Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 30–32

Alan D. Strange

Chapter XXX
Organizations of Members of the Church

1. Every Christian has the freedom and obligation to exercise the general office of the believer not only individually but also in fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Members of the church may therefore associate together for specific purposes in the exercise of their common calling. Such organizations, however, under ordinary circumstances, shall not assume the prerogatives or exercise the functions of the special officers of the church.

Comment: Christians properly operate, enjoying freedom and obligation to do so, in the general office of believer. They are to do so individually as they carry out the vocation that all have as believers. They may also do so in fellowship with other members of the body of Christ, not only in their own local church but in concert with other believers who may not even be members of the OPC. Examples of such cooperation with believers outside the OPC might be a Bible league for the publication of God’s Word in many languages or a Christian school under parental control. When members of the church therefore associate together for specific purposes in the exercise of their common calling, it should be clear that such organizations, being extra-ecclesial, shall not assume the prerogatives or exercise the functions of the church as are carried out by her special officers.

It should be noted that this is the case “under ordinary circumstances.” Missions, for example, should ordinarily be carried on by the judicatories and proper agencies of the church (the Committee on Foreign Missions, for example). However, in circumstances of manifest corruption of the same, as occurred in the PCUSA in the 1930’s, in which it became clear to J. Gresham Machen and others that the denominal committee on Foreign Missions was comprised, it was thought necessary to form an independent board not under the jurisdiction of the PCUSA to carry out the work of missions.

While contemplation of an action of this sort would likely unsettle most members of the OPC today, this section not only recognizes that there has been need for such in the past but preserves a true Protestant view that the church is not infallible and that Christians within her may even need to act in contravention to her ordinary procedures in concert with other Christians when the church has manifestly lost her way. The visible church, in other words, may be so corrupt that before another purer branch can be established to carry out the ordinary work of the church, Christians may need to concert together in the meantime to make sure that the work of the church is carried out in a faithful way, even if it must be done for a time outside the agencies of the visible church.

2. When a church fails to perform its divinely given task, church members should seek remedies through biblical procedures of government and discipline. In the event that remedy cannot be obtained, or if the church is unable to work in a particular situation, Christians may organize to carry on activities that would more normally be conducted under the appropriate judicatory of the church, until these unusual circumstances are overcome.

Comment: This section more specifically recognizes what was described in the immediately previous paragraph: a situation in which a church fails to perform its divinely given task, say, of missions, and remedies for such within the church itself are unobtainable. To be sure, as this paragraph notes, remedies to something like the crippling liberalism that afflicted the PCUSA in the 1930s should be sought and pursued through the courts of the church acting in their regular governmental capacity (according to the Form of Government) and in their judicial capacity (according to the Book of Discipline). Only when such remedies cannot be obtained through the procedures available in the judicatories of the church because of manifest corruption, can Christians organize to carry on such activities that would normally be conducted in the proper church judicatories. Such should last only as long as needed, until the unusual circumstances are overcome.

Those in the OPC who had worked together in the Independent Board for Presbytery Foreign Missions, since the PCUSA Missions program had become doctrinally compromised, no longer needed to do so once the OPC was formed. It was realized that the attainment, at last, as Machen put it, of “a true Presbyterian church” in the formation of the OPC spelled the end of the need for an independent mission board, and the faithful in the church could return to supporting the mission agencies of the church.

3. When an organization purports to represent a particular church, or a presbytery, or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it must obtain the approval, and be subject to the jurisdiction and oversight, of the session of the particular church, or of the presbytery, or of the general assembly, respectively.

Comment: Any organization that seeks to and presents itself as representing the church (whether a local church, a presbytery, or the OPC as a whole) needs and must get, for honest representation, the approval of said local, regional, or national bodies. Furthermore, any such organization must be subject to the jurisdiction of the level of the church (session, presbytery, or general assembly) that it purports to represent.

Chapter XXXI
Incorporation and Corporations

1. The general assembly, the several presbyteries, and the several churches may maintain corporations to act as agents of the respective authorities to handle affairs pertaining to property and other temporal matters as required by the civil authorities.

