Who Rules the Church?

            Over the past few weeks, we have looked at the rules of the OPC and the ARP concerning congregations that want to withdraw from those respective denominations. Such rules are not only important for congregations to consider before they unite with a denomination, but it is also absolutely imperative that they do so. Of course, I did not write the BCO rules of the OPC and the ARP. Some people might not like to have those sections quoted to them, but they are there, nonetheless. There are friends of mine who have given me their reasons for preferring the OPC or the ARP over Vanguard. That is their decision and right. None of those friends has ever referenced either denomination’s respective BCO sections concerning the rules for congregations withdrawing from them. Rather, they have given me other reasons for preferring the OPC or the ARP while ignoring the elephant in the living room. To me, that is foolhardy. In life, we must always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. What is the worst that can happen through affiliating with any denomination? In my opinion, the worst thing is that the new denomination (whether Vanguard, the OPC, or the ARP) will become progressive/liberal and it will become necessary for the congregation to someday withdraw from it also. If that is the worst thing a congregation will have to consider, then it should be clear that Vanguard is far and away the best option among those three denominations. Why? Because Vanguard permits a congregation to leave at any time with its property for any reason the congregation deems necessary.

            In my recent articles, I referenced the position of the New Side Presbyterians of the eighteenth century who held to the position that church courts do not have any legislative authority at all. They believed that church courts cannot make rules, but simply must follow the rules of the Scripture. Christ, the head of the Church, has given us His rules. We simply obey His will and His rules. Progressives say, “We can enact any rule we want to as long as the Scripture does not forbid it.” Conservatives say, “We are limited to what Christ commands us to do in the Scripture and we cannot make any other rules” Those are two very different views. It should also be pointed out that the progressive view is a violation of the great Scriptural principle of the liberty of conscience of every believer. As Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2 says, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship.” How can any church or denomination make rules about anything which is not clearly established in Scripture without also violating the consciences of others? Romans 14 and 15 make that same point very well also. We can have opinions for what we should do, but we cannot judge (or express our opinion about) what others should do unless the Scripture is clear because that would be judging them. Concerning this chapter and section of the WCF, A. A. Hodge wrote:

That it is a great sin, involving at the same time sacrilege and treason to the human race, for any man or set of men to arrogate the prerogative of God and to attempt to bind the consciences of their fellow-men by any obligation not certainly imposed by God and revealed in his Word. At the same time it is a sin of disloyalty to God, and a violation of our own nature as moral and rational beings, to yield to any such imposition, and to accept as a matter truly binding the conscience anything not authoritatively taught and imposed in the Scriptures. (A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, p. 267).

            Hodge asserts two things. First, no one has the right to express his opinion on what others can or cannot do, should or should not do, unless they have a “Thus saith the Lord” to back it up. To do so is to bind the consciences of others which is “sacrilege and treason.” Second, it is wrong for any person to submit to such sacrilege and treason because that is disloyalty to God. We serve Christ—not men.

            Now, I uphold the right of every person and congregation to make their own decision about what church they should join and what denomination with which their congregation should affiliate. As I have said, I have many friends in the OPC and the ARP and even the PCA, as well as other denominations. My only point in quoting from the BCO’s of the ARP and the OPC was to make everyone aware of their respective positions on congregations withdrawing. It is simply to say, “Buyer beware.”

            Now someone might object that churches and denominations have to make all kinds of rules and that there are many rules respecting church members joining or leaving a congregation. There certainly are rules concerning church members, but they are rules based on the clear teaching of Scripture or such principles that can clearly be deduced therefrom.  For instance, we require new members to make a confession of their faith by at least giving verbal assent to the Constitutional questions for membership. Paul wrote to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Confession of one’s faith is not a man-made rule, but it is based clearly on the Scripture.

            The Christian Church requires those who have never been baptized to be baptized before they can become members. Can there be any question that this is a Scriptural requirement? Peter said on the day of Pentecost: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Churches forbid the unworthy or impenitent from coming to the Lord’s table per the instructions of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27, 28. It is proper, therefore, to fence the table by warning the impenitent of their danger if they partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Once again, these rules are God’s rules. They are not the rules of churches in addition to Scripture.

            Christ also gave the Church His great rule in Matthew 18:15-18 which is the basis for all church discipline. The Church must discipline the impenitent. The rules of discipline are not man’s rules, but they were given by Christ. So those are not rules in addition to Scripture. They include the basic rules for removing someone from the body of Christ due to their impenitence. Now here is where the rules concerning church members end. They end where the Scripture is silent.

            Suppose, though, that a denomination makes one more rule concerning church members that effects their ability to leave that congregation. It goes something like this:

Before a church member attempts to withdraw from the membership of a congregation of this denomination he shall meet with the session who will appoint a committee to try to reconcile any differences. If the differences cannot be resolved, then the session will have discretionary authority to divide the church member’s assets between the church and the member taking into consideration several factors. If he fails to meet with the session or fails to follow these rules for withdrawing from the congregation, then all the church member’s personal property, real estate, and financial accounts shall revert to the session in full.

            Moreover, imagine that the session never explains that “little” rule to the church members when they join the church. At this point, I can imagine some of you are saying to yourselves, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. No church session has the right to the hard-earned property of its church members. They do not have the right to impoverish people for withdrawing.” I agree. You are 100 % right. And that is the problem with the presbytery having any authority over the property of congregations that attempt to withdraw. If the court of the church session does not have the right to the property of church members, then neither does presbytery have the right to the property of member congregations. Presbytery does not have the right to kick congregations out of their churches when they attempt to withdraw. It is right for both sides to seek to be on good terms when a separation takes place. It is wrong to bring property into the consideration. Church membership is a spiritual matter. Property is a physical matter. Reconciliation is right. Seizing property is wrong. And it does not matter which court of the church does the seizing.

Dewey Roberts, Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery and Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to Vanguard Presbytery this year. Contributions may be made to Vanguard at: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.

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