Reasons for PCA Presbyteries Not To Approve Proposed Amendment to BCO 25-3

PCA Presbyteries will be voting on a proposed amendment to Book of Church Order 25-3; here are reasons for them to vote not to approve this amendment.

In summary: This proposed amendment to require a quorum of 50% of the local congregation’s resident members effectively restricts a congregation’s rights to “remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire” (BCO 25-11).  As such, it effectively violates the “solemn covenant” between local churches and the PCA expressed in BCO 25-10.  Further, if the amendment is approved this still leaves the present quorum in place for all other actions of the congregation: Calling a pastor and an associate pastor; electing elders and deacons; approving mortgages; buying or selling property; and any other matters a congregation may desire to do—EXCEPT withdraw from the denomination.

 

Our contention is that this proposed amendment should not be approved by the Presbyteries. The quorum in its original form (BCO 25-3) is adequate and has served the PCA well since its founding. There are no urgent, necessary, historical, structural, compelling or rational reasons to amend this provision by increasing the quorum to one-half of the resident communing members to be in attendance for a congregational meeting to consider withdrawing from the PCA. Here are reasons to vote against approving the proposed amendment to BCO 25-3.

  1. BCO 25-3 has served the PCA well as originally intended since its founding. The stated purpose in BCO 25-11 is that “Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they desire.”  The intent of this language was and is to protect local congregations from any attempt of the denomination to take over and seize their property.
  2. The proposed amendment is a solution in search of a problem, especially since there haven’t been problems.
  3. The proposed amendment does not resolve or remedy any real or existing issues.
  4. There is nothing broken that needs to be fixed.
  5. There have not been outcries from PCA local churches begging, demanding or pleading for an amendment like this.
  6. Churches have not reported any difficulties with the present quorum that requires an amendment to change the quorum.
  7. The proposed amendment fails to “answer” a question that the PCA and its local churches are not asking.
  8. There is no reason for the PCA to make it difficult for a congregation to withdraw from the PCA. As BCO 25-11 says regarding the membership of churches in the PCA: “The relationship is voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever.”
  9. By increasing the quorum the proposed amendment the PCA will in fact be imposing “the exercise of force or coercion.” If a church chooses to withdraw it should be able to do so without being compelled by force to have a larger quorum.
  10. The only stated rationale for the proposed amendment is this: “The current quorum requirement is too low for a decision as important as severing relations with the denomination.” Too low in whose judgment? Again, BCO 25-11 says “Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they desire” [emphasis added].  Note it says only so long as the church desires, not so long as the denomination desires.
  11. When the PCA originally adopted the BCO, which included the present quorum, the Church acted knowledgeably and appropriately with the foundational understanding that local churches are free to make the decision to withdraw without any encumbrances from the higher courts. This view of the relationship of lower courts to higher courts is a foundational principle in the BCO. As presently drafted, BCO 25-3 has served the church as intended with no hues and cries for it to be amended.
  12. What is prompting this proposed amendment at this time? It appears that the proposed amendment arises from nothing more than a claim that the PCA needs a new standard that is plucked out of thin air: “The current quorum requirement is too low for a decision as important as severing relations with the denomination.” The decision is up to the congregation, not the denomination.
  13. Without citing a single instance from the PCA’s 45 year history, during which time numerous local churches voted to withdraw for a variety of reasons, the proposed amendment makes only one claim: That the present quorum is too low for such an important decision.
  14. Since the proposed amendment contends that a decision as “important as severing relations with the denomination” requires raising the quorum, we need to ask: If this decision is so important where are the data, the factual findings that demonstrate that the quorum was too low and was an issue in congregations that have already voted to withdraw? If the PCA is being asked to make a significant change in the quorum, we should be provided with concrete statistics or the like to demonstrate the need to increase the quorum. However, all that we have is just a subjective conjecture urging us to support amending the BCO based on feelings.
  15. There is a major flaw in the reasoning of the proposed amendment; it only affects quorums when congregations are considering withdrawing from the PCA. However, if the amendment is approved this still leaves the present quorum in place for all other actions of the congregation (potentially resulting in a majority of just 9% congregation, the number used as an illustration in the amendment’s rationale). And what are these other actions? Calling a pastor and an associate pastor; electing elders and deacons; approving mortgages; buying or selling property; and any other matters a congregation may desire to do—EXCEPT withdraw from the denomination. Thus withdrawing from the denomination has greater value than all of these other matters congregations must vote on?

The reasons stated above are, by necessity, presented in a contrary manner since Presbyteries can only vote to approve or not approve the proposed amendment. We are urging that Presbyteries “not approve” the proposed amendment. Here are affirmative reasons to keep BCO 25-3 as it is presently worded.

  1. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Neither the PCA nor BCO 25-3 are broken in the area raised in the proposed amendment; so there is no need to fix the quorum for congregation meeting. This is a good example of when helping hurts; there is no disease that needs healing.
  2. There is a historical context that explains why BCO 25 gives to local congregations specific rights that are exclusive to them. At its founding, the PCA was comprised of churches that had been a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The PCUS interpreted its Book of Church Order believing it contained an implied trust which asserted that the property of all local churches were held in trust by the local church for the denomination. The PCUS acted on this implied trust informing local churches that if they desired to withdraw from the PCUS they had to do so without the expectation that they could take their church property or assets with them. As a result many of the local congregations that chose to withdraw from the PCUS lost their properties that had been purchased, built and maintained by the local congregations.
  3. The PCUS had a hierarchical form of Presbyterian polity, power and authority that flowed from the top courts to the lower courts. The trust clause was one example of this hierarchical system, that local congregations were not authorities to themselves and existed with the permission of the higher courts.
  4. The PCA conscientiously and purposely chose to establish itself with a non-hierarchical form of Presbyterian polity. That is, the PCA decided to enshrine in its BCO a grassroots form of polity where the power and authority flows from the lower courts and from there to the higher courts. This form of Presbyterian connectionalism is based on mutual love and confidence that removes the use of any form of force or coercion to maintain the relationship as stated clearly in BCO 25-11:

Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire. The relationship is voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. A particular church may withdraw from any court of this body at any time for reasons which seem to it sufficient.

  1. Further, because the PCA adopted a non-hierarchical form of polity, it saw its commitment to this grassroots system as a solemn covenant. BCO 25-10 addresses this solemn covenant (note that the whole of BCO 25 is referred to as a solemn covenant):

The provisions of this BCO 25 are to be construed as a solemn covenant whereby the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body. All officers and courts of the Church are hereby prohibited from making any such attempt.

  1. The point of rehearsing the PCA’s founding history and focusing on its non-hierarchical brand of Presbyterian polity is to set BCO 25-3 in the context of the whole of BCO 25, as BCO 25-10 makes clear. The present quorum was purposefully chosen to prevent the higher courts from binding, restricting or coercing the lower courts in any way in their exercise of their affiliation.
  2. The proposed amendment claims that the present quorum is too low; however, we must understand the quorum in light of the very specific intent of the First PCA General Assembly when it adopted the BCO. The intent was to have a quorum that did not require the use of force or coercion. If the mutual love and confidence was not strong enough to keep churches within the PCA, they were free, without encumbering restrictions, to withdraw.
  3. BCO 25-3 must not be interpreted in isolation from these historical and principled reasons. The intent from the PCA’s beginning was that it would not impose any rule, decree or law that would make it difficult for local congregations to withdraw with their property and assets. The proposed amendment to BCO 25-3 is restrictive and contrary to the spirit of the provisions of BCO 25. The proposed amendment can also be seen as the first step towards violating the solemn covenant of the relationship between PCA lower and higher courts.
  4. Just as “there arose up a king in Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), so there is a generation of elders who have arisen who may know not the history of the PCA’s founding and how and why it developed its non-hierarchical brand of Presbyterian polity. Since historic and generic Presbyterian polity has been hierarchical many assume that the PCA’s polity must also be hierarchical; this is not the case. Rightly or wrongly, the First PCA GA chose to develop and approve a BCO that is a non-hierarchical, grassroots polity; to enter into a solemn covenant with its lower courts to be bound together in mutual love and confidence; and to purposefully restrain itself from imposing any force or coercion on local congregations as they considered staying or withdrawing from the PCA.
  5. The proposed amendment, that would require a quorum of 50% of the resident communicant members, may be in conflict with the requirements of many state laws. BCO 25-11 is clear that local churches are free to withdraw from the PCA as long as they follow applicable civil laws. So which quorum should a local church follow if it should consider a motion to withdraw from the PCA? This provision states:

While a congregation consists of all the communing members of a particular church, and in matters ecclesiastical the actions of such local congregation or church shall be in conformity with the provisions of this Book of Church Order, nevertheless, in matters pertaining to the subject matters referred to in this BCO 25, including specifically the right to affiliate with or become a member of this body or a Presbytery hereof and the right to withdraw from or to sever any affiliation of connection with this body or any Presbytery hereof, action may be taken by such local congregation or local church in accordance with the civil laws applicable to such local congregation or local church; and as long as such action is taken in compliance with such applicable civil laws, then such shall be the action of the local congregation or local church [emphasis added].

  1. If congregations vote to withdraw with a quorum required by applicable civil laws, which are less than the proposed quorum of 50% of resident communicant members, what real effect will the amendment have? And what action could the PCA take if the civil quorum is less than what is being proposed? Would the PCA even be able to process complaints that allege a quorum of less than 50% of the resident communicant members approved withdrawing? The reality is that if the proposed amendment passes, and a congregation follows applicable state laws for a quorum, the PCA would not have the authority to process such complaints. The PCA, as an ecclesiastical court, has no force or authority in itself to overturn the vote. However, if members desire to contend that the process was flawed in some way, they could sue in civil courts. The reality is that if the proposed amendment should be approved, it would be of no effect since the PCA as an ecclesiastical institution does not any powers within itself to enforce its decree.
  2. One of the foundational principles in the BCO is the distinction between ecclesiastical and civil authority. The authority of the Church is purely moral, spiritual, declarative and ministerial. As such the Church does not have the power of the sword to force or coerce certain actions. Local churches have “the right to affiliate with or become a member of this body or a Presbytery hereof and the right to withdraw from or to sever any affiliation of connection with this body” without the Church restricting or impinging their rights to take these actions. Note the following.

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 [emphasis added]. (Preliminary Principle 8)

The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church. (BCO 3-4)

These assemblies are altogether distinct from the civil magistracy, and have no jurisdiction in political or civil affairs. They have no power to inflict temporal pains and penalties, but their authority is in all respects moral or spiritual [emphasis added]. (BCO 11-1)

  1. The proposed amendment by requiring an untenable quorum, is a form of the PCA restricting and impinging the right of local congregations regarding their ecclesiastical affiliation; this is contrary to the letter and spirit of the principles embedded in the BCO. While amendment is a seemly slight one, it carries significant implications that erode foundational principles, which will bear unintended consequences in the future.
  2. The present quorum has been the same since the PCA’s BCO was approved, and is the same quorum that was in effect in its predecessor denomination. This provision has been in place for close to a century and has stood the test of time. So why the need to change the quorum at this time? Note the following:

From the 1925 PCUS BCO: A quorum of the congregational meeting shall consist of one-fourth of the resident communing members, if the church has not more than one hundred such members, and of one-sixth of the resident communing members if a church has more than one hundred such members.

From the 1933 edition of the PCUS: 154. A quorum of the congregational meeting shall consist of one-fourth of the resident communing members, if the church has not more than one hundred such members, and of one-sixth of the resident communing members if a church has more than one hundred such members.

  1. We should also note the wisdom that Robert’s Rules provides on the matter of quorums: “…voluntary societies that have an enrolled membership generally need a provision in their by-laws establishing a relatively small quorum — considerably less than a majority of all members.  In most such organizations, it is rarely possible to obtain the attendance of a majority of the membership at a meeting” (p. 346, l15-20; emphasis added). This wisdom is particularly true in churches where membership rolls are not kept up to date.  In such cases, it would be virtually impossible to obtain the proposed amendment’s requirement of 50% of enrolled members present to constitute a quorum.
  2. In summary: This proposed amendment to require a quorum of 50% of the local congregation’s resident members effectively restricts a congregation’s rights to “remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire” (BCO 25-11). As such, it effectively violates the “solemn covenant” between local churches and the PCA expressed in BCO 25-10.

We urge presbyters in the various PCA Presbyteries to vote “not to approve” the proposed amendment to BCO 25-3.

