For the sake of argument, even if we grant that the lower court’s procedure should mirror that of the higher court, this amendment misses the mark. Instead of adding a filing deadline, chapter 43 of the BCO ought to be upended and rewritten, particularly adding the complainant’s right to appear and present an argument to the court. However, requiring the 10-day filing deadline does not provide any additional formal deliberation opportunity.
Amendments to the Book of Church Order are currently being debated by Presbyteries. Item 12 is an amendment to BCO 43 that would require complaints be filed 10 days before a meeting of the court alleged to be in error, otherwise the complaint need not be considered at that meeting and must wait before being taken to the higher court. There is no such time requirement currently.
While this proposed amendment may sound reasonable on the surface, its true effect would impede the work of our courts and delay a hearing for anyone raising a complaint. This proposed amendment is based on a faulty understanding of the nature of the complaint process, fails to solve the supposed problem, and creates additional delay in our judicial process. Therefore, this amendment ought not be approved by our Presbyteries and the 50th GA in 2023.
A Faulty Premise
The amendment is based on the rationale that “Sessions have the same, analogous opportunities for due deliberation [of complaints] as the higher courts.” But this assertion is not correct under our BCO, as the lower court process of “considering” a complaint is fundamentally different from the higher court’s “hearing” process for complaints. Let’s look at this briefly.
The first step in the complaint process—the lower court’s considering—has minimal procedural requirements and limits how the court can handle the complaint (BCO 43-2). The person alleging error does not have a right to appear or to make arguments. The matter may not be referred to a study committee or postponed for additional deliberations. The BCO gives the lower court one meeting to think about and decide if it wants to reverse action—nothing more, and nothing less. If the lower court doesn’t remedy the situation to the satisfaction of the complainant, he can take his complaint to the next higher court (BCO 43-3).
The second step in the complaint process—the higher court’s hearing—has considerable procedural requirements (BCO 43-3–43-10). Notably, the complainant has a constitutional right to appear and be heard (BCO 43-8). A formal process is followed for the hearing of the arguments and the court coming to a decision (BCO 43-9). There are no time constraints on the higher court fully deliberating and considering all parts of the case. In all, this higher court “hearing” process is the core of the complaint mechanism in Presbyterian polity. This hearing—and not the lower’s court’s considering—constitutes the complainant’s day in court to present his case for adjudication.
This asymmetric process—the lower court’s considering and the higher court’s hearing—is intentional.  This review by the higher court is essential to the well-being of the church because church courts “may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.3). Assuming the lower court’s process is “the same” as the higher court’s radically departs from the logic of our current rules.
Adding this 10-day filing requirement hinders the primary goal of the complaint and is unnecessary to ensure judicial integrity in the PCA. This attempt to flatten the process is not helpful to our overall structure and misunderstands the main goal of the complaint.
The Supposed Problem Unresolved
For the sake of argument, even if we grant that the lower court’s procedure should mirror that of the higher court, this amendment misses the mark. Instead of adding a filing deadline, chapter 43 of the BCO ought to be upended and rewritten, particularly adding the complainant’s right to appear and present an argument to the court. However, requiring the 10-day filing deadline does not provide any additional formal deliberation opportunity. In the proposed amendment, the lower court must still reverse itself at that first meeting, otherwise the complaint may be elevated. Broader changes to the BCO must be made to achieve the drafter’s stated goal of making the lower court’s deliberations the same as the higher court’s.
We all know the judicial process in our church courts takes a long time. This new requirement would routinely add weeks of delay to the complaint process, sometimes leading to even lengthier delays at the Presbytery level. In Presbyteries like mine that meet only three times a year, missing your Session’s April meeting means that the complaint won’t get to the Presbytery’s May meeting and that a complainant has to wait until October for the next stated meeting. Adding this ten-day requirement gums up an already protracted process.
In all, there is no benefit to this amendment if we understand a complaint the right way. In fact, it will only hurt complainants. For the well-being of the church, this amendment ought not be ratified by Presbyteries so that complainants can continue to have a route to the higher court’s review without this additional encumbrance.
Despite all of this, I can agree with the drafters of the amendment that there is a potential weakness with the current complaint process. Specifically, someone could file a complaint with the lower court (especially those doing so in bad faith) moments before the meeting to catch the members flat footed and to force them to deal with the complaint then and there. However, this is less an issue of substantively considering a complaint, and more of an administrative issue of distribution and individual preparation. To remedy this narrow concern, I see merit to two better solutions:
- Remove the lower court consideration step altogether, like the RPCNA, and like the PCA prior to 1984. Let a complaint be a mechanism purely to take the issue to the higher court. Sessions and Presbyteries are no longer asked to reverse themselves as a necessary prerequisite to filing with the higher court. Instead, just file the complaint with the higher court.
- Set an administrative deadline for filing a complaint with the lower court. This deadline is to provide opportunity to circulate the complaint and provide the members of the court the customary opportunity to prepare. The General Assembly, Presbyteries, and many Sessions have rules that require communications to the court to be filed so many days in advance of the meeting so it can be docketed, distributed, and reviewed by individuals before coming together in a deliberative body. The deadline for filing complaints ought to be this administrative deadline the court has already established. If no such rule exists, complaints must be filed 24 hours prior to the court’s meeting.
Even if neither of these alternatives to Item 12 are ever presented or passed, the system we have is not fundamentally flawed. Even if a complaint is filed two minutes prior to a Session meeting and the Session feels unable to handle the matter right then and there, there is no harm in taking no action and letting the matter go to the higher court. That’s the point of a complaint, after all. So while it’s possible to improve our system, let’s make sure we do it in such a way that is consistent with the principles that we have preserved in our polity.
Jason Piland is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Associate Pastor of Redeemer Church PCA in Hudson, Ohio.
 See the full Item 12 amendment, available at https://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/BCO-Amendments-Sent-Down-REVISED-9-27-22.pdf.
 Overture from the Northwest Georgia Presbytery to the 49th General Assembly, April 5, 2022, p. 1, ll. 31–32, available at https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Overture-21-NW-GA-BCO-43-23-4-12-22-REV.-TITLE.pdf.
 Many other procedural requirements are included in the BCO. The lower court appoints a representative to argue its case (BCO 43-5). The lower court has to send up all papers related to the case (BCO 43-6). Parties may file written briefs if they so desire (BCO 43-8). The complainant has a constitutional right to appear and be heard (BCO 43-8). A full hearing is scheduled at the reasonable accommodation of the parties (BCO 43-8). Both parties appear and argue their case (BCO 43-9). The higher court sits in judgment and renders a decision (BCO 43-9). The higher court has significant latitude to order amends if the lower court is found to have erred (BCO 43-10). The process can become so complex that an entire Appendix to the BCO was inserted to assist Presbyteries in establishing a procedure for handling these matters (BCO Appendix H).
 Complaints in the PCA went straight to the higher court until the BCO was amended in 1984. Before then, only our sections 43-1, -4, -5, and -10 were included in the BCO, meaning that the complaint was not considered by the lower court before being heard by the higher court. To this day, the RPCNA still does not require a complaint to be presented to the lower court for consideration (RPCNA Book of Discipline II.4.3, .4), and neither does the EPC (EPC Book of Discipline 14).