Time will fail us to fully consider other elements of the OMSJC, such as its requirement in 2.10, partly quoted by Coffin himself, that every SJC member is to “perform the duties of his office with impartiality and shall be diligent to maintain the impartiality of the Commission” and that each member “must be objective and open-minded with respect to all issues and parties.” It is a little hard – lo, impossible – to be impartial, open-minded, and objective when you have publicly come down on one side of an issue.
In the previous article we looked at David Coffin’s arguments against Overtures 23 and 37 to the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order (BCO), and now we will consider what is entailed in him, a member of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), publishing an article against said overtures. Coffin includes a disclaimer in which he asserts that the SJC’s Manual (OMSJC) permits him to publish this sort of article of opinion, and in so doing he interprets OMSJC 2.6 as sufficiently tempering the other provisions of the manual to allow him to do so. Here is the full text of that section:
So long as he complies with Section 2.5 above, a member may make public or private statements in the course of his duties as a presbyter or Session member with respect to biblical teaching, confessional interpretation, the principles of the form of government and discipline, the requirements of the BCO, the Rules of Assembly Operation, Robert’s Rules, and may explain Commission procedures.
Note that it is section 2.5 that modifies 2.6, not the reverse. That is significant because Coffin first quotes 2.5 in his disclaimer and then says, “that notwithstanding, I am permitted to,” and quotes the bulk of 2.6. Consider that Coffin’s article is not an example of doing the bulk of things which he is allowed to do by 2.6. It is not explaining “the Rules of Assembly Operation,” “Robert’s Rules,” or “Commission procedures.” It is not a bit of exposition of “biblical teaching” or “confessional interpretation,” as he only alludes to the Westminster Standards once to say they don’t include the term identity, and as he only alludes to two passages of scripture (1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9) as a parenthetical remark noting they are the scriptural basis for BCO 21-4’s requirements. He somewhat explains current requirements of the BCO, but only as part of a larger endeavor to argue against proposed amendments to the same BCO. It seems doubtful that the “explaining the requirements of the BCO” that the OMSJC allows is intended to allow that explanation in the course of a polemic article, an objection we might also bring to his explanation of “the principles of the form of government and discipline.”
The question then is this: is publishing an article of intradenominational political opinion a part of one’s “duties as a presbyter or Session member”? It seems doubtful, at best. It would be one thing for him to circulate this article among his session, congregation, or presbytery, but to publish it generally is to put it in a different category. The duties of a presbyter, as explained in BCO 8.1-3, for example, do not include telling the whole denomination how it should vote outside of a stated meeting of a church court, and BCO 11-4 seems to limit the sphere of elder operation to session and presbytery, and even then, only to the matters that are properly in their jurisdiction. Trying to persuade people in other presbyteries how to vote when their presbyteries vote on this question is not exactly respecting the division of jurisdictions or doing what presbyters are formally intended to do. In other words, Coffin’s article seems to be, not an example of official discharge of presbyterial duty, but rather a piece of personal opinion, the giving of which is by no means limited to presbyters. Now look at the introductory text of OMSJC 2.5:
A member of the Commission shall not make any public or private statement that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome of a pending matter or impending matter in any court of the church (BCO 11-4; 39-3).
This section goes on to give the definitions of pending and impending, saying in 2.5b that:
An impending matter is a matter that is reasonably expected to (a) become a case of process or (b) otherwise be brought before an appropriate court for consideration. “Reasonably” refers to the judgment of one in possession of all the relevant facts, which facts are subject to a fair-minded assessment.
And now consider what Coffin says in the fourth paragraph of his second section: “I do not doubt that this question [of Overture 23’s sentence structure and terminology] will give rise to controversy and litigation in this matter.” Or again, consider the statement of his disclaimer that “nothing I have said in this essay is intended to intimate, hint, or suggest which party should prevail in any case that might come before me under our current BCO, or under these proposed amendments, should they be adopted.” Coffin himself seems to think that litigation related to the overtures is likely. Indeed, why would he include a disclaimer at all unless he believed it’s very probable they will pass and come before the SJC of which he is a member?
Now if Coffin himself seems to think that Overture 23 and 37 related litigation is quite probably impending, why then is he writing such an article at all, seeing as OMSJC 2.5, as he admits, prohibits giving such public statements on impending cases? If this seems to be stretching impending a little much as regards potential future litigation viz. the overtures, note, again, that 2.5 prohibits any statement that will affect the adoption of any matter now pending or impending before any church court. Presbyteries are church courts (BCO 10-2), and the question of adopting Overtures 23 and 37 is now pending with dozens of them (and by extension, the sessions of their constituent churches, which are also courts, BCO 10-2). Coffin is at odds, then, with the requirements of OMSJC 2.5. Also consider the full text of OMSJC 2.8:
Notwithstanding Section 2.5 above, a member of the Commission may fully participate in a judicial matter before the Presbytery or Session of which he is a member and advise his Presbytery or Session in judicial matters.
Mark that carefully. He may participate in something like debating the overtures before his own session and presbytery only. He may not participate in debating them beyond the bounds of those courts, a thing which he does when he publishes an article arguing against them in an online magazine.
Time will fail us to fully consider other elements of the OMSJC, such as its requirement in 2.10, partly quoted by Coffin himself, that every SJC member is to “perform the duties of his office with impartiality and shall be diligent to maintain the impartiality of the Commission” and that each member “must be objective and open-minded with respect to all issues and parties.” It is a little hard – lo, impossible – to be impartial, open-minded, and objective when you have publicly come down on one side of an issue. Cue 2.10d:
A member shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which the member’s impartiality might reasonably (see Section 2.5.b) be questioned, including but not limited to the following circumstances:
2) The member . . . has made a public statement, other than in a court proceeding, judicial decision, or opinion, that commits or appears to commit the member to reach a particular result or rule in a particular way in the proceeding or controversy.
By publishing his article Coffin has ensured that he will have to recuse himself if, as he suggests is rather probable, cases come before the SJC regarding these overtures.
Now one may object and say that I have not properly interpreted and applied some of the elements of the BCO and OMSJC to which I have appealed here or even that I am not competent or qualified to undertake such arguments. Perhaps there are established precedents that have caused us to determine the interpretation of some of these individual clauses I have quoted and to give them a different meaning than I have given them here.
Lay that aside and lay aside also my belief that I have faithfully interpreted all of this in accord with the plain meanings of the words. Look not at the minutiae of legal clauses and interpretations, whether mine or others, and look rather at the large picture. Can it seriously be maintained that it is an ethically proper thing for a member of the SJC to argue against these measures? Maybe our constitution does not fully mandate a separation of powers in which SJC members are required to only judge cases that come before them and are strictly required to keep silent about legislative questions related to the adoption of this or that measure or BCO amendment. Maybe it is lawful for David Coffin to publish an article such as this by the current standards of the BCO and OMSJC (though I think I have dispelled that suggestion). But is it right? Is it an example of upholding the spirit of orderly church government, or of keeping aloof not only from wrongdoing but also from any hint or appearance of the same? Is it not rather likely to strike many of our members and ministers, and probably more than a few outside observers as well, as a rather odd way of doing things that reeks of conflicts of interest and imprudence? And is it not the sort of thing that causes our members, when made aware of it, to have less confidence in the impartiality and integrity of our courts, and of our form of government generally?
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.