The PCA Overtures

Being on the Committee of Commissioners for Overtures this year (for the first time!), I thought it would be helpful for me to get some of my thoughts down on “paper” regarding the overtures. There are quite a few this year. On some of them I won’t comment at all, and on others I might comment quite a bit. The overtures themselves can be found online here.

Overtures 1 and 2. The substance of these overtures (which are identical) is to make it required that Presbyteries record and rule on differences for licensure exams, just like they are required to do for ordination. The current practice is that Presbyteries are only required to do this for ordination. I like this overture, having been on Review of Presbytery Records this year. This overture would provide some consistency to the currently inconsistent practice (some Presbyteries record differences at licensure and others don’t). It also makes sense to record differences at licensure as well as ordination. If we are licensing a man to preach, shouldn’t we make a point of recording differences and ruling on them? Otherwise, Presbytery may be in an awkward situation of being pressured to ordain a man they have licensed, but the obstacle of the differences may be too great. They may not have licensed a man, had they known of the differences at the licensure exam. The theology portion of the exam being required at licensure is another reason why this overture makes good sense. My only caveat with the overture is the first dependent clause: “While out Constitution does not require the applicant’s affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms…” While this statement is technically true, recording it like this could create problems down the road. Some could read this as affirming system subscription, which is NOT what we have. We have good faith subscription, which requires a candidate to list ALL his differences, which are then ruled on by the Presbytery, and it is assumed in good faith that he holds to ALL the rest of the standards.

Overtures 3, 6, 8, 27 all relate to how business comes up in the General Assembly. There seems to have been quite a reaction to the Administration Committee simply bringing a recommendation to the floor that proposed constitutional changes without having gone through the overtures committee. One of the overtures mentions that this threatens our grass-roots Presbyterianism. All these overtures attempt to clarify which overtures should go where, and what recommendations should be referred where, so that any committee that would conceivably be affected by an overture or recommendation should be allowed to put forth a recommendation on that proposed action. This seems very reasonable to me.

Overture 4 proposes that if a recommendation from a permanent Committee or Agency be properly divisible according to Roberts Rules of Order, then a 2/3 vote of the committee of commissioners dealing with said recommendation would be sufficient to divide the recommendation. This seems reasonable to me.

Overture 9 seeks to give the General Assembly more flexibility to allow for amendments to recommendations, where the current rules allow only for the motion to recommit. The overture would allow the GA to suspend the rule disallowing amendments, if the suspension vote receives 2/3 majority. Now, the Committee on Constitutional Business, while stating that this proposed change does not conflict with other parts of the Constitution, did note that this overture would create a conflict with RAO 20. I have to say I am a bit mystified by this conclusion. I looked for a whole twenty minutes for a supposed conflict, and couldn’t find it. The only possibility of a conflict came with regard to whether the motion to suspend was debatable. RAO 20 states that a motion to suspend any part of the RAO is not debatable. But the overture does not state that the possibility of suspending the no-amendment rule would be a debatable motion. So, I don’t see any conflict. Maybe one of the members of the CCB can enlighten me as to what the nature of the conflict was that they saw.

Overtures 10, 26, 29 have to do with views on evolution. The substance of overtures 10 and 29 are the same, although Overture 10 has an additional section (a VERY important section!) detailing judicial precedent in the PCA concerning theistic evolution. Overtures 10 and 29 have as their substance a declaration that theistic evolution is not a biblical position. Overture 26, while not necessarily disagreeing with the substance of the other overtures, states the position that because the other overtures would be in thesi (for a good definition of what in thesis statements are, go here and here) statements, that therefore we should not make them. I could not more thoroughly disagree with Overture 26. The assumption behind this overture seems to be that General Assembly cannot make judicially binding statements in thesi, and that GA is only a judicial body. This ignores many things and assumes things of the other two overtures that are simply not true. The other overtures are not trying to provide something that is judicially binding. Instead, they are trying to give pious advice. Consider this situation: a Presbytery is seeking to adjudicate a case where a TE is teaching something that might or might not be contrary to the Standards. Suppose the members of the Presbytery have not done a huge amount of reading in that area, and therefore they want the opinions of other people to help guide them in coming to a correct decision. That kind of guidance is what in thesi statements are created to be. Just because they are not judicially binding does not mean they are worthless.

Overtures 11-19 are all from Pacific Northwest Presbytery. Some of these overtures are good, and some of them are not so good, and one of them would be rather disastrous. Overture 11 would change BCO 20-3, 24-2, and 25-4 to allow a ruling elder to moderate a congregational meeting in a church not his own. To my mind, this overture seems sound. If a TE from the Presbytery could moderate a meeting, then an RE should be allowed to do so as well, especially given that any man in good standing from the church itself is able to moderate the meeting if there is no TE at the church.

Overtures 12-14 have to do with filing periods for complaints and the like. I would be in favor of these overtures. The dangers of not allowing a complaint on the pitiful basis of being a week late (which might have a very reasonable basis) seem silly to me.

