Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Our Opinions Do Not Matter

Our discussion of the two kingdoms has turned, as it must, to the nature and bounds of ecclesiastical authority. I am reminded of the scene in The Big Lebowski in which the main character, The Dude, is told by a fellow bowler that he and his partner are going to be badly beaten in an upcoming bowling tournament. He responds, "Yeah? Well, you know... that's just like, uh, your opinion, man." A true sage indeed....

The Westminster Confession states that:
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (i.10).
Later on it adds:
"It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience.... All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times... may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth..." (xxxi.2-4).
When it comes to a church member seeking counsel, the session or pastor may "ministerially determine cases of conscience" using only what is found in Scripture, or what can be deduced from it by "good and necessary consequence." The church's authority, therefore, is only declarative and never legislative. We don't make up laws, we only repeat them.

And if you think about it, such a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical pronouncements is precisely what preserves the church's authority. If the church weighs in on this and rants about that, her voice will become a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." In a word, no one pays attention to the boy who constanly cries "Wolf," even if there really is one.

This necessarily means that the minister or session must, at times, hold their tongue when their wisdom is sought. Whether the issue is a church member wanting to join the military, block the entrance to an abortion clinic, or is simply seeking some sound career counsel, the temptation to think ourselves jacks-of-all-trades must be resisted.

The Church, it has been said, has no opinions, only declarations.