Reasons for PCA Presbyteries to Vote Against Amending BCO 15 Regarding Commissions

Reasons for PCA Presbyteries to Vote Against Amending BCO 15 Regarding Commissions

In summary, these changes would make the PCA a less “grassroots Presbyterian” denomination. They would have the effect of making Presbyteries weaker—weaker in comparison to the General Assembly and weaker in relation to their own judicial commissions. They would concentrate power at “the top” of our denomination, and place important powers of presbytery into the hands of “the few.” Presbyteries would be wise to reject these changes to our BCO.

Against Item 3

Among the items the 49th Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly sent down to Presbyteries for approval is Item 3 (Overture 25 from the Houston Metro Presbytery). This overture would amend chapter 15 of the Book of Church Order (BCO), changing the way that Presbytery judicial commissions handle cases.

Under the current system, Presbyteries may commit a judicial case to a commission, but the commission cannot conclude the case it is given. Rather, after trying the case, the commission must submit a full statement of the case and the judgment it rendered to Presbytery. Then, without debate, Presbytery either approves or disapproves the judgment.[1] To put it simply, the commission does all the work of the trial, but the Presbytery approves the final decision.

The proposed amendment would change two things. First, it would make the judgment of judicial commissions final: Presbytery would not have to approve anything. Second, it would require that complaints related to the case be heard by the commission that tried the case, not the Presbytery as a whole.[2]

These changes are not flashy or outwardly exciting. They intend to simplify our BCO, making all Presbytery commissions function similarly, and removing an extra step from our already complex judicial process. However, these changes would prove inadvertently detrimental to our church and her government.

In summary, these changes would make the PCA a less “grassroots Presbyterian” denomination. They would have the effect of making Presbyteries weaker—weaker in comparison to the General Assembly and weaker in relation to their own judicial commissions. They would concentrate power at “the top” of our denomination, and place important powers of presbytery into the hands of “the few.” Presbyteries would be wise to reject these changes to our BCO.

Grassroots Presbyterianism

The PCA is often described as a grassroots Presbyterian denomination. One of the easiest ways to understand what grassroots Presbyterianism means is to look at what our Book of Church Order says about two things: power and parity.


Our BCO specifies that the power to make judgments affecting the life of the church belongs to the elders of the church acting jointly in a church court.[3] The Lord Jesus has committed this power exclusively to the courts of the church, and so in the PCA it belongs exclusively to Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly.[4]

Because Christ gave this power specifically to the courts of the church, courts can never delegate this power to some other body. Just as an elder cannot delegate his preaching responsibility to a non-elder, a church court cannot delegate their responsibility to make binding judgments of doctrine and discipline to some other body of Christians.[5]


The PCA BCO also specifies that there is parity across the various courts of the church. One often hears about one kind of parity in the PCA—the parity between ruling elder (RE) and teaching elder (TE). Though TEs have been given the special responsibility of Word and Sacrament ministry, they and REs are the same thing at the end of the day: elders.

The same can be said about church courts. Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly differ in certain respects, but at the end of the day they are all “Presbyteries” in that each is composed of presbyters.[6] This means that Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly all possess the same inherent powers (BCO 11-3, 4). A Session has just as much right to resolve a question of doctrine, or judge a discipline case, as the GA, and the decision of each is equally binding.[7]

Protecting the PCA

These features of grassroots Presbyterianism aren’t just interesting “distinctives” of the PCA. They have the very practical effect of guarding the church against hierarchical Presbyterianism and oligarchical Presbyterianism.[8] These two deformities of biblical polity aren’t just imagined boogeymen. They are legitimate dangers to the life of the church, and were instrumental to the decline of both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches in the 20th century.

In a hierarchical polity, a higher court has more power than a lower court, and ends up dominating it. There is no longer parity between the courts. In such a situation, the General Assembly would wield inordinate power over Presbyteries and Sessions, giving it great power to steer the entire denomination. Even the barest majority of the Assembly would be able to direct the church on any ecclesial matter.

In an oligarchical polity, power resides not in courts, but in committees.[9] The courts lose their exclusive right to exercise their God-given powers, having delegated them to smaller groups of men. These groups of men functionally replace the courts of the church. Even though power formally resides in the court, the court is held captive to the committees which practically exercise all the power.

