Seeking to Strengthen the SJC at PCAGA50

by Reed DePace | June 8, 2023

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As the moderator of the session (First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, AL), placing Overture 21 and Overture 22 before the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) 50th general assembly, I thought it might be helpful if I offered our fathers and brothers some of the rationale behind our session’s recommendation of these overtures. My comments are organized around two main points: 1) why the lack of Presbytery support, and 2) why vote yes anyway.

Why the Lack of Presbytery Support

As mentioned to me at last week’s Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) Committee meeting, Southeast Alabama Presbytery (SEAL) is respected and admired for its history of wisdom and stability in affirmation of both PCA doctrine and practice. As an adopted son of the PCA (since Sept. ’08), I affirm with hearty gratitude and rejoicing that this reputation continues among the fathers and brothers that make up SEAL today. With some hesitancy then, I offer the following opinions as to why SEAL did not support these overtures, and why our Session thought it wise to forward them to PCAGA50, nevertheless. The following are based on my recollection of the deliberation at our presbytery’s meeting on March 7, 2023 (hosted at our church facility).

Overture 21

This overture is in effect a replacement for PCAGA49’s Overture 8 which barely failed the 2/3 majority presbytery vote this past year. Overture 21 is an attempt to make the provisions of this prior overture palatable to enough additional presbyteries that it passes the 2/3 requirement (see further, below).

At the SEAL March 7, 2023, called meeting, the main argument offered against Overture 21 was that it would result in too much intrusiveness into the ministry of teaching elders (TEs). The argument was made that O21 would make it easier for ‘charges’ to be brought against a TE.

Agreeing that nuisance charges are unhelpful and contrary to Presbyterianism, our session disagrees with this opinion. Note that some presbyteries, agreeing with the need for clarification on a better definition for “refuses to act” (BCO 34-1; see O2023-21 p. 2.19-24), expressly voted against last year’s Overture 8 (Item 7 before the presbyteries this last cycle) because they believed that its proposed change of the threshold to 10% of presbyteries requesting original jurisdiction was too high! Furthermore, in the history of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the current standard of two presbyteries has not resulted in the SJC assuming original jurisdiction over a case. Noting that SEAL overwhelming voted to approve last year’s Overture 8, we respectfully believe that they got the vote on our session’s replacement proposal wrong.

A secondary argument against Overture 21 was that the 1/3 SJC signature provision (p. 2.12) might be deemed unconstitutional. The Committee on Constitutional Business having vetted Overture 21 negates that concern.

Thus, with respect, our session thinks SEAL should have approved of sending Overture 21 up to PCAGA50.

Overture 22

This overture arose in response to last year’s ruling from the chair that a minority report from the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) was out of order. Our session sees Overture 22 as a companion to Overture 21. It also serves the goal of strengthening the functioning of the SJC (see further, below).

At the SEAL meeting on March 7, 2023, the arguments offered were in effect the same as those offered at PCAGA49 defending the chair’s ruling, to wit: the CCB is merely a review of procedural constitutionality, and therefore it is improper for minority reports to arise from its work.

Why didn’t this pass our Presbytery? Our Presbytery is a strong supporter of proper procedures being followed in our courts. As PCAGA49 declined to allow minority reports from the CCB, the sense among the elders at SEAL’s March meeting was that it was proper to vote against this overture as well.

Why does our session disagree with our fathers and brothers? Quite simply,  while we agree that the PCAGA49 chair got this decision right, there is nevertheless the need for a minority report procedure from CCB, when there is an egregious procedural failure in the SJC. Agreeing with our fathers’ and brothers’ sentiments to protect procedures, we believe Overture 22 actually supports that conviction and protects the SJC’s processes when there is such a procedural error.

Why Vote YES Anyway

For both overtures (21 & 22), our session believes that they will strengthen the procedures of the SJC, to the benefit of all in the PCA. Here are the reasons for support that seem most significant to our session.

Overture 21

Overture 21 makes two substantive changes to the procedures governing the PCA’s SJC. It provides:

1)   a workable definition for when GA should take up original jurisdiction in a possible judicial matter concerning a teaching elder
2)   an either/or provision for how many presbyteries are needed to make an original jurisdiction request

Regarding the first provision, Overture 21 repeats the revised definition found in last year’s Overture 8:

“However, if the Presbytery does not indict in either doctrinal cases or instances of public scandal, the General Assembly shall assume original jurisdiction,” (O2023-21, p. 2.8-10).

This definition was widely supported last year, both by the elders serving on the SJC and among/within presbyteries. We all more or less agree that the current definition “refuses to act” is an unworkable judicial standard. This dishonors God, His courts among us, and our shepherds serving under this confusing definition. Overture 21 brings this fix before PCAGA50 in hopes that we will see the wisdom of passing it this year.

Regarding the second provision, this either/or procedure is an effort to ‘split the difference’ that led some presbyteries to not support last year’s Overture 8. Those who think the two-presbytery threshold is too low will find support for their opinion in Overture 21’s 5% threshold. Those who think the two-presbytery threshold is sufficient will find the two-presbytery plus 1/3 of the SJC threshold a workable modest compromise.

Our session, for these reasons, deems it appropriate to appeal to our fathers and brothers at PCAGA50 for their consideration, and hopeful passing, of Overture 21.

Overture 22

As previously noted, according to the current procedures for the CCB, PCAGA49’s chair was correct to rule a minority report out of order. Believing this to be an error in our procedures, we present Overture 22 to fix that which is extant.

Our session was disconcerted by the SJC procedural error in the case that brought this to light. As part of one of the presbyteries requesting original jurisdiction of the case concerning the TE in-question, our session was dismayed at the process the SJC used. They violated their own rules of operation, and in effect opened the record of a case before them (see here).

We have no concerns with the SJC’s determination that they needed more information in order to process that matter before them. The problem is that their procedural rules simply do not allow them to do what they did. The purpose of this procedural limitation is to protect the judicial interests of all parties. In opening the record of the case, and only securing further information from one party, the SJC in effect robbed all the parties of their right to fair and impartial justice. Worse, acting as a court of King Jesus, this procedural failure arguably robbed Him of some of his honor!

These things happen, and hard words notwithstanding, our session sympathizes with the difficulties the men on the SJC routinely face. Theirs is often a ‘no-win’ task, at least for them. Our strong concern for what we deem an egregious error on their part, then, is helpfully addressed by Overture 22. In keeping with the genius of Presbyterianism, it provides the minority a path for appealing to his/their brethren when he/they believe(s) the SJC has violated their procedures.

Overture 22 is a bit technical, but this overture is constructed in such a manner that there are no loopholes; the only thing it allows for is a minority report from the CCB on the reviewed minutes of the SJC in a matter of procedural error, and that alone!

Grateful for the diligent and faithful work of the fathers and brothers serving on the SJC, and sympathizing with their ‘feet of clay’ weakness shared with the rest of us, our session believes Overture 22 provides a careful and constrained fence-correction that will only support the SJC’s work of providing fair and impartial justice to the rest of us under GA’s authority.

In Conclusion

Of course, there is more that can and will be discussed and debated on these overtures, first on the Overtures Committee, and then on the floor of GA50, should that Committee forward it to the rest of us. Thank you for considering our session’s reasoning behind submitting these two overtures to our fellow elders at GA50. May God be gloried, the Son be honored, and the Spirit bless us in providence.

Reed DePace is a PCA Teaching Elder serving on the session of First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, AL.