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Addendum 1:

Ruling elders Robert Cannada and Jack Williamson, two of the founding members of the PCA, were instrumental in writing the PCA’s Book of Church Order. They authored a definitive book on the BCO and the PCA’s polity: The Historic Polity of the PCA.  In it they discuss in detail the issues of congregational property rights and the principle of voluntary association.  The following are excerpts from that book.

On the one hand, a congregation’s ownership of its property and the prerogative to leave the denomination for reasons sufficient to itself imply a degree of autonomy for congregations.  On the other hand, the jurisdiction of a Presbytery, and the general assembly, over the spiritual welfare of the churches within its bounds involves spiritual responsibility in interpreting and applying the Word of God to local situations.[1]

How can the spiritual responsibility of presbytery and general assembly be maintained consistent with a congregation’s ownership of its property and maintenance of its prerogative to leave the denomination for reasons sufficient to itself? [2]

The concept expressed in 25-11 of the BCO dealing with the relationship between a Presbytery and its members is also the concept applicable to the relationship between a congregation and its members and between the General Assembly and the presbyteries.  This concept is expressed in 25-11 as follows:

Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire.   The relationship is voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. A particular church may withdraw from any court of this body at any time for reasons which seem to it sufficient [emphasis added].

Likewise, a member of a congregation may withdraw from membership or may be dismissed from membership by appropriate action of the session, and a presbytery may withdraw from the PCA or may be dismissed by the General Assembly.  This is in accord with the concept contained in the eight basic principles as approved by the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America in 1789.[3]

It was our thought at the time of the founding of the PCA and is our thinking now that the relation expressed as between the Presbytery and the local congregations sets forth the concept that should be practiced and is the concept that exists between the congregation and its members as well as the General Assembly and its presbyteries.  We think the concept of the PCA is that we are a group of Christians who are drawn together and held together by what we believe and what we stand for an not by any force or coercion.[4]

From a purely legal perspective, that is, from a perspective of the civil laws of our nation, if a local congregation organizes a nonprofit corporation the only laws that the officers in that corporation are required to abide by and obey are the civil laws.[5]

Addendum 2:

Read BCO 25.8-11 and note their carefully crafted provisions that explain the foundational principles of the PCA’s non-hierarchical brand of Presbyterian polity. This is the Church’s solemn covenant with the local congregations.

25-8. The corporation of a particular church, through its duly elected trustees or corporation officers, (or, if unincorporated, through those who are entitled to represent the particular church in matters related to real property) shall have sole title to its property, real, personal, or mixed, tangible or intangible, and shall be sole owner of any equity in any real estate, or any fund or property of any kind held by or belonging to any particular church, or any board, society, committee, Sunday school class or branch thereof. The superior courts of the Church may receive monies or properties from a local church only by free and voluntary action of the latter.

25-9. All particular churches shall be entitled to hold, own and enjoy their own local properties, without any right of reversion whatsoever to any Presbytery, General Assembly or any other courts hereafter created, trustees or other officers of such courts.

25-10. The provisions of this BCO 25 are to be construed as a solemn covenant whereby the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body. All officers and courts of the Church are hereby prohibited from making any such attempt.

25-11. While a congregation consists of all the communing members of a particular church, and in matters ecclesiastical the actions of such local congregation or church shall be in conformity with the provisions of this Book of Church Order, nevertheless, in matters pertaining to the subject matters referred to in this BCO 25, including specifically the right to affiliate with or become a member of this body or a Presbytery hereof and the right to withdraw from or to sever any affiliation of connection with this body or any Presbytery hereof, action may be taken by such local congregation or local church in accordance with the civil laws applicable to such local congregation or local church; and as long as such action is taken in compliance with such applicable civil laws, then such shall be the action of the local congregation or local church. It is expressly recognized that each local congregation or local church shall be competent to function and to take actions covering the matters set forth herein as long as such action is in compliance with the civil laws with which said local congregation or local church must comply, and this right shall never be taken from said local congregation or local church without the express consent of and affirmative action of such local church or congregation. Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire. The relationship is voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. A particular church may withdraw from any court of this body at any time for reasons which seem to it sufficient.

Dominic Aquila is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Editor of The Aquila Report.

[1] Robert C. Cannada and W. Jack Williamson. The Historic Polity of the PCA, 1997.; 20.

[2] Ibid., 21

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 45

[5] Ibid., 46