All one needs to do to see the danger of these two polity dynamics is imagine that your “side” is in the minority at the General Assembly, or the minority of the various committees of the courts. Regardless of what “side” one is on, we all should want to preserve the grassroots nature of the PCA.

Protecting Grassroots Presbyterianism

The proposed amendment to BCO 15 would have two effects that damage grassroots Presbyterianism in the PCA. First, it would weaken Presbyteries in comparison to the General Assembly. Presbyteries would lose power that the Assembly would maintain—the power to correct any perceived error in the action of a judicial commission—making the Assembly a more powerful court. Presbyteries would then have to rely on the Assembly for something they formerly were able to handle themselves. Second, it would weaken Presbyteries in comparison to their judicial commissions. Presbyteries would have no natural mechanism to overrule a judicial commission, making commissions unduly powerful and functionally independent of the Presbytery itself. These effects would make the PCA both more hierarchical and more oligarchical—the Assembly would have more power than Presbyteries, and Presbytery judicial commissions would be functionally unaccountable to Presbyteries.

A Practical Example

These problems with Item 3 might seem theoretical at first glance, and perhaps minor in nature, but they would become very real when a messy discipline case comes before Presbytery. Imagine that a discipline case arises in your Presbytery and that Presbytery refers it to a judicial commission. Under the amended version of BCO 15, the commission conducts a trial, renders a judgment, and ends the matter. But what happens if it becomes apparent to the great majority of Presbytery that the commission erred in its judgment? These members can raise a complaint, but the same judicial commission would now hear and adjudicate the complaint. If they dismiss the complaint, then there is nothing else the members can do at the level of Presbytery. The commission’s judgments on the case and the complaint reign supreme. In a real way, the commission has replaced Presbytery in the exercise of judicial power. The commission has the power here, not Presbytery. The only recourse Presbytery has now is to raise the complaint to the General Assembly. Rather than having the natural power to overrule their commission, they must rely on what amounts to a more powerful court to rectify the matter.

Now consider the above scenario under the current version of BCO 15. The commission has erred. A great majority of Presbytery believes them to have erred.  To correct the error, these Presbyters need not complain to the commission and then raise the complaint to the General Assembly if that proves unsuccessful. All they need to do is not approve the recommended verdict of the commission. They then can either assign the case to a new commission, or try the case as a whole. Presbytery reigns supreme over its commission, and it does not need the General Assembly’s help or permission to do so.

The amendment to BCO 15 would lead to powerful judicial commissions and weak presbyteries, both of which would damage the PCA’s grassroots Presbyterianism.

An Amendment Without Good Reason

Item 3 originated as Overture 25 from Houston Metro Presbytery. In the overture, two main reasons are given for amending BCO chapter 15. First, it is said that requiring Presbytery to ratify the decision of a judicial commission is “a source of confusion and misapplication by Presbyteries.”[10] While I can readily sympathize with BCO-induced confusion, I have a hard time doing so with the matter of Presbytery judicial commissions. The very first sentence of chapter 15, which has the title “Ecclesiastical Commissions,” explicitly states that Presbytery judicial commissions operate differently than all other commissions, and references the paragraph within the chapter that sets forth the rules governing them.[11] Surely at least one member of Presbytery would think to read chapter 15 when Presbytery seeks to establish a judicial commission!

Of greater interest is the second reason given in the overture. It is said that requiring Presbytery to ratify the decision of a judicial commission runs counter to the purpose of commissions in general. Commissions are supposed to “deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it,” but Presbytery judicial commissions are not fully allowed to do so.[12] This reason is a far stronger one, as it suggests that BCO 15 arbitrarily distinguishes between types of commissions, and therefore it arbitrarily restricts the power of Presbytery to address its own business.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Overture 25, there is good reason to distinguish between judicial and non-judicial commissions of Presbytery. The key difference between these two types of commissions is how they relate to the judgments that Presbytery makes. Consider a common commission of Presbytery: an ordination commission. It deliberates upon a number of matters relevant to the business of ordination (day, time, giving a charge, etc.) before concluding the business (actually ordaining a person). However, the commission does not judge that the man is ordainable. That judgment has already been determined by the Presbytery as a whole. The commission simply carries out the will of Presbytery.

