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Holding Elders Accountable: Why It’s Important to Have Confessional Standards

By Dr. C. N. Willborn

This article originally appeard at the Gospel Reformation website on August 22, 2017. It is being reprinted with permission. The original article may be found at the following link.

Both teaching and ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—and other similarly ordered churches—have a great responsibility. James tells us, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).[1] While this is often applied to teaching elders, it is equally applicable to ruling elders, since they too must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).

Why are the standards so high? Why is “a stricter judgment” promised if they fail in maintaining the dignity of their office? There are several answers, but one is certain—those under their care are special to the Lord. Paul exhorts the elders of Ephesus: “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” (Acts 20:28). We as elders are held to a higher standard and, therefore, must submit to the yoke, because “He purchased [them] with His own blood.” The elect of the Lord were redeemed at a high price, even the sacrifice of His own Son.

Guarding Our Doctrine

Our pastoral duties and privileges toward the blood-bought of God are to be taken seriously. This requires that we should be guarded in our doctrine so as to protect the sheep from harmful teaching. Paul closed his first letter to Timothy: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’— which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20–21). These and other similar passages confirm our vows as elders of Presbyterian churches to hold firm the faith, and if our doctrinal views change in relation to our public confession of faith, we are to bring those aberrant views before our respective courts (session or presbytery).

This serious call to guard our doctrine and practice extends not only to oneself but to others as well. Again, Paul makes this point to the Ephesian elders:

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. Therefore be on the alert…” (Acts 20:29–31).

After Paul says to watch for those who come to us, he warns them to watch out for one another! There will be brothers “from among your own selves” who will “arise, speaking perverse things.” The effect of these men will be to “draw away the disciples.” Men and women naturally attach themselves to ministers and elders. It’s a human occurrence. So, Paul tells us to keep watch on ourselves and on others in our midst. Yes, every elder is his brother’s keeper in doctrine and practice.

How We Guard Our Doctrine

We guard the doctrine of the church in a number of ways. Some of these include the education of ministers in sound theological schools of learning, written and oral examinations in areas of doctrine and practice, and testing of gifts in the pulpit. We also require men to take time-tested biblically based vows that unite men to presbyteries. These vows provide the basis for accountability so long as the minister remains in his local call. Similarly, we require ruling elders to study the doctrine and practice of the church, and they take vows that bring them into accountability to God and to the fellow elders in the local church, as well as the church of their call. No man is an island when it comes to gospel ministry and the eldership.

According to the PCA’s Book of Church Order, elders are required to subject themselves to their fellow elders. They are required to answer the following question in the affirmative before God and their brothers: “Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?”[2] This vow hinges upon the previous vows concerning commitment to the nature of Scripture and the doctrine as summarized in the Westminster Standards. Unfortunately, local churches, presbyteries, and even general assemblies have not always been faithful to this vow of subjection. Human nature and our culture tend to individualistic lifestyles and the church too often mimics culture on this point.

What if We Didn’t Hold Elders Accountable?

What has happened when—and what might happen if—a denomination, such as the PCA, ceased from holding its elders accountable to their vows, especially as it relates to theological or doctrinal matters? First, let us remember that, historically, Reformed churches have affirmed that vows—and discipline for failure in keeping those vows—are a mark of a true church. So this is a matter of great consequence. Second, examples are plentiful in the history of every church, but we will limit our consideration to one in our immediate PCA tradition—the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

There was a case in Arkansas concerning a minister, Hay Watson Smith, that ran in and out of church courts from 1929 to 1934. The end result was that no action was taken against him, even though he had serious doctrinal differences with the church’s confession of faith. Smith did not subject himself to the brethren. The public nature of his variant positions and practices were well-known due to his publication of said positions. In the end, he was allowed to continue his teachings.

The details of Smith’s case are summarized in Ernest Trice Thompson’s Presbyterians in the South.[3]Thompson writes that this case revealed “a more tolerant spirit in the church.” He goes on to show how this “more tolerant spirit” set the stage for “a series of test cases,” which concerned origins, the inerrancy of Scripture, miracles, the virgin birth of Christ, the historicity of Adam, and the nature of the church, to name a few.[4] The PCUS proved what happens when toleration trumps doctrinal integrity. All the test cases and the related doctrines concerned a perceived need to be relevant in and to the culture of the day. Ultimately, a sociology of toleration and lust for relevance led to a liberalized church.

A Unifying Standard?

A church that is driven by psychological, sociological, and cultural models would no longer be confessional, as history has chronicled. When discipline abates, the standard has been modified. When one presbytery modifies the standards here, and another presbytery modifies the standards there, each presbytery has its own standard. In effect, there is no longer a single standard for the larger denomination.

Have we not seen this already within the PCA on various issues? For example, one presbytery may only receive men who have one particular view of creation (e.g., the 6-day / 24-hour view), while another presbytery may accept men who hold to any of the four proposed views found in the PCA Creation Study Report.[5] When a man seeks to move to another presbytery, his view may or may not be acceptable. Or, to take another example, one presbytery may receive a man who holds the contra-confessional view of paedocommunion, providing they are willing to violate conscience and abstain from teaching or practicing their conviction within the presbytery. However, another presbytery may refuse them outright, citing their aberrant view.

When the vain desire for tolerance, acceptance, and cultural relevance determine our adherence to biblical and doctrinal standards, division within the body is inevitable and those for whom Christ died may be led astray. Christ calls us to a unity of faith, and if we want to maintain such unity, we must hold our confessional standards dear.

As elders of the church of the living Christ, we are held to a higher standard, with warnings for our failure to care for the children of the Lord. We are to lead them by example, and doctrinal unity is part of that example. So why would a denomination not hold its elders accountable for doctrine? After all, it’s for the good of the children and the glory of our triune God.

[1] All citations are from NASB unless otherwise stated.

[2] See BCO 21-5.4 and 24-6.5 for teaching and ruling respectively.

[3]Thompson, 3:329–30. A Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1861-1965 (Atlanta, GA: Office of the General Assembly, 1966), 337–39. See also Morton H. Smith, How the Gold Has Become Dim (1973), 84–85 and 281–84.

[4] See Thompson, 3:331–39.


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