Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Church Discipline

[I made a similar entry at CHNI, and received tremendous response. I recommend that website for anyone interested in learning more about Catholicism.]

My Presbyterian denomination, the PCA, has good rules on church discipline, contained in the Book of Church Order (BCO). The denomination appears to have great leeway in shepherding the flock, which is what a church ought to have. But I don't think they use nearly as much "rope" as they're given.

A PCA member can be brought under church discipline for committing an "offense". An offense is "anything in the doctrines or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God. (BCO, 29-1)" And, nothing "ought to be considered by any court as an offense... which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture." Heresy is included as an offense, so the definition is not limited to outward sinful conduct (29-3).

So I wonder, at what point is one who adopts the beliefs of other denominations susceptible to charges of committing an "offense"? I've known plenty of PCA parents who do not baptize their infants. The PCA's confessional standards, which are the "standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture" (29-1), state that believing parents shall baptize their children (WCOF, Ch. XXVIII, sec. 4). But these baptistic parents aren't charged with an "offense". The standard for "heresy" must be pretty high then. It's not clear to me that one believing in "baptismal regeneration" is that much different from the baptistic parent, but I suspect that one would be closer to toeing the "heresy" line.

If charges aren't brought for heresy until a PCA'er announces he intends to join the Orthodox or Catholic Church, would the denomination send a "letter of transfer" to his receiving Church?

BCO, 38-3(b) states, "When a member... shall attempt to withdraw from the communion of this branch of the visible Church by affiliating with a body judged [by his session] as failing to maintain the Word and Sacraments in their fundamental integrity (BCO 2-2), that member or minister shall be warned of his danger, and if he persists, his name shall be erased from the roll... (emphasis added)".

I doubt that each session would interpret "fundamental integrity" the same way. I imagine a member could transfer to an evangelical Baptist church upon moving, and still receive a letter of transfer (so still recognized as part of the Church Visible). But the baptists don't practice sacraments, but rather ordinances. I imagine too that a member could transfer to mainline Presbyterianism, even though many in that organization doubt the infallibility of Scripture, the Virginal Incarnation, etc. If these thoughts are right, then "fundamental integrity" is meant in a broad sense, more one of outward appearances.

But what of the Catholics? They teach the Word, and practice Sacraments in a way that is fundamental at least in an historical sense. So in one sense it would seem better to transfer to Catholicism than to an Evangelical Baptist or Mainline Presbyterian denomination. There's a rub though, that makes me doubt such a transfer would be allowed. Calvin, who formulated the Word-Sacrament litmus test of a True Church, believed that one who left the True Church was apostate (see Sect. III, here, citing Calvin's Institutes, Book IV, Ch. 1, Secs. 5 and 10). So under this BCO term of art, either Calvin meant to anathematize his Genevan movement, or the Catholic Church does not "maintain the Word and Sacraments in their fundamental integrity."

It is a difficult thing, to accept that branches of the True Church are fractured, and yet to have to decide which ones remain fundamentally integral.

15 comments:

Principium unitatis said...

Tom,

The question you are raising here seems like something that only your session could answer.

In my opinion, the idea of transfer letters is based on the notion that one is moving from one branch of the visible Church to another. But for me, while in the process of studying the Catholic Church, I came to see both the PCA and the the Catholic Church *not* as branches of the visible Church. Therefore, once I had reached that point, a transfer letter became (in my mind) unnecessary. (To be received into full communion with the Catholic Church, I did need a letter showing that I had been baptized.)

Likewise, once I had reached that point concerning what the Catholic Church is, it no longer mattered to me whether the Protestant community sought to "discipline" me. I no longer believed they had the authority to discipline me (or anyone), so the threat of discipline was moot.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Tim A. Troutman said...

Thos, you bring up an interesting point about the doctrinal similarities between PCA & Catholic as compared to PCA & mainline denominations.

I think we have to be honest and say there's more similarities in the former. I would say so even on the doctrines of justification. PCA & Catholic doctrines on this are much nearer to each other than we might first admit.

