One of the perplexities about the Presbyterian Church to many people is how did we get to where we are now? Of course, a number of factors have shaped our church into what we are today. But also there are some hard-wired “DNA” principles that provide the context of who we are and how we function.
Part of our “DNA” can be attributed to the Historical Principles of Church Order (F-3.01) found in our Book of Order. These principles were developed by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia and prefixed to the Form of Government in 1788. These principles are longstanding foundations of our church government. They are the underpinnings of our polity and are therefore instructive.
Historical Principles 1 and 2 (F-3.0101 and F-3.0102) live in tension with each other. The first principle is “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This does not mean one can believe what one wants to believe. The principle provides the important boundary for our beliefs: the Word of God. While interpretations may differ, the principle declares that our beliefs are grounded in God’s Word. We are able to hear and interpret that Word as the Spirit leads us. Consequently, we have numerous ways of interpreting Scripture, and we are constantly working on that task as Presbyterians. The second principle is in tension with the first as it indicates that while God alone is Lord of one’s conscience, the church may set “terms of admission” into its communion and qualifications of its leadership. Therefore, the PC(USA) has determined standards for church members (G-1.03) and standards for church leadership (G-2.0104).
Principle 3 (F-3.0103) defines the functions of leaders in the church: preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise discipline. These three functions of church leaders provide the basis for their leadership and provide a framework from which to evaluate their effectiveness (i.e., G-2.0301; G-2.0501).
Principles 4 and 5 (F-3.0104 and F-3.0105) are another set of principles in tension: Principle 4 calls upon us to seek the truth. The truth is only of value when it causes a difference in the lives and behavior of persons. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” reminds us that we are not seeking some kind of intellectual or philosophical truth, but a truth that is life-changing and life-giving. The fifth principle declares that while people might be seeking this truth, there are “truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ.” Therefore provide mutual forbearance toward each other. In other words, have plenty of room for different points of view as long as everyone is seeking the truth found in Jesus Christ. (i.e., G-5.01; G-5.02).
Principle 6 (F-3.0106) declares while there may be required qualifications for church officers, it is the right of the membership to elect whomever they desire as their leadership (G-1.0503; G-2.0401). Any active member in good standing in a congregation is eligible to be elected as an officer, regardless. The check and balance comes when the session examines candidates for ordination and determines if they are qualified or not. This principle reminds us that no one or no group can “send” leadership to our congregations … it is the right of the people to elect their own leaders!
Principle 7 (F-3.0107) reminds us that church power is only declarative and ministerial. It is not as civil law that is legally binding, but is intended to build up the body of Christ and encourage the Kingdom of God.
Principle 8 (F-3.0108) summarizes that if these foregoing principles are adhered to, the intended result is for the glory and happiness of the church, not for anyone’s own glory or fame. The principles are intended for the well-being of the people of God known as the church (G-1.01).
These principles remind us that our “DNA” calls us to search for the truth, to explore many options and to seek the will of Christ. Inherent in these principles is invitation to lively debate, discussion and disagreement. Yet, that is who we are … God’s people … Presbyterians.
For a more exhaustive study of the historical principles of church order, see, “Historical Principles, Conscience, and Church Government,” PC (U.S.A.), 1983.
H. CARSON RHYNE JR. is general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of the James and affiliate faculty in Presbyterian polity at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.