MY ADVICE TO THOSE WHO AGREE IN FULL SUBSCRIPTIONISM AND THE WESTMINSTER STANDARDS by J. Parnell McCarter
A “Declaratory Act” church is one that does not require its church officers fully to subscribe to the church’s confessional standards. In such churches, officers may take exceptions to various and sundry of the doctrines outlined in the church’s confessional standards, and it is not clear which doctrines no exceptions are taken to. Most American churches have long effectively been “Declaratory Act” churches, but not so in Scotland (see http://www.fpchurch.org.uk/magazines/fpm/1998/January/article4.php). In order to become such in Scotland, the churches had to pass a Declaratory Act to allow their officers to take exceptions to the confessional standards, and to move such churches away from full subscriptionism. For example, in 1892 the old Free Church passed a Declaratory Act. Before adoption of this Act, all church officers in the old Free Church had to fully subscribe to the doctrines of the Westminster Standards; after passage, they could take various and sundry exceptions, the list of permissible exceptions nowhere clearly stipulated. The reality is that many church officers in the old Free Church had lied before 1892 when they said they fully subscribed to the Westminster Standards. They so much wanted to become officers, they were willing to lie and take a false vow. When such duplicitous men constituted the majority of church officers in the old Free Church, they then passed the Declaratory Act, prompting the departure from the old Free Church of those that formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
In a “Declaratory Act” church there can be a wide range of views. For example, in the old Free Church after passage of the Declaratory Act, there were remaining those in it who still personally adhered to the Westminster Standards, but were willing to tolerate a situation where most of the officers in their church did not. Some of the church officers post-Declaratory Act had huge differences with the Westminster Standards; some had lesser differences. What typically develops in such churches is that a wide range of view is accepted, including permission of those who adhere to the Westminster Standards to remain. However, as time passes the working assumption generally becomes that such deviations will continue to be tolerated, no matter what the stated confessional standards of the church are. A prospective church officer who would stand up and say that church officers not fully subscribing are unqualified for office in the church, and then consistently apply this stand in their actions, would find it increasingly hard to become a church officer, especially a minister. So what typically happens to those who fully subscribe to the Westminster Standards in such a “Declaratory Act” church, especially those who are ministers or want to become ministers, is that their words and actions are inconsistent with a full subscriptionist stance and consistent with toleration of doctrinal deviation from the Westminster Standards. They may personally agree with the Westminster Standards, but their words and actions typically imply that they condone differences in other church officers of their church. They generally do not convey by their words and actions that they want current officers in the church who disagree with the Westminster Standards to be removed from office.
From a very practical standpoint, it is hard in an ethical way to bring a “Declaratory Act” church to full subscriptionism to the Westminster Standards. (It was virtually impossible to bring a full subscriptionist church in the Westminster Standards to a “Declaratory Act” church, in an ethical way.) There were some very unusual and unique circumstances that allowed church officers in the Free Church of Scotland to revoke the Declaratory Act years after it was adopted, but even there they had to tolerate non-full subscriptionism for a number of years. But in most churches, it seems to me it would generally take quite a bit of unethical craft to bring it about in practice. Church leaders and prospective church leaders who agree with the Westminster Standards would have to give the impression by their words and actions that they will tolerate doctrinal latitudinarianism indefinitely, with the secret hope that one day they can do an about-face and insist upon full subscriptionism to the Westminster Standards, leading those officers who are not willing to fully subscribe to the Westminster Standards to step down from church office. It is one thing to return a church’s confessional standards to the Westminster Standards; it is another thing altogether to bring a church to full subscriptionism in the Westminster Standards when it has been doctrinally latitudinarian beforehand.
In summary, one implication of holding to full subscriptionism in certain confessional standards is that one believes those who do not agree with those confessional standards should not be allowed to be officers in the church. So if someone is unwilling in words and action to embrace this implication, then it brings into question whether one really holds to full subscriptionism in certain confessional standards. Notice, it is possible personally to subscribe in certain confessional standards, without embracing the position that the church should take a full subscriptionist position. On the other hand, without full subscriptionism, how meaningful are the confessional standards of a church? There are many heretics and even some infidels who agree with some portions of most confessional standards, so “Declaratory Act” subscriptionism to certain confessional standards is not very meaningful. One is hard pressed to tell what the church really adheres to in the way of doctrine and principles. My advice to all of those who agree in full subscriptionism and the Westminster Standards is to join a church which fully subscribes to the Westminster Standards. It allows one to avoid many ethical dilemmas, that I question can be overcome so long as one is in a church that is otherwise.