An Essential Summary of Our Book of Church Order (Presbyterian Church in America)

Our denomination has a book that governs the operation of our church on all levels. Personally, I think it is probably too long and complicated, even though I agree with the principles in it. I think we would be better served to simply have something like the following. This is a summary of our Book of Church Order that I use to give a simple explanation of what I believe are all the key points of the book.

The System of Government of the Church

Church Government:

  1. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. He defines the government, worship, doctrine, and ethics of the Church.
  2. The church of Jesus Christ consists of all true believers everywhere.
  3. All who believe are called to be members of local churches.
  4. The local church is a community of professing believers and their children who gather together under the leadership of ministers and elders in order to proclaim the gospel to the world, mutually encourage and build one another up, and worship God together.
  5. The official leadership of the church consists in the elders and deacons of the church.
  6. Some elders are called to devote themselves to the teaching ministry of the church and take a leading role among the elders and are generally called ministers.
  7. The deacons oversee the physical operations of the church and receive and distribute gifts to the poor.
  8. Churches should seek official relations with each other for mutual accountability and ministry. In our system of government, the regional community of churches is called a presbytery, and the national (or continental) community is called the General Assembly.
  9. These elders gather together in order to govern the local church or churches in common. These gatherings are called the Session (local), the Presbytery (regional), and General Assembly (national).
  10. No one can simply become an officer of the church by their own choosing but must be lawfully ordained.
  11. The ordination of all officers consists in an election by the congregation or other calling body, training and examination by other officers, and an installation or solemn setting aside of the individual to that office.
  12. The relationship between an officer and a congregation can be dissolved by a vote of the congregation and confirmation of the ordaining body.
  13. The congregation does not govern but should approve all major financial decisions and can be called upon for advice or vote on other matters. The congregation must elect all officers governing it.

Church Discipline:

  1. The purpose of discipline is to glorify Christ, build up the congregation, and help the subject of discipline.
  2. The governing body with jurisdiction over a member or minister can and should look into any matter that could become a scandal to the church.
  3. Individuals may seek to resolve issues of concern through church courts, but they must first seek to win their brother.
  4. When a matter cannot be resolved informally, the governing body should enter into a process of careful inquiry into a matter (or trial).
  5. If a governing body enters into process and finds a person guilty, then they may impose a censure.
  6. A censure is either a rebuke, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, suspension from office, or excommunication.
  7. If someone comes and confesses, the governing body may impose a censure, but it must be clear that a person actually intends to confess for this end.
  8. If someone tries to simply remove himself from the roll of the church, then the governing body should make clear the consequences of not being part of the visible church and seek to dissuade them.
  9. If someone disagrees with the action of any governing body over them, then that person may make seek to convince that body that it was wrong through a complaint.
  10. If a complaint is rejected by a governing body, then the person who made the complaint can take that complaint to a higher body.

Bryan Chapell Nominated for Stated Clerk of the PCA: An Analysis of His Vision

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.

Getting the Church on Track

Why do we do church? For some, church is a habit. For others, it makes them feel good. For many, it is a refuge from the world. For still others, the word “church” brings bad memories of hurt.

But what is God’s design? What did He make it for? In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul lays out the basic message of Christianity. Human beings are created by God but forgiven freely by grace through faith. Those who believe are being transformed into the likeness of the truest human, Jesus. The letter to Romans is a marvelous explanation of these truths. Martin Luther said, “It is the chief part of the New Testament and the perfect gospel . . . the absolute epitome of the gospel.” And John Calvin said, “When anyone understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.”

Near the end of the book of Romans, the Apostle gives two benedictions or declarations of blessing that indicate his desired result in the life of the Roman church. I believe that they encapsulate the purpose of the church. These benedictions are: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:5-6, 13).

In this passage and the surrounding verses, I believe that Paul sets forth four key purposes for the church: to connect people to God, to help them grow in character, to connect people to one another, and to equip people to make an impact in the world.

First, he wants it to be a place that helps people connect with God. This may seem obvious, but it’s probably so obvious we can miss it. Everything the church does exists to make sure that people are living daily and moment by moment in a relationship of faith and love with the Triune God. The call of the church is always, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him” (Psalm 117:1).

How are we doing on that? Good questions to ask on this goal are: are we helping people who are not connected to God connect with God? Do we see people living more of their lives in the presence of God? Can we and do we share stories of people connecting with God better because of the work of our church?

Second, he wants it to be a place where people are growing in their character. He wants Christians to become more and more a people who are trusting in God and expecting Him to do good things (hope). He wants us to be filled joy and peace. Romans 15:13 describes beautifully what the results of the Gospel should be for human beings: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

In a series of talks John Ortberg did with Dallas Willard just before Willard’s death, he recounted a conversation that he had with Dallas about churches.

During one of the first times Dallas and I talked, I asked about the churches. Some churches are great at music and worship. Some churches are effective at evangelism or reaching folks outside of them. Other churches are teaching factories. Others are great at assimilating people. And still others are good at acts of justice and compassion. But, I asked Dallas, where are the churches that are producing abnormally loving and joyful, patient, courageous people in inexplicably high percentages?

It’s a great question. Are we seeing people grow in their character? Are we seeing people develop these virtues? Do we see transformation over time in the people who attend? Can we tell stories about it? This is one of the great purposes of the church, to aid in that process.

Third, Paul wants the church to be a place where people can build relationships that will help them connect with God and grow spiritually. He wants it to be a place where people connect with each other, accept each other, help each other grow, and build community.

One thing about churches is that they are in fact built on community. There are strong relationships, or the church probably wouldn’t exist. But there are a couple of ways we need to challenge the church on this point. How easy is it for newcomers to connect (hint: probably not as easy as you think)? Are people building new relationships and connecting across generations? Are the relationships that are built helping people grow in their character and relationship with God or are they merely social?

Fourth, the goal of the church is to send people out to make an impact in the world. The goal of the church is not the church. It is that the people in the church would take what they receive and bring it into their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplace and make an impact that will further God’s purposes in creation and redemption.

So, we should ask, is our church making a difference in the world? Are people interacting differently in their homes, schools, and workplace because of what they are receiving in the church? Can we share stories about what God is doing outside the church as a result of the work in the church?

If we cannot answer a lot of these questions in the affirmative, we need to get the church back on track. And once we get on track, we will need to immediately get it back on track. The law of entropy applies to organizations and individuals just as much as to the physical world. Renewal needs to be a way of life, as the theologian Richard Lovelace put it.

What this means is that we need to not only do the activities of the church. We need to do them with purpose. We need to be deliberately looking for results. Now, these results are only partly the result of our work. God is the one who gives the increase. But that means that we need to pray for these results as well as laboring for them.

Once we start looking for these results, we will realize that they are already happening to some degree. This reminds us that it is first and foremost God who builds the church. He has been working at it a long time, and He invites us to be a part of what He is doing. But we certainly should not rest with what has been done in the past. As the Apostle Paul said elsewhere, I want your love to abound more and more! (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10).

It is a mistake to think that simply because God is the primary builder of His Church that we have no part to play. We are co-workers, workers under Him. We have our part to play, and we have our responsibility. Our part is to discern what God is doing with the church and lean into it. Our part is to align our activities, hearts, and minds with what God is doing. When we do so, we can expect that we will see Him do great things through us and in us. He is the God of hope!

My encouragement to you is to think clearly about what the church is for. Don’t just let it be something that is vague. Think through it clearly and put all your labor and prayers into moving it in His direction. That is how we align ourselves with God and His work. That is how we bring renewal. That is how we get and keep the church on track.

Not Giving up Anything for Lent, the Pagan Roots of Easter, and Other Holy Week Thoughts

Here is a collection of thoughts I’ve had on Holy Week.

  • I have still never given anything up for Lent. However, I did enjoy the Mardi Gras special at Courthouse Donuts. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
  • I’ve always had trouble picking out something to give up for Lent. If I need to give something up, I give it up. If I don’t need to give it up, I really don’t want to. But maybe that’s the point!
  • On the other hand, I’ve embraced Holy Week this year in a way that I haven’t in the past. I’ve done readings at home, a Seder at church, and a Good Friday service in Gatlinburg. Sunday, of course, will be our Easter worship service.
  • Our family has read slowly through Matthew 26–27 this week. Very powerful. Highly recommended.
  • Think of Jesus for a minute without knowing that He is the Messiah. The fact that Jesus says, in essence, that from now on the Passover is all about Him is really quite astonishing.
  • The thief on the cross exercised incredible faith when he looked at the bleeding, dying, suffering Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
  • I don’t want to condemn anyone who does, but I personally don’t find it an aid to faith to watch an actor play Jesus. I prefer my own thoughts on the Scripture.
  • When you read “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” with the background of Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father throughout His time on earth, beginning with going to the temple at age 12, it gives even greater profundity to some of the most profound words ever spoken.
  • Can you feel the anticipation of Easter in your house? I can in mine. Ever since there has been a spring and humans to reflect upon it, humans have experienced that same anticipation because they held celebrations of the wonder of spring.
  • “Pagan” has certain connotations today, but it really means everybody else besides the Jews who haven’t heard the Gospel of Christ. This includes most of the ancestors of those who are reading this.
  • The glory of spring demands awe, wonder, and celebration. There is something right about the pagans celebrating it, even if I can’t agree with all that they did to celebrate it.
  • Christians have taken the ancient spring celebration and centered it around the greatest new life event since creation itself: the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the new creation.
  • Speaking of spring, I love seeing all the flowers in the Southern spring. I was surprised to see my azalea bush do so well.

  • In Matthew’s Gospel, the first words of Jesus after the resurrection are “Do not be afraid.” Good words for people who live much of their lives based on irrational fears or not knowing how to live courageously in the face of rational ones.

If you made it through this whole list, I wish you an especially happy Easter!

Helping Pastors Plant and Renew Churches

Unless we are planting new churches and renewing old ones, the church is dying. Organizations do not naturally move toward health. There’s enough pathology in every organization to ultimately ruin it. Churches need to renew, regenerate, and reproduce. In dependence on the grace of God, the leaders of the church need to take responsibility to make sure that is happening.

That’s what the regional church planting and renewal conference in Chattanooga, TN this past week was all about. I had the privilege along with 100 other pastors and church leaders to attend this three day conference. It was put on by Tennessee Valley Presbytery’s Mission to North America (MNA) committee and Flourish Coaching with support from our denomination’s MNA committee.

Each morning began with a time of worship and preaching. Robby Holt and Brian Fikkert spoke to the whole group about individual renewal in the Gospel that leads to a vision of Christ renewing all things. For example, Pastor Holt pointed to the prophecy in Zechariah 3:9: “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” This is a reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice that brings forgiveness of sins. He then told us to look at the next verse. “‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” It made me think that justification and forgiveness are unto flourishing that leads to hospitality. It made me ask and still makes me ask, do I think about the Gospel in that way?

After the worship services, the large group divided up into several workshop tracks. There were tracks for urban church planting, rural church planting, renewal, pastor’s wives, missional communities, and a few others. I attended the workshops on renewal. The renewal workshops followed a pattern of what they called “head, heart, and hands,” that is, something to think about, something to move our hearts, and something for us to do. The first workshop gave us a framework for thinking about renewal through three phases: incline, recline, and decline. In the “heart” section, Pastor Matt Bohling, Executive Director of Flourish Coahing, simply preached the Gospel to us, encouraging us to find our identity in Christ. In the “hands” section, he taught us a simple method for doing strategic planning. He encouraged us to do a SWOT analysis (what are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats?), develop a few specific actions out of that analysis, and assign them to specific people.

Those who attended the conference also had many opportunities for building and renewing relationships during lunches, dinners, and breaks. In my view, the best opportunity was through cohorts or small groups. During the workshops, we broke down into groups of four or five to process the various talks. These small groups provided a context to get to know people on a more intimate level. I walk away from this conference knowing several gentlemen much better because of these small groups.

Finally, there were other opportunities throughout the three day conference to learn and grow besides the worship and workshops. Dr. Tom Hawkes from Uptown Church in Charlotte, NC spoke at two different gatherings at Chattanooga’s Mountain City Club. I attended one of them along with a number of Ruling Elders from area churches. Dr. Hawkes spoke about how to keep the Session on mission. I got a long list of ideas from Dr. Hawkes’ description of the work at his church.

I am certain that the people who attended the conference valued it highly. How do I know this? Something happened on Wednesday morning that gave the highest testimony to the quality of this event. When I saw that the official activities of the conference ended at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday and did not start again until Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., I told my wife, “I bet half the people will leave and go home on Tuesday after the workshop.” This was based on dozens of experiences of church meetings and conference through the years. So, Wednesday morning I was shocked when I walked into the worship service and saw that it was just as full as the previous two days. Everybody stayed!

Several leaders of our denomination want to re-produce these conferences in the various regions of our nation. I hope that they do so and that if they do, you will make an effort to be a part of them. Highly recommended!