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Under Neglect? Reforming Licensure and Ordination in the OPC

Peter J. Wallace

At its September stated meeting the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario (PMO) resolved without dissent to overture the General Assembly to revise the Form of Government, chapters 21-23, regarding licensure and ordination. The Presbytery determined to continue to solicit amendments to the overture for consideration at the January meeting.

Candidates for the ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church sometimes refer to their status as being "under neglect." And too often they are right. Too often candidates make their own decisions regarding theological education and internships without any significant input from the presbytery. Of course, in our individualistic culture, it might seem shocking for the presbytery to get "too" involved—but that is precisely what the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church requires:

Probationers, or licentiates as they are commonly called, shall labor under the direction of their respective Presbyteries. The Presbytery in assigning them fields of labor is to consult, as far as possible, their circumstances and inclinations, always bearing in mind, however, that the interests of the Church are more to be considered than the personal wishes of any laborer.[1]

Do our presbyteries ever "assign" licentiates fields of labor? Or do we leave them to their own devices—with an occasional tidbit of advice from the committee? Historically it was common for presbyteries to assign a licentiate to serve a "destitute" church. (And for that matter, it was common for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century presbyteries to assign ministers to take a certain number of Sundays each year to serve destitute churches in their region!)

A review of our sister churches' policies on licensure and ordination reveals that the OPC has one of the most "hands-off" approaches to training ministers. Several other Reformed churches require the presbytery to be much involved in overseeing the preparation and training of candidates.

Simply revising the church order will not bring about greater care for our candidates. One should not seek a legislative solution to a pastoral problem. Indeed, several presbyteries appear to be providing superior care for candidates under our current system. But current church law regarding licensure and ordination in the OPC labors under a number of difficulties which contribute to the pastoral problem. A series of questions may help unfold some of the problems, and point us toward a solution.

What Is the Difference between a Licensure Exam and an Ordination Exam?

What is the point of licensure? The PMO has often debated this point—especially when a candidate's theology exam was orthodox, but somewhat disappointing. Some have argued that licensure presupposes only half of a seminary education and so therefore we should not be surprised if a candidate for licensure still needs work in some areas. But others have pointed out that a licentiate is technically eligible to be called, and so therefore we need to make sure that he is ready for a call before he is licensed. Some respond that if the licensure exam requires that he is ready for a call, then what is the point of calling licensure "a probationary period"?

The problem is that two very different steps are conflated in our current process: 1) licensure—the presbytery's action in declaring that this man is an orthodox and competent preacher; 2) eligibility for a call—the presbytery's action in declaring that this man is prepared to be a wise and faithful pastor.

Our current Form of Government calls licensure a probationary period, and XXII.12.d even requires that before a presbytery grants permission to a licentiate to accept a call, "it shall have determined that he has satisfactorily completed his probation for the gospel ministry." But since the only explicit requirements in our church order are academic requirements, the practice of many presbyteries has been to fulfill this clause of the Form of Government simply by its vote to place the call in the licentiate's hands.

It may be prudent to consider revising our process of licensure and ordination in order to set forth this process more distinctly. The PMO has been working on a proposed revision that attempts to provide a clearer process.

The proposal lays out the following steps towards ordination:

Stage:

Exams:

1.

Under care

Faith and life

2.

Licensure

Theology, English Bible, sermon

3.

Certification to receive a call

Full battery of exams

4.

Ordination

Theology (if transferring to a new presbytery)

In this model licensure focuses exclusively on the question, "Is this man an orthodox and competent preacher?" The question of whether a man is prepared to be a wise and faithful pastor is reserved for certification. The proposal refers to "licentiates" and "certified licentiates"—with only the latter being eligible to receive a call.

We debated the question of the elimination of the Greek and Hebrew requirement for licensure at some length. Many of us are reluctant to drop this, but our central concern is the tendency to turn men under care loose in the pulpit without any real presbytery oversight. If we are to use licensure as a true probationary period, then we should license men as soon as they are ready to preach—even if we acknowledge that they need a lot more work before we would let them pursue a call.

If Greek and Hebrew are required for licensure, then many men will continue to postpone licensure until after they finish seminary—even though they have been preaching regularly throughout their seminary years.

Under our current system presbyteries sometimes find themselves pressured to rush to judgment since there is a call "waiting in the wings." While no system can avoid all unfortunate situations, the proposal would encourage men to seek licensure early in the process, which would provide the time to work with candidates before a call is "waiting in the wings."

How Should a Presbytery Determine that a Licentiate Has "Satisfactorily Completed His Probation for the Gospel Ministry?"

