Three PCA Presbyteries Overture GA to Assume Original Jurisdiction Over TE Leithart

Under the provisions of BCO 34-1, at least two Presbyteries can request GA to assume original jurisdiction over a minister

As a result of the SJC’s decision, the three Presbyteries voted to approve the overture asking the PCA General Assembly to, “Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear ‘Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart,’ because PNWP has ‘refused to act’ per the provision found in BCO 34-1, by not declaring a mistrial in this case because of its chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest, stemming from his transition into membership of the Roman Catholic church.”

 

Three Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) recently approved an overture requesting the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over TE Peter Leithart, a teaching elder member of Pacific Northwest Presbytery.

Calvary Presbytery approved the overture at its April 25, 2013 meeting, and Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley Presbyteries approved the overture at their respective meetings on May 7, 2013. The vote at all of the meetings was unanimous or at least without audible dissent.

The Presbyteries were acting under the provisions in Book of Church Order (BCO) 34-1, which requires at least two Presbyteries to request General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction. The provision states:

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.

To assume original jurisdiction means that a higher church court can assume jurisdiction and handle issues affecting PCA members if their church court is not doing so, especially with regard to judicial process.

The questions about TE Leithart and his theological views have been before Pacific Northwest Presbytery for a number of years.  The Presbytery had conducted an investigation of his views but did not find a strong presumption of guilt. A formal complaint was filed with the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) alleging that the Presbytery failed to find some of TE Leithart’s views contrary to the teachings expressed in the Westminster Confession and Shorter and Larger Catechisms, which define the PCA’s theological positions.

The SJC ruled that Pacific Northwest Presbytery had failed in not finding a strong presumption of guilt and sent the case back to the Presbytery for action. The Presbytery decided to file charges against TE Leithart alleging that he held and promoted views that were contrary to the Westminster Standards; specifically charges in five areas: on baptism, the covenants, imputation, justification, and union with Christ.

In June 2011, Pacific Northwest Presbytery held a trial, and the Presbytery found TE Leithart not guilty of the five charges. In November 2011, one month after the Presbytery met and adopted the judgments on the five charges, a complaint was filed against the actions of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. In April, 2012 the Presbytery denied the complaint at which point the complaint was carried to the SJC.

The SJC heard the complaint, RE Gerald Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery (Case 2012-05), in March 2013 and decided to deny the complaint, which means that the action of Pacific Northwest Presbytery that found TE Leithart not guilty of all charges had been affirmed. The vote of the SJC was 15 concurring, 2 dissenting.

As a result of the SJC’s decision, the three Presbyteries voted to approve the overture asking the PCA General Assembly to, “Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear ‘Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart,’ because PNWP has ‘refused to act’ per the provision found in BCO 34-1, by not declaring a mistrial in this case because of its chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest, stemming from his transition into membership of the Roman Catholic church.”

 

Overture from Calvary, Gulf Coast and Mississippi Presbyteries

41st General Assembly to Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart

Whereas, WCF 31-2 states that “it belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience”; and

Whereas, BCO 14-6.a grants the General Assembly power to “receive and issue all appeals, references, and complaints regularly brought before it from the lower courts; to bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in practice, injuriously affecting the church; to decide in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline”; and

Whereas, BCO 39-4 states, “The higher court does have the power and obligation of judicial review, which cannot be satisfied by always deferring to the findings of a lower court. Therefore, a higher court should not consider itself obliged to exhibit the same deference to a lower court when the issues being reviewed involve the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church. Regarding such issues, the higher court has the duty and authority to interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and understanding, regardless of the opinion of the lower court”; and

Whereas, the issues being reviewed in SJC 2012-05 involve the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church; and

Whereas, the Operating Manual for the Standing Judicial Commission 2.4 states that, “A member shall not render judgment in any matter pending before the commission on the basis of anything other than the Constitution of the Church and the facts presented by the Record of the Case and the other materials properly before him”; and

Whereas, the SJC declared the “Statement of Issue” to be whether or not the Complainant demonstrated that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery violated the Constitution of the PCA when it concluded that the accused was not guilty, and thus ruled according to that “Statement of Issue”[1]; and

Whereas, nothing in the Constitution of the PCA places the burden of proof upon the Complainant, requiring the Complainant “provide sufficient evidence”[2] or prove that the views of the one accused violated the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Standards[3]; and

Whereas, each of the five charges in the original indictment charged the accused with contradicting the Westminster Standards, part of the Constitution of the PCA[4]; and

Whereas, the complaint brought before the General Assembly in SJC 2012-05 is against the decision of Pacific Northwest Presbytery in their finding the accused not guilty of each of the five charges[5]; and

Whereas, the Constitution of the PCA therefore requires the SJC to independently examine the evidence in the Record of the Case and interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and understanding, regardless of the opinion of the lower court; and

Whereas, the SJC did not determine whether the accused is guilty of holding and teaching views that are in conflict with the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, rendering judgment instead on whether the Complainant demonstrated such a conflict, thereby failing to fulfill its duty to interpret and apply the Constitution of the PCA according to its best abilities and understanding (BCO 39-4); and

Whereas, the BCO 15-5.a permits the General Assembly to “direct the Standing Judicial Commission to retry a case if upon review of its minutes exceptions are taken with respect to that case”;

Whereas, the chief prosecutor in the Pacific Northwest case, former TE Jason Stellman, has subsequently tendered his resignation from PCA ministry and has joined the communion of the Roman Catholic church;

Whereas, the chief prosecutor admits publically, that “in the midst of this process,” (referring to the prosecution of Mr. Leithart and the appeal to the SJC) he started considering the claims of “the gospel and justification and the covenant from the perspective of Catholics…and this was the nail in the coffin that slew me.”[6]

Whereas, the charges brought against Mr. Leithart by the chief prosecutor specifically deal with gospel and justification from the perspective of the Westminster Standards (which teach that sola fide is the material principle of the Protestant Reformation);

Whereas, the chief prosecutor’s shift toward the very doctrines that he attempts to prosecute TE Leithart for holding creates an astounding conflict of interest, despite his best efforts at objectivity;

Therefore, be it resolved that Calvary, Gulf Coast and Mississippi Presbyteries overture the 41st General Assembly to:

Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear “Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart,” because PNWP has “refused to act,” per the provision found in BCO 34-1, by not declaring a mistrial in this case because of its chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest, stemming from his transition into membership of the Roman Catholic church.  SJC not fail to take into consideration the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms in hearing the case.



[1] Presbyterian Church in America Standing Judicial Commission. Case 2012-05: RE Gerald Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery (Decision on Complaint). March 7, 2013. Page 3, Lines 4-13.

[2]  Ibid. Page 5, Line 14.

[3]  Ibid. Page 5, Lines 28-30.

[4] Ibid. Page 1, Lines 20-46 and Page 2, Lines 1-7.

[5]  Ibid. Page 2, Lines 9-26.

[6] March 8, 2013, “Jason Stellman’s Conversion Story,” audio recording, Holy Family Conference, Kirkland, WA. https://www.dropbox.com/s/jty5011pptj7gp6/Holy%20Family%20Conference%20-%20Conversion%20Story.mp3?m