Over the PCA’s 47 year history, hundreds of churches have chosen to withdraw from the PCA for a variety of reasons. BCO 25.8-11 makes it abundantly clear that the PCA, from its inception, chose to enshrine in its Constitution the principle of granting congregations full rights over their own property and the liberty to choose their ecclesiastical affiliation. The intent of this principle in BCO 25 was not only to give liberty of property and affiliation to local congregations, but also intended to prohibit higher courts from imposing any unwarranted burdens on them. This promise is stated as a “solemn covenant” between the PCA and its member churches.
Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) will be voting on a number of proposed amendments to the Book of Church Order (BCO). Here are reasons for PCA Presbyteries to vote against amending BCO 25-11.
There are no urgent, necessary, historical, structural, compelling or rational reasons to amend BCO 25-11.
In 2017 Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) voted “NO” on amending BCO 25-3, which would have increased the quorum for congregation meetings to 50% of their communicant members when the purpose of the meeting was to consider withdrawing from the PCA.
Not satisfied with the Presbyteries saying they did not want to restrict the freedom of churches to determine their affiliation, in 2018 another attempt was made by the PCA General Assembly to try one more time to restrict the freedom of PCA churches to determine whether to remain or withdraw from the Church. This time the restriction is tied to amending BCO 25-11. While it may appear as a small, almost insignificant amendment, in reality it is another major attempt to restrict local churches to determine their affiliation.
The Importance of a Solemn Covenant: A Promise Is Meant to Be Honored
The concept of a “solemn covenant” was dismissed as meaningless when this amendment was considered by the General assembly. BCO 25-10 makes it clear that the entirety of BCO 25 is to be construed as a solemn covenant: “The provisions of this BCO 25 are to be construed as a solemn covenant….” Not just some parts of BCO 25, but all of its provisions.
And what is one part of this solemn covenant? That “the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body.”
This includes any type of action that would restrict local PCA churches to determine their affiliation. These attempts would be a backdoor means “to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body.” The amendment would change the notice for a congregation meeting from 7 days to 30 days (“…provided, however, the congregation is given at least thirty-days’ notice of any meeting where the congregation is to vote on a proposed withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church in America”).
So having received a definite NO in seeking to restrict congregations from choosing their affiliation, there are some in the PCA who won’t accept the “NO” handed down last year by the Presbyteries. When it was obvious that the 2017 amendment was being rejected by the Presbyteries, the amendment to BCO 25-11 was proposed. However, the bottom line effect would still be the same: to seek to restrict and abridge local congregations of their right to determine their denominational affiliation. The proposal that was rejected wasn’t even cold in the legislative grave before another proposal was put forward. We can at least give the authors of the amendment an “A” for tenacity.
Since the amendment to BCO 25-11 has been introduced, even after the rejection of the BCO 25-3 amendment, we must ask: Why this passion to make it more difficult for congregations to determine their affiliation? Why this obsession to force local PCA congregations to comply with someone else’s agenda? Is it a control fixation?
Let’s place the issue in context to make it will be clear why the newly proposed amendment to BCO 25-11 misses the mark just as much as the recently rejected BCO 25-3 one. What both amendments have in common is the intent to restrict the liberty congregations now have to determine their affiliation. This is the principled rooted and enshrined in BCO 25-11.
This newly minted proposed and restrictive amendment is attached this time to BCO 25-11. The proposed wording would require a 30-day notice when a congregation meeting is called to consider withdrawing from the PCA. The present requirement to call such a congregation meeting is a notice of 7 days.
So what is the big deal about increasing the notice period from 7 days to 30? It appears so simple, so innocent; so why the fuss? The issue is not about 7 or 30 or 100 days; the answer is rooted in an important principle enshrined in BCO 25.
Over the PCA’s 47 year history, hundreds of churches have chosen to withdraw from the PCA for a variety of reasons. BCO 25.8-11 makes it abundantly clear that the PCA, from its inception, chose to enshrine in its Constitution the principle of granting congregations full rights over their own property and the liberty to choose their ecclesiastical affiliation. The intent of this principle in BCO 25 was not only to give liberty of property and affiliation to local congregations, but also intended to prohibit higher courts from imposing any unwarranted burdens on them.
This promise is what is meant by the “solemn covenant” between the PCA and its member churches in BCO 25-10:
The provisions of this BCO 25 are to be construed as a solemn covenant whereby the Church as a whole promises never to attempt to secure possession of the property of any congregation against its will, whether or not such congregation remains within or chooses to withdraw from this body. All officers and courts of the Church are hereby prohibited from making any such attempt (emphases added).
This “solemn covenant” stipulates that the higher courts are prohibited from making any attempts to or placing restrictions on churches regarding their affiliation with the PCA. This “solemn covenant” is emphatic in prohibiting “all officer and courts of the Church” from making such attempts.
The defeated amendment to BCO 25-3 was such an attempt to restrict particular churches and it was defeated. The proposed amendment to BCO 25-11 is another attempt by the “courts of the Church” to abandon this “solemn covenant.” Control by any other name and attached to another BCO provision is still control.
