Grassroots Presbyterianism & Amending BCO 34-1

By Jared Nelson | October 13, 2022

“Grassroots Presbyterianism” has become a common description of the polity of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The term generally communicates the understanding that the PCA has been a bottom-up denomination that was formed with a conscious effort to give more power to the Presbyteries rather than the General Assembly as the locus of authority and power.

However, this generalization is not always helpful in understanding the principles at work in the discipline procedures outlined in the Book of Church Order (BCO). When ministers are facing potential discipline for moral or doctrinal errors, there are layers of protection. One such safeguard is the option to appeal to a higher court, thus taking the disciplinary matter out of the hands of his original court of jurisdiction. In the PCA, there is another unique route for taking such a matter out of the hands of a lower court of the Church. This process is described in BCO 34-1, and it is a prime example of where “Grassroots Presbyterianism” gave way to a different concern in the founding of the PCA.

The process described in 34-1 is unique to the PCA as compared to the original provisions contained in the Southern Presbyterian denomination out of which the PCA was founded – the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) – and other American Presbyterian predecessors to the PCA. Originally, the corresponding section simply read:

“Process against a Minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member.”[1]

But the current version in the PCA’s BCO (as of 2022) reads:

“Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal and two other Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction (to first receive and initially hear and determine), the General Assembly shall do so.” [2]

As we see, the provision contained in BCO 34-1 that allows for other presbyteries to petition that the General Assembly take a case away from a presbytery that “refuses to act” is substantially different in the PCA BCO than what is found in the old PCUS BCO. But why the change? What was the reason for this significant revision, especially as it appears to be much less “grassroots” than the original?

The Historical Necessity of BCO 34-1

According to the history recorded by the PCA’s Historian Wayne Sparkman, around 1940, four PCUS presbyteries brought overtures to the PCUS General Assembly regarding the teachings of Professor Earnest Trice Thompson at Union Theological Seminary. The concern of the presbyteries in question arose over the liberal theology present in his teaching, as well as his influence over pastoral students in his care.[3]

The General Assembly that handled these overtures answered them in the negative due to an understanding of the PCUS BCO as leaving original jurisdiction to the presbytery of which a minister was a member. Furthermore, Thompson’s presbytery (East Hanover Presbytery) communicated that an investigation of the professor’s teachings had determined that they were in conformity with the Westminster Standards as adopted by the PCUS. Thus, original jurisdiction of the presbytery functioned as an essentially exclusive jurisdiction in the PCUS.[4]

The result of the General Assembly’s ruling in the controversy surrounding E. T. Thompson was to set a precedent that as long as a presbytery investigated – or claimed to have investigated – a matter, a minister was protected from wider denominational scrutiny. Founders of the PCA viewed this as a major factor in modernist heterodoxy gaining a firm foothold in the PCUS in presbyteries that refused to act to uphold and protect orthodoxy.

When the PCA was founded, she largely adopted the PCUS BCO, but the provision we find in BCO 34-1 was a notable exception. Originally, the PCA changed the 1973 version to:

Process against a Minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or public scandal, and other Presbyteries request the Assembly to assume original jurisdiction, the Assembly shall do so.[5]

Yet, the revised language as it stood in 1973 still contained ambiguity in the wording of “other presbyteries.” This naturally prompts the question: How many presbyteries does that require? In 1989, the section was clarified simply to state that “two presbyteries” were required.[6] The two-presbytery threshold would have amounted to about 5% of the presbyteries, as at the time the PCA had less than 50 presbyteries. As of 2022, the PCA has 88 presbyteries.

The provision contained in BCO 34-1 was invoked in the days before the establishment of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) in 1988.[7] But in 1999, the “Wood Case” concerning women preaching in a PCA pulpit on a Sunday, proved the difficulty involved in interpreting the phrase “refuses to act” in BCO 34-1. The SJC dismissed a BCO 34-1 request on the grounds that the minister’s presbytery had acted by investigating, instructing, and determining that there was not a need to proceed further with judicial action. The 28th General Assembly of the PCA disagreed, instructing the SJC to take up the case, as the presbytery had refused to act in a manner deemed by the Assembly as judicially appropriate.[8] The SJC took the case, but measures were subsequently proposed and adopted to the SJC Manual that would leave the determination of “refuses to act” with the SJC.[9]

The disagreement between the SJC and the 28th General Assembly demonstrated that tension exists between the original intent of 34-1 and the actual text of “refuses to act,” the latter of which is unclear or non-specific as to what “act” is envisioned. This makes fulfilling the original intent of the revised language of 34-1 problematic, as the provision contained therein was drafted largely in response to the Thompson case in which a presbytery claimed it had acted by investigating and refusing to indict the minister.

Another complicating factor in the Wood Case was a different concern raised about the number of presbyteries required. Those in the group “Presbyterian Pastor Leadership Network” (PPLN) saw a potential problem in allowing two presbyteries to flood the SJC with cases. The old number of two presbyteries which had represented about 5% of the total number of presbyteries in 1989 had by 1999 become representative of only about 2-3% of the presbyteries in the denomination.

Thus, in 2003, the PPLN prompted an overture from nearly two dozen presbyteries to change BCO 34-1 to require “ten percent” rather than “two presbyteries” to prompt the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction of a case. The effort to amend the BCO on this point narrowly failed to pass the requisite number of presbyteries.[10]  

Present Concerns about 34-1

These two concerns continue to plague BCO 34-1 today.

