Does Polity Trump Theology on the PCA Standing Judicial Commission? Part Two

A continuing assessment of the PCA Standing Judicial Commission's decision in Case 2012-5, Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on.

Read Part 1

There is an adage concerning judicial matters that says, “He who frames the question wins the case.” An outsider or a novice would look at the report of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission in Case 2012-5, Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery and probably conclude that the court carefully considered all the matters according to the Constitution of the PCA. Therefore, the decision has to be the right one. Au contraire; I beg to differ.

In Case 2012-5, the SJC made a fundamental error that obscured their real reason for denying the complaint, i.e., that the SJC now rules on the basis that church polity trumps theology. In its decision, the SJC wrote, in part, that “the Complainant failed to prove his case.” That statement is an unconstitutional standard. The Rules of Assembly Operations 17.1 require all newly elected SJC members to make a solemn vow before the General Assembly that, among other vows:

  1. I will judge according to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, through my best efforts applied to nothing other than the record of the case and other documents before me; and
  2. If in a given case I find my view on a particular issue to be in conflict with the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, I will recuse myself from such a case, if I cannot conscientiously apply the Constitution.

The Constitutional requirement for judging any and all judicial cases, which every SJC member solemnly vows to uphold, is to apply the Constitution to “nothing other than the record of the case and other documents before” them. Every SJC member makes that solemn vow both at his election to a term of office and before hearing or judging on every particular case. It is a standard with which every SJC member is very familiar because of the sheer numbers of times that they must solemnly vow to judge accordingly. Nothing else is more familiar to an SJC member than those vows from the Rules of Assembly Operations.

Those vows require that each SJC member read both the full record of the case in each judicial case and apply the relevant sections of the Constitution to that case. The oral arguments of either party at a hearing are not to be the basis for deciding a case. In fact, it was my experience as a member of the SJC for four terms that the members of that court almost always knew what their opinion of the merits of any case was before the actual hearing of the case. And that is the way it should be. The SJC members have to read the record of the case thoroughly before the hearing for any case. They also have to be familiar with every part of the Constitution. If an SJC juror cannot determine whether a complaint is to be upheld or denied on the basis of the Constitution applied to the record of the case, then such a juror is in over his head and should recuse himself in that case. If such a juror is continually in over his head, he should have the good graces to resign from the SJC. What should never happen is exactly what happened in Case 2012-5. No SJC juror, SJC panel, or full SJC should ever use as an excuse for making a decision in a judicial case that “the Complainant did not prove his case.” The onus is not on the Complainant. The onus is on the SJC members. It is their responsibility to decide cases and to decide them on the basis of the Constitution applied to nothing other than the record of the case.

The judgment of the SJC in Case 2012-5 was a standard that had never been used before in any judicial case by that court. In my fifteen years on the court, there was never a time when the oral arguments of either party were used as a basis for the judgment in the case. No, not at all. It was always the record of the case and the Constitution that were the only relevant matters of consideration. Even as certain members of the SJC began to shift the court towards the ‘polity trumps theology’ approach to judicial decisions no judgment was ever rendered on the basis of oral arguments of the parties. So, why did the SJC rule that way in Case 2012-5?

I cannot read the hearts and motives of the SJC members, but I can observe their actions. The one thing that was very apparent to me at the hearing in March of 2013 was that many of the SJC members did not want to deal with the theological issues involved. That is not just my opinion. SJC members made it clear to me that they were exasperated with me for making that case about theology. One juror even openly rebuked me for emphasizing theology in the presence of the full SJC and all the witnesses before declaring about himself, “I don’t know much about theology.” I wondered at that moment if the juror had forgotten that the Westminster Standards are part of the Constitution of the PCA and that those Standards are full of theology. It is the whole Constitution of the PCA that is to be applied to every case- and that Constitution includes the Westminster Standards as well as the Book of Church Order.

Well, here is a news flash for the SJC. Case 2012-5 was always about theology. It was about theology when Peter Leithart informed Pacific Northwest Presbytery that he disagreed with the PCA’s Ad-Interim Committee Report on the New Perspectives on Paul, the Federal Vision, and the Auburn Avenue Theology which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. It was about theology when Pacific Northwest Presbytery investigated his views. It was about theology when SJC Case 2009-6 was decided by the SJC in March of 2010. It was about theology when the SJC advised Pacific Northwest Presbytery that one of their options concerning Leithart would be to conduct a trial of his theological positions. It was about theology when both Leithart and Pacific Northwest Presbytery filled the record of the case in SJC Case 2012-5 with hundreds of pages of theological statements and quotes. It was about theology when the subsequent trial of Leithart included several hundreds of pages of testimony and examination concerning Leithart’s theological positions. In other words, I was not the one who made SJC Case 2012-5 about theology. It was always about theology.

What the SJC did in their decision in Case 2012-5 involved two things. First, they decided that unless there is clear error in the procedure or process used by the lower court then the SJC does not have the power and obligation of judicial review to make sure that the proper interpretation of the Constitution is being upheld. That is a position that is contradictory of BCO 39-3(4). That is how the SJC has established that church polity is more important than the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Scriptures.

Second, the SJC must have had some buyer’s remorse even about that position because they tried to augment it with the statement that “the Complainant did not prove his case.” In other words, they were at that point addressing the theological matters in a very oblique way. But the statement they made is unworthy of the highest judicatory of the PCA. The only question of any importance before the SJC in March 2013 concerning Case 2012-5 was this: Did Pacific Northwest Presbytery err in not censuring the theological views and teachings of Peter Leithart? To that question, there can only be a resounding yes by anyone who truly believes in the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. Yet, the SJC refused to make that judgment.

Recently, a ten-year-old member answered the first 47 questions of the Children’s Catechism during our worship service in Destin. As I listened to those questions and answers, it struck me that even a ten-year-old child who has learned the Children’s Catechism should be able to judge that Peter Leithart’s views are out of accord with the Constitution of the PCA. The answers to those catechism questions run counter to the testimony of Leithart in a number of places. Of course, there are many other errors in Leithart’s theology which are beyond those questions, but even that limited knowledge is sufficient to make the judgment that his theology is erroneous.

After that recitation, I told my congregation that the answers to those questions were the basis of my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision (which can be read about at www.exposingtherfederalvision.org). Should not all members of the SJC be able to make the same judgment that this ten-year-old girl could make? After all, they are all ordained elders in the PCA and have vowed that they sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the PCA as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.

There simply is no reason for any member of the SJC to hide behind the excuse that they cannot judge whether a minister’s views are out of accord with the constitution because “the Complainant did not prove his case.” It is the responsibility of the SJC members to step up to the plate and make that determination for the good of the denomination they serve by applying all the constitution (including the Westminster Standards) to “nothing other than the record of the case.” In SJC 2012-5, the court did not do that and their decision will live in infamy when the history of this period of the PCA is written. Many decisions of the SJC will be forgotten by future generations, but not SJC 2012-5. It was a case of great importance and it will be remembered.

Nonetheless, there are some people who will still say that the court did the best they could and gave their reasons for their decision. That is a frivolous response, in my opinion. Courts always render decisions and give some reason for their opinions. That does not make their decisions right, though. Is Roe vs. Wade right simply because the U S Supreme Court passed it? Or what about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage or Obamacare? The Jews gave a reason to Pilate for why Christ had to be put to death- “We have a law and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). Why even the old Soviet show trials always ended with carefully argued reasons to support their decisions. A carefully argued reason by the SJC is beside the point. There is only one question that concerns the SJC in any case: What does the constitution require in this case? Yet, that is the very question that the SJC studiously refused to entertain in SJC 2012-5. And their decision has done great harm to the PCA as a constitutional denomination that professes to hold to the Westminster Standards as their subordinate standards.

The fact of the matter is that any doctrine that is not upheld is worthless. It becomes a doctrine that we are not willing to practice and, therefore, a doctrine that we do not really believe. That is where the PCA is at this time in her history. By these judicial decisions that elevate church polity above theology, the court is officially saying that she is not willing to decide between justification by faith alone and legalism; that she is not willing to reject the teaching of baptismal regeneration; and on and on. These are serious matters and show that elevating polity above theology is an attack on the Gospel. In such a case, the basis of our denomination is no longer fellowship with one another based on the gospel of Christ. Rather, the basis of our fellowship in this denomination becomes our agreement with a form of church government. Church government is never large enough to unite us. Only the Gospel can do that. We cannot throw the gospel out for the supposed sake of peace.

Of course, the question in the minds of all those who hold sincerely to the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards is this: What can be done about the SJC? I think there are two things. First, Sessions and Presbyteries should watch the decisions of the court very carefully and be ready to overture General Assembly when unconstitutional decisions like SJC 2012-5 are rendered by the court. Second, all ordained elders should watch the votes of the various members of the court very carefully and the General Assembly should not re-elect members who appear to be dismissive of parts of the constitution. Commissioners can express their disapproval through their ballots and that will send an important message to the SJC. This second point will not be easy, but it is the right thing to do. It is in this way that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla.