The Church as an Authority

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote about the importance of authorities in our own decisions. Each Christian has Christ as a mentor, but we also have human mentors within our families, church, and community. Because I have talked already about the transition from a modern to a postmodern culture, let me turn to discuss the church context. Again, I will speak about authorities in personal terms because I am not a church historian able to address the wider experience within alternative Christian traditions.

Upbringing in the Church

The Hiemstra family has over the past hundred years been associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a church strongly associated with the Dutch immigrant communities in New England and the Midwest. I was baptized in an RCA church and my uncle, John, is a retired RCA pastor who has been a lifelong mentor. When my family moved to Washington DC in 1960, no RCA churches could be found within driving distance and we attended a number of Presbyterian Churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), where my dad and I both have been ordained as elders. My mother grew up in the Baptist tradition associated with Scotch-Irish communities, but in marriage she became a Presbyterian.

Denominational Identities

Both the RCA and the PCUSA arise out of the reformed tradition which has historically focused theologically on confessional faith. Both denominations affirm these confessions:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Heidelberg Catechism

The RCA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Athanasian Creed
  • The Belgic Confession
  • The Canons of Dort
  • The Confession of Belhar⁠1

The PCUSA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Scots Confession
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The Shorter Catechism
  • The Larger Catechism
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)⁠2

Theologically, the RCA is the more conservative denomination having little or no change to their confessional statements or polity in the last hundred years, adding only the Confession of Belhar, while the PCUSA has amended its polity (the Book of Order) almost routinely every two years and affirmed three confessions written in the twentieth century (the last three on the list).Coming into the twentieth century, the primary confession of churches now affiliated with the PCUSA was the Westminster Confession.

Confessional Wunderlust

It is widely recognized that the RCA takes its identity primarily in its reformed confessions while the PCUSA’s identity is vested in its polity. This observation is, however, a twentieth century development.

For about three hundred years,  the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640 and was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians  and remains in use today. However, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century, but the 1930s the General Assembly passed a resolution forbidding any part of the denomination from offering an authoritative interpretation of the Westminster Confession. Later, a Book of Confessions (cited above) aggregated a number of confessional statements leaving the Westminster Confession simply one of many by the 1970s (Longfield 2013, 15, 126, 142-143, 196).

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church.⁠3  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered. 

When the PCUSA removed its ordination requirements centered on the five fundamentals of the faith in 1925 and then moved away from the Westminster Confession in the next decade, it effectively lost the ability to practice church discipline on the basis of common doctrine and to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in the Scot  Confession. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily by a common polity.

Ecclesiastical Authority

The authority of the church is vested in scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The confessions of the church likewise derive their authority from these two sources. When scripture is clear on a subject, the church’s role is to teach scripture, When scripture is silent on a subject, the church’s role is to interpret scripture under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. At no point should the church’s teaching violate the clear direction of scripture, which is why church discipline is critical to retaining the vitality of the church.

The focus on the authority of scripture has been a distinctive of Protestant churches since the Reformation period of the 1500s while the Catholic Church affirms the authority of tradition in addition to scripture (Sproul 1997, 42-43). The admission of authorities other than scripture, such as new cultural insights, tradition, and philosophy, into Protestant churches represents a return to controversies that led to the first Reformation schism.

In denominations unable or unwilling to maintain church discipline, individual churches are left to themselves in navigating a faithful witness. In churches unconcerned about faithful witness, the members themselves must navigate on their own, placing a burden on families to discern for themselves what to believe and how to act on their belief. Consequently, the absence of church discipline has facilitated the rise of individualism within the church.

While God can sovereignly use unfaithful denominations and unfaithful pastors to prosecute his will, we all strive to remain among the faithful at a time the church is less helpful than it could be in its mentoring role.


1 (as of 16 November 2018).

2 (as of 16 November 2018).

3 “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)


Longfield, Bradley J.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. 

Longfield, Bradley J.  1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

The Church as an Authority

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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