"Dissent, Disobedience, Discipline and Defense"

by Frank B. Baldwin, III

Elder, The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church


Now that Amendment B has been adopted by a majority of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it is even more apparent than ever that the issues raised by Amendment B will not be put quietly to rest by its adoption. As one writer has commented,

Last July, voices were thundering on the floor of the Assembly: "Send the 'fidelity and chastity' amendment to the presbyteries! Let's settle this thing once and for all." As of this writing, the official returns are still coming in--but all observers are agreed that the church doesn't feel very "settled" right now. Wilton, "A Fine Mess," The Presbyterian Outlook, April 28, 1997, p. 13.

What responses can be expected? There is much talk, and fear, of "enforcement." This may range from wanting to "do something about" the roughly 48% of presbytery members and commissioners who voted against Amendment B, to administrative or remedial action against a session or presbytery that ordains or installs a person who has unrepentantly and self-admittedly engaged in a practice which "the confessions call sin." On the other side, the response of Presbyterians opposed to Amendment B has ranged from written dissent to planned disobedience.

 

Dissent

A number of forms under which Presbyterians could enter into a Covenant of Dissent are circulating around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There is sound Constitutional basis for dissent:

G-4.0403 Full participation is guaranteed to "persons of different theological positions consistent with the Reformed tradition."

G-1.0305 "[T]here are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ."

Merely signing a Covenant of Dissent does not constitute a renunciation of the jurisdiction of the PCUSA. This may only be accomplished by a specific written communication to the clerk or stated clerk of the governing body of which the person wishing to renounce jurisdiction is a member. (See G-6.0501.) Any Covenant of Dissent should clearly state that the signers intend to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and be subject to its jurisdiction.

In addition, and perhaps more ominously, renunciation of jurisdiction may be "presume[d]" "when a church officer [minister, elder or deacon], after consultation and notice persists in a work disapproved by a governing body having jurisdiction . . .." I believe that this passage was intended to relate to the activities of ministers whose occupation is not approved by the presbytery, as is required by G-11.0403 and G-11.0410-.04111. I know of no provision under which a session (or presbytery) has jurisdiction to approve or disapprove of any work engaged in by an ordained layperson, and I doubt that there is any desire on the part of the courts of our denomination to increase their workloads by delving into these matters.

A question about the allowable nature of dissent is presented by G-6.0108(b):

"It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer 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 hold office in that body. The decision as to whether a person has departed from the essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves."

A footnote to this provision declares that when a matter is determined by majority vote of a governing body, a person who disagrees and is unable passively to submit should peaceably withdraw from the church. But, it is said, this rule extends "only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government." Attempts to fashion an agreed list of "essentials of Reformed faith" have failed, most recently in the rejection at Albuquerque of Overture 96-42, which proposed the following five essential tenets of the Reformed faith:

As our confessional standards are not to be ignored or dismissed, but rather upheld, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) requires that all ordained persons, Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, Elders, Deacons, and all non-ordained staff persons serving in positions of leadership in all levels of governing bodies must affirm five essentials of the Christian faith as a condition of their service:

1. Affirm the Holy Scriptures as defined in the Book of Confessions, 6.0024, as the inspired, authoritative, and infallible rule of our faith and practice.

2. Affirm the historic actuality of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and his divine/human nature.

3. Affirm the historic actuality of the miracles of our Lord Jesus Christ as conveyed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture.

4. Affirm the efficacy of the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins.

5. Affirm the historic actuality of the bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

While the foregoing "essentials" may reflect a quite conservative focus, even they are a long way from dealing with ordination standards or adherence to the full contents of the Book of Confessions as essential tenets. We may, before the burden of Amendment B is lifted from us, see a judicial determination as to the centrality of its ordination standards to our Reformed faith. I do not expect reasonable persons to find Amendment B's rules either essential or agreed on by a sufficient majority to warrant forcing anyone out of the denomination for refusing to subscribe to them.

 

Disobedience

Disobedience to Overture B would entail knowingly ordaining or installing a minister, elder or deacon who violates its standards. Many such bodies will no doubt resort to a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, but some commentators have suggested that an ordaining body must ask questions sufficient to determine whether a candidate's practices are those which "the confessions call sin." Two difficulties with doing so are (a) the multiplicity of practices called sin in our Book of Confessions and the uncertainty as to whether Amendment B really intends, as it says, to incorporate all such practices as equally preventing ordination unless repented of and (b) on the other hand, the risk of discriminatory enforcement if some practices (e.g., supposed sexual "sins") are singled out and Sunday golfers and practicing alcoholics are admitted without question.

 

Discipline and Enforcement

There are rumblings from various quarters that "enforcement" should begin. The Book of Discipline identifies two types of disciplinary procedures, remedial and disciplinary. In addition, the Form of Government provides for "special administrative review" of the actions of a governing body by a higher governing body and permits the appointment of an administrative commission to deal with reported disorder in a church or governing body.

