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The Historical Development of the Book of Church Order

Preface to the Book of Church Order

I. King and Head
of the Church
II. Preliminary Principles
III. The Constitution Defined

Section 2 : The Preliminary Principles
Introduction & Paragraph 1 : Rights of Private Judgment

The Presbyterian Church in America, in setting forth the form of government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:
(1) God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.

Historical Summary :
The present text dates to 1989, when the 17th General Assembly approved a change to Preface II(1). See M17GA, pp. 45-46). Voting was initially deferred pending consideration of Overture 22 from Eastern Canada Presbytery. The text of this first paragraph of the Preliminary Principles was first changed in 1984, as a result of an overture brought by Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA. However, a clerical error resulted in a shortened text being approved, and the error was not caught until a printed edition came out. To remedy this error, Grace Presbytery brought Overture 8 before the General Assembly in 1988. That overture was approved and sent to the presbyteries for advice and consent (M16GA, p. 174). The Presbyteries voted 30 to 12 in favor of the Overture, thus bringing the matter before the 17th General Assembly. Overture 22 from Eastern Canada Presbytery briefly stood in the way, but the reply from the Committee of Commissioners on Judicial Business noted that the language of the proposed amendment had stood since 1788 and was a well attested facet of American Presbyterianism, and Overture 22 was successfully answered in the negative.
As noted in an early printing of the Form of Government for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the "Preliminary Principles," with the exception of the first sentence, were originally composed by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, and prefixed to their Form of Government, as published by that body in 1788. "In that year, after arranging the plan on which the Presbyterian Church is now governed, the Synod was divided into four Synods, and gave place to the General Assembly, which met for the first time in 1789." What is often forgotten today is that much or perhaps all of the Principles were penned by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only ordained pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Preliminary Principles remained a part of the Constitution of the PCUSA [1789-1958], the UPCUSA [1958-1983] and most recently, the PC(USA) [1983-present].
The Preliminary Principles were not incorporated into the PCUS [aka, Southern Presbyterian] Constitution. Technically, these Principles were "on the books" up until that point in 1879 when the PCUS finally adopted the first edition of their Book of Church Order. But at least from that time on, the Principles were not part of the PCUS Constitution. See G.F. Nicolassen, A Digest of the Acts and Proceedings of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, 1923), p. 11.
Then at its formation in 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was careful to institute these same Principles as a preface for its Book of Church Order. That the PCUS had previously rejected the Principles makes the PCA's action remarkable, for with that inclusion, the PCA was reaching out beyond its immediate tradition to incorporate something of the larger American Presbyterian heritage. The PCA's Book of Church Order is built upon the 1933 edition of the PCUS BCO, but with the addition of the Principles, the founding fathers of the PCA displayed yet another way in which they were rejecting the constraints of a regional denomination. With the inclusion of the Principles they claimed their place as participants in the larger breadth of American Presbyterianism.
To my knowledge, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is the only other American Presbyterian denomination which has include the Preliminary Principles as part of its Constitution. Note however that the Principles are not found printed in one of the most recent editions of their Form of Government (2005).

Actions :
Overture 8, from Grace Presbytery (1988)
Overture 22 from Eastern Canada Presbytery (1989)
Overture 30 from Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA (1984)

Text Comparisons :
PCA 1973, Adopted text, as printed in the Minutes of General Assembly, page 128
The National Presbyterian Church, in setting forth the form of government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:
(1) That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matter of faith or worship." Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable. We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

Continuing Presbyterian Church 1973, Proposed text, 1-1
The National Presbyterian Church, in setting forth the form of government which it maintains as being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:
(1) That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matter of faith or worship." Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable. We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

PCUS : [The Preliminary Principles were not normally printed in editions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (PCUS, aka, Southern Presbyterian Church). An 1861 printing of the Constitution, preserved at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, does include this document, but I have not personally seen other editions, and particularly any after 1879, which include the Principles. This absence does not mean that the Preliminary Principles were not part of the PCUS Constitution, but their absence from most of the printed editions of the PCUS Constitution is noted.]

PCUSA, 1789
That "God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship:" Therefore, they consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: they do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.

