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Why a Candidates and Credentials Conference?

James S. Gidley

Welcome to the inaugural Candidates and Credentials Conference![1] In such company, I am conscious that much, if not all, of what I have to say will not be new to you, but I hope that it will be a helpful reminder.

So, why are we here? The most direct way to answer this question is to say that the General Assembly, in effect, wanted us to be here. In 2004, the Seventy-first General Assembly adopted a recommendation of the Committee on the Views of Creation in the following form:

That the General Assembly encourage the Committee on Christian Education and its Subcommittee on Ministerial Training to seek ways of working more closely with the candidates and credentials committees of presbyteries in order to bring ministerial candidates to a fuller understanding of the confessional standards, the Book of Church Order, the Minutes of the General Assembly and the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.[2]

The Subcommittee on Ministerial Training proposed this conference as a means of responding to the Assembly’s request, and the Committee on Christian Education has endorsed it. The Subcommittee on Ministerial Training had already been considering how we might work with candidates and credentials committees, and I view this conference as a continuation and extension of a variety of efforts undertaken by the SMT and the CCE over the last decade to strengthen the preparation of candidates for the ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

It is significant that the Seventy-first General Assembly’s action came originally as a recommendation from the Committee on the Views of Creation. You are well aware of how the issue of the days of creation has troubled our presbyteries and influenced the process of examining candidates for the ministry, and I hope that Alan Strange will address this issue somewhat more directly later in the conference. For my purposes, I draw your attention to a more general problem, of which the views of creation are a particular instance: increasing diversity in the church and among candidates for the ministry presents a challenge to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in maintaining our identity and, more importantly, the faithfulness of our witness. A crucial part of the challenge is encountered in the process of preparing and examining candidates for ministry, and therefore a particular responsibility for meeting this challenge falls upon your shoulders.

All of this leads me to consider more fundamental reasons for our presence here today than the deliberations of a committee or even the action of a general assembly, however important these things may be. We are gathered here today to consider how we may increase our faithfulness in the exercise of the binding and loosing authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. On that memorable day in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).

As Presbyterians, we believe that this promise was not made to Peter as an individual, nor even exclusively as an apostle—much less as the first Pope—, but that this promise descends to the true church in all ages and places of the world. The promised authority is concentrated in the ordained officers of that true church. In particular, the promised authority descends to us as elders and ministers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Perhaps the most far-reaching exercise of that authority is the admission of men into the sacred office of minister of the gospel. We do well to consider carefully Paul’s exhortation to Timothy on this score: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Tim. 5:19). Is it not significant that when Paul urges this sobriety and caution in ordaining men to office he immediately adds that Timothy is not to take part in the sins of others? If we commit the sacred office to unqualified men, we take part in their sinful motives for seeking the office, whether they are consciously seeking the ministry for base and selfish reasons or honestly yet foolishly overestimating their qualifications. In an indirect way, we then also take part in the sins of omission and commission that such unqualified men become guilty of in the conduct of a ministry to which God has not called them. As I consider this, I would not wish to be among such Presbyterian elders and ministers as those who ordained a Charles Grandison Finney to the ministerial office!

Yet I believe that the warnings of the Lord contain a promise of blessing as well. If it is true that we in some way participate in the sins of those whom we ordain, is it not also true that when we entrust the ministerial office to able and faithful men, we also participate in their faithfulness and fruitfulness? The Puritan John Flavel approvingly cites the Jesuit theologian Suarez, who “argues for a general judgment, after men have passed at death their particular judgment; because (saith he) long after that, abundance of good and evil will be done in this world by the dead, in the persons of others that overlive them.”[3] Consider then what fruit may be borne even after we are dead and gone from our placing men in the sacred office of the ministry! Whether good or ill, we will be called to account for it in the last great day, at least as far as it lay in our power to foresee what that fruit would be.

It is well for us to consider the times and circumstances in which we bear the responsibility of the keys. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, we are undoubtedly living in a period of change. One way of characterizing this change is to observe that the diversity of the OPC is increasing. Probably a good bit of this is simply the result of the growth with which God has blessed us.

The membership of the OPC is changing. Luke Brown, the statistician of the OPC, noted in his report to the Seventy-first General Assembly:

The church as a whole grew from 19,198 members (including ministers) at the end of 1993 to 28,019 at the end of 2003. This 8,821–member increase represents a net gain of 45.9 percent. During the same period, losses due to deaths and erasures totaled 8,638 persons, at least some of whom were replaced (statistically) by new members being added to the rolls. Thus one may estimate that well over one-third (perhaps even one-half) of our church members are new to the OPC since 1993. This is truly remarkable.[4]

I would add: remarkable only for the relative speed of the turnover. As surely as all flesh is grass, 100 percent of the membership of the church of Jesus Christ will be new 150 years from now. Certainly none of us will be here! Having said that, however, it does seem that Mr. Brown has put his finger on an important aspect of the life of the OPC as we begin the twenty-first century: we are in a time of significant change. Corresponding to the turnover in membership, there seems also to be a turnover among elders and ministers: at this year’s general assembly, over 40 percent of the commissioners had been ordained within the last fifteen years.[5]

We observe another aspect of change in our church-planting efforts. The Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension reported to the Seventy-first General Assembly: “For almost a decade OP church planting has been in a response mode. A group of Reformed people find each other, come to us for help, and we adopt them as a core group.”[6] In addition to this, you are all aware of whole congregations entering the OPC from other denominations or from independency. One of the implications of this is that we have groups of people, including whole congregations, coming into the OPC having been converted, discipled, and catechized (or not catechized) in other traditions, some Reformed, some not. Please understand that I am not questioning the sincerity or convictions of these precious brothers and sisters in Christ; I am only pointing out that their history suggests that they present the OPC with a special challenge and responsibility in the arena of Christian education.

The diversity has become ethnic and linguistic as well. For example, what a blessing and encouragement it has been to hear at this year’s assembly and to read in the most recent New Horizons[7] of the increasing presence of Hispanic brothers and sisters in the OPC! I recall sitting in a CCE meeting almost fifteen years ago and ticking off in my head the names of the men sitting around the table—names like Williamson, Tyson, Elder, Poundstone, Johnson, Winslow, Wilson ... white Anglo-Saxons all! It is a blessing that this will typically no longer be so. Already we have had names like Shishko, Deliyannides, Olinger, and Van Drunen, and there is nothing to prevent our having a Perez, an Alvira, or a Kim on the CCE. Yet again, ethnic and linguistic diversity poses new challenges for Christian education.

As there is increasing diversity in the membership of the OPC, so also there is increasing diversity among the ministers of the OPC. The days when we could assume that most ministers in the OPC had been to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia are long gone! Whatever we may think of that change, it is undeniable that our ministers no longer have a unifying seminary experience to introduce them to the OPC and to each other. At the 2003 general assembly, Danny Olinger sat quietly at the historian’s table and conducted a poll of the ministers. He found that collectively they had attended over twenty different seminaries. In your duties for candidates and credentials committees, you have no doubt dealt with ministers coming to the Refomed faith in the midst of their ministry and seeking entrance into the OPC. They may have attended a non-Reformed seminary or no seminary at all. Again, praise God for these dear brothers in Christ. But again, they pose a challenge to our Christian education efforts.

Recent general assemblies have also seen an increasing number of candidates for ministry who do not meet the standard educational requirements for ministers in the Form of Government. This may simply be an anomaly, or merely a result of the growth of the church, but it seems to be a real increase. Our Form of Government provides for exceptions to the educational requirements for the ministry because we do not believe that ministers are made by formal education. Nevertheless, education equips men to minister. Again we have a challenge to our Christian education efforts.

One reaction to increasing diversity is to insist on a rigid uniformity. While my premise is that the ministers in the OPC are exhibiting an increasing diversity, it could be argued that we are seeing a narrowing of views and an increasing uniformity among our ministers. I do not believe that these competing diagnoses of the situation are necessarily mutually exclusive. Our response to diversity in denominational background, culture, ethnicity, etc., may be to compensate by developing a greater ideological uniformity. I use the word “ideological” deliberately. Ideological uniformity may or may not be true biblical uniformity.

Presbyterian history illustrates the dangers of a misguided insistence on uniformity. According to the sober church historian Williston Walker,

in 1637, in a fatuous desire for uniformity, Charles [I, King of England and Scotland], inspired by Laud [William Laud, then archbishop of Canterbury], ordered the imposition of a liturgy which was essentially that of the Church of England. Its use, on July 23, in Edinburgh, led to riot. Scotland flared in opposition. [8]

A chain of subsequent events gave us the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms a little over a decade later. That riot in Edinburgh, featuring the tossing of a stool at the mitered head of a bishop by one Jenny Geddes, has passed into legendary status in Presbyterian history and stands as a symbol of Presbyterian protest against a top-down, hierarchical ecclesiology. The lapse of over three and a half centuries has not been sufficient to remove our constitutional aversion to “a fatuous desire for uniformity.”

Coming down to the present, we observe that the principal locus of responsibility for preparing and examining candidates for the ministry resides in the presbytery. Hart and Muether have observed historical reasons for this:

Because presbyteries were established first, not synods or general assemblies, American Presbyterianism is characterized by the power of presbytery. The American church, unlike its Scottish analogue, has delegated greater power to presbyteries than to higher courts. This is particularly evident in ordination, where presbyteries still enjoy remarkable autonomy in calling men to the ministry. This feature of American Presbyterianism may reflect sound polity and good theology, but it is also an accident of history. One of the reasons for forming a presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706 was to license and ordain men for the gospel ministry. Ever since then, presbyteries in America have been jealous to guard that prerogative.[9]

As you know, in the OPC the general assembly becomes involved in the ordination process only in exceptional cases.

The Committee on Christian Education and its Subcommittee on Ministerial Training have no desire to steer the church in the direction of a more top-down, hierarchical ecclesiology. Our role in putting on this conference is to assist and to facilitate. Because each of the members of the CCE and SMT is also an elder or minister, and because some of us also serve on candidates and credentials committees of presbyteries, we also join with you in the collegial task before us. To put it simply and comprehensively, I see our task not as the establishment of uniformity, but as the promotion of unity and consistency in the process of preparing, licensing, and ordaining men to the gospel ministry. This bears repeating: our goal should not be uniformity, but unity and consistency.

Let me illustrate what I mean by unity and consistency in the concrete situation in which we find ourselves. We face a basic problem of unity and consistency when a candidate can be ordained in one presbytery but not in another. Ordinarily there is no reason to be distressed by this. There will always be variations in how candidates are prepared for the ministry, variations in how the presbyteries apply the common criteria, and variations in how candidates and credentials committees conduct examinations. Devotees of uniformity may be distressed by this natural outcome of the various distribution of gifts by the Holy Spirit, but adherents of unity and consistency need not fear it. The manifold workings of God’s grace and providence do not work injustice upon candidates who are affected by this sort of non-uniformity.

However, there are two situations in which diversity among presbyteries is problematic. The first situation is where it is publicly known that one presbytery is substantially more—or less—rigorous than others in the conduct of the trials for licensure and ordination. Candidates are then tempted to gravitate to the “easy” presbyteries, which run the risk of becoming something like the “diploma mills” that cheapen higher education. Other candidates may be tempted to feed spiritual pride by gravitating to the difficult presbyteries in an attempt to prove themselves against a higher standard.

