Saturday, April 28, 2018

Presbyterians and Order


One of the regular frustrations of teaching is trying to teach students how to do a paper properly. We give them instruction in a class on rhetoric and writing. We tell them to use Turabian for instructions on proper formatting of subheadings, footnotes, and bibliography. We have a seminary style sheet that gives them footnote and bibliography examples for some of the (very few) kinds of things not covered in Turabian. Yet consistently students will write papers in their final year of seminary in which they still will not footnote or do a bibliography in proper form. They seem to make up the format as they go along, because they are often not even consistent with themselves. The reason is that they don’t consult the style sheet or Turabian. They just wing it. From what I’ve heard, this problem is not unique to my school. The sources are available, but unused.

Presbyterian churches are very concerned with order. It is sometimes joked that the “life verse” for Presbyterians is 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Presbyterian denominations have a book, usually titled something like Book of Church Order. It explains the principles and structures of the church and lays out guidance for how things are to be done. For example, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has chapters on how candidates for gospel ministry are to be licensed, how they are to be ordained and installed, how congregational meetings are to be conducted, and how church discipline is to be carried out. There are sixty-three chapters in the book, covering just about anything that might be involved in keeping order in the church. Men coming to be licensed are even tested on their knowledge of the BCO.

However, the testing is not usually taken very seriously. I heard of one examination (perhaps apocryphal) in which the examiner asked the candidate if he had a copy of the BCO. The answer was yes. The examiner then asked if the man knew how to use the index. Again, the answer was yes. At that point the examination was concluded. Clearly, the assumption was that if the man ever met with a situation, he would look it up in the index and read the appropriate chapter(s). Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, many ministers do not do that. There are Facebook pages for PCA ministers, and sometimes questions are asked that cause me to ask myself, “Did this man bother to read the BCO?” It seems from the ensuing discussion that he had not. (I serve on the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records for the PCA General Assembly. The review of these records also demonstrates every year that things are often done “indecently and out of order.”) The minister simply “goes with his gut” on how to do things. The result is that he often acts in a manner contrary to the BCO.  The issue gets much more complicated than it should have. This is especially damaging in cases involving church discipline.

Students who don’t consult the recommended style guide for writing papers get marked down, and, in some sense, no real damage is done. But when the BCO (or similar guides in other denominations) is ignored, real damage and real hurt can be the result. Perhaps it is time for ministers to take their vows more seriously and realize that keeping the peace and purity of the church requires them to understand not only the Bible, and whatever confession of faith the church uses. They also need to understand and apply the agreed-upon principles and processes for governing the church to maintain both its peace and its purity.

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