A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Historic Principles of Freedom & Order
September 4, 2014
The third and final chapter of the Book of Order’s “Foundations” section is entitled “Principles of Order and Government.” It is the oldest chapter in our Book of Order, comprising statements that date back to the 1700s. The language is archaic, but its principles have proven timeless. It is fitting that our series on Foundations closes by considering its two core values, which have long undergirded our life together – freedom and order. Neither is possible to sustain in a thriving church without the other. Freedom without order breeds chaos, and order without freedom chokes out the church’s life.
Freedom of conscience is a core value of Presbyterian polity. Neither church nor civil courts may overrule people’s conscience concerning religious doctrine and practice, provided they do no public harm. “God alone is the Lord of the conscience.” (F-3.0101) The church may never coerce doctrinal conformity or institutional participation. Individuals, congregations, and affinity groups are absolutely free to affirm or deny what they will, and to maintain adherence with or to leave church bodies as their conscience leads.
Conversely, “Every church, …or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualification of its ministers and members.” (F-3.0102) The freedom of churches to maintain their own membership standards persists even if such standards are excessively lax or rigid, so long as they do no harm.
People who exercise their freedom to leave a church’s fellowship for reasons of conscience forego all further claims to its resources and services. The same is true when a congregation leaves the larger fellowship – it relinquishes all claims to resources and services belonging to the parent body. In the PCUSA this includes all property that the congregation has used. (G-4.0203) However, many congregations wishing to leave the PCUSA have contested that rule, and sought to take with them the property they have used, contending that it rightfully belongs to them even though denominational rules say otherwise. Rather than go to civil court to settle such differences, most departing congregations seek some sort of compromise with their presbyteries; in Pittsburgh, departing congregations have been permitted to take with them the property they have been using, in exchange for payment of a small fraction of its actual value.
In order to preserve its integrity, the church calls and installs officers who promise to uphold its order. Every minister, elder, and deacon makes such a promise when ordained to office. However, if any officer should find their continued support of the church to violate their conscience, they may withdraw peaceably without penalty or prejudice. (G-2.0105n)
Because none of us agrees perfectly with rest, we must all exercise forbearance toward each other in matters over which we differ. (F-3.0105; see also Ephesians 4:1-3) This does not mean that everyone should be utterly free to believe and act indiscriminately; some convictions are patently untrue, and may lead to actions that are harmful to the church. Even as it extends forbearance to many with divergent opinions and practices, the church seeks through its discipline to preserve its integrity by guarding vigilantly against convictions and actions that will undermine the church’s life and witness. (F-3.0108)
We close by examining an obscurely-stated but critically important principle for how councils ought to exercise and to limit their power. The text declares that while “all synods and councils may err,” they should nonetheless seek diligently to amend the church’s order as is necessary for fruitful proclamation of the Gospel. (F-3.0107) It is noteworthy that this word about councils erring is part of a passage intended not to repress amendment of our order, but to encourage it. Such amendment is the natural polity consequence of being a “reformed church, always to be reformed.” (F-2.02) However, this historic counsel continues, some sorts of amendments are more prone to err than others. Specifically, the greatest “danger… [is in] the usurped claim of making laws, [rather] than … judging upon laws already made.” In other words, adding new rules is more perilous than interpreting and adjusting current rules. We are more likely to err by growing our Book of Order than by tapering it. Jesus took the religious leaders of his day to task for seeking to control their church through ongoing expansion of their equivalent of the Book of Order. (Luke 11:42-52)
Our Presbyterian forebears established a wonderful foundation for our order by reminding us that churchly power is never coercive, and is more likely to work for good to the extent its playbook remains as minimal and flexible as possible. A church order that encourages rather than curtails true freedom is thereby much more likely to fund vitality in the church’s life and mission.
For the good of the order,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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