If allowing a woman to preach during a Sunday morning worship service is not an “important delinquency or grossly unconstitutional proceeding,” then I am at a loss for what is….The PCA is not a loose federation of churches. We are united by our Constitution and our commitment to the Scriptures. The actions complained of here egregiously violate both, and the matter must be redressed.
[Presbyterian Polity] Editor’s Note: What follows is a public response to a public criticism of a committee recommendation before the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
The Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) Committee has recommended to the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) that Metro New York Presbytery be cited to appear before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) for finding that one of its churches and one of its Teaching Elders did nothing wrong when they allowed a woman to preach a sermon during Sunday morning worship. The Assembly should approve this recommendation. To do so is a proper exercise of review and control under our Church’s well-established polity. Presbyteries are not a law unto themselves, and when such a gross breach of the Scriptures and our Constitution occurs, the offending presbytery must be called to account by the General Assembly.
What is Review and Control and How Does it Work?
The polity of the PCA is an inherently federal system. Specific powers are delegated to the several courts of the Church: the session, the presbytery, and the General Assembly. Others are reserved for congregations (e.g. calling a pastor or voting to leave the PCA). This distributed system is reinforced by a system of checks on the power of the various bodies to which power is entrusted. Decisions of lower courts can be brought to higher courts through various methods, including appeals, complaints, and references (see Book of Church Order [BCO] 39).
One very important—but perhaps less well-understood—means of ensuring the courts of the Church abide by the Constitution and the Scriptures is review and control as set forth in BCO 40. Paragraph 40-1 provides as follows:
It is the right and duty of every court above the Session to review, at least once a year, the records of the court next below, and if any lower court fails to present its records for this purpose, the higher court may require them to be produced immediately, or at any time fixed by this higher court.
In practical terms, this means that presbyteries review session minutes, and the General Assembly reviews presbytery minutes. Most (likely all) presbyteries have a standing committee assigned to this task. The PCA General Assembly has its committee for the review of presbytery records (RPR) which is governed by Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) chapter 16. This particular committee consists of one representative from each presbytery (RAO 8-5).
The designated RPR committee members meet each year prior to the General Assembly. Members are split up into ‘read teams’ with responsibility for the various presbyteries. Members then read the minutes of the presbyteries assigned to their teams, and each team submits a proposed report on its assigned presbyteries. The committee as a whole then meets for two very long days and part of a third to go over the proposed reports, debate various points, offer amendments, and ultimately produce a report to the GA.
If RPR finds discrepancies in presbytery minutes either due to poor record keeping or dubious practice, it has four options. First, it can provide a notation to the presbytery indicating a minor clerical error, as outlined in RAO 16-6(c)(3). No response is required to a notation, and it is communicated only to the presbytery and does not appear in the report to GA. Second, RPR can find an exception of form, as described in RAO 16-6(c)(2). These include violations of the guidelines for keeping minutes, and violations of the rules of order are typically reported under this category. Exceptions of form are also reported only to the presbytery in question, and no response is required.
For more serious violations, RPR can find an exception of substance. To quote from the RAO 16-6(c)(1): “Apparent violations of the Scripture or serious irregularities from the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, actions out of accord with the deliverances of the General Assembly, and matters of impropriety and important delinquencies, and any noncompliance with RAO 16-3.e.5 should be reported under this category.” Exceptions of substance are included in RPR’s report to the GA. They can be debated on the floor of the Assembly when the report comes up, and the findings can be amended. If an exception of substance is approved by the Assembly, the presbytery in-question is required to provide a response to RPR, and the next year’s committee will judge whether the response is adequate. Sometimes the presbytery in-question and the GA, through RPR, can go back and forth for several years.Relevant to this article is the fourth option: a citation to appear before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). This process is described in BCO 40-5. The first paragraph reads as follows: