Category Archives: Confessions

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

On this Fourth Day of Christmastide in the “Fools rush in” department, you might want to play along with me in a simple thought exercise.

Our starting presumption is Sola Scriptura – the good old Scripture Alone admonition of the Reformation.

Now given that let me ask “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

From the four Gospels we have four accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Yes, Mark is minimalist with the call of Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And the account in John is more symbolic with “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us.” The accounts in Matthew and Luke, while more detailed, each have very different emphases.

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

Looking a little further, we can raise the question of when was Jesus born? I won’t go into the year as that is well worn territory and there are historical landmarks for that in the texts. The date of December 25 is a bit more problematic as there are really no solid clues as to the date of birth and even the date of December 25th has multiple possible origins.

So, based on Scripture, when should we be celebrating?

Finally, if we are to be guided by Scripture in our worship, what is the pattern we find of the early church for celebrating the nativity? The New Testament gives us no mention that it was a point of worship and it is not until the late second century that the church fathers make mention of trying to put a date on it. (Hint: the date is not certain and it certainly is not in December.) And then it is not until the early fourth century that a date becomes standardized and celebrations develop around it.

So, based on Scripture, how are we to be celebrating?

Therefore, based on Scripture alone, do we have enough evidence or direction to even be celebrating it?

Now, moving on from this thought exercise, is it any wonder that our predecessors in the Reformed branch in the Reformation, who were trying to recapture the basic core of the Christian faith and throw off all the human innovations of the intervening 1500 years, decided that the Feast of the Nativity could be dispensed with? There is no question that our modern celebration of it has issues, such as the good old question about whether the three gifts from the magi mean there were three magi or why we add the magi to all the characters in the stable scene when Matthew clearly states they found Jesus in a house.

But taking the long view – a trend I seem to be on at the moment – why do we take it as seriously we do? The Scottish Reformation led to Christmas not being celebrated until 1956 in Scotland and in the U.S. it was not a formal national civic holiday until 1870 although introduced in many states before then.

The churches that have the Second Helvetic Confession as a confessional standard, such as the PC(USA), are probably covered since Chapter 24 does provide for certain special days:

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

But if your confessional standards include the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship of God you have an appendix in there that begins:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

This year the specter of the War On Christmas has been raised again. Personally, I have to chuckle a bit because my doctrinal heritage has been a long-standing war on the holy-day from the other perspective. Rather than being an attempt to remove the religion from the holiday it has been an effort to remove the holy-day from the religion. It is the view that Scripture is so important that if the event is not clearly defined in it then there is no warrant to celebrate it.

Let me take this moment to confess that I personally live in a tension about this holy-day. While I acknowledge all the difficulties and perspectives mentioned above I also recognize the importance of the fact the event did indeed occur and if we are to remember the conclusion and significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry it is also important to recognize the beginning of his earthly presence. It is not just a celebration of certain stories but a time to recognize the beginning of the Incarnation, the coming of Emmanuel – God With Us.

So, in whatever manner you celebrate this holiday, best wishes to you and yours as we remember the coming of him whose work was foretold throughout the Old Testament. And whether you celebrate this season or not, may we always remember that at one point in history God was present in this fallen world and would ultimately give up his human life as a sacrifice for us.


First, let me acknowledge at this point that in most cases the five solas of the Reformation are considered mostly in matters of essential doctrine and are cited primarily in the matter of the doctrine of justification. As the Second Helvetic Confession passage above mentions the celebration of events from Scripture are, in the view of most, a matter of Christian liberty and not an essential. Further sola scriptura says that Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice but again, as implied above, our understanding can be further informed by the subordinate standards of the creeds and confessions.

If you want other commentaries on this topic you might be interested in a through article titled The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism or a perspective published by the OPC titled Is Christmas Scriptural? which answers the question in the negative. And yesterday it turns out that Church Norris weighed in on aspects of this topic arguing that the lack of public observance of Christmas did not mean that Colonial and early American religious and civic leaders were not religious.

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 2: He’s In My Church?

I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”

In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.

But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.

So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.

Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.

And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.

It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.

But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…

[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]

Learn Eldership – A New Publication From The Church Of Scotland

Eldership_coverMy copy of a new Church of Scotland publication arrived in the mail this week. Their new book for training elders as part of the Learn program is simply titled Learn Eldership and it has been a best seller with pre-orders selling out the first press run in three weeks.

The list price with St. Andrew Press, the publishing arm of the Kirk, is £10.00, but you can get it for £7.00, or less in volume, by going through the Resourcing Mission site. The publication date is this Tuesday, March 2, but these distribution channels shipped as soon as they had it in stock. However, the postage to ship it outside the UK could more than double the cost of the book if, like me, you live on the other side of the world. However, I see that Amazon is taking pre-orders for the release this coming Tuesday so that will mean lower-cost shipping for many of us.

There are very good reasons that this 75-page book quickly became a best seller — from a design and structure point of view it is one of the best books for training ruling elders that I have seen. The flow of the book is logical beginning with an Introduction (think of it as the “what am I getting myself into” talk), a section on the Fundamentals like the Bible, creeds and prayer (contextually like the PC(USA) has created the new Foundations section of the Book of Order), and it then talks about Understanding the Kirk and Serving the Kirk.

While it has this flow the articles in it are short, easily read, and written by a wide variety of experienced leaders. And each article is pretty much self-contained and they do not need to be read in any particular order. For example, here is the article on Pastoring the Parish:

Eldership_pageIt gives you a good feel for the contemporary design and length of article.

Now, I realize that the quality of a book on Eldership should not just be about the layout and typeface but about the content and relevance. Again, this struck me as a good resource from that perspective. For starters, while the articles are easy and short reads it is clear this is only a starting point. In the photo above you can see in the lower right corner two blocks. One is Questions for discussion (e.g. “In what ways can you develop pastoral care within your congregation?”). The other shown is Why not try…, in this case “Why not try… hosting a lunch for interested individuals in the congregation to discuss the pastoral care provision?”

While not shown in this example, most of the articles also have a Further Reading section as well and the checking of those that I have done show that frequently the listed readings are a mix of recognized academic titles (from such sources as Yale University Press and Blackwell) and ones from publishers of more popular titles (e.g. IV Press and Zondervan).

But what I found most attractive about this book is that while it covers the essentials of church governance about the place of the session and the other courts of the church, it really seems to put the main focus on the spiritual and pastoral duties of a ruling elder. Sections about hospital visits, caring for the bereaved, and missional thinking are examples of the nice variety of material that deals with practical ministry aspects of being a ruling elder.

In some ways the attraction of the book is also its greatest weakness. The articles are so bite-sized that for some of the articles I found myself wanting just a wee bit more, but not enough that I would want to go to the trouble of seeking out the additional resources to beg, borrow or buy. But this is probably a product of the target for the book of using it in the Learn program. It is designed to be used in a group setting so it is not as much a handbook as a companion piece and conversation starter and the speaker or group can help fill in the details.

The one section that I wish was in there would be one specifically on the elder tending to his or her own spiritual development. Yes, there are suggestions in the section under the Bible and prayer, as well as mentioned as part of the work of the session. But I think it is an important enough aspect of the work of the elder to deserve more focused discussion. My opinion – your mileage may vary.

And finally, it must be mentioned that the book does reflect the theological circumstances that the Church of Scotland finds itself in at the moment. This is probably best encapsulated in the section on the Westminster Confession where it talks about it being a subordinate standard but only on points regarding “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.” But an attempt to bring greater clarity to that in the past did not make significant progress and so there is not agreement on those points. It acknowledges that within the Kirk are those that see the Westminster Confession setting a “definitive expression of the faith of the Kirk,” for others it is a “significant document in the development of Reformed theology, and one worthy of ongoing reception,” and finally those that see the document as “highly anachronistic and/or simply erroneous in its theological views.” The good news is that while the doctrinal and the few polity sections must navigate this maze, the many pastoral and ministry sections usually do not impinge on these debates. It is left as an exercise for the reader to keep this situation in mind regarding sections that might have been influenced by these circumstances and sections that might also have been omitted.

So in the pantheon of elder training material where does this one fit? It deals more with spiritual shepherding and much less with governance than The Presbyterian Ruling Elder: An Essential Guide. And it has a clearly different focus than Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders and Blood on Every Page. For many the standard is the 19th century classic by David Dickson, The Elder and His Work, (recently reissued). That is a great source of practical advice in a conversational style and while some may suggest that the style of visitation coached in that book is a relic of a bygone era, I would suggest that there may still be something to it – but I digress. This present work under consideration is a broader and less focused work than that. I do believe that this work comes close to my favorite, the Equipping Elders material from the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Equipping Elders is not as graphically appealing but I have found it to be a great mix of the theoretical and practical and is therefore packed with more information than Learn Eldership. And the electronic version is a free download so you can’t be the price.

Bottom line for Learn Eldership: Easy reading and practical material in good short pieces. A ruling elder with soon want more on these topics – be it reading or coaching – but it makes a good starting point and a wonderful overview of the responsibilities an active elder.

