As we grow ever closer to General Assembly season, today’s post seemed appropriate:
“Even in the case of old ministers he thought it a good thing to talk over our views occasionally.”
In the PCA’s Book of Church Order, in the first paragraph of the chapter treating of the ordination and installation of ministers, it states in part that
Ordinarily a candidate or licentiate may not be granted permission by the Presbytery to move on to the field to which he has been called, prior to his examination for licensure or ordination. Likewise an ordained minister from another Presbyterian Church in America Presbytery or another denomination, ordinarily shall not move on to the field to which he has been called until examined and received by Presbytery.
Where does that requirement come from? Why is it important? Well, history is what we do here, so a bit of background seemed important as I came across it today. And as the PCA’s Book of Church Order is based directly on the polity (i.e., the church government) of prior denominations, this history is all the more relevant.
The setting of this story is the meeting of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern). It is the third day of their General Assembly, and the report comes that an entire Presbytery wants to join the denomination. There is testimony that these men are entirely orthodox. But they would rather not suffer the pain of a theological examination by the receiving body. At which point the Rev. E. Thompson Baird rose to address the issue:
Rev. Dr. Baird sketched the history of the origin of the rule requiring the examination of ministers passing from Presbytery to Presbytery. Dr. Lyman Beecher came to a Presbytery in New York from some Congregational Association, and was admitted without examination, and immediately took a letter of dismission to an Ohio Presbytery, and was received, and subsequently stated that he had never signified his adoption of the Confession of Faith. The late Dr. [Archibald] Alexander therefore advocated the adoption of the examination rule, for without it a single Presbytery might deluge the church with heretical ministers. The rule was not directed especially against the New School Church, for at the time of its adoption that church had no existence. Nor had it been suspended in the case of the United Synod.—They had examined the Old School and the Old School had examined them, and it was not until they were thoroughly satisfied as to one another’s soundness that they came together. Nor could it be reasonably objected to. He was not ashamed to proclaim anywhere what he believed as to the great doctrines of religion, and he was not willing to alter our whole system to open the door to a few who were not willing to come in the same way that others had been received. The importance of it is increased at this time—it is more necessary than ever in these days of fanaticism that we should have such a rule. Even in the case of old ministers he thought it a good thing to talk over our views occasionally. When a venerable father in the church comes to be examined, if we cannot find any heresy in him, we can at least learn a great deal from him about the great doctrines of grace. The speaker continued that if the rule is absolute, nobody’s feelings can be hurt by it. He therefore saw no necessity for its repeal.
And apparently he made his case well, for when the report was adopted, the Assembly refused to repeal the rule requiring the examination of all ministers entering a Presbytery. So it is that our Book to this day still expects and requires a Presbytery to examine and receive a minister before he can be allowed onto the field of ministry within that Presbytery.