7 Reasons Presbyters Should Read Dissenting Opinions

By Jacob Gerber | December 30, 2021

In the previous post, TE Zack Groff laid out a plan for understanding the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) decision on Judicial Case 2020-12 (Speck v. Missouri Presbytery). As part of the post, TE Groff recommended that readers carefully consider the Dissenting Opinion drafted by RE Steve Dowling and signed by seven members of the SJC (including RE Dowling).

In response to TE Groff’s recommendation, at least one fellow TE posed a question (on social media) about why we allow for dissenting opinions, and the purpose they might serve since they do not affect the decision itself.

This is an important question both for the specific case at-hand and for our polity more generally. In this post, I will offer seven reasons why the polity of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) values dissenting opinions. The first four are general in nature, and the next three are in regard to this particular case.

1. Dissenting opinions from the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) are important for the same reasons they are important for the United States Supreme Court.

At a very general level, dissenting opinions give the minority an opportunity to express concerns or unanswered questions about the decision of the Court (or Commission) that may help to shape or inform future decisions. Though the SJC decision is final for this case, the Dissenting Opinion of the minority may be pertinent for future cases.

2. A final decision is not necessarily the same thing as a correct decision.

As the drafters of the Westminster Standards wisely acknowledged, “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.3). A dissenting opinion gives presbyters an opportunity to point out where the Court (or Commission) may have erred. Taking this principle seriously means that the rest of us should take the time to hear what such dissenting opinions have to say.

3. Dissenting opinions – like our polity as a whole – balance the opportunity to express disagreement with the careful maintenance of church unity.

One man in my presbytery once rightly observed that our polity balances the ability to express disagreement while still maintaining unity. A dissenting opinion does precisely this by recognizing the finality of a particular decision while also preserving the ability to express a different view. The provision of a formal mechanism for expressing carefully reasoned and respectful (i.e., temperate) disagreement actually promotes unity.

4. Our polity prioritizes listening to one another.

James admonishes us, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). Regardless of whether or not you agree with the SJC decision, carefully listening to both majority and minority opinions is important to our polity.

For further development of this principle of listening to one another, consider what I wrote about the biblical precept and example for listening in the courts of the church in my recent post, The Biblical Foundations of Parliamentary Procedure.

5. The large minority vote in this particular case merits careful consideration of the Dissenting Opinion.

One big reason for reading RE Dowling’s Dissenting Opinion in Speck v. Missouri Presbytery is the large minority vote. One changed vote could have brought this case before the entire General Assembly for consideration in the form of a minority decision/report. The Book of Church Order (BCO) details the following procedure in BCO 15-5.c:

“(1) If, within twenty-four (24) hours of the time of adjournment of a Standing Judicial Commission meeting at which a final decision was rendered in a case, at least one-third (1/3) of the voting members of the Standing Judicial Commission file written notice of their intention to file a minority decision with the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, and within twenty (20) days from the adjournment do file such a minority decision, such minority decision shall be considered a minority report and shall be referred, with the report of the Standing Judicial Commission, to the General Assembly…. (3) The Assembly shall act upon such a reference from the Standing Judicial Commission, in each case without question, discussion, debate, or amendment, as follows: (a) The Standing Judicial Commission shall have 30 minutes to present its decision to the Assembly. (b) The minority shall have 30 minutes to present its decision to the Assembly. (c) The Standing Judicial Commission shall have 10 minutes to reply to the minority report. (d) The decision of the minority shall be proposed and the General Assembly shall, without question, discussion, debate, or amendment approve or disapprove of the minority report. (e) If the General Assembly disapproves the minority report, the General Assembly shall take up the decision of the Standing Judicial Commission and without question, discussion, debate, or amendment, approve or disapprove of the decision of the Standing Judicial Commission.”

Even apart from such a procedure, the large minority vote reflects the difficulty of the issues the PCA is facing. If we need to listen to each other in general, that need is all the more pressing in the face of such sizable differences of opinion.

6. Speck v. Missouri Presbytery may not be the last case of its kind that will come through our system.

Everyone recognizes that we are facing difficult disagreements on important issues. With this in mind, every presbyter in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) should study the SJC decision and the Dissenting Opinion of the minority as we consider general principles for how we handle similar cases in the future.

7. Reading dissenting opinions will shape how we approach, process, and decide cases at every level of the church courts.

Speck v. Missouri Presbytery is complex for a number of reasons, and complex cases are not unique to the General Assembly level. They will come up at the session and presbytery levels as well. How should we handle complex cases in the lower courts?

In addressing this question, we must consider what has been argued, presented, and decided in General Assembly cases. For example, the principles expressed in RE Dowling’s Dissenting Opinion‘s procedural critiques regarding the SJC’s treatment of the record of the case (ROC) in Speck v. Missouri Presbytery are applicable to any case.

I find the section of SJC decisions (along with both concurring and dissenting opinions) to be the best part of the packet to read before General Assembly each year for this last reason. There is tremendous pastoral insight to glean from the hard cases that have come up through the SJC. Whether the subject matter is obscure or common, there is much to learn about how to handle such issues.

In sum, tolle lege!

Jacob Gerber is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Harvest Community Church (PCA) in Omaha, NE.