The Church’s Two Laws

The Church’s Two Laws

Moral issues of officers generally get more attention than process and polity peccadilloes. But what about when someone says, “We’re not following the rules because a lot of people don’t follow the rules, and we don’t think you’re going to stop us”? What about when the seeming law of what’s allowed begins to damage the fabric of our polity?

In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), there are but two offices: elder and deacon. All officers in the PCA are ordained; both offices (by definition) are filled by (and only by) ordained persons.

Officers are essential in many kinds of organizations inasmuch as they are legally required or for pragmatic reasons of function and efficiency. However, the officers of the church do not serve merely in order to please the secular government or to increase the effectiveness of the organization — they serve by Divine warrant and command. Thus they are not simply sworn in or signed up; they are ordained. Chapter 17 and other sections of the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) specify that those duly called to office are to be ordained, that ordination is by the laying on of hands, and that only qualified men are candidates for ordination to office.

There is more to becoming an officer than the laying on of hands by the elders — vows are the other essential part of officer-making. All officers vow that they approve of the polity of the PCA, that they will be subject to the courts of the Church (their brethren), and that they will strive for the purity, peace, unity, and edification of the church as a whole, which is to say the wider (not just local) Church. Therefore, these vows seem to require a scrupulous adherence to the rules, terms, and processes described in the PCA’s BCO, assuming that the written, stated law of the Church is the law of the Church. Such adherence is uncontroversially essential to the purity, peace, and unity of the Church, to say nothing of trust and true harmony among co-laborers in gospel ministry. Rule benders in organizations often joke that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission when supposed exigency “requires” non-compliance. But if forgiveness is required (due to actual offense), should not repentance (and new obedience) also be required, especially when that organization is a church with agreed-upon standards (the written law code of the church)?

But the law of what’s allowed is a thing. We all know that the posted speed limits on state and federal highways are honored more in breach than by strict obedience. Everyone knows what the “real” speed limit is, at least until flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror suggest otherwise and bring the driver back to the reality of the written law and the posted speed limit. Highway patrolmen are needed to more or less keep order on our roadways. In the church, there are no police per se. In fact, even Presbyterian churches pretty much run on an honor system. The review and control of presbyteries via review of records is mostly review, advise, and suggest, if that. Minor issues are often covered in love. Much patience is shown in more serious offenses. Major offenses are usually dealt with, but slowly, with much empathy, and with great deference to lower courts.

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