Jacob Gerber

2022 Proposals: The Case for Item 6 & Against Item 11

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.

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.Read More
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Researching the Rationales of PCAGA49’s Proposed BCO Amendments

We submit this resource with two important caveats. First, many of these proposals from the Presbyteries were amended — and a few almost entirely rewritten — in the Overtures Committee. While the “whereas” statements in the initial forms may help presbyters to remember the original reasons for the amendments, they do not speak to the final form of the amendments, which is the only form that counts at this juncture. Second, these overtures obviously do not provide the strongest arguments against any of the proposals. 

The list of Book of Church Order (BCO) amendments handed down to the Presbyteries from the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is daunting. For a basic refresher on the amendments before us, including a breakdown of the votes that they received in Overtures and from the General Assembly, see TE Scott Edburg’s excellent article, Proposed Constitutional Amendments before the PCA in 2022.
The length of the list of amendments this year, however, may pose unique challenges to keep all of the goals, purposes, and reasoning for these amendments in mind. Most in the PCA probably understand the rationales behind the more public and controversial proposals, such as Items 1, 4, 5, and  7, even though some may disagree with those rationales. On the other hand, fewer will remember the technical reasoning behind some of the more procedurally focused proposed amendments, such as Items 2, 3, 6, 8, 9–12.
Often, the reasons for these amendments are listed in the Whereas clauses or the rationales written in the original overtures. That reasoning, however, gets stripped out after adoption by the General Assembly, and the Presbyteries receive only the amendment language itself. To help recall some of the original arguments in support of these amendments, here is a list of links to the original overtures as submitted by their respective Presbyteries.
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The Paradoxical Pastoral Piety of the Lord’s Prayer

It is by prayer, then, that we fight the good fight with absolute humility. In prayer, God trains us to leave behind our personal vendettas, and he realigns our hearts to treasure Christ and his kingdom. Through prayer, God assures us that “he is able and willing to help us, so we by faith are emboldened to plead with him that he would, and quietly to rely upon him, that he will fulfill our requests” (WLC 196).

Pastoral ministry is a true paradox. Pastors must be tough enough to “wage the good warfare” while also remaining gentle enough to resemble “a nursing mother taking care of her children” (1 Tim. 1:18; 1 Thess. 2:7). Our call is to fight off the fierce wolves who would not spare the flock, and also to seek out the lost, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak (Acts 20:29; Ezek. 34:16). We must act like men and be strong, but not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick (1 Cor. 16:13; Matt. 12:20).
Every sincere pastor knows the difficulty of striking this balance in the heat of spiritual battle. In our sinful flesh, we are quick to pick a fight and, perplexingly, just as quick to retreat into passivity. Yet, as willing as our spirit may be, our flesh is weak—indeed, incapable—of speaking perfect truth in perfect love (Matt. 26:41; Eph. 4:15).
In this article, we will consider weapons for spiritual warfare that the Lord has given toward this end—not weapons of the flesh, but weapons of divine power (2 Cor. 10:4). Specifically, we will explore the Lord’s Prayer as a resource for cultivating paradoxical pastoral piety of fierce humility and meek boldness.
The Paradoxical Preface of the Lord’s Prayer
The preface of the Lord’s Prayer immediately establishes a balance between these seemingly contradictory values of boldness and humility: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” To begin, Jesus teaches us to pray to God as our Father, coming to him with “all…confidence, as children to a father able and ready to help us” (WSC 100). When my children need something, they do not care in the least what I am doing, whether working or sleeping. Instead, they burst directly into my presence to make their requests. Jesus says that we should approach our Father like uninhibited children.
Nevertheless, Jesus also teaches us to acknowledge that our Father is in heaven. If our God is in heaven, he does all that he pleases, and we would be fools to run our mouths with many words in his presence (Ps. 115:3; Eccl. 5:1–3). Therefore, we come with confidence as the children of our Father, but we also pray humbly, with “all holy reverence” (WSC 100) as the unworthy servants of Almighty God (Luke 17:10).
Thus, Jesus characterizes true piety—including true pastoral piety—as prayer from two postures: in boldness as sons and abasement as slaves. Jesus splits up the six petitions of the Lord’s Prayer into two sets of three petitions, working out the full implications of the two-sidedness of our posture in prayer.
Our Fierce Humility for the King and His Kingdom
The first set of three petitions teach us to pray in a posture of humility, but a kind of humility that fights. To do this, the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer reorients our attention and desires away from exalting ourselves, and toward glorifying the King and his kingdom.
First, we pray that God’s name would be “hallowed” or “sanctified.”
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God Has Something to Say in Your Worship Service

Through the reading and teaching from the Word, God teaches his people how to live and enlivens them to walk in his ways. What the Lord now declares through his ministers every Lord’s Day, he will finally, publicly, and personally confirm on the Last Day by the direct declaration of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Judge of the living and the dead.

Modern society brims with opportunities for people to get together and talk about something. In meetings, discussion groups, clubs, classes, forums, conferences, rallies, and protests, people gather to discuss matters that are important to them.
It is understandable, then, that we often treat corporate worship services in our local churches as a time for us to get together to talk about God, as though he were not present. For this reason, our worship services sometimes feel like a memorial service for someone who has died, as though we have gathered together to keep God’s memory alive by sharing stories from his life. Yet, if our worship unwittingly conveys the impression that God is absent or even dead, how will unbelievers fall on their faces and worship God, declaring that God is really among us (1 Cor. 14:25)?
The Scriptures correct us by teaching that worship is not where we gather together to speak about God; rather, worship is where God summons us into his presence in order to speak to us. To be sure, we will speak as well, but only as a response to what first God says to us.
In Reformed churches, this approach came to be called the “dialogical principle” of worship. God has established worship to be a time to do business with us through his Word, and our responsive praise and prayers. God begins the dialogue, calling us through his Word into his presence for worship. In response to God’s summons, we praise our Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Then, God speaks again through his Word to convict us of our sin, and we respond with prayers of confession. Continuing the dialogue, God responds to us from his Word with an assurance of his pardon through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, and we respond again with praise—but this time to praise God’s grace, mercy, and work of redemption through Christ. Back and forth the dialogue goes, all the way until the end, when God gets the final word by his benediction, in which he puts both his blessing and his name upon his people (Num. 6:27).
Psalm 50 stands as an enduring witness to this reality: “The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Ps. 50:1). From all these nations of the earth, God particularly calls his covenant people: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” (Ps. 50:5). The psalm is filled with imagery and language from the Mosaic covenant, including Sinai-like fire and storms (Ps. 50:3; Ex. 19:16–20),[1] and echoes of the Shema from Deuteronomy: compare “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) with “Hear… O Israel… I am God, your God” (Ps. 50:7).[2]
Importantly, God has not appointed worship to be a social mixer for his people to mingle, network, and share their ideas. Rather, God convenes his people for the specific purpose of covenantal judgment: “that he may judge his people” (Ps. 50:4).
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Minority Reports, CCB, & the SJC – Part 2: Why This is Important

The General Assembly retained one critical aspect of control over its judicial affairs by appointing CCB to review SJC’s minutes and report any possible exceptions, so that the General Assembly may direct SJC to retry cases where exceptions may arise. Within our procedural rules, the Assembly also retains the right to hear a minority report from CCB, and to substitute that minority report for the committee’s report…The General Assembly has delegated tremendous power to the SJC, and absent the ability of CCB to conduct a robust review of the SJC’s minutes — including the presentation of minority views to the Assembly — the SJC could violate its rules, leaving the parties to a case with no recourse.

In my last article, I detailed the parliamentary rules[1] which require minority reports from the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) the right to be presented to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for consideration. Further, I showed how our parliamentary rules for handling such minority reports establish a process for the Assembly to substitute the minority report from CCB’s (majority) committee report.
This process is important, because it gives the Assembly its full freedom to oversee the procedural accuracy of the Standing Judicial Commission’s (SJC) business. If the final CCB report — whether the original committee report, or a substituted minority report — discovers procedural errors in the operations of the SJC, our Book of Church Order (BCO) enables the Assembly to redress any errors by directing the SJC to retry a case if the Assembly judges such a step to be necessary for justice to be realized in the proceedings of church courts.
In this article, I lay out three reasons for why it is important for the PCA’s General Assembly to protect this procedure within the Church’s polity.

