The PCA Should Seek a Better Revision: Reasons to Vote Against Amending BCO 32-20

The PCA Should Seek a Better Revision: Reasons to Vote Against Amending BCO 32-20

The proposed amendment does not so much revise BCO 32-20 as it removes one provision and substitutes it with another. It removes the requirement binding the church to act in a timely manner to uphold the honor of Christ in cases of scandal. In its place, it leaves the question of what constitutes a timely matter to uncertain whims of individual church courts resulting in differing actions based on undefined variables.

The Book of Church Order (BCO) 32-20, as it presently stands, binds the Church to act in a timely manner in cases of public scandal where the reputation of Christ is at stake. The question is: do we really want to remove this requirement for the Church to act in a timely manner in cases of scandal? The proposed amendment does so. For the honor of Christ, we should preserve this requirement, vote down the proposed amendment, and seek an amendment that better addresses the valid concerns raised in the original overture.

BCO 32-20

The present version of BCO 32-20 reads, “Process, in case of scandal, shall commence within the space of one year after the offense was committed, unless it has recently become flagrant” (emphasis added). Timely action is not optional: in cases scandal the Church shall act within the space of one year.

Ramsay and Smith’s Comment on BCO 32-20

In commenting on this paragraph in the PCA’s BCO, both F. P. Ramsay and Morton Smith say the purpose is to incite the church to the prompt prosecution of scandal (a flagrant public offense of practice which is bringing open disgrace on Christ). Ramsay explains:

The principle is that, if the Church neglects to commence process against scandal (which is any flagrant public offence of practice bringing disgrace on the Church) within a year, she is debarred from thereafter doing it. This is not to shield the offender, but to incite to the prompt prosecution of such offences. Offences not so serious or scandalous the Church may bear with the longer while seeking to prevent scandal; but for no consideration is the Church to tolerate such offences as are scandalous.

Do we really want to remove this incitement, this incentive?

Context

Overture 22 was brought before the PCA General Assembly past midnight on Thursday night. We were informed by the stated clerk that the venue was requiring us to leave by 12:45AM. Consequently, the Assembly didn’t have much time or energy to give this overture due consideration. A substitute motion was made to refer Overture 22 to the following year’s Overtures Committee, but (predictably, given the time), there was no discussion. The substitute motion was defeated and the proposed amendment passed.

A revision to BCO 32-20 deserves better consideration.

The Proposed Amendment

The proposed amendment does not so much revise BCO 32-20 as it removes one provision and substitutes it with another. It removes the requirement binding the church to act in a timely manner to uphold the honor of Christ in cases of scandal. In its place, it leaves the question of what constitutes a timely matter to uncertain whims of individual church courts resulting in differing actions based on undefined variables.

The proposed amendment reads: “There is no statute of limitations, per se, for prosecuting offenses. However, the accused or member of the court may object to the consideration of a charge, for example, if he thinks the passage of time since the alleged offense makes fair adjudication unachievable. The court should consider factors such as the gravity of the alleged offense as well as what degradations of evidence and memory may have occurred in the intervening period.”

Why One Year?

Overture 22 treated BCO 32-20, in effect, as a statute of limitations. It recognized that BCO 32-20 does not establish a statute of limitations for all offenses. Then it went on to argue that a statute of limitations of one-year makes little sense for cases of scandal. “Expeditious process is certainly important in such a case, but if the cause of Christ is jeopardized by the Church’s neglect of timely discipline, how would disallowing prosecution on day 366 repair the matter? The scandal would continue, unabated.”

Ramsay does say that the effect of BCO 32-20 is that, if the Church fails to act within a year in a case of scandal, she is debarred thereafter from doing it. But then he points out that the intent is not to shield the offender (the main purpose is not to establish a statute of limitations): the purpose is to incite the Church to act to uphold the honor of Christ in cases of public scandal.

Still, the question stands: what is the point of debarring the Church from acting after one year? The point of acting within a year is to ensure that fair adjudication takes place while it is still achievable—before degradations of evidence and memory make it impossible. In less serious matters, as Ramsay points out, the Church may risk the passage of time while it labors to avoid scandal. But in cases where Christ’s name is already being drug through the mud, the Church must take prompt action. It cannot risk degradations of evidence and memory making adjudication impossible: then the scandal really would continue, unabated!

What about Cases of Abuse?

Overture 22 did point out a valid concern: cases of alleged abuse. It is difficult to commence process within the space of one year after the offense was committed, since allegations of abuse often surface and become scandalous well after the alleged abuse took place. The present version of BCO 32-20 does seem to make adjudication impossible in such cases, and this weakness in the PCA’s BCO should be addressed.

But a better revision should continue to bind the Church to address allegations of abuse promptly. It could, for instance, be revised to say the church shall act within the space of one year after the offense has become scandalous. In the case of scandal, the “start time” is typically definite: there was a time the scandal broke and become public. In the case of abuse, there is a definite time when the allegation was made. We should bind ourselves to take those allegations seriously and commence process in a timely manner while fair adjudication is still possible—both for the honor of Christ and the good of alleged victim.

Precedent Cases

There is no need to amend BCO 32-20 in such a drastic way. The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) found the present wording in BCO 32-20 useful in deciding a number of recent cases.[1] If the proposed amendment were in force these cases might have been judged with different outcomes. This provision has been tested and found useful, not wanting as is alleged in the reasoning for changing it.

Conclusion

For the honor of Christ, we need to amend the present wording of BCO 32-20, let us offer wording that does not remove the principles that have guided the PCA since its beginning. We can seek to address those valid concerns raised by Overture 22 without eviscerating the entirety of the present wording, and at the same time will continue to bind the Church to act promptly in cases of scandal, including abuse. Overture 22 recognizes that expeditious process is important in such cases, but the proposed amendment may actually be fighting against itself by effectively removing this requirement. In reality, the proposed amendment lets church courts off the hook by allowing them to delay acting when justice demands speedier judicial process.

Since we as can do better than what the BCO 32-20 amendment proposes, presbyteries should vote not to approve the amendment, and then let us work on drafting a more effective one.

Anton Heuss is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Bethel PCA in Dallas, Texas.

[1] Here are two cases decided by the Standing Judicial Commission using the present wording of BCO 32-20. These precedents have already proved useful in guiding lower church courts in their conduct of cases. See SJC 2016-05, Troxell v Southwest Presbytery (https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/45th_pcaga_2017.pdf, pp. 514-520), and SJC 2019-08, Ganzel v Central Florida Presbytery (to be published in the Minutes of the 48th General Assembly).

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