The unity of the Presbyterian Church in Canada is being challenged. In this generation, people wonder “Can this church hold together?” The best answer to that question is to look at how the church has held together in its history.
In 1875, four synods growing out of the Church of Scotland joined to form the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The basis for their union was three commitments. First, that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible “being the Word of God, are the only infallible rule of faith and manners.” Second, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were “appointed to be used for the instruction of the people.” And third, governance and worship in the new church would be “in accordance with the recognized principles and practice of Presbyterian Churches.” It was to be a church “bound only to Jesus Christ,” a church which looked to those “infallible” scriptures, “the written Word of God, testifying to Christ the living Word,” to maintain that bond when culture might seek to pull us away.
Officers in the church affirm the teaching of the subordinate standards, “and such doctrine as the church, in obedience to Scripture…, may yet confess.” In obedience to that Scripture, the church has expanded the roster of subordinate standards beyond Westminster to include a Confession concerning Church and Nation and Living Faith, a brief contemporary confession. Living Faith embraces the historic teaching of the Church in its description of the Bible as “…the standard of all doctrine by which we must test any word that comes to us from church, world, or inner experience. We subject to its judgment all we believe and do.” This reflects the basis of union on which the Presbyterian Church in Canada was founded.
The sexual revolution in western European society in recent generations has challenged the ability of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to stand together on our original basis of union. In obedience to scripture, the church has confessed, in the words of Living Faith, “Christian marriage is a union in Christ whereby a man and a woman become one in the sight of God.” As culture challenges that teaching as too narrow, some have asked whether that is a teaching that needs the “correction of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.”
In 2017, the Committee on Church Doctrine sent the church two substantial papers, one supporting and one opposing the proposition this teaching needed to be corrected. After reviewing a large volume of responses from the church as a whole, the Committee recommended the Assembly affirm the church’s subordinate standards. Unfortunately, the Assembly never got the chance to vote on the question of whether this was truly the witness of the Holy Spirit speaking in the scriptures.
We believe the church’s teaching standards faithfully affirm the Spirit’s witness in scripture. If we subject the question of marriage to the judgment of scripture, we will find the Spirit’s witness is what Jesus affirmed when He said “at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’.” This is the standard that grows out of the commitments that form the historic basis of union of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Affirming another standard will change the Church’s basis of union.
This much is clear from the remits themselves. They make no mention of the proposed parallel teachings growing out of the witness of the Spirit speaking in scripture. They make no effort to test these teachings by the standard of scripture. Those who support the Remits say they are a way to keep the Presbyterian Church together. Instead, the remits will create new organization standing on a different basis for union – but don’t specify what that basis might be.
The Presbyterian Church is at a fork in the road. Where will we look to find our direction? Do we believe the scripture is the necessary, sufficient, and reliable authority for life? There are things in the scripture that are hard to follow, and this generation finds the teachings on sexuality particularly challenging. But we believe in scripture Jesus gives us the words of life, and we believe those words show us the way of faithfulness to Christ’s call. This is why we are glad to be part of a church “bound only to Jesus Christ.”
Some have suggested the church needs to change its teaching on sexuality because their experience of grace points them in a different direction. But history has shown churches bound to the human experience of Christ, rather than to the scriptural witness of Christ, are eventually bound simply to human experience. We urge the Presbyterian Church in Canada to turn away from that path, and to re-commit itself to the basis of union that has kept this church together through the years.
The remits attempt to find a way forward in unity, but it’s a forced unity cut off from the Presbyterian Church’s historic basis of union. It will not answer the questions we face, but ensure we continue to be locked in conflict until one is defeated. We believe it is time to move beyond this conflict and allow people to be true to God’s call on their lives. If we can put this conflict behind us, perhaps we can find a way to offer a blessing to each other as we move forward on our different paths.
As the leadership team of PSALT, we are deeply grateful for the witness of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and hope we have been faithful in continuing that witness in the congregations where we have served. We are also convinced that witness can only continue faithfully if it remains connected to the basis of union that created that church and helped it remain “bound only to Jesus Christ.”
We add our voice to those calling on the church to reject these remits and hold to our historic basis of union in scripture.