Item 6 proposes a change that would better bring the rights of the various parties into balance by requiring a 2/3 vote to suspend the rights of someone who has been accused, but not yet found guilty. Item 11, on the other hand, would have the opposite effect. Requiring a 2/3 vote to suspend someone from the Lord’s Table and/or from official functions gives too much weight to the rights of the appellant, and it overlooks the rights of the court and the rights of the Church as a whole.
The Presbyteries of the PCA are currently voting on two Book of Church Order (BCO) amendments that are very similar: Item 6 (Overture 2021-20) and Item 11 (Overture 2021-21). In their final forms, both seek to require a 2/3 vote to suspend the official functions of an officer, or to suspend someone from the Lord’s Table, but in two different settings. Item 6 deals with suspending someone’s rights before the completion of his judicial process. Item 11 deals with suspending someone’s rights after the completion of his judicial process in the lower court, but while the decision is under appeal.
In my opinion, Presbyteries should support Item 6 but oppose Item 11. My reasons for differentiating between the two proposals have to do with the balance of the various rights within a judicial setting. In church polity, we are always dealing with questions about how to balance different rights, values, and needs. Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (RONR) captures this goal well:
The rules of parliamentary law found in this book will, on analysis, be seen to be constructed upon a careful balance of the rights of persons or subgroups within an organization’s or an assembly’s total membership. That is, these rules are based on a regard for the rights:
- of the majority,
- of the minority, especially a strong minority—greater than one third,
- of individual members,
- of absentees, and
- of all these together.
The means of protecting all of these rights in appropriate measure forms much of the substance of parliamentary law, and the need for this protection dictates the degree of development that the subject has undergone. (RONR [12th ed], “Principles Underlying Parliamentary Law,” xlix)
As we consider the rights of the various parties in church discipline proceedings, we must consider how to balance the various rights of the prosecutor, the accused, the court, and the Church as a whole.
Summary Overview for Supporting Item 6 and Opposing Item 11
In brief, my reason for supporting Item 6 is simple: in considering this balance of rights, the accused has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. While there may be good reasons for suspending him from the sacraments or (if an officer) from official duties, that decision should require a supermajority (i.e., a 2/3 vote).
On the other hand, Item 11 would seek to require the same supermajority 2/3 vote after someone has had his opportunity to present evidence, call witnesses, and make his case in court. Although that individual retains the right to appeal a guilty verdict or a censure (BCO 42), the balance of rights in this situation should shift to the decision of the original court. While the court may not persist with such a suspension as a censure before the appeal is heard, I believe that the court should retain the right to determine by a simple majority vote whether there are sufficient reasons to prevent the appellant from approaching the Lord’s Table and, if an officer, from exercising some or all of his official functions.
Furthermore, since the “functions” of an officer are clearly defined in the BCO as what the officer does, and not what the church does to remunerate the officer (see BCO 8-5; 34-10; 36-7), this provision could never permit a church to suspend a teaching elder without pay.
So, to require the same 2/3 vote for this decision both before and after a trial does not properly balance the competing rights of the various parties of the case. Therefore, Item 6 would improve the balance between the judicial rights of the various parties, while Item 11 would create an imbalance of those rights.
In the rest of this article, I will expand this brief summary into greater detail.
Balancing the Rights of the Parties
It is enlightening to categorize the provisions contained in the Rules of Discipline according to the various rights afforded to each of the parties of a case: the prosecutor, the accused, the court of jurisdiction, and the Church as a whole.
Let’s begin with the rights of the prosecutor. The prosecutor has the right to bring an accusation against the accused (BCO 31-3). Nevertheless, when it is an individual making out charges against another person, this person’s rights are very limited. An injured party is required to have sought the means of private reconciliation from Matthew 18 in the case of personal offenses (BCO 31-5). Furthermore, the court is to exercise great caution to consider the character of the accuser (BCO 31-8), and every voluntary prosecutor must be warned that if he should fail to show probable cause of the charges, “he may himself be censured as a slanderer of the brethren” (BCO 31-9).
The accused, on the other hand, has many more rights protected by the BCO.