THE COMPLEXITY, NECESSITY, AND CHALLENGE OF PROPER CREDENTIALING
By Randy Nabors
One of the challenges for the Presbyterian Church in America is the process we have for ordaining our ministers. If you want to be a pastor in this denomination there are certain “hoops” one has to jump through. I am in favor of being true to Scripture, and holding our Elders to that standard, both Teaching and Ruling. However, I submit there can be several competing) dynamics that afflict this process and it is important for presbyteries and their “Credentials Committee” to keep these in mind
- The ACADEMIC DYNAMIC
Our pastors, or Teaching Elders, need to be competent theologically. We want them to not only be competent in knowing theology but “orthodox” (as per the PCA standards) in what they believe. It is not enough to know what the denomination confesses and professes but the candidate for both licensure and ordination must actually hold to these beliefs and be ready to defend them with a biblical and intellectual argument.
There is a lot to know in a church that declares itself to be biblical (one has to know what the Bible says as to content, and how the Bible is organized, and where in the Bible something is said) and confessional (one has to know how the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechism explains and understands the Scripture, what they say, and where those things are said). We want men to understand the “system” that flows through the Scripture.
One has to know how to interpret the Scriptures accurately so as to remain orthodox, and that implies skill in exegesis and translating the Bible from the original languages. One has to know Church History (or at least the part that is of interest to our denomination) and one has to know our form of church government. One has to understand and explain the Sacraments, and practice them in a way that keeps one orthodox. As you can see, there is a lot to know.
In addition one has to have “views” that are orthodox on various and sometimes arbitrary issues that have been or might be controversial, or at least hold (understandable and well stated) views that are acceptable to the presbytery that is examining you. As you can see, there are lots of ways to get caught up in controversy.
- The CHARACTER DYNAMIC
The Presbyterian Church in America wants men who are indeed born-again Christians, which implies that they be men of Jesus with godly character, fulfilling the character qualifications found in 1 Timothy and Titus. The test for character usually comes by way of exception. Unless there is some exception that is noted by the local church of which he is a member, and whose Elders have recommended he come under care of presbytery, or some exception noted by somebody (school, family, or anyone) there will probably be no questions about behavior or character asked of the candidate.
His testimony of salvation, his testimony of personal calling to the ministry, and his commitment to be Reformed and Presbyterian is pretty much all the presbytery will want to know. Hardly any personal questions about holiness, or family life, or hidden sin will be asked. In a day and age of such horrendous stories of sexual and emotional abuse in churches, with both legal and reputational consequences, it is more important than ever that the church knows to whom it gives the authority to shepherd souls.
The moral area of the job of being a Pastor, Missionary, Chaplain, Professor, etc. while carrying the reputation of the denomination wherever he goes as to his personal and public integrity and morality, and is expected by most everyone in both the religious and secular world to be of the highest probity and reputation, will likely be given the least examination prior to ordination. If he has any hidden wickedness it will be difficult to see unless it blows up, in some way, someday.
Another aspect of this is that some personality characteristics and even psychological pathologies are left unexamined and unseen. Tendencies for people pleasing, greed, jealousy, envy, arrogance, anger patterns, emotional extremes, bouts of depression (I am not declaring depression to be sinful), contentiousness, quickness to argue, pride, obstinate stubbornness, etc. all of these, and more kinds of sinful attitudes and/or behaviors are allowed into the ministry without much hindrance, as long as they are not scandalous at the time of ordination.
- THE CALLING AND GIFTED-NESS DYNAMIC
In order to be ordained in the PCA a man must have a sense of “internal calling” (and this stretches from a mild sort of conviction to that of a mysterious, compelling, even unrelenting sense of God’s Holy Spirit giving a man no choice but to preach). This sense of calling he must articulate to the presbytery. It is hardly ever questioned. In addition he must have a job offer, which is always a question, and the presbytery will take that offer of employment as a sign of an outward calling.
The candidate will usually preach a sermon before the presbytery. For some men this might mean he will have preached for less than ten hours in his life, or even less, depending on requirements from his seminary or schooling. Some presbyteries will demand an internship prior to ordination and ask for some review of his preaching hours or experience. Some presbyteries asking for an internship will not ask about preaching experience. This sole preaching moment is usually that by which a presbytery determines giftedness. Almost any kind of effort, as long as it is not heretical on its face, will get the man through. Most presbyteries assume the agency offering the man a job has made the correct decision as to his gifts.
