By Matt Fender | June 6, 2023
Please note that the Editorial Board of Presbyterian Polity does not necessarily endorse all views expressed on the blog of this site, but the editors are pleased to present well-crafted position papers on issues facing Presbyterian churches and denominations. What follows is one such paper for our readers’ consideration. ~ The Editors
Atheists are not currently permitted to testify in the courts of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In this article, I argue that such should remain the case. Atheists should not be able to testify in church Courts. At this year’s PCA General Assembly in Memphis, commissioners will once again be dealing with Overture 2021-41 which seeks to amend the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) to allow courts of the Church to admit atheists to testify as witnesses in ecclesiastical trials. The overture in-question was first introduced in 2021. The 48th General Assembly committed it to the 49th Assembly, and also referred it to the Ad Interim Study Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Abuse. The 49th General Assembly subsequently committed O2021-41 to the 50th Assembly. Now we get to deal with it again, and I hope with a decisive rejection. In addition, we have a substantially similar proposal, Overture 2023-13, which has been submitted to the 50th General Assembly.
Paragraph 35-1 of the BCO presently stands as follows:
All persons of proper age and intelligence are competent witnesses, except such as do not believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments. The accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled to testify; but the accuser shall be required to testify, on the demand of the accused. Either party has the right to challenge a witness whom he believes to be incompetent, and the court shall examine and decide upon his competency. It belongs to the court to judge the degree of credibility to be attached to all evidence (emphasis added in boldface).
The key sentence in this section of the BCO is the first one. “All persons of proper age and intelligence are competent witnesses” in the courts of the PCA. The following clause of the sentence carves out an exception: “except such as do not believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” This disjunctive phrase is somewhat oddly worded. It is not clear if a witness must believe in both the existence of God AND a future state of rewards and punishments or whether only one of the two is required. But in any event, the clause clearly excludes a secular materialist or anyone who utterly denies the transcendental.
Overture 2021-41 seeks to strike the first sentence of BCO 35-1 so there will be no limit on who might testify, aside from the limits on irrelevant and frivolous testimony found in the final sentence of BCO 35-5, which reads, “The court shall not permit questions frivolous or irrelevant to the charge at issue.” Overture 2023-13 would leave the first sentence but strike the limiting language and replace it with an affirmative statement that “All persons generally are competent to testify as witness, though the court shall give consideration to age, intelligence, belief in God, relationship to the parties involved, and other like factors in judging testimony (BCO 35-5).” Under either proposal, atheists would be qualified to testify. Either overture also, notably, would remove the limits on witnesses who are not of proper age or proper intelligence. Technically, infants and those with infantile mental capacity would be competent to testify if one of these overtures were to pass.
Consider the resultant absurdity of a presiding officer proceeding to administer the following oath to an atheist, an infant, or a mentally incapacitated individual as required by BCO 35-6:
Do you solemnly promise, in the presence of God, that you will declare the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, according to the best of your knowledge in the matter in which you are called to witness, as you shall answer it to the great Judge of the living and the dead?
Significantly, BCO 35-6 goes on to say that: “If, however, at any time a witness should present himself before a court, who for conscientious reasons prefers to swear or affirm in any other manner, he should be allowed to do so.” This language is very broad. For example, a Jew or a Muslim could easily be admitted to testify as a witness before the Court. But the essential point here is that the witness must swear or affirm in some manner that he will tell the truth. To confirm his ability to swear such an oath, the witness must credibly profess belief in the existence of God and/or a future state of rewards and punishments. Presumably even a Hindu (or some other kind of polytheist or henotheist) could meet the standard. The essential function of this requirement is to establish an incentive for the witness to tell the truth. This is not a very high standard. This baseline requirement is already very liberal (i.e., generous and broad to those seeking to meet it). To admit witnesses into the Courts of the church (should the issue ever come up) who deny the existence of God and a future state of rewards and punishments is a bridge too far. Such a person simply has no incentive not to bear false witness, and testimony by atheists has the potential to subvert the Courts of the Church.
Against these obvious problems, there is little to be gained by either Overture 2021-41 or Overture 2023-13. These overtures present a solution in search of a problem. To date, there are exactly zero examples of PCA church trials known to this writer where a witness was excluded based on BCO 35-1.
The arguments in favor of modifying BCO 35-1 on the above proposals have been largely emotional ones. We have been confronted with hypotheticals about sexual abuse by pastors and church staff. It has been theorized that we might have a case where an essential witness does not believe in God. Such arguments seem compelling on the surface, but upon reflection they carry little weight. In cases of sexual assault or child molestation, we are rarely going to be conducting a meaningful church trial because the perpetrator will be dealt with by the civil magistrate. Men accused of such crimes and facing lengthy prison time and the permanent civil impacts of being a registered sex offender simply do not appear as a defendants in ecclesiastical courts. In such cases the accused are sanctioned for contumacy.
Further, Church Courts are not empowered to redress heinous crimes such as rape and child molestation. The Courts of the PCA have “no power to inflict temporal pains and penalties, but their authority is in all respects moral or spiritual” (BCO 11-1). Rather, “the highest censure to which their authority extends is to cut off the contumacious and impenitent from the congregation of believers” (BCO 11-2). Punishments of a more physical nature are exclusively within the purview of the civil magistrate.
Actual church trials in the PCA are relatively uncommon. Typically, disciplinary matters are resolved in cases without process under BCO 38, or even where process is commenced, the parties are frequently able to reconcile. In other cases, the accused declines to respond and is sanctioned for contumacy. But it is vital that we preserve the integrity of the Courts of the PCA for instances where a trial is necessary. Church discipline is, after all, one of the marks of the true church.
In the 21st century in the United States and Canada, we are facing a culture that is dominated by secular materialism. Objective standards of reason have been widely abandoned. Countless individuals, corporate leaders, and politicians openly advocate for policies that would force us all to bow to the opinions of those who deny reality altogether: a man is a woman because he says so, biology and commonsense notwithstanding. Such persons, who embrace a worldview that is openly hostile to Christianity, have no place in the Courts of the Church. Such open hostility to the Church and the gospel is antithetical to the purity and peace of Christ’s church.
As RE Jim Eggert has helpfully pointed out, church courts have no ability to sanction the unbeliever. As discussed above, the ultimate sanction we can impose upon anyone is excommunication. This is of course a tremendous power with respect to Christians, but to the reprobate it is of no import — they are already outside the church. The Courts of the PCA have no power to redress perjury by an unbeliever. We must make ourselves vulnerable to manipulation and abuse by individuals whom we cannot hold accountable in any meaningful sense.
Allowing atheists to testify in the Courts of the Church is a bad idea. It has always been a bad idea. At the last two General Assemblies, members of the Overtures Committee have been too polite to say so, in light of the emotional appeals being made by proponents. It is time to answer both Overtures 2021-41 and 2023-13 in the negative and put an end to the proposed change each is trying to make.
Matt Fender is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA.
 Editor’s note: see WCF 23.1, 3; 25.3; and Preliminary Principle 7 in the preface to the BCO.