So why in the world would we once again attend a PCA? Good question. We're not going to become 'members' though we did once before. I worked out a compromise with the elders. This time I'm not inclined to try and work with their system.
Submission versus Oppression
If they want to make a list of who's a member (in the Biblical sense) of course that's fine. If that helps them to govern or pray, no problem. If they want to ask for my testimony every three days and for me to account to them for my actions every week, that's fine. I'll submit to that. If they want me to study out issues with them and if they push for regular attendance, that's fine too. That's not in opposition to Scripture. I will bend over backwards to comply with their requirements, with their supervision, even to the point of being ridiculous.
But when they want me to stand up and take extra-Scriptural vows and to submit to extra-Scriptural standards I won't do that.
'You're not submitting,' they say. I'm submitting as far as the Scriptures permit. I won't surrender my conscience to you and I won't submit to your extra-Scriptural claims of authority. As an individual do I have the right to question ‘the system’? All I’m asking for is a Scriptural argument to justify a system and the many practices flowing from it. If they can’t give me one, then I’m not bound. In this case I’m submitting to Scripture instead of their misguided leadership.
If I'm sinning, I'll repent and be corrected, but you don't need to have me take vows in order to do that. 'You need to vow to submit to the Church,' they reply. I've already done that in Baptism and every week when we have the Lord's Supper...or should have. It's a shame many Churches celebrate it so infrequently. Actually it speaks loudly in terms of their misunderstanding its significance. They are vows, and by creating additional vows, the weight of Baptism and the Supper are reduced.
The Scriptures give the elders a certain level of authority, even power if you want to put it that way. But thankfully it has limits. They are to guide, speak words of wisdom, instruct in the truth of Scripture, rebuke sin, and much more. But it's not a marriage as I've heard some of them suggest. We are to submit and honour them and I'm willing to do so. We should be respectful. If an elder says, 'I think you should spend more time studying, or more time with your family,' then the request should be honoured. If they want to talk about your life, you should be candid with them. Does submission mean we get out of checkbooks for inspection? I don't think so. Should we listen to financial wisdom? Yes, but surrendering your tax return goes a bit far. Does it mean they can tell us what house to buy or what food to eat? No.
They're not lords, they're shepherds. Their authority is not rooted in edicts, but in being an example to the flock. And many of them would be shocked to learn that if they exhibit love and wisdom...their words will carry even more weight than any edict or any form they’ve imposed.
They can speak about how we handle our money, or perhaps tell someone to eat less because their fat. But they would be better leaders and more wise if they lead by example and teach people as people, as a flock...but not subjects, or as people of a lower caste.
Strangely I've had problems the other direction. Once I was working at a job that bothered my conscience. I wanted to quit and apparently made the mistake of talking about it with an elder at the OPC where I was a ‘member’ at the time.
I had just got out of the Air Force and I was single and financially I was alright. I wanted to quit and look into something else. The elder didn't want me to quit...he thought I should stick with it and keep working, and give it more time. I appreciated his advice and the point he was trying to make, but in this case I didn't agree. The fact that he was a retired military officer might have also contributed to the fact that we didn't see many things eye to eye. Our view of the world and our relation to it, and our divergent concepts of following conscience were quite different.
I quit the job and pursued other employment. I had only worked at the place for a little over a week. They actually got upset with me. Apparently it wasn't advice, it was an order. I wasn't submitting.
The elders don't have the right to tell me I shouldn't quit a job that I'm uncomfortable with. That's not about submitting to authority...that's lording over people's lives. Was I sinning in quitting a job? To me I was potentially sinning in keeping it. If they thought I was sinning in quitting the job, then they should have addressed that. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was they thought I was sinning because I didn’t do what I was told.
Legalism, out of bounds
They do not have the right to 'hedge' God's commandments. The commandments are not always clear and explicit. Sometimes they require wisdom and discernment in how to apply them.
Many Church leaders step out of bounds when they draft up lists of do's and don'ts reflecting their personal tastes or cultural posture rather than an actual position derived from Scripture.
They can tell someone your daughter needs to dress more modestly, but they can't create a list of extra-Scriptural standards and mandate everyone follows it. They may not like the way you wear your hair or the fact that you have a beard. But is it based on Scripture or their own interpretation of culture?
I haven't had regular television for years but the Church doesn't have the authority to mandate that people in their congregation can't have it. It may be wise not to have one, but do the elders have the authority to forbid it? There's a small Reformed denomination that does this, forbid even the owning of the device. I appreciate the spirit of it, but principally it's quite wrong. They're exercising authority they do not have. There’s plenty of sinful material available on television. They would be better to teach their people wisdom and how as Christian adults to handle the responsibility. Forbidding the thing outright when God has not forbidden it is an abuse of authority and shows a real lack of wisdom and leadership. Again I say that as one who doesn’t have regular television. We have the device but receive no channels where we live.
Unity not in form, but in the Spirit
So many of these things, both practical and systemic, stem from men trying to be the Holy Spirit. Give people the Word. Preach it and teach it. It brings about a response, it will not return void (Is. 55). People will either change in time and be sanctified or they will grow hostile and depart. The Elders are there to oversee this, to protect and guide....not Lord over the congregation. And they're not clerics...functioning as holy men possessing supernatural powers.
Divine power and symbolism are covenantally present in the Church and the Church is Shepherded or even stewarded by leaders and guides, not by a spiritual aristocracy...that's clericalism. Clericalism makes it all about them and their authority. There's a big difference. There's an authority that points people to Christ, but another type of authority that ends up being about power. They may not mean to do that or set out to grab for power, but it happens easy enough.
I think this is what Presbyterianism is doing by making the essence of the Church, its real core rest not in the local congregation but in the regional body...what they mistakenly call the Presbytery. Their motives are noble enough. They're trying to hold the Church together, but I'd rather risk a bit of chaos then innovate and try to improve on the simple model God has given.
An exercise in futility?
We continue to attend because we're at our wits end. We don't know what else to do. If we had a couple more families we'd be happy to meet in a house or somewhere else. But we don't and we're unhappy and ill at ease just staying home. It's not about a superstitious 'we have to be somewhere on Sunday morning' checking a box type thinking. We want to be where the Word is and with other Christians. Secondarily, we want our children to be with other Christians and other Christian children. I'm not talking about extra-Scriptural innovative and gimmicky programmes which is how we got Sunday School and all that to begin with. I'm talking about fellowship centered on the Word and time with other believers, a time of edification, encouragement and yes, respite from the world. We need to stop and meet with others, be grounded, and get our perspective right.
I'm not looking for perfection. I will actually put up with far more than many people I know will in terms of extra-Scriptural additions. I can put up with their Presbyterianism even though it's not Biblical in the least.
But they won't tolerate it when you won't go along. I'm guilty of schism even though I'm just trying to sit there on a Sunday with my family, and worship God. I'm not trying to change them or impose anything. I just want to worship with my family, but because if you won't go along with their extra-Scriptural system governed by their extra-Scriptural power grabbing...then you're guilty of schism and you're denied the basic signs of participation in the Church...Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
When you're excommunicating people...effectively saying they are unbelievers because they won't submit to your innovation and tradition, then you're in big trouble.
Rather than confront, I'm more inclined to stay away. If confronted I'll certainly speak. I'm not there to beat people over the head about Christmas or this or that programme. I understand most people are right in their hearts and haven't really thought about it much. It's interesting though how when you won't go along with it and appeal to Scripture they just gnash their teeth and rail at you even though all I'm saying is...show me from the Bible.