By Jacob Gerber | November 5, 2022
The Presbyteries of the PCA are currently voting on two Book of Church Order (BCO) amendments that are very similar: Item 6 (Overture 2021-20) and Item 11 (Overture 2021-21). In their final forms, both seek to require a 2/3 vote to suspend the official functions of an officer, or to suspend someone from the Lord’s Table, but in two different settings. Item 6 deals with suspending someone’s rights before the completion of his judicial process. Item 11 deals with suspending someone’s rights after the completion of his judicial process in the lower court, but while the decision is under appeal.
In my opinion, Presbyteries should support Item 6 but oppose Item 11. My reasons for differentiating between the two proposals have to do with the balance of the various rights within a judicial setting. In church polity, we are always dealing with questions about how to balance different rights, values, and needs. Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR) captures this goal well:
The rules of parliamentary law found in this book will, on analysis, be seen to be constructed upon a careful balance of the rights of persons or subgroups within an organization’s or an assembly’s total membership. That is, these rules are based on a regard for the rights:
- of the majority,
- of the minority, especially a strong minority—greater than one third,
- of individual members,
- of absentees, and
- of all these together.
The means of protecting all of these rights in appropriate measure forms much of the substance of parliamentary law, and the need for this protection dictates the degree of development that the subject has undergone. (RONR [12th ed], “Principles Underlying Parliamentary Law,” xlix)
As we consider the rights of the various parties in church discipline proceedings, we must consider how to balance the various rights of the prosecutor, the accused, the court, and the Church as a whole.
Summary Overview for Supporting Item 6 and Opposing Item 11
In brief, my reason for supporting Item 6 is simple: in considering this balance of rights, the accused has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. While there may be good reasons for suspending him from the sacraments or (if an officer) from official duties, that decision should require a supermajority (i.e., a 2/3) vote.
On the other hand, Item 11 would seek to require the same supermajority 2/3 vote after someone has had his opportunity to present evidence, call witnesses, and make his case in court. Although that individual retains the right to appeal a guilty verdict or a censure (BCO 42), the balance of rights in this situation should shift to the decision of the original court. While the court may not persist with such a suspension as a censure before the appeal is heard, I believe that the court should retain the right to determine by a simple majority vote whether there are sufficient reasons to prevent the appellant from approaching the Lord’s Table and, if an officer, from exercising some or all of his official functions.
Furthermore, since the “functions” of an officer are clearly defined in the BCO as what the officer does, and not what the church does to remunerate the officer (see BCO 8-5; 34-10; 36-7), this provision could never permit a church to suspend a teaching elder without pay.
So, to require the same 2/3 vote for this decision both before and after a trial does not properly balance the competing rights of the various parties of the case. Therefore, Item 6 would improve the balance between the judicial rights of the various parties, while Item 11 would create an imbalance of those rights.
In the rest of this article, I will expand this brief summary into greater detail.
Balancing the Rights of the Parties
It is enlightening to categorize the provisions contained in the Rules of Discipline according to the various rights afforded to each of the parties of a case: the prosecutor, the accused, the court of jurisdiction, and the Church as a whole.
Let’s begin with the rights of the prosecutor. The prosecutor has the right to bring an accusation against the accused (BCO 31-3). Nevertheless, when it is an individual making out charges against another person, this person’s rights are very limited. An injured party is required to have sought the means of private reconciliation from Matthew 18 in the case of personal offenses (BCO 31-5). Furthermore, the court is to exercise great caution to consider the character of the accuser (BCO 31-8), and every voluntary prosecutor must be warned that if he should fail to show probable cause of the charges, “he may himself be censured as a slanderer of the brethren” (BCO 31-9).
The accused, on the other hand, has many more rights protected by the BCO. These include the right to a clear charge made out against him (BCO 31-2, 32-2), the right to assistance to gain access to the Rules of Discipline (BCO 32-3), the right to reasonably advanced notice before an indictment hearing and before a trial shall commence (BCO 32-3, 32-4, 32-8), the right to counsel (BCO 32-3, 32-19), the right to hear testimony against him and to cross-examine witnesses (BCO 32-8, 32-13), the right to unbiased judges (BCO 32-16, 32-17), and the right to timeliness in making out charges against the accused (BCO 32-20).
In terms of a court of the church, her first right is to original jurisdiction over her own members (BCO 31-1; cf. BCO 33-1, 34-1). Additionally, a court has the right to expect responsiveness and participation with her lawful proceedings (BCO 32-6). Further, the court has the exclusive right to determine which of her members are qualified to sit in judgment (BCO 31-9, 32-16, 35-11), and to decide all points arising within a trial (BCO 32-14). Finally, the court has the right to determine guilt or innocence (BCO 32-15) and to determine censures and modes of administering those censures “suited to the nature of the offenses” (BCO 36-2).
