Siouxlands Presbytery’s Report on the Internet and on the Nature of Presbytery Information

Report of the Committee To Formulate Policy on Use of Presbytery Information

Section 1

Statement from the Committee on Public Use of Presbytery Information

The committee urges the Presbytery to adopt the following policy: Members of and delegates to the Presbytery of the Siouxlands are charged with carefully understanding the biblical mandates found in the full text of Larger Catechism 144 and 145 to honor and protect one another’s reputation while in pursuit of truth and debating matters that come before the Presbytery. This mandate applies to both public and private communications:

Q. 144. What are the duties required in the ninth commandment? A. The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report. Q. 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vainglorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.

Public forums on the internet are particularly prone to violating these biblical mandates because of their relatively impersonal nature. Things a person would not say face to face are more easily said in an internet posting. Hosts of such forums are responsible for all content, including comments and links posted to their forum. This responsibility consists of the timely removal of materials which violate the spirit of WLC 144-145. Presbyters should also refrain from providing source material to others that would violate these mandates.

Section 2

Suggested Guidelines for Internet Activity

1. Never say anything about anyone else that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying to them in person. This simple rule would probably eliminate 90% of internet fracases.

2. Consider that the entire world can read what you wrote.

3. Consider that no one can review beforehand what you write on a blog. This is not therefore peer-reviewed scholarship. It might become peer-reviewed after-wards, but it isn’t beforehand.

4. Ask yourself this question: does this post guard and protect my internet neighbor’s good name? The internet has a huge potential for good or harm, more so than almost any other media except television, and it’s giving TV a run for its money. Everything is simply out there.

5. Have I thought through the implications of what will happen after I hit the “post” button? Imagine the reaction of the person it most highly affects. Try to see the issue from the other person’s shoes.

6. Have I loved this person through what I am saying to that person?

7. Never write a post in anger. If you are angry with something that someone else has written, do not reply until you can write with a cool head. Otherwise, you will almost certainly overstate the case, thus polarizing the other person into a defensive mode.

8. Will what I’m going to say actually help other people, or am I just setting myself up to be a great professor of knowledge, or man-pleaser, or know-it-all?

9. The blogs from our presbytery should not be the place where presbyters are ridiculed, called names, or defamed in their reputation. The blogs from our presbytery should showcase the Gospel.

10. Blogs are not wisely used to short-circuit the judicial process, even though Presbytery actions are public, as are official Presbytery documents. Actions of the Presbytery are not above critique, however, any more than actions of General Assembly are above critique. If critique is necessary, it should not be derisively done, but can be done with measured and factual tone. Presbytery is a body worthy of respect, however imperfect may be its performance in its duties.

Section 3

Constitutional Principles Governing Church Courts

Principle #1: There are three courts of the church. These courts are the session, the presbytery, and the general assembly. These courts are of the same nature and function and have the same sorts of rights and powers. They differ only as the constitution explicitly provides. BCO 10-2 says: “These courts are church Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly.” And BCO 11-3 says: “All Church courts are one in nature, constituted of the same elements, possessed inherently of the same kinds of rights and powers, and differing only as the Constitution may provide.” Therefore, the regular procedures of the operation are consistent among the differing courts of the church, except in the places that the constitution specifically stipulates a difference. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America is a public event. It is webcast for the whole world to observe on the internet. Guests may attend. Arguments and actions presented on the floor of the Assembly can and are debated and discussed in all sorts of forums, both by those present as presbyters, and by observers. There is no provision in the constitution to conduct a presbytery meeting or a session meeting any differently than the General Assembly conducts its business. Presbyteries and session meetings are normally to be conducted as public events. Statements made, arguments made, and actions taken may be debated and discussed in all sorts of forums, both by those present and by more remote observers.

Principle #2: Every Christian is bound to obey the Word of God. In addition, officers in the Presbyterian Church in America agree subscribe to and adhere to the explication of the scriptures we call the Westminster Standards. These standards are subordinate to the Word of God, and presbyters have the right to have certain differences with the Standards. But they must make these differences known to the presbytery and the presbytery must rule as to whether these differences are permissible. Beyond the Scriptures and these Standards, we do not allow the conscience to be bound by the commandments or judgments of men in matters of conscience. BCO Preliminary Principle 1 states: “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.” And Preliminary Principle 3 states: “No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience.”

Principle #3: It is recognized that sometimes a court must deal with sensitive information. In order to facilitate this, there is a mechanism in place known as executive session. A court may enter executive session at its own discretion by majority vote. The proceedings of the court while it is in executive session are to be considered confidential and may not be discussed with any person who is not a member of the court. However, minutes of the proceedings and discussion of an executive session must be kept and submitted to the court above for proper review. RAO 16-3.e.6 states: “Minutes of executive sessions are not exempt from the general requirement that presbytery’s actions shall be recorded in the presbytery’s minutes and that these minutes (even if kept in a separate section on executive sessions) shall be submitted to the General Assembly for review (BCO 13-11; 14-6.c; 40-1). Presbytery may ask that the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records deal with these minutes confidentially. However, any exceptions to these minutes must be submitted to the General Assembly through the normal procedures.” In addition, Roberts Rules stipulates that any actions taken in executive session must be spread upon the regular minutes of the body. As such, they become the public acts of a court of the church.

