Those Pesky Punctuation Marks!

The Westminster Confession is one of the finest compendiums of Reformed theology ever scripted.  It is not without minor problems (as is true of all human documents of serious value) but has stood the tests of time very well.  Much of what still remains in the PCUSA that is good and right is rooted in the rich soil of Westminster.

One quotation from Westminster found our old Book of Order and still retained in our new Form of Government has to do with freedom of conscience.  If you’ve had to endure many presbytery meetings you no doubt will have heard it quoted, or at least partially quoted: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”

Its primary contemporary use has been by those in favor of homosexual ordination and/or marriage.  Their argument is that when my conscience tells me something is right, human regulations (even in the church) have no overruling authority, because, after all, God alone is Lord of my conscience, and God and I don’t seem to have any problems with this issue.

Unfortunately for this argument, the actual statement from Westminster is not truncated at the point its proponents would like.  Some people have actually read the whole sentence (and maybe even allowed their eyes to stray over the whole Confession — but I digress…), and discovered that the this portion of Westminster actually subverts the position of theological liberalism on this matter.  If one is serious about learning how to properly interpret the words of others, one must quickly learn how to pay attention to pesky punctuation marks — or just go back to watching television and leave the hard work of thinking to others.  Let me illustrate.

If “God alone is Lord of the conscience” should be taken as a stand-alone sentence, then indeed the liberal champions at presbytery and GA meetings are right that no other human being has the right to overrule anyone else’s conscience.  Of course, if such is the case, then we have no consensual basis for the common good of society (even in the church), and life would then devolve to a social morality of “might makes right:” You’ll do this because I say it’s right, or you’ll suffer the consequences….

Some folks actually quote a bit more of the Westminster declaration: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men.”  This is also used to support the claim that our denomination’s former ordination standards (demanding fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness) are merely human doctrines, and as such cannot be binding on an individual’s freedom of conscience.  Seems pretty clear.  But punctuation marks remain a pesky problem.  If you actually read the whole sentence in Westminster 6.309 (or in our Form of Government [F-3.0101a]), you’ll find no period where these debaters stop.  Instead, the full sentence reads as follows:

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, in matters of faith or worship.”

There’s nothing like a little context to bring out the true meaning.  What this text really declares is that no human institution, whether church or government, has the authority or right to bind the human conscience in any matter contrary to or not commanded by the Word of God with respect to faith and worship.  Or, to paraphrase the words of Luther, our consciences are to be held captive to the Word of God.

Westminster is championing the cause of those refusing to give up biblical truth under pressure by misguided secular or religious authorities. “You can’t demand such things of us Christians — we answer to God as He has revealed His ultimate truth in Scripture!”

How ironic that liberal Presbyterians are now trying to use a part of Westminster to champion the exact opposite of its intention: “You can’t force us to uphold fidelity and chastity — our consciences are free to do whatever we wish (as long as we can convince ourselves that God doesn’t mind, or even better, that He/She/It radically approves).”

Freedom of conscience is a vital Christian principle to uphold — as long as we understand that this freedom is meant to enable us to hold firmly to the truths of God in a sometimes hostile world, not to enable us to avoid the truths of God in favor of the errors of sin.

Let’s pay attention to those pesky punctuation marks, or we may just lose our way.


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16 Responses to Those Pesky Punctuation Marks!

  1. Jake Horner says:

    Yep. You have to watch those pesky commas, semicolons, and periods. Otherwise you end up merely reformed and always being reformed.


  2. John R. Kerr says:

    Thank you for stating clearly what has long needed to be said. It never ceases to amaze me how few of us are even aware that there are words that follow the word “conscience!” We may need to keep repeating the point, though; it seems to be only at the point where we tire of saying it that other begin to get it!
    John Kerr, Jacksonville, NC


  3. Jim Berkley says:

    Excellent, Mateen! And so true!

    And there’s even more: If GOD alone is LORD of the conscience, then that means that I am not lord of my own conscience at all. So I cannot impose on God something contrary to what God as Lord has decreed. If God is truly LORD of my consience and if God ALONE (not in joint lordship with me) is Lord, then I need to get out of the way and quit trying to override what God has said! In this other way, the quote that liberals use means exactly the opposite of their use of it.

    Further, the whole “God alone is Lord…” statement is intended not for individual liberty, but rather it is placed in the context of church-state controversies. It is meant to say that the STATE is not meant to lord over our consciences (bound by the Word of God), and the church doesn’t even want the state to aid it with civil power (see the former G-1.0301(a) for the statement and G-1.0301(b) for its church-state context).