The General Assembly has Retained Oversight over the SJC by the Review of the SJC’s Minutes

We must remember that the General Assembly has delegated to the SJC nearly absolute authority to conclude judicial appeals and complaints that arise from the Presbyteries. Unlike judicial commissions designated at the presbytery level, the General Assembly has not reserved to itself the right of approving or disapproving the decisions of the SJC (BCO 15-3, 5).
Nevertheless, the Assembly has retained one crucial aspect of direct control over the SJC: the annual review of SJC’s minutes through CCB (BCO 15-5.a; RAO 17-1). As some noted during floor debate at the 49th General Assembly, the review of the SJC’s minutes is very different from the work of the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Our polity tasks RPR with reviewing the minutes of the PCA’s 88 presbyteries as one feature of the Assembly’s proactive work of “General Review and Control” of the lower courts of the presbyteries (BCO 40; RAO 16-1). Thus, RPR brings recommendations that the Assembly must approve.
The annual review of the SJC’s minutes, however, is not the proactive review of the proceedings of a lower court. Instead, it is a reactive identification of any issues (within a very limited scope) that the General Assembly then may cite as grounds for directing the SJC to retry a case (RAO 14-11.d.(2); 17-1). The report of CCB is non-binding, advisory, and for information only; however, without a report from CCB identifying possible exceptions in the SJC minutes (whether in the committee report, or in a substituted minority report), no motion is in order for the General Assembly to direct the SJC to retry a case. The identification of possible exceptions in a CCB report is the necessary prerequisite for a motion to retry a case.
Since this review of the SJC’s minutes is the only line of defense against an error in the SJC, it is a crucial check that the Assembly must not abdicate.

The General Assembly has Authority over its Committees and their Reports

Retaining the Assembly’s constitutional check on the SJC necessarily includes the right to substitute a minority report from CCB for the committee’s (majority) report. Therefore, minority reports differ from dissenting opinions by providing a procedural mechanism to give the full Assembly the final say in the case of differing opinions within the committee. The PCA’s committees operate under the authority of the Assembly, and not the other way around.
The authority of the Assembly over its committees rests on a fundamental principle of parliamentary law articulated in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, that a deliberative assembly may “establish and empower an effective leadership as it wishes, and at the same time to retain exactly the degree of direct control over its affairs that it chooses to reserve to itself” (RONR [12th ed.], “Principles Underlying Parliamentary Law,” emphasis added).
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[1] That is, the parliamentary rules governing the deliberations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), namely those procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR) and the PCA’s Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO).
[2] I am thankful to RE Matt Fender for suggesting this paragraph.
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Minority Reports, CCB, & the SJC – Part 1: The Parliamentary Rules

