I always tell people that I was a pragmatic Presbyterian before I was a biblical Presbyterian. I grew up in a context that rarely thought about the governing principles of a church and, as a result, I saw the bad effects of a poor ordered congregation. Our pastor often said: “We have the word ‘free’ in our name because we’re free to do what we want.” There were no agreed on standards and patterns by which to make decisions. There wasn’t a clear path to express disagreement and no recourse to appeal the decisions of others. At its best these things were guided by the arbitrary will of the majority or, at worst, it was left to the control of a single individual. In that environment it was hard for justice and mercy to flourish.
That’s one of the reasons I was so impressed when first introduced to Presbyterianism. At its heart Presbyterianism seeks to find a way to structure the church according to the character of God. Paul expressed this concern when he reminded the church in Corinth that God wasn’t a God of confusion but a God of order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). One of the ways that this is accomplished—and it’s not unique to Presbyterianism—is through agreed upon standards. These standards give expression to what we believe, how we worship, and how we conduct the business of the church. Each member freely expresses their willing submission to these things, and every leader has agreed to them as being founded on the Bible. Thus, in our belief, worship, and business we can return to these standards and say: “Here is what everyone has agreed to.”
I understand that some people might look at the detailed policies and procedures we follow and think of them as obstacles inhibiting action (others regard them as outright legalistic!). I suppose in some ways they do inhibit–that is, they inhibit the fallen human heart. The heart is far more prone to be hasty and reactionary than cautious, wise, and discerning. So while it may seem to promote the slow grind of the Presbyterian wheel these policies and procedures actually inhibit our innate sinfulness. This is especially true when it comes to conflict resolution in the church, or hearing the voice of the minority. Without an agreed upon standard that clearly outlines the process by which to deal with disagreements one may be left merely shooting from the hip, making things up as they go along, or getting lost in hopeless subjectivity.
I was reminded of this last week as my denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, gathered for its 186th Synod. A core belief of Presbyterianism is that the church is not only organically united “We, though many, are one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5), but we believe the church should also strive for organizational unity (see Acts 15). For this reason we have what we call higher or broader church courts, and Synod is the broadest meeting our denomination has. Part of our business included working through a very difficult and painful disagreement which dominated the majority of our short three day meeting.
In the hours that we discussed this disagreement there was a lot of diversity. Good men who are my friends and whom I admire were on both sides of the issue. Strong but differing opinions were often expressed. There was a spectrum of emotion from sadness to frustration to hurt. There was confusion about words and memories. Now, it would have been very easy to let those opinions, emotions, and confusion rule the day. In fact, I think part of the reason for the drawn out discussion was because of this. But it was precisely here that I was very thankful for our “rule book.” When opinions are varied, emotions are running high, and confusion clouds the judgment we had black lettered policies and procedures on white pages that had been agreed on long before this disagreement. Into that diversity our policies and procedures offered a way forward, a measure of both justice and mercy, a demand for comprehensive understanding, and an equitable hearing for the minority voice.
Does that mean it is or will be perfect? Not a chance. But in this fallen world I’m convinced these policies and procedures—nuanced and detailed as they are—do the most in promoting the good order of the church that justice and mercy might be maintained with integrity.