OPC, 1936
That "God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship:" Therefore, we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal, and unalienable: we do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, equal and common to all others.

COMMENTARY :
Hodge, J. Aspinwall, What Is Presbyterian Law? (Philadelphia, 1882, pp. 21-23) :
When was this chapter drawn up?
With the exception of the first sentence, it was prepared by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia and prefixed to the "Form of Government" in 1788, as that body was about to divide itself into four Synods and give place to the General Assembly, which met the next year. The war of the Revolution had closed, having secured the independence of the United States and produced changes in the relations of the Church to the State. This, together with the increase in numbers, led the Synod to perfect the organization of the Church, and made this declaration of preliminary principles timely and necessary.[1]
What was the object of declaring these principles?
"This, it is hoped, will in some measure, prevent rash misconceptions and uncandid reflections, which usually proceed from an imperfect view of any subject; as well as make the several parts of the system plain, and the whole perspicuous and fully understood."
I. What is the first principle?
"God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from any doctrine and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship."[2]
What is Christian liberty?
It is not license to "oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical," for that is resistance of the ordinances of God. Nor is it a right to hold and publish opinions "contrary to the light of nature or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship or conversation." Christian liberty is the unrestrained and entire submission to God as his will is made known in nature and revelation. Its end is "that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life."[3]
What is the right of private judgment?
The liberty and obligation, which belong to every man, of examining the word of God and determining for himself its meaning. It is denied by the ritualists, who teach that "the chief officers of the Church, without regard to character, are the organs of the Spirit, and that all private Christians are bound to submit without hesitation to all their decisions." "But according to the Scriptures it is the duty of every Christian to try the spirits whether they be of God, to reject an Apostle, or an angel from heaven, should he deny the faith; and of that denial such Christian is of necessity the judge."[4] The right of private judgment is therefore a divine right, and must be considered, "in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable." No creed or polity should be enforced by the State : our Church does "not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others."
What is the province of the civil government?
It has no right to impose or enforce any form of church polity, nor to grant any special countenance or support to any part of the Church. Its duty is to afford equal and common protection, that men may worship God according to their consciences.[5] "No principle has been better established in regard to this nation than the entire separation of the Church and the State ; and the State has no more right to compel by taxation one of its citizens to contribute money to the building up and advancing of the Roman Catholic or any other denomination than it has to compel us to unite with their Church."[6]
------
[1]
Sprague's Annals, vol. iii., Introduction.
[2]
Confession of Faith, ch. xx., sect. ii.; ch. xxi., sect. i.
[3]
Confession of Faith, ch. xx.
[4]
Church Polity, pp. 37 and 406.
[5]
See p. 18; Church of God, by Stuart Robinson, D.D., pp. 84-86; Church Polity, pp. 106-118; Presbyterian Digest, p. 121.
[6]
Minutes of General Assembly 1878, p. 55.

Actions of General Assembly (PCA):
Overture 8 from Grace Presbytery (M16GA, 16-77, III, 15, p. 174) and (M17GA, 17-6, Item 5, p.46-47) :
Whereas, before the 14th General Assembly, the first "Preliminary Principle" in the Preface of the BCO did read :

"(1) God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, other than in matters of faith or worship. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others."

Whereas, following the 14th General Assembly, the first "Preliminary Principle" read, as it does now:

"(1) God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (1) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (2) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God."

Whereas, Overture 30 from the Session of the Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia, to the 12th General Assembly was the source of the amendment to this portion of the BCO; and
Whereas, this overture asked only that the first sentence of this first "Preliminary Principle" be amended, to wit :

"That the Book of Church Order, Preface, II(1), first sentence, be changed to read..."; and (emphasis added)

Whereas, as the result of a clerical error committed by the secretary of the Committee of Commissioners on Judicial Business at the 13th General Assembly, the words "first sentence" were omitted from the report of that committee; and
Whereas, the 13th General Assembly did vote on the amendment as given in the report, the GA/Stated Clerk was compelled to send the amendment to the presbyteries in the form in which it had been adopted; and
Whereas, subsequently, this amendment was approved by the proper number of presbyteries and adopted by the 14th General Assembly; and
Whereas, the error was not discovered by the clerk of the committee of commissioners until after the printing of the amended Preface;
Therefore, Grace Presbytery overtures the 16th General Assembly, meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee, to amend the Book of Church Order, Preface, II(1), by restoring the second and third sentences of the principle as it was before the 14th General Assembly.