But PCA versus Billy Graham's version on the other hand... it's quite different as I needn't tell you.

Thos said...

Bryan,

Thanks. I remember your "branch" post well. Assuming for argument's sake that become similarly convicted about Catholicism (and I could equally say this about Orthodoxy), I agree that I would come to disregard the PCA's disciplinary rulings. The principle behind their membership rules and practices is that Christian should be under authority, and they should no go handing people off to unreliable authorities. I have no problem with that.

More than being concerned with submission to their "authority" (should I become fully convicted that they are not a true ecclesial authority), I am concerned about 1) acting with integrity, and 2) being faithful to the vows I took when I did join.

I think, whether they are true authority or not, God desires me to conduct myself with integrity, and to honor my vows. (And I once opined on my blog that maybe we shouldn't be taking membership vows in Protestant denominations.)

So my concern is not on "getting the boot" per se, but on getting -- or ducking -- the boot if the system is constructed to give it to me. Possibly this is all nonsense, and it seems that I'm the only person around (including my pastor, my wife, etc.) who feels concerned about such formalities for the sake of vows.

Peace in Christ,
Tom

Thos said...

Tim,

I agree. And as I was thinking about this, I realized (coming fresh off of Cardinal Newman's work on doctrinal development) that there's a much more fundamental similarity between PCA & mainline than PCA & Catholicism. Newman of course talks of an entity's *principles*. PCA & mainline share the principles of (something like) private interpretation of Scripture, submission to conscience, or the like. PCA & Catholicism do NOT share the principles of dogma and authority. So we wind up formulating doctrines on justification or incarnation much more closely, but we don't share the same essence or stock, like the PCA does with mainliners. Or forget mainliners too -- it's interesting to me that the PCA is much closer to an evangelical Arminian Baptist group than to a Reformed Presbyterian but not "evangelical" group. There the sentiments underlying the word "evangelical" become the principle, the essence, and doctrines take a very distant back-seat. Many in my circle even seem willing to share fellowship with Catholics, so long as they are "evangelical"... That's the new litmus test, replacing credalism, 5-point Calvinism, etc.

Much to ponder here - thanks Cardinal Newman, and thanks Tim.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Principium unitatis said...

Tom,

According to the Catholic understanding, a vow is a promise made to God. (That distinguishes it from a promise made to men.)

But the vow is made null and void if it is made in ignorance concerning that about which it is made. Here's a selection from the same article linked above:

A vow, even in an unimportant matter, presupposes the full consent of the will; it is an act of generosity towards God. One does not give unless one knows fully what one is doing. Every substantial error, or indeed every error which is really the cause of making a vow, renders the vow null and void. This condition must be properly understood; to judge of the effect of the error, it is necessary to know the will of the person making the vow at the moment of making it. One who can say sincerely, "if I had known this or that, I would not have made the vow", is not bound by the vow.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

Bryan,

Thanks for that. I know we talked vows a little in an earlier post. That the Catholic Church does not see me as morally bound to remain for life in the PCA because of a vow is of great comfort (almost taken for granted, really). I still want my conduct to reflect my integrity, and I want my church to perform their role with integrity as well. You understand.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Cow Bike Rider (alias, Chris Sagsveen) said...

Hi Thos-
Sorry for the length, but maybe I can offer some encouragement (from a man who’s been there).

Leaving my old church was one of the hardest things for me. My wife and I were entrenched in a faith community and even though I do not recall taking a vow (per se), when I became a member there I did state my intentions to be a part of that community, grow in faith, support them financially, etc. So maybe that should be considered a vow.

Anyway, last summer, when I came to a point where I knew I was to become part of a new [Catholic] faith community, it was still very hard in leaving my past behind. In a way, I felt obligated to stay put in my Lutheran home. It felt like I was deserting a family member. Yet I also felt obligated to leave – to a new home. It was extremely challenging for me because I felt as though I was letting down my friends, pastors, family (wife). But what kept me going was prayer to God that I was always following His will. And it’s there, when you sense and know you are following His call, that you can be certain your integrity is in tact. At least you are being truthful to yourself (and Him), no matter the outcome (discipline, disappointment, etc.)

