Of Doctrinal Standards & Good Faith Subscription

By Geoff Gleason | October 24, 2022

For as long as I have been a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (ordained in 2011), there have been intramural debates within the denomination about subscription to the Church’s agreed-upon edition of the Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Larger, and Shorter Catechisms) as its theological documents. The disagreement has not been about the existence of the Standards, but rather about how they should be applied. It is not my intention to rehearse for you the history of the development of the PCA’s official position on this point. Rather, my intention is simply to draw some observations about the current ecclesiastical lay of the land, consider some wrong responses to the present reality, and encourage some ways to move forward.

What Is Good Faith Subscription?

The term “Good Faith Subscription” does not appear anywhere in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO). However, it is the label given to what is codified and described in BCO 21-4.e:

While our Constitution does not require the candidate’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q.2; 24-6, Q.2).

This section gives clarity about one part of the PCA’s relationship with the Westminster Standards. It outlines step one in understanding the PCA’s view on subscription: a candidate may disagree with parts of the Westminster Standards. This reality is understood and practiced within the PCA. By way of example, the Candidates & Credentials Committee of the Savannah River Presbytery (on which I serve) has received stated differences from candidates ranging from the omission of Aramaic as one of the languages of the Old Testament autographs (Westminster Confession of Faith 1-8), to issues surrounding the Bible’s account of creation (WCF 4-1), psalmody (WCF 21-5), images of Jesus (WCF 21-1), the keeping of the Lord’s Day (WCF 21-8), and others. The disagreement in the PCA, for the most part, is not about a man’s right to state a difference. It is rather about the degree to which such differences are acceptable.

The BCO does not permit a “carte blanche” holding of differences. Stating a difference subjects the candidate to the scrutiny of his particular presbytery. The Presbytery must examine the difference and make a decision regarding whether it is compatible with the Standards (BCO 21-4.f):

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall…require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.

This paragraph provides step two in understanding the PCA’s view of on subscription. Our constitution in BCO 21-4.f makes it clear that one thing Good Faith Subscription does not mean is that all differences are de facto permissible. The presbytery is not obligated to “grant an exception.” The Presbytery grants an exception only when it judges a candidate’s stated difference as neither undermining the system of doctrine presented in the Westminster Standards nor denying the essence of the Christian religion. There are several implications of this mandated scrutiny.

Good Faith Subscription – Implications

First, a generic sincerity of position and a heartfelt love for God in Christ on the part of the candidate is not adequate in and of itself to grant an exception. In other words, a candidate does not need to deny a fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith (e.g., the Trinity or the Incarnation) in order to be barred from ordained ministry in the PCA. A denial of any doctrine expressed in the Westminster Standards of the PCA – even when such a matter is not shared by other Christians – is important and must be examined (and granted) before a man takes up a particular call in the PCA. It is at this point that the PCA’s troubles start.

There is a growing tendency to allow all manner of differences so long as they do not deny theological doctrines considered the vitals of religion. Take, for example, the raging controversy in the PCA surrounding Side B “Gay Christianity,” the Revoice Conference, and Missouri Presbytery’s handling of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis and its pastor, TE Greg Johnson. It is not enough to observe the sincerity of people involved in Revoice as justifying their membership in the PCA. Sincerity is not the standard to be used. The BCO uses the system of doctrine as taught in the PCA’s constitution as the criteria. Genuine love for Christ professed by a candidate is not sufficient to allow all and any differences. The question to be asked is not whether a person is sincere, but rather whether his difference is: 1. Out of accord with any fundamental part of the biblically derived doctrines of the Westminster Standards; and, 2. Strikes at the vitals of religion.

Second, a denial of permission for a stated difference is not the same thing as a denial of a man’s being in Christ. As a presbytery renders judgment on a candidate’s stated difference, even in the case of denying entry to a candidate, it is not making a statement about a person’s sincerely held faith in Christ. To judge that a candidate’s stated difference is hostile to the system of doctrine of the Westminster Standards does not mean the person is judged to be outside of Christ. For example, Martin Luther would not be granted entry into the PCA based on his view of the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. However that is not questioning whether Presbyterians and the great reformer will worship together in heaven. A denial of entry into ordained ministry in the PCA is an assessment of a man’s fitness to be part of the PCA as an officer who is required to subscribe the Westminster Standards, not of a man’s overall testimony of his Christian experience.

Third, since Good Faith Subscription requires an assessment from presbyteries, PCA churchmen must be familiar enough with the Standards to discern whether a declared difference is hostile to its system. Since presbyteries are to compare a stated difference of a candidate to the system of doctrine in the Standards, PCA officers must be thoroughly familiar with its contents. The issues that undermine the fundamentals of the system of doctrine in the Standards must be known. Consider the following examples, two controversial and one not.

  1. Immersion as the preferred mode of baptism. A candidate who holds that immersion is the preferred mode of baptism must state his difference because the WCF says, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” (WCF 28-3). The language of the Standards makes it difficult to show that the system of doctrine would be undermined by such a view. BCO 56-6 may preclude the practice of immersion, but holding that view does not undermine the fundamentals of the system.
  2. Commerce on the Lord’s Day. A candidate who holds that commerce on the Lord’s Day states his difference with Larger Catechism #117. In the Savannah River Presbytery, an exception is usually granted as something that is more than semantic but not striking at the vitals of religion. However, the question that is not asked is whether it strikes at the fundamentals of the system of doctrine as laid out in the Standards. Larger Catechism #121 says that “Satan with his instruments much labor to blot out the glory, and even the memory of it (the Lord’s Day), to bring in all irreligion and impiety.” The question that should be asked is whether the proposed difference blots out the glory of the Lord’s Day. Commerce makes the day common, like the other six days, blotting out the glory. People are employed in commerce which in them causes the Lord’s Day not to be remembered. According to the Standards, this practice is Satan’s instrument to bring in all irreligion and impiety. Certainly that strikes at the fundamentals according to this system of doctrine. A church cannot live allowing pastors whose views bring in irreligion and impiety. It is internally destructive.
  3. Images of Jesus. Today, many candidates are stating differences with the second commandment, specifically as it pertains to images of the human nature of the Son of God. Beyond any doubt, there has been disagreement about this subject in the history of the Church. However, entrance in the PCA is dependent on whether such a view undermines the system of doctrine of the Standards. Candidates with a difference at this point must explain that and how they differ with Larger Catechism #109, which teaches that the second commandment forbids “the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons” in worship or outside of it. It further states that all false worship is “spiritual whoredom” (WLC 110). These words within the system of doctrine itself would make allowing the difference catastrophic. A church may not allow spiritual whoredom among its ministers.

These examples serve to show that the questions around differences must be evaluated based on the statements made by the Standards, not by the perceived value of these statements by the presbyters. What is the system of doctrine? What does it say? Is idolatry fundamental? Is corruption and irreligion and impiety detrimental to the Standards’ system of doctrine? The questions asked need to change so a right assessment of a candidate’s difference can be properly evaluated according to the directions of BCO 21-4.e and f.

Good Faith Subscription – Moving Forward

With the state of subscription summarized and the implications enumerated, how does the PCA move forward?

For supporters of stated differences. At any given presbytery meeting there will be elders who are sympathetic to stated differences. Whether it be views of creation, intinction, the Lord’s Day, images of Jesus, the continuation of extraordinary spiritual gifts, or any other difference, honesty would require they examine whether the difference undermines what the Standards describe as fundamental. What counts here is not what their own assessment of the significance may be, but what the Standards’ assessment is. If the Standards call an action idolatry, such action undermines the Standards’ fundamental system. If an action undermines piety, such action undermines the Standards’ fundamental system. These questions must be answered honestly, not justifying a person’s view based on their sincerity and obvious love for Christ, but in relation to the Standards themselves.

For opponents of stated differences. Currently there is an approach to correcting internal disagreements that looks to add more rules to contain perceived error. Changes are recommended to the BCO, presbyteries vote on these recommended changes, but the issues at hand are rarely addressed. It is of utmost importance for PCA elders to vote their consciences on these controversial issues. It need not be a choosing of “sides” or “tribes”. But in my experience, there is often much gnashing of teeth over stated differences that have been permitted. Yet when time comes to vote on whether such a view is allowable in the presbytery, there is no significant opposition. Additional regulations are unlikely to bring conformity. They will simply move the argument further down the line.

Most PCA elders have accepted Good Faith Subscription in the sense that they acknowledge stated differences are permitted within the denomination. However, there is a lack of clarity about what should happen once a stated difference is made known. BCO 21-4.f states that it is the obligation of presbyteries to consider whether the difference undermines the fundamentals of the system of the Westminster Standards as well as the vitals of religion. That means that a brother’s sincerity is not in question. It means that denial of the difference is not an attack on his being in Christ. It means that the Standards must be studied and known so as to compare the difference to the definitions they give. And if the difference is fundamental in terms of idolatry or impiety according to the Standards’ system, Good Faith Subscription demands that such a view be denied for the sake of the purity and peace of the PCA according to its doctrinal statements.

Geoff Gleason is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA.