I am convinced that removing the present wording of the statute of limitations in BCO 32-20 will lead to other serious problems and unintended consequences. The proposed amendment will potentially open up members to harassment by the courts; it will allow the shepherding from elders to become lax; it will allow courts to settle for evidence that has been corrupted by time but fits a preconceived narrative; and, ultimately, it will harass and harm untold members of our congregations.
Removing the “Statute of Limitations” from the Book of Church Order (BCO) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a serious matter, and I am concerned that last summer’s General Assembly hastily began that process without counting the costs. If we move forward with the proposed substitute to BCO 32-20, I fear there will be significant unintended consequences. I write in hopes that Presbyters across the PCA will better appreciate the wisdom of having a statute of limitations and, with Anton Heuss, I hope that the proposed replacement of BCO 32-20 will NOT be approved and that better language will be put forward.
As it stands today, BCO 32-20 begins, “Process, in case of scandal, shall commence within the space of one year after the offense was committed, unless it has recently become flagrant.” This amounts to what some, including the SJC and an important commentator, have called a “Statute of Limitations” for church discipline, at least for cases of “scandal.” The new proposal sent to Presbyteries for their advice and consent removes this language altogether and only codifies the right the accused already has to object to indictments and names “degradation of evidence” as one possible ground for objection.
Overture 22, which gave rise to the proposed language, and Howie Donahoe, the esteemed moderator of the 47th GA, raise a number of objections to the current BCO 32-20, but neither account for the significant costs of removing a statute of limitations altogether. Nevertheless, I share their concern about abuse and other private sins that are not immediately known or discovered. I wholeheartedly agree with criticisms of the current BCO 32-20 on this point, but this does not warrant overthrowing a statute of limitations altogether when an exception could be built into the BCO that provides a way to bring before the court cases of past abuse.
We need to remember why we have a statute of limitations in the first place, and I posit that there are at least three significant reasons to retain a statute of limitations for church discipline.
- To Protect the Accused
A statute of limitations protects every member of the PCA from all kinds of harassment by the courts. If a court declines to bring charges against a person, it can’t hold the possibility of charges over that person’s head in perpetuity.
Consider another situation. Suppose a pastor or Session believes a church member is guilty of a particular sin, and, with a clear conscience, the church member does not believe he has committed it. Or suppose a church member believes he is repentant of a certain sin, but his elders don’t think so. What happens then? Often in cases like these, the church member hears continual, frank, and strong counsel about how he needs to own up to his sin or to biblically repent of it. The shepherds are doing what they believe is right: rebuking strongly from time to time, bearing with the individual over the long haul in a “pastoral” manner, calling him to be faithful to Scripture’s teaching, and seeking to keep the rest of the church pure from the potential defilement of sin.
But the actions of the elders wear down the church member. The elders don’t want to bring charges, so they are “patient.” They don’t realize how the church member feels like the life is being squeezed out of him. In these cases, forbearance isn’t the answer. When the church member and Session legitimately disagree after prayerful dialogue and counsel, the pastoral answer is not to wait it out and hope the church member changes his mind. The loving and right thing is often for the Session to bring charges. From the Session’s perspective, he is in conscious sin, and it must be addressed immediately. From the church member’s perspective, he has the right to have his case heard not just by his Session, but also to have it reviewed by the higher courts of the church. It is a merciful thing that the church member has his day in court to vindicate himself and to appeal to higher courts for assistance. We are Presbyterians, and this is Presbyterianism at its best. This is good for both the Session and the church member because there will be resolution to the disagreement.
A statute of limitations requires Sessions to bring charges sooner rather than later. It protects the accused from a forbearance in the name of pastoral kindness that ends up being harmful. Where legitimate disagreement exists, a statute of limitations puts an end to it by requiring action, and it protects the accused from all kinds of potential harassment by the courts of the church.
- To Encourage Diligent Shepherding
If a court is not able to bring a charge on day 366, it is forced to be diligent in shepherding its flock in the first 365 days after a disciplinable offense takes place. When a court knows that a sin cannot be addressed through process after one year, a statute of limitations actually compels action. We want to encourage the shepherds of the church to conscientiously care for the hurting and wandering sheep and not to let a sheep walk away from the fold for years before beginning the process of bringing him back.
When someone commits an offence of the sort that often gives rise to formal discipline, it often takes several months for the dust to settle, for the church to understand what happened, and for the offender and the offended parties to appreciate the fallout. The spiritual realities are not usually immediately clear. So the statute of limitations ought not be too short to require the court to act before it can shepherd the parties through these early days and gain clarity of the situation. But it seems that a year has been plenty of time in the PCA to understand what happened, counsel the parties, assess their responses, and determine if formal process is fitting. These situations are difficult, and courts must be diligent shepherds to adequately care for its members. A statute of limitations requires them to be engaged intentionally from day one, and that is a good thing.
- To Ensure Accurate Evidence
As time goes on, the quality of evidence degrades. Memories fade. Witnesses move away, die, or otherwise disappear. Documentary evidence, whether digital or physical, corrupts or goes missing. The immediacy of the offence is lost to time, and the accuracy of the remaining testimony decreases in quality. Overture 22 admits as much. Of course, there is no certain time where good evidence goes bad, but the principle still stands: It is better to call upon witnesses and use evidence when it is as fresh as possible so that the accuracy and truthfulness of that testimony is best preserved and conveyed.
Additionally, the further one is from an event, the easier it is to falsify documents or to produce fraudulent testimony. We minimize the risk of false accusations if we maintain a statute of limitations.
The substitute proposal includes an encouragement to courts to not entertain an indictment if the evidence has been too degraded, but such a question is far too subjective and could easily be answered to accord with the court’s view of the merits of the case. I question the wisdom of placing this as the only named backstop on the court’s ability to do adjudicate ancient cases. A bright-line statute of limitations takes this question out the hands of the court in the interests of fairness.
While I deeply appreciate the concern about some alleged offenses that may not be immediately known, I am convinced that removing the present wording of the statute of limitations in BCO 32-20 will lead to other serious problems and unintended consequences. The proposed amendment will potentially open up members to harassment by the courts; it will allow the shepherding from elders to become lax; it will allow courts to settle for evidence that has been corrupted by time but fits a preconceived narrative; and, ultimately, it will harass and harm untold members of our congregations.
There are better ways to word an amendment to handle the problem of alleged offenses in the church than to remove a reasonable and limited time period altogether, avoiding throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
I urge Presbyteries to vote against the proposed amendment to BCO 32-20 and then let us find a better solution to the perceived problem. Concerned members of the PCA can work to make sure a better alternative isn’t too far away.
Jason Piland is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Associate Pastor of Redeemer (PCA) in Hudson, Ohio.
 See, e.g., Grace RPC Session v. Heartland Presbytery, Case No. 93-14, M23GA, 113–121; Morton H. Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 5th ed. (Greenville: Southern Presbyterian, 2004), 313.
 The full text of the proposal is as follows:
The accused or a member of the court may object to the consideration of a charge, for example, if he thinks the passage of time since the alleged offense makes fair adjudication unachievable. The court should consider factors such as the gravity of the alleged offense as well as what degradations of evidence and memory may have occurred in the intervening period.