When Justice is Out of Order

When Justice is Out of Order

When a woman’s case is twice as likely to be blocked on procedural grounds, it is difficult indeed to perceive “that our system is just.” Based on the data alone, it looks quite unjust. And the men who made that statement were aware that “perception [of justice in the PCA system] is essential to the moral and spiritual force we trust our discipline will have for the good of the church.” Can there be any “moral and spiritual force” for disciplinary processes that appear unjust?

Did you know that PCA church courts are more likely to block complaints from women than those from men? I suspected that to be the case, but didn’t have the data to prove it until digging through the past 49 years of PCA judicial proceedings.[1] I was curious if there is objective support for concerns raised by others in the PCA about how the church courts are serving its members, especially the vulnerable. For example, the PCA magazine byFaith did a write up when the Ad Interim Study Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault[2] published their report[3] earlier this year. One of the committee members interviewed for that article expressed concerns in particular about help for female church members:

Women in the PCA must recognize there is more work to be done (a lot of educating to be done!) before they can have assurance their case will be shepherded well.”[4]

That comment raises a question: why would women want or need “assurance [that] their case will be shepherded well”? We could easily answer that question through personal testimony, but in my experience, the testimony of women carries much less weight than men. So consider with me some objective data to see if it answers why women need assurance their cases will be shepherded well.

In the last 50 years the highest court of the Presbyterian Church in America, the General Assembly and its Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), has heard 429 cases.[5] Of those 429 cases, 138 were ruled “out of order” on either administrative or judicial grounds. These out of order (OOO) rulings are based on the requirements of the PCA constitution, the Book of Church Order (BCO). The BCO provides detailed and often complex rules to which a case must conform in order to be adjudicated, including time frames for filing complaints, questions of jurisdiction and which church court is responsible, and who has the right to seek assistance from PCA courts. Once a case is ruled OOO, the church court is essentially done with the matter unless the member objects to the ruling and seek assistance from the next higher court.

So 138 out of 429 cases were determined to be OOO. That is a high percentage (32%), nearly 1/3 of all cases.[6] There has also been an increase over the last 40 years, starting in 1992, in the rate of OOO rulings. If we take the last 10 years since 2011, the average number of OOO rulings is 47.25%.[7] That’s quite a big jump from the overall rate of 32%. With that average and overall increase, one wonders if members of the PCA should expect future cases to have a 50/50 chance of being heard.

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[1] See Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/index.html. Data from 2022 is not available yet, I plan to update and revise my findings once the 2022 GA Minutes are published.

[2] https://dasacommittee.org

[3] https://dasacommittee.org/committee-report

[4] https://byfaithonline.com/pca-abuse-study-committee-releases-its-report/

[5] Calculating total number of cases is not straightforward. For these statistics I omitted cases that were either abandoned or withdrawn. Additionally, there are often multiple “cases,” “complaints” and “appeals” each year that relate to the same substantial matter. As much as possible, I counted the number of cases in accord with how the SJC reported them, e.g., if they grouped multiple cases together and ruled them as one, it only counted for one case.

[6] This is in the ballpark of a calculation from ruling elder and SJC member Howie Donahoe in a dissenting opinion from 2018: “In the 18 years between June 1997 and June 2015, the SJC rendered out-of-order rulings in 94 cases, i.e., in 36% of the 257 cases it received” (https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/46th_pcaga_2018.pdf, p. 579).

[7] 2019 and 2021 are anomalous, with 100% and 0% out-of-order rulings respectively. If 2022 likewise had zero cases ruled OOO there might be cause to rethink the overall trend.

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