In Praise of the Scruple

What’s the simple solution to our fractious and fracturing society? We need more Presbyterians! 

We need more Presbyterians not because we want to keep churches open or even because our Presbyterian form of government is unique within Christendom. No, we need more Presbyterians because Presbyterians know how to tolerate differences of opinion. We know how to disagree agreeably because we know how to “scruple.”

The “scruple” or “scrupling” or living “scrupulously” has been a uniquely Presbyterian belief and practice since 1729 when the Synod of Philadelphia established the Westminster Confession as the standard of belief to which all Presbyterian ministers must subscribe. If a minister disagreed with any part of the Confession, they were to say so by declaring a “scruple.” A “scruple” recognizes, in good Presbyterian fashion, that there are essential or necessary parts of the Confession. There are also non-essential places where a broad range of differences of opinion and belief need to be valued. 

For nearly 300 years, Presbyterians have cherished and practiced tolerance for diversities of conscience within our common life together via the scruple. We, recognize that when it comes to faith, belief, values, morals, ethics, politics, customs, mores, or just about anything else in life that there are essentials and non-essentials. Essentials are those things which require universal adherence like murder is wrong, prejudice is not tolerated, justice is a virtue, or scruples are necessary. Non-essentials are those places where we can, do, and will disagree—scruple—in order to practice tolerance for diversities of conscience. They include things like the amount of water to use at baptism, or the best ways of combating unjust racial and gender discrimination, or the most effective approach to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all peoples. 

In the 21st century, more than ever, our divided society needs witnesses to live harmoniously in an increasingly fractured society. We need champions to demonstrate and teach respect for the diversity of conscience. We need bridgebuilders to live the tension that persons of conscience often disagree about nonessential issues ranging from moral choices to public policy. In short, we need more Presbyterians:  God’s scrupulous people devoted to forming community with all people of goodwill, recognizing that there will be deep differences of conscience, and committing to learning from one another—naming and appreciating our differences— even as we continue to debate them. 

John Odom serves as General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky.