Worcester has a significant Catholic population and often folks will ask me who or what a Presbyterian is. While there are many of ways to answer this question – and I’m still figuring out which is best – one of them has to do with the Westminster Standards. This is a set of documents (a “Confession of Faith” and two catechisms) written in the 1640s in Westminster England. These seek to systematically summarize the major teachings of the bible and function, along with the Book of Church Order (BCO )* as the constitution of our denomination the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America).
What do these documents mean though in the daily life of the church? I can best liken them to submarines. Most people are aware of the presence of submarines only in times of celebration (4th of July, Naval ceremony, exploration, etc) or difficulty (warfare, rescue operations, oil spills) though in fact they are always active. How are our confessional standards like submarines?
The constitution comes out in times of celebration:
1. Leadership: When a minister is being tested to make sure he knows his theology and can actually explain it to others the Westminster Standards play a significant role. Many being examined for ordination in the PCA memorize large portions the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) using it in both written and oral exams. Furthermore, those who would enter the ministry must explain any significant exceptions they take with the Standards and demonstrate a working knowledge of the BCO. Both the process and actual ordination service rely heavily on the PCA constitution. When new leaders are being trained within the congregation any who would be elected to office must engage with and abide by these standards.
2. Membership Classes & Reception: When people decide to become a member of our church this normally involves a weekend class going over the identity and mission of Grace Presbyterian Church. In this we will give a brief overview of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as a whole, give reading that addresses some particular areas, and provide a copy as part of the membership packet. While we have pieces of this membership teaching put together, other parts still need to be written. Like many things at a new church, this is in process.
3. New Churches: When new churches are first initiated and then eventually formalized both the process and “ceremonies” draw on these founding documents. In the special service where a church is formalized this is highly visible, but in the essential steps beforehand it is just as essential though less seen.
The constitution comes out in times of difficulty:
1. Enduring Truth: Like the world of fashion, there are always doctrines that seem more in style and others which don’t seem to fit the times. The purpose of having established beliefs is to protect the church from simply being a weather-vein always mirroring the winds of the current consensus. There are new insights which emerge from, build upon, and actually enrich our understanding of previously held truths and our historic confessions help us sort out what are healthy developments which need to be embraced and which are dangerous winds which must be resisted.
2. Guidance: Most, if not all, public buildings have emergency exits marked and warnings not to take the elevator in case of fire. These signs, and the planning underneath, help us navigate the unexpected and potentially tragic. In a similar vein both the WCF and BCO give frameworks and specific processes should something go terribly wrong. The church, like every human institution, has its flaws and is made up of sinful people. If a minister cheats on his wife, a treasurer runs off with money, a member is defrauding her employer or a church disputes with the denomination, these need to be dealt with and it is better to have a framework in place than figure it out in the moment. Our constitution gives us this framework, springing into action in time of difficulty.
The constitution is active all the time:
1. A Grid: If you study something enough, incorporating signification portions to memory, it becomes part of the grid in which you think. Like the boundaries of a football field the Westminster Standards help you think as you study and communicate the biblical materials by excluding certain possibilities and suggesting others. In a challenging passage where God’s power appears to be limited historic reflection on the nature of God and his attributes will offer excellent guidance. This grid will filter out in the way the bible is taught so that often when people read the Westminster Standards for the first time, they will mostly say, “yeah, of course.”
2. Practice: The way that we worship, our observance of the sacraments, the structure of leadership all specifically reflect the beliefs laid out in our doctrinal standards. Each week that we do something I will not explicitly say, “we are doing this because…” and if I do give an explanatory remark I usually reference the bible. The scriptures have greater weight than the human documents which summarize them and I’d rather have people begin there in their understanding then eventually see how the bible’s teaching is encapsulated in our standards than the other way around.
3. Surfacing: My guess is that if you’re on the ocean enough you will see a submarine surface. The same thing will happen with our doctrinal standards if you stick around and keep your eyes open. In the bulletin some Sunday when there is silence during a portion of communion there will be a few sentences from the WSC to help us reflect on the nature of communion. At some point when we have formalized Christian education for kids teaching and memorizing some type of catechism will be a part of it. When there is adult Christian Education, at some point down the road, I’m sure we’ll cover portions of the WCF. As a newly begun church there are all sorts of things that I would love to teach to our congregation. So there is always the matter of time and prioritizing.
*The BCO was written in the early 1970s with the founding of the PCA and is updated most years at the annual denominational gathering called “General Assembly.” While written in the 70’s the BCO draws on historic documents and practices dating to the time of the Westminster Assembly and earlier.