Consider that the proposed amendment is attached to BCO 25-11, which directs congregations to follow the “applicable civil laws” (used a number of times in this provision) when voting on whether to withdraw. The effect of placing the proposed amendment at the end of the last paragraph of BCO 25-11 will cause conflict and confusion between the distinction of civil and ecclesiastical powers. Civil power has the power of force. Ecclesiastical power is ministerial and declarative and does not include the power of force.
After the 2017 PCA General Assembly presbyteries voted on a proposed amendment to BCO 25-3 that would have increased the quorum to 50% if a congregation was considering a vote to withdraw from the PCA. This amendment failed. Now in 2018 presbyteries are being ask to vote on a proposed amendment to BCO 25-11 that would require a 30-day notice before a church can have a congregational meeting to consider withdrawing from the PCA.
Can we expect another amendment next year, this time possibly to vote on a proposed amendment to require that congregations must get approval from their presbyteries before doing so?
All the courts of our denomination need to just vote NO on all such amendments to BCO 25. Why? Because these amendments are all unenforceable unless BCO 25-9 is also changed. What does it say? “All particular churches shall be entitled to hold, own and enjoy their own local properties, without any right of reversion whatsoever to any Presbytery, General Assembly or any other courts hereafter created, trustees or other officers of such courts.”
Thus all such proposed amendments will be unenforceable unless BCO 25-9 is changed first. Here is why. Suppose that the proposed amendment to BCO 25-11 passes (as horrible as that is to imagine). A congregation then votes to leave the PCA in July 2019, giving only a one week notice for a congregational meeting before taking the vote (not 30 days as specified by the proposed amendment). Several months later the former presbytery of that congregation learns of this irregularity and contacts the church. Imagine this dialogue:
Moderator of presbytery: “Hello Pastor A. This is the Moderator of Good Neighbor Presbytery. We just learned that your congregation voted to leave our presbytery and the PCA without calling for the congregational meeting to vote on that action at least 30 days before the vote. So we want to ask you to come back into our denomination, call for another meeting, wait at least 30 days, and then you can leave if the congregation approves.”
Pastor A: “Mr. Moderator, thanks for contacting us, but no thanks. We have already left the PCA and we are not coming back.”
Moderator of Good Neighbor Presbytery: “But we really, really want you to come back and do things by our BCO. Please, please, won’t you consider doing this?”
Pastor A: “No, we won’t. We have taken our vote, it was unanimous, and we are not coming back.”
Moderator of Good Neighbor Presbytery: “Well, then we will just have to contact your session and let them know that this action was not very Christian.”
Pastor A: “That will be fine. Our session is very united on this point.”
After such a conversation, what recourse would the presbytery then have? None. Nada, Zilch. Here is why. First, the church owns the property and BCO 25-9 makes it clear that such ownership cannot be reversed. Second, the power of church courts is only “ministerial and declarative.” So all these amendments do absolutely nothing. And that is their danger.
If the PCA continues to chip away at BCO 25 by such amendments then we will reach a point where presbyters are tempted to change BCO 25-9 in order to give these other amendments teeth and the power of force (since “ministerial and declarative power” clearly does not have enough bite to ensure that they are followed). Make no mistake, as I see it, these amendments are only so many preludes to give presbyteries authoritative control of the local congregations, which over time may include local church properties. One amendment after another will surely lead eventually to amending BCO 25-9. And this is no red herring!
In fact, consider that the proposed amendment is attached to BCO 25-11, which directs congregations to follow the “applicable civil laws” (used a number of times in this provision) when voting on whether to withdraw. The effect of placing the proposed amendment at the end of the last paragraph of BCO 25-11 will cause conflict and confusion between the distinction of civil and ecclesiastical powers. Civil power has the power of force. Ecclesiastical power is ministerial and declarative and does not include the power of force. Note this distinction is BCO 3-4:
The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church.
Putting the proposed amendment at the end of the BCO 25-11 creates confuses and conflict between the distinctions of spiritual and civil power and may very well create painful unintended consequences in the future.
This possibility of confusion and conflict alone should be a good reason to vote against the BCO 25-11 amendment. We should at least acknowledge that the wording of the proposed amendment is wrongly placed even under the least favorable interpretation.
Some might think that the hallmark of Presbyterianism is the right of presbyteries to rule and have authority over the lower courts, i.e., congregations, within their geographical jurisdiction. Thus they think that true Presbyterianism is undermined and invalidated with the notion that local churches within the PCA are wholly voluntary and that they can leave whenever they desire then. We acknowledge that other Presbyterian denominations have opted for a more hierarchical form of church government wherein presbyteries function with authority like a bishop.
However, this is not the form of church government of the historical Presbyterian churches in America. The original Presbyterian church in this country, which was also called the Presbyterian Church in America, recognized that membership was solely voluntary and that churches could withdraw whenever they liked.
Over the history of American Presbyterianism there have been several divisions. For example, there was the division between Old Side (Old Light) – New Side (New Light) in 1741. There were no specific requirements for how a congregation had to vote in order to leave, and churches that joined the New Side Presbyterians were able to keep their property without any question.
The same can be said with the Old School-New School split in 1837, and with the Presbyterian Church split into the Northern and Southern branches at the time of the Civil War in 1861.
Through all these divisions there were never attempts to make it difficult for churches to leave the denomination and to do so with their property. Rather, later in history Presbyterian denominations began usurping authority by claiming that Presbyterian polity meant that higher courts had the authority to rule over lower courts, including the right to claim that local church property was held in trust for the denomination. As a result over time the Presbyterian Church in the United Stated (PCUS) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) adopted a heavy-handed approach to church property issues. It was during the spiritual and theological decline of the Presbyterian churches in this country that the control of the property of local congregations by presbyteries became standard practice. But this hierarchical view of Presbyterianism was not so from the beginning.
There are usually two things that have work hand in hand over time: doctrinal error and hierarchical church government. Doctrinal error in the church is aided and assisted by a hierarchical form of church government.
In light of the tendency to centralize church government, to have authority flow from the top down, I say to all who love the PCA: Do not sleep while efforts are made to erode the grass roots denomination that was bequeathed to us by our founding fathers. Do not sleep while amendments are proposed that will chip away at the rights of local congregations to own and enjoy their own properties. Do not turn a blind eye to the warnings from church history.
Just vote NO on the proposed amendment to BCO 25-11. Let us put a stop to amendments like this one; they are not necessary for good order in the PCA!
Dr. Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL, served for 16 years on the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA.