Overture 11 & Making Objections to SJC Decisions

By Jacob Gerber | June 9, 2023

Image Credit: “Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell, Public Domain

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At the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a commissioner sought to record an objection concerning a decision of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC; M49GA, p. 75–76). This attempt was ruled out of order on the basis that the member did not have standing to vote on the decision of the SJC. A similar ruling occurred during the 41st General Assembly (M41GA, p. 39).

At the 49th General Assembly, I spoke against sustaining the ruling of the Moderator; however, after studying the issue further, I have come to realize that the Moderator was correct. Our rules currently do reserve the right to file objections to SJC members alone. In this article, I will argue why I believe that our rules should be amended in order to permit objections to SJC decisions from commissioners to General Assembly, as proposed in Overture 11 from Platte Valley Presbytery. 

Before I lay out this case, I want to clarify that this overture is not intended as a criticism of the SJC. The men who serve on the SJC do so nobly as they wade through the most difficult situations that arise from within our church. They have my admiration and prayers. Instead of critiquing the SJC, this is an overture that seeks to restore essential rights to commissioners to the General Assembly.

Objections to SJC Decisions and Overture 11

The primary definition for an “objection” is given in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO):

An objection is a declaration by one or more members of a court who did not have the right to vote on an appeal or complaint, expressing a different opinion from the decision of the court and may be accompanied with the reasons on which it is founded. (BCO 45-4)

The SJC is not another court above the General Assembly. Rather, the SJC is a commission of the General Assembly that acts on behalf of the General Assembly. Nevertheless, the BCO has committed “all matters governed by the Rules of Discipline, except for the annual review of Presbytery records” to the SJC (BCO 15-4). Since chapter 45 of the BCO (“Dissents, Protests, and Objections”) falls within the Rules of Discipline (BCO chs. 27–46), the rules concerning objections are wholly committed to the SJC. 

Therefore, the only men who can currently file objections to SJC decisions are those SJC members who did not have standing to vote in a case before the SJC, such as members of Presbyteries from which appeals or complaints have arisen (BCO 39-2). Again, this was the basis of the correct rulings of the Moderators at the 41st and 49th General Assemblies. 

Overture 11, then, seeks to amend the relevant sections of the BCO to permit any commissioner to the General Assembly to file objections against decisions of the SJC. This amendment would make small technical corrections in BCO 15-4 and 45-1, but the substantive language would be added to BCO 45-4: “Any commissioner to the General Assembly may record an objection to a decision of the Standing Judicial Commission reported to that General Assembly, so long as he did not have a right to vote on the appeal or complaint when it came before the Standing Judicial Commission.

The Arguments for Overture 11

There are two principled reasons to support Overture 11. The first arises from the first Preliminary Principle of the BCO:

God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others (emphasis added).

Complaints, appeals, dissents, protests, and objections (BCO 42, 43, 45) are important tools in our polity that permit presbyters to disagree while maintaining unity. Overture 11 does not seek to take the decision-making authority away from the SJC, but only intends to allow all General Assembly commissioners to express disagreement while maintaining unity.

Second, restricting commissioners to the General Assembly from filing objections is inconsistent with expressions of disagreement throughout the rest of our polity. Everywhere else, members of (or members under the jurisdiction of) a court have some recourse for expressing disagreement with that court. Members of congregations can file complaints against their Sessions (BCO 43-1). A member of a Session or a Presbytery can file complaints, appeals, dissents, protests, and objections to the decisions of those courts, depending on the level of disagreement, the desire for further review, and whether he had the right to vote on the action (BCO 13-1; 45). 

On the other hand, these mechanisms do not give members of lower courts the ability to express disagreement with the actions of higher courts. Only in the case of SJC decisions do the members of a court (General Assembly) not have the right to express formal disagreement with a commission acting on behalf of that court. It is one thing for a commission to have exclusive power to conclude business for a court (BCO 15-1), but it is another thing for other members of that court to have no recourse to express a different opinion. 

When we compare this to the way complaints, appeals, dissents, protests, and objections function in the rest of our polity, it raises the question of whether our rules de facto treat the SJC as a super court above the General Assembly. Overture 11, then, seeks to protect liberty of conscience for all members of the General Assembly concerning the actions of that court’s commission.

Objections to Overture 11

In this section, I will respond to four objections to Overture 11. Two of them are stated in the excellent overture voting guide prepared by TEs Scott Edburg and Jared Nelson. Two others were expressed in debate at my Presbytery when considering sending this overture up to General Assembly. 

GA Commissioners Who Have Not Read the Record of the Case

First, as TEs Edburg and Nelson have written, some may be concerned about “those who have not heard or read the facts of a case (which have totaled thousands of pages in some cases) weighing in when the GA has designated the SJC to this task.” 

There are two important responses to this concern. First, the SJC publishes the rationale for their decisions, and members of the SJC may write concurring or dissenting opinions. Two presbyters may agree on the facts of the case, but differ on the way to adjudicate those facts. Overture 11 would permit commissioners to GA to express principled disagreement with the reasons for a decision in cases where the facts of the case are not at issue. If the Overtures Committee desires to clarify the scope of objections that may be filed, I would not oppose amendments that retained basic protections for liberty of conscience.

Second, I fully recognize that Overture 11 is a double-edged opportunity. Presbyters will need to weigh carefully whether they feel sufficiently confident in their concerns to put their name down to an objection that will be recorded forever in the minutes of a historically-minded church. This would not be a procedure to use thoughtlessly. It is, rather, a procedure that gives some recourse to protect the first preliminary principle of our polity: liberty of conscience.

Multiple Objections to High-Profile Cases

Second, TEs Edburg and Nelson write, “The potential for dozens of objections to a high-profile case may also give pause to allowing this procedure.” While this is, in theory, possible, we should remember that this possibility already exists for other complaints, dissents, protests, and objections. In my time in the PCA, I have never seen more than one expression of disagreement. Instead, multiple presbyters usually agree on language for a single expression and sign their name to that single option. Thus, this objection deals with a different issue that has not been a problem, and if it does become a problem, administrative solutions could easily be implemented.

Attacks on Persons Found Not Guilty

A third objection dealt with whether this would open a side door for attacking persons who are found not guilty by the SJC. In response to this concern, we should remember that the BCO already provides important limitations on the effects of dissents, protests, and objections: “If a dissent, protest, or objection be couched in temperate language, and be respectful to the court, it shall be recorded; and the court may, if deemed necessary, put an answer to the dissent, protest, or objection on the records along with it” (BCO 45-5). 

As one member of our Presbytery aptly said, “There is value in formality.” These objections would not be accusations tossed carelessly around on social media, but formal, temperate, and respectful concerns expressed to the court for the sake of conscience.

Re-Litigating Concluded Cases

A fourth concern raised in debate at my Presbytery was whether this would be an opportunity for people to endlessly re-open or re-litigate cases that had been conclusively answered by the SJC. Again, the BCO addresses this concern already: “Here the matter shall end, unless the parties obtain permission to withdraw their dissent, protest, or objection absolutely, or for the sake of amendment” (BCO 45-5).

The purpose of Overture 11 is only to enable expression of disagreement. After members do so, “the matter shall end.”


In conclusion, Overture 11 is an important amendment to bring our procedures in line with our principles. This amendment would restore an important mechanism for expressing disagreement while maintaining unity with the body. I urge the adoption of Overture 11.

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