The Sabbath and Subscription in the PCA

By Zachary Garris | January 18, 2023

It is no secret there are two stated differences to the Westminster Standards that presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) commonly rule as permissible exceptions. These two differences pertain to images of Jesus and recreation on the Sabbath. While there have been many battles over subscription throughout American Presbyterian history,[1] the PCA in 2002 settled on what is known as “Good Faith Subscription.” And these two categories of stated differences have since arisen as common exceptions.

Subscription in the PCA

While “Good Faith Subscription” is often described as a compromise between the stricter “full subscription” and the looser “system subscription” views, the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) still requires affirming the fundamentals of the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, as adopted by the PCA. This is seen in that all PCA officers are required to affirm the following vow upon ordination:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Session/Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow? (BCO 21-5, 24-6).

Thus, every officer adopts the Westminster Standards as his confession of faith. And what this means is he affirms that these Standards contain “the system of doctrine taught” in the Bible. This vow also requires informing the Session (for a RE) or Presbytery (for a TE) if an officer comes to hold any belief “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine.”

So when it comes to the Sabbath in the Westminster Standards, we must ask this question—which part of the Sabbath doctrine is not fundamental to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards? The basis for “Good Faith Subscription” is BCO 21-4(e), which provides some clarification on this question:

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).

Thus, the BCO allows differences over “statement[s] and/or proposition[s] of doctrine” in the Standards upon two conditions: (1) the presbytery does not find such a difference to be “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards,” and (2) the presbytery does not find that the candidate’s difference prevents him from receiving and adopting the Standards “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”

But what makes a stated difference to be “out of accord” with the “fundamentals” of the Standards? The following section, BCO 21-4(f), elaborates: “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” (emphasis added).

Therefore, to summarize the PCA’s position on subscription, the BCO requires every officer to adopt the Westminster Standards as containing “the system of doctrine taught” in the Bible and prohibits holding any differences that are “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine” (BCO 21-5, 24-6; cf. 21-4(e-f)). A stated difference is defined as being “out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” when it is “hostile to the system” or “strikes at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4(f)).

While the BCO gives rules for guiding a Session or Presbytery as to which stated differences are permitted in the PCA, it does not provide specifics for making such a determination. The rules of “hostile to the system” and “strikes at the vitals of religion” are not defined. Thus, there is a level of arbitrariness, and it is certainly possible for a court to err in judgment in this regard. Yet there is widespread agreement on certain areas of doctrine. Surely all courts in the PCA can agree that the denial of Christ’s substitutionary atonement “strikes at the vitals of religion,” as it deals with the very essentials of how we are saved from sin. Yet there seems to be less consensus on which differences are considered “hostile to the system” of doctrine in the Standards.

The Recreation Clause and the Sabbath in the Westminster Standards

Are differences regarding the Sabbath ever “hostile to the system” of doctrine found in the Westminster Standards? To address this question, we must note that the most common stated difference to the Sabbath by PCA officers regards the “recreation clause” of the Standards. The Confession prohibits “thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations” on the Sabbath (WCF 21.8; cf. WLC 119), and the Shorter and Larger Catechisms require holy rest “even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days” (WSC 60; WLC 117; cf. WSC 61).

Of course, the answer to the question at-hand depends on what a candidate means when he states a difference with the recreation clause. If he thinks simply that it is permissible to go on walks on Sunday, then this seems to be a misunderstanding of what the Standards prohibit and not a true difference. A walk could entail prayer to God and religious discussion with family, and it could even be necessary movement to aid public and private worship throughout the day. However, if the candidate thinks formal recreation, such as organized sports or entertainment events, is permissible on Sunday, then he is supporting the very thing the Standards forbid. He is clearly differing with the Standards. Yet while it may appear he only differs with one clause of the Standards—the “recreation clause”—he actually differs with much more.

A close reading of the Confession and Catechisms on the Sabbath reveals one cannot differ on the recreation clause without having additional differences with the Sabbath doctrine contained in the Standards. This is because the Standards require that the entire day be devoted to public and private worship. WCF 21.8 tells us how the Sabbath day is to be kept holy:

This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Thus, the Westminster Confession teaches that Sabbath observance requires (1) preparing one’s heart for worship, (2) ordering common affairs prior to Sunday, (3) resting from works, words, and thoughts of employments and recreations, (4) and spending the entire Sabbath day in public and private exercises of worship, apart from works of necessity and mercy.

It is this last clause of WCF 21.8 that necessarily accompanies the recreation clause—“taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” The Confession teaches that instead of working or thinking about “worldly employments and recreations,” the Christian is to take up “the whole time” of the Sabbath “in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” The two clauses go hand in hand. Works/duties of “necessity’ and “mercy” are common parlance within Presbyterianism, but what is not as common is recognition that their very basis implies that apart from works of necessity and mercy, everything else done on the Sabbath is to be part of private or public worship. As stated in WLC 117, works of necessity and mercy are “except[ions]” to spending the whole time “in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.”[2]

Thus, we should help others (“mercy”) and eat and sleep (“necessity”) on the Sabbath. And we should attend all available church services on the Sabbath (“public… exercises of his worship”). But apart from that, Christians are to spend the remainder of the “whole time” in the “private exercises of his worship.” This would include Bible reading, praying, singing, and the reading of Christian theology and history. Notice, therefore, that to differ with the prohibition of “recreations” in WCF 21.8 necessitates also differing with the positive requirement to spend the whole day in public and private worship. But to differ here means one differs with the Confession’s entire definition of observing a “holy rest” on the Sabbath (WCF 21.8).

The same goes for the Catechisms, as WSC 60 says the Sabbath is “sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” WLC 116 says the Fourth Commandment requires “the sanctifying or keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his word, expressly one whole day in seven.” And WLC 117 says we sanctify the Sabbath by a “holy resting all day” and “making it our delight to spend the whole time… in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” It even speaks of preparing our hearts and schedules so we can fulfill our “duties of that day.” Thus, private and public exercises of worship are considered Sabbath duties, and worldly recreations by implication interfere with such duties before God. As WLC 99 says, “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.”

The Catechisms explicitly state what is forbidden and required by the Ten Commandments, including the Larger Catechism’s six questions devoted to the Sabbath command (WLC 115–120). The Fourth Commandment forbids “the profaning the day by idleness” and “unnecessary thoughts, words or works, about our worldly employments or recreations” (WSC 61; WLC 119). The reason for such prohibitions is that God allows us six days “for our own affairs, and reserving but one for himself.” It is a “day for his service” but also “a means of blessing to us in our sanctifying it” (WLC 120). God calls us to “remember” the Sabbath because we easily forget it, but also because “Satan with his instruments much labor to blot out the glory, and even the memory of it, to bring in all irreligion and impiety” (WLC 121).

Thus, the Sabbath is glorious, which is why Satan seeks to undermine its sanctity through promoting otherwise permissible employment and recreation on it. The Standards teach that unnecessary employments and recreations profane the Sabbath day. To not sanctify the Sabbath as God has commanded is to profaneit. Thus, the officer stating a difference here disagrees that this is profanation, but per the official doctrine of the PCA he is still profaning the Sabbath.

It would be concerning enough if a layman in one of our churches were to profane the Sabbath or have no objection to the profanation of the Sabbath. However, the Larger Catechism also places a higher duty regarding the Sabbath upon “superiors,” which includes church officers who have a duty to teach the enduring obligations of Sabbath-observance and to model it in practice for non-officers in the church (as well as their family members and employees). WLC 118 says, “The charge of keeping the sabbath is more specially directed to governors of families, and other superiors, because they are bound not only to keep it themselves, but to see that it be observed by all those that are under their charge; and because they are prone ofttimes to hinder them by employments of their own.”

How to Regard Stated Differences on the Sabbath

The Westminster Standards clearly devote a substantial amount of text to the Sabbath command. And the above citations show that a genuine difference with the recreation clause entails a much greater difference with the Sabbath doctrine as contained in the Standards, as a difference requires redefining “holy rest” and the manner of “sanctifying” the Sabbath day. In other words, to differ with the “recreation clause” means a man differs with the substance of the doctrine of the Sabbath as contained in the Westminster Standards. And to differ with the substance of the Sabbath doctrine in the Standards is no small thing, as the Sabbath command is part of the moral law “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments” (WLC 98).

Some candidates for office recognize the connection between the recreation clause and the rest of the Sabbath doctrine, and they accordingly state broader differences with the Standards. Such honesty and consistency are to be commended. However, many candidates for office stating a difference with the recreation clause fail to see the inconsistency in limiting the difference to just the recreation clause, as do many presbyteries granting such an exception.

Yet whether stated or not, an exception to the recreation clause is an exception to the doctrine of the Sabbath found in the Westminster Standards. Some argue in differing with the Standards they hold to the “Continental” European view of the Sabbath rather than the “Puritan” view contained in the Westminster Standards, often with an appeal to Calvin. However, this involves a misunderstanding of the views of Calvin and other continental Reformed theologians.[3] Moreover, what constitutes the “Reformed” view is irrelevant to the issue at hand, which is particularly relating to subscription to the Westminster Standards as adopted by the PCA. Sabbath-keeping is required in the Fourth Commandment, and the Westminster Standards understand the Ten Commandments to be the authoritative summary expression of God’s moral law. This is a distinctive application of Reformed theology as expressed in the Westminster Standards, rooted in the Westminster view of the moral law and the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. Thus, to differ with the Westminster view of the Sabbath is to differ with the Standards’ view of the perpetually binding moral law.

