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James H. Thornwell on the proposed PCA BCO Pay to Play Amendment
Posted by: Carolina Presbyterian Church (PCA) | more..
2,100+ views | 80+ clicks
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I have learned that it is best to put the bottom line up front and then follow with the rational for any who are interested in reading the justification.

1. I am concerned that if passed, the “fee” that will be owed to the Administration committee will result in a gradual liberalization of the denomination and the loss of any number of smaller churches. I fear this because many small churches struggle to pay their pastor a fair wage already and then they would like to sponsor missions if their budget will allow. Given these priorities, payments to the Admin committee will go unpaid resulting in a loss of a right to speak and vote at the General Assembly. Thus, the smaller and typically more conservative churches will grow silent in our assembly and indifferent to the issues of the denomination at large. As that condition persists, they will soon realize that the denomination only views them as a source of revenue and doesn’t seek to encourage their participation in the direction of the PCA. Eventually, they will remember that other Presbyterian bodies such as the ARP do encourage all member churches to participate without a pay to play arrangement and they may begin to move from the PCA where they have been censured to the ARP or the OPC which will most likely receive them with open arms.

2. I see this as a breaking down of the Presbyterian ecclesiology. We have a church government built on a system that includes three courts. The PCA has been a grass-roots church focusing on ministry in the local church and boasting that we don’t have a headquarters. Now, we will have a headquarters centered in the Admin committee and that headquarters will have the power to censure churches of the General Assembly so in effect, the Admin committee will have authority over the General Assembly by publishing a list of churches not allowed to participate in debate. That will be without due process and it is an act of discipline.

3. There is no scriptural warrant for any punitive action to be taken on account of a fee. A tithe to the local church? Perhaps action could be taken for not tithing but an extra-biblical fee? I don’t see any principle in scripture that will give this good support.

4. This is a movement away from a trust in divine providence. Ministers in the local church have big dreams of ministry to include anything from missions and building programs to radio or television spots. Yet, they are providentially hindered and recognize that ministry must be planned based on the Lord’s provision. In the case of the Admin committee, it appears that providence is not trusted in provision and that a fee to accomplish visions must be foisted upon the church.

And now…some justification from Thornwell:

Given the benefit of conversation on this issue, I would like to share my own musings and note-taking. The following isn’t formatted for formal presentation; I am typing them from my steno pad just as I wrote them in my study. I have shared these with Dr. Gordon Reed, a founding father of the PCA and he made the effort to call and tell me that he would lend his name to my interpretation of the following to any who asks and encouraged me to share these thoughts and reflections with others in the PCA community. Since there is already a number of opinions being expressed on YouTube and other print media, I felt this an appropriate and unobtrusive venue for any who might be interested. Please consider the following which is only a fragment of the entire debate between Hodge and Thornwell concerning Church Boards. I will note when I am quoting Thornwell, all other comments are mine.

In his refutation of an argument written against Thornwell and submitted after the debate at Assembly, Thornwell said: “We contend that, as a positive institution, with written charter, she (the church) is confined to the express or implied teachings of the Word of God, the standard of her authority and rights; that, as in the sphere of doctrine she has no opinions, but a faith, so, in the sphere of practice, she has no expedients but a law.” (pg 244).

“Her power is solely ministerial and declarative. Her whole duty is to believe and obey.” (p 244)
COMMENT: To this duty is now added a funding of certain committee work because of a mandate for a certain connectualism beyond what the church currently enjoys by virtue of her Confession and courts. It is granted that the church enjoys certain services provided by the Administration Committee but in terms of providence, it seems that those ought to remain limited in scope and the center of gravity should remain at the lowest court, that is the “grass roots” of the denomination rather than a committee outside of the Presbyterian system of polity.

THORNWELL: “According to us, the Church, before she can move, must not only show that she is not prohibited; she must also show that she is actually commanded, she must produce a warrant.” (p 244)

Quoting the WCF 20.2: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left us free from doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word or BESIDE IT [emphasis mine], in matters of faith or worship.”

THORNWELL: ”Here we are clearly taught that the silence of Scripture is a real prohibition as a positive injuncture to abstain.” (p 246).

COMMENT: WE are not saying that a committee serving the church ought not to be allowed, we are saying the membership of commissioners to the courts has been based on calling and ordination and to add to that a monetary requirement goes beyond the teaching of scripture treating a doctrine of man as the teaching of God.
It is wrong to say that this is the same as paying a fee to support the costs of General Assembly as in the past. This fee has always been a generally accepted consequence of gathering together. This is a requirement for membership in the Highest Court, a membership granted by God but now taken away by man to support costs beyond that of meeting as a court.

Just as Thornwell insisted in the Assembly’s debate concerning church-boards, “This whole question is nothing but an off-shoot from another question dividing the minds of brethren amongst us, and that question is the organization of the Church itself.” (pg 218).

Thornwell elaborates by contrasting the two groups as to their views on Church Government.
THORNWELL: “There are those amongst us who hold that God gave us our church-government, as truly as he gave us our doctrines; and that we have no more right to add to the church-government, which is Divine than to add to any other doctrine, which is divine.”
“Others, as wise and as good men as the first, believe no definite form of church-government is of Divine origin, but God has left it to man to organize His church; and that just as civil government was ordained of God in the General, but man is left to arrange its particular form as may, in his view, best suit particular circumstances, so church-government may be modified according to circumstances-according to human ideas of expediency, at the whims of men.” (Pg 218).

COMMENT: If we now understand where the lines are drawn between differing ideas of church government then we can begin to describe the issue of Church-committees and their power in the context of theology and doctrine rather than pragmatics, and that in haste as it seems the votes of our last Assembly would indicate.

Our first issue is one of definition. What is a committee of our denomination? Just the same as a committee in the local church, a denominational committee is an action organization serving the court. In the local church a committee has no charter and nothing to do if and until the Session gives it a purpose and work. So it is at the denomination level. The Court of the General Assembly being the seat
of ordained authority, committees are established by the Assembly to do the work of that instrument of God, i.e., the Assembly itself.

If the relationship between court and committee is substantially the same on all three levels of our church-government, then imagine the absurdity of any committee in the local church directing the Session not to allow an elected elder to vote because that elder fell short on contributions to that committee! Notice we are not speaking of a tithe but a contribution or a “fee” as it is stated in our own case.
In the first place, accepting that a committee can exact a fee on the Session is disconcerting and it reverses the roles but to give such committee authority to disqualify an ordained man from appearance and vote on the Session gives it powers above the Session itself. And so,
without a case for discipline, entire congregations will be censured and ordered not to participate in the system of Church government appointed by God.

As Thornwell put it, “…every instinct of my nature, and every holy impulse implanted within me by the Spirit of God, rises up with indignation and horror against this principle that men may buy places of honor and trust in this free, glorious Commonwealth of Jesus Christ. I do revolt against this paid membership, this entitling of men for money to become consulting members of the Church or of her

Brothers, I do not think we should place the powers of any committee above the General Assembly itself and make no mistake, any committee with the power to publish a list of those who cannot participate, has power over the body. This is antithetical to the grass-roots beginning of our denomination. It is a qualitative shifting of the center of gravity from the local church to what will become a headquarters in
Atlanta. How can I make such a sweeping statement? Because it has been the history of our Presbyterian form of government in almost every generation past. It is the basis of the birth of the PCA. It is only a short step from connectualism to a committee on the pastor and his work.

I have immersed myself in some of our history while preparing for the leadership training in my church. Never were the first steps of the New Side or whatever the movement taken as giant steps. The Adopting Act has been long left behind with votes to accept system subscription. Motions are now vetted through committees and in some cases re-written before coming to the floor of the General Assembly and debate is either not allowed or limited in many cases. Now, we will begin funding the work of denominational committees that have the power to censure churches so that they have no vote, a right granted to them as a church and by virtue of ordination?

I speak strongly, not to offend or to be uncharitable, but because it appears we have not yet moved the conversation passed anything but practical issues of buying postage and printing documents. There are significant issues of theology and Biblical interpretation at stake.
Whatever we vote to do, we ought to bring these issues to the fore, as our forefathers have done on these very issues, and debate them as Churchmen rather than businessmen.

Michael Cannon Michael Cannon

Pastor Michael Cannon is a native of Spartanburg, SC. Married to Bevalie in 1983, Michael has served as a Chaplain on both active duty and in the Army Reserves...

Category:  Church History

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