PC(USA) 221st General Assembly — Actions Related To Marriage

Yesterday afternoon the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) considered the report of Committee 10 – Civil Union and Marriage Issues. Here is a brief summary of the four basic actions that the General Assembly took.

[10-07] On Creating a Task Force to Identify Common Ground and Reconcilable Differences with Respect to Same-Gender Marriage
The first item to be considered came as a overture from Eastern Korean Presbytery requesting a Task Force whose charge it would be to

a. identify common ground and reconcilable differences in biblical understanding and confessional interpretation with respect to same-gender marriage;

b. study the nature, scope, and controversies of the same-gender marriage laws legalized in certain states;

c. assess the impact of such laws and related sociopolitical changes on the ministry and mission of the church;

d. provide the local presbyteries and congregations with theological guidelines for
their ministry, as to understand and apply the concepts and functions
of family and parenting based on biblical norms and ethics; and

e. bring forth practical and futuristic recommendations that would not
only strengthen and promote unity within the church, but also solidify
ministries and missions with ecumenical partners locally and globally.

The Task Force would report back two GA’s from now in 2018.

The Committee recommended disapproval and there was a minority report advocating approval of this request. After some discussion, a lot focusing on whether the PC(USA) needed four more years to study this, the substitute motion was not made the main motion by a vote of 237 to 372 and the Committee recommendation was approved 401 to 185.

[10-03] On Issuing an Authoritative Interpretation of W-4.9000 to Affirm Pastoral Discretion in Performing Marriage Ceremonies

The next item was this Authoritative Interpretation that would permit pastors in jurisdictions that recognized same-sex marriages to perform those ceremonies. The core line in the AI reads, with the amendment:

[W]hen a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws [of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place] [of the place where the couple seek to be married], teaching elders have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.

The AI would also permit the use of church facilities with the consent of the session.

This debate began with a point of order as to whether this item was out of order under Roberts Rules of Order because it was in conflict with the definition of marriage as found in the Book of Confessions.

Just as when this point arose at the 220th General Assembly, the Moderator turned to the Clerk who suggested that the Assembly receive advice from the Assembly Committee on the Constitution. In 2012, the ACC’s response was along the lines of the narrative found in the front material to the Book of Confessions in the Confessional Nature of the Church Report. At one point the Report says “Nevertheless, for Reformed Christians all confessional statements have only a provisional, temporary, relative authority.” In other words, while important the multiple confessions need to be considered as a body of work and individual points not singled out from the who body.

At this General Assembly the ACC advice took a different direction. The advice was essentially that this action and the confessions are in tension and that it is the responsibility and within the authority of the GA to resolve that tension. Within the ensuing discussion is was observed that in their original advice on the overture the ACC said:

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution advises that the 221st General Assembly (2014) disapprove Item 10-03


Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004,
W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are “a woman and a man.” Because
these statements are clear and unambiguous, they can not be interpreted
in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning.

When asked about this the ACC response was essentially the same as was previously given – that the Assembly could deal with this tension.

The Moderator ruled the item was in order, the commissioner challenged the ruling of the Moderator and after some significant discussion over the nature of the point of order the Moderator’s ruling was sustained.

With that out of the way the item was debated and the debate was generally civil and respectful. One of the things about this Assembly seems to be the number of times that points of debate are incorporated into questions from the floor. When debate was closed and the vote taken the commissioners voted 371 to 238 to approve the AI.

[10-02] On Amending W-4.9000, Marriage

This item is based on an overture from the Presbytery of Cascades with 16 concurrences. The proposed new wording of W-4.9000, as amended mostly by the committee but slightly on the floor, would be:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a women, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and
responsible members of the church and the wider community.

“In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the
rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the
Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an
active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and

“If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction
in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of
Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an
agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A
couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive
instruction from the teaching elder, who shall agree to the couple’s
request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple
demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage
covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its
values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel
of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church
property for a marriage service.

“The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner
appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under
the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session
(W-1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other
by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s
promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community
of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises;
prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support
them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.

“If they meet
the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to
marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be
conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who
is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil
jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a
service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the
teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s
request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple
demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage
covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its
values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel
of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church
property for a marriage service.

“Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to
perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property
for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes
is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the
Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”

I wish I could have heard more of the questions and debate concerning this item but my schedule did not permit hanging around for most of the livestream. In the part of the discussion I did hear there were numerous questions about global partners and their reactions. I can also say that in what I heard there were no slippery-slope arguments made. And in a nod of cooperation and forbearance the wording in the first paragraph that said “two persons” was changed to “two persons, traditionally a man and a woman.”

In the final vote the new language was approved and will be sent to the presbyteries on a vote of 429 to 175. For comparison, the 220th General Assembly defeated an amendment of similar intent but significantly different wording on a vote of 308 to 338. Note that after that vote the business was bundled into an umbrella item to answer all business in one fell swoop.

This will now be sent down to the presbyteries and will require a concurrence of a majority of them.

[10-NB] New Business
The final item of business was a resolution crafted by the Committee following their completion of the other business. Compared to the extensive text of the rest of these items it is pretty simple:

Recommend the 221st General Assembly (2014) direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and
the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to engage in the process of working together with churches in the task of reconciliation, starting with visiting
each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s
discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large
and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.

This is a response to the recognition that for this decision there will be some who will be hurt by the outcome in the same way that some were hurt by the outcome of other decisions in this matter in previous years. The committee itself was careful in its work about being respectful and developing a sense of fellowship in the group. One of the things it did to insert some levity during its work was to have committee members share embarrassing moments during worship. (Example 1, example 2).

It should be pointed out that there was a vote to reconsider this item this morning as the first item of business and a substantive and pastoral amendment was passed without changing the basics of the item.

What’s next
Here are three items the come to mind regarding this action going forward.

First, the amendment to the Directory for Worship does need the concurrence of the presbyteries. if approved by a majority of the 171 presbyteries it will become part of the 2015-2017 Book of Order which takes affect a year from now.

Second, as we know from ordination standards an AI from the Assembly is not the last word. Even if the Book of Order change is approved there is an outside chance that a challenge to a same-sex marriage ceremony could go through the judicial process fast enough that the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission would have the opportunity to supersede the GA’s AI with a ruling that W-4.9001 does prohibit such ceremonies in spite of the AI.

Finally, expect the departures to continue. I am not sure that this action will suddenly and dramatically increase the exodus of churches leaving the PC(USA) as many that I have talked to have anticipated this and taken action on departure in a proactive manner. For most, this is not unexpected but a validation of what they have been saying for years. And while there are numerous factors at play between the action at the last GA and this proposed change to the Book of Order, we have to accept that the exodus has been at least partly responsible for the dramatic swing from a 308 to 338 vote to a 429 to 175 vote. (And at some point I hope to do some number crunching to explore what constraints could be put on the numbers.)

Following these actions a number of pastoral letters and statements have been released. In addition to one from the General Assembly leadership, there is one from Presbyterians for Renewal and another from the Covenant Network. I would also highlight one from Philadelphia Presbytery by their Executive Presbyter Ruth Santana-Grace.

As a bit of an aside, at the same time yesterday afternoon the 42nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America was considering their ascending overtures, including two (Overtures 2 and 5) that reiterated that denomination’s stated views against homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. Both of those overtures were dispensed with fairly quickly, although with a little discussion, as they were ruled out of order since they were both affirmations of what is already established doctrine. However, in an independent occurrence that got a bit of a chuckle from some of us in both denominations, at least one news source got the two largest American Presbyterian branches a bit confused.

So, returning to the PC(USA), it is now time to see what happens as this descends to the presbyteries – both to approve the Book of Order amendment and in general to see what the reaction is. And we pray for the initiative to encourage reconciliation as this effort goes forward. Stay tuned…

210th General Synod Of The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Beginning tomorrow, Tuesday 10 June, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church will convene the 210th Stated Meeting of the General Synod. The meeting, running until Thursday morning, 12 June, will be held at the ARPC conference center Bonclarken, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

This meeting is not live streamed but the schedule and the reports packet are available online.

For the constitution and secondary standards, which will be necessary for this meeting, you can download the current version as a single document. For the individual parts you can download the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Form of Government or the 2012 Draft of the new FOG, the Directory for Public Worship and the Book of Discipline or the draft of the new Book of Discipline that is part of the discussion at this meeting but is itself being superseded.

News items about the meeting can be followed through the official ARP Magazine web page.

There is also a pre-Synod conference for Outreach North America and one following for World Focus 2014.

For social media you can watch the ARP Facebook page for updates or a better place to follow is the ARP Magazine Facebook page. The official feeds on Twitter are @ARPChurch and @ARPMagazine. The official hashtag has been announced as #Synod2014, but while the ARP Synod may be the dominant one using the hashtag this week, you are advised to read carefully since a couple other discussions are using that hashtag, including lingering conversation from the URC Synod Visalia that finished last week and the meeting of the Diocese of Guyana this week. In various threads I have also seen suggestions for using the hashtags #arpsynod, #GeneralSynodARPC and #210ARPGS so some tweets may appear under those as well. (Personally, I would have gone for #arpsynod as the least confusing and most character efficient but I am kinda late weighing in.)

