Freedom of conscience is one of the most precious truths of our Protestant faith. The Reformers were adamant that no earthly authority, be it church or state, had the right to impose on a person concerning what he should believe apart from the Scriptures.
The doctrine of the freedom of the conscience does not grant license to do whatever one wants: the Christian is free in Christ so as to affirm and do God's will. But the doctrine certainly does mean that no mere mortal or group of mortals-be it pope or presbytery-may coerce the individual into submitting his beliefs or actions to their approval. Our Confession of Faith is clear: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also."
We would suggest that, in at least two notorious instances currently in the news, men of presbytery have undermined freedom of conscience in the PCA.
With regard to church planting, at least one denominational staffer has maintained his opposition to anyone who would dare to have a traditional Presbyterian view of worship. Oh, to be sure, he may say that a person does not have to embrace the latest fad of contemporary worship practice for himself and his congregation. But he believes that that individual must accept the validity of other practices of worship before he should be welcomed into Northern California Presbytery.
The problem, of course, is that a traditional Presbyterian understanding of worship demands the eradication of false worship. Now, opposition to un-Biblical worship can take many different forms and approaches and employ different strategies-one does not have to tilt at windmills. However, to demand that a minister must accept the legitimacy of anti-Presbyterian worship is to enter the realm of the conscience. It is to replace the throne of Christ with a bishop's chair. It is idolatry not only in terms of the Second Commandment (improper worship), but also in terms of the First Commandment ("call no man your father").
The case out of Rocky Mountain Presbytery is also instructive. In this case, the Presbytery immediately deposed a minister for "contumacy" for refusing to order members of his congregation to cease picketing the church building where he was being tried on other charges. In trying to justify itself before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the lower court maintained that since the man refused to obey the order of the court, he was guilty of sin.
We knew the air was thin in Colorado Springs: has it been affecting their judgment?
If the members of Rocky Mountain thought that the picketers-whom they had forbidden from observing the trial by going into executive session-were sinning, then it was those presbyters' obligation to confront them. But to order someone else to do that when he is not convinced that he was obligated to do so, is to violate liberty of conscience.
However, it appears that even denizens of lower altitudes may also have been adversely affected. The SJC panel stated that "Appellee makes a strong argument for its immediate judgment against T.E. Nickoley based on the general powers of a presbytery under BCO 13-9a 'to . . . remove and judge ministers.' In its brief, Appellee states its argument in such words as: (1) 'When such (contumacious) action is demonstrated before the body under which a person takes a vow to submit, then immediate censure should be forthcoming.' (2) 'The RMP [Rocky Mountain Presbytery] which has the authority over Mr. Nickoley has the power to immediately render discipline.' (3) 'Without the power of immediate censure for rebellious acts occurring before it by a member, RMP is disenfranchised of its right to govern its members.' (4) ' By logical inference therefore, when a person refuses a lawful order by the presbyters who are his brothers in the Lord an immediate censure for contumacy is allowed. . . Not allowing this would be handcuffing the court and saying it has no immediate power of censure for unrepentant and rebellious behavior occurring before its very eyes.' . . . (6) 'If a minister acts in a rebellious way to a lawful order directed to him on the floor of presbytery, he must be immediately judged for contempt in order to preserve the integrity and authority of the court.' (7) 'T.E. Nickoley continued to persist in his refusal to obey the lawful order of RMP and was summarily charged and dealt with which is an inherent power of the court for behavior contemptuous to it.' (8) 'Presbytery by virtue of its right to judge its member (BCO 13-9a) . . . and hearing from its member that he will not obey a lawful order may issue a finding of contempt of actions of contumacy occurring before its eyes. . . ."
The SJC panel continued: "We agree with certain basic principles stated and inferred from these strong arguments. We believe that a presbytery, under the general powers of BCO 13-9a, has the right to determine its membership of teaching elders, to control the order and decorum of its meeting, to issue instructions and orders to its members so long as such are lawful, reasonable and in accordance with the general principles of Bible Polity. . . ."
But to make orders by a church authority the basis
for discipline undermines the whole system. The two instances
described above constitute perilous precedents which we, bound
by our conscience held captive by the Word of God, will conscientiously