The Stated Clerk is a title for perhaps the most significant leadership position in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. It is not exactly a president or a bishop because, as Presbyterians, we believe in the equality of ministers and lay elders in the government of the church. The Stated Clerk is a significant position, however, precisely because there is no bishop or president of our denomination. The Stated Clerk organizes all the work of our denomination and corresponds on behalf of it and so becomes a sort of figurehead and spokesperson for our denomination.
This year, we have a significant opportunity. In the 47 years of our denomination, we have had three Stated Clerks. This year, our current Stated Clerk, Roy Taylor, is retiring. Our Administrative Committee has nominated Dr. Bryan Chapell to replace him. Dr. Chapell is most well-known for serving for many years as President of our denomination’s seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary. Dr. Chapell also brings a host of other experiences to this position, as you can read here.
In this article, I want to analyze some of Dr. Chapell’s explanation and vision as explained in an article by our denomination’s magazine, byFaith and on our Administrative Committee’s web page. I think the issues that he raises are extremely important for how we understand the church. This will be of most interest to those in Presbyterian churches, but I think that the issues raised are important for any church or denomination. They are questions of how we relate to other churches, how we connect with politics, and how we view the relative importance of various doctrines or positions of the church.
To understand what Dr. Chapell is saying, I will compare what he has said to what some of our best theologians in the past have said on these same issues. Of course, Dr. Chapell may disagree with my summation of some of his points and nothing I say amiss should be attributed to him. I intend this as an appreciation of his emphases and an extended interaction on the following important points:
Point 1 – We ought to feel and exhibit a strong sense of brotherhood with all Christians and Christian Churches.
The first thing I appreciated about Dr. Chapell’s statements was its strong emphasis on an appreciation of other Christians and denominations. Chapell says:
Since my youth, my convictions have changed to embrace the Reformed distinctives of Scripture, but my appreciation for Christ’s work among all generations and peoples have never been more strong. The Lord who claimed my soul by his grace alone, and has shown his covenant love to my children and grandchildren despite my many weaknesses and sin, was working long before I knew Him in the lives of faithful believers from many churches and backgrounds. I bow before the wideness of his mercy that shined his gospel light for me from many directions, and now beckons our church to shine it for the salvation of many more people.
While having his own particular point of view, Dr. Chapell is in great appreciation of “faithful believers from many churches and backgrounds.”
This is in line with the spirit evidenced by our best Presbyterian theologians. Charles Hodge wrote, “But as in the case of the individual professor we can reject none who does not reject Christ, so in regard to Churches, we can disown none who holds the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. . . . You cannot possibly make your notion of a Church narrower than your notion of a Christian” (Discussions on Church Polity, 45). In this quote and throughout Discussions, you will find in Hodge what Dr. Alan Strange noted in his preface to Hodge’s work, “a firm commitment to the Reformed faith coupled with a real catholicity.”
Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney represents a slightly different perspective than Hodge on quite a few issues. I highly recommend two of his essays on the church, “What is Christian Union?” and “Broad Churchism.” The focus of these articles is on why it is important for churches to have a stand on the secondary as well as primary issues of doctrine and why it is legitimate to have different denominations. In spite of this, you will find that there is a surprising openness and love for other denominations in Dabney’s articles. For example, while defending the legitimacy of different denominations, Dabney says, “Each denomination should recognize the validity of the ministry and sacraments of every other evangelical denomination. The intercommunion of their ministers as ministers, and their members as members, should manifest this brotherhood on all suitable occasions” (“What Is Christian Union?”). How many of us are looking to manifest our brotherhood with all evangelical churches on every suitable occasion? This is a real ecumenical spirit!
The heart for all Christians is also evidenced in the way that Presbyterians organize their churches. It is an historic emphasis of our churches that any believer can be a member of our church, even if they disagree with our particular doctrines. As the General Assembly of 1839 put it, “We have ever admitted to our communion all those who, in the judgment of charity, were the sincere disciples of Jesus Christ.” We may hold to our opinions on a variety of doctrinal issues, but we welcome any sincere believer as a member of our churches.
In regards to ministers, we may have an understanding of specific qualifications for ministers that those from other denominations may not meet. That does not mean that we cannot profit from them or even have them preach in our churches. As Charles Hodge says, “Presbyterians may recognize Methodist preachers as ministers of the gospel, and welcome them to their pulpits, but they cannot be expected to receive them into their own body or make them pastors of their own Churches” (Discussions,). Now, even that last point may seem harsh to some, but that leads us to the second major point of this article.
Point 2 – We must not reduce Christianity to a few primary points of teaching or doctrine.
Dr. Chapell explains that there are several pressures that can keep us from our Bible-focused mission to reach out to the world. One of these is what he calls “distinction-less Evangelicalism.” In contrast, he appreciates our denomination’s emphasis on “the importance of sound doctrine.”
What this means to me is that while the good news of Jesus Christ is very simple, the Bible has many more things to say that are not as central as the primary doctrines but still important. Robert Lewis Dabney explained it this way. When it comes to the general membership of the church, he says, “there is no church under heaven more catholic and liberal than ours, in receiving all, whatever their doctrinal differences from us, provided they truly receive Christ as their Redeemer.” However, for those who would teach, the standards are much higher: “We believe, indeed, that of the shepherds who undertake to guide the flock, our divine Head exacts more perfect knowledge and agreement” (Broad Churchism, again, I would recommend this whole article to you).
