Assembly Adopts New Provision Regarding Membership

In an effort to resolve the concerns raised two years ago by the "Chen case" with regard to the discipline of members who abandon the worship and work of a local church, the 24th General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the proposal of its Bills and Overtures (B&O) Committee to amend the BCO by adding more specific language and placing the provision in the chapter on "Cases Without Process."

The reasoning offered in the Chen case in 1994 troubled many commissioners who as a matter of conscience believe strongly that a person who abandons the church is properly a subject of discipline. On the other hand, there were many in the denomination who feel that erasing someone from the roll is not necessarily a disciplinary act. The challenge before the B&O Committee was to find a way to balance the concerns of both groups. The vehicle chosen by the Committee was the overture sent up by Potomac Presbytery. This represented the work of TE David Coffin, in consultation with others from around the Assembly.

The B&O recommendation was amended on the floor by Committee member Dr. Paul Fowler, to add the word "pastoral" before "discipline." The final version reads, "This erasure is an act of pastoral discipline without process (BCO 27-1a). The session shall (if possible) notify the person whose name has been removed."

Not everyone was happy with Dr. Fowler's proposal. TE Jeff Yelton stated that it "would hinder the church from carrying out its duties under the Word of God." He quoted Hebrews 13:17 to support his contention that "someone who leaves the church is committing sin." But former Moderator Dr. Laird Harris countered that "some sins are more heinous than others . . . . Just to call it a sin is not enough to say that it's subject to judicial discipline."

TE Craig Childs, a member of the Committee, noted that there were a couple of different views which philosophically were almost impossible to put together. He supported Dr. Fowler's motion as being a way of allowing more liberty to those who did not believe that removal from the roll implied judicial discipline.

TE Coffin, in supporting Dr. Fowler's amendment, stated that there were two senses of discipline articulated in BCO 27, the one referring to "the whole government . . . and control" over church members, the other to judicial process. In Mr. Coffin's view, enacting the amendment to the motion did not lessen the conclusion that the end result of erasing someone from the roll was indeed an act of discipline.

RE Jack Williamson, who as a member of the Standing Judicial Commission authored the decision in the Chen case, said, "I find some of my brothers here who have difficulty with [BCO 46-5]. I don't think there's a compromise of principle here [to pass the new proposal]. I speak strongly in favor."

TE Jimmy Lyons used levity to make his point that "Jack Williamson is wrong!", adding, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But TE John Wood opined, "I think it has been broken, and we've seen it broken in this Assembly and at presbyteries." Chairman Joseph Pipa had the final word before the vote. He urged that the Committee's proposal sought "unity and healing within the denomination," with the allowance for conscience and different pastoral approaches. The Assembly concurred.