News from the Executive Presbyter/Stated Clerk
The Presbyterian “Middle Way”
When I did pre-ordination training for ruling elders and deacons, I illustrated the different forms of church government by using a pendulum clock. On the one extreme of the pendulum swing was the hierarchical forms of government, such as Catholic and Episcopal. On the other extreme of the pendulum swing was the congregational form of government, such as many Baptist groups or the United Church of Christ. The Presbyterian form of governance is a middle way in the tension between these two poles, neither congregational nor hierarchical, but connectional.
Our approach to church order is expressed in the Historic Principles of Church Government, which were adopted in 1797 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. In F-3.0203, governance by presbyters is expressed like this:
These presbyters shall come together in councils in regular gradation. These councils are sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly. All councils of the church are united by the nature of the church and share with one another responsibilities, rights, and powers as provided in this Constitution. The councils are distinct, but have such mutual relations that the act of one of them is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate council. The larger part of the church, or a representation thereof, shall govern the smaller.
What this paragraph says reveals the tension built into our system. Sessions, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly are united by the nature of the one church, and have shared responsibilities. These councils are distinct but mutually related. At times, the councils perform acts of the whole church, such as when sessions and presbyteries ordain persons to ordered ministry. The ordination is done once, and is effective throughout the church (as long as a person maintains membership).
What this means is that Presbyterian councils by nature are not directive of each other. Outside of Constitutional requirements which are established cooperatively – perhaps proposed by a session, referred to GA by a presbytery, enacted by the GA, and confirmed by the votes of the presbyteries, made up of ministers and elders from the denomination’s sessions – the power of councils is only “ministerial and declarative” (see F-3.0107), and are not laws that bind the individual conscience.
Therefore, a presbytery, in practicing oversight of a congregation, can insist that a session follow the requirements of the Book of Order in responsibilities that have been given to the session. Something I repeat often to the Committee on Ministry is that one of the presbytery’s chief responsibilities is to help the session be the session it is supposed to be for the congregation. That is also why the moderator is a minister (or trained and approved ruling elder) provided by the presbytery, to be the presence of the presbytery and the PC(USA) for that congregation.
But in other, non-Constitutional matters, a higher council cannot impose its will upon a lower council. We can recommend, encourage, or strongly urge a session to do something, but the presbytery (or synod and General Assembly) must stop short of mandating something in these matters. What areas are we talking about in this context? Policies and social witness statements are two that come immediately to mind.
There are policies all councils are supposed to have, such as personnel policies, sexual misconduct policies, and child protection policies. The 224th General Assembly (2020) also encouraged councils to develop anti-racism policies. Central Florida Presbytery has these policies, and is developing an anti-racism policy. But these policies, when approved, only have the force of a requirement within the presbytery itself. To the sessions within Central Florida Presbytery, they are a ministerial and declarative word, an example of how the presbytery is approaching these matters. Sessions can use them as a guide for developing their own policies, but they can also go in their own direction.
This understanding of how we govern ourselves – the essential tension of the middle way – is particularly important when a council of the church speaks its mind on a particular issue, such as in the social, economic, or political realm. The Book of Order gives each council the responsibility of “warning and bearing witness against error in doctrine and immorality in practice.” These statements also are ministerial and declarative words that carry no requirement that anyone agree with them, just a request that members consider this information when thinking or acting on the matters presented. Members are free to disagree, as the church cannot bind the individual conscience on any matter. The church is not speaking for you in these matters, only speaking to you.
All of this connects to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is quoted in F-3.0101a: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of [people] which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” Paragraph “b” goes on to say, “Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.”
I served three Presbyterian congregations in 31+ years, and in each congregation, I preached essentially the same message as my second sermon. I likened preaching to selling shoes for a living – each Sunday, I am offering something for the congregation to try on, and maybe walk around in it for a while. If the shoe fits, they might consider wearing it. If it does not, perhaps the one next Sunday will be more suitable. So it is with the policies and statements of councils. Not every offering is going to fit every person. We will not agree on every matter. But when we disagree, we can remember another part of the Book of Order that we give assent to frequently when we ordain and install ruling elders: “Do we agree to pray for them, to encourage them, to respect their decisions, and to follow as they guide us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church?” (W-4.0404b)
Executive Presbyter / Stated Clerk
Rev. Dr. Dan Williams