The Presbyterian Church is faced, once again, with a serious question about what are the essential tenets of Reformed faith and practice. We have always had to decide these questions in examining officers of the church. Lately, though, the question has been on the back burner. The recent adoption of the Peace, Unity, and Purity (PUP) report has, however, moved the question of essential tenets front and center.
The recent Theological Task Force of 2001, which produced the PUP report, was modeled on the Special Commission of 1925, which was also charged with finding a way forward through the endemic conflicts that wracked the church in those days.
The particular conflict that called the Special Commission into being was this question: is belief in the virgin birth of Christ an essential tenet of the Reformed faith? Nearly all Presbyterians in those days took it for granted that it was. To believe otherwise was to undermine the authority of the Bible. Believing in the authority of the Bible was certainly an essential tenet of the Reformed faith.
Two young candidates for ordination, recent graduates of Union Theological Seminary in New York, however, were not convinced of the virgin birth. New York Presbytery, always one of the most liberal in the denomination, was willing to ordain them. A minority protested, and brought their case the General Assembly. When the General Assembly of 1925 created the Special Commission, they handed the virgin birth question, along with others, to the Commission.
The Special Commission held that doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is indeed true, and obligatory for Presbyterian ministers. They also held, though, that if some potential ministers, who were otherwise sound in the faith, were "insufficiently clear" in their understanding of the doctrine of the virgin birth, a presbytery could legitimately ordain them. The fledgling ministers were obliged to continue to wrestle with the doctrine. The Special Commission, though, understood that an ordination decision is a complex whole, based on all the beliefs, practices, and character of a potential church officer. They affirmed that the church depends on the presbyteries and sessions to make those judgment calls – guided, of course, by the constitution, but not more bound by one particular doctrine than they are by the whole.
The Special Commission report was adopted overwhelmingly.
So here is the standard of judgment that I read from the work of the Special Commission of 1925, and the similar achievement of the Task Force of 2001:
If a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I by my own judgment don't believe X, and therefore I reject the authority of the Bible," that person should not become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church.
If, instead, a candidate for office in the church said "I know the Bible says X, but I have not been able to wrap my mind around that idea yet, though I continue to wrestle with it," that person may become a minister, elder, or deacon of the Presbyterian Church if the presbytery or session regards them as called and qualifiable in other respects.