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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Alan D. Strange

Preface

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is governed by three sets of documents: its primary, secondary, and tertiary standards (cf. Form of Government, Chapter XXXII, Section 1). The primary standard of the Church is the Word of God, contained in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. Standing above the Church’s constitution, the Word of God is “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” (Shorter Catechism, Q/A 2). Subordinate to the Word of God is the constitution, consisting of two sets of standards. The doctrinal standards of the Church (the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) are its secondary standards, and the standards of government, discipline, and worship comprise its tertiary standards.

Comment: “Constitution” can be taken in different senses. In the civil sense the constitution (written, as in the USA context, and precedent-oriented, as in the UK context) means the document(s) or set of conventions that govern or constitute a society. The Bible certainly governs the church as the Word of God. The reason that it is not said to be part of the constitution of the church, but the basis for it (or “standing above the church’s constitution”), is because the Bible is not subject to amendment or change, whereas any constitution, written or traditional, remains open to modification. The theological way of speaking of this is to say that the Bible, being inspired (God-breathed), is infallible (not capable of error) and thus actually contains no error (inerrant). Because of this, the Bible neither needs nor is capable of reform: in short, God’s Word is irreformable.

The Roman Catholic Church, however, applies these attributes that pertain to the Bible also to the church and Rome argues that the church is infallible (the papacy, especially, when promulgating dogma) and thus irreformable. Protestants broadly and Reformed and Presbyterians particularly teach that the church, contrariwise, is quite open to reform by God’s Holy Spirit; Reformed churches see themselves as ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, “the church that is reformed and always to be reforming,” i.e., always to be reformed in accordance with the Word of God. Another way of putting this is to say that the Scriptures are the norma normans, the “norm that norms” the doctrinal standards and the church order. The secondary and tertiary standards are the norma normata, the “normed norms,” the constitution of the church that can be amended as needed to be brought into closer conformity to the Word of God.

The vital link here is the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who gave the Word also progressively illumines the church to understand it. The church’s understanding or interpretation of the Bible is not infallible but is, largely, correct over time because of the gracious illumination of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the church has not, in the main, misread the Bible (over against liberals, who claim that it has). This is part of the reason that there have been so few amendments to our Reformed confessions and catechisms over the centuries: we have not mistaken our understanding of the Bible’s teaching. There have been some minor revisions, to be sure, to our doctrinal standards; they are not, after all, irreformable.[1] Mainly, the revisions that we have witnessed have been to our church orders, i.e., to our tertiary and not to our secondary standards.[2] Never to our primary standards: the Scriptures are not open to revision because they are the unchanging Word of God. Our understanding of them is open to revision, however, as we, personally and corporately, grow in our understanding of them by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus the constitution of the church is open to revision as we come better to understand the Scriptures that provide the basis for and foundation of the church.

The book that you hold in your hand contains the tertiary standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: its Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for the Public Worship of God. While printed separately from the secondary standards, they are not conceived, nor should they be used, in isolation from them. Several sections of the doctrinal standards refer directly or indirectly to worship and ecclesiology, such as those dealing with the sufficiency of Scripture, Christian liberty and liberty of conscience, religious worship and the Sabbath day, the civil magistrate, the church, the sacraments, church censures, and synods and councils.

Comment: The relationship between the secondary (doctrinal) standards and the tertiary (church order) standards is important to understand. The Scriptures contain a system of doctrine—a coherent body of belief revealed and articulated over time (declaratory word accompanying redemptive deed)—given expression in the doctrinal standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The relation of the tertiary standards to those secondary ones is this: the doctrine set forth in the secondary standards, based on God’s Word, provides the basis for the polity, or government, of the church. In other words the Bible and the secondary standards contain principles, among other things, for the governing of the church, for how we should act together as a church in the carrying out of our Lord’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). The details of polity are not found, then, in the Bible; rather the Bible furnishes us with biblical principles pertaining to government that the church develops into the sort of detailed polity that we find in the FG and BD.   