Gregory the Great wrote in the sixth century that "no one presumes to teach an art that he has not first mastered through study."[2] But study for the ministry of the gospel is not merely an academic discipline. Gregory insists that since the pastor is a physician of souls, the candidate for the ministry should be skilled both in his knowledge of Scripture and his knowledge of the human heart. Likewise, Paul's admonition to those who desire the episcopacy is not that they should be straight-A students, but that they should be blameless! Our current church order explains how to get sound doctrine in our pulpits. It does not give much direction for how to get wise and godly shepherds in our flocks.

In our current system it is entirely possible for a man to be ordained without the presbytery ever considering the question of whether the man is prepared to shepherd the flock. Therefore the proposal from the PMO adds a section on "Probation and Internship" which spells out a flexible procedure for ascertaining that a man has the pastoral gifts requisite in a minister of the gospel. By stating that the presbytery must either approve or disapprove a man's practical training for the ministry, this proposal requires the presbytery to examine the evidence for whether he is ready for pastoral ministry.

The key for the "internship" requirement is flexibility. An internship does not need to be a "full-time" internship—neither does it need to be a paid internship! We would hope that most candidates would avail themselves of the OPC's internship program, but the real question is, "Can a man demonstrate that he has pastoral gifts?" If a man has previous experience, it should be counted. The PMO is convinced that a man must be able to demonstrate to the presbytery that he is prepared to be a faithful and godly pastor—and that evidence should be presented to the presbytery.

Of course, this raises another question:

How Can a Presbytery Ascertain That a Man Is Prepared to Be a Faithful and Godly Pastor?

Several years ago, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America revised its Book of Church Order to include an examination in pastoral theology. The PMO proposal follows much of their revision (including the two-tiered approach to licensure). By adding an examination in pastoral theology and requiring the presbytery to evaluate and approve a man's practical training for the ministry, the proposal seeks to establish a more thorough process for ascertaining what sort of character and gifts the candidate has beyond the purely academic.

The PMO proposal (following several of our sister churches) requires the presbytery to approve each candidate's plan for how he will acquire the requisite pastoral training. This is designed to encourage members of the presbytery (or at least its Candidates and Credentials Committee) to make sure that they know each candidate sufficiently to have some sense for what he needs in order for him to be ready to pastor a church. Also, the proposal requires that the pastoral theology examination be conducted on the floor of presbytery in order that the presbytery may judge for itself whether he has the requisite wisdom to be certified as eligible to receive a call.

But Doesn't This Add a Third Battery of Exams?

Some might object that this adds a third battery of exams—the new category of "certification." In fact, the reduplication of exams in our current system would be almost totally eliminated. In our current system, most exams are given twice. In the new proposal, the only exams that would be given twice are theology, English Bible, and the sermon. The only instance in which an exam would be given three times is the theology exam given on the floor to a man who is called to a presbytery other than the one that certified him.

The PMO proposal focuses the main battery of exams on certification (the point at which a man becomes eligible to receive a call). If a man receives a call from within the presbytery where he was certified, then there is no need for him to undergo any further examination. But if he receives a call from a church in a different presbytery then that presbytery must still examine him in theology (and the certifying presbytery must send any record of his examinations to the ordaining presbytery so that his new presbytery has the opportunity to look over his previous work). Therefore, there is not a full battery of exams in the ordaining presbytery, though they may wish to ask follow-up questions regarding his earlier examinations.

This proposal seeks to find a proper balance between "confidence in the brethren" (trusting our sister presbyteries) and the right of each presbytery to judge the qualifications of its members.

What about Ruling Elders Who Wish to Preach Regularly?

For several years the Presbyterian Church in America has required that anyone who preaches regularly in their pulpits be "licensed" by the presbytery. The PMO proposal includes a similar provision:

No one may preach regularly within the bounds of the presbytery without being examined and approved by the presbytery. A man (e.g., a ruling elder from within the presbytery or a minister or ministerial candidate from another denomination) may be approved to preach regularly by the presbytery if he is able to sustain examinations in Bible knowledge and theology and preaches a satisfactory sermon before the presbytery. Such men are not considered candidates for the gospel ministry.[3]

Ordination to the office of ruling elder does not require any training or certification regarding a man's abilities to preach. Therefore ruling elders who desire to preach regularly should receive the approval of the presbytery.

The key word in this discussion is "regularly." Occasional supply preachers serve at the discretion of the session and would not be required to be approved by presbytery. Only those preaching regularly within the bounds of the presbytery would need to be approved. "Regularly" would need to be interpreted and applied with wisdom by the presbytery.

Endnotes

[1] Form of Government of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (X.C.10).

[2] Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule I.1.

[3] "Proposed Revision of the Directory for Public Worship" in the OPC Book of Church Order, XXI.18.

Peter Wallace is an evangelist of the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario (OPC), serving as pastor of Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church in America in Granger, Indiana. Ordained Servant, February 2010.

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