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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 12

Alan D. Strange

Ordained Servant: January 2021

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Exploring Recent Covenant Theology: A Review Article

Is It Abuse? by Darby A. Strickland

A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life after Traumatic Loss by Melvin Lawrenz

New Year’s Chimes

Chapter XII
Governing Assemblies

1. All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. A person charged with an offense may be required to appear only before the assembly having jurisdiction over him, but any member of the church may be called by any assembly to give testimony.

Comment: The first sentence in this section states an important principle of Presbyterianism. Even as previous chapters have made it clear that Presbyterianism enjoys joint lay (ruling elders) and clerical (ministers) rule in the church—over against episcopacy (clerical rule) and congregationalism (lay rule)—the point of the first sentence is that every governing assembly (sessions, presbyteries, general assemblies)  possess the same kinds of rights and powers. That is not to say that each possess the precise same rights and powers but the same kind, meaning that the respective rule of each, in its own sphere, is properly authoritative and determinative.[1]

One may wrongly think, for instance, that only a general assembly may make a decision that impacts the whole church. If a session, however, through local judicial process, determines that one of its congregant’s doctrine is false and inimical to a credible profession of faith, it may so find. It need not seek the permission of higher judicatories to address such a controversy. Of course, if appeal is taken from such decision, the verdict of the local judicatory will not be enacted until such process is exhausted, perhaps at the level of the general assembly. The point is that a verdict of a local church becomes a binding decision of the whole church, either because uncontested or upheld on appeal. If overturned on appeal, it would obviously not be the decision of the wider church.

This is why, it may be noted here, that any censure arising out of due judicial process is always and only first proposed by the trial judicatory so that the one subject to censure may have ten days to file an appeal of such verdict and/or censure (BD 4.C.3.b; BD 7.3). For instance, if a session finds a member guilty of adultery through due process (either through a trial, BD 3–4, or a party coming as his own accuser, BD 5.1), and proposes a censure of indefinite suspension, such censure is not executed unless and until any appeal process is exhausted or abandoned. If there is no appeal, then the judicatory may proceed to pronounce the censure.

This is the censure of the whole church and should be everywhere respected—the censured party has been duly suspended (or excommunicated, as the case may be). If the censure is appealed and upheld on appeal, ever how high such appeal may go, then and only then does the trial judicatory pronounce said censure. This avoids the dilemma of pronouncing a censure that is reversed on appeal. And it also makes clear that a censure when pronounced, whether or not appeal was taken, becomes the censure of the whole church.

On the other hand, a presbytery (or a session, for that matter) acting in a governmental and not a judicial capacity may erect a study committee to discuss a matter that it finds troubling or needs concentrated focus to help the presbytery in its work, perhaps even in examining candidates. To be sure, the session or presbytery can overture the general assembly and ask, for the sake of preserving broader unity and continuity of treatment, that a denominational study committee be erected to look into some doctrinal controversy bedeviling the church. No lower judicatory, however, should imagine that it is not competent, or that it is not the place of a lower judicatory to address matters that concern it, and that lower judicatories are bound to ask the highest judicatory to address important matters that currently occupy the church’s attention. Assemblies other than the highest may rightly address all matters that they need to so that the church, at every level, may do its work thoroughly and well.

Thus, the third sentence: “all assemblies”—local, regional, and whole church—have the right to resolve questions pertaining to “doctrine and discipline” and all needed investigatory and disposing power to that end, including the imposition of censures (BD 6). Notice that the questions must be “reasonably proposed,” which is to say through some proper due process, as the BD sets forth, whether administrative (in the case of complaints) or judicial (in the case of trials). “Reasonably proposed” is not limited, however, to Book of Discipline processes but would also include governmental ones, like presbyterial reading of records and visitations of congregations.

The second sentence clarifies that assemblies possess such rights and invoke such powers to the maintenance of truth and righteousness, positively, and to the opposing of sinful views and practices, negatively. In a time like ours, in which many suspect all exercises of power, it should be noted that this power is not for the purpose of the dominance of the shepherds over the flocks but to edify the saints (to gather and perfect them) and to glorify the Savior through personal and corporate righteousness. This is not to say that governing assemblies have never abused their powers, as well as have the individual officers therein. They have, and this is a betrayal of all that a foot-washing Christ calls the leaders in his church to be. The abuse of church power does not nullify its proper use, however, and it is simply disobedience to due authority to oppose the proper exercise of church power, as if all exercise of power is inherently oppressive. That all exercise of power is a tool of the hegemonic ruling elite may be the teachings of Marx, Derrida, and Foucault, but they are not the teaching of God’s Word.  

The exercise of true and proper church power is done to maintain the “purity, peace, and progress” of the church. The church is to move forward in its kingdom work (progress) in sanctity of life (purity) and in harmony with each other (peace). The power given to its assemblies is to aid in this. It is always a power held, not as an end in itself, but in servant mode to help the church move forward in its witness to the world in holiness and unity (1 Pet. 5:3). Also important here is the reality that not every matter of error or controversy rises to the level of disturbing the “purity, peace, and progress” of the church.

Even as love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8), many lesser matters in the church can be regarded with charity and patience and need not be resolved. There is a proper allowance for lesser differences that fall within a properly constructed broadness permitted by our secondary and tertiary standards. A wise judicatory will not allow itself or the church to become bogged down in lesser matters, majoring on the minors, but will keep its focus clear and pursue the church’s mission with vigor.

The last sentence recognizes the importance of jurisdiction especially when it comes to judicial charges (see also BD 2). Jurisdiction, particularly original jurisdiction, is addressed in the next section, so it may be enough here to note that when charges are brought against a party, the body to which the party belongs, and only that body, may try him. Charges may be brought against a church member from many quarters, but the trial of such charges only occurs in that body of which the one so charged is a member. For instance, a ministerial member of a presbytery may have charges brought against him from outside his presbytery and potentially from outside the OPC, but he will be tried only by his own presbytery.

Similarly, all who are not ministers (including ruling elders and deacons), when charged, are tried only by their own sessions and not by others who may be bringing the charges. The bottom line is that one is tried by his own judicatory regardless of the place from which such charges may emerge. However, another judicatory may call any member of the OPC to give testimony in its proceedings, and he is bound to do so, even though such judicatory is not his own. While one can be tried only by one’s own judicatory, one may be called to appear as a witness in any judicatory of the OPC.

2. Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.

Comment: The first sentence in this section addresses the important question of jurisdiction (see BD 2). Jurisdiction means the proper governing body for the proper circumstances. Since lay members (including deacons and ruling elders) have their membership in the local congregation, for instance, the body which is the proper governing body for any such members is the local session that governs the particular congregation in which they hold membership. Similarly, since ministers have their membership in the regional church, and are members of the body that governs the regional church (presbytery), the presbytery is the proper governing body for them. Or to put it in terms of this section, the local session has original jurisdiction over all the members of the particular church for which it serves as session, and the relevant presbytery has original jurisdiction for all those who are on the rolls of the regional church, whether or not they are members of the presbytery.

It should be noted that “jurisdiction” here is further qualified by the modifier “original.” Original jurisdiction highlights the body, whether the local session or the regional presbytery, to which matters concerning either would be first brought. It is the case that bodies other than those exercising original jurisdiction may come to have jurisdiction when a matter is on appeal. A presbytery, for instance, may hear the appeal of a judicial case and by such appeal gain jurisdiction over the case with respect to the alleged errors brought before it from the trial of a session that had original jurisdiction. The presbytery, however, does not retry the case but reviews and examines the alleged errors of the judicatory of original jurisdiction.

The section then goes on to make patent what we have been commenting on: sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies all exercise jurisdiction as appropriate to each of those bodies. The local session exercises jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the particular local church over which it is the governing body; similarly, presbyteries exercise original jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the regional church or jurisdiction over matters on appeal to it from the sessions of that presbytery. General assemblies also exercise original jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the whole church or jurisdiction over matters on appeal to it from the presbyteries.