The second problematic instance of diversity occurs when it is common knowledge that a man will be denied ordination in some presbyteries because of a particular theological conviction that is unacceptable in those presbyteries but not in others. Then candidates are tempted to shop for a presbytery that is congenial to their particular views. In the heat of debate over particular theological issues in the church, the ordination process runs the risk of becoming something like a political football. We are tempted to examine men not so much for their comprehensive fitness for the gospel ministry as for their adherence to the theological party that is dominant in our presbytery. The Seventy-first General Assembly tried to address this problem by adopting two recommendations of the Committee on Views of Creation, one of which dealt specifically with the doctrine of creation,[10] which I will here pass by, and the other of which addressed the general problem:

That the General Assembly urge members of presbyteries and sessions to uphold the peace of the church by addressing theological issues within the church primarily through educational, administrative, judicial, or other constitutional means, and not merely by voting for or against candidates for office.[11]

It is well to remember that Presbyterians have not historically demanded a precisionistic, all-encompassing doctrinal uniformity any more than they have wished to impose a precisionistic uniformity in the forms of worship or church government. Our confessional documents ought not to be viewed as a pinpoint of doctrinal precision but as a circle within which acceptable variations of theological conviction are to be found.

Another way of describing healthy diversity among presbyteries would be to say that it should be exhibited in dealing with candidates for the ministry whose qualifications are at the margin of acceptability, candidates about whom all would agree going in to the process that there is significant doubt or even reservation about their qualifications. Unhealthy diversity, however, is exhibited in dealing with candidates who are far from the margins of acceptability. On the one hand, men who are eminently qualified for faithful and fruitful ministry may be denied ordination because of excessive rigor in the process or because of party spirit. On the other hand, men whose qualifications for ministry are evidently substandard may be ordained because the examination process is culpably lax or because they are able to mouth the particular Shibboleths that are congenial to a presbytery.

If these situations persist, it is only a matter of time before some ministers ordained in one presbytery will not be received or recognized by others. Whenever this occurs, the unity of the church is threatened. When it becomes something other than an extremely rare event, we are no longer one church.

On the other hand, unity prevails when presbyteries uniformly respect each others’ actions, particularly with respect to ordinations. Consistency prevails when candidates for the ministry cannot predict where they would most easily be ordained or where they could not be.

Perhaps it would be appropriate here to back up and approach the problem from yet another point of view, that of the call to the ministry. The Presbyterian approach to the call to the ministry is complex, involving the call of God and the call of the church, or as they might be alternatively designated, the internal and the external call. Yet these two sides of the call are not independent factors. The call of God is sovereign and determinative; in principle, the call of the church is the working out and confirmation of the call of God. If we identify the call of God exclusively with the term “internal call,” we run the risk of supposing that the call of God is purely a personal affair between a man and God. The external call of the church is in reality no less the call of God than the internal call operating in a man’s heart and conscience.

Having said this, however, we must always reckon with the fallenness of this world and the imperfection within it of even divinely ordained means and institutions. It is all too possible that the visible church may call to the ministry men whom the Lord has not called. Such are the plants that our heavenly Father has not planted, whose destiny is to be rooted up (Matt. 15:13). May we be spared from participating in the sins of such men!

On the other hand, it is also possible that the visible church may refuse to ordain men whom the Lord really is calling into the gospel ministry. In this world, such failures are inevitable, but it is still our duty to do all in our power to avoid them.

We ought to be equally concerned about failures on either side. Therefore, the way to discharge our duty wisely and faithfully is not that we should all become more and more rigorous in the licensure and ordination process until only men of apostolic giftedness and devotion can be ordained. Neither, of course, should we make the process so lenient that no qualified man, by any stretch of the term qualified, would ever encounter any difficulty.

We must strive to admit to the ministry those whom God is calling and to exclude from it those whom he is not calling. I am sure that you will agree that we must not seek to know whom God is calling by way of special revelation or mystical insight. Rather, we must do the hard work of designing and administering trials for licensure and ordination in such a way as is most fit, by the grace of God and under his providential guidance, to achieve a result consonant with the call of God.

Where do we go from here?

Our history and our convictions forbid a (worldly) top-down approach. In fact, according to Presbyterian conviction, there exists no ecclesiastical “top” from which pronouncements and directives can come down except the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, in so far as we have the law of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have all the top-down direction that we need or that we ought to allow. But in the visible church on earth, there is no ecclesiastical “top.”

