One, it is not merely a local problem, for the church is one and what happens or is tolerated in one section soon infects the others. This statement is essentially a denial of Scripture’s teaching that the church is a lump leavened by the barest amount of leaven (1 Cor. 5:6-7; Gal. 5:9). It takes – as with C.A. Briggs in the PCUSA or Robertson Smith in the Free Church of Scotland – but one bad professor or minister in one seminary or presbytery to implicate the whole church in a sinful tolerance of evil, which, once tolerated, comes to infect the whole church. The church has, as such, a duty to not tolerate bad doctrine and practice, with any failure bringing the censure of her Lord (Rev. 2:14-16, 20-23).
By Faith, the official online magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), recently published a two part series of articles concerning the proposed Overtures 23 and 37, which would seek to modify the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) to forbid from office, amongst others, those that proclaim a homosexual identity. The article urging the rejection of the overtures was written by David Coffin, a member of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission.
In his introduction Coffin says that “a book of church order is not designed to settle all the questions or controversies that may come up in the life of the church.” This is true, but it misses the point. We have before us a controversy regarding the essential nature of office and of who is to be allowed to hold it, i.e., a constitutional question. As the BCO is our constitution it is both appropriate and reasonable to seek to amend it accordingly to bring about a satisfactory resolution to the present constitutional controversy. He says further that “changes in our organic law should only be proposed and adopted when our regular order is shown to be deficient or has failed in some way.” The present order has failed, clearly: current law has not kept proud sinners out of office and has rather taken their side. He continues with a little theoretical reflection, praising “stability of law” as an essential item that “should not be disturbed except under necessity.” Again, this is agreed, and again he misses the point. We are under great necessity at present. Also, effectiveness of law is essential in any good government, for a weak government that cannot (or will not) enforce its own laws is doomed for displacement by one that will, even if it be only the hard rule of utter chaos.
Coffin titles his first section “The Overtures Lack Mature Consideration,” in which we see his first broad reason for opposing them. Lay aside the somewhat uncharitable intimation that they were then the result of immature consideration and note what he says in his first sentence here: “Our General Assembly’s care for our Constitutional order, with the consent of the presbyteries, should not be used to satisfy the demands of social media.” What about the demands of justice and of fidelity to our Lord and his word? This is not merely a matter of people using contemporary platforms to espouse their opinions: those opinions, however expressed, are well-grounded in an understanding of our present case and of our sin and danger in allowing office to those that ought not to hold it. He goes on with a little more waxing eloquent as to our theory of polity and says that what he calls “mature consideration” “cannot come at first glance, or in the urgency created by allegations stirring popular fears.” I confess I do not know what he means. First glance? This thing has been going on for years now, the first Revoice conference having been in 2018. As for urgency being bad, what, one wonders, does the he make of something like this?
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:1-5, ESV)
That is an example of excommunication conducted in absentia via letter, without any proceedings, and without appeal. We are not apostles, granted, but is it too much to say that the principle of decisive urgency Paul embodies – and the Corinthian church with him, it being the immediate agent of excommunication – is one we ought to emulate rather than one we should casually deprecate as “immature?”
TE Coffin continues by saying that “to attempt to remedy what is in the first instance a local problem, by a Constitutional change, is a violation” of that mature order he so values. There is much misunderstanding of the situation here. One, it is not merely a local problem, for the church is one and what happens or is tolerated in one section soon infects the others. This statement is essentially a denial of Scripture’s teaching that the church is a lump leavened by the barest amount of leaven (1 Cor. 5:6-7; Gal. 5:9). It takes – as with C.A. Briggs in the PCUSA or Robertson Smith in the Free Church of Scotland – but one bad professor or minister in one seminary or presbytery to implicate the whole church in a sinful tolerance of evil, which, once tolerated, comes to infect the whole church. The church has, as such, a duty to not tolerate bad doctrine and practice, with any failure bringing the censure of her Lord (Rev. 2:14-16, 20-23).
Two, this is, again, a constitutional question affecting the practice of ordination/investiture of office of the whole denomination. Three, it is no violation of Presbyterian polity to adopt constitutional measures to defend against an offense as heinous as the desecration of office by allowing it to be held by those who have no business there. Our polity and constitution are meant to defend against the church becoming corrupt. We are Protestants, after all, and our church has come into being because of the corruption of the medieval church wherewith our ancestors were associated. Four, Coffin’s objection makes the processes more important than the end for which such processes are constituted. Coffin would have us value order –or better: the laborious, tedious inefficiency that he calls careful and mature order – above the end of holiness and fidelity to Christ for which our system of government has been erected.