The sentence about “disputed matters” of doctrine or discipline being referred to a higher governing assembly is a brief description, at least in part, of the process of bringing an appeal of a decision of a lower judicatory to that of a higher judicatory for its consideration and decision. The appeals process, as well as the decisions of lower judicatories (including trial judicatories) in cases over which they exercise original jurisdiction, will all be dealt with in some detail in the commentary on the Book of Discipline.[2]

The lower assemblies, in other words, are subject to the “review and control” of higher assemblies. This means not only in the process of appeal, which is why in the previous paragraph “at least in part” was mentioned, but also in the process of reading minutes. The minutes of sessions are regularly read by their proper presbyteries and the minutes of presbyteries are read by the general assemblies. This means, then, that those bodies have opportunity to review and control the bodies subject to them (in regular graduation—each governing assembly directly subject to the next higher governing assembly) when a judicial appeal or a complaint on appeal is brought to them, but also to exercise such review and control by a regular reading of all the actions of the bodies subject to them as such actions are recorded in the minutes of those bodies. This is typically done by committees of presbyteries and general assemblies and reported to the whole body, which then acts as it sees fit, particularly on “exceptions,” which is the action of a higher body noting that the action of a lower body was out of accord with one of the standards, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary (as previously defined in this commentary).

The last sentence in this section is a very important one. It means that an act by one governing body within the church is not relevant to and binding only in that place but also throughout the whole church, either if uncontested by any sort of appeal or if the relevant governing body is upheld on appeal. This point was made in the previous section but is made again here. As noted above, a session may find a member guilty at the conclusion of a trial that it has held; the one so adjudged may appeal the verdict of the trial judicatory of the session to its presbytery. Until appeals are exhausted, the censure remains proposed and becomes the decision of the whole church only when the one adjudged guilty has either exhausted his appeals or chooses no longer to do so. Contrariwise, if someone does not appeal his verdict or censure, the decision of the local session stands and it stands as an act of the whole church, not simply that local session as a disconnected solitary act. This reflects the unity and proper connectedness of the whole church. We can rightly speak of the OPC in the singular, because ultimately, though it acts in many parts (and consists of many congregations), it is one whole church, even as our Lord prayed that we would be (John 17:21).

3. Assemblies have the authority to erect committees and commissions and to delegate to them specific interim powers. The membership of such committees and commissions need not be limited to the membership of the appointing assembly when the delegated tasks and powers do not require it.

Comment: The notion, suggested by some extreme iure divino promoters, that judicatories alone, and only when acting in toto, as the entire judicatory, may act and may not assign the right to act on their behalf to a smaller number of its members is fatuous.[3] Judicatories may indeed erect committees composed of its own members (or others not currently part of the judicatory, in some cases) to bring to it recommendations for actions that said judicatories may decline, modify, or adopt. Judicatories may also establish commissions to carry out tasks acting on its behalf, reserving the right sometimes, usually in judicial cases, to overturn the commission, but only as to its global acts and not enter into debate about the details. For example, a presbytery may commission part of its body to conduct a trial, reserving the right to review and overturn its verdict and censure. Commissions can be used by presbyteries for ordination/installation in remote areas, to address matters needing close attention and quicker resolution, for judicial matters, and the like.

Commissions are fully empowered to act, within the limits of their mandates, as the presbytery itself would act. For this reason, they are both quite convenient, particularly in dealing with matters that need decisive treatment, but which circumstances may render inconvenient for the whole session or presbytery to address. Commissions are also potentially dangerous for the same reason of not involving the whole presbytery. Examination of candidates or judicial trials, while perhaps convenient to assign to a commission, may better be conducted by the whole judicatory and not merely a part of it.

There has been something of an allergy in the OPC to conducting business by commission, since it was a commission of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, not the entire Presbytery, that tried Dr. Machen. Given its composition—including signers of the Auburn Affirmation—there was a perception of imbalance and unfairness in the commission and the conviction that the weightiness of the matters warranted a trial by the whole presbytery. Dr. Machen was cut off from several lines of defense, also establishing an aversion in the OPC to cutting off debate in an assembly. Though this has begun to change in recent years, for decades both the use of commissions and the moving of the previous question (a motion to end debate and to proceed to a vote) suffered bad associations due to abuse in Dr. Machen’s trial and were little used in the OPC.[4]

Committees are more common in the OPC. Committees do not act as the body that they serve but bring recommendations to the body they serve. Committees are routinely composed of members of the judicatory that erected them. Presbyteries, for example, usually have committees on candidates and credentials, home and foreign missions, Christian education, etc., peopled by ministers and ruling elders. There may be good reasons to have those other than ministers and ruling elders on presbytery committees, however: for instance, the diaconal committee should have at least some deacons on it. At the sessional level, some of the committees may be exclusively session members while others will have congregants. Having non-office-bearers serve in this way is often a good way to have the broader body of Christ involved in the work of the church. It should be noted that women often serve in these non-office-bearing capacities to the great blessing of the church.

4. Voting by proxy shall not be permitted in these assemblies, nor shall any one be allowed to vote except when the vote is being taken.

Comment: Some other Reformed churches permit proxy voting.[5] In these churches, a member may be out of town when a congregational meeting occurs at which office-bearers will be elected: he or she may deposit a proxy ballot voting in the affirmative or negative before leaving town. Alternatively, some Reformed churches will hold a congregational meeting and leave the voting open for a week or begin the voting on a certain day, ending it a week later with the ending of balloting and the tallying of the votes. Such approaches take a rather different view of assemblies and the role of discussion and debate in those assemblies, including the congregational meeting (See FG 16.1).

The OPC does not permit this practice because it is committed to deliberation, which occurs only in the meeting. A meeting affords opportunity for debate to be had and heard by all parties present. The OPC believes that votes should not be cast for officer-bearers or motions decided except by those present, who have heard the discussion on the floor of the matter. This is how important the deliberative process is—one cannot simply cast a vote without being able to hear and engage in deliberation and debate.  

Endnotes

[1] This is true insofar as such rule is a proper administration of church power. Church power, though spiritual (ministerial and declarative, not magisterial and legislative; moral and suasive, not legal and coercive), is real, not less powerful because not exercised by an infallible church, as Rome claims, or accompanied by the sword, as is civil power. The proper exercise of the church’s spiritual power is exercised in a servant mode and is, at the same time, binding in all the church’s respective judicatories. See James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 187–275.

[2] See BD 7 for the process of appeal for judicial cases and BD 9.3–7 for the appeal of administrative cases (complaints). The difference between the two is further highlighted in the section of the BD containing “Suggested Forms for Use in Connection with the Book of Discipline,” see sections 4 and 5 pertaining to judicial cases and section 7 pertaining to administrative cases (complaints).

[3] This is part of the debate between James Henley Thornwell and Charles Hodge, with Thornwell taking the position that judicatories may not assign agents to carry out its work (commissions or bodies acting as such, church boards, for example) and Hodge arguing that judicatories may do so, the wisdom of doing so in any given case being a separate matter from the church having the right to do so. For Hodge’s defense that his view is consonant with iure divino Presbyterianism see “Presbyterianism” in his Church Polity, 118–33. For Thornwell’s response, see The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 4: Ecclesiastical (repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 217–95.

[4] The standard biographies of Dr. Machen treat this (e.g., those of  Ned Stonehouse and D. G. Hart), as does Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (repr., Horsham, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1992), especially 103–27. See also D.G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education and the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995), 27–39.

[5] Edmund Clowney, in a general way, reflects on some of the differences between Presbyterian and Reformed Polity (in Pressing Toward the Mark, 99–110) as do I in my article “Barriers to Ecumenicity,” Ordained Servant, 27 (2018): 31–37, particularly with reference to the URCNA. The URCNA itself has some differences with other Reformed bodies, particularly in its view of “consistorial” rule as noted by Cornelis P. Venema, “Integration, Disintegration and Reintegration: A Preliminary History of the United Reformed Churches in North America,” in Always Reformed: Essays in honor of W. Robert Godfrey, ed. by R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim (Escondido, CA: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), esp. 237–39. Having mentioned Godfrey, further comparisons may be seen in his “Reflections on the OPC and the URCNA” in Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, ed. by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 485–94.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, January 2021. A list of available installments in this series may be seen here.

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Ordained Servant: January 2021

Financial Advice

Also in this issue

How to Select a Financial Advisor

Exploring Recent Covenant Theology: A Review Article

Is It Abuse? by Darby A. Strickland

A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life after Traumatic Loss by Melvin Lawrenz

New Year’s Chimes

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