    Even further, the former G-1.0302 goes on to say that the church “is ENTITLED to to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members….” That again says to any interpreter with integrity that absolute personal liberty was never granted in the constitution.

    How may more ways could the liberals get it wrong?

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA


    • mateenelass says:

      Jim, thanks for shining even more light on the logical outworking of this Westminster declaration! You are absolutely right, of course, both as to context and meaning.


  4. Deborah Milam Berkley says:

    Woo hoo! Yay! This is great! So glad you have explicated that statement further! I bet many people (I was one of them) didn’t know that there was context to this. This is fantastic! Of course, up till now, I could just sigh and think, “You’re right, God alone is Lord of the conscience; too bad you misunderstand God.” But now there’s solid backing to say, “And you also misunderstand the quote!”

    Love that dig about letting others do the thinking, by the way.


  5. The Rev. Deane A. Kemper says:

    Deane Kemper says:

    Those of us with longer experience in the church remember the 1970’s when the “Lord of the conscience” line was the mantra of conservatives seeking to bar women from ordained office. What goes around comes around.


  6. Jim Berkley says:

    And, Mr. Kemper, those of us who remember that period rightly will acknowledge that the conservatives were arguing from SCRIPTURE, not just from personal autonomy, as today. They were not saying that they just “felt” they shouldn’t ordain women, or that they personally had received a new revelation that Scripture and the practice of all the ages was wrong, or that they were fundamentally entitled to believe whatever they chose to believe and nobody could tell them anything different. They were arguing that their conscience was bound by Scripture, and the church could not make a new ruling on some authority beside or outside Scripture.

    You and I would disagree with their understanding of the full implications of the Bible on women’s ordination, but those voices are not analogous to the voices today claiming that they have the autonomy to do anything they feel like doing and mis-citing our Form of Government as an illegitimate support for their unbiblical actions.

    Those wanting to bless same-sex practice have no biblical ground to stand upon, and so they resort to an argument of personal autonomy. But it’s a false argument without legs to stand on, as Mateen Elaas has so briliantly demonstrated. What went around has not come back around.


  7. Jim Berkley says:

    Sorry, Mateen. I misspelled Elass.


  8. The Rev. Deane A. Kemper says:

    Deane Kemper says:

    Mr. Berkely and I have decidedly different memories of the women’s ordination discussions of the 1970’s. It was my observation that many of those most opposed to our sisters taking positions of leadership in the church were bound by prejudice, not biblical conscience. In the seminary where I taught, female M.Div. candidates were routinely asked by their male classmates, “Why are you disobeying the Word of God by seeking ordination?” In cafeteria and library confrontations women were told that they were rebellious against God’s will because the Bible teaches that only men can be ordained.

    In my homiletics classes, I had male students who asked to be excused from class on the days that women were scheduled to preach sermons. They petitioned to transfer out of recitation sections taught by female teaching assistants. Why the aversion? The answer, of course, was that their “consciences were bound by scripture” and they couldn’t compromise their spiritual integrity by listening to a sermon preached by a woman or receive instruction from a female teaching assistant. In class one day a male Presbyterian M.Div. candidate said bluntly, “Of course God has a place for women in the church. That’s why church buildings have kitchens.”

    With all the grace and patience I could muster I denied their requests to be excused when women preached. I also refused to allow them to transfer to recitation sections taught by male TA’s. I explained to them that the seminary had made a commitment to female leadership in the church. A.J. Gordon, one of the seminary’s founders, in the 19th century was a supporter women’s ordination and was jailed for speaking on Boston Common advocationg rights for women (he was a churchman many years ahead of his time.) Gently but firmly I told those students that if their consciences were aggrieved by the presence of women at Gordon-Conwell, they had the option of transfering to a seminary committed to all male leadership in the church–and there’s no shortage of such institutions. The question that remains with me to this day is this: if those proponents of all male leadership in the church had consciences made sensitive by the Lord God, then why were they so boorish and offensive to their sisters in the faith?

    In my hearing more times that I care to remember, I heard the “God is Lord of the conscience” line invoked in the same truncated way described by Mr. Elass. That conscience bound by scripture, sad to say, was used as a stick to beat women. What goes around comes around.