It is very seldom that a presbytery will ask the man if he is gifted to counsel, or work with teenagers, or work with children, or do Christian Education, or do administration, or has the gift of leadership even if pertinent to the specific job he is being hired to do. Presbyteries seldom fail a man’s exam due to his sermon, even if it as dry as dust and boring as …
They will seldom ask if he is culturally competent if he is in an ethnic or cross-cultural setting. If he is from a specific ethnic group they will assume he is competent for that group, but will seldom ask if he has cross cultural competence. They will seldom ask about his ability to work with the poor or if knows how to do works of mercy.
OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS:
- The PCA puts a huge emphasis on academic education and preparation.
- The PCA values theological knowledge and biblical orthodoxy.
- Most of the Credential Committees of our presbyteries are weighted with academic types, and they spend most of their time testing until failure, i.e., asking academic, theological, and intellectual questions until the candidate runs dry of knowledge or makes a mistake, or the committee runs out of time. Blessed is the man who answers correctly consistently until time is up. (Sort of like bull riding in a rodeo).
- Presbyteries sometimes ask for more academic proof of both intellect and orthodoxy by requiring papers, grades, or by requiring written tests.
- Presbyteries are made up of men from a “written” academic culture and not an oral one.
- The PCA has a prejudice for men with high academic credentials, and those without such credentials are often intimidated by such a culture.
- Some presbyteries have specific boundaries about controversial views and will tolerate no deviance from the majority view in their presbytery, and some have a specific list – not approved by General Assembly – stating what they are.
- Most presbyteries do not have a sense of what they don’t have, and thus have no vision for seeking to add men to make up for their lack. They are usually institutionally protective and not missional. They will all confess the Great Commission but not seek or demand evangelistic gifts. Most will agree about the need for the extension of the Gospel and the Reformed faith to other ethnic groups, but will not seek, recruit, or demand cross-cultural giftedness or even training. They will all say they believe that God has ordained good works for us to do, but never ask how a potential pastor will train his people in those good works.
- Knowing is greatly preferred in our denomination over being or doing.
- We are rigid in our academic standards but not nearly as rigid for character, giftedness, passion, or mission. The Academic Dynamic wins in almost any competition with the other two.
- What will your presbytery do to create alternative routes (rather than simply college and institutional seminary) to credentialing, and how will those alternatives be made known to the churches.
- When was the last time your presbytery used the “Exceptional Clause” and does your Credentials Committee even accept the idea? What are the stated criteria for such exceptions? How can you this clause creatively to grow the Church?
- What ethnic, economic, or social/cultural groups are still un-reached in your presbytery and what strategy does your presbytery have in raising up leaders from those communities to plant churches among them?
- What incentives or investment will your presbytery give or make to create “on ramps” for more missional, visionary, evangelistic, and culturally relevant leaders to become TEs?
- Does your presbytery recognize the urgency of the hour for a more missional and evangelistic clergy to reach an increasingly secular America?
- What criteria does your credentials committee have for accepting the ordination credentials from other denominations by way of transfer, especially from ethnic communities?
- What are the non-negotiable standards that anyone must have to be a TE in your presbytery? Are they truly biblical rather than elitist or partisan? Are they helpful for orthodoxy and godliness, or, are they unnecessary and exclusionary? Are those qualifying standards possible for those not coming from the academic and literary cultural elite?
Let me conclude by stating that I do believe in and think it important for us to have an educated clergy. However, the word “educated” can be fairly elastic in its meaning. We all should know more and want to know more, but how much is enough to be of good use with biblical integrity in the pastorate? Many of us have known men in our presbyteries who are highly theological in their thinking. I value them. I also have known men who live and breathe the English Bible while some of those theological types don’t. I assume we have all known men who were educated and theologically astute but seemed to have no love, nor godliness. I have also known men with great passion for Jesus but were not able to defend the faith, or the hope that was within them, and were subject to falling into error and to be tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine.
Most likely in our wonderful Presbyterian church we have known men who could argue well and left us in no doubt about what they were against. Some of those same men seem never to preach with love, or compassion, or winsomeness. I am convinced there is no real commitment to truth without being committed to the doctrine of love. It is a doctrine we are to know but it is also what Jesus demands, it is a non-negotiable for the believer, and thus it is also obedience and a practice. We know that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. I want to know that love that is beyond knowledge (how does one explain that verse in Ephesians 3:19?) My hope is that our quest for knowledge, accuracy, and orthodoxy will not deprive us of a welcoming, affectionate, inclusive, and mentoring kind of credentialing environment. I pray that every man who sits or stands for exam will know that even though we expect great things from them we are for them, we want them to succeed, we need them, and are ready to help and welcome them if they will in turn help us to follow Jesus.