We are left with the process of mutual encouragement and exhortation among the ordained officers of the church, a process that is so distressing to control freaks of every stripe. I hope that our gathering together for this short conference will enhance that process and prove to be fruitful in mutual edification and for the peace and purity of the church.

To be specific, let me suggest two ways in which I believe that this conference may bear fruit. This will by no means be an exhaustive list.

First, by facilitating open discussion between members of candidates and credentials committees of various presbyteries, each presbytery may be better able to move towards the adoption of “best practices” in preparing men for the ministry and in the conduct of the trials for licensure and ordination. Undoubtedly, each presbytery exhibits different strengths and weaknesses. Let us share our strengths and correct our weaknesses! In doing so, I hope that we may also move towards a more perfect unity and consistency among the presbyteries.

My second suggestion flows from the fact that the preparation of men for the ministry is the concern of the whole church. I have already spoken about the power of presbyteries, but there remains a legitimate role for the whole church, acting through the general assembly, in preparing men for the ministry. That is why the OPC has a Subcommittee on Ministerial Training within its Committee on Christian Education and has charged it to do the following:

  1. Assist the churches in seeking out men with apparent gifts for the gospel ministry and in pressing upon them its urgent claims.
  2. Consider means of strengthening the preparation of men for the gospel ministry.
  3. Consult with representatives of seminaries or other educational institutions regarding the training of men for the ministry.
  4. Recommend to presbyteries ways in which gifts of men under care may be developed and proved, and work with presbyteries in establishing suitable programs to this end.
  5. Develop means for the continuing education and development of ministers.[12]

In my fifteen years of service on the SMT I have more and more come to see how large a task is outlined here! There are many things that we are not doing, but let me highlight two things that we are doing, which I believe you could help us to do better, which is my second suggestion.

First, the SMT conducts a program of seminary visitation. Reports on our visits to seminaries have been appearing in the report of the CCE to the general assembly in recent years, and these are available in the published GA minutes. We hope that these reports have been helpful to you in dealing with candidates coming from the seminaries that we have reported on, and we would be interested in your feedback on how useful the reports have been. How could we make them better? Our manpower is small, and we have enlisted ordained officers from outside the SMT/CCE to assist us in the visitation process. Let me thank those of you who have participated and ask all of you how you might help us to make the visit process more effective and helpful to the church.

Second, the SMT operates the Ministerial Training Institute of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. (You will be hearing from some MTIOPC instructors later in the conference.) What is your experience with men who have taken one or more courses in the MTIOPC? Do these courses appear to have been helpful in preparing men for their trials for licensure and ordination? Have you taken courses yourselves? Do you see the MTIOPC as a wise use of denominational resources, both in terms of finances and manpower? If so, how can we make it better? For example, are there additional courses that we should be offering?

If these efforts and others like them are to be fruitful in a Presbyterian way, they need the support and participation of presbyteries. In asking for your help, I am seeking to keep these efforts truly Presbyterian.

Again, brothers, welcome! Now let us work together.

Endnotes

[1] Held at the offices of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania on August 8–9, 2005.

[2] Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly, 29.

[3] John Flavel, Pneumatologia: A Treatise on the Soul of Man (London: W. Jones, 1824), 116.

[4] Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly, 70.

[5] David K. Thompson and Danny E. Olinger, “The Seventy-second General Assembly,” New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, vol. 26, no. 8 (August–September 2005): 4.

[6] Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly, 80.

[7] Ross Graham, “Spanish Spoken Here,” and Richard Gerber, “Gospel Fruit in Vineland,” New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 26, no. 8 (August–September 2005): 18–19.

[8] Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1970), 412.

[9] D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, “Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706–1729,” New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 26, no. 2 (February 2005): 23–24.

[10] Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly, 28–29.

[11] Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly, 29.

[12] Standing Rules of the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, X.2.c.

James S. Gidley, a ruling elder at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania, is a professor at Geneva College, where he is chairman of the Engineering Department. He is also a member of the Christian Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Ministerial Training. Ordained Servant Online, February 2012.

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