AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANISM : EVERY MAN DOES WHAT IS RIGHT IN HIS OWN EYES
The charge was laid against God’s ancient church in Israel that every man did what was right in his own eyes. Apparently, there was insufficient civil and ecclesiastical discipline in enforcing true doctrine and right conduct in the church. As one surveys the landscape of American Presbyterianism, the same can be said to be the case. With hardly an exception, Presbyterian denominations here do not require church members to be unified behind a common confession of the chief doctrines of the scriptural faith, nor to live consistent with those doctrines. So some members are Sabbatarian and some are not; some adhere to the regulative principle of worship and some do not; and some are paedobaptistic and some are not.
But this should not be the case. The church is to be the pillar and ground of the truth. She is to defend the truth in order that the world may know the truth. But if all sorts of heretical notions are entertained within the church, and no discipline is exercised to correct the situation, the church’s message to the world will be but an uncertain sound. The church cannot fulfill its role as pillar and ground of the truth unless the church speaks with one voice on the chief doctrines of the Biblical faith.
The primary cause of the problem within American Presbyterianism is not hard to find: American Presbyterian churches by and large do not require agreement with the doctrines of their confession in order to partake of communion and to be communicant members. Even some of the best American-based denominations only require agreement to the doctrines of the confession and catechisms by the elders, allowing communicant members and visitors partaking of communion to dissent on a wide assortment of its doctrines. So the church does not proclaim a unified message on the chief doctrines of the faith, and heresies go undisciplined. And it is naïve to believe the errors of the membership will not affect the leadership of the church as well.
A common objection to requiring such unity is that it is unreasonable to expect the membership to assent to doctrines in the church’s confession. But in truth, this objection is an attack upon the perspicuity of scripture and a poor excuse for laziness when it comes to catechetical instruction. If a church’s confession really includes matters which are not clear in scripture, then the confession should be pared back to only consist of the clear doctrines of scripture. But if the argument is that the church cannot come up with a distinctively reformed Protestant confession which requires everyone’s assent, then this is a capitulation to the position of the Romish Church that these scriptural teachings are not perspicuous. If true, then Protestant churches should close up shop and re-join Rome. But the argument is not true, for Psalm 119, as well as many other passages in the Bible, testifies that God’s word is a lamp to our feet and light to our path. It is not hazy regarding its chief doctrines, and it is not cloudy in its reformed stance. The problem lies with men who are bent on following another path, and unwilling diligently to study and execute God’s word.
The real problem lies at the heart of what the United States represents: freedom of religious thought. The United States was arguably the first nation in the world to embrace and consistently implement this Enlightenment concept, and it has successfully exported it worldwide. (We should hardly be surprised that the United States has produced far in excess of its share of cults, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Mormonism to Scientology.) It rejected religious test oaths for its federal government, urged freedom of religion, and denied the establishment principle, on the false premise of what Baptists have called “soul liberty.” And what was embraced in the civil realm was also embraced by American Presbyterianism in the ecclesiastical realm. So subscription to a church’s confession has been removed as a requirement for partaking in communion. It completely ignores that God commands every man and institution of man to be subject to Christ and Christ’s word. The so-called right to dissent without loss of privilege is not grounded in scripture.
Presbyterianism has in it historical confession of the faith- the Westminster Standards – an excellent summary of the chief doctrines of the scriptural faith. True communion is predicated on agreement with these chief doctrines. And how can two walk together in a God-glorifying manner, unless they are so agreed? Those who are either ignorant of the doctrines therein outlined, or who scandalously reject various of its doctrines, should not be allowed to partake of communion or to be communicant members. Only then will the Presbyterian church fulfill its role as pillar and ground of the truth. And only that Presbyterian denomination which seeks to apply this principle should be joined or has a right to exist.