Over the PCA’s 46 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.
What part of “NO” don’t you get!
Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) voted “NO” this past year on amending the Book of Church Order (BCO) 25-3. The amendment proposed increasing the quorum for congregation meetings to 50% of their communicant members (from 16% and 25% depending the church’s membership) when the purpose of the meeting was to consider withdrawing from the PCA.
The 45th PCA General Assembly (2017) sent the amendment to the Presbyteries for their vote as required by the BCO. The Presbyteries rejected the amendment resulting in a clear statement of “NO”: They chose not to ratify the amendment to the BCO that would have had the effect of burdening local church by abridging their right to withdraw from the PCA if they desired to do so.
But there are some in the PCA who won’t accept the “NO” handed down by the Presbyteries. When it became known that the amendment was rejected, but before there could be a post-mortem to assess the reasons, another amendment was proposed that would seek to restrict and abridge local congregations of their right to consider withdrawing from the PCA.
(Read the proposed amendment in Overture 10, Overture 12 and Overture 17, which states: “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.”)
This newly minted proposed and restrictive amendment is attached this time to the end BCO 25-11. The proposed wording mandates 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.
Since the amendment to BCO 25-11 has been introduced, even after the rejection of the BCO 25-3 amendment, we must ask: “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you get?” 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 so that 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 amendment. 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. The PCA General Assembly should answer these overtures in the negative.
Over the PCA’s 46 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 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 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.
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. 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.
Some do not like the concept of a slippery slope argument, so let’s call it a domino effect: Let’s take note of the dominoes: The 45th GA (2017) approved a proposed amendment to BCO 25-3. This amendment proposed raising the quorum to 50% (from 25% for congregations of a 100 or less, and 16% for congregations of more than 100) 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 for any restriction to the present BCO provision, other overtures have been proposed, this time to amend BCO 25-11 to require a 30-day notice for a congregation meeting to vote on withdrawing from the PCA.
Why can’t we just leave the BCO 25 provisions as they have served the PCA for 46 years? These amendments give 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 vow, the wording is actually a form of control that restricts the right of local congregations to act as they desire. Here is a non-inspired prophecy: If this proposed amendment is approved the dominoes will begin to fall with other restrictions soon following afterwards.
The PCA should honor the intent of the solemn covenant and trust that local churches are supremely more capable of determining their affiliation more than controlling amendments and bureaucrats within the proverbial ecclesiastical beltway.
My sense is that 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 immediately after the BCO 25-3 amendment was rejected indicates that there is more to the agenda than just giving congregations more time to consider their affiliation.
But wait there’s more: Something else is still missing in the present overtures that was also missing in the BCO 25-3 proposal: Where are the empirical data, the statistical analyses, the objective studies, and the evidence of a ground swell in the PCA clamoring for this issue, supposedly so broken, that it needs to be fixed? Nowhere do the overtures provide any data that informs any claim of actual problems with the present BCO provision that requires the proposed remedy. What is broken 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 provision has worked for 46 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 proposed amendment only “seems” and “appears” to be constructive, but in reality it is based on subjective and emotional feelings, 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 produce the data to demonstrate it.
We should also ask: Is a particular church considering withdrawing from the PCA weightier and more important in its life than calling a pastor or purchasing property, both of which require a notice of only 7 days?
Amending the PCA Constitution is a significant action and it is the responsibility of overtures 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.
And in the case of the proposed amendment to BCO 25-11, the PCA General Assembly needs to consider whether it should unilaterally break its “solemn covenant” with its churches on a whim and without demonstrable reasons.
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 made with particular churches. This is a good time to reflect on and refresh ourselves in promises made and the importance of keeping these promises.
The PCA General Assembly should answer Overtures 10, 12 and 17 in the negative.
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.
BCO 25. 8-11
25-8. The corporation of a particular church, through its duly elected trustees or corporation officers, (or, if unincorporated, through those who are entitled to represent the particular church in matters related to real property) shall have sole title to its property, real, personal, or mixed, tangible or intangible, and shall be sole owner of any equity in any real estate, or any fund or property of any kind held by or belonging to any particular church, or any board, society, committee, Sunday school class or branch thereof. The superior courts of the Church may receive monies or properties from a local church only by free and voluntary action of the latter.
25-9. 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.
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.
25-11. While a congregation consists of all the communing members of a particular church, and in matters ecclesiastical the actions of such local congregation or church shall be in conformity with the provisions of this Book of Church Order, nevertheless, in matters pertaining to the subject matters referred to in this BCO 25, including specifically the right to affiliate with or become a member of this body or a Presbytery hereof and the right to withdraw from or to sever any affiliation of connection with this body or any Presbytery hereof, action may be taken by such local congregation or local church in accordance with the civil laws applicable to such local congregation or local church; and as long as such action is taken in compliance with such applicable civil laws, then such shall be the action of the local congregation or local church.
It is expressly recognized that each local congregation or local church shall be competent to function and to take actions covering the matters set forth herein as long as such action is in compliance with the civil laws with which said local congregation or local church must comply, and this right shall never be taken from said local congregation or local church without the express consent of and affirmative action of such local church or congregation.
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.