Principle #4: A court of the church may not prohibit a member of the court from discussing the public business of the court. According to the Stated Clerk, to do so would be an attempt to bind the conscience contrary to the Word of God. Any court attempting to do so would be liable to correction from the next higher court through the judicial process.

Principle #5: Because the higher court has the right and duty of exercising oversight over a lower court, the proceedings of a lower court are to be recorded and submitted for review. The BCO recognizes that the minutes may not accurately reflect the proceedings of a court, or that they may not be sufficiently clear in their language to facilitate proper review and oversight. Therefore BCO 40-4 states:

Courts may sometimes entirely neglect to perform their duty, by which neglect heretical opinions or corrupt practices may be allowed to gain ground; or offenders of a very gross character may be suffered to escape; or some circumstances in their proceedings of very great irregularity may not be distinctly recorded by them. In any of these cases their records will by no means exhibit to the higher court a full view of their proceedings. If, therefore, the next higher court be well advised that any such neglect or irregularity has occurred on the part of the lower court, it is incumbent on it to take cognizance of the same, and to examine, deliberate and judge in the whole matter as completely as if it had been recorded, and thus brought up by review of its records.

In order to address this concern, BCO 40-5 states:

When any court having appellate jurisdiction shall receive a credible report with respect to the court next below of any important delinquency or grossly unconstitutional proceedings of such court, the first step shall be to cite the court alleged to have offended to appear before the court having appellate jurisdiction, or its commission, by representative or in writing, at a specified time and place, and to show what the lower court has done or failed to do in the case in question. The court thus issuing the citation may reverse or redress the proceedings of the court below in other than judicial cases; or it may censure the delinquent court; or it may remit the whole matter to the delinquent court with an injunction to take it up and dispose of it in a constitutional manner; or it may stay all further proceedings in the case; as circumstances may require.

And BCO 34-1 says:

Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal and two other Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction (to first receive and initially hear and determine), the General Assembly shall do so.

Furthermore, BCO 10-4 states that it is the duty of the clerk, besides recording transactions, is to preserve the records carefully and to grant extracts from them whenever properly required. Morton Smith’s commentary on the BCO states that the clerk is the officer of the court who may grant extracts of the minutes of the court whenever called upon to do so. The 19th General Assembly instructed its committees to promptly furnish their committee approved minutes to any member of the PCA who so requests them. These minutes are to be provided at the expense of the one requesting them. Any attempt by a court to withhold legitimate public information concerning the actions of a body will serve to short-circuit this constitutionally mandated activity. This will prove very injurious to the peace purity and unity of the Church.

Principle #6: The gathering of the Lord’s people for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is a public event. This is called in our constitution “public worship.” All of BCO 47 is a description of the elements of public worship, and specifically says that public worship differs from private worship in the following manner:

Public worship differs from private worship in that in public worship God is served by His saints unitedly as His covenant people, the Body of Christ. For this reason the covenant children should be present so far as possible as well as adults. (BCO 47-7)

Statements made in the context of public worship are public statements.

Principle #7: According to our constitution there are four subcategories of sin. BCO 29-2 through 4 reads:

29-2. Offenses are either personal or general, private or public; but all of them being sins against God, are therefore grounds of discipline.

29-3. Personal offenses are violations of the divine law, considered in the special relation of wrongs or injuries to particular individuals. General offenses are heresies or immoralities having no such relation, or considered apart from it.

29-4. Private offenses are those which are known only to a few persons. Public offenses are those which are notorious.

As a general principle public offenses merit public repentance, while private offenses merit private repentance unless there is a willful contumacy and lack of repentance in the face of rebuke. Then we are to “tell it to the church” even if the initial offense is a private offense. The Bible and the BCO both mandate that personal sins which are either public or private must be dealt with according to Matthew 18. Private offenses, because of their interpersonal nature, ought to be dealt with privately if at all possible. One may only involve other people after the first step (instruction in the Word of God) and the second step (privately going to an offender) have been completed. Not to do so is a sin. General offenses differ from personal offenses and are not in view in Matthew 18. General offenses, and especially general offenses of a public nature require public rebuke and correction so that the people of God may be appropriately warned concerning the offender and his or her actions. While it is not wrong, and may even be wise to go privately to one who has committed a general offense, the Bible does not mandate it.

Principle #8: The church’s discipline derives its force, in part, from the “approbation of an impartial public. This can only happen if the proceedings of the church are made known to the public. Preliminary Principle #8 of the BCO reads as follows:

Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church.