  9. Jim Berkley says:

    Mr. Kemper, your first paragraph PROVES my contention rather than disproves it. Those students were trying (admittedly sometimes bluntly) to be faithful to Scripture and not to be put into a situation where they would have to disobey it, as they understood it to be. This wasn’t their idiosyncratic little whim; theirs was, you must remember, the way the church as a whole had believed and operated for centuries. Someone came along and changed the church, its understanding of Scripture, and its customs right out from under these students. Change had been imposed upon them, and they believed that it was change against what the Bible taught. Why should they not invoke the “conscience bound by Scripture” plea, since it was absolutely true for them?

    What I was arguing is that they were doing what you described them to be doing: trying to practice what they believed Scripture taught. So apparently we DO agree on what went on back then (during my seminary years, by the way). But they were not analogous to persons now who take an “interpretation” of Scripture that makes no sense–or who ignore Scripture to the point of trumping it by personal preferences–and believe and practice what they do APART from Scripture, while claiming autonomy from any correction by Scripture. Not analogous at all.

    Further, I would think your forcing students to violate their conscience was a heartless abuse of power. You, with your superior morality, were saying that their conscience and practice had to fold under your authority. Your side had “won” at Gordon-Conwell, and they can like it or lump it! What an abuse of authority! How cold and ungracious! “I don’t care if this meat was sacrificed to idols. You MUST eat it! Eat it or leave!”

    Reading your proud recollection of your high-handed ways makes me shudder about what is ahead in the PCUSA when the “winners” like you will feel absolutely compelled to force total acceptance of and participation in the ordination and leadership of practicing gay persons. Will it be that gently but firmly you will tell those ordained officers that if their consciences are aggrieved by the presence of practicing homosexual persons as officers of the church, they have the option of renouncing jurisdiction, abandoning their church property, and moving penniless to a denomination committed to sexually chaste church leadership–and there’s no shortage of such denominations?

    That’s a chilling prospect, but it appears that you don’t even understand how despotic you have been–and apparently you would be.

    Now, I write this despite the fact that I firmly agree with you that the Bible gives us ample reason to ordain female leaders. I believe it was and is right to do so–not because the times have changed or the church needs to catch up with the culture. It is right because it is biblical. I also believe that crude and boorish behavior by male students putting down female students was in no way acceptable. One can believe and practice something without being obnoxious about it. However, your forcing students to agree with your just-changed new understanding or get lost–well, that’s unsettling.

    May you be more gracious with those of us who cannot and will not abide the ordination of unrepentant candidates, and will not recognize such unlawful ordinations, perhaps recently made possible.


  10. Loren Golden says:

    Sadly, there are far too many who will agree even to the whole statement, including “anything contrary to his Word”. But they hold that “Jesus Christ … is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen Declaration II.1/PCUSA BoC §8.11), and “The Scriptures … are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current.” (Confession of 1967 I.C.2/PCUSA BoC §9.29) In other words, Scripture to them is nothing more than an “authoritative witness” to Jesus Christ, like an expert witness in court that must be heard but not necessarily obeyed.
    But let us also not neglect the very next section of the Westminster Confession of Faith (XX.3/PCUSA BoC §6.110), which states, “They who, upon any pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which 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.” Yet the sin of homosexuality is practiced and cherished in the name of conscience.
    The authority of Scripture is an authority that must be obeyed, for far from being merely an “authoritative witness”, it is the edict of the King of kings, for it contains His moral law. After all, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholy upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” (WCF I.4/BoC §6.004) And, “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.” (WCF XIX.5/BoC §6.105) And for those who would accuse us of “Bibliolatry” for holding the authority of Scripture to be equal to the authority of God precisely because it is the Word of God, consider the words of John Calvin: “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.” (Commentary on II Timothy 3:16) Very obviously, Calvin did not consider the Scriptures to be “nevertheless the words of men.”
    If we would obey God, we must obey the Bible, for it is His Word, delivered by the prophets and apostles for our benefit, that we might grow in holiness and righteousness in the likeness of the only Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.
    And well said of Rev. Berkley that “If GOD alone is LORD of the conscience, then that means that I am not lord of my own conscience at all.” And of Rev. Elass, “our consciences are to be held captive to the Word of God.” For if we say, “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” but refuse to submit our consciences to the Scriptures in their entirety, our confession is a lie, howsoever much we might confess Jesus Christ to be “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death,” and we thus deny God authority over our consciences and claim it for ourselves, as if we were wise and knowledgeable enough to correct the Scriptures, proffering our own foolish opinions or “interpretations” for God’s holy, inerrant, and authoritative Word.


  11. Jim Berkley says:

    Indeed! Bravo! Well said.

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA


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