There are no theoretical or pragmatic reasons that have mysteriously arisen to abrogate this “solemn covenant.” Nothing has changed in the circumstances of the PCA that requires higher courts to do anything to declare this solemn covenant null and void. Why should the PCA take any action now that would in any way restrict the right of local churches to act as they see best?
Moreover, note the words and phrases used at the end of BCO 25-11, words that strongly define the intent of the PCA’s solemn covenant that particular churches are free to act on their own. Particular churches can stay in association with the PCA as long as they desire; their relationship is voluntary; their relationship is based on mutual love and confidence; the affiliation is not maintained by any force or coercion (meaning: it is not forced by a top-down authoritative corporate structure); and they may withdraw at any time for reasons that are sufficient to themselves.
Particular churches need remain in association with any court of this body only so long as they themselves so desire. The relationship is voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. A particular church may withdraw from any court of this body at any time for reasons which seem to it sufficient (BCO 25-11).
It is ironic that the proposed amendment, with its highly restrictive language, is added to the end of this paragraph, the very paragraph that stresses the freedom and self-determination of particular churches regarding their affiliation with the PCA.
Clash of Wording
Notice how the amendment language clashes with the “voluntary” intent of the paragraph when it suggests adding: “provided, however, the congregation is given at least thirty days’ notice of any meeting where the congregation is to vote on a proposed withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church in America.”
From its beginning the PCA established a relationship between its graded courts that was voluntary, based upon mutual love and confidence, and is in no sense to be maintained by the exercise of any force or coercion whatsoever. The proposed amendment is the beginning of the erosion of this solemn covenant by applying force and coercion in its restrictive language.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Is this the beginning of the domino effect: The 45th GA (2017) approved a proposed amendment to BCO 25-3, which proposed raising the quorum to 50% when the purpose of a congregation meeting was to consider withdrawing from the PCA. While this proposal was approved by GA by almost an 80% vote, it didn’t receive the required approval of 2/3 of the Presbyteries.
Now, instead of accepting this lack of approbation by the Presbyteries for any restriction being added to the BCO, another proposed amendment to change BCO 25-11 has been made, this time to require a 30-day notice for a congregation meeting when the purpose is to consider withdrawing from the PCA.
Why can’t BCO 25-11 be left as it is since it has served the PCA well for 47 years? This amendment gives every appearance of imposing a top-down authoritative and restrictive control over particular churches. While the wording is seemly innocent and innocuous, when considered in light of the “solemn covenant,” the wording is actually a form of control that restricts the right and freedom of local congregations to act as they desire with regard to their affiliation. Here is a non-inspired prophecy: If this proposed amendment is approved expect the dominoes to fall as other restrictions follow soon afterwards.
The PCA should honor the intent of the “solemn covenant” and trust that local congregations are supremely more capable of determining their affiliation more than controlling amendments and bureaucrats existing within the proverbial ecclesiastical beltway.
The amendment to BCO 25-11 is ill conceived; it is another attempt of the higher court to restrict lower courts on how they determine their affiliation. The very fact that there is another amendment proposed so quickly after the BCO 25-3 amendment was rejected in 2107 indicates that there is more to the agenda than just giving congregations more time to consider their affiliation.
No Empirical Data or Historical Studies
Something else is missing in the BCO 25-11 amendment that was also missing in the BCO 25-3 proposal: Where are the empirical data, the statistical analyses, the objective studies, the historical realities, and the evidence of a ground swell in the PCA clamoring for this amendment? Is the present system so broken that it needs to be fixed? Nowhere does the amendment provide any data to inform us about any claims of actual problems with the present BCO provision. Here is a proposed remedy for a problem that has not been identified so cannot really by fixed. What is so broken, and how do we know, that cries out for the proposed fix?
If there is a systemic problem it should be demonstrated in an objective way so the issue can be addressed systemically and not in a piecemeal fashion. The present BCO 25-11 provision has worked for 47 years without a hiccup or complaint; the proposed amendment does not provide any valid data to assert and certify that something is broken that needs repair. The amendment only “seems” and “appears” to be constructive, but in reality it is based on subjective and emotional feelings, perhaps an anecdotal example or two, none of which should drive amending the PCA Constitution.
Is the issue of such importance that it requires the PCA to amend its Constitution? If so those proposing the amendment should produce the data to demonstrate it.
Amending the PCA Constitution is a significant action and it is the responsibility of those who proposed the amendment to present factual and sufficient data so that church courts can give them serious consideration. Instead of a perception of control from the top-down, let proposals address issues concretely.
Just as there “arose a king in Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8), so there is a generation who do not know the significance of the “solemn covenant” that our PCA founders entered into with the particular churches. This is a good time to reflect on and refresh ourselves in promises made and the importance of keeping these promises.
As PCA Presbyteries vote on amending to BCO 25-11, they should vote as they did in 2017: vote NO on amending BCO 25-11.
Dominic Aquila is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is President of New Geneva Seminary in Colorado Springs and Editor of The Aquila Report.