a Presbyterian form of government. One is an amalgamation and the other a perversion or a sham depending on how cynical you are. The PCA has the local congregations, but ministers are not members (if this is not true, I am willing to be corrected). They are members of the Presbytery making all judicial cases against ministers have to originate in the Presbytery. For a denomination that wants ruling elders and teaching elders to be the same, this hurts their cause. Then if a case goes through the Presbytery, it goes straight to the General Assembly, but not the GA proper, it goes to an Standing Judicial Commission that has a great deal of autonomy. GA and Presbyteries are both full of ministers and lacking in elders. I do not believe the PCA sets out to have bishops, it has in practice descended toward it a bit. The elders are not participatory as they should be and the lack of Synods has removed an important layer of Presbyterianism. One can also get into top heavy committees and things that seem to an inverted Presbyterianism at best. The CREC on the other hand is down a path that is also not one of Presbyterianism. The allowance of almost any creed and the inability to adjudicate on many matters because of the multicreedalism is not a good start. It is also a bastion of Mercersburg/Federal Vision theology and that theology is Episcopal in nature. One Mercersburg controlled Classis in the Old RCUS actually ordained a man to be bishop. The groundwork is there for Episcopal tyranny in their theology. So, I believe the examples cited have flaws that do not detract from true Presbyterianism.

Second, even if the CREC and PCA are true presbyterian forms of government are not both Barlow Farms and Reformed Catholicism arguing from the failures of men, not of the system? The above quote goes as far to suggest that ministers become disciples of other ministers and do not have the ability to render a biblical judgment apart from fiat from their masters. A low view of ministers today indeed! I was trained by a godly man, Dr. Powell at New Geneva Theological Seminary, but I voted against him several times at the last Synod. For example, he voted to continue funding for an unnamed christian college, and I think the Synod has no business funding such projects. I do not think that the relationship is harmed at all. I would give more examples, but I barely notice how he votes. Hardly is it required that men become disciples of those who are more famous in their denominations or doing the educating in their denomination.

Third, the bible teaches presbyterianism. Acts 15 is a wonderful example, but not the only one. Here we see elders and apostles side by side voting. Note it also says it pleased the Holy Spirit. The elders are not swayed by apostolic dictates, but by the Word of God and His Spirit. Also see I Corinthians where party spirits existed. The problem there was not presbyterianism, but episcopalianism. Some were following Peter, others Apollos, some Paul, and some Christ. The very mistake of the Corinthians is that they lined up behind men, exalting them to positions where they did not belong. Paul corrects them not by teaching them to follow more bishops, but rather by exhorting them to meek submission to Christ. This is the answer for those denominations plagued by psuedo-bishops (if that truly be the case). Sure, we fail from time to time. But it is not the fault of the system, but of man. The answer is not to come out of the closet, but to repent and be humble.


Andrew Duggan said...

Lee, well said.

Ministers as "members" of presbytery and not of their local church has been stain on American Presbyterian of Scottish/English origin for centuries. While they glory in the Westminster Standards, they fail to realize that they didn't reform their churches enough.

Ministers as members of presbytery (or as they like to say in the OPC, the regional church) is the leaven of episcopacy that was not purged, and it continues to ruin the whole church. Although I would suggest it does contribute directly to the the ruin of the church, it's not the primary contributer of the church's ruin. It does, however, seriously damage discipline.

I think a lot of ministers like the quasi-episcopal system, because it relieves them of having to do any real hard work. Discipline is very hard work. For example, in the PCA, the SJC will handle discipline so the average minister won't have to dirty their hands with such unpleasant things.

I wonder when Christ calls them to account for being the watchmen of his church (cf. Ezk 33) if He will accept of them this reply: "That's was the SJC's job, not mine."

It's been my experience (in the OPC, FWIW) that very many ministers view the ruling elders (and the members more so) with contempt. Ruling elders are a necessary evil in order to keep things under control.

There is no need to ordain anyone as a bishop, since all ministers are already defacto bishops. No need for an archbishop either, when the Books of Order and Discipline and the presbytery and GA committees already fill that void.

Just two weeks ago I was warned by the moderator of the Philadelphia Presbytery of the OPC as being "dangerously close to violating my ordination vows" (I am a ruling elder) because I dared to suggest that a rule defined in the OPC BoD was in error and Scripture (I Cor 5) should direct them in a case of serious, scandalous and unrepentant sin (in this case it is violence not sexual immorality).

So at least in the Philadelphia Presbytery of the OPC, it would seem that if one doesn't agree to the infallibility of the OPC BoD, he is violation of his ordination vows (or at least dangerously close). If never calling the BoD in to question (in the light of Scripture) is what it now means to approve of the government and discipline of the OPC, then perhaps I don't really so approve. I guess I just didn't understand it that way when I made the "vow" in the first place.

Would the RCUS be willing to take a small group of suburban-Philadelphia refugees from the OPC?

Lee said...

I am sorry to hear that about the OPC and the Philadelphia Presbytery. That region has a long and rich history of being faithful, as does the rest of the Northeast, but sadly in today's world that area is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity.

I think the quasi-episocpal system is the sinful default position. Who would not like to be an all powerful bishop? Man loves power, and the episcopal system is all about power. It is something the Reformed/Presbyterian church must always be on guard against.

As for the RCUS, I do not have the power to speak on behalf of the whole denomination, but I bet the RCUS would take OPC refugees. We have a couple of churches in PA, but they both are about 3 hours from Philadelphia. If you want to investigate the RCUS, Covenant East Classis would need to be contacted. I bet anyone on that list would be helpful.

James Frank SolĂ­s said...

I fail to see how having the ministers be 'members' of their congregation alleviates any problem. Churches in which this holds are no less attended by difficulty than in the PCA system.

And as for the 'quasi-episcopal" nature of the arrangement, what can one say except that, "Of course, it's 'quasi-episcopal'. The terms 'presbyter' and 'episcopos' are synonymous.