In the face of your Protestant friends and family, it’s not easy for sure because you sense a feeling that they are and/or always will be disappointed. Whether they do or not, the feeling is always there because as much as you try to explain it to them, they will not grasp/understand your reasons. Now in my case, I was fortunate enough to have a blessing (of sorts) from my Protestant pastors. They could see the struggle within me and noted that perhaps it would be better for me to have a fresh start. I was pointing out things to them not only my doctrinal/theological struggles, but things that concerned me (in general) with the Lutheran ELCA. And I realized then that maybe my questions/issues were not fair to them. I sensed they didn’t want to hear what I had to say/ask. That’s fine, they haven’t gone through the same questions/struggles as me. They felt at home in Christ through the Lutheran ELCA church. So I knew then and there that I could never change things there – to the way I wanted them to be. It was at that point last summer that I fully realized the need to follow God’s call in my life and leave one home for another - whether people were disappointed or not. I had to be truthful to myself and Him first. My vow was to Him first.

I would hope that any Christian would look at a search for Truth in God [like you are doing right now] as being one of the most honest and admirable thing there is in a Christian’s life. So to me, it’s sad when/if a church body feels the need to discipline another when they see another leave in their search for God and answers. At least you can know that God and your new family in Christ (whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, blogging friends, wherever and whoever) is not.

For one, I admire the integrity and courage for anyone (this means you) who takes the time to search and follow those uncertain steps in the adventurous life of Christian Faith!

You’re in my prayers-
CBR

Thos said...

CBR (Chris),

[You know that your assumed initials mean "Chemical, Biological and Radiological" in military speak?]

Thanks for this post. As a matter of formality, I will note that my post did not say that *I* was the one that may be subject to discipline or excommunication (though later comments may have shown that hand). More news at 11 on that...

I appreciate your view that the highest duty we owe is, of course, to God, and the only way we know how to comply with that duty is to listen to the dictates of our conscience, as informed by prayer and so (hopefully) by His grace. I will definitely hold that in mind as this spring and summer progress.

Thanks for sharing your experiences too. It's an interesting point to ponder - whether to ruffle feathers of people who, apparently, are where their conscience has them placed as well. I will continue to reflect upon that. I remember when I first engaged in discussion and debate with my Catholic friend (who got me thinking beyond the Reformed sphere). I was sheepish about informing him that Catholicism is all horribly wrong and contrary to the Bible, because I thought if he's got a delicate, tiny little True Faith through the Catholic Church, I didn't want to rock it too hard. How ironic life can be sometimes. I'm glad he needled me until I had it all out with him. I owe him one.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Oso Famoso said...

I had it kind of easy. Right about the time that I could no longer justify protesting against the Catholic church I got transferred to another city with my job. So...I "left" my Prebyterian church in the context that I was moving away. When we arrived in our new town we simply started going to Mass and I joined RCIA.

I never asked them to transfer my letter of membership. They found out that we were Catholic (my whole family still goes there and my dad is on the session) but they haven't said anything about removing my name from the rolls. I presume that they removed my name or it may still be there.

I've seen my old pastor several times since then and we are friendly...he has never said anything. I don't know.

Thos said...

Oso,

So, er, this certain Catholic-minded Protestant I know (er...) has a move coming up in two years but thinks that's a bit far off.

Again, my curiosity is more with how a protestant denomination that has integrity (i.e., is faithful to the principles or essence of being Protestant and Christian) should handle such a member. I'm not as worried about what the member should do (besides the part where he has to help the denomination have integrity), as I assume that if he's convicted about Catholicism, he won't be too worried about protestant censures against him.

It's interesting that your former ecclesial abode hasn't taken the time to warn you that you could be (in their view) going to hell. Of course, they may not think that.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Oso Famoso said...

Thos...