UPDATE: As the Synod gets under way it appears that #210ARPGS is the crowd favorite for a hashtag. Looks awkward to me since it reminds me of one of the LA Freeways.

Besides the official Twitter feeds, a couple more that stand out so far include Andy Stager (@ARStager), Daniel Wells (@danielfwells) and  Michael Cochran (@koineguy – and I’m with you on the hashtag preference). There is also the parody account @ARPModerator which has not been active since last Synod, but you might want to keep an eye on it.

Considering what I am most interested in some of the business before this Synod is the most interesting that I have seen queued up for this year.

Leading off is a discussion of their version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and whether to drop two sections and a declaratory statement added roughly a century ago. The sections are 35 Of the Holy Spirit and 36 Of the Gospel. The Special Committee reviewing these later sections recommends eliminating them from the WCF and returning the WCF to a form closer to the original. Their report begins on the 48th page of the packet and picking one short piece from their report they say:

Our committee finds that our current version of the WCF deviates from our historic identity as an evangelical, Reformed and confessional Church that is passionate about the Gospel. Our current WCF with the two additional chapters, Of the Holy Spirit and Of the Gospel, are relics of 20th-century theological modernism’s movement away from historic, confessional Calvinism. Both additional chapters—by emphasizing human agency in salvation—alter the original WCF’s design that highlights God’s sovereign, eternal decree to save sinners by grace alone.

They go on to argue that “The brilliance of the WCF is found in its pervasive treatment of the person and work of the Holy Spirit throughout many chapters.” For a good review of the development of the WCF and the inclusion of those sections the rest of the report is an interesting read.

Turning to Presbyterian polity, both the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline are being revised. Maybe the most interesting development is a decision by the committee working on the Book of Discipline to reshape that document and their revision may not be ready for this meeting. They explain it this way (38th page of the packet):

However, during the meeting on February 17, the committee decided to change the emphasis of the Book of Discipline from an adversarial format to a pastoral, shepherding, board of inquiry format, which we submit is more Biblical. In light of this change in paradigm, your committee is completely revising the draft revision (hereinafter referred to as Draft # 1) which was included in the 2013 Synod Packet. We hope to have this new draft (hereinafter referred to as Draft #2) ready for this General Synod. However, failing that, we will endeavor to have Draft # 2 circulated, so that we can receive suggestions and comments, and ultimately produce a user-friendly document (a “Discipline for Dummies,” if you will) which will edify the church and bring glory and honor to our Heavenly Father.

The revision to the Form of Government was approved at the last General Synod and sent down to the presbyteries for their concurrence. At this Synod meeting there is a memorial (some other branches would call it an overture) from Catawba Presbytery (142nd page of the packet) to “delay its implementation until such time has passed that the amendment process can correct any flaws or include such suggestions which were not deemed of enough import to convince the Committee to include them in the proposal.”

Finally, what is an ARP General Synod meeting without breaking news from its college and seminary, Erskine. It was recently reported that a top candidate for the position of President of Erskine pulled out of the running because objections were raised that he was a Baptist and not a Presbyterian. This could produce interesting discussion, although in the Erskine report (114th page of the packet) was produced before the short list was presented to the full Board of Trustees. However, the report does highlight positive responses from the Erskine Board to recommendations from the last General Synod.

Those are the business items that caught my attention and it will be interesting to see how those, and other business items, develop over the next few days. As always, prayers for the commissioners to the General Synod for their prayerful discernment and productive discussions around these and all the matters they have before them.

41st General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In America

  For American Presbyterians coming up this week we have a triple-header of General Assemblies with two beginning on Monday and one on Tuesday. Let me start with the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America which will begin on Monday 17 June in Greenville, South Carolina. Committee meetings and pre-Assembly workshops and seminars happen on Monday and most of the day Tuesday with the Assembly formally convening Tuesday evening.

There is plenty of info related to this meeting. Here is some of the most useful and important material.

There should be no lack of activity on Twitter for this Assembly and the task is really to narrow the recommendation down to a reasonable number. As already mentioned the official news feed is @PCAByFaith and the hashtag will be #pcaga. As for individuals at GA… where to start? A few that have jumped out so far include Fred Greco (@fredgreco) who is promising coverage as well as Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) and Ligon Duncan (@LigonDuncan) who are fairly high-profile in the PCA and active on Twitter. Probably should include Tim Keller (@TimKellerNYC) and Harry L. Reeder III (@HarryLReeder3) to the list but we will see how actively they are tweeting the meeting. The other early active and informative folks include William F. Hill Jr. (@WmHillJr). And for organizations you can include Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) although I suspect they will be tweeting more about their activities around the meeting than the meeting itself. There are a couple more I people expect to be active but have not seen them check in yet so I will update here if they do start tweeting.

Finally, I would be remiss not to bring to your attention @PCAPresbyter and his own unique view of the Assembly. And there is mention that there might be a microphone bingo card for the meeting (who gets up to speak) as opposed to my parliamentary bingo card.

There are several interesting seminars at the Assembly. On Thursday night Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller will be dialoging in a session titled Working Together in the PCA to Address our Cultural Moment. Thursday morning will be another seminar, Commending and Defending the Total Truthfulness of Scripture, with Ligon Duncan and Albert Mohler. In addition, the Gospel Reformation Network will be hosting a pre-Assembly conference on What Grace Does with keynote speakers Harry Reeder, Ligon Duncan, Richard Phillips and Al Baker. There are full lists of all the pre-Assembly activities and the seminars. And the seminars page does say that they will be recorded and available for purchase.

As far as business for the meeting, there are a number of very interesting overtures that I look forward to the discussion and discernment around. There are a significant number that involve judicial process, including requests for the Standing Judicial Commission to rehear or take original jurisdiction of certain cases. At this time I would note their inclusion in the business and will strive to produce a separate post regarding that business and the associated history.

But there are plenty of other interesting overtures and the ones dealing directly with confessional standards, and how the church relates to them, got my attention. One overture (No. 17) requests beginning the process to add to the list of required elements of worship in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21:5 “collections for the work of the church.” In other words, require the taking of a collection at a worship service. Another overture (No. 7) asks to “Establish a Study Committee on Sabbath Issue in Westminster Standards.” That overture notes that “a large number of officers ordained in the PCA take stated differences to the requirements for keeping the Sabbath or Lord’s Day…” and seeks to get a better understanding of the requirements. And finally, an overture (No. 8) asks to change the BCO section on officers receiving and adopting the Standards so that if an officer finds his views have changed he would have to notify his presbytery that his views differ from the Standards rather than differing from “the fundamentals of this system of doctrine” as is the requirement now.

Another interesting overture is the first one (No. 1) which asks for a special order for each Assembly that would put all the important stuff together starting on the second morning of the Assembly. The idea is to place the business together at a point that some commissioners could come for just one day and be able to have input on the items most important to the church. The overture points out that at the last GA only 25% of the commissioners were ruling elders and less than half of the churches even sent a commissioner – ruling or teaching elder. The hope is that this would consolidate the most important stuff at a given time so attendance can be improved among those who can not attend for the full week.

There is also an overture to form a new presbytery (No. 9) since James River Presbytery has now grown above the recommended upper limit of 30 congregations so it would be divided creating Virginia Tidewater Presbytery. There is also an overture to consider a largely paperless GA (No. 11). And another overture (No. 18) asks to correct a parliamentary problem by adding a line to BCO section 12-6 to restrict called meetings of the session to only those items of business in the call. Presently the GA, presbyteries and congregations — as well as Roberts Rules of Order — have this restriction but not called meetings of the session.

There are lots of interesting topics up for discussion this week and I am looking forward to hearing the various viewpoints expressed on these matters as well as several other. We pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the deliberations and discernment of the commissioners in the coming week.

The PC(USA) Focus On The Form Of Government

Let me say right up front that this post may appear snarky to some of you, maybe many of you. Maybe it really is snarky. But as I processed through what I am going to talk about I came to the conclusion that this is not just a knee-jerk cynical reaction but there is something really revealing about this. I am hoping I get all the snark out – you may think otherwise.

To begin with, a really interesting and useful piece was announced today on Twitter from the Presbytery of Chicago and the tweets attributed it to their Stated Clerk Barbara Bundick. It is a Road Map To The Form Of Government — a one-page, two-sided color leaflet that guides a person through the Form of Government section of the PC(USA) Book of Order.

It is a very good resource – get it, use it. I will include it myself in future ruling elder training.

But what got my attention was the stylized map that went with it to explain the relationships.

Let me first give it credit for good cartography – things are clearly labeled and there is a north arrow and a scale. If I had to guess I would say they used the Netherlands as a starting point for the base map. That would make the Book of Confessions and the Rules of Discipline Belgium, or part of it, and Germany is The Secular World.

