By Jared Nelson | March 2, 2023
One of the weightiest responsibilities of a member or delegate at presbytery is examining new Teaching Elders. One must balance the needs of a congregation for a pastor with the responsibilities that man will have in shepherding, teaching, and counseling the flock of Christ’s church entrusted to his care. When the congregation and the candidate move forward to engage in ministry together, confirming God’s call and provision is the presbytery’s great responsibility and privilege (See BCO 18, 21-4, 34-5, RAO 16-3.5).
There are times when a voting delegate of presbytery may have concerns about the character or theology of a man coming into the presbytery. The prospect of questioning a man and expressing those concerns brings other hesitancies: such as offending other brothers in the presbytery, angering the calling church, or needlessly undermining a candidate by unnecessary questions that seem like accusations. Nevertheless, the responsibility of examining a man belongs to the presbytery, and this is not a responsibility to be neglected. As Paul reminded Timothy: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Tim. 5:22).
How does an elder prosecute this solemn responsibility in presbytery in a respectful and orderly manner?
The polity and order of a presbytery meeting is meant to preserve the bonds of peace and brotherly love while addressing important matters. Therefore, the process should be your friend to answer your concerns in a way that is not needlessly offensive or personally undermining to a candidate who is found in the end to be truly qualified.
If there is a man that is coming before presbytery for consideration to take a call, the first step in most presbyteries is a committee examination. This committee is made up of a smaller subset of members of presbytery. A member of presbytery with an interest in examining a particular area of candidates’ testing for ministry (candidate character, theological concerns, etc) may volunteer to be made a member of this committee. There are only a certain number of slots, and in the end, it may be that not everyone who wants to be a member becomes a member of this committee right away.
However, that does not mean that this committee is closed to addressing your particular concerns. If you find yourself wanting something addressed by the committee, then I would suggest asking a member – or especially the chairman – if a particular area is being addressed. For instance, if you have concerns over the historicity of Adam being examined, suggest a few questions and follow up on what those answers were in writing or orally before the committee. Or if there is a concern about child abuse, ask the committee to run a criminal background check, or ask references from previous positions detailed questions pertaining to the candidate’s history interacting with youth and children in the past. It could be that one’s concerns can be addressed early in committee without the awkward and delicate situation of examining those questions from the floor of presbytery, which brings us to our next step.
The presbytery as a whole has a right (and responsibility) to examine a candidate for transfer or ordination. Sometimes, an issue can present itself before the presbytery that the committee either missed or refused to explore (due to time constraints, for instance).
It should be noted that while we want to be respectful of the work of committees, the candidate, and the calling church, a member of presbytery should not be shamed or intimidated away from asking important questions. There may be questions that are inappropriate for mixed company, but no question of private character or conviction should be dismissed out-of-hand.
What If You Still Have a Concern?
If a candidate answers in such a way that is not satisfactory to the questioner (and thus perhaps to the presbytery as a whole), what should you do?
First, assume the best. Being examined before the whole presbytery can be a difficult and nerve-racking experience. If an answer is not sufficient or confused, the questioner can move that the presbytery request the candidate to reduce his view to writing. This is helpful because it takes away the pressure of the eyes of presbytery for the quick impromptu answer, and it allows the candidate to organize his thoughts and answer in a way that is objectively his own. Without a written answer, each member of presbytery may have a different opinion or even memory about what the candidate said or meant.
Once the answer is reduced to writing, the presbytery should determine if the candidate answered the question with sufficient detail. If so, then the presbytery should proceed to determine if the view is one that is different than the confessional standards of the church (i.e., the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, as adopted by the Church). If the presbytery determines a difference between the candidate’s views and the Standards, that’s not the end of the matter, as the difference may be minor or major. The RAO 16-3.5 states:
“Presbytery minutes shall record ministers’ and ministerial candidates’ stated differences with our Standards in their own words. Each presbytery shall also record whether:
a) the candidate stated that he had no differences; or
b) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be merely semantic; or
c) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be more than semantic, but “not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine” (BCO 21-4); or
d) the court judged the stated difference(s) to be “out of accord,” that is, “hostile to the system” or “strik[ing] at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4)”
If the questioner believes the answer fits one of those categories clearly, then he should make a motion for the presbytery to classify the answer as one of those options, to include in the minutes of the presbytery to be reviewed by the General Assembly through the Review of Presbytery Records. Of these four classifications, the first three classifications allow for the man to be ordained. However, if the answer strikes at the vitals (the last classification), the presbytery cannot ordain the man. The Church cannot approve for ordained service a man who holds to theological positions that strike at the vitals of religion as accepted and approved by the Church (BCO 21-4). If this is the conclusion of the presbytery, then the candidate cannot be approved for the call.
What strikes at the vitals of religion? Broadly, “striking at the vitals” includes only and all those things which undermine the whole system or are essential to be believed by ministers. There is no detailed list, though nineteenth century American Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge attempted to make such a list.* Within the Book of Church Order (BCO), the presbytery as reviewed by the General Assembly makes its own determination. Historically, certain differences have been ruled by the Standing Judicial Commission to strike at the vitals (such as denying infant baptism or asserting theistic evolution), and each issue should be studied for such instances not as helpful guides.
Finally, if the presbytery approves of a man with views you as a presbyter believe to strike at the vitals of religion, you have a few options. In the first place, you might defer your judgment to the body as a whole. It may be that you are mistaken, and that if there is sufficient doubt and you trust your brothers, this may be where you leave the matter. However, if conscience does not allow this, you may file a complaint over this action of presbytery (see the procedures for a complaint in BCO 43).
Knowing the various stages at which error can be caught and addressed (either by private counsel like Apollos with Priscilla and Aquila or by failure to pass examination for approval at some point in the process) should be a reassuring thing for congregations which end up with a presbytery-approved pastor. However, no process has virtue in itself. No matter how orderly or reliable a process is, it is functionally useless unless it is manned by faithful churchmen. Pray when your presbytery meets – especially to examine new teaching elders – that it will be populated by godly and faithful churchmen.
*See his article “What Is Meant by Adopting the Westminster Confession?” originally published in the Princeton Review (July 1867), and subsequently republished as Appendix II in A. A. Hodge’s book, The Confession of Faith (1869; republished today by the Banner of Truth). It is also available online here at Monergism.com.
Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.