Comment: All levels of the church and the government thereof (GA, presbyteries, sessions) may be or become incorporated and maintain such corporations for interfacing with the civil authorities. Corporations act as agents of local, regional, or national churches to handle affairs with the civil authorities. Such affairs pertain, perhaps, with the greatest frequency to property matters. At the same time, other temporal matters (tax exemption status) may also be a proper concern of the corporation of the church. The reason that churches may wish to incorporate is both to limit liability and to act as the formal agent interacting with agencies of the local, state, or federal civil magistracy.

2. Only those and all those who are communicant members of a particular church in good and regular standing and meeting the requirements of the civil authorities shall be entitled to vote at corporation meetings of the particular church. Voting by proxy shall not be permitted, nor shall anyone be allowed to vote except when the vote is being taken.

Comment: The corporation of a local church is comprised of all communicants in good and regular standing who meet the requirements of the civil authorities. The most common sort of requirement is that only those who have attained their majority are able to vote, customarily eighteen years of age. Note that while all the communicants in good standing in a particular local church are members of the congregation, only those meeting the civil requirements for corporate participation are additionally members of the corporation. Here, as in the congregational meeting, only those then and there present are eligible to vote, proxy voting not being allowed. As noted earlier, proxy voting is not allowed by the FG: it is the conviction of this book that those voting must be present in the meeting to be properly informed to cast a vote.

3. The board of trustees of a particular church shall ordinarily be chosen from among the ruling elders and deacons in that church, but other communicant members of the church may be elected as trustees if it seems desirable, provided, however, that the number of such members shall be less than one-half the total membership of the board. Its duties shall be those which the state requires of trustees of corporations together with such other duties relating to the properties of the church as may be delegated to them by the session or the congregation. Such delegation shall be in accord with Chapter XIII, Section 7, of this Form of Government.

Comment: Every body that forms itself as a legal corporation, registered with the proper agency of the state, has a board of trustees that acts as the specific legal interface with the civil authorities on behalf of that body. The corporation itself commonly elects trustees to act as its representatives. This section provides that the board of trustees of a particular church, while ordinarily comprised of the elders and deacons in that church, may also include other communicant members of the church elected to such service. In any case, when electing those who do not hold the offices of elder or deacon to serve on the board alongside those who do hold those special offices, the number of non-special office holders must never exceed the number of elders and deacons on the board. In other words, less than half of those not holding special office can serve on the board of trustees alongside the ordained officers.

The duties of the board of trustees shall be those which the state requires of trustees of corporations. Thus, such trustees will often serve as legal signatories for financial matters, particularly those having to do with the purchase or selling of property, construction of buildings, etc. Other duties, like upkeep of the property, buildings, and facilities, may be assigned to the trustees by the session. Any such delegation by the session to the trustees shall be in accordance with FG 13.7, which is the section recognizing the oversight that the session enjoys with respect to maintaining the local congregation and the government thereof.

4. Meetings of corporations for the transaction of their business shall be provided for in their charter and bylaws, which must always be in accord with the standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and must not infringe upon the powers or duties of the judicatories of the Church.

Comment: Just as the FG requires congregations to meet at least annually, the state may require such with respect to corporations —most do—and the corporation of the church (those legally eligible to vote in the meeting of a corporation) often meets at least annually. Such annual meetings shall be provided for in the corporate charter and the local bylaws of the church. These meetings customarily elect trustees, approve budgets, and take other actions fitting for the corporation, as assigned by the session (see section 3, above). In no case shall such meetings infringe upon the power or duties of the judicatories of the church. In other words, a corporation meeting shall not call a pastor or elect other officers: that and many similar sorts of action pertain not to the corporation as such but to the congregation.

5. All particular churches shall be entitled to hold, own, and enjoy their own local properties, without any right of reversion to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church whatsoever, unless the particular church should become extinct, provided, however, that any particular church may, if it so desires, give or dedicate its property to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A congregation that desires to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to retain its property shall follow the provisions of Chapter XVI, Section 7, of this Form of Government. Dissolution of a particular church by any judicatory, or by any other form of ecclesiastical action, shall not be deemed as making a particular church extinct within the meaning of this article. But these provisions shall not be construed as limiting or abrogating the right of the judicatories of this Church to exercise all constitutional and proper authority over the particular churches as spiritual bodies.