But the graphic bothers me on one secondary and symbolic point. I have no problem with the vast majority of it – Scripture as an ocean, the emphasis on the Form of Government (that’s what the pamphlet is about after all), the Rules of Discipline as a bordering area (and is the red symbolic? “Danger, Will Robinson!”), and the Directory for Worship and Foundations of Presbyterian Polity as being more of Scripture than government and the Foundations tying it all together.

But yes, it is the treatment of the Book of Confessions that I find revealing. On a practical level when viewing this it looks like just another section, like the neighboring Rules of Discipline. It is not given the heft of a part of our Constitution that has its own volume — and being volume 1 no less. Should it not be treated as different in nature from the sections of the Book of Order? Would it not have been useful to somehow distinguish it as different since our ordination vows say we are instructed and guided by the confessions, something that is not said of the Book of Order?

Or, am I getting worked up over nothing?

Let’s break down the possibilities…

One is that I am completely off my rocker, over interpreting a stylistic figure and finding importance in minor details that are not really part of what the document is ultimatly about. This could certainly be the case.

Another possibility is that this diagram was carefully laid out so that the Book of Confessions was fully intended to have no greater or lesser importance in the PC(USA) polity world than the Rules of Discipline. This could also be the case but considering the emphasis Presbyterians generally place on our confessional standards I don’t think it was quite this intentional.

It is my conclusion that the answer probably lies in between these two. The guide sheet is about the Form of Government so that section is rightly given predominance in the diagram. The figure is carefully constructed and full of symbolism but it appears that the other pieces are placed at particular points around the focus of the picture. On the map location is the quantity that carries the significance.

I am inclined to think that the sizing of the region representing the Book of Confessions is inadvertent but telling. It reflects what seems to be the commonly held perception of the PC(USA) Constitution that it is out there and useful at particular points in our life together, but the confessions are just one piece of it like all the others. In particular, our day-to-day business is guided by the Form of Government so that is what we need to know.

In short, I think this mapping of the parts of our constitution is unintentionally all too honest about how we frequently regard the parts of our constitution. It reflects how much attention we pay to the different parts of the constitution — lots of times our books fall open to the Form of Government because that is where we spend the most time while the other sections are less frequently referred to.

Let me affirm that this really is a good diagram overall and those that put it together had a particular point that is neatly brought out by it. The point I am bringing up is that the secondary details may be a Rorschach test for me and I am seeing what I want to in it, or it may be a sort of graphic Freudian slip for the creators who are inadvertently saying something about the day-to-day place of the confessions in the PC(USA).

PC(USA) Synod PJC Decision — St. Andrews Session v. Santa Barbara Presbytery Regarding Union Presbyteries

On Friday, 9 November , the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii heard a remedial case against the Presbytery of Santa Barbara that challenged their action to reorganize themselves as a union presbytery between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). The decision in Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, CA, et al., Complainants vs The Presbytery of Santa Barbara, Respondents, was announced the next morning but the written decision was not released until the following Wednesday morning.

For a whole variety of reasons I have been working through various ways to present my analysis of this case. I have decided to present an executive summary, then discuss the bulk of the case in my typical fashion. The issue that has engendered the greatest amount of discussion since the decision was announced are the parts dealing with ECO so I want to address those in their own section. And then I will finish up with a look at the dissenting opinion and some general conclusions and comments.

Executive Summary
Nineteen charges were brought against the Presbytery for their action to try and restructure themselves as a union presbytery. All but one of the charges were sustained. The sustained charges included two that argued that ECO, with its Presbytery of the West, is not a Reformed body and not qualified for participation in a union presbytery.

What this means: Santa Barbara’s efforts to create a union presbytery are effectively halted unless this case is overturned on appeal to the General Assembly PJC (GAPJC), a prospect I consider unlikely based on this decision and other recent decisions.

What this does not mean: Since a Synod PJC decision is only binding on the parties involved in the case (207th GA AI on D-7.0402b) this does not automatically disqualify ECO as a Reformed body that churches may be dismissed to.

What this might mean: This decision is precedent setting for the presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii (same AI as above). However, the decision was regarding a union presbytery and not dismissal and in my mind there are a bunch of other issues that call into question the applicability of this precedent and make me think it could be successfully challenged. (That is why the ECO issue gets its own section further on). But I could be wrong.

The SPJC Decision
On 2 June 2012 the Presbytery of Santa Barbara held a called meeting and approved with a 73% majority a Plan of Union for Santa Barbara Union Presbytery (the Plan). Shortly after a remedial case was filed with the Synod PJC listing 19 irregularities. At trial on 9 November both Complainants and Respondents were represented but the Respondents only presented opening and closing arguments and did not have pre-trial briefs or present any additional documentation or witnesses at trial. The Complainants did.

The SPJC ruled unanimously in favor of the Complainants on all but five counts. There is a dissenting opinion that disagreed with the majority on four of the charges. One charge was not sustained.

Two details before I begin breaking this down. First I would like to note a stylistic choice made by the SPJC in
writing their decision. Formal citations are few in this decision and nowhere in the
statement of the charges and the rational for the decision on each one
is there a citation to relevant portions of the Book of Order. Furthermore, for only one charge is there a reference to applicable GAPJC decisions.

Second, as I break down this decision I will be drawing from a wide variety of sources. This was the trial court and their formal decision can only be based on the evidence presented at trial and the ecclesiastical law. While I may have disagreements or concerns at points I also have a larger set of sources to draw from. Documentation related to this case includes, besides the decision itself, the original complaint and the packet Santa Barbara Presbytery put together in advance of the called meeting where the Plan of Union was approved. Almost all documents in this case are posted on a web page St. Andrews Church of Santa Barbara maintains.

Counts 1, 3 and 4 deal specifically with the nature of ECO and I will return to those in a moment. (This decision uses the acronym ECOP. Those are the initials of the original name of ECO and ECO is now an official logo. I will try to use the preferred title ECO but ECOP will appear inside quotations. For the record, the new initials would be COEP.)

It is worth noting that the decision is, shall we say, streamlined and with the large number of counts the commissioners did not expound beyond the minimum on many of them.

Count 2 accused the Presbytery of promoting “division and schism in the church.” The SPJC found that a fuller discernment process would have been better since the Plan, while not intended to be so, it was judged that the “action did indeed bring about schism in the presbytery.”

Count 5 alleged “Mis-use of our constitutional provisions for union presbyteries” and Count 6 alleged the “disregard of important constitutional requirements.” The decision notes that union presbyteries are intended to promote ecumenism and reconciliation and “reduce unnecessary expense.” Instead they found that this plan “has been formed to serve as a ‘shield’ to the denomination’s action and judicial decision.”

Let me take a moment and drill down into this a bit. In the complaint the “Union Presbytery Movement” is discussed in paragraphs 19-21 pointing out that it was developed as a method for churches in the northern and southern branches to cooperate in advance of reunion in 1983. Fair enough – this union presbytery does not fit that model but rather fits the opposite of churches that are dividing but still desire to work together on mission.

But let me take this a step further. While we know historically what union presbyteries have been about is there a fundamental problem with using our polity in new creative ways? After all, one of the objectives of the New Form of Government was “With greater freedom and flexibility, the New Form of Government encourages congregations and councils to focus on God’s mission and how they can faithfully participate in this mission.” (emphasis in the original)

And when I looked at this in the Annotated Book of Order I noticed something interesting — There are no additional instructions in this section. The section of the Form of Government dealing with Union Presbyteries (G-5.04) has no interpretations from GA or the GAPJC.

The bottom line is that while we have a history behind union presbyteries the language of the Book of Order includes nothing of that history and from what I see puts no fundamental prohibition on a union presbytery between the PC(USA) and any other Reformed body.

Now, this does not mean that this specific union presbytery is constitutional and it does suffer from a couple of problems the Complainants point out and the SPJC agreed. First, we have the problem that the SPJC found that ECO is not a reformed body. Second, the ECO Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council” because it did not yet have the size required of a PC(USA) presbytery. And third, an argument that is in the complaint but is not in the decision at this point — Santa Barbara Presbytery and Presbytery of the West are vastly different geographic sizes and so it would make Santa Barbara Presbytery a de facto non-geographic presbytery. (Presbytery of the West covers all churches west of the Mississippi River.)

A fourth issue is that the Plan of Union did not properly reconcile the requirements of the PC(USA) Book of Order and the ECO Polity. This was not however for lack of trying as Santa Barbara Presbytery had overtured the 220th GA with a proposed method to reconcile the two polities as G-5.0401 requires. The overture and another like it were rejected and the annotation noting this is the only annotation for section G-5.04.

Counts 7, 8, 9 and 10 were grouped together. Count 7 is “Violation of our constitutional guarantee of respect for biblically-formed conscience.” Count 8 is “Conditioning congregational membership on more than a profession of faith.” Count 9 is “Infringing congregations’ right to elect, and sessions’ responsibility to assess the fitness of, congregational leaders.” And Count 10 is “Violation of presbytery’s obligations in assessing its congregations’ choices of pastoral leadership.”