The above example helps us to see why it is proper to distinguish between judicial and non-judicial commissions of Presbytery. In the case of the ordination commission, the Presbytery has already made a judgment on the matter at hand (ordination) and the commission enacts this judgment. In the case of a judicial commission, the Presbytery has not made a judgment on the matter at hand (the guilt or innocence of the accused). Indeed, it is part of the very nature of a judicial commission that Presbytery cannot have made any judgment at all—that is what a trial is for. Because there is no judgment, the commission has no right to enact any judgment. The judgment of the commission only becomes final when the Presbytery makes it their own.


The PCA is not perfect, and neither is our polity. But the glorious thing about our polity is that it can be more and more conformed to the command of Scripture. The Lord Jesus Christ is King and Head of the Church, and He has appointed a government for it. It is our duty to conform our polity to the appointment of our King. While he reigns supreme over the Church as an exalted King, he administers his government through lowly elders. In his perfect wisdom, He has given the responsibility of judgment to elders acting together in courts, not acting individually. We cannot improve on this, and our polity should reflect these principles as clearly as possible.

Rather than clarifying these principles in our polity, Item 3 obscures them. Therefore, it should be defeated.

Stephen O’Neill is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Assistant Pastor of Hope PCA in Lawrenceville, NJ.

[1] Though the presbytery cannot debate the verdict of the commission, there is nothing in the BCO that would prevent questions being asked of the commission from the floor of Presbytery.

[2] Complaints are addressed in chapter 43 of the BCO. Notable for the purpose of this article is BCO 43-2, the first sentence of which reads: “A complaint shall first be made to the court whose act or decision is alleged to be in error.” With the current language, Presbytery, not the commission of Presbytery, receives and addresses complaints.

[3] BCO 3-2 distinguishes between the “several” powers and the “joint” powers. The “several” powers are those that can be exercised by an officer individually (i.e., “severed” from the court). Preaching is an example of a several power. The “joint” powers are always exercised in church courts in the form of judgments rendered by the courts.

[4] The classic example of this in Scripture is the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. There, after careful deliberation, “the apostles and the elders” render judgment on doctrinal matters that become binding on the churches.

[5] This point was stressed by James Henley Thornwell when the 1847 Old School General Assembly considered a report on the topic of ecclesiastical commissions. Thornwell agreed that ecclesiastical commissions could exercise any power the court possessed, but not as a delegated power. Commissions exercise the powers of the court as the court itself. The commission, in a sense, is the court. An unappreciated consequence of this is that all members of church courts are, de jure, members of commissions of the court. See James Henley Thornwell, “The General Assembly,” Southern Presbyterian Review 1, vol. 2 (September 1847): 83-85.

[6] BCO 10-1 states: The Church is governed by various courts, in regular gradation, which are all, nevertheless, Presbyteries, as being composed exclusively of presbyters.

[7] This is why higher courts are instructed to grant great deference to lower courts (BCO 39-3), and why higher courts only take up the business of lower courts under specific circumstances. Either a lower court asks the higher court to take up a matter, or some allegation of error is made against the lower court and filed in due order.

[8] The PCA’s first three stated clerks, Morton Smith, Paul Gilchrist, and Roy Taylor, have all written about the grassroots nature of the PCA’s polity in opposition to hierarchy and oligarchy. Dr. Smith’s “How is the Gold Become Din,” and Dr. Taylor’s “Non-Hierarchical Presbyterianism” can be found on Dr. Gilchrist’s “Distinctives of Presbyterian Church Government” can be obtained from the PCA historical center, though it is not on the website.

[9] I use committee in a non-technical sense here, referring to any subset of a body that has been given some task, role, or power by the larger body. True committees, commissions, boards, and agencies all fall under this broader use of “committee.”

[10] Overture 25 can be found in the 49th General Assembly Commissioner Handbook, 97.

[11] The sentence reads: “A commission differs from an ordinary committee in that while a committee is appointed to examine, consider and report, a commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it, except in the case of judicial commissions of a Presbytery appointed under BCO 15-3.”

[12] Commissioner Handbook, 97. The overture references the previously cited sentence, but excludes the special provision for Presbytery judicial commissions.

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