Remedial Case: A remedial case is one in which an "irregularity or delinquency of a lower governing body" is corrected by a higher governing body. (An irregularity is an erroneous decision or action and a delinquency is an omission or failure to act.) (D-2.0202) This type of procedure would be available if a session or presbytery were to ordain or install a person in violation of Amendment B, or if a session or presbytery, in a disciplinary proceeding, failed to discipline a person or church allegedly in violation of Amendment B. The case would be commenced in the presbytery, in the event of allegedly improper ordination or installation of an elder or deacon, or in the synod, in the case of allegedly improper ordination or installation of a minister. A remedial case against the session of a particular church may only be brought by a member of the particular church. A remedial case against a presbytery must be brought by a minister or elder enrolled as a member of a presbytery against that presbytery, by a session against the presbytery (presumably only the presbytery where the church of which the complaining session is the governing body is located), or by one presbytery against another. Remedial cases are referred immediately to the permanent judicial commission of the body to which complaint is made. (D-6.0305) There is a relatively short statute of limitations on a remedial complaint. A complaint of irregularity must be filed within 90 days after its occurrence and a complaint of delinquency must be filed within 90 days after failure or refusal of the respondent to cure the delinquency at its next meeting.

Disciplinary Case: A disciplinary case is one in which a church member or officer may be censured for "an offense," defined as "any act or omission by a member or officer of the church that is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This does not sound like a particularly useful procedure in the enforcement of Amendment B, because it focuses on individual guilt rather than collective action. It is hard to imagine the logistics of charging all individual members of a session or presbytery with an offense. A disciplinary proceeding may only be begun by "a person under jurisdiction of a governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) making an accusation against another" (D-10.0102.a) or "a member of a governing body receiving information from any source that an offense may have occurred which should be investigated for the purpose of discipline." When a complaint is filed, the clerk or stated clerk appoints an investigating committee, and the matter is referred to the entire session or other governing body only if the investigating committee decides to file a complaint.

Administrative Proceedings: Another possibility for dealing with a particular church or presbytery that fails to toe the line on Amendment B would be the "special administrative review" procedure: If a higher governing body learns at any time of any irregularity or delinquency by a lower governing body, it may require the governing body to produce records and take appropriate action.(G-9-0408.) To enforce this power, a presbytery could appoint an administrative commission to visit a particular church reported to be in disorder (for example, disobedient to Amendment B) and "inquire into and settle the difficulties therein." With presbytery approval, such an administrative commission could replace he session and, in an extreme case, remove the pastor. I do not know how much appetite there may be among the presbyteries for this type of activity. Certainly it requires considerable dedication of time and effort on the part of members of an administrative commission.

 

Defense

The first line defense to any proceeding which is disciplinary in nature is to insist that the accuser and the judge conform strictly to all requirements of the applicable statute, in this case the provisions of the Book of Order. These requirements include timeliness of filing, a proper complainant, and compliance with all stated procedures. The respondent (individual, church, or presbytery) is entitled to, and should have, counsel.

I have elsewhere suggested various infirmities of Amendment B which present opportunities to disrupt its enforcement. In summary, these include arguments about the ambiguity of Amendment B:

Does Amendment B incorporate the entire Book of Confessions or only those documents which are specifically called "confessions."

What is the meaning of self-acknowledged sins? Is one off the hook if she/he is in denial?

What is required for repentance? How is it to be proved? Does one truly repent if the alleged sin is not one generally accepted as such in today's society, or if he or she enjoyed, and still thinks with pleasure about, the allegedly sinful act?

and about the invalidity of Amendment B:

It is entirely possible that Amendment B is invalid on its face because it violates the historic principles of church order set forth in the Book of Order, particularly the "right of judgment" announced by G-1.0301 and the protection of different theological viewpoints stated in G-1.0305.

or a head-on collision with the wording of Amendment B:

In employing the word "chastity" (cleanness) rather than "celibacy" (abstinence from sexual activity)* does Amendment B provide some leeway for relationships that are pure and committed, even if they involve a sexual component?

*Moderator's Note: The wording of Amendment B is, indeed, difficult. Others would argue that "chastity" means abstinence, "celibacy" merely "the state of being single."

 

Tentative Conclusions

One suggestion is not to invite trouble. It is not clear than anyone has the energy or the political clout to enforce Amendment B. Its proponents have generally taken a conciliatory stance, and some have expressed surprise at the great outpouring of sadness that has greeted the approval of the amendment. We might try taking them at their word.

I do not mean to suggest that we should not offer peaceable dissent. The right to dissent is a fundamental right granted in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I do suggest that we quietly resist, and resort to judicial action only in defense.

Or, as the prophet puts it more eloquently, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:31.


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