In his next sentence he says that such a suggested change as the dual adoption of Overtures 23 and 37 “subjects our government to frequent change driven, not by necessity, but by ephemeral concerns of parties in the church.” It is doubtful that this issue is going away any time soon. Cultural acceptance of sexual sin will not change soon, and perhaps not for many generations (if ever before Christ’s return). In addition, if it be ephemeral it will only be because we will move on to the question of allowing the next sin. The momentum of increasing infidelity is not ceased by compromising with it or waving our hands and sneering, “Oh, but that is just how one party in the church feels. They’ll be over that sentiment soon enough.” Today the controversy is about celibate but attracted; who can doubt but that tomorrow it will be about the question of actively practicing individuals who desire office?
Farther along he says that “the proposals now before the presbyteries could not have been subject to serious reflection and careful deliberation in the Assembly.” A light rejoinder: could anything be as vigorously deliberated as it ought when we tried to do the whole denomination’s business in about 3 days, and that after we had canceled the previous General Assembly? This is not an objection to the measures, but to our present form and practice of General Assemblies.
He continues with this argument, saying that the overtures “were taken up by the Assembly after a very long day of deliberation and debate, late in the evening, with weary commissioners showing increasing signs of impatience with prolonged consideration” and thus he believes “the Assembly was clearly not at its best in the actions taken.” This objection is weak. When lawfully convened the actions of the General Assembly are themselves lawful and authoritative, regardless of the time of day they were decided or the physical and emotional state of the messengers. A meeting is to be assumed competent unless clearly proved otherwise. Coffin continues on this line, however, and says that “the actions on the Overtures appear to put the Assembly at odds with itself in its declaration that the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality is biblically faithful.” This too is a rather weak objection. For a legislative body to be at odds with itself is unsurprising and it proves, not that the first act was right and the second wrong, but only that legislating and administering the affairs of a large denomination is hard for weak men wracked by the noetic effects of sin.
In his next statement the TE Coffin says, “It is instructive to note that the Ad Interim Committee could have recommended BCO changes, if any were deemed warranted.” Yes and the Assembly could have either accepted or ignored such recommendations, or, as has actually been the case now, taken action on its own without regard to the committee. Coffin seems to forget that the higher body constitutes the lesser, and that in constituting a committee an Assembly lays aside none of its rights and can do as it will with the committee and its recommendations and reports. When he then continues to say that the AIC “judged the BCO to be adequate with respect to the matters under consideration,” we can safely rejoin that the whole Assembly judged otherwise, as was its right.
Coffin further opines that “this attempt to amend the BCO is futile with respect to the controversies now troubling the PCA.” This will only be so if a) the measures do not pass; and b) future courts fail to apply the overtures rigorously and faithfully when they are adopted as part of the BCO. Coffin elaborates by saying that “it is unlikely anything in these amendments, had they been in the BCO before 2018, would have changed the ruling of the SJC in 2020-12 Speck v. Missouri.”
This is a deeply concerning statement. Suppose, as is eminently probable, that the overtures pass and charges are brought against an elder to divest him of office because he boasts of his celibate homosexual identity. Now one of the presbyters sitting to hear the case has read this article, as is also probable, and as he deliberates in his own mind he remembers this statement that the overtures are not likely to change the SJC’s opinion on such matters. So rather than vote in a way (guilty) that he thinks will lead to the accused elder appealing to the SJC, he alters his vote accordingly to put the matter to rest and save what seems to be needless hassle. In such a case what Coffin will have done by publishing this article is to have poisoned the well. He is guiltless of harm so long as his position wins out. But if it does not he may well be guilty of swaying the minds of others in how they vote in future matters related to the overtures and their application.
If we move from such hypothetical (but credible) scenarios to a more general consideration of his work, it strikes an observer as odd that someone who will probably have to judge cases arising because of the adoption of these overtures would be chosen to present the case against adopting them. A further consideration of this element of Coffin’s article will be considered in the next article in this series.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Simpsonville, SC. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the leadership or members of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church.