Traditions –like Anglicanism or Presbyterianism–tend to decline when the arguments used to sustain them become too diffuse. Beyond such a tipping point members of the same tradition find it increasingly difficult to find any sort of “family resemblance” in other members of the same group. In fact, they may even feel a greater affinity with those outside of their own tradition (in one sense) whose sense of identity (even if different) is grounded in the same or quite similar arguments. In my own experience, there was a time when I felt that I had significantly more in common with the Franciscan Priest on campus than many other colleagues from mainline churches.
In the context of the tribe called Presbyterian Church (USA), we have effectively reached the tipping point. There is now no meaningful sense of unity or commonality to our theological identity. Such commonality as there is now almost exclusively consists of second order doctrines, beliefs, or practices. We all baptize children, for example, rather than we all believe that God is trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The proximate cause of this ecclesial train wreck is the dilution and diminishing of the concept of freedom of conscience as outlined in our confessional heritage. Time after time the church’s courts have decided that we cannot assign an affirmative meaning (i.e., we cannot list) to “essential tenets of the reformed faith.” We take a vow to do something we cannot define. The most we can do, in this revised approach, is say what are not essential tenets. This we can do only on a case-by-case basis.
It is true that American Presbyterians have tended to avoid creating a list of essential tenets of the reformed faith. However, it is also true that during period of theological decline and unfaithfulness American Presbyterians have looked to greater scrutiny of teaching elders as a way to assist in the renewal of the church. While it may be popular to claim that every Christian is just as much a minister as the teaching elder, it should be noted that the ministry of the teaching elder is clearly under a higher standard according to the Bible. Not many, we are told, should aspire to the office of teaching elder since those who do will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).
The concept of freedom of conscience is rooted in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which reads as follows:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
This is not, it should be noted, an absolute freedom. Instead, it is a freedom rooted in the Scriptures. It is also not an absolute freedom in the sense of being granted to all for any reason and with no consequence. Often overlooked is the following section of the Confession, which states:
They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
Clearly, the purpose of freedom of conscience and Christian liberty is holiness rather than license.
Responding to this alarming trend in modern American Presbyterianism, several Presbyterian denominations sought to clarify this notion in their respective Constitutions. For example, the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (BCO II.2) states:
In perfect consistency with the above principle [i.e., freedom of conscience], every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.
Here we find an internally consistent way of managing the tension between maintaining a coherent tradition and allowing for freedom of conscience. The church, the BCO asserts, will not compel individuals to believe a certain doctrine, but at the same time it has the freedom (and responsibility) to set the terms of admission to ordained office and church membership.
The BCO admits the possibility of setting these terms of admission too harshly or too loosely, but insists that it is still the responsibility of the church to have establish and enforce terms of admission, this most often occurring in presbytery exams.
There are various ways of trying to manage the tension between identity and freedom. I suggest that the one option no longer feasible is the status quo method used by the PC(USA), “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This policy can lead to the further splintering of the Presbyterian tradition.