Principle #9: Defamation of another’s character is a great sin against the Ninth Commandment and ought not to be tolerated in the church, especially by her officers. In view of the far ranging reach of the internet this duty is intensified. All officers are exhorted to give careful attention to their duties under the Ninth Commandment in all areas of their lives, but especially where it concerns their speech on the internet.

Definition of DEFAMATION: n. The uttering of slanderous words with a view to injure another’s reputation; the malicious uttering of falsehood respecting another which tends to destroy or impair his good name, character, or occupation; slander; calumny. To constitute defamation in law, the words must be false and spoken maliciously. Defamatory words written and published are called libel (Websters, 1828).

While it is clear how false information about another would be damaging, strictly factual statements or direct quotes may also be presented in a prejudicial manner so as to damage one’s reputation. The Larger Catechism Q 145 prohibits us from “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful or equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of the truth or justice;” this too must be studiously avoided by her officers.

Principle #10: The Church of Jesus Christ functions generally as a public entity. All meetings and records of its meetings are open to the public and to public scrutiny except where secrecy is absolutely necessary. When Paul made his defense before Festus and Agrippa he related the story of the founding of the church and insisted that Agrippa would have known about them because “these things were not done in a corner.” (Acts 28:26.) The Apostle Paul specifically renounced “secret and shameful ways” (2 Cor 4:2). As mentioned above, church courts do not differ from one another except as specifically provided for in the BCO. The RAO instructs the Stated Clerk to publish and update the minutes of the General Assembly and the Statistical Reports. RAO 3-2-h reads as follows:

He shall be responsible for publishing the minutes and statistical reports of the Presbyterian Church in America and periodically updating the digest of the minutes. There is no provision in the constitution for presbyteries and sessions to keep minutes private except as provided for under the seal of executive session. The universal practice of Presbyterians has been that the attendance on, but not participation in, the various courts of the church is open to all who come (implicit in BCO 13-12.) It is unreasonable and illogical that the event may be attended by any who come and the event may be spoken about and reported upon by an eyewitness, but the official documents recording the event are privileged.

According to J.A. Hodge’s What is Presbyterian Law? (Eighth Edition, revised and enlarged, 1905, pp 230-1), “…historically Presbyterians have held that in all circumstances, even those involving sensitive personal matters, The records of our church courts are public and not private documents.” According to Frank Smith’s History of the Presbyterian Church in America, p 491, (Silver Anniversary Edition) “So foreign is the making of church records private documents that even in the controversy which led to the founding of the PCA, the church courts of the PCUS never thought of restricting access to church records so as to impede the reporting of their actions by The Presbyterian Journal.” Therefore the minutes of the presbytery ought to be considered public documents except as provided for in the executive session clauses of Roberts Rules of Order.

Princ1iple #11: The official record of the court is subject to correction. The primary means of correction is the orderly and regular review of the minutes at the next stated meeting of the court. It is also possible that presbytery minutes may be corrected long after they are approved. If portions of any unapproved minutes are published, the writer should make known that these minutes are as yet unapproved and subject to correction by the court. If approved minutes are later corrected by the court, and a person has published portions which are corrected, it is incumbent upon the one publishing to notify his (or her) readership that the cited minutes have been corrected.

Principle #12: A court or her members may engage in various kinds of communication, such as phone calls and email exchanges, especially between meetings of the court. Some of these, such as committee meetings over the phone or committee business conducted via email, may be included as part of the record of the court, and as such are public in nature. Some communications are of a more personal nature. These are not generally considered to be a part of the record of the court and may be of a more private nature. Participants need to be careful to understand which category their communications fall into. Participants also need to beware of using personal or quasi-personal communications in such a way as might be construed to be circularizing the court or attempting to influence it before it can begin its orderly deliberations. If a presbyter wishes to convey something to the whole presbytery, the regular way of doing so is to submit it to the Clerk who will then distribute it subject to the moderator’s judgment. There may also be documents which circulate during a court meeting, such as prayer and praise reports. These documents generally ought not be considered or treated as part of the court’s official record, and normally ought not to be published without the permission of the one making the report. Presbyters are also advised to think carefully about any information they do reveal in praise and prayer reports because the presbytery is a public venue.

Principle #13: It is the duty of church courts to condemn erroneous opinions. BCO 11-4 reads, in part, “Every court has the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline seriously and reasonably proposed, and in general to maintain truth and righteousness, condemning erroneous opinions and practices which tend to the injury of the peace, purity, or progress of the Church.” And BCO 13-9.f reads in part that “the presbytery has the right and duty to: To condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the Church; to visit churches for the purpose of inquiring into and redressing the evils that may have arisen in them; In addition, the scripture enjoins all elders individually to the duty of refuting those who contradict sound doctrine.” Titus 1:9 reads: “[An elder must be one who is] holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”