First, there is the concern as to whether the two-presbytery threshold is too low in a denomination with many more presbyteries than when the threshold was implemented in 1989.

Second, there is the concern that the phrase “refuses to act” has come to be interpreted in such a way that would have protected Professor Thompson. On this interpretation, as long as a presbytery takes any action – or rather, nearly any action – then the presbytery can be understood to have “acted.” Under such an interpretation, the provision included in BCO 34-1 is virtually impotent for the very kind of case it was meant to address: a case where the presbytery closest to a matter, rather than being better equipped to adjudicate a doctrinal or moral matter, may be unduly influenced to think the best of an erring brother.

2022 – PCAGA49 Overture 8 (Item 7)

In this context, the 49th General Assembly in 2022 (PCAGA49) considered an overture to revise 34-1 in two respects. The proposal seeks something of a compromise to mend the language of 34-1 into something both clearer and more usable. If Item 7 before the presbyteries, which is the amended version of Overture 8 before the 49th Assembly, passes, then 34-1 would read:

34-1. Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery does not indict in either doctrinal cases or instances of public scandal and at least ten percent (10%) of Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction for a case of process, the General Assembly shall do so. The General Assembly may assess the costs thereof equitably among the parties, including the petitioning Presbyteries and the Presbytery of the minister. [11]

First, the proposal recommends again the once-nearly accepted proposal of adjusting up the threshold to ten percent (10%) of presbyteries required to take original jurisdiction from a presbytery and to give it to the General Assembly. Such a number in the current context would be nine presbyteries (10% of 88 presbyteries, rounded up to 90 for the purposes of calculating the threshold) rather than just two presbyteries. Increasing the threshold mitigates the risk of just two crusading presbyteries overloading the SJC about some doctrinal hobby horse. In addition to increasing the threshold, additional language specifies that the presbyteries that petition the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction would have to contribute to the costs of conducting such a trial, thus discouraging overuse of such a provision by overzealous or litigious presbyteries.

Second, the overture seeks to clarify the phrase “refuses to act” by replacing it with “refuses to indict.” This revision would address the concern that a presbytery might refuse to indict an erring brother whose error is scandalizing the church. Upon implementation of the proposed language, a presbytery could not simply blow off a legitimate concern from the rest of the denomination by claiming that they “acted” by mere investigation as in the old Thompson case. However, under the language proposed by Item 7, a presbytery would still have first crack at a case. The revised BCO 34-1 would not take a case from a presbytery before that presbytery has had a chance to address the matter, or before a planned trial that could be appealed by a member in the presbytery.

Item 7 – Yay or Nay?

The current proposal in Item 7 is obviously a compromise proposal that addresses the two concerns outlined above. By raising the threshold included in BCO 34-1 to ten percent (10%) of the presbyteries, the proposal seeks to address twenty-year-old concerns that the current provision in BCO 34-1 could be too easily invoked under the “two presbyteries” threshold. By changing the language of “refuses to act” to “refuses to indict,” the proposal addresses the concern that the original intent is not reflected in the language “refuses to act,” as the SJC’s recent interpretation of (and precedent based upon) that language would not have empowered the old PCUS to address Professor Thompson’s liberalizing errors.

At PCAGA49, Overture 8 received a generally favorable response in pre-GA overture guides by respected polity voices such as TE David Coffin and TE Fred Greco, as well as being advocated on the floor of Assembly by RE Jay Neikirk on behalf of the Overtures Committee. The Overtures Committee recommended the Overture by a vote of 104-32-1, and the General Assembly in turn sent an amended version of the proposal to the presbyteries by a vote of 1245 to 521.[12]

No matter the outcome of the presbytery voting this year, an objective look at the history of BCO 34-1 reveals that for 50 years the PCA has generally held two positions simultaneously on the unique provision of BCO 34-1. First, the PCA has seen the need for the General Assembly to be able to take a judicial ministerial matter from a presbytery in certain circumstances. Second, the PCA has been generally unhappy with the current language of 34-1, which has not always served her well or functioned as it was at first intended. We will soon see if the PCA accepts Item 7 as the revision needed for BCO 34-1 to be both functional and free from potential abuse.

[1] In earlier versions (e.g., the 1958 edition of the PCUS BCO 1958), this provision is found in Chapter 8.223 of the Rules of Discipline.

[2] See The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, available here.

[3] His name may be familiar to historians of the PCUS as the founder of the Fellowship of Saint James secret political group. For more information about the Fellowship of Saint James and similar efforts, read my earlier piece entitled Secret Caucuses & the PCA.

[4] To read more, click here.

[5] See the BCO’s original language here.

[6] See the BCO’s 1989 revised language here.

[7] In 1982, for instance; see the Minutes of the Tenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 56, Judicial Case #19, available here.

[8] For more information on this situation, I refer readers to TE Dominic Aquila’s excellent article, The Meaning of “Refuses to Act” in BCO 34-1 As Interpreted by the 28th PCA General Assembly, available here.

[9] See the added provisions for assuming original jurisdiction in SJC Manual chapter 16, available together with the BCO and Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) here.

[10] For the historical record, see here.

[11] Click here for the finalized language of the 12 BCO amendment proposals being considered by the 88 presbyteries of the PCA this year.

[12] For more information about the 12 proposed BCO amendments before the presbyteries this year, readers should consult TE Scott Edburg’s article, Proposed Constitutional Amendments before the PCA in 2022, available here.

Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.