by Zachary Groff | April 24, 2023
Whenever people gather as a group to accomplish certain tasks and to achieve shared goals, they must operate according to rules held in common. The more formal the group, the more formal the expression of said rules must be. However formal or informal, these rules direct the group in its pursuits. This is all patently obvious on the face of things. Perhaps less obvious is the instructional function of such rules.
Lists of rules, regulations, statutes, and ordinances are fundamentally ethical in nature. More precisely, such lists apply general ethical principles to particular situations encountered by groups or societies of people. As such, they are not only directive, but also didactic.
Consider two examples: one informal and one formal. In the first example, a temporary gathering of friends going on a hike operates according to a few spoken rules. The “spoken rules” in this situation may include “follow Jim,” and “let’s stop at a halfway point to eat something.” In the second example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) maintains a chunky blue binder full of written rules (i.e., the Book of Church Order [BCO]) to govern its deliberations (as well as the meetings of lower courts). These written rules include provisions for electing a moderator (BCO 10-3) and for ordering the business of Church courts (BCO 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15).
In both examples, the operative rules are at once directive and didactic. The rules both define what entails appropriate behavior in their respective settings and convey important ethical principles to participants. In both situations, we learn that there needs to be one designated leader of the activity at a time. Though all participants to a hike or a deliberative assembly are expected to be engaged and to have a due right to contribute to the work of the whole, there can be only one designee at a time serving as a point-person. From this direction, we learn something about the nature of order in human societies. It is wise to appoint (and to defer to) someone to lead and/or to facilitate corporate efforts toward a shared goal, be that goal a mountaintop destination or the government of one expression of the visible church on earth.
Turning our attention to the BCO, there are certain lessons it can and should be able to teach us. The BCO can and should clearly express truths about matters of deep moral significance. The preface of the BCO articulates this well in speaking of the conscience, faith, worship, judgment, godliness, truth, holiness, mutual forbearance, qualifications, laws, discipline, and justice.
We should not regard the BCO as a rulebook that merely facilitates the work of the Church. By no means should we deprecate it as some obstacle that gets in the way of our shared ministry. In fact, it is a teaching document that publishes to the world not only the PCA way of conducting official Church business, but the PCA understanding of applied ecclesiastical ethics. The BCO communicates to “an impartial public” what it is the PCA believes to be good, true, beautiful, and just.
Because the BCO possesses an important didactic function as the application of doctrine in our Church, we include it in our published constitution alongside the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as adopted by the PCA. Though these documents have complementary uses and purposes, they fittingly present a great deal of overlap in material. One need go no further than the opening chapter of the BCO and the 25th chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith to observe this overlap.
Our acknowledgement of the BCO’s didactic function should thus remove one of the several objections to last year’s attempts to add language clarifying that a biblical sexual ethic is of central concern in the qualification of Church officers (BCO 7). As we go into a fresh round of deliberation over whether or not to incorporate language prohibiting men who identify constitutionally with their sin (e.g., homosexuality, etc.) from being ordained in the PCA, let us consider what it means to set forth with clarity and charity the biblical qualifications for church office as we apply Scripture to our shared ministry.
If the BCO is the application of biblical ethical principles, then it can and should clearly express a biblical sexual ethic where and when appropriate. Nowhere is there greater confusion and consternation in the American church today than in matters of sexual ethics. Now is the time to clarify and to bolster our Church’s (i.e., the PCA’s) witness to the goodness and beauty of biblical sexual ethics. In terms of the BCO’s contents, there is no better “place” to bring clarity than in the matter of the general qualifications of men to ordained office (BCO 7).
Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.