Breaking news: To view all of our General Assembly news coverage in one spot, click here.

Living in tension: Polarities in Presbyterian polity — Orthodoxy and forbearance


Most of us who have lived through the ordination and sexuality wars of past decades know the phrase “mutual forbearance.” Fewer of us know that it’s actually part of the Book of Order — F-3.0105, to be precise. Fewer still know that it’s the second half of one of the oldest and most important tensions in Presbyterian life, and that tension, we believe, ought to characterize all religious life.

In the early decades of the 18th century, colonial Presbyterianism was engaged in a controversy between those in the Scots-Irish tradition who insisted that ministers strictly subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and those in New England who believed that individual conscience could not be bound by anything other than Scripture and the Spirit. The Synod of Philadelphia in 1729 struck what it thought was a compromise, called the Adopting Act, which required ministers to subscribe to “the necessary articles” of Westminster, but also granted some freedom of conscience to disagree with provisions of the confessions. Neither the synod nor any of its presbyteries ever listed what those “necessary articles” were, but presbyteries began examining ministers and hearing their “scruples” on a case-by-case basis, determining whether each individual objection constituted a violation of something essential in the faith or practice of the church.

Even though the Adopting Act was unanimously approved by the synod, it didn’t stop the controversy. Rather, the fight broadened and deepened into the first of the great Presbyterian schisms: the Old Side/New Side Controversy (1737-1758). When at last this greater fight was resolved, one of the resulting actions was the reaffirmation of the Adopting Act.

The Old Side/New Side Controversy, as well as the struggles that preceded it, are a struggle between orthodoxy and freedom of conscience. And you can see the vestiges of this fight in the paired principles in our Book of Order. On the one hand there is F-3.0104:

“That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.”

The assertion that “there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty” is the most important reason we examine each and every person elected to the church’s ordered ministries of deacon, ruling elder or teaching elder, and why we insist on taking with such seriousness declarations that a candidate for ordination cannot in good conscience agree with some aspect of the church’s constitution. We believe that orthodoxy is important, because right belief is connected to sound practice, and the church has the right to expect both from its leaders.

But immediately after this classic assertion of the rage for orthodoxy, the constitution places this affirmation that echoes the compromise of the Adopting Act:

“That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

In a word, we recognize that not everything is an essential of faith and practice, and in matters nonessential we have the right to disagree and the responsibility to treat each other with respect and dignity — what the 1789 Historic Principles calls “mutual forbearance.”

So, what does living in the tension between orthodoxy and forbearance do for us?

It generates theological creativity.

Because we have insisted on adhering to the essentials of the faith as expressed in Scripture and the confessions, while simultaneously refusing to define in some permanent form what is essential, we have been able to continue to be theologically creative and innovative. Instead of reifying what we believe in a list of “fundamentals” (although we did try this once, in the 1920s, with disastrous consequences), we have insisted that what is essential changes with times and places, and so we have to keep alert to what God is doing around us, stay open to the movement of the Spirit within us and keep nimble to adjust how we live our covenant life together as the circumstances of life call upon us to do. This never means we abandon our beliefs – Scripture and our creeds and confessions – but also that we carry on a continuing dialogue with Scripture and the confessions as we seek to discern the way forward. We hear the voices of the confessions from the past, we hear the voice of the Spirit speak through Scripture and then we decide how they help us answer the questions of the moment. Especially in times of social unrest and discord, when old assumptions are newly challenged, this tension becomes more and more important.

It gives meaning to the ancient motto:
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum Verbum Dei.

Because we do not march in theological lockstep but hold within our fellowship those who see things differently, we are required from time to time to hear the voice of the minority, even when it is saying the very thing the majority would rather not hear. But without the dissent of the minority, the majority never questions its consensus, and thus never grows spiritually. If we are to be a “church reformed, always being reformed according to the Word of God,” it will be in part because the Spirit speaks through the voice of dissent to challenge the consensus view and make us think again.

It is the reason we have ecclesiastical discipline.

I know “discipline” is a bad word. It makes us think of sitting in the principal’s office or writing “I will not talk in class” 100 times on the blackboard after school. Still, discipline in the life of the church is one of the three things our early Scots forbears thought marked the existence of the true church. I am convinced, however, that they meant it redemptively and restoratively, rather than punitively.

Discipline is about being a disciple, and so the function of discipline is not to exclude those who are “disciplined” from the fellowship of discipleship but to restore them to it (see the preamble of the Rules of Discipline, D-1.0102). I think we forget this, and instead import notions of punishment and incarceration from criminal justice into the ecclesiastical realm.

The confidence that there is a connection between “faith and practice, truth and duty” lies at the heart of the church’s discipline. When one of us, especially one in the church’s ordered ministries, strays from sound practice, the church has a need to call attention to that departure and to explore it.

But that exploration does not presume that an offense against truth has been committed. Instead, it explores the question of whether there is ground to believe an offense has been committed, and whether there is evidence to support a charge if one seems warranted. And at every step in the long process of ecclesiastical discipline the one investigated or accused has the right to be heard, to speak their truth and to influence the outcome.

The bottom line: The ongoing conversation between orthodoxy and difference, and the commitment to upholding truth while forbearing in disagreement, make us a spiritually fertile people, even if we are simultaneously an argumentative bunch.

PAUL HOOKER is an associate dean at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where, among other things, he teaches Presbyterian polity.

Note: This is the second in a series of three articles.