Finally, the Church as a whole is entitled to the “benefits” of discipline (BCO 27-2), especially in maintaining the Church’s purity, and promoting the Church’s general edification (BCO 27-3). Thus, in every charge, “[t]he accuser is always the Presbyterian Church in America, whose honor and purity are to be maintained” (BCO 31-3), so that every indictment begins with, “In the name of the Presbyterian Church in America,” and concludes with, “against the peace, unity and purity of the Church, and the honor and majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the King and Head thereof” (BCO 31-4). Ultimately, “In every case the Church is the injured and accusing party, against the accused” (BCO 31-4).
In Support of Item 6 (Overture 2021-20)
Item 6 seeks to amend BCO 31-10 and 33-4 to require a 2/3 vote to suspend someone who has been accused of some charge — but not yet found guilty. While BCO 31-10 deals with suspending elders (“a member of a church court”) from their official functions while “under process,” BCO 33-4 deals with preventing “an accused church member from approaching the Lord’s Table until the charges against him can be examined.”
As I wrote above, there may be good reasons to do this; however, those reasons should be affirmed by a supermajority of the court since the accused has not yet had his day in court. The original overture from Pacific Northwest Presbytery proposed that this should require a 3/4 vote, but this proposal was amended down to a 2/3 vote in Overtures Committee.
While I wouldn’t be opposed to a 3/4 vote requirement (see somewhat analogous situations in RONR [12th ed.] 56:61.III.5; 59:75), I believe that a 2/3 vote is sufficient, since it is a general principle of parliamentary law that a 2/3 vote may suspend an individual’s fundamental rights (see RONR [12th ed.] 17:15). Furthermore, the suspension cannot be done as a censure before the process is completed. I do, however, think that a future overture should propose amending BCO 31-10 and 33-4 to add (following the language of BCO 42-6) that these sufficient reasons should be duly recorded for the sake of General Review and Control of higher courts to oversee any such decision. Even so, raising the threshold to a 2/3 vote is a healthy change to our Rules of Discipline.
In Opposition to Item 11 (Overture 2021-21)
Item 11, on the other hand, seeks a 2/3 vote to maintain a suspension while someone who has been found guilty seeks an appeal. While the appellant should retain the right to suspend the judgment of a lower court while he seeks an appeal (BCO 42-6), the lower court should have the right by a simple majority vote to make a determination about whether there are sufficient reasons for preventing someone from approaching the Lord’s Table, and/or to suspend an officer from his official functions.
Consider, for example, the case of a teaching elder appealing a guilty verdict for charges related to alleged child abuse. Since such a case may significantly divide the Presbytery, it is easy to imagine a situation where the majority who voted to find the teaching elder guilty could not muster a 2/3 vote to suspend the teaching elder from his official duties during his appeal. The confusion of these mixed messages (found guilty by the Presbytery, but permitted by the same Presbytery to continue serving as a pastor) could cause significant damage to the Church as a whole.
This is not to deny that a teaching elder could be falsely accused of this charge, or of any charge. Certainly, this is possible. To protect against such false accusations and wrongful verdicts, the teaching elder has the right both to an appeal and/or the right to seek a new trial on the basis of new evidence that may later emerge (BCO 35-14, 42-5). The Church, however, should be protected by the provision to retain a suspension by a simple majority vote while the appellant seeks his appeal.
One objection raised in the 49th General Assembly’s Overtures Committee had to do with whether this would permit a church to suspend a pastor without pay. If so, it was argued that such a suspension should require a 2/3 vote. Our BCO, however, very clearly uses the term “function” to describe what the officer does. This is clearest in BCO 8-5: “When a man is called to labor as a teaching elder, it belongs to his order, in addition to those functions he shares with all other elders, to feed the flock by reading, expounding and preaching the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments….” Or, BCO 34-10 speaks of a minister who fails to be engaged “in the regular discharge of his official functions….” Finally, the language of administering the censure of deposition prohibits an officer from “exercising any of the functions” of his office” (BCO 36-7). Thus, the “official functions” of an officer is what the officer does/discharges/exercises.
A teaching elder’s compensation, on the other hand, is something that the congregation/Session/Presbytery promises and obliges themselves to provide to the teaching elder. So, the ability to suspend a teaching elder from his official functions would not include the ability for the church to suspend their obligations to the teaching elder, unless the BCO made such a provision explicit (RONR [12th ed] 56:68.). Therefore, in my opinion, this phrase could not be used to suspend a teaching elder without pay during his appeal — whether by majority vote, 2/3 vote, or even a unanimous vote. Until the pastor’s call is dissolved, the church is obligated to continue paying him.
Therefore, a simple majority vote to suspend the rights of an appellant to approach the Lord’s Table and/or to suspend an officer from his official functions would balance the various rights of the prosecutor, the appellant, the court, and the Church as a whole. This threshold should not be raised to a 2/3 vote.
Item 6 proposes a change that would better bring the rights of the various parties into balance by requiring a 2/3 vote to suspend the rights of someone who has been accused, but not yet found guilty. Item 11, on the other hand, would have the opposite effect. Requiring a 2/3 vote to suspend someone from the Lord’s Table and/or from official functions gives too much weight to the rights of the appellant, and it overlooks the rights of the court and the rights of the Church as a whole.
May the Lord continue to bless the peace, purity, and unity of the Presbyterian Church in America!