Speck v. Missouri Presbytery may not be the last case of its kind that will come through our system. Everyone recognizes that we are facing difficult disagreements on important issues. With this in mind, every presbyter in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) should study the SJC decision and the Dissenting Opinion of the minority as we consider general principles for how we handle similar cases in the future.
In the previous post, TE Zack Groff laid out a plan for understanding the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) decision on Judicial Case 2020-12 (Speck v. Missouri Presbytery). As part of the post, TE Groff recommended that readers carefully consider the Dissenting Opinion drafted by RE Steve Dowling and signed by seven members of the SJC (including RE Dowling).
In response to TE Groff’s recommendation, at least one fellow TE posed a question (on social media) about why we allow for dissenting opinions, and the purpose they might serve since they do not affect the decision itself.
This is an important question both for the specific case at-hand and for our polity more generally. In this post, I will offer seven reasons why the polity of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) values dissenting opinions. The first four are general in nature, and the next three are in regard to this particular case.
- Dissenting opinions from the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) are important for the same reasons they are important for the United States Supreme Court.
At a very general level, dissenting opinions give the minority an opportunity to express concerns or unanswered questions about the decision of the Court (or Commission) that may help to shape or inform future decisions. Though the SJC decision is final for this case, the Dissenting Opinion of the minority may be pertinent for future cases.
- A final decision is not necessarily the same thing as a correct decision.
As the drafters of the Westminster Standards wisely acknowledged, “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.3). A dissenting opinion gives presbyters an opportunity to point out where the Court (or Commission) may have erred. Taking this principle seriously means that the rest of us should take the time to hear what such dissenting opinions have to say.
- Dissenting opinions – like our polity as a whole – balance the opportunity to express disagreement with the careful maintenance of church unity.
One man in my presbytery once rightly observed that our polity balances the ability to express disagreement while still maintaining unity. A dissenting opinion does precisely this by recognizing the finality of a particular decision while also preserving the ability to express a different view. The provision of a formal mechanism for expressing carefully reasoned and respectful (i.e., temperate) disagreement actually promotes unity.
- Our polity prioritizes listening to one another.
James admonishes us, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). Regardless of whether or not you agree with the SJC decision, carefully listening to both majority and minority opinions is important to our polity.
For further development of this principle of listening to one another, consider what I wrote about the biblical precept and example for listening in the courts of the church in my recent post, The Biblical Foundations of Parliamentary Procedure.