A new Presbyterian order?

Mouw to Fellowship of Presbyterians: take a vow of theological orthodoxy

August 26, 2011

A man standing on a stage in front of a lit background, speaking, with a music stand in front of him.

Richard Mouw —Photo by Jerry Van Marter


Presbyterians committed to theological orthodoxy should consider a special vow, akin to special vows taken by members of various Catholic orders, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw told the Fellowship of Presbyterians at its Aug. 25-26 gathering here.

In a wide-ranging and free-wheeling address and question-and-answer session, Mouw said, “Historically, when Catholics felt the church had gone astray, they didn’t leave, they formed special orders who took special vows according to their commitments. The commitment to theological orthodoxy for many of us should take the form of a special vow, to witness to the essential tenets and the power of the Reformed faith.”

Mouw commended to the 2,000 Presbyterians gathered here the essential tenets and “Reformed distinctives” developed by San Diego Presbytery, but cautioned against “word-for-word subscriptionism.”

Some statements in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions ― such as the declaration in the Westminster Confession that the pope is the anti-Christ ― “are historical statements we don’t want to subscribe to,” Mouw said, “but we don’t want holes big enough to drive a truck through. There are essentials.”

For instance, he continued, “We have to make a choice about the authority of Scripture, the inherent lostness of human beings and the need for the atoning salvation of Jesus Christ as our only savior.”

Also central, he said, “is our Reformed conviction that election [by God] is for both salvation and service ― to involvement in a covenant community that demonstrates the sovereign rule of God over all of human life … that covenant community is central ― gathering in (worship) and sending out (service).”

Essential tenets make us missional, Mouw said. “We’re elected to participate in the life of a community that seeks to perfect God’s plan here and now, bearing witness to God’s mission in the world.”

It’s not easy “to get a good grasp on what God is doing in the world and our place in it,” Mouw conceded. “We need a lot of dialogue, because it’s very hard to learn from each other when all of our speeches and conversations are geared to winning votes. It’s important for us to discern together what it means that we have received this Reformed tradition and what it means to apply it in our new context.”

Presbyterian officers, when they affirm that they will “be guided by the confessions,” often get caught up in a “Catch-22,” Mouw said. “We don’t want a line-by-line subscriptionism, but attention to whole body of confessions,” he said.

“We need guidelines on how to read the confessions ― we’ve slipped into a historical museum approach to the confessions,” Mouw said. “ What does it mean to be ‘guided by’ the confessions? Those who have developed essential tenets at presbytery levels are rightly concerned with putting flesh on the bones of  [that question].”

Asked about seemingly intractable debates in the PC(USA) about what the authority of scripture means, Mouw responded: “If we can have honest conversations about the authority of Scripture rather than all the acrimony of debate and voting, our conversations would be much more productive.

“The Bible trumps everything else,” he said, “but we need solid agreed upon hermeneutical principles for interpreting Scripture.”

  1. The new Bk of Order now refers to Elders Commissioned for Pastoral Service. Why don't we expand the idea of commissioning to be beyond a "junior" pastor. It might be called co missional ministries allowing for recognition, training, and plurality without going so far as establishing orders or new denominations.

    by Rev. Gary Kush, PhD

    September 2, 2011

  2. I remember a group in Whitewater Valley during one of the earlier rounds of debate. Each of the 40 participants was asked to write down three "essential tenets" of their faith--ones that formed the foundation of their faith. I believe we counted over 50 of them when the cards were collected and put on the board. It's an experience that always gives me pause when folk start talking about identifying the "essentials" of our Reformed faith. Whose essentials?

    by W Keith Geckeler

    August 29, 2011

  3. Good for Richard Mouw! The possibility of an order committed to theological orthodoxy is a good idea. Christian Boyd has been raising the possibility of another order committed to missional Christianity. There is even some value in having orders with different emphases, for Lord knows none of us can comprehend the whole of the Gospel and its implications for life individually and communally. I wonder, though, if we Presbyterians taking vows in an order over and above the demands of the Book of Order have the discipline to follow such a high threshhold? Committing to daily prayer and study, perhaps even to intermittant silence as Benedictines? Committing to sacrificial vocations of teaching and preaching as Dominicans? Committing to education and cultural adaptation as the Jesuits? And consider the vocations of the women religious in several parsts of the Christian family! Are we up to the challenges in discernment, evangelism, and piety? Even some of us?

    by Louis Weeks

    August 29, 2011

  4. I believe Mouw's concept of an "order," akin to the orders within the Roman Catholic Church, has much to recommend it as an alternative to the nebulous "new Reformed body" that the Fellowship has been touting, that sounds far too much like a new denomination. We Presbyterians need our conservative brothers and sisters, and if an order is the way to retain their passionate commitment as a witness to the larger church, then it is certainly worth pursuing. Scotland's Iona Community, while theologically liberal, is an example of how this sort of loyal, faithful and loving witness to the larger church can be carried out.

    by Carl Wilton

    August 29, 2011

  5. With all due respect to Mr. Mouw, "hermenuetical principles for interpreting Scripture" from anyone other than the Holy Spirit are prone to corruption. Believers in the pews don't need any more "help" from the denomination, they need ministers who'll preach Christ's very words, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit,...,will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26) "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth...That is why I said the Spirit will take what is mine and make it known to you." (John 16:15) We need fewer theologians and more men and women who correctly handle Scripture. And let God, the Holy Spirit, do the rest.

    by Shauna Milligan

    August 28, 2011

  6. Oh dear god, this group of so called Presbyterians need your guidance. They have lost their way, and are in need of your spirit to guide them back to earth. They want to be in total control of our church. They want to run it with their own views and beliefs-almost like how the catholic church is. That is not who we are. If you like their set up so well, why dont you convert? We are a democratic system of government. You cannot just change that.....These people are going to be the dealth of our church, not our new ordination standards. Evil breeds in the churches they preach in. The enemy hides in our churches, dressed up as ministers. Please god, help us to see through them get a hold of our churches again! Push your ignorance and anger elsewhere!

    by ath

    August 27, 2011

  7. What a wise, biblical, and thoroughly Christian analysis is that of Dr. Richard Mouw! Even Martin Luther remained Roman Catholic until excommunicated by the pope. Even in the worst of times, when the western Church seemed almost hopelessly corrupt, God raised up the mendicant friars Francis of Assisi, Dominic, and their followers to evangelize the masses whom Rome had forgotten. And one can cite many other dedicated Christian "revivalists" such as Bernard of Clairvaux and his followers, the Brethren of the Common Life (Deventer, North Holland), the Bigijn nuns, and other devout men and women (including Erasmus himself), all of whom remained within the western Church of their day, bringing about, by the Holy Spirit, renewal and revival. Marguerite de Navarre (16th-century Christianity's "first modern woman," who influenced Calvin and entertained him, as a young man, at her court, and the Augustinian Jansenists (their most famous 17th-century notable was briliant layman mathematician/philosopher Pascal), even though eventually suppressed by the Jesuits of that time--all remained within the Church. For that matter, John Wesley remained an Anglican priest, even though forbidden to preach in C. of E. pulpits, and even though the Methodists eventually were forced to go their own way. And German Pietists overwhelmingly remained in the established Lutheran and Reformed confessions, while deploring the stale, lifeless orthodoxy that they deplored. But, taking seriously Christ's "high priestly" prayer for unity, in John's Gospel, none ever dreamed of schism from the mother Church of their day. By way of contrast, sadly, we Presbyerians/ Reformed, in virtually every part of the world, have been like hickory wood--tough to break, but we splinter so very easily! Let's STOP the splintering now and, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging that all ruling and teaching elders, as well as deacons, take virtually the same, solemn ordination vows, determine to remain united! Dwyn Mounger (honorably retired, Knoxville, TN)

    by Dwyn Mounger

    August 26, 2011