Comparing Overture 15’s Dissenters to Presbytery Votes
To date (January 25, 2023), 51 presbyteries have voted on Overture 15, with 30 voting to pass and 21 voting not to pass, under the two-thirds threshold to bring the amendment to the floor of the 50th General Assembly. Overture 15 has passed in 81 percent of the presbyteries without a dissenting commissioner (17-4), while it has only passed in 47 percent of the presbyteries with a dissenting commissioner (14-16).
Recording a dissent is an important feature of presbyterian polity. It allows officers to disagree respectfully with their fellow elders, expresses solemn opposition to a position held by a majority, and provides transparency and accountability in public record. While I’ve voiced my own approval of Overture 15, nonetheless I am grateful for the men who had the conviction to record their dissent, as well as for the process that allowed them to do so.
Although members of a court agree to submit to the outcome of a vote, the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order allows for members of a court to record a dissent or protest (BCO 45-1). A dissent is “a declaration on the part of one or more members of a minority, expressing a different opinion from the majority in its action on any issue before the court, and may be accompanied with the reasons on which it is founded” (BCO 45-2).
Recorded in the minutes of the 49th General Assembly are the names of the commissioners who recorded their dissent from the majority that passed Overture 15 (see pp. 80-85 in the GA minutes).
Although the reasons for a dissent may be recorded to accompany the names of those dissenting (BCO 45-2), so long as it is “couched in temperate language” (BCO 45-5), no reasons accompany the names of those dissenting in the minutes. Since that time, various individuals have published their opinions and reasons for dissenting in writing.
Who are the dissenters?
Altogether, 199 commissioners representing 58 presbyteries recorded their dissenting vote. Ruling elders (44, 22%) were disproportionately underrepresented among dissenters relative to their presence in the court (663, 31%), while teaching elders (155, 78%) were disproportionately overrepresented by the same comparison (1499, 69%).
The data seem to suggest that REs are more likely than TEs to support the passage of Overture 15, though of course more research would be needed to confirm such a hypothesis. Given this pattern, it is also interesting to note the presbyteries where the number of REs dissenting exceeded the number of TEs dissenting (Evangel, Southern New England, Southern Louisiana, and Philadelphia, each with one more RE than TE dissenting).
Which presbyteries did dissenters represent?
Nashville presbytery had the greatest number of dissenters with 19 (7 REs, 12 TEs). Evangel (6 REs, 5 TEs) and Metropolitan New York (1 RE, 10 TEs) each had 11 dissenters, Missouri presbytery (3 REs, 7 TEs) had 10, and Northern California (1 RE, 7 TEs) had eight. Five other presbyteries had six dissenters each. Another 48 presbyteries had five or fewer, including 20 each with one dissenter.
Thirty presbyteries did not have a single commissioner recording a dissenting vote. They are: Arizona, Ascension, Canada West, Columbus Metro, Fellowship, Grace, Gulf Coast, Heartland, Heritage, Illiana, Iowa, James River, Korean Northeastern, Korean Northwest, Korean Southern, New Jersey, New River, Northern New England, Northwest Georgia, Ohio, Pee Dee, Philadelphia Metro West, Platte Valley, Providence, Savannah River, Siouxlands, Southeast Alabama, Southwest Florida, Warrior, West Hudson.
What is the status of these presbyteries with respect to Overture 15?
As recording a dissent indicates more impassioned opposition to Overture 15, it is reasonable to believe that these commissioners may be playing a role to that effect in their presbyteries. To date (January 25, 2023), 51 presbyteries have voted on Overture 15, with 30 voting to pass and 21 voting not to pass, under the two-thirds threshold to bring the amendment to the floor of the 50th General Assembly. Overture 15 has passed in 81 percent of the presbyteries without a dissenting commissioner (17-4), while it has only passed in 47 percent of the presbyteries with a dissenting commissioner (14-16).
As I’ve already stated, I have great respect for presbyterian polity, and the processes by which men debate issues at hand, vote, and even express disagreement with outcomes. It is therefore important for men elected to office to engage with the issues and participate in the process. This includes both teaching and ruling elders. Given some of the disparities on those dissenting, for good or for ill, ruling elders are the tillermen who will help steer the direction of the PCA by their participation or lack thereof.
Matthew Lee is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, AR.