While RONR acknowledges that “Each society decides for itself the meaning of its bylaws,” the next sentence gives an important qualification: “When the meaning is clear, however, the society, even by a unanimous vote, cannot change that meaning except by amending its bylaws” (RONR [12th ed.] 56:68). I have argued in this article that the meaning of our rules is clear, so that the only way to forbid a minority from Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) from presenting a minority report would be to amend the RAO. Short of such an amendment, the General Assembly must permit such minority reports in the future.
At the 49th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) presented its annual report, which included the results of its review of the minutes of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), according to the PCA’s Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO):
The minutes, but not the judicial cases, decisions, or reports, of the Standing Judicial Commission shall be reviewed annually by the Committee on Constitutional Business. The minutes shall be examined for conformity to the “Operating Manual for Standing Judicial Commission” and RAO 17, violations of which shall be reported as “exceptions” as defined in RAO 14-11.d.(2). With respect to this examination, the Committee on Constitutional Business shall report directly to the General Assembly. If exceptions are taken with respect to a case, the Assembly may find this a ground to direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry the case. (RAO 17-1)
This year, two members of CCB issued a minority report, arguing that they differed from the majority by finding exceptions with respect to the SJC’s handling of Speck v. Missouri Presbytery. The Moderator ruled that this minority report should neither be heard nor moved as a substitute for the Committee’s report, and, upon appeal, the General Assembly narrowly sustained the Moderator’s ruling by a vote of 970-856.
In this article, I will explore the details of the parliamentary rules concerning minority reports to argue that, in my opinion, this ruling was in error. In a future article, I will argue why maintaining this procedure is so important for the health of the PCA.
I want to be clear at the outset that I am not interested in re-litigating the case in question, Speck v. Missouri Presbytery. That decision stands as the “the final decision of the General Assembly…to which there may be no complaint or appeal” (BCO 15-5). Thus, it is important to set aside the specific issues that this minority within CCB was trying to address from the general principle of whether any minority within CCB has the right to submit a minority report. I will argue that minorities of the CCB do have this right, and that future General Assemblies should allow them to do so.
Furthermore, I do not write this with any disrespect for past or future members of CCB, nor the Moderator of the 49th General Assembly. These are fathers and brothers whom I highly esteem, even though I may disagree with them here. Again, I am writing less with an eye to the past, and more with an eye toward preparing the way for future minority reports that may come from within CCB.
Accordingly, I will first explain the procedure for offering minority reports, and the implications of that procedure for CCB’s review of SJC minutes. Then, I will consider various objections that have been made against considering a minority report from CCB, comparing them to the binding principles that guide us in how we should interpret our rules.
What are Minority Reports?
First, let us briefly consider what minority reports are, and what they may accomplish. While our RAO includes a few relevant rules detailing the function of minority reports in the General Assembly of the PCA, the foundational rules for minority reports are in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR; 12th ed.) 51:64–71. Robert’s Rules defines a minority report as “the presentation of an expression of views in the name of a group of committee members not concurring with the committee report” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:64).
Minority Reports for Recommendations
Often, but not always, minority reports offer differing views regarding proposed recommendations in a committee’s report. In such cases, the minority can “(a) recommend rejection of the resolution [i.e., recommendation]; (b) recommend amendment of it; or (c) recommend adoption of some other suitable motion designed to dispose of the resolution appropriately” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:67).
The vast majority of minority reports dealt with during the proceedings of General Assemblies (e.g., from the Overtures Committee) deal with minority recommendations in this fashion.
Minority Reports for Information Only
Other minority reports, however, address proposed recommendations. In these cases, minority reports do not offer differing recommendations, but only different information: “If the committee report is for information only, the views of the minority may be similarly constructed [to the committee report] or may conclude with a motion” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:68).
Two paragraphs later, this concluding motion is clarified as a motion to substitute the minority in place of the committee report: “When a minority report is presented, it is for information, and it cannot be acted upon except by a motion to substitute it for the committee report.” (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70). If such a motion to substitute were adopted, the minority report would become the committee report.
If both the committee report and the minority report are for information only, what would the point be in substituting the minority report for the committee report?
Minority Reports from CCB
While there may be a number of reasons in different organizations for this procedure, the ability for a minority on CCB to move its report as a substitute for the Committee’s report is an important procedure. Within CCB’s review of SJC minutes, a minority may seek to present a minority report if the minority finds procedural errors in SJC’s handling of a case where the majority of the Committee does not. Or, vice versa, the minority may believe that the SJC’s handling of a case was free from error if the majority of the Committee believed that there were errors.
The importance of this procedure hinges on the fact that the General Assembly may only direct the SJC to retry a case after the CCB report determines that there were procedural errors in the case (BCO 15-5.a; RAO 17-1). Thus, the CCB report is the mechanism that permits a motion from the floor of the General Assembly to direct the SJC to retry a case. While the report itself is for information only, and without recommendations, the Assembly’s ability to make a motion to retry a case requires the presence of specific information that report: “If exceptions are taken with respect to a case, the Assembly may find this a ground to direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry the case” (RAO 17-1).
So, at the 49th General Assembly, a minority believed that there were errors in the SJC’s handling of a case. If that minority report had been permitted to be heard (as it should have, in my opinion), then the first question before the General Assembly would have been whether to substitute that minority report as the report of the committee (RONR [12th ed.] 51:70; RAO 19-2).
Subsequently, if the first motion to substitute the minority report as the committee report had been adopted, then a second question would have become permissible: namely, it would have been in order then (and only then) for someone from the floor at the General Assembly to move to direct the SJC to retry the case in question. If the first motion to substitute the minority report for the committee report had been defeated, then the second motion to direct the SJC to retry the case would not have been in order.
Regardless of what may have happened during these first or second motions, the minority report itself should have been presented. While we will deal more thoroughly with the importance of this procedure in the next article, two brief comments will suffice for the moment. First, this procedure of minority reports protects the authority of the General Assembly over its own committees by giving the Assembly the final say as to which version to receive as the report of a given committee. Second, this procedure of minority reports preserves the only check of accountability that the General Assembly has reserved to itself (BCO 15-5.a) over the otherwise carte blanche judicial authority delegated to the SJC. Overall, minority reports protect the General Assembly from being handcuffed by a bare majority of CCB in the execution of this constitutional oversight over SJC.
Next, we will examine the arguments that were presented against the minority report’s consideration in light of the PCA’s binding principles for interpreting our rules.
The PCA’s Parliamentary Rules Require Minority Reports from CCB to be Heard
The parliamentary rules of the PCA clearly require minority reports to be heard. While many of the rules for dealing with minority reports are found in RONR (see above), one of the biggest differences between RONR and the RAO is that RONR requires the permission of the Assembly by majority vote before hearing a minority report (RONR [12th ed.] 51:69). Our RAO (which supersedes RONR), however, grants this permission to all minority reports when it states that a minority “shall” be permitted to have the privilege of presenting:
When a minority of a committee wishes to present a minority report, the member reporting for the minority shall have the privilege of presenting the minority report and moving it as a substitute for the portion of the majority report affected. (RAO 19-2)
CCB member RE Matt Fender made reference to this provision when he attempted to move the minority report as a substitute for CCB’s report, observing that RAO 19-2 does not limit which committees are entitled to issue a minority report. When in conflict, particular rules apply rather than general rules (RONR [12th ed.] 3:2), and without a particular rule that excludes CCB from presenting minority reports, the general rule in RAO 19-2 applies.
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All Church Power is Only Ministerial & Declarative

The authority of the church, though, is in the authority of the Word of God. There is real power in the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and there is real power in the administration of the sacraments. When we declare God’s Word by reading it, and when we minister God’s Word through preaching and the sacraments, King Jesus exercises His authority over His church.

As a fundamental principle of church government in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), our Book of Church Order limits church power and authority to be only ministerial and declarative:
All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience. All church courts may err through human frailty, yet it rests upon them to uphold the laws of Scripture though this obligation be lodged with fallible men.
Preliminary Principle 7 (emphasis mine)
This is perhaps the most important principle for developing a thoroughly biblical ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). Understanding church power as only ministerial and declarative helps to navigate several thorny theological and practical issues of church government.
Church Power is Not Magisterial and Legislative
By affirming what church power is, we are also denying what church power is not. Specifically, we are denying the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that church power is magisterial and legislative. In Roman Catholicism, the Church (i.e., the Roman Catholic Church alone) holds the authority to establish dogma. The idea is that Jesus Christ has invested the church with a deposit of tradition that stands alongside the deposit of Scripture.
Protestants, on the other hand, believe that the church is entirely under the authority of the Scriptures. Since God speaks through his Word and Spirit alone, we must constantly reform our faith and practice by nothing but the Bible.
Therefore, the established doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that the Church itself (through a hierarchical Magisterium) holds two powers that Protestants reserve for God alone, speaking in and through His Word and by His Spirit.
Infallible Interpretations of Scripture
First, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that the Magisterium (i.e., the teaching authority of the Pope and the Bishops of the Church) includes the power to declare infallible interpretations of the Scripture.
Protestants affirm with Scripture that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). But, we believe that the Scriptures (i.e., the 66 canonical books of the Bible) themselves are infallible, not our interpretations of the Scriptures. Here is what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
WCF 1.10
All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.
WCF 31.3
We must submit even our confessional documents to the authority of Scripture. That is, we hold to our confessional statements only because we believe that they accurately expound the Scriptures. If our Creeds and Confessions teach something different from the Scriptures, we must obey the Scriptures. Only the Scriptures (and not our Creeds and Confessions) are the rule of faith.
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Does Jesus Really Want Me to Gouge Out My Eye or Cut off My Hand?

While we cannot heal our hearts by the mutilation of our own bodies, we must never forget that Jesus came to heal our hearts through the mutilation of his own body. Gouging out our eyes, or cutting off our hands, could never cleanse the impurities of our hearts; however, Jesus’ broken body and shed blood is the only way to purify our souls.

In view of the serious nature of sexual sin, Jesus urges extreme measures: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matt. 5:29–30).
This is a challenging message because Jesus’ meaning is so clear: we must do whatever it takes to avoid the sin of adultery. It would be better even to cut off members of the body rather than be thrown, body and soul, into hell forever.
Still, this passage always raises the major question: is Jesus really calling us to mutilate our bodies for the sake of the kingdom? There are two unsatisfying ways of answering this question.
Bad Interpretation #1: “Don’t Take it Literally”
The first unsatisfying way to interpret this passage is simply to insist on a non-literal interpretation: “The point of these admonitions is clear without pressing for a literal understanding of the words.”1 This approach seems to make some sense in that it relieves the difficulty of such a horrifying duty.
This approach does not work well, though, when we remember the overall point that Jesus is making throughout this section: the requirements of the law reach infinitely further than any of us would imagine. If it is true that anger renders us liable to the death penalty (Matt. 5:22), is it so outlandish to believe that we should rather cut out our eyes and cut off our hands rather than go to hell?
We cannot smooth out this passage simply by wishing away its offensiveness. We need a better explanation for what Jesus is saying than to simply wave the difficulties away as “non-literal.”