But don’t people disagree on the details of the biblical teaching? Yes, but that doesn’t take away our obligation to try to be as clear as we can on it. What should we do then? Dabney says, “Who is to decide, in a particular case, which doctrines and ordinances are essential to the being of a true visible church? I reply, each communion must, as far as its intercourse with others goes, decide this for itself. If it decides too strictly, and refuses to recognize some whom the Scriptures recognize, this is their error. There is no human remedy.” In other words, each church has a responsibility to judge this for themselves, and they are accountable to God for their decisions. He notes that if someone makes an error in being too strict, we should not “retaliate”: “This, their uncharitableness, though their error, does not unchurch them, and should be treated by other communions as other lesser blemishes are treated. And as long as these others refrain from retaliation, and stand prepared to reciprocate the communion of saints as soon as it can be done on equitable terms, the responsibility of the separation thus made rests exclusively with the first party.” The important thing is that we should be charitable even to those whom we judge to be overly strict and show love to them, even if they do not show love in the same way to us. In this way, we can preserve unity in the best way, even if we must make important “distinctions” from others in our teaching.
Point 3 – We must not make our distinctive teaching on the secondary doctrines of Scripture primary in theory or practice.
There is also an error on the other side. As Dabney notes, “Presbyterians fully admit that some doctrines of the Christian system are not fundamental to salvation.” There are primary and secondary doctrines. An error occurs when we make secondary doctrines primary in spirit, practice, or theory. This is what Chapell seems to have in mind when he refers to “Reformed fundamentalism.” While this is a danger to Reformed and Presbyterian Christians, it is a danger to any Christians who hold to an important point that is not primary. Seeking to emphasize what we think is important over against those who disagree, it is easy to let these things take on a place in the life of the church or the individual that they do not deserve. Our constant returning to them makes them seem more important than they are. It is also easy to let them turn into a party spirit or a judgmental spirit against all Christians who do not agree with these doctrine. Again, this can be done in theory and in practice.
Our Presbyterian forefathers recognized this danger as well. Consider Charles Hodge’s remarks on Romans 14:
Christians should not allow anything to alienate them from their brethren, who afford credible evidence that they are the servants of God. Owing to ignorance, early prejudice, weakness of faith, and other causes, there may and must exist a diversity of opinion and practice on minor points of duty. But this diversity is no sufficient reason for rejecting from Christian fellowship any member of the family of Christ. It is, however, one thing to recognize a man as a Christian, and another to recognize him as a suitable minister of a church, organized on a particular form of government and system of doctrines, Romans 14:1-12.
A denunciatory or censorious spirit is hostile to the spirit of the gospel. It is an encroachment on the prerogatives of the only Judge of the heart and conscience: it blinds the mind to moral distinctions, and prevents the discernment between matters unessential and those vitally important; and it leads us to forget our own accountableness, and to over look our own faults, in our zeal to denounce those of others, Romans 14:4-10. (Comments on Romans 14).
This is a real danger in defending the doctrines that are of real but secondary importance. We can easily miss those things that are “unessential and those vitally important.” And note, this can also be done in other ways by those who advocate a “distinction-less Evangelicalism.” That’s why Dabney warned against “retaliation” against those whom we think are too strict. We should also regard these Brothers and Sisters with charity.
Point 4 – We must equally emphasize right loving as well right teaching.
Another potential problem in trying to emphasize the “importance of sound doctrine” is that we forget the “importance of sound love.” I believe that Dr. Chapell is right to say, “I believe that we are at our best and strongest when faithful brothers and sisters seek to do the Lord’s will together with deference to one another and humility before God, reflecting the integrity and grace of Christ. Neither orthodoxy of doctrine nor orthodoxy of community can be compromised in the church that would truly honor Christ.” We need to love well and teach well.
In his prescriptions for greater church unity, Dabney noted as his last and chief point: “Last, and chiefly, all Christians should study moderate and charitable feelings towards others, and should sincerely seek to grow in the knowledge of revealed truth. As they approach nearer that infallible standard they will approach nearer to each other.” Grow in truth and love. That should be our ambition. Both deserve our attention and care. Both are necessary to the church and to church unity.
Point 5 – We may speak on political issues but should not let political parties or perspectives shape our agenda.
One more point, politics. Chapell believes that one of our strengths as a denomination is that we have avoided the pressures of “mere social progressivism, [and] strident political conservatism.” Instead, he notes that “we have continued to evaluate ideas and establish priorities based on Scripture.” I hear him saying that we have done a good job showing concern about social progress or politically conservative positions, but they have not become the driver of our denomination or churches. The PCA has avoided becoming entangled in the right or the left. We have been able to maintain our independence. That is not to say that we do not agree with aspects of the political right or left. It’s just that we have not let these things become our priority. We have avoided becoming a wing of a political faction.
Charles Hodge spoke eloquently to this point in his discussion of the province or domain of the church. He writes, “It is not her (the Church’s) office to argue the question in its bearing on the civil or secular interests of the community, but simply to declare in her official capacity what God has said on the subject” (Discussions, 105). The church must speak to what God says on a variety of topics, but it must not become an agent in implementing those things in the civil realm. Individual Christians may do so, but the church’s role is to declare God’s will for all of life.
In addition, the church itself must be cautious about aligning too closely with any political faction. While her sympathies may lie with one side or the other on any particular issue, she is called to bear witness against the sins of both. We are not called to a party spirit that would manifest itself in a slavish devotion to a political party or movement.
I have written at length on some of the ideas that Dr. Chapell presented because I think they are important and profitable for the church. I’m thankful that he raised them. With that framework and his experience, I’m confident that Dr. Chapell will be an excellent spokesperson for our denomination, and I expect good things from his work in this new position as Stated Clerk.