The SPJC responded to all four charges by saying:

Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials. While teaching elders’ consciences are free within the confines of the church’s polity interpretation of Scripture as put forth in the Constitution, members have the right of conscience to a greater degree as well as freedom of conscience to determine the fitness of their own leaders, both at the congregational level as well as the level of the presbytery. The “litmus test” for ordination is given in the Book of Order and provides presbyteries with the freedom to examine candidates on a case by case basis and determine whether or not they meet those standards and are judged by a particular presbytery to be fit for pastoral leadership.

I have printed it all because this reflects the core of their argument why ECO is not a reformed body as I will get to in a minute.

The implication of Charge 8 is that to even be a member of an ECO church you must agree to something more than accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Here the SPJC brevity does them a disservice. Paragraph 1.0402 of the ECO polity talks about congregational membership (covenant partner) saying:

A covenant partner is a person who has made a profession of faith in Christ, has been baptized, has been received into the membership of the church, has voluntary submitted to the government of this church, and participates in the church’s worship and work. Covenant partners are eligible to vote in congregational meetings.

For comparison the PC(USA) says in G-1.0303a

Public profession of faith, made after careful examination by the session in
the meaning and responsibilities of membership; if not already baptized, the person making profession of faith shall be baptized;

The next section lays out the responsibilities of membership which include “taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation” and “participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.”

While ECO has consolidated the participation into the paragraph and the PC(USA) sets it up as a response to membership, in a bottom-line sense I don’t see enough of a difference to sustain Charge 8.

But the SPJC apparently saw something and I have to wonder if the SPJC was interpreting the phrase “has voluntary submitted to the government of this church” as meaning they accepted the Essential Tenets document. Taking it on face value I have trouble seeing this as adhering to anything other than faith in Jesus Christ because when talking about qualifications for officers in 2.0101 the Essential Tenets are explicitly mentioned.

As for the other three charges, the discussion of ECO below pertains to those.

The next six charges are related to details in the Plan of Union and how they conflict with PC(USA) polity and many are related to the failure of the overture to GA.

Charge 11 is “Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and
lesbian Presbyterians is improper.” The decision points out that the ECO Essential Tenets do not conform to the GAPJC decisions in the Parnell and Larson cases. (As I noted above this is the one place in the whole Findings and Rational section where there is a formal citation to the Book of Order or an Interpretation of it.)

Charge 12 is related as it says “Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church.” The charge is sustained with the logic that by adopting Essential Tenets “…the processes of dialogue and discernment whereby divergent views may be examined with the goal of discovering common ground for agreement have been inhibited significantly…”

Charge 13 is “Violation of presbytery’s duty to exercise genuine, good-faith discernment in
providing for dissident congregations.” Dismissal of congregations is now like examinations for ordination and membership and they must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. To make summary pronouncements like the Plan of Union does is a violation of the constitution.

The rational is similar for sustaining Charge 14 concerning the Plan of Union not enforcing the Trust Clause.

Charges 15 and 16 are parallel. The first is that proper provision is not made in the Plan of Union for churches that are “exclusively loyal to the PC(USA).” The second is that the Plan of Union does not properly provide for ministers in validated ministries and not serving in a congregation. The SPJC agreed with both charges noting that the Plan of Union polity mentions, but does not adequately cover these cases “contrary to assertions otherwise.”

Well we are in the home stretch on this section. Charge 17 is about the differences in the physical size of the two Presbyteries and the SPJC writes that in considering the union the Presbytery “has put theological affinity ahead of doing ministry in a geographical location and to work to develop and strengthen ecumenical relationships with believers of other denominations as a sign of the unity of Christ’s church.” This is also where the concept that this physical mis-match would effectively make Santa Barbara a non-geographic is mentioned in the decision.

Charge 18 was “Failure to conduct business decently and in order.” The SPJC agreed saying:

While those supporters placing the Plan for Union before the presbytery membership observed the letter of the law, the spirit of open dialogue, using every avenue available to share information, using gatherings to answer questions, responding appropriately to written requests for information, allowing open discussion without time constraints – all were clearly missing. Both written documentation and trial testimony confirm this. While the plan was clearly laid out and a timeline presented, members felt excluded and their concerns given little importance. While the process may have been orderly, a significant portion of members did not feel that they were treated decently.

Finally, Charge 19 was that the Presbytery had gone ahead with the Plan of Union before receiving Synod approval and the SPJC found that this was not the case and did not sustain the charge.

I hope you are still with me because that section alone is longer than I usually write for a PJC decision. But wait – there’s more! We have one more important issue to address…

Is ECO a Reformed Body?

The focal point of this question is Charge 3 which says the ECO has been mischaracterized as a Reformed body. The SPJC agreed citing the fact that ECO has Essential Tenets and that by requiring agreement to these the group is placing on members a requirement for membership beyond the “only membership requirement one’s personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” The discussion concludes with this:

The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the requirements of ECO are otherwise, and by requiring a signed agreement of like belief, exist beyond the boundaries of what it is understood to be Reformed.

I discussed the membership issue above and my reading that the ECO membership requirements do not differ significantly from those of the PC(USA). In a moment here I want to explore the larger context of ECO’s doctrinal requirements for ordained officers embodied in the Essential Tenets.

Charge 1 follows from Charge 3 — if ECO is not a Reformed body the Presbytery must be “Conferring on a “special interest” group a veto over the constitutional governance of the church.”

Charge 4 is that the Presbytery of the West is not a comparable body with which to unite. This was sustained on a couple of points, one being the problems with ECO. In addition, at the time of the trial it did not have the necessary number of churches and teaching elders for what the PC(USA) would recognize as a presbytery.

In reading through this decision the perspective on ECO is the point that really jumped out at me and that particularly bothered me. But what bothered me was not that they declared ECO to be a “special interest group” and not a Reformed body, but how they did it.

Now, ECO may or may not be a Reformed body in your book and I am personally still in waiting mode before I draw any final conclusions. But for a number of reasons I thought the path to this conclusion in the decision had some issues that I would like to explore.

I find three areas to highlight. (And I would include at this point a reminder that the decision was based on the submitted evidence and I am probably going beyond that.)

1. The decision’s reasoning

For starters there is an AI from the 218th GA on G-3.0301a that says in part:

The 218th General Assembly (2008)… advises the presbyteries that they must satisfy themselves concerning the conformity with this denomination… in matters of doctrines and order.

  • doctrinally consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology as understood by the presbytery;
  • governed by a polity that is consistent in form and structure with that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A);
  • of sufficient permanence to offer reasonable assurance that the congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence.

Failure on the part of the presbytery thoroughly to explore and adequately to document its satisfaction in these matters may thus violate, however unintentionally, the spirit of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”

First, this AI is not specifically referenced in the decision. In regards to that it should be noted that it is an Interpretation on the section on dismissals and not partners in a union presbytery and that it was issued for a particular situation involving transitional presbyteries in a denomination other than ECO. It does however, in the portion quoted above, contain important useful guidelines for assessing another denomination. Furthermore, as I look ahead I suspect future cases involving the nature of ECO are more likely to be about dismissals and not other topics like union presbyteries.

I would further note one important point in this AI which is not referenced in this case — It is the responsibility of the presbytery to determine the status of the body that a church is being dismissed to.

OK, back to the decision. Now, since the Complaint and the Decision do not reference this three-part test we don’t know if the SPJC applied the first (doctrine) or the second (polity) in considering the issue of freedom of conscience. In the end it really does not matter.

But regarding ECO, let’s go ahead and break this down. The question of doctrine is initially fairly straight forward as ECO has adopted the current PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The conditional, of course, would be whether ECO’s inclusion of the Essential Tenets changes the doctrine enough so it is no longer “consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology.” As for the polity, while not adopted verbatim from the PC(USA) there is a strong similarity in structure and practice, as can be seen in the membership requirements I compared above. Probably ECO’s weakest point in the test is the last “sufficient permanence” test since ECO has only been in existence as a body for less than a year.

I’ll return to ECO itself in a few minutes but my point here is that a broad test exists in the Interpretation of the Constitution. The Decision emphasizes one point as the linchpin of Reformed doctrine and the deciding factor regarding Charge 3.

This argument for the Complainants is emphasized by a Director of the Covenant Network, Doug Nave, who represented the Complainants in this case. When the decision was issued the Covenant Network posted notice of it on their web site and a lively discussion ensued in the comments. At one point in the comments Mr. Nave says this:

The SPJC discerned that the PC(USA) Constitution, interpreted as a whole, gives particular meaning to the term “Reformed.” This includes a rejection of both subscriptionism and “works righteousness” — both of which are found in ECO’s theology and polity documents. While other communions might self-identify in a manner that leaves room for the imposition of abstract “essential tenets,” or for requirements that condition church membership on more than a person’s profession of faith, the PC(USA) does not.

It is lost on almost no one that one of the tensions in the PC(USA) is that officers vow “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” The denomination has steadfastly refused to say what the Essential Tenets are. In the PC(USA) the Essential Tenets only become specific when examining a candidate for membership. It reminds me of the card game Mao where “the only rule we can tell you is we can’t tell you the rules.”

