The Westminster Assembly, which met at the behest the English parliament from 1643-1653, while not properly speaking a church court (i.e., a session/consistery, presbytery/classis, or general assembly/synod), did perform functions which we now rightly associate with the presbytery or classis level of church governance. Chad Van Dixhoorn, in his fascinating book God’s Ambassadors, refers to the examination of men for entrance upon the ministry (ordination) or transfer from one congregation to another or from one kind of ministerial work to another (e.g. pastoring to teaching at a university) as its “persistent task.” While there were no doubt multiple reasons for the Assembly taking on the persistent task of examining men for the ministry, the most significant was the abolition of the office of the bishopric.
One of the characteristics of Presbyterianism as such is to understand the biblical terms presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (overseer) as referring to one and the same church office from two different vantage points rather than seeing these as two distinct offices. The rise of monarchical bishops or monepiscopacy in the second century is fascinating in its own right. Charles Krueger’s new book Christianity at the Crossroads devotes significant space to this development. On a related note, prelacy involves monarchical bishops with political power. All of this is to note that bishops had the authority to examine and ordain men to the ministry and when you eliminate that office the work still needs to go on in order to ensure sound and solid ministers for the church. Until Presbyterian church governance was established within the Church of England the responsibility for the examination and appointment of men to the ministry fell to the divines gathered at Westminster Abbey in London.
The reformation of the ministry in seventeenth-century England was necessary to replace monarchical episcopacy with biblical Presbyterianism. It was also necessary to institute changes in emphasis from sacerdotalism to a Word-centered ministry. What the Westminster divines knew and had confirmed repeatedly was that pastoral ministry in numerous instances was in the hands of immoral and incompetent men. Many men were both. Examination of men for the ministry was of paramount importance for the spiritual health of God’s church in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is paramount for the church everywhere at all times.
We see from the forgoing that the examination of men for the ministry involves ascertaining candidates’ character and competence. We might say that the divines were tasked with determining whether a given man was both pious and learned (to use the language adopted by old Princeton Seminary in its charter). A man who came before the Westminster divines (or a committee thereof) had to demonstrate these qualities to the committee and the assembly as a whole. The divines, like all ministers and elders, did not have direct access to a man’s heart (as does God) and so they could only judge character and competence by what these men and others said about them and their character and learning.
The examination of a candidate for ministry or if already ordained, for installation in a new charge, began with the presentation of letters of testimony. These would address the man’s piety and overall character. The candidate would be further questioned about his Christian profession. Then the examination of learning involved demonstration of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and answering a plethora of questions on theology, exegesis, church history, and philosophy as well as the preaching of a sermon before the whole assembly. Present day Presbyterian and Reformed churches pretty much follow this same process. Candidates and credentials committees are concerned with character and competence and their interpenetration. Piety and learning are mutually reinforcing. Note well that character and competence come together in pastoral care which requires supernatural wisdom and patience. Piety and learning needs to express itself in a pastoral heart and sensitivity. This makes perfect sense since pastors are under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd or Chief Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, Jesus Christ.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.