Overture 15 would be disastrous, in my opinion. First of all, the overtures believes that the phrase “strong presumption of guilt” (which the overture would strike and replace with “if the court judges an indictment is warranted”) is a “somewhat subjective phrase.” It is no such thing. The phrase means something very specific and technical: it is the level of evidence needed to justify the filing of charges. In secular police work, the term answers the question, “Do you have enough evidence to book him?” That is not a somewhat subjective phrase, but a technical phrase that has a precise meaning. Of course, one court may have different standards on this than another court. However, “if the court judges an indictment is warranted” is not any clearer. A second problem I have with this overture is one noted by the dissenting opinion by RE David Snoke, stating that the proposed change concerning investigation of reports and allegations would potentially conflict with BCO 34-2, which states that no scandalous charges ought to be received against a minister on slight grounds. I do think that the proposed wording change would make Presbyteries do (perhaps!) too much investigating. I am sympathetic with the overture on this one point, however: the majority of doctrinal cases recently have been in contexts where the Presbytery has steadfastly refused to investigate BECAUSE of BCO 34-2, and wound up falling foul of the first part of BCO 34-2, which states that no minister ought to be screened in his sin because of his office. Some amendment to that proposed change ought to be propounded, such that frivolous charges can be ignored, while serious charges need to be investigated. The overture takes issue with the word “report” in BCO 31-2, stating that the BCO doesn’t define it. Maybe the BCO has not defined it. The SJC has. In the cases of Siouxlands Presbytery, the Presbytery argued that a report had not been received concerning the teaching of TE Greg Lawrence. The SJC ruled that the Presbytery had erred. A report is much broader than what the Presbytery had thought it was. It has to be more than a rumor, but it can be much, much less than a fully documented indictment.

Overture 16 is also dangerous, in my opinion. This would allow too many courts to dismiss charges way too easily. This also happened in Siouxlands Presbytery, when charges were made against TE Joshua Moon, and the Presbytery refused to allow the charges, based on very similar argumentation to this overture. While I don’t think that EVERY charge has to be admitted, this overture allows too much wiggle room for Presbyteries simply to ignore what they don’t want to face. And we have seen WAY too much of that lately.

Overture 17 misunderstands the nature of definite suspension. The very definition of “definite suspension” is that the suspension has a specified end-point. This overture would change that definition to mean that the court needs to review the case at the end of the definite suspension. This would, in effect, turn definite suspension into a form of indefinite suspension. I recognize the problem that the overture points out, concerning the hesitancy of Presbyteries when faced with a penitent, but not necessarily worthy-of-being-reinstated minister (that is, the repentance needs time in order to be judged genuine). However, to institute this change would create a different problem: namely, that a definite suspension would become, in effect, indefinite, creating a great deal of uncertainty for the minister.

Concerning overture 18, I can agree with the attempt to clarify what would become necessary for the assumption of original jurisdiction (a higher court taking over a lower court’s jurisdiction when a lower court is being delinquent in its actions). However, the result is not satisfactory to me. The threshold proposed is two-fold: when a Presbytery refuses to order an indictment, and when 7% of the other Presbyteries request the GA to assume original jurisdiction. There are problems with both proposed thresholds. With the first, the amount of time needed to determine when a Presbytery has refused to order an indictment is not specified. I also believe the threshold should be lower. The threshold should be on the investigation level, not the indictment level. It should be specified, also, that investigation has be more than one or two Presbyters having a drink with the person whose theology is suspected of being out of accord. The 7% of Presbyteries is completely unreasonable. The difficult of having 7% of Presbyteries consent to pass such a motion means that, effectively, it would never happen. Furthermore, I believe that GA should sit up and take notice when 2 Presbyteries request the assumption of original jurisdiction. I am not worried by the fear that it would happen too often. We have had the 2 Presbytery rule in place for a long time, and the request to assume original jurisdiction has rarely come before the GA. Both thresholds would, therefore, need to be modified, although, as I said, I am in agreement that some clarification would be helpful. The mere phrase “refuses to act” is too vague, and has generally been interpreted in too broad a manner, in my opinion. It has generally been interpreted to mean that if the Presbytery is doing the least little thing, that constitutes “acting,” when they have hardly been exercising due diligence. Presbyteries have a tendency to develop good ol’ boy clubs that most definitely refuse to act when doctrinal matters come before them. So, I’m in favor of amending, but not this particular way.

I have no problem with overture 20.

Overture 21 has been LONG overdue, in my opinion. The informational reports, while not unimportant, seem to me to prevent our Assembly from being a truly deliberative body. Now, if only they had also recommending going to a delegated assembly, which would save the denomination at least half a million dollars a year…

Overture 28 is a good overture, bringing the Theological Examining Committee into line with what Presbyteries are doing regarding stated differences.

I agree whole-heartedly with Overture 30 concerning intinction.

Overture 31 does seem to create a conflict with BCO 37-7, which allows jurisdiction to pass to another court.

Overture 32 seems to me to be a helpful clarification. The Committee on Constitutional Business says that it creates a conflict with BCO 1-3, 2-1, 6-2, and 57-2. However, the rationale provided only seems to apply to overtures 33-34.

With regard to the CCB’s argumentation on overtures 33-34, I’m not sure I agree. Overtures 33-34 would require a person to affirm the Apostles Creed to be admitted into the church. The BCO states that the only profession of faith required for membership in the visible church is the profession of one’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, could not one argue that confessing one’s faith in Jesus Christ requires a Trinitarian profession? How can you truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ if you don’t believe the Father sent Him, or that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit? I am wondering if that profession is not being defined too narrowly in the CCB’s rationale. I wouldn’t have a problem using the Apostles Creed as part of the affirmation of faith in the Lord Jesus. I am in favor of overtures 33-34.

I disagree with overture 35. The Westminster Standards ARE a confession of faith. Just because the officers are the only ones required to hold it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use it as a confession of faith in the worship service. Maybe some individual people won’t agree with it. Fine. They don’t have to say the words. But the Confession is the Confession of our church as a whole, not just of the officers. Therefore, it is appropriate for the church to confess its faith using the words of the Confession of faith.