Monday, September 14, 2009

RPCUS Distinctives and the Westminster Standards, Part 1 -9/14/09

Rev. John M. Otis
Pastor & Evangelist in the RPCUS


The governing constitution of the RPCUS (Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States) is the original Westminster Confession of Faith with its accompanying Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, and the Directory For Public Worship of God. Outside of its general commitment to the doctrines of the Reformed Faith found in the Westminster Standards, the RPCUS is known for its adherence to four specific areas in addition to all other Reformed doctrines in the Standards. The purpose of this article is to outline these distinctives, giving documentation from the Standards for their insistence. There are those in the Reformed community who already have a perception of the RPCUS’ distinctives, and others are unaware of them. This paper will clarify those distinctives.

What are the particular distinctives characterizing this denomination? First, we affirm a presuppositional approach to apologetics. We also acknowledge ourselves to be a theonomic denomination. Third, we believe in a postmillennial eschatology. Fourth, the RPCUS advocates that all areas of ecclesiastical authority be exercised by biblically qualified males. Specifically, the RPCUS only allows male heads of households to participate in congregational voting.

The question that has been raised by some Reformed brethren is: To what extent does the RPCUS demand subscription of its officers to these distinctives? The answer is: The RPCUS requires all of its teaching and ruling elders along with its deacons to subscribe to these distinctives. These distinctives are not the only emphases of the denomination, for they are only part of that total Reformed system of doctrine set forth by the Standards. Allegiance to these four distinctives does not mean that the RPCUS is obsessed with only these four areas. The denomination is committed to all of the Reformed doctrines set forth by each chapter of the Confession. Moreover, the RPCUS insists that these four distinctives are inseparable from the entire system of doctrine delineated by the Standards. The denomination would not see contrary views as acceptable exceptions to the Standards.

The reason why we are drawing attention to these four distinctives is because other Presbyterian denominations permit divergent views in these areas. For example, some Presbyterian denominations practice eschatological liberty. They permit their officers to hold to historic premillennial and amillennial schemes. In rare instances, dispensational premillennialists have been accepted into various presbyteries. The RPCUS does not practice eschatological liberty. We do not believe that the Standards are eschatalogically vague. We believe that eschatology plays a key role in the overall system of doctrine taught in our Standards and in the Word of God. For one’s future view powerfully impacts one’s present actions.

Before we discuss these four distinctives, we need to define “strict subscription” to the Westminster Standards. Strict subscription does not mean that we view the Westminster Standards to be on par with Scripture. The Scripture alone is preeminently authoritative. The Westminster Confession of Faith is careful to make this point in chapter 1 section X which reads, “The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture.”

The RPCUS believes that the ordination vow taken by all of its officers is itself a strict subscription to the Westminster Standards. The vow reads, “Do you sincerely receive and fully adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?” Strict subscription does means that one adopts all the doctrines set forth in every chapter of the Confession. Someone might ask, “How far does the RPCUS take its demand for subscription?” The answer is : It goes as far as every chapter of the Confession and every question of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

Strict subscription does not mean that one must adopt every wording of the Standards as the best explanation of the system of doctrine. Of course, we must be careful with any modification of words seeing that words are the vehicles that convey thought. Moreover, we must be careful not to twist the meaning of words in order to create a different sense than originally intended. This type of perversion was done by the 1972 PCUS General Assembly pertaining to the meaning of the phrase, “containing the system of doctrine.” The General Assembly said with reference to the Standards, “On the other hand, since they are said to contain the system rather than to be equated with it, allowance is made for the possibility that they may incorporate elements which neither belong to it nor are essential to it” (quoted in Morton Smith, How Is The Gold Become Dim, p. 224). The 1972 PCUS General Assembly further stated, “none of us will traduce or use any opprobrious terms of those that differ from us in these extra-essential and not necessary points of doctrines” (Ibid.). Even though this wording is in the 1729 Adopting Act, the meaning of the words “extra-essential” and “not necessary points of doctrine” came to be so broadly interpreted that it would embrace non-Reformed doctrine and heresy. It became the agenda of the PCUS to act as if it was committed to the Westminster standards, but functionally it abandoned its foundational tenets. By its own admission, the PCUS in its later days confessed to being a loose subscriptionist denomination.

The doctrines and wording of the Westminster Standards are clear. The RPCUS expects all of its officers to give allegiance to every doctrine of every chapter of the Confession. This doctrinal allegiance applies only to elders and deacons — not to church members. All that is required to become a member in any church of the RPCUS is to give a credible profession of faith to the church session. In essence, there is nothing extraordinary about the RPCUS’ expectations. We simply believe in subscription to our Constitution. There are undoubtedly some of our Reformed brethren who think we are too narrow because we are presuppositional, theonomic, postmillennial, and limit congregational voting to male heads of households. The RPCUS insists that these particular distinctives are not extraneous doctrines to the Standards; rather, they are the doctrines of the Standards.

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