Bad Interpretation #2: “Literally Mutilate Your Body”

Still, it is also an unsatisfying interpretation of this passage to do precisely what Jesus suggests here. We never read in the Bible anywhere else of people gouging out their eyes to prevent themselves from lusting.
In the only passage that comes even close to suggesting such an action, Paul commends the people of Galatia for their willingness to gouge out their eyes for his sake—but with an acknowledgement that it would not have helped anything (“if possible”), and that they did not ultimately do such a thing (“you would have”; Gal. 4:15).
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Who is Permitted to Read the Word Publicly to the Congregation in the PCA?

The public reading of Scripture is not a light thing, but a grave exercise of Christ’s authority. Those who read Scripture publicly function as God’s very voice, directly addressing his people through his Word. To say that the reading of Scriptures is not an exercise of the church’s authority would be to suggest that worshipers in the congregation do not need to submit to the Word of God when it is read.

Within the PCA, there is a broad range of practices regarding who is permitted to read Scripture publicly within a worship service.[1] Some PCA churches restrict the public reading of the Word to the minister alone while others permit Christian men to read the Word. Still others allow even women and children to conduct the public reading of Scripture.
The causes for such diverse practices and opinions are not difficult to understand. The indirect answer in WLC #156 (“all are not permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation”), and the non-binding, unclear statement of BCO 50-2 (“The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation…should be done by the minister or some other person”), have opened the door to wide divergences in the PCA.[2] It is a mistake, however, to act as though Larger Catechism #156 and BCO 50-2 are the only relevant sections for giving our congregations direction about who may read the Word publicly.
In this article, then, I want to plead with fellow presbyters in the PCA to reclaim the biblical and historically Presbyterian understanding that the public reading of Scripture is an exercise of church authority. Accordingly, I will argue that the Scriptures and our constitution give us sufficient clarity about who is, and who is not, permitted to read the Word publicly.
Is the Public Reading of Scripture an Exercise of Authority?
Thankfully, the disagreement in the PCA about reading the Word publicly is not about whether women may exercise authority in the church (1 Tim. 2:12). Instead, the disagreement is about whether we should understand the reading of Scripture as an exercise of church authority. So, the Sessions who authorize women to read the Scriptures publicly may justify their actions by stating that simply to read the Bible publicly is not authoritative in the way that preaching is.
It is somewhat surprising, though, that we often do not consider this question of the public reading of Scripture in the light of a wider understanding of the biblical nature of authority in the church, as set down in the Preliminary Principles of the BCO. Preliminary Principle #7 is especially clarifying: “All church power…is only ministerial and declarative.” That is, within the church, there are only two lawful ways to exercise authority: (1) by ministering God’s word, or (2) by declaring God’s word.
Regarding the declarative aspect of church authority, we believe that the authority of the church does not consist in the power to legislate a new word from the Lord, but that we exercise authority whenever we declare the (old) word of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WSC #2). According to this definition, is the public reading of Scriptures an authoritative declaration of God’s word?
The answer to this question must be a resounding yes. Any time someone reads the Word of God publicly, that person is declaring, “Thus saith the Lord.” Indeed, we should notice the often overlooked (and, to my knowledge, uncontroversial) explanation of the nature of the public reading of Scripture in BCO 50-1: “Through [the public reading of the Holy Scriptures] God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon.” To read the Scriptures is to stand as God’s authoritative herald, declaring the word of God—even more directly than during the sermon.
So, Paul exhorts Timothy to devote himself to exhortation and teaching, and also “to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Then, Paul explains that these things (including the public reading of Scripture) were entrusted to him as a gift at his ordination, “when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Tim. 4:14). Ordination is therefore a conferring of authority for a man to read the Scriptures publicly, among his other duties.
Our authority, then, is only a stewardship of God’s authority, in his Word.
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Jesus Forbids Even Unintentional Lust (Matt. 5:27–28)