We believe that the Scriptures contain not only doctrine (teaching) about itself, God, man, Christ, the Holy Spirit and salvation, and the last things but also about the church (and its worship), specifically, as the above paragraph sets forth. Scripture addresses both that which pertains to doctrine and that which pertains to polity, though the Bible addresses in detail that which pertains to doctrine and only in broader principles that which pertains to polity. The details of polity are thus not part of the secondary standards but the tertiary standards. In historic Presbyterianism, then, polity details are worked out in the church order, which is more amenable to change than the doctrinal standards. It is comparatively difficult to amend the doctrinal standards, requiring supermajorities of two assemblies as well as of the presbyteries; amendment of the church order requires only the majority of a given assembly and subsequently of the presbyteries.

This greater ease in amending the church order is due to the recognition that polity typically needs to be put into practice to gauge its workability and to identify areas of needed reform. For this reason polity has often, classically, been a part of the church history department in theological seminaries rather than taught in systematic or even practical theology. It is only in applying the biblical and confessional principles of church government in the actual outworking of them in the life of the church that the necessary details of polity emerge and successively clarify themselves. Thus church orders reflect historical application of polity principles, seeing what works well and what does not work. Polity is a mixture of the prescriptive and descriptive and never sees itself as exhausting the prescriptive, since the church is called and enabled to do all its work, whether or not every aspect of the church’s work has been reduced to description in the church order.

The genius of Presbyterian church government lies in its appreciation for the value of such tertiary standards. They do not replace or compete with the Scriptures. Rather, they set forth rules and procedures by which the church corporately interprets and applies the Word of God. That is, this Book of Church Order provides the effective means by which the teaching of Scripture is applied to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s government, discipline, and worship. As Presbyterians have put this in the past, a book that rightly orders the church is not necessary for the being of the church (since there are true churches that do not follow these rules and procedures), but is necessary for the well-being of the church. The rules and procedures set forth in this book will promote and encourage the spiritual health of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Comment: What was regarded as necessary for the being of the church, or what essentially defined the church as church before the Reformation, was the attributes of the church, as noted in the Niceno-Constantinapolitan Creed: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. During the Middle Ages declension occurred and confusion crept in, rendering certain marks necessary for the further defining of the being of the church. In the Reformation these necessary marks of the true church were further delineated as the pure preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the discipline of the church. Divine right Presbyterianism also developed during the Reformation teaching the parity of the clergy (over against episcopacy), the joining of lay rule (in the ruling eldership as representatives of the people) with the clergy in joint rule, and the connectedness of the church, with graded judicatories.[3]

Some insisted that such principles must manifest for the true church to be present; Charles Hodge, and others, argued against this view, rightly warning that it would unchurch everyone not a Presbyterian and identify the church exclusively with the Presbyterian church, which Hodge saw as sectarian, a violation not only of the catholicity but also of the spirituality of the church (about which, below, in comments on FG 1–4).  Most Old School American Presbyterianism agreed with Hodge, refusing to unchurch all other churches than the Presbyterian, and argued that, as felicitous as Presbyterian government was, it pertained not to the being, or essence, of the church but to its well-being.[4]

The differences in authority among the primary, secondary, and tertiary standards come to expression in two important respects. First, the language of the church officer ordination vows takes into account the relative weight of these standards. Ministers, elders, and deacons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are required to believe the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, to sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, and to approve of the government, discipline, and worship of this Church. There is a lessening of the required commitment to the lower levels of these standards. Second, the standards are distinguished by the processes by which amendments may be made to them. The primary standard of Scripture cannot be altered, the secondary standards of doctrine may be amended only with difficulty and rarely, and the tertiary standards of church order may be more easily and frequently revised.

Comment: The distinctions in the ordination vows with respect to the primary, secondary, and tertiary standards are quite important. They show the relative importance of the standards in view. That one vows, as he does to the primary standard, the Bible, shows that God’s Word is irreformable: it is not open to revision. Historically, certainly in the context of American Presbyterianism, one has been permitted to express scruples that do not impact the system of doctrine, with respect to the secondary standards (understanding that one does not customarily teach one’s scruple(s)).[5]

One is never asked about scruples, however, with regard to the tertiary standards, only whether one approves of such, with the implication being that while one may think that the church order warrants improvements, even significant ones, the candidate taking vows approves the church order, being willing to work within it and abide by it. In summary one cannot differ with the Scriptures, as they are of direct divine origin; one may differ only in minor ways from the doctrinal standards, given that they are the church’s expression of the system of doctrine contained in the Bible. One may, however, believe that the church order merits considerable revision, and yet approve of it if one is willing to work within it.

