Of Doctrinal Standards & Good Faith Subscription

Of Doctrinal Standards & Good Faith Subscription

Most PCA elders have accepted Good Faith Subscription in the sense that they acknowledge stated differences are permitted within the denomination. However, there is a lack of clarity about what should happen once a stated difference is made known. BCO 21-4.f states that it is the obligation of presbyteries to consider whether the difference undermines the fundamentals of the system of the Westminster Standards as well as the vitals of religion. 

For as long as I have been a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (ordained in 2011), there have been intramural debates within the denomination about subscription to the Church’s agreed-upon edition of the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Larger, and Shorter Catechisms) as its theological documents. The disagreement has not been about the existence of the Standards, but rather about how they should be applied. It is not my intention to rehearse for you the history of the development of the PCA’s official position on this point. Rather, my intention is simply to draw some observations about the current ecclesiastical lay of the land, consider some wrong responses to the present reality, and encourage some ways to move forward.

What Is Good Faith Subscription?

The term “Good Faith Subscription” does not appear anywhere in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). However, it is the label given to what is codified and described in BCO 21-4.e:

While our Constitution does not require the candidate’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q.2; 24-6, Q.2).

This section gives clarity about one part of the PCA’s relationship with the Westminster Standards. It outlines step one in understanding the PCA’s view on subscription: a candidate may disagree with parts of the Westminster Standards. This reality is understood and practiced within the PCA. By way of example, the Candidates & Credentials Committee of the Savannah River Presbytery (on which I serve) has received stated differences from candidates ranging from the omission of Aramaic as one of the languages of the Old Testament autographs (Westminster Confession of Faith 1-8), to issues surrounding the Bible’s account of creation (WCF 4-1), psalmody (WCF 21-5), images of Jesus (WCF 21-1), the keeping of the Lord’s Day (WCF 21-8), and others. The disagreement in the PCA, for the most part, is not about a man’s right to state a difference. It is rather about the degree to which such differences are acceptable.

The BCO does not permit a “carte blanche” holding of differences. Stating a difference subjects the candidate to the scrutiny of his particular presbytery. The Presbytery must examine the difference and make a decision regarding whether it is compatible with the Standards (BCO 21-4.f):

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall…require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.

This paragraph provides step two in understanding the PCA’s view of on subscription. Our constitution in BCO 21-4.f makes it clear that one thing Good Faith Subscription does not mean is that all differences are de facto permissible. The presbytery is not obligated to “grant an exception.” The Presbytery grants an exception only when it judges a candidate’s stated difference as neither undermining the system of doctrine presented in the Westminster Standards nor denying the essence of the Christian religion. There are several implications of this mandated scrutiny.

Good Faith Subscription—Implications

First, a generic sincerity of position and a heartfelt love for God in Christ on the part of the candidate is not adequate in and of itself to grant an exception. In other words, a candidate does not need to deny a fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith (e.g., the Trinity or the Incarnation) in order to be barred from ordained ministry in the PCA. A denial of any doctrine expressed in the Westminster Standards of the PCA – even when such a matter is not shared by other Christians – is important and must be examined (and granted) before a man takes up a particular call in the PCA. It is at this point that the PCA’s troubles start.

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