Phone rings. I answer: Hello, This is Bill Reinhold.
Hello, are you the head of the Presbytery?
Not really, but when the Presbytery is not in session, people do tend to ask me questions. How can I help you?
Isn’t there a rule about not talking about politics in church?
What do you mean?
Well, an elder in our church is a staunch [political party] and makes it sound like the rest of us don’t know what we are talking about. Can you make him/her stop?
Does he/she go on about this in the worship service?
No, but he/she talks about politics a lot. Everyone knows that he/she supports [elected leader] and most of the church agrees with him/her. The rest of us feel left out. I thought that Presbyterians weren’t supposed to talk about political stuff in the church.
This is not the first such call or contact that I have had on the question of politics and the church. In response to a previous inquiry, I wrote the following reflection that I am now sharing with you.
The expression of “political” viewpoints from pulpits has a long and complicated history in the Presbyterian Church. Our polity allows pastors a great deal of latitude in discussing public as well as private life in the context of scripture and our confessions. In this part of the country most of our pastors – when they discuss public issues – tend to be on the conservative side, but there are others (your current pastor appears to be one of these) who tend to a more liberal side.
Over the last 200 years or so this has caused more than a little controversy within the Presbyterian Church. As you may know, Presbyterians in the South broke off from the rest of the Presbyterian Church in 1861 largely over slavery. A few brave pastors protested the declaration that slavery was a “divinely ordained” institution, made by the Presbyterian Church of the Confederacy and its successor, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). However, the major result of the abolition of slavery after the Civil War was what Dr. Ernest Trice Thompson, called “The Spiritualization of the Church.” Instead of facing the public evil of slavery and their church’s lengthy support of it, many pastors and lay persons in the PCUS decided that it was not the role of the church to address public issues, but that the church should limit its teaching and preaching to personal matters of morality.
Questions about divorce and remarriage and about the ordination of women as Ruling or Teaching Elders stretched the de-facto policy of not engaging in debates about social issues since both of these issues were viewed by many as “coming in from the outside.” In fact both of these issues have been cited by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) as reasons for their separation from the PCUS.
In more recent times (especially following the Civil Rights Era) more and more pastors and lay persons have decided that the church has an obligation to speak out on the major issues of the day. More than a few pastors lost their pulpits across the South when they challenged the prevailing views about race relations or the Viet Nam War in the 1960s. At the same time, the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s gave permission to those with more conservative viewpoints a reason to reevaluate the “spiritualization of the Church” that continued to prevail over most of the region.
Whether or not the questions of homosexuality and of immigration will be as clearly resolved in the next 20 or so years as the questions of slavery, segregation, and the ordination of women have been settled within the PC(USA) remains to be seen. However, the pattern of some pastors seeking to address the great social issues of their day in their weekly teaching and preaching is a long and (mostly) honorable one.
Having been corrected many times in the past, the Presbyterian Church (USA) states in its constitution the following:
G-2.0105 Freedom of Conscience
It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the council in which he or she is a member.
Based on this understanding of the freedom of conscience and on the rights of pastors to select Scripture lessons to be read and to prepare and preach sermons or otherwise engage in the exposition of the Word without oversight from the Session (W-1.4005a.1 and .2) the Presbyterian Church gives wide latitude to pastors in their teaching and preaching ministries as long as they do not “seriously depart from [the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity]” – see above.
Bill Reinhold, General Presbyter
 Professor of Church History at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA in the 1940s and 1950s.
 Very early in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, even before the General Assembly was established, the plan of reunion of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia contained the following sentences: ‘That when any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.’ (Hist. Dig. (P) p. 1310.) (Plan of Union of 1758, par. II.)