However, the PC(USA) does have a guide to our Reformed theology and polity and that is the new Foundations section of the Book of Order. Before the reorganization of the materials San Francisco Theological Seminary created a document based on the old chapter G-2 that listed ten Essential Tenets of the Presbyterian Reformed Faith. Interestingly, freedom of conscience did not make their list. (To be fair, they based it on the old Chapter 2 and the “Right of Judgement” was in the old Chapter 1.)

There is an interesting parallel piece by Dr. Jack Rogers where he breaks down the various doctrine in a like manner. In the introduction of that article he begins by noting that presbyteries and sessions can not construct fixed sets of tenets. He then goes on to point out how the GAPJC in giving this interpretation then broke that rule by affirming the status of the then in force “fidelity and chastity” section. It is interesting to consider if this SPJC has similarly broken this rule when they suggest an essential when write “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials” or in the decision on Charge 8 when they declare that there is a “litmus test” regarding how examinations for ordinations are to be carried out.

The point here is that to many reading this decision the “look and feel” is that the value of freedom of conscience has been raised to a position above, or maybe even in place of, the other Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. As the SFTS document demonstrates there are multiple Tenets yet this decision deals with only one without creating a context in regards to the others. This has the feel that in saying there are no stated Essentials one has been declared.

To put it another way, Mr. Nave in his discussion interprets the decision like this – “In all of this, the SPJC applied the principle… that each part of our Constitution – including its use of the term “Reformed” – must be interpreted in light of the whole Constitution.” While the SPJC may have applied this principle their reasoning is not as transparent in their writing as it could be.

What adds to this problem of the “look and feel” is that as officers we agree to “exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds.” The reference to G-2.0105 was abbreviated and without citation in the decision on the combined Charges 7, 8, 9 and 10. This is the section in the PC(USA) Constitution that sets the openness and also the limits of an officer’s freedom of conscience:

G-2.0105 Freedom of Conscience
It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the council in which he or she is a member.

2. Historical background in American Presbyterianism

In an interesting line in the decision the SPJC writes

In spite of evidence that the history of the Reformed Tradition did involve
adherence to “essential tenets” and required signed affirmation of same for short periods of time, it is the current understanding that the Reformed Tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience…

I think this minimizes this very conflict in our ecclesiastical heritage and it would be better phrased that “American Presbyterianism has throughout much of its history held a tension between, and struggled with the balance in, freedom of conscience and subscriptionism.” Let me quote from an interesting article titled Jonathan Dickinson and the Subscription Controversy:

In the early eighteenth century the Synod of Philadelphia was a unique blend of two ecclesiastical traditions and theological mind-sets. Within its small compass the synod was home to both a Scotch-Irish contingent, whose training and heritage rendered its members more likely to be the traditionalists or conservatives on each newly rising issue, and a New England party, whose emphasis was on personalized religion bound only by the Word of God and individual conscience. The confluence of these two traditions within the infant synod meant that controversy was inevitable. As new problems arose, the Scotch-Irish naturally tended to impose the structure and rigidity of Old-World Presbyterianism while the New Englanders opted for a freer, less hierarchical approach. The Scotch-Irish tended to translate the Old-World model of a strong, centralized ecclesiastical government and rigid creedal conformity into a world as yet ecclesiastically unshaped. The New Englanders, by contrast, fearing a return to what they considered the too-rigid control over religion from which their forefathers had narrowly escaped, naturally sought theological and moral protection in places other than tight ecclesiastical control. [Bauman, M., 1998, JETS, v 41, n 3, p 455-467, quoted from p. 456]

Does this sound at all familiar? This has been the struggle throughout the history of the American Mainline Presbyterian Church. Among other things, the Adopting Act of 1729 and the Special Commission of 1925 dealt with this issue. For this decision to cite only written subscription “for a short time” misses one of the major arcs of American Presbyterianism.

This has been a continuing discussion in mainline American Presbyterianism and the general, although not exclusive, trend has been for those favoring confessional adherence to depart the mainline. The present situation is no exception. What this decision seems to imply is that enough confessionalists have departed that the preferences of those on the “personal religion” side now dominate.

3. Bigger picture of Reformed Churches

What probably frustrated me the most with this decision is the implication that the PC(USA) gets to define what it does and does not mean to be Reformed.

Presumably the SPJC had as evidence the Packet with the call to the Special Meeting. In this packet the Presbytery Council had their own analysis of ECO as well as documents from three of their experts – Rev. Eunice McGarrahan, Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Wayne Darbonne – all speaking favorably of ECO as a Reformed body. Whether through the choice of the SPJC or the minimal response by the Presbytery the arguments in this packet are not reflected, or rebutted, in the decision.

One of the arguments that the Complaint makes against ECO not being a Reformed body is that it is not yet a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) (Complaint paragraph 17(b)). Fair enough. So if WCRC membership is the imprimatur of being Reformed, or at least goes a long way towards that designation, I would point out that there are denominations in WCRC that require forms of subscription (e.g. Christian Reformed Church, see Article 5 Supplement in Church Order. And the CRC has a page on “What is Reformed?” and I could not find freedom of conscience in there.) And to take it a step further from what PC(USA) polity understands, it is in full communion with the Moravian Church, a Reformed body that has bishops. (They use the term for an ordained office with teaching responsibilities and not in the sense of an episcopal hierarchy.)

But let’s look at a “close relative.” Historically and polity wise the two closest Reformed bodies to the PC(USA) are the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The PC(USA) is in correspondence with both through WCRC.

If you consider the EPC Book of Church Order, section 13-6 says:

The candidate or transferring Teaching Elder shall provide a written statement of any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of this Church, and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow the exceptions. The Presbytery shall not allow any exception to “Essentials of Our Faith.” If the Teaching Elder develops exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms after ordination, he or she must report those exceptions to the Presbytery and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow these exceptions.

And this is fundamentally different from the ECO requirement how? The EPC is a recognized similar Reformed body the PC(USA) is in correspondence with and that churches from the PC(USA) have been dismissed to and it has a subscription requirement in its Constitution that if anything is stronger than ECO’s. Can I get a QED?

It is interesting as you look around that what is meant by “Reformed” varies a bit and is something of a Rorschach test or the five blind men and the elephant. There is not a single definition and as you would expect different emphases reflect different theological perspectives. WCRC probably represents the broadest view of what it means to be in the Reformed tradition while other councils, like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have more specific scriptural and confessional standards.

Minority Report

There is a dissenting opinion authored by the Rev. Michael D. Haggin which is joined in part by two other commissioners. No objection is made to the overall decision but as the intro says

I completely concur in the unanimous decision of the Commission that the action of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara to create a union presbytery together with the Presbytery of the West of the ECO is irregular and unconstitutional. This could have been a single point of complaint and would, by itself, justify the remedial action ordered in this case. Complainants, however, allege a large number of additional points of complaints which appear to impute unnecessarily negative motives to the Respondent. Accordingly I cannot concur with my colleagues in their decision on several of the counts of the Complaint.

Pursuant to the discussion of whether ECO is a Reformed body the opinion says

The Form of Government (G-5.04) authorizes a presbytery to unite “with one or more comparable councils or governing bodies, each of which is a member of another Reformed body.” Accordingly, on June 2, 2012, Respondent presbytery voted “to recognize ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians as a Reformed body.” This Commission has effectively found that ECOP is not “another” body and that Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council.” In this count, Complainant asks us to deny that ECOP is “Reformed.” Witness testimony was presented to indicate that ECOP fails a particular theological ‘litmus’ test. I believe that it is at least equally legitimate to classify as “Reformed” bodies whose theological witness descends historically from the central preachers and teachers of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, including Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharius Ursinus, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others of that ‘school.’ When any individual seeking ordination is examined, the ordaining council has the responsibility of determining whether or not the candidate has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity (G-2.0105). In this case, Respondent presbytery exercised its analogous responsibility responsibly and defensibly.

The dissenting opinion speaks similarly about Charge 2 – promoting schism: “By prompting
this Complaint, their action gave rise to divisions in the Presbytery community, but it would be a sheer speculation to say that the divisions and schisms resulting from one course of action were greater or less than those resulting from another course of action… I do not endorse Complainant’s desire to mark it as malevolent..”

Regarding Charge 12 about not being open to continuing reformation he says “Since this count appears to charge Respondent with doing something improper in the future, I cannot concur with the Commission decision here.”

Finally, all three commissioners object to the findings on Charge 18, not conducting the business decently and in order. They say “The presbytery was ready to proceed to a decision on June 2, 2012, even if the Complainants felt themselves to be ‘behind the pace’ in the competition of ideas. Respondent presbytery’s actions were (as we have found) mistaken and irregular, but they were not indecent or disorderly.”