BCO Preface, II(1) would, then, read (addition in bold print) :
(1) God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.

Adopted by Grace Presbytery, October 30, 1987. Attest : Vaughn E. Hathaway, Jr., Stated Clerk
Answered in the affirmative as amended, 16-77, III, 15, p. 174.

15. That Overture 8 from Grace Presbytery, p. 46, be answered in the affirmative by amending the BCO Preface II(1) to read:
(1) God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others."
Adopted and sent down to presbyteries for advice and consent.

______________________________________________________________________
Overture 22 from Eastern Canada Presbytery (M17GA, 17-82, III, Item 33, p. 166-167.) :
Whereas, the 16th General Assembly sent down to presbyteries a proposal to add to BCO Preface II (1) the statements "Therefore the rights of private judgments in all matters which respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others"; and
Whereas, the proposed change which decrees no distinction be made between Christian and non-Christian religious groups, is contrary to WCF XXIII.3, which declares that "As nursing fathers it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving preference to any denomination of Christians, "i.e., to give particular care to the Christian church,
Therefore, be it resolved that the Presbytery of Eastern Canada call on the 17th General Assembly to recognize that the proposed change to BCO is unconstitutional, and so to refuse to pass it.
Adopted at the February stated meeting of the Presbytery of Eastern Canada, on Saturday, February 25, 1989.
Attest : Donald A. Codling, Stated Clerk

Recommendation: That Overture 22 from the Presbytery of Eastern Canada be answered in the negative.
Grounds : The language of the proposed amendment originated in the first Form of Government produced by American Presbyterians in 1788. Having been for many years a part of the PCA BCO, it was eliminated inadvertently by a clerical error in a clarifying amendment adopted in 1986 (M13GA, p. 60; M13GA, 13-45, III, 17, p. 104; M14GA, p. 85). The constitutionality of this language is well attested in our tradition, and it continues to be a worthy statement of American Presbyterian "Preliminary Principles."
Adopted
_______________________________________________________________________________________

Overture 30 from the Session of Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA (M12GA, p. 53) :
(Presented to the James River Presbytery, but not adopted by Presbytery)
Whereas, we believe that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship..." (Westminster Confession of Faith XX.2), and
Whereas, the wording of the Book of Church Order is, at best, confusing, and, at worst, contradictory of this principle, when it states that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, other than in matter of faith or worship..." (Book of Church Order, Preface, II(1), seeming to assert that God has left the conscience free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word in every sphere except those of faith and worship.
Be is resolved, that the James River Presbytery, meeting in stated meeting at Hopewell, Virginia on 14 January 1984, does hereby overture the 12th General Assembly to adopt the following recommendation:

That the Book of Church Order, Preface, II(1), first sentence, be changed to read, "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship."

Respectfully submitted,
The Session
Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church

Referred to Committee on Judicial Business for rewording and report back to 13GA, 12-53, II, 44, p. 136.

Report of the Committee on Judicial Business (M13GA, Appendix I, II.8, p. 243)
That if the General Assembly answers Overture 30 to the Twelfth General Assembly in the affirmative, it be answered by amending BCO Preface II(1) in the following language:

"God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (1) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (2) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God."

Adopted and sent down to Presbyteries for advice and consent. (M13GA, 13-45, III, 17, p. 104-105.)



Chapter Index [links to Par. 1 of each chapter]:
FoG..
1
2
3.
4
5.
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
I. King & Head of Church
.§1.
§4
§5
RoD
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
II. Preliminary Principles
§1
§2
§3
§4
§5
§6
§7
§8
DfW
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
[FoG = Form of Government ; RoD = Rules of Discipline ; DfW = Directory for Worship]

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