This 2015 edition of The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church represents the current understanding of what this branch of the church believes the Scriptures teach about the government, discipline, and worship of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was in 1941, five years after the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, that its General Assembly ordered the first edition of The Book of Church Order to be printed. In 1979 the General Assembly approved a substantially rewritten Form of Government. A major revision of the Book of Discipline was adopted in 1983. Beginning in 1995, further approved changes to these tertiary standards could ordinarily come into effect only in years ending in 5 or 0. And the General Assembly completed a sixty-two-year process of revising the Directory for the Public Worship of God by authorizing the publication of a special edition of these standards of government, discipline, and worship in 2011.

Comment: Presbyterians intend the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline to give expression to the biblical and doctrinal principles (from the primary and secondary standards) that address the polity of the church. They do not assume, however, that the FG and the BD are exhaustive expressions of all that the church should or may do in carrying out its duties. Rather, the FG and BD serve to reduce to writing the ways in which the whole church has agreed to act in concert. Such expressed agreement does not mean that all judicatories are bound in ways not enumerated in the church order in carrying out the duties of the church. The church has all the authority that it needs from the Lord to carry out its commission, whether specifically enumerated in the church order or not.

This point is a very important one and needs to be understood: the FG and BD neither contain all that the church may do or needs to do. What is there is binding but any given judicatory may (and will) face situations that this church order does not describe. This does not mean that the judicatory may not or should not act, but it must do so in keeping with the principles of the Word of God. The church order is understood to be an expression of the principles of the Word of God relating to polity, so that the Scripture should never be pitted against the church order or vice-versa. When one acts in accordance with the church order, one is assumed to be acting in accordance with Scriptures since the church order is merely the detailed expression of the Bible’s principles of polity.

It should also be said that one may never claim to act in accordance with the church order if in so acting one clearly violates Scriptural strictures (e.g., a judicatory may not remove one from the rolls of the church, even if it is supposed to be in accordance with the church order, if it is done without the love and care that Scripture always enjoins). We agree how we will act together in the OPC on polity matters in the FG and BD. We also agree always to act biblically in all the work of our judicatories, whether the particulars of any given act are contained in the church order or derived from the Bible in cases in which the church order is silent.

This edition of The Book of Church Order has been prepared in accordance with instructions of the General Assembly, in consultation with the stated clerk of the Assembly. The Committee on Christian Education has taken on the responsibility of publishing and distributing the book. It contains all the revisions of The Book of Church Order that have been approved since 2011 and which take effect on January 1, 2015. In accordance with the Form of Government, Chapter XXXII, Section 2, this particular edition of the book will remain in use in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church until at least 2020.

Ross W. Graham, stated clerk     
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania     
November 2014     

Some Specific Considerations about the Relationship of the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline with the Directory for the Public Worship of God

Our Book of Church Order, as noted above, consists of the Form of Government (FG), the Book of Discipline (BD), and the Directory for the Public Worship of God (DPW). The first two of these, the FG and the BD, express Presbyterian polity, detailing how the church conducts it ordinary business as well as how it implements church discipline. The third, the DPW, addresses how the church believes that it is to carry out the principle of worship that governs the church.

With respect to worship, we affirm what has come to be called the regulative principle of worship: the Scriptures regulate the worship of the church, so that the elements of worship, though not its circumstances, must be positively taught in Scripture. This means that we may do in worship only that which the Bible enjoins; some follow a different principle of worship, often referred to as the normative principle of worship, which maintains that we are free to act as we please in worship, so long as what we propose to do does not explicitly contradict the Scriptures. It is important to note that our DPW seeks to give expression to this regulative principle of worship in keeping with what we hold biblical worship to entail, as expressed in WCF 21 and elsewhere.

We do not likewise affirm a regulative principle of government and discipline, requiring express scriptural warrant for all that we do in the government and discipline of the church. Rather we believe that the Bible contains the principles foundational to Presbyterian polity so that while we must act in accordance with such principles, there is freedom regarding the precise structures that we erect in the government and discipline of the church. For example must we have synods in addition to presbyteries and general assemblies? No, this is a practical matter that we have freedom to determine as long as it is in keeping with the Presbyterian principles of the Bible and does not violate any of the express teachings of the Word. Another example: may a judicatory employ a commission to do its work? It may, at its judgment, but might also find it wise to be careful in the instances that it chooses to delegate its authority and power.

So when we say that church order derives from Scripture, we mean that it does so as to its guiding principles, not as to it operational details. When it comes to operational details, judicatories have freedom and discretion, within the guidelines of biblical principles of polity. This was one of the differences in the debates that Charles Hodge and J. H. Thornwell had in the nineteenth century. Thornwell had articulated what Hodge had taken to be a regulative principle of government and discipline (just like we all affirm a regulative principle of worship).[6] Hodge argued to the contrary, “The great principles of Presbyterianism are in the Bible; but it is preposterous to assert that our whole Book of Discipline is there.”[7] Hodge recognized the problem here (elevating government and discipline to the level of doctrine and worship): Presbyterian polity does not pertain to the being of the church but to the well-being of the church. For example the attributes of the church (unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity) are essential to its being; the principle of parity of ministerial office, collegial rule of ministers and elders, graded judicatories and the like comprise its well-being. And as we noted above, to confuse these two leads to unchurching all who are not Presbyterian, which is parochial and contrary to proper ecumenism.

We joyfully embrace a regulative principle of worship: to worship the Triune God in the way that he has set forth in Scripture is true freedom. To do otherwise is base idolatry. We do so because God has clearly set forth the elements that comprise true worship. We do not, however, hold to a regulative principle of government. The Bible has not furnished us with the details of polity and to assert that it does is a denial of our true Christian liberty. Rather, we are called to discretion in a wise application of the principles of God’s Word in the development of our church order. Church order must always be in keeping with the principles of biblical church government and express the proper flexibility (not a set of ironclad rules) that is needed as the church goes into all the world to preach the gospel. We do not, however, hold to a regulative principle of government in the same way that we do a regulative principle of worship (granting that we may speak in some broader sense of such, acknowledging that God’s Word provides the patterns and principles for Presbyterian church government).

Endnotes

[1] There have been what the OPC regards as felicitous amendments from the original Westminster Confession of Faith (at 20.4, 22.3, 23.3, 24.4, 25.6, and 31.2), reflected in The Confession of Faith of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Texts (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005), vii–xii for the history of these amendments. There were additional amendments adopted in 1903 that the OPC declined to adopt in 1936; a liberal, and quite interesting, take on this, might be found in Lefferts A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church Since 1869 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957), 39–89.

[2] These changes are chronicled below (in the penultimate paragraph of this Preface), found in The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2015 Edition (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2015), p. viii.

[3] J. Aspinwall Hodge, What is Presbyterian Law as Defined by the Church Courts? 4th ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1886), 10.

[4] Alan D. Strange, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications, 2017), 162–174.

[5] James R. Payton, Jr., “The Background and Significance of the Adopting Act of 1729,” in Pressing Toward the Mark, ed. Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 131–145. For another view on this, see David W. Hall, “Re-Examining the Re-Examiners of the Adopting Act,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1995), 263–291. See also, Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Nature, Limits, and Place of Exception and Scruples in Subscription to Our Doctrinal Standards,” Ordained Servant 23 (2014): 23–33.

[6] James Henley Thornwell, “Church Boards and Presbyterianism,” Collected Works, v. 4, in Paradigms in Polity, ed. David W. Hall and Joseph H. Hall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 559–584.

[7] Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity (1878; repr. New York: Westminster Publishing House, 2001), 440.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, April 2020.

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