Raising the threshold for assumption of original jurisdiction from 2 (2) Presbyteries to 10% of Presbyteries has the potential both to prevent and to pervert justice in church courts. By raising the threshold to 10%, nine (9) Presbyteries would have to request assumption of original jurisdiction. This represents a five-fold increase, and it makes BCO 34-1 all but unusable. It is nearly impossible for an issue to be so widely known that nine Presbyteries would ask the General Assembly to take action. Thus, justice would be potentially prevented by the sheer difficulty of reaching this threshold.
As fall arrives, PCA Presbyteries will begin debating and voting on amendments to the Book of Church Order that received initial approval at this summer’s General Assembly.
While most of the discussion of these amendments will likely focus on Overture 15 (concerning issues of sexuality among church officers), this article focuses on the apparently less-contentious Overture 8. I believe this Overture could do unintentional damage to the peace and unity of the church.
Overture 8 proposes amending BCO 33-1 and 34-1. Both of these paragraphs concern the jurisdiction of church courts in matters of church discipline. Members of local churches are tried by Sessions (BCO 33), while pastors are tried by Presbyteries (BCO 34); these are their respective courts of “original jurisdiction.” Both paragraphs also contain a further provision: if courts “refuse to act” in “doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal,” two other coordinate courts may petition the next highest court to assume “original jurisdiction” and try the case. When such petition is made, the next highest court must take the case.
In other words, if a Session refuses to discipline a church member, and two other Sessions ask the Presbytery to assume original jurisdiction, the Presbytery must do so. Similarly, if a Presbytery refuses to discipline a pastor, and two other Presbyteries ask the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction, the General Assembly must do so.
Problems with BCO 33-1 and 34-1 as Currently Written
[N.B. For the remainder of this article, I will refer to “Presbytery” and 34-1 exclusively. These comments apply with equal force to “Session” and 33-1.]
As currently written, these paragraphs have two issues. First, they fail to define “refuses to act.” This has led to confusion in recent years, as several BCO 34-1 requests have asked the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction in discipline cases. Does “refuses to act” mean the Presbytery has ignored the issue entirely? If the Presbytery investigates allegations against a pastor, and that investigation does not raise a “strong presumption of guilt” (BCO 31-2), has the Presbytery “refuse[d] to act”? Furthermore, if a Presbytery institutes process against a pastor but that process yields a finding of innocence, can one say the Presbytery has refused to act? What if they return a guilty verdict but impose too light a censure for a serious offense?
For many of these hypothetical situations, one could plausibly argue that Presbytery has acted but refused to act fully and appropriately. The imprecision of “refuses to act” thus leaves room for confusion and disagreement.
Second, the paragraphs require only two (2) coordinate courts to petition in order to require the assumption of original jurisdiction. As the denomination has grown, some have expressed concern that two (2) Presbyteries represents too low a threshold—especially given the PCA’s eighty-eight (88) Presbyteries.
Overture 8 attempts to address both of these shortcomings.
Overture 8 seeks to address these apparent deficiencies in BCO 33-1 and 34-1.
First, addressing the vagueness of “refuses to act,” Overture 8 instead proposes instead, “does not indict.” In other words, it narrows the range of possible scenarios above to a single scenario—the court “does not indict.”