Can the Church Legislate?

            For centuries, Christian churches have legislated concerning many different matters. Denominations have made all kinds of rules and distinctives. This has become a part of our regular experience. It would be great if we could say that such legislation was restricted to the Catholic Church, but that is not the case. Legislation has happened so frequently in all denominations that we have to ask: What is wrong with a church making its own rules?

            For one thing, churches that make their own rules are denying the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is complete and sufficient. We are neither to add to the Scripture nor take away from it (Revelation 22:18, 19). Both are equally wrong and result in similar punishments from the Lord. The sufficiency of Scripture is not just a doctrine to which we are to give lip service. The sufficiency of Scripture should shape our doctrine and our practice. The problem with all these man-made rules concerning ecclesiastical polity is the same as man-made ideas concerning worship or doctrine. As my former professor at RTS, Dr. Morton Smith, taught us concerning doctrine: Man is to think God’s thoughts after Him. We do not dream up theological opinions on our own. Church history shows how disastrous it is to devise new theology. It is appropriate to return to Scripture for more light and to reform our opinions accordingly. It is ruinous to legislate new doctrines. It is appropriate to return to Scripture for a better understanding of church government principles. Legislating new governing principles, especially via overtures, has destroyed several formerly evangelical Presbyterian denominations. That is why the church property issue is such an important point. If someone, anyone, can show me that the Scripture gives presbytery the power to abscond the property of a congregation, then I am all ears. Until that happens, I am a full-blown dissenter.

            For another thing, churches that legislate develop a very ravenous appetite for power. Such unscriptural power was on full display with three church courts with whom I have had to interact in the past few weeks. In each instance, those church courts took the position that Vanguard Presbytery is an illegitimate denomination. Thus, they “refused” to transfer individual members into a Vanguard congregation and teaching elders into Vanguard. In so doing, they acted contrary to their own rules of polity. I had to write them each and remind them that they were in violation of their own principles. More importantly, I had to remind them that they do not have any civil power to make church members or teaching elders remain in their respective bodies. Can you imagine the Church at Ephesus saying to the Church at Antioch, “We do not recognize the transfer of such and such into your body and, therefore, we are going to retain them on our rolls.” That is what a Vanguard congregation was told concerning two former PCA members who united with them. PCA session, sorry, but you cannot retain them. They have left. Or can you imagine a presbytery saying to a teaching elder, “We are not sure Vanguard has been in existence long enough to be considered legitimate denomination. Therefore, we refuse to transfer your credentials.” Never mind that all those actions above violate the PCA’s BCO 38:3 a, b concerning the transfer of members and ministers. Those courts think they can make up new rules on the spur of the moment.

            I have become suspicious that the PCA’s notorious National Partnership has communicated to their many members that the way to deal with Vanguard Presbytery is to try to deny our legitimacy. For my part, that bothers me not in the least. J. Gresham Machen was not worried what the PCUSA thought about the OPC. Calvin and Luther never fretted that the Catholic Church considered Protestants to be illegitimate. Who really cares what any denomination thinks about Vanguard Presbytery since we are seeking to be a Scriptural Presbyterian denomination?  

            Neither presbyteries nor sessions can do anything to prohibit a member or a minister from transferring their credentials elsewhere. Why? Because they have neither legislative nor civil powers. Yet, I have seen thus far that many PCA church courts will try to make it difficult for people leaving them and uniting with Vanguard Presbytery. They will thunder like the Wizard of Oz, but behind that “curtain” is just a little man who is powerless to do any harm. People who have never experienced the kind of pressure that mean-spirited courts try to inflict will tremble, but they should not. Here is my advice. If you leave the PCA (or any other denomination) and the court starts making threats and “refuses” to let you leave, then do this. Get a book of matches. Take the letter or printed email and set one end of it on fire. Then, forget about it. If you ever get another such letter or email, repeat the above steps. Those communications are meaningless and completely insignificant. Ignore them (Matthew 15:14). Soon they will get the message loud and clear. But… never submit to such mean-spirited church courts in any way after you have left. Do not meet with them. Do not answer their telephone calls. Do not give them any reason to think that you feel you are still under their authority. You are not. The only authority over you that they still possess once you transfer is what you freely give them. So, do not give them any such authority. You have the right to leave them. Once you leave, do not look back. I say this because there are many of you on my email list who are considering leaving the PCA and/or leading your congregations to do so. Please do not expect your court to be nice to you. If they are nice, great. Hope for the best, but expect the worst.

            NEWS: Welcome to TE Patrick Hines and the congregation of Bridwell Heights Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, TN. They united with Vanguard Presbytery by vote of the congregation on November 29, 2020. Both TE Hines and the congregation were received as members pending that vote at Vanguard’s presbytery meeting on 11/16/2020. Now it is official, At that same meeting on 11/16/2020, Vanguard also received TE Julian (Skip) Dusenbury by transfer of his credentials. Welcome to him. There are two other churches that will vote in December about uniting with Vanguard Presbytery. We will welcome those pastors and congregations after the vote is taken, but will not reveal their identity at this time. Additionally, I know of several pastors and congregations who are preparing to vote on the issue of leaving the PCA and uniting elsewhere (hopefully Vanguard). Plus, we have a number of places where mission works are beginning. Without fail, every minister, member, or congregation that unites with Vanguard communicates to me and others how excited they are about this new relationship. When church courts are mean-spirited, that tells me that it was right to leave them. When all alike are excited to be in Vanguard Presbytery, that tells me that we are doing something right.  

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

Contributions to Vanguard should be sent to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.

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