Ecclesial Disobedience

Ecclesial Disobedience

Similar pressures might tempt churches to claim that Paul was not really that clear after all about not allowing women to preach to the gathered church, at least occasionally. Some unordained persons are quite gifted, they might claim. The church would be deprived of a blessing, they might reason. Obviously, such a thing is hard to imagine in a biblical, confessional denomination.

While civil disobedience may sometimes be acceptable in the socio-political sphere, ecclesial disobedience (especially on the part of church officers) is only justified in the most extreme cases. If defying or ignoring church law makes a sort of sense in congregationalism (where the majority/mob rules) or in an episcopal structure (where unjust and arbitrary rule may easily flourish), it makes no sense in a well-ordered, biblically-faithful presbyterian church.

Presbyterians, who believe every square inch of church life ought to be decent and orderly, have processes for enacting and changing church laws. Following those laws (or rules, if you will) is never optional. Loophole finders, envelope pushers, and “creative” compliers are (or ought to be) frowned upon in presbyterian establishments. Being an orderly, law-and-process-bound bunch does not equal a Pharisaical legalism that finds ways to just honor the letter of law while trampling its spirit.

Taking the Pharisaical line (“Well, it doesn’t say we can’t do X so we can!”) and employing endless qualification and linguistic gymnastics is a normative approach where that which is not strictly prohibited is allowed. Presbyterians famously espouse a regulative approach to worship in particular. Church government ought to have a regulative principle as well, and that principle ought to honor the letter and the spirit of its biblical standards and the Bible. A regulative principle of church government requires compliance and submission, both to fellow elders and courts of the church, and to the standards.

Indeed, presbyterian officers (and thus the courts they inhabit) take vows to be regulated by the standards of their communions. In the PCA, for instance, officers vow at ordination that they “approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity.” Officers also “promise subjection to (their) brethren in the Lord.” And even though the PCA (for the last two decades) may almost-routinely allow exceptions to a few points of doctrine in the Westminster Confession and catechisms, there is still no way to opt out of the Book of Church Order. No room is given for ecclesial disobedience. Or is there?

There is the written, vowed-to law of the church. There is also the disorderly and subjective law of what is allowed. Laws flouted and violations unprosecuted over time lead to a sort of episcopacy—not of a person, but of a pontiff we may style Pope Precedent the Last. Just like other papists, those ruled by Pope Precedent the Last point primarily to tradition, even if that tradition is quite young and local. Many of those appealed-to precedents fall far short of “We’ve always done it this way.” Decisive, authoritative “tradition” can rest on cases as thin as Someone somewhere was allowed this practice…or at least was never convicted for it! Ironically, Pope Precedent the Last (though thoroughly episcopal) has friends who are as biblicist as the rankest congregationalist—many precedent setters rely on a single verse (or word) to justify ecclesial disobedience.

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