General Discussion
Let me begin by echoing Mr. Haggin’s comments.  There are clear grounds in my mind for ruling the Santa Barbara Plan of Union as unconstitutional — if nothing else the failure of their overture to General Assembly probably guaranteed as much. But what really struck me was the tone of the decision as I read it. I recognize that this could be completely unintentional on the part of the SPJC, but the terse, streamlined and citation-free nature of the decision left this polity wonk with some concerns about the impression it was trying to leave.

The other thing that contributed to my disappointment with the nature of the decision was my knowledge of people in Santa Barbara Presbytery that I have worked with at the synod level. I am more than willing to accept that for some this proposal was an escape or shield from the new reality of the PC(USA) following the passage of Amendment 10-A. But 73% of the commissioners approved the Plan of Union and I have talked with friends in the Presbytery for whom this is not an ideal choice but agreed with it as a possible path forward. They do not want to see division but recognize that one way or another it will probably come. These are good Presbyterians of integrity who came to the conclusion that the Presbytery, as well as the PC(USA) as a whole, is better off working together in a union presbytery setting than as two separate entities. I was disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of this reality in the main decision and only in the dissenting opinion where it says “The evidence shows that the moving actors in Respondent presbytery sought to form a union presbytery in the belief, hope, or expectation that it would hold the Presbytery of Santa Barbara together and prevent a number of the member congregations from seeking dismissal.”

So what does all of this mean? Let me turn to the AI for D-7.0402b for guidance:

Decisions of the permanent judicial commissions of synods and
presbyteries are binding on the parties to the particular cases in which
the decisions are rendered unless overturned on appeal. No synod or
presbytery permanent judicial commission is able to make its decisions
binding beyond the parties to the particular case by simply declaring it
to be so.

At the same time, decisions of synod permanent judicial commissions
are precedent setting for that synod, its presbyteries, members of the
presbyteries, sessions, and members of the particular churches in the
That is to say, governing bodies and members in the same jurisdiction
and a lower jurisdiction below the one rendering a decision should be
aware that the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.

So the first thing we can say that this attempt at a union presbytery has probably ended.

However, as the AI says this decision is binding on no one beyond the parties involved so alternate models for union presbyteries might be acceptable. As I stated above, while this decision appealed to history and original nature of the presbyteries to invalidate the concept, another SPJC or the GAPJC may interpret the constitution only as written and find that they are permitted when all the explicit constitutional requirements are met.

Likewise, the parts declaring ECO is not a Reformed body are not binding elsewhere. At the present time ECO is not seriously threatened by this decision and dismissals to ECO by other presbyteries have gone unchallenged as to the nature of ECO. In fact, in the GAPJC decision in the Tom v San Francisco case the decision’s focus was on process for the Trust Clause and no issue was raised with the body the church was dismissed to regarding it not having a Trust Clause.

Now according to the AI the decision is not binding but precedent setting for the other churches and presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. So does this determination that ECO is a special interest group carry over to congregations being dismissed to ECO? For me the key phrase is “…the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.” I would expect that future cases tied to this issue would be more comprehensive in submitting evidence regarding the nature of ECO changing the “fact situations.” In addition, ECO is also changing as churches join it. In my opinion the precedent here is not strong, will be short-lived and stands a reasonable chance of being revised in future cases. Finally, the Book of Order and the AI regarding dismissal do make it clear that it is the presbytery’s responsibility and right to determine if the other body is in the Reformed tradition and that usually gives the presbytery an edge when their decisions are appealed.

If this case were to be appealed to the GAPJC I would not expect any of the key charges being overturned. New evidence can only be included on appeal if it is newly discovered so more than likely an appeal would proceed based on the original material. Some findings might be overturned, but even overturning a few of the decisions would still leave enough in place to retain the trial court’s verdict regarding the union presbytery. There is a chance that the GAPJC could be convinced that the available evidence at trial was not properly considered with regards to the nature of ECO and that part of the ruling could be overturned. But one must weigh the risk of a decision that now applies to only one presbytery being upheld and becoming a standard for the whole church.

Let me conclude with these points:

  • From the evidence presented the flaws in the Plan of Union are significant enough to invalidate it, especially in light of the 220th GA not approving the details reconciling the two different polities.
  • The evidence presented and argued at trial ended up presenting a narrow view of Reformed doctrine and based on a more comprehensive view of the world Reformed movement I think ECO’s doctrine and polity would be found to lie well within the bounds of what is more widely considered to be Reformed. In addition, what might disqualify a body as a partner in a union presbytery where cooperation is required might not necessarily be a barrier to dismissal.
  • While the Plan of Union had defects, the dismissal of the fundamental concept of the union presbytery suggests that we are not ready for creative answers to modern issues and are more concerned with preserving the institution as we know it. It has the feel of the Seven Last Words of the Church – “We’ve never done it that way before.”

I think I can say that one way or another at least some of this is not yet a settled question. While I would think the odds are against seeing another union presbytery proposal I would not completely rule it out. On the other hand, the disqualification of ECO sent a collective gasp through much of the denomination from what I read and heard and that is a discussion which could be around for a while before it becomes settled law. While many presbyteries have dismissed churches to ECO without issues this case opens up the suggestion that future dismissals are more likely to be challenged, particularly since this is a question that presbyteries must answer and even the GAPJC can not issue an overriding decision on that question (although they could “counsel” a presbytery when they find the presbytery may have done it incorrectly).

OK, at about 7000 words I have probably written enough – maybe too much.
This ended up being a bit of a core dump so I hope my arguments are
coherent and thought-provoking, and maybe even convincing.

I have a couple of related items in the works but after spending two solid weeks researching and writing this maybe it is time to turn geek share a couple of data sets. Stay tuned…

PC(USA) GAPJC Decisions — Larson and others v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos

The most recent meeting of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). was a busy and significant one. A couple of weeks ago they heard three important cases and issued their decisions. I am taking these individually because of the importance of each one and taking them in order of their case number. I have already posted 221-02 Newark v. McNeill and  221-03 Tom and others v. San Francisco. Today I will finish this up with 221-04 Larson v. Los Ranchos.

So here we go…

Remedial Case 221-04: Gerald J. Larson, Gary L Collins, Rebecca B. Prichard, R. Winston Presnall, Margery McIntosh, Michal Vaughn, Lucy StaffordLewis, Julie Richwine, Jerry Elliott, Sara McCurdy, Gregory Vacca, Gail Stearns, Steve Wirth, Suzanne Darweesh, Jane Parker, Darlene Elliott, Frances Bucklin, Deborah Mayhew, James McCurdy, Judith Anderson, Susan Currie, Complainants/Appellants, v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Respondent/Appellee

This remedial case, which was decided in the Appellants’ favor with no concurring or dissenting opinions, results from a resolution passed by the Presbytery in September 2011:

Moved: That the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopt the following statement
interpreting this presbytery’s understanding of certain behavioral expectations of

Affirming that ‘The gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all
persons.’ (G-1.0302) The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, meeting on September 15,
2011, affirms that the Bible, The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order
(including G-2.0104b and G-2.0105 1 & 2) set forth the scriptural and
constitutional standards for ordination and installation. Los Ranchos Presbytery
believes the manner of life of ordained Ministers should be a demonstration of the
Christian gospel in the church and in the world, including living either in fidelity
within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in
singleness and will so notify candidates for ordination/installation and/or
membership in the presbytery. In obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority
of Scripture and guided by our confessions, this presbytery will prayerfully and
pastorally examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for
the responsibilities of office, including a commitment to fulfill all requirements as
expressed in the constitutional questions of ordination and installation.

A complaint was filed and the Synod PJC decided in favor of the Presbytery with a dissenting opinion written by two commissioners. The Complainants asked for review by the GAPJC.

Let me hold up here for the moment and mention two things about my analysis of the SJC decision – one that I got right and one that I missed.

The former is my looking ahead at the prospects for the case. I wrote:

[T]he Presbytery of Los Ranchos is trying to walk a very fine polity line here and in the opinion of the majority of the SPJC they have successfully done so.  However, the decision I expected from this case was much, much closer to the dissenting opinion. I have to think that the verbatim inclusion of now-removed language from the Book of Order is a problem in light of the Bush decision. If appealed to the GAPJC I would think this decision has a high likelihood of being overturned.

The second point is a nuance that I missed in the SPJC trail but was alerted to it after the fact and is important to the Los Ranchos brief to the GAPJC. This nuance is the intent that these standards are not requirements for membership or ordination but what the Presbytery expects of a member of the Presbytery after being admitted. The brief puts it this way:

By its plain language, the Resolution is an aspirational statement, entitled “Resolution of Expectations,” and contains no language that requires the Presbytery to take any particular action or reach any pre-ordained conclusion about any candidate for membership or ordained service.

The appeal to the GAPJC had ten specifications of error, some of which had sub-points, which were consolidated down to six specifications. Of these all but one were sustained.

The first specification was the error that the SPJC failed to address the allegations stated in the complaint. While this specification was sustained the GAPJC went on to say that there could still be full consideration of the complaint and ultimately the error was harmless.

The last specification was that “the SPJC failed to correct Appellee’s defiance of an established position of the church.” This was not sustained and the decision said “While there was overreaching, there was not deliberate defiance by the Presbytery.”

