Strict, Full or Good Faith Subscription?

volume 19, number 2, January 9, 2020

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” -2 Timothy 2:1

While in a Roman prison, awaiting execution at the hands of Nero, the Roman Emperor, Paul is writing to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy. Paul gives Timothy a series of exhortations throughout this epistle. Paul is reminding Timothy that he has suffered greatly for the gospel (2 Timothy 1:8,12, 9,10, 3:1,11,12,4:9,14), and a recurring theme in this epistle is that many of his friends have deserted him in his time of great need (2 Timothy 1:15,4:9,10,16). 

The central idea which Paul wants to convey to Timothy is to stand firm in the gospel of grace. He is never, never to relent, to dilute, to mitigate in any way, the truths of the gospel. Any departure from the gospel is a denial of the faith which will bring apostasy and destruction (2 Timothy 3:9,14,15). 
Not deviating from the gospel is the one, non-negotiable which must hold true in the PCA’s current unpleasantness. We cannot turn away in any form from the gospel of free grace in Christ. From the reading I have done, and from knowing personally a number of the men who were leaders in founding the PCA in December, 1973, there were two groups which made up the early PCA. By far the largest group were broadly evangelical in their theology, while secondarily being committed to the Reformed faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is not surprising at all if we remember the historical and theological context of the day. By the late 1960’s the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), the so called Southern Presbyterian Church, was decidedly liberal in their theology. The conservative men who were working to stem the tide of liberalism and eventually who decided to leave the PCUS and form the new denomination, were seeking to hold on to the basic tenets of the faith, things like the full and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and many more vital doctrines. Consequently these leaders did not have the luxury of focusing on important but secondary doctrines like the Five Points of Calvinism and a Reformed world and life view. Their situation reminds me of a missionary serving the Lord in a Muslim country. He is the only Reformed and Presbyterian missionary in the region but he works closely with, and enjoys fellowship with Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics. Since all these missionaries are in the battle together, they choose to lay aside their secondary doctrines in order to work as far as they can with other believers whose theology differs. As long as the others hold to the pure gospel of grace, then all is well. 

The second group in the early days of the PCA were what we then called TR’s, “Thoroughly Reformed.” Some of these men strongly opposed the ministry of Billy Graham, the altar call, and the use of the “Four Spiritual Laws”. Some were Theonomists[1] while others believed in “paedocommunion.”[2] There was a great deal of division very early in the PCA over these issues.

I remember the early General Assemblies I attended, beginning in 1982, where the floor debates would go on for hours, even days. I knew a number of Ruling Elders (RE’s) who became quite frustrated at how business was conducted at the General Assemblies. The men said something like this, “I paid my own way to come to this meeting. I am giving up a week of my vacation to be here and because I make my living on hourly billings, I am also losing income while here. This is so cumbersome, so exhausting, so counterproductive. I cannot justify coming back to these meetings.” 
About this time, 1983, the old Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined the PCA. There was a strong connection in the RPCES to the New School Presbyterians of the 19th century. A split occurred in 1837 between the New School and Old School Presbyterians. The latter held to a strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith which allowed for no exceptions to the Confession. By this we mean an elder in the Presbyterian Church must fully embrace the doctrines set forth in our doctrinal standards. The New School Presbyterians, who followed Charles Finney, thought the Confession was too restrictive, that it unnecessarily hindered the work of the gospel. Consequently the New School church fathers were much more open to accepting exceptions to the Confession among Ruling and Teaching Elders. So the Joining and Receiving (J&R) of the RPCES to the PCA in 1983 brought with it a looser practice of subscription to the Confession. 

Then in 2002, after several years of discussion, an overture to amend Book of Church Order (BCO) 21-4 passed. The amended section brought in the words “good faith”.

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.

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination the Presbytery shall require not only the candidate’s knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state 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 differences of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.  

As I read the “Whereas” statements leading to the resolution, it is clear that the working assumption at the time was that the PCA never was a strict subscription denomination. Therefore the intent of the overture is to clarify and codify this perceived reality. I believe this actually was the case, that we never were a strict subscription denomination, though some clearly held to that position.

However, while perhaps well meaning, “good faith” subscription has brought a plethora of exceptions to the PCA ordained ministry. In the early days of the PCA, there was perhaps a greater awareness of the historical context in which the Westminster Confession was written and there may have been a greater sensitivity to maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith. Due to the secularization of our culture, it seems to me that these doctrinal errors have slowly made their way into our seminaries and then into our Presbyteries. As I mentioned in my post from last week, some Presbyteries are “tight” and some are “loose” theologically. One thing is clear, however. Many of the men coming for ordination take one, two, and sometimes four or more exceptions to our doctrinal standards. The exceptions often being taken are an unwillingness to believe in six day creation, a belief in paedocommunion, how one uses recreation on the Lord’s day, the use of images of Jesus, women deacons, Federal Vision, and now “Side B” homosexuality.[3] 

So, what is the answer? Shall we embrace strict, full, or good faith subscription? Good faith subscription has proven disastrous to the PCA. By a mere majority vote of a Presbytery men can be ordained who hold to any of these views just mentioned. How does a Presbytery now decide if one’s views strike at the vitals of religion or if the view is hostile to our system of doctrine? Too much is left to each Presbytery to decide. 

But strict subscription is not the answer either. Strict subscription, as I understand it, means one adopts the Confession ipsissima verba, in Latin this means “every word.”[4] This means that one must subscribe to the actual words of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. There is no wiggle room.[5] But we must remember the Confession was written my fallible men. They were godly men. They wrote a wonderful document but it is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. For example, there is no one section dealing with the doctrine of regeneration. Major emphasis is placed on the sovereignty of God but very little on human responsibility. There is no emphasis on world missions or evangelism. We are to believe in the Bible ipsissima verba because it is fully inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Confession, on the other hand, is merely a manmade document.

The answer, it seems to me, is full subscription. By this I mean we believe in what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches.We do not deny any of it. It teaches six day creation. We believe it. Our BCO teaches only qualified men are to serve as elders and deacons. We believe it and hold to it. The Larger Catechism says that inordinate sexual desires, not merely the act of fornication or homosexual activity, is sin. We believe it and don’t argue against it. Could the wording be improved in the WCF or BCO? Sure. Therefore strict subscription seems to be going too far unnecessarily. Full subscription allows for word differences as long as they in no way mitigate the clear teaching of the Confession.   

1 Theonomy, from two Greek words, theos God and nomos Law, literally means God’s Law. This view, whose leading proponents were John Rousas Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen, believed that the Old Testament Law, except for the Ceremonial law which has been abrogated due to Christ’s death on the cross, still applies in every form today. Practically this means that theonomists believe homosexuals, adulterers, and rebellious children are to be executed. 2  Paedo is Greek for infant. One who believes in paedocommunion believes that infants are invited to partake of the Lord’s supper. The Reformed churches have largely rejected this view because of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11 that anyone coming to the Lord’s table must first examine himself and infants, obviously, are unable to do so. 3  The belief that one can be attracted sexually to someone of the same sex and this is not to be regarded as sin as long as the person does not act upon that desire.4  ipsissima verba, the very words, a legal term.5  Dewey Roberts’ article “Strict Subscription, Full Subscription, and Good Faith Subscription” is very helpful in explaining these differences. Contact Dewey at < and he will email you this article.

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