The PCA And The Right Against Self-Incrimination: Against Overture 7

Overture 7 seeks to change BCO 35-1 such that "church officers under accusation shall be required to testify before the court."

How did the right against self-incrimination become part of the BCO? As we will see, it was not because the PCA was influenced by civil protections, such as the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it was the contributions of our Reformed forefathers that helped shape the American religious and civil protections against self-incrimination we now take for granted.

 

The accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify (BCO 35-1).

This clause from the Book of Church Order (BCO) of the Presbyterian Church in America is the denomination’s declaration of the right against self-incrimination. Verdicts in judicial cases are to be determined based on demonstrable evidence and testimony, rather than the forced testimony of the accused. In both religious and civil courts, this right against self-incrimination has served as an important safeguard against judicial overreach.

This summer in Chattanooga, the General Assembly of the PCA will debate whether to revoke this right. Overture 7 seeks to change BCO 35-1 such that “church officers under accusation shall be required to testify before the court.”

How did the right against self-incrimination become part of the BCO? As we will see, it was not because the PCA was influenced by civil protections, such as the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it was the contributions of our Reformed forefathers that helped shape the American religious and civil protections against self-incrimination we now take for granted.

This year, the General Assembly of the PCA has an opportunity to re-affirm hundreds of years of Presbyterian principles and our fathers’ contributions to a fair and just judicial process.

  1. Jesus and the Right Against Self-incrimination

The first thing Presbyterians should want to know about a matter is whether it is biblical. Indeed, the right against self-incrimination is just that. The most compelling example of an accused person refusing to testify is Jesus himself, who stood silent before the religious court:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. (Mk 14:55-61)

Here, Jesus provides an example of someone who refused to testify against himself in court. If it is permissible for Jesus to refuse to testify, it surely is permissible for others. That is not to suggest his example in Mark 14 is prescriptive for all occasions, as at other times he answers his accusers. Rather, this passage helps us understand the rest of Scripture. As one who perfectly kept all of God’s law, Jesus’ silence in the face of his accusers thus cannot be a violation of any of God’s commands. In other words, no biblical verse can be construed to require the accused to testify against himself.

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To read Part 2, go here.