Comment: This is an important proviso, especially in light of the history of the OPC. In 1936, and after, when many churches sought to leave the PCUSA and come into the OPC, the arrangements with the PCUSA of many congregations were such that the ownership of all properties, including the buildings in which they met and the manses in which their pastors lived, was vested in the presbyteries or higher judicatories of the PCUSA. This meant that, even in cases in which a vast majority of a local congregation wished to leave the PCUSA and enter the OPC, they were not able to take their property with them in doing so. This was, and is, rightly considered a significant abuse on part of the broader church.

In contrast to this, the OPC hereby explicitly provides that particular churches are entitled to all that ownership entails with respect to their own local properties (holding, owning, and enjoying them). They have such rights without any right of reversion to the OPC, even if they decide to leave the OPC and enter another denomination or become independent. All this is to say that a local church that wishes to leave the OPC may do so without losing its building, land, or other properties. Now a church may become extinct, and its properties or other assets become those of the OPC. Additionally, any particular church may, if it so desires, give or dedicate property to the OPC (to other local churches, the presbytery, the GA or its agencies, etc.).

A few things to be noted. Dissolution of any local church by a judicatory (usually a presbytery), or by any other form of ecclesiastical action (e.g., recognition of a church declaring independency), is not to be deemed “extinction” in terms of this section. Extinction is something like the members of a local church dying off or abandoning it without any succession plan. Furthermore, if a congregation wishes to withdraw and retain its property in the most orderly and clear of ways, it should follow FG 16.7, which details the process of orderly withdrawal. And finally, the provisions set forth for such property retention on the part of congregations leaving the OPC should not be taken to mean that the proper judicatories that may have authority over the churches as spiritual bodies do not continue to exercise such authority, which is neither limited nor abrogated by their act of leaving.

Chapter XXXII
The Constitution and Its Amendment

1. The constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, consists of its standards of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship, namely, its Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for the Public Worship of God. When the latter three documents are published together, the combined document shall be entitled The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Comment: Here we have, as noted earlier in this commentary, a definition of the constitution of the OPC. The Scriptures, to be sure, are foundational, and all that we believe and express in our constitution is drawn from God’s Word. The Bible, in other words, is the primary standard, not capable of error or reformation, and thus forms the basis for the constitution of the church, which is capable of error and amenable to reform. The constitution should, in fact, always be brought more closely in conformity to the Word to which it seeks to give expression.

The constitution, based on the Bible, consists of the secondary (or doctrinal) standards, namely the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, together with the tertiary standards: the Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for the Public Worship of God. These tertiary standards are typically published together (as are the Confession of Faith and Catechisms), with the combined tertiary standards being called The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

2. With the exception noted in Section 3, below, the Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and Directory for the Public Worship of God may be amended only in the following manner: The general assembly after due discussion shall propose the amendment to the presbyteries; each presbytery shall vote on the question before the next regular assembly, and the clerk of each presbytery shall notify the clerk of the assembly, in writing, of the action of the presbytery; if a majority of the presbyteries has thus signified approval of the amendment, the amendment shall become effective on January 1 of the first year ending in 5 or 0 following the year in which the clerk announces to the assembly that a majority of the presbyteries has approved the amendment. If the assembly proposing the amendment desires it to become effective earlier than the date hereinbefore provided, it may set an earlier date, but not sooner than the next regular assembly, by a two-thirds vote. No amendments shall be proposed to the presbyteries without written grounds for the proposed amendments.

Comment: Since this section is on the proper process for amending the constitution, it starts with that which may be amended with less difficulty: the three parts (FG, BD, and DPW) of the Book of Church Order. The section starts with, “The general assembly after due discussion shall propose the amendment to the presbyteries.” Note that this does not indicate how the matter came before the assembly for discussion, and thus it regards that as a matter of indifference. The matter may have come before the GA by a recommendation of one of its standing committees, through the office of its Stated Clerk, through overtures from the presbyteries, or through other legitimate ways by which matters may be brought before the GA. In any case, the GA comes to a determination on what form it prefers the amendment to be in and after due deliberation proposes the amendment in its preferred form to the presbyteries.

