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............."Oh, the gallant fisher's life, It is the best of any 'Tis full of pleasure, void of strife, And 'tis beloved of many." ..........[Piscator's Song, "The Compleat Angler" by Izaak Walton] "The fishers also shall mourn,and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish." [Isaiah XIX:8]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Who Watches the Shepherds?

A church member asked me a while ago, "Should the OPC ruling bodies check their minister's beliefs are not changing over time and becoming more liberal or not aligning with our confession and catechism? As they grow as shepherds and pastors it would be easy for these men to stray from our confessions and catechisms, and no one in the presbytery or general assembly would know otherwise. Wouldn't it be wise to develop a system where pastors check their belief systems/doctrine on a regular basis, instead of 'once ordained, always ordained' current system?"

My answer follows:

The OPC charitably operates from the standpoint that a man's ordination to office is valid so long as he remains faithful and has neither demitted his office nor been deposed by judicial discipline from it. Thus, while we do not repeatedly reexamine men to insure that their ordination is valid, that ordination is always subject to the review of the church. That is not doubletalk. Let me explain.

The question raised here definitely addresses an important concern for the church. The apostle Paul's injunction to the elders from Ephesus rings true throughout the present experience of the church: "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:28-30).

Indeed, Paul's various writings suggest that times of trial and trouble are sure to come upon the church. For example, in I Timothy 4:1 and following, he states, "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paing attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, ..." Again in II Timothy 4:3-4, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths." And the apostle Peter speaks likewise, "But false prophets also arose among the people, just there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves" (II Peter 2:1).

The ministers and ruling elders who comprise sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies must continually be on guard, watching the gates and caring for the flock of Christ. As the OPC's Form of Government states, "Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals" (X.3.).

The person asked, "Wouldn't it be wise to develop a system where pastors check their belief systems/doctrine on a regular basis...?" My answer to that is that the Lord Jesus indeed ordained the system of presbyterian church government for the very purpose you indicate. Church governors are to be ever diligent and watchful! None of us are to be left to our devices. We are to be continually measured by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit and measuring what we hear (and what we read) from those who preach and teach in the church.

Presbyterian church government is the system the Lord ordained to provide for the safety that comes from a multitude of counselors (cf. Proverbs 24:6, KJV). True presbyterianism takes seriously man's total depravity and his aptness to err, and it is the very system the Lord has provided to practically deal with this. Each minister or elder is not his own judge, but the Lord has provided for a plurality of ministers and ruling elders to keep watch in the churches.

Unbiblical forms of church government miss the mark. On the one hand, independent church government fails to properly and adequately take into account the need we have for the connectiveness of the whole church and the need for the various governing assemblies that keep check on one another. On the other hand, hierarchial church government fails to acknowledge the parity of those church governors that the Lord has ordained to keep check on one another.

The OPC Form of Government, chapter XII, makes the following provision for governing assemblies:

  1. All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. A person charged with an offense may be required to appear only before the assembly having jurisdiction over him, but any member of the church may be called by any assembly to give testimony.
  2. Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.

The responsibility of keeping watch, however, does not fall exclusively on ministers and elders. The whole church shares in that responsibility. The Form of Government states, "The power which Christ has committed to his church is not vested in the special officers alone, but in the whole body. All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part. The power of believers in their general office includes the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices" (III.1.). What that means is that the members of the body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are to be discerning in their hearing. The members of the body, in accordance with the measure of the grace given to them, are to be constantly measuring what they hear from their ministers by the Word and the Spirit also.

Thus, if the officers or the members of the body discern doctrinal deviation or error in an office bearer, they have the right and the responsibility to pursue those matters with their brother in agreement with Matthew 18:15ff. If not resolved, such matters may be pursued in the courts of the church.

The OPC Book of Discipline states, "A charge of an offense may be brought by an injured party, by a person not an injured party, or by a judicatory. The offense alleged in the charge should be serious enough to warrant a trial...No charge shall be admitted against an elder, unless it is brought by two or more persons, according to I Timothy 5:19" (III.1.). In that same section the Book of Discipline goes on to state that, "an offense in the area of doctrine for the ordained officer which would constitute a violation of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as that system of doctrine is set forth in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms", is an offense serious enough to warrant a trial. Any two or more witnesses to such doctrinal aberration could enter charges in order to pursue orderly disciplinary process.

To sum up, the Church with its officers and its many members, are to be always watching, always praying for the preservation of sound doctrine and for the maintenance of the integrity of the ordained offices.

May the Lord continue to encourage you to such watchfulness and prayer. May He bless and keep you.
In Christ,

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