Friday, September 30, 2011

Dissent and discipline

In the Clark Controversy, John Murray wrote the majority report on the well-meant offer. Since this is often treated as the benchmark for further discussion regarding the offer of the gospel, let’s put this report in historical and ecclesiastical context.

1. This states the official position of the OPC. It has no authority outside the OPC. It’s not a creed which representatives from different Reformed denominations ratified.

2. Of course, that doesn’t mean it has no cachet beyond the OPC. Although it lacks ecclesiastical authority outside the OPC, we can still judge the majority report on the merits. Assuming the exegesis is sound, assuming the inferences are valid, it should hold sway beyond the confines of the OPC.

But, of course, that cuts both ways. We can also judge the minority report on the merits.

3. At the time the report was written, the OPC didn’t have much competition. Likewise, Westminster seminary didn’t have much competition back then, and the Westminster faculty had a disproportionate influence in the OPC deliberations on the Clark Controversy.

I don’t think there’s anything pernicious about that. But it does reflect a historically provincial set of circumstances that isn’t ipso facto representative of the Reformed scene in the 21C.

4. This is the default policy of the OPC. But keep in mind that this goes back to the 1940s. That’s several generations ago.

In principle, a later generation of OPC elders could always readjudicate this issue. There’s a kind of stare decisis in Presbyterianism, where there’s a standing presumption in favor of a preexisting policy. But that’s not infallible. That’s not irreformable.

5. And there’s another issue. When some controversy makes its way up through the appellate process to the General Assembly, and is ruled on one way or the other, what happens to the losers?

In the very nature of the process, you’re going to have a public debate with various spokesmen taking sides. Eventually one side wins and the other side loses. But the view of the losers is a matter of public record. So what’s the next step?

They don’t suddenly recant their stated views. In terms of the official policy, what’s expected of them?

To take some concrete examples, William Young wrote and signed the minority report on the Clark Controversy in reference to the well-meant offer. Yet he remained an OPC minister in good standing. And he left for another denomination of his own volition. He wasn’t defrocked. 

Likewise, Bob Strimple supports the office of deaconess. His side lost that battle. Yet he remained a minister in good standing in the OPC.

Even in the infamous “Shepherd” affair, Norman Shepherd wasn’t defrocked. He later left the OPC for the CRC–of his own accord.

So the dissenting view is still tolerated unless and until the dissident is charged, convicted, and defrocked. Which doesn’t happen very often. A dissident is vulnerable, but severance isn’t automatic.

1 comment:

  1. It seems that the controversy led to disintegration in the OPC, since the influential people that you site either left or started their own denomination. Perhaps if there was more church discipline the weeding process (not very pastoral) would happen faster. Easier said than done, though.