The beauty of repenting from our sinful desires is that we start to attack the corruption of concupiscence when it first rears its ugly head. We don’t give our sin a head-start until it brings us fully under its control, but we ask God to forgive us, and then to begin his work of putting that sin to death, even as he causes his holiness to grow in our heart. Yes, concupiscent desires are already a violation of the Seventh Commandment; however, it is far more heinous to allow those desires to keep growing to the point that they are “not only conceived in the heart,” but they fester until they “[break] forth in words and actions” (WLC 151.3).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his authoritative teaching on the law. Through this section, we find Jesus arguing against the legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees—that is, the legalism that relaxed the infinitely high standards of the law (Matt. 5:19–20):

Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees
In every age, the church must be vigilant to avoid legalism. We must never be like the Pharisees, who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:24). God tells us that his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but to…
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2 months ago · Jacob Gerber

After showing that the Sixth Commandment against murder forbids even anger at our brothers (Matt. 5:21–26), Jesus begins teaching about the true requirements of the Seventh Commandment against adultery. Similarly, Jesus criticizes the traditional teaching of the rabbis that restricted the requirements of the Seventh Commandment to forbid physical adultery alone.
Much more, Jesus insists that the Seventh Commandment requires “pure and holy affections of the heart.”1 That God forbids coveting our neighbor’s wife should have been clear from the Tenth Commandment (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).2 What Jesus intends to demonstrate, however, is that even the Seventh Commandment by itself deals with these questions of the heart.3
Result or Purpose?
Against a minimalistic view of the Seventh Commandment, Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). To understand the weight of Jesus’ words, we must ask an important question about the grammar of this sentence: is the lust the purpose of the looking, or the result of the looking? That is, does Jesus speak against the man’s lust when it is his purpose/intention for looking, or is Jesus talking about the lust that arises as a result from looking?
Looking with Lustful Intent?
Here, many (most?) commentators take the former sense of purpose, which is captured in the ESV’s translation of the verse: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent…”).4 According to this view of purpose, Jesus is condemning the man’s intentional, willful, volitional decision toward lust.
Lust Arising Unintentionally, Apart from Choice?
Two important technical resources, however, argue for the latter sense of result, rather than purpose. The first resource is Murray J. Harris’s widely renowned Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament classifies this as a result, rather than purpose, citing a similar use of πρός (pros) to describe result in John 11:4: “This illness does not lead to [πρός] death.”5 The second resource is the standard New Testament Greek lexicon, by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (BDAG), which classifies this phrase as “of the result that follows a set of circumstances (so that),” and translates the phrase as “one who looks at a woman with sinful desire.”6
According to this view of result, Jesus is condemning the lust itself that arises from looking on a woman—even when that lust arises unintentionally, and without any conscious decision of the will.
Matthew 5:28 in the Context of the Sermon on the Mount
How do we choose between the two interpretive options? To begin, we must consider the context of this passage. In the immediate context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is revealing the full scope of the requirements of the law—requirements that go much further than we realize. So, Jesus taught that anger alone violates the Sixth Commandment (Matt. 5:22), and there is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that this anger would be a conscious, volitional choice.
The immediate context, then, strongly suggests that Jesus is not only condemning clear, deliberate, willful choices to lust, but also (as with anger) instantaneous reactions of lust that arise from looking at someone who is not our spouse. So, it is not only a violation of the Seventh Commandment to commit physical adultery, and not only a violation when we deliberately stoke lust in our hearts, although both of those would be included.
Beyond that, Jesus is saying that any sexual desire toward someone who is not our spouse is already the sin of adultery—adultery of the heart. So, take a man who is minding his own business, but who happens to look up and sees a woman. If that man begins to experience unbidden, unchosen, and undesired sexual desires toward her rising in his heart, then that man has already sinned.
This, of course, is a heavy standard. How can we justify such a strict view of the the requirements of the law?

The Doctrine of Concupiscence

To understand the grounds on which Jesus condemns even unintentional lust, we must understand what theologians call the doctrine of concupiscence. Concupiscence is the Latin word for (sinful) desire or lust (concupiscentia), and, in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, this is the word that translates this key phrase in our passage: “ad concupiscendum eam” (“unto desiring/lusting after her”). This is also the Latin word that translates the word for “covet” in the Tenth Commandment (“Non concupisces…” [“You shall not covet…”]; Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).
Thus, concupiscence describes sinful desires, or desires that incline toward sin. The question that theologians have debated for centuries has to do with whether concupiscence is in itself is sin, or whether concupiscence does not become sin until the will consents to the sin that concupiscence desires.
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