The middle four specifications deal with the nuts and bolts of the polity issues. Specification 2 was that “The SPJC failed to acknowledge the plain meaning and inherent practical effect of the Resolution.” Number 3 dealt with the improper restatement of the Constitution. The fourth was the interpretation and application of G-3.0102 and F-3.0209 and the fifth was that “The SPJC erred by disregarding the constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and concomitant duty to show one another mutual forbearance.”

All of these are addressed in the Decision Section which states:

The issue before this Commission is whether the resolution adopted by Presbytery is an appropriate use of a presbytery’s authority in issuing statements that “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of the Book of Order.” (G-3.0102)

In both of the briefs and in the GAPJC decision reference is made to Decision 205-15 Presbytery of West Jersey v. Synod of the Northeast. In that remedial case the Presbytery objected to the Synod passing a resolution that declared itself a More Light Synod and the question was “In adopting these resolutions, did the Synod of the Northeast, in effect, adopt a policy which is contrary to the current constitutional position of the denomination?” In that case the GAPJC decided it had not saying:

The evidence presented at trial reflected that the resolutions constituted an expression of opinion.  Expression of an opinion by a synod or other governing body, without action, does not constitute the adoption of a policy contrary to an established and controlling constitutional policy of the denomination.

In this decision the GAPJC wrote about it saying:

The present case is distinguishable from West Jersey, in that in West Jersey the resolutions were addressed, or understood to be addressed to the church as a whole, whereas the resolution in the present case is addressed, to “candidates for ordination/installation and/or membership in the presbytery.” Herein lies the difference.

They continue

This Commission determines, therefore, that by directing the notification specifically to those who would potentially seek admission into Presbytery, the Resolution would have the practical effect of discouraging those seeking ordination or membership prior to the required case by case evaluation or examination. In so doing, Presbytery exceeded its authority and duty to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and its right and obligation to “nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ … includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members who are teaching elders…” (G-3.0301c). 

So, while intended to be aspirational and argued that the language showed that intent, because it made specific reference to “those that seek admission into Presbytery” the Resolution strays from being simple opinion.

There are the two important precedents which are dealt with in the second to last paragraph. The decision notes Bush v. Pittsburgh (Decision 218-10) and Buescher v. Olympia (Decision 218-09) and says:

[W]hen Presbytery combined current Book of Order language from G–2.0104a with former Book of Order language G-6.0106b, it created at least a perception of an improper restatement of the Constitution.  As this Commission stated in both Bush and Buescher, “[r]estatements of the Book of Order, in whatever form they are adopted, are themselves an obstruction to the same standard of constitutional governance no less than attempts to depart from mandatory provisions.” 

And so, the GAPJC wraps it all up with this final line:

This Commission declares that the Resolution as written is unconstitutional and,
therefore, void.

As I said, no additional opinions. The SPJC decison is reversed and the Presbytery resolution is voided.

The first comment I have is to raise the question, based upon this and the referenced decisions, could an acceptable statement be constructed?  From West Jersey, we know that it must state opinion and not “compel or direct any action.” Further, that decision suggests that it should be addressed to the church as a whole. From Bush and Buescher we know that it must not be a restatement of the Book of Order and from this decision “a perception of an improper restatement of the Constitution.” And again, this decision guides us that it can not be directed “specifically to those who would potentially seek admission into Presbytery.”

The final statement of the decision, in identifying the “Resolution as written,” suggests that such a statement that complies with these criteria could be produced. The exercise is left to the reader but a reasonable presbyter could be forgiven for thinking the task too difficult or for considering the final product so limited as to be without merit or the worth the necessary time to construct it.

It is along these lines that the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Dr. W. Keith Geckeler, has counseled the Presbytery. In a letter posted on the Presbytery web site he writes:

This Decision does not prohibit the presbytery from doing anything it was not already prohibited from doing nor does it permit it to do anything it was not already permitted to do.  And it does not prohibit the presbytery from doing what it has always been permitted to do. 


However, because nothing is changed by the Decision—and nothing would be changed by adopting a new Resolution—the presbytery would do well to consider whether energy would be better spent crafting a new statement—or directed toward creating healthy congregations within this presbytery. 

Let me finish up by taking this in another direction… What if a church or presbytery did not want to restate the Constitution using their own words but wanted to ground their statement by using an historic confession. Maybe they find something new like the French Confession that the Fellowship of Presbyterians is going to focus on this year or the Creed of Chalcedon that is received in the Second Helvetic Confession. What if they wanted to affirm a different version of a confessional document, like affirming the current version of the Heidelberg Catechism rather than the revised version if it is adopted. Or for that matter, what if a governing body felt that an earlier version of the Westminster Confession was their statement of faith? Or what if they wanted to not affirm a particular confessional document like the Confession of 1967 or Belhar if adopted?

A governing body can do this speaking to the whole church and not stating it as a requirement for ordination or membership. And if they adopt an historical document are they really restating Constitutional standards?  That argument could be made — While a particular constitutional document is being affirmed it could be argued that by not taking all of them, or the official ones, as a package then it is a restatement of the whole. On the other hand, we tend to do that when using the Book of Confessions in worship or devotions — When was the last time your church affirmed its faith using a piece of the Second Helvetic Confession?

Let me ask one additional “what if?” What if a group within the Presbytery were to adopt a resolution similar to the Los Ranchos statement? The presbytery has not adopted it yet if the group constitutes a majority of commissioners and members would the standards become a de facto membership criteria for the whole presbytery? Not being a governing body this would have to be dealt with as a disciplinary case unless it were a remedial case against the presbytery for not bringing the disciplinary case.

OK, enough idol idle speculation on this. As I argue above this decision seems to place a significant fence around the possibility of a presbytery affirming particular standards for members. But as the Los Ranchos letter also says, the landscape has not really changed — standards for ordination and membership decisions can still be handled on a case-by-case basis.

So where now? All this discussion of Creeds and Confessions got me going in that direction and I am looking at some reflection regarding those as a prologue to revisiting some of last Summer’s PC(USA) 220th GA. However, the Synod PJC decision yesterday has raised some significant polity questions for me and so I am setting the former thoughts aside for a few days to deal with that new decision. Stay tuned…

You Say You Want A Reformation? OK, Now What?

Yes, it is once again Reformation Day. This is the one day we can nail down as having a dramatic specific positive event in the sequence of many actions that were part of the Protestant Reformation.

A year ago I reflected on why this date among many other possible dates and why Martin Luther over several other reformers.

As I was reflecting this year I was considering the “Now What.” On this day in 1517 Martin Luther began his very public quest to ask hard theological questions of the church in which he was a priest and which was dominant in his part of the world. But while that was a pivotal moment it was much more the beginning of the journey than the end. The papal bull was not issued until June of 1520 and was not in Luther’s hands for him to burn until December. The Diet of Worms was the following April. It then took Luther a bit over a year – while in protective custody – to translate the New Testament into the common German language, but it was another twelve years to complete the Old Testament. And throughout all this he was also writing his commentaries and other books, particularly On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church where he laid out his theology and where the church in Rome had departed from scripture.

Similarly, while we mark the beginning of the Reformation, or at least Luther’s branch of it, on this day maybe the next major milestone is not his famous defense (the famous “Here I stand” speech.) but the response to that speech in the Edict of Worms issued a month later. Unlike the papal bull that condemned Luther and banned his writings, this edict cut off his accomplices and followers with him. In effect this created the Evangelisch/Lutheran church.

But Luther was not alone in having a slow and steady march. John Calvin was first convinced to stay in Geneva in September of 1536 but was kicked out a year and a half later. Three and a half years later he accepted an invitation to return and works in Geneva for the remaining 23 years of his life. Similarly, his famous work The Institutes of the Christian Religion seemed to be a work never finished going through five editions between 1536 and 1559.

And the Scottish Reformation was a real roller coaster ride. In 1560, under the leadership of John Knox, the Scottish Parliament cut ties with the papacy and adopted a new confession of faith. However, the structure of the church changed much more slowly and the back and forth of English rule and those that ruled England led to an ebb and flow in the church. There were high points, such as the Presbyterian influence in the Westminster Assembly, and low points like the 28 years of persecution under Charles II. Religious toleration came back at the end of the persecution in 1687 and Presbyterianism recognized as the established religion in Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707.

It is hard to see Reformation as a single date or point in time.

History generally teaches us that major change, and especially reformation, is messy, complicated and takes time. And Luther, Calvin and Knox are the successes while others like Hus, Tyndale and Hamilton did not find political and societal circumstances as fortunate and gave up their lives for their cause.

But in another sense the Reformation never ended. The point of the Reformation was to recover the Word of God and always be subject to it. The reformers made a point of the third mark of the true church, discipline uprightly administered, with the point of it to be constantly seeking together as a covenant community what God would have us do.

And so, on this Reformation Day, it brings us back around to one of the mottoes we associate with the Reformation:

“The Church Reformed and always being Reformed according to the Word of God”