Once an amendment to the BCO is sent down to the presbyteries, by a simple majority vote of the GA, the presbyteries shall each vote on the amendment and through the clerks of the presbyteries shall notify the stated clerk of the GA, in writing, of the decisions of the respective presbyteries. If a majority of the presbyteries has voted in favor of the amendment, it shall become effective on January 1 of the first year ending in 5 or 0 following the year in which it was approved. When approved, the clerk shall announce such to the GA and to the presbyteries, noting the precise effective date, the formula for which was just stated. With the effective date of enactment as noted herein, the GA, if it wishes the effective date of the amendment to be before January 1 of the first year ending in 5 or 0, may do so by a two-thirds majority. Even then, such amendment could not be eligible for effectivity earlier than the next regular assembly. All amendments proposed shall have grounds for the amendment attached.

3. The Confession of Faith and Catechisms and the forms of subscription required of ministers, licentiates, ruling elders, and deacons, as these forms are found in the Form of Government, may be amended only in the following manner: The general assembly shall determine whether a suggested change is worthy of consideration. If so determined, it shall appoint a committee to consider any suggested change and to report to the next regular assembly with recommendations; that assembly may then propose the amendment to the presbyteries by a two-thirds majority of the members voting; approval by a presbytery shall be by a majority of the members voting, and following the decision the clerk of presbytery shall notify the clerk of the assembly, in writing, of the decision of the presbytery; if two-thirds of the presbyteries approve the amendment it shall be adopted finally only after approval of the next ensuing assembly by a two-thirds vote of the members voting.

Comment: Amending the doctrinal standards—the Confession of Faith and Catechisms—as well as the forms of subscription required for ministers, licentiates, ruling elders, and deacons, requires a higher approbation on the part of all parties. Such amendment begins with the General Assembly determining that a suggested change to these documents merits consideration. Note again that the FG is here indifferent as to the method by which such changes come to the attention of the GA and may be, as noted in the comments on section 2 (above), through a variety of means.

When, by a simple majority vote, the GA has determined that a suggested change is worthy of consideration, it shall appoint a committee to consider any such suggested change(s) and to report to the next regular GA with recommendations. The assembly may act, of course, as it sees fit with respect to any such suggested changes, determining if any of them shall be sent down to the presbyteries for consideration. A two-thirds vote of the GA is required in any proposed amendments that it chooses to send to the presbyteries for consideration. When said amendment(s) come(s) to a presbytery, adoption of such is by a majority vote in the presbyteries.

Two-thirds of the presbyteries must vote to adopt a proposed amendment, and the respective presbytery clerks must notify the stated clerk of the GA of such, in order for the next ensuing assembly to have opportunity to act and adopt such changes. That next assembly must approve whatever two-thirds of the presbyteries have adopted by a two-thirds vote. It should be noted that all two-thirds assembly votes are two-thirds of those voting (not two-thirds of all commissioners elected to those respective assemblies).

4. Organic union of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with another denomination shall follow the same procedure as in Section 3, above, for amending the Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Comment: For the OPC to organically unite with another denomination the same procedure is to be followed as is set forth in Section 3 of this chapter, above. In other words, such union takes the same kind of super majority votes as it does to amend the doctrinal standards: two-thirds of an assembly must send down the adopted action, which must be approved by two-thirds of the presbyteries, then returned for the next assembly to approve finally by a two-thirds vote. Both of the actions of sections 3 and 4 are of such significance that the church as a whole needs to be in significant concord in taking action of that sort.

5. None of the provisions of Sections 3 and 4 of this chapter nor of this fifth section shall be modified except by the process that is set forth in Section 3.

Comment: This is the standard “protection clause” that all thoughtful constitutions or by-laws contain. The logic is simple and compelling: sections 3 and 4 require a supermajority, but revision of the FG (in keeping with section 2) requires far less. So, one may not amend the FG in sections 3 and 4 under the lesser requirements of section 2 in a way that permits sections 3 and 4 to be undermined in their requirements for a supermajority. This section, section 5, may not be amended either, for the same reason, except under the supermajority rule required in section 3, which addresses the amending of the doctrinal standards.

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, June–July 2022. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2022

A Living Sacrifice

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Well Ordered, Living Well: A Field Guide to Presbyterian Church Government, by Guy Prentiss Waters

The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis by Jason M. Baxter

Daniel’s Hope

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