I would hope that a church with integrity would gladly transfer your letter to the Catholic Church (not that the Catholic Church needs it...) because hopefully your church would at the very least recognize that the Catholic Church is another "branch" in the visable church.

In principle it shouldn't be any different than if you were joining a Lutheran church from their perspective.

Thos said...

Oso,

Ah, but by integrity, I mean true to their own identity. If a church's system (and justification for the Reformation) hangs on an understanding that the Catholic Church is the "synagogue of Satan", I want them to apply that faithfully, across the board. If that's their belief, I say go for it. And when it doesn't ring true to people, maybe they'll not believe that church in other areas.

Let me analogize to an area of law (as I'm wont to do). I do not like our court-made rules of excluding ("suppressing") illegally seized evidence (like a bloody knife, if the police didn't have a warrant). But if that's the rule, I want it to be applied with integrity, all the time. Instead of being faithful to their exclusionary rule, the Supreme Court made one exception after another (showing their own group discomfort with the policy) so that it's a Swiss Cheese rule. My point? Americans are less able to see the philosophical deficiencies of a society that lets people it knows are guilty go free, when the rule has all these exceptions (i.e., when the court lacks integrity in its approach, or is not intellectually honest).

And with my Church, the faithful are less able to see the damage of schism when we break from the Great Whore of Babylon, and later say that "she" is just another Branch of Christ's body. Indeed, the PCA (founded 1973) removed the line in our Westminster Confession (written 1646) that expresses that the Pope is Anti-Christ.

All that to say that, no, my church would not see Catholicism as another visible Branch. As I tried to say in my post, they *have* to treat Catholicism as categorically different, because Calvin needed it to be different to justify what he said was otherwise anathema (i.e., schism). In principle, it's very different from Lutheranism, because the principle is that 'Romish Popery' is of Satan, and the Pope is Anti-Christ (and therefore, for that limited reason, schism was justified back then).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Oso Famoso said...

I see your point. And it is a good one.

By that same measure, however, your PCA church should also refuse to send letters of transfer to a PC USA church because they clearly, per the 1973 split, view the PC USA as heretical don't they?

But...it really depends on the local PCA pastor. I had a friend in college who went to Rome before I did...his then PCA pastor frankly told him that "his soul was in peril." I guess that particular PCA pastor was at least consistant.

I had another friend come home and his PCA pastor, believe it or not, said, "I don't blame you."

There isn't a hard a fast rule with how the PCA deals with it.

Thos said...

A friend sent me this WSJ article about church discipline and excommunications: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120061470848399079.html?mod=hpp_us_inside_today. It's worth a read. I don't think they have it entirely right. I don't think church discipline has been that absent in cases of clear and open sin (such as extra-marital affairs) or cases where a member stop going to church entirely. And they make it sound like those that do practice discipline are out to silence dissent (like those who question their pastor or elders). Obviously there are those in power who are so concerned about their authority that they do such things as excommunicate those who question them, but discipline can be much cleaner and more sensible (as its done, and has always been done, in the CRC and PCA, for example).

Pray for Unity!
Thos.

Thos said...

Oso,

My church should refuse transfers to the PCUSA to be consistent, I agree. It's odd to me that there has been no formal rulings on this at our highest court, the General Assembly (at least, none that I've found). The rules are that each individual (particular) church session (the group of elders, not just the pastor) decides whether the gaining body meets the Word & Sacraments litmus test. So one church can wish you God-speed, and another can warn you that your soul is in grave danger, all for the same move.

This is evidence of a completely unrelated matter in the PCA, it's inherent congregational tendencies. Congregationalism is not Presbyterianism. Another example is the PCA's rule that a Congregation forms a hiring committee when they need a new pastor, and the congregation votes directly on the committee's recommendations. This is very odd, and congregationalist. The Presbyterian way would be to have a committee recommend a candidate to the session, and the session would approve the candidate and then present their selection for an up/down vote to the congregation. But the PCA way entirely by-passes the Session, which is the body of Rulers, of Shepherds, of Leaders. Democracy run amok!

Pray for Unity!
Thos.