Monday, March 27, 2006

How Presbyterians dealt with conflict in the past

How Presbyterians dealt with conflict in the past:

Presbyerian Outlook (free registration required)
More than fifty years ago, historian Lefferts Loetscher in his classic The Broadening Church (1954) argued that American Presbyterianism contained two elements: one stressing “precise theological formulation” and “orderly and authoritarian church government,” the other placing “more emphasis upon spontaneity, vital impulse, and adaptability.” “It has been the good fortune and the hardship of the Presbyterian Church,” Loetscher noted wryly, “to have had ... these two elements in dialectical tension within itself from the beginning.”

The tension was apparent as American Presbyterians cobbled themselves together first in a presbytery (1706) and then a synod (1716). Initially these bodies had no official creed, but by the 1720s, some were calling for mandatory subscription to the Westminster Confession. “Now a church without a confession, what is it like?” asked one proponent of subscription, and he replied that such a church was “in a very defenseless condition, as a city without walls” liable to infiltration by heresy and error. By contrast, opponents feared that required subscription was “a bold invasion of Christ’s royal power” and noted the “glaring contradiction” of requiring ministers to adhere to a document which itself declared: “God alone is the Lord of the conscience.”
James Moorhead, a professor of American Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has encapsulated much of the history of conflict in the Presbyterian Church as well as the means by which it was resolved.

I do have a bit of a quibble with his partial quote of of "God alone is the Lord of the concsience..." There is an all-too-common failure to include the part that anchors our consciences firmly in God's Word, and further, that to force people to subscribe to doctrines that are not rooted in God's Word is a betrayal of our freedom of conscience. The full statement reads as follows:
II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is ts betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

-- Chapter XX of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)

This article really can't cover the history of the Presybyterian Church, but it provides a useful outline for further inquiry.

Two books I have found useful are Leading from the Center and Presbyterian Pluralism, both by William J. (Beau) Weston. Beau Weston hosts The Gruntled Center, and has an engaging writing style.

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