It is important to emphasize that we are not speaking of differing merely with some of the minute details found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, but of a rejection of substantial sections in the Confession and even the Shorter Catechism. The Confession has only two paragraphs on the Sabbath (WCF 21.7–8), and the recreation clause is essential to the teaching of the manner of sanctifying the Lord’s Day (WCF 21.8). The Shorter Catechism—which should stand as a summary of the essential doctrine of the Standards—expressly teaches the entirety of the day (“whole day,” “all that day”) is to be spent in worship, and thus any “unnecessary thoughts, words or works” about “recreations” constitute a “profaning” of the day (WSC 58, 60, 61).

Thus, an exception to the recreation clause involves differing with at least three questions in the Shorter Catechism. Yet when Charles Hodge defended the median confessional position of “system of doctrine” (contra the “every proposition” and “substance of doctrine” positions at the time), he offered the practical solution of looking to the Shorter Catechism as containing the essentials of the system of the Confession—“For ourselves we should be willing to license, or ordain any candidate for the ministry, (so far as his orthodoxy is concerned), who would intelligently and cordially answer in the affirmative the several questions in the Shorter Catechism.”[4]

Returning to the earlier question raised, there is a strong case to be made that the Sabbath recreation clause is in fact “fundamental” to “the system of doctrine” as contained in the Westminster Standards. To reject the recreation clause means to reject the Standards’ definition of “holy rest” and the prescribed manner for “sanctifying” the Sabbath day. Thus, to grant exceptions here is to tolerate—per the Standards’ definition—the profanation of the Sabbath among PCA officers. Such a rejection of the recreation clause differs with the essential Sabbath doctrine found in the Confession and the Shorter Catechism. It removes a thread that unravels the very fabric of the Standards and is thus “hostile to the system” of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards.

Moving Forward

The problem with the current practice in the PCA regarding the Sabbath is that many presbyteries rule stated differences with the Sabbath as permissible “exceptions” even though they significantly differ with the system of doctrine as contained in the Westminster Standards. We are not speaking of mere scruples over the wording of the Sabbath doctrine, but rather, officers in the PCA are wholesale rejecting the Sabbath doctrine and practice as contained in our doctrinal Standards. The common refrain by presbyteries is that such differences are “more than semantic” but do not “strike at the vitals of religion.” Noticeably missing is a determination as to whether such a difference is “hostile” to the system of doctrine in the Standards.

I understand that many Protestants today reject the Westminster Standards’ view of the Sabbath. They do not share the Standards’ view of covenant theology and God’s moral law. Officers in the PCA believe such differences are biblically deficient, which is the basis for having separate denominations. We still consider those who differ with us to be brothers in Christ, but we do not consider them to be eligible for joining with or reception into the PCA. They do not claim to subscribe to the system of doctrine as contained in the Westminster Standards, and that is their prerogative.

However, if a man wants to be an officer in the PCA, then he must subscribe to the Westminster Standards (as adopted by the PCA) as his personal confession of faith. He may in good faith state his differences with the Standards to his presbytery, but the presbytery is to rule such differences as permissible exceptions only so long as they are not hostile to the system of doctrine found in the Standards. That means stated differences on the Sabbath for officers should be permitted only if those differences yet allow the man under examination to uphold the Standard’s teaching on covenant, law, and Sabbath doctrine and practice.

Sadly, what the PCA now has is a de facto modification of our Standards, with a substantial number of our officers differing with our official teaching on the Sabbath. There is a way to change our Standards, which requires a 75% affirmative vote at an initial meeting of the General Assembly, subsequent affirmative votes by at least 75% of the presbyteries, and a second 75% affirmative vote by the General Assembly of the following year (BCO 26-3). Such an overture on the Sabbath would likely not pass. But if we are not going to modify our Standards, then we must uphold them as the confession of our denomination. Such an imperative entails the requirement that all officers subscribe to the system of doctrine—including the Sabbath doctrine—contained in the Standards. Presbyteries must stop granting exceptions to the Sabbath doctrine where the stated differences are hostile to the system of doctrine in our Standards. If men cannot uphold the teaching of our Standards on the Sabbath, then they should look to serve Christ in another church. If they intend to remain in the PCA, then they should uphold the doctrine and practice of the Sabbath found in the Standards that they swore to uphold.

[1] For an excellent survey of American Presbyterian subscription debates, see S. Donald Fortson III, The Presbyterian Creed: A Confessional Tradition in America, 1729–1870 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008).

[2] For an examination of the biblical basis for the recreation clause, see Lane Keister, “The Sabbath Day and Recreations on the Sabbath: An Examination of the Sabbath and the Biblical Basis for the ‘No Recreation’ Clause in Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 and Westminster Larger Catechism 117,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 12 (2016): 161–172.

[3] See Stewart E. Lauer, “John Calvin, the Nascent Sabbatarianism: A Reconsideration of Calvin’s View of Two Key Sabbath-Issues,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 12 (2016): 149–160; Daniel R. Hyde, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s (1618–19) Deliverance on the Sabbath,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 12 (2016): 173–183.

[4] Charles Hodge, “Protest and Answer,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review XL (July 1868): 476, quoted in Fortson, The Presbyterian Creed, 170.

Zachary Garris is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church in White Rock, NM.