Dear Church Family,
Continuing in my effort to share with you some of the major items that will be discussed, debated, and voted upon at the next General Assembly of the PCA, this week we take up the topic of the accountability of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). Of the now 52 overtures that have been submitted to this year’s General Assembly, there are seven or eight which seek to amend the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) with regard to the oversight and accountability of the decisions made by the SJC (overture 3 from Grace Presbytery is a good representation). For those not familiar with how the General Assembly of our denomination operates, I’ll try to briefly explain what the SJC is and how it functions, then point you to a resource where you may read arguments for and against this change.
What is the Standing Judicial Commission?
In our denomination's practice of formal church discipline, we have ‘church courts’ which, among their other duties, also try disciplinary cases. At the local church level, the church court is the Session (the ruling elders and teaching elders of that church). At the regional level, the church court is the Presbytery. At the denominational level, it is the Standing Judicial Commission. In theory, the church court of the denomination is the General Assembly; however, in practice, all disciplinary cases that rise above the presbytery level are deliberated and decided upon by the SJC.
The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) is comprised of twenty-four men (twelve ruling elders and twelve teaching elders) to which the General Assembly “shall commit all matters governed by the Rules of Discipline, except for the annual review of Presbytery records, which may come before the Assembly” (BCO 15-4).
While there are some checks and balances in place – especially if there is a group of men on the SJC who don’t agree with the majority verdict (BCO 15-5c) – “the decision of the Standing Judicial Commission shall be the final decision of the General Assembly except as set forth below [if a dissenting minority report is filed], to which there may be no complaint or appeal” (BCO 15-5a).
Bottom line: Basically, overture 3 calls upon the General Assembly to amend our constitution so that the decisions of the SJC may be reviewed and approved or disapproved by the General Assembly as a whole.
Arguments For and Against
I’m certainly no expert with regard to the rules and operating procedures of our General Assembly. And, while I’ve tried to explain the issue as simply as possible above, I may have oversimplified it (or maybe even confused the issue!). Therefore, I recommend the following article wherein Dr. Sean M. Lucas argues for amending our BCO and Dr. David F. Coffin, Jr. argues against amending our BCO: “Arguments For and Against Changing SJC Procedures.” If you read the introductory comments at this link, you will find a brief explanation of the recent controversies that gave rise to overture 3 and the seven or eight other similar overtures which call for amending our current practice.
Though I have great respect for both Dr. Lucas and Dr. Coffin, I agree with Dr. Lucas. I am personally persuaded that a change in our practice as a denomination is necessary. I am well aware that bringing all the disciplinary cases that rise to the denominational level before the General Assembly could become unwieldy, to say the least. However, according to our own constitution, the General Assembly shall have the power “to receive and issue all appeals, references, and complaints regularly brought before it from the lower courts; to bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality of practice, injuriously affecting the Church; to decide in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline” (BCO 14-6a).
The SJC is a good idea, I think. And I certainly would not want to question the character or motives of the twenty four men who serve on that commission. At the same time, changing our practice in order to give more oversight to the General Assembly is, in my mind, a good idea – for the justice of those involved in the trials, for the health of our church, and for the glory of Christ.
Please continue to pray for our local church, our presbytery, and for our denomination and General Assembly as we take up these important matters in June.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch