In what may be the last time that a PCA General Assembly votes on judicial cases, the 25th GA will have a total of eleven judicial cases and decisions upon which to express its opinion.
If the Book of Church Order amendments dealing with the SJC pass, as expected, then except in an extraordinary circumstance the General Assembly will not vote on judicial cases.
Two of the cases (95-5 and 95-9) revolve around the issue of theonomy. TE Dennis Slack, a member of Great Lakes Presbytery, sought three years ago to transfer into Southern Florida Presbytery in order to become Pastor of Jupiter (FL) Presbyterian Church. However, Southern Florida, because of questions regarding his views on the expiration of the Old Testament judicial law, refused to approve the theology portion of his exam. The SJC, which in the past has ruled that lower courts could determine a candidate's orthodoxy on matters such as theonomy, where the church as a whole has not come to one mind on the issue, ruled on procedural grounds to send the case back to the presbytery: "the case is returned to the Presbytery of Southern Florida with instructions for a new hearing assuring the complainants the opportunity of presenting their case before Presbytery or its Commission." Closely related to Case 95-5 (Jupiter Session vs. Southern Florida) is Case 95-9 (Stockment vs. Southern Florida), which was also returned to the presbytery. In this case, TE David Stockment had complained the way in which the presbytery had handled the Jupiter case, including the refusal to receive a dissenting opinion from a member of the presbytery commission who attempted to present it. The SJC concluded that the Presbytery
had misinterpreted the Constitution in ruling the complaint out of order and returned it for a hearing.
The "sensitive subject" of Freemasonry in the church is dealt with in Case 95-7. Edgemont Session complained the action of Westminster Presbytery in upholding a complaint against the session in approving to stand for election as an elder a man who is a member of the Masons. The reasoning employed by the SJC, however, is not alike clear to all. The Commission stated that one of the two issues was, "Did the action of Westminster Presbytery void or cancel the original jurisdiction of Edgemont's Session to approve for office of ruling elder a man who was a Freemason?" The SJC ruled, "No; Westminster Presbytery could not 'act for' the Edgemont Session by voiding or canceling the original jurisdiction of Edgemont Session to approve for the office [of] Ruling Elder a man who was a free-mason."
Case 95-11 (Landrum, Rogers, Wright, et al. vs. Mississippi Valley Presbytery) complains the action of approving for ordination a man who believes that "none of the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased, with the exception of apostleship." According to the complaint, Mr. James Blaha also "believes in the continuation of the gift of tongues and practices speaking in an unknown ecstatic tongue in private prayer" and "believes that, while the gift given to the apostles and Old Testament prophets to convey authoritative, canonical, special revelation has ceased, there remains a continuing New Testament gift of prophecy of a '"lower" and mixed form of God's disclosing of Himself,' though the gift is not 'intrinsically revelatory.'"
The SJC found that Mississippi Valley erred in not declaring Mr. Blaha's views as an exception to the Constitution. However, it denied the second point of the complaint, which asked that the theological portion of the exam not be sustained. The SJC also refused to send the matter back to the Presbytery, for determination based on the information that Blaha's views were out of conformity with the Standards.
The SJC wrote: "Unless a court of the church finds that a lower court has clearly crossed the somewhat vague lines drawn in those documents in approving a candidate with exceptions in these areas, the higher court may not disturb the decision of the lower court which has a much clearer understanding of what the candidate believes than the higher court possibly can have. "God's Word is, of course, the first place we should look for guidance in this matter. However, as the brief of MVP'S respondent and the 1974 GA pastoral letter point out, Scriptural
references are not clear concerning whether the specific gifts of tongues and prophecy have ceased (e.g. I Corinthians 1:4-8, I Corinthians 12 through 14, and Hebrews 1:1-2).
"The relevant GA cases since that time are instructive as to how far one may stray from the clear, cessationist language of the WCF and BCO yet still remain an acceptable candidate for the Gospel ministry."
The majority on the SJC stated: "In conclusion, [Mississippi Valley Presbytery] is the appropriate court to determine whether a Candidate's views fall within Confessional bounds. That court knows Mr. Blaha and his views well and is in the best position to evaluate them. The GA's 'Pastoral Letter' and the judicial
decisons it has sustained over the years do not clearly indicate that Mr. Blaha's views strike at the vitals of our system of doctrine, and we are therefore unable to hold that MVP erred in sustaining Mr. Blaha's examination for ordination."
The vote on the proposed decision was 11 concurring, 7 dissenting, 1 recused, and 5 absent. A vigorous "Concurring and Dissenting Opinion" has been attached to the SJC report.
This "concurring and dissenting opinion" agrees with the SJC finding that MVP erred in not noting that Mr. Blaha's views are out of accord with the Standards. It then says: "Unfortunately, the reasoning and opinion section was gutted following action by members of the minority on this issue after adoption of the judgment. This happened after the constituency of the SJC changed during the deliberation process. The gutting of the rationale for the first judgment leaves a nonsensical decision as to that issue. Therefore, a separate concurrence is required for purposes of integrity and intelligence." The dissent later states: "Ordinarily, a separate concurring opinion on such a clear issue would not be required. It is respectfully submitted that members of the court who are in the minority on an issue should not attempt to destroy the integrity of a judgment by destroying its rationale. This can be done when time presses strongly on members of the court and when the dynamics of the court change by early departures of certain of its members. It is submitted that members of a minority should allow the majority to express its own rationale for its decision without the intervention of the minority."
The opinion continues: "Mr. Blaha admitted to MVP that he was a non-cessationist. He believes that none of the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased with the exception of apostleship. Mr. Blaha practices speaking in an unknown, ecstatic tongue in private prayer and, accordingly, believes in the continuation of the gifts of tongues. . . .We find that these views are clearly contrary to the constitutional standards of the Presbyterian Church in America. While the members of the SJC were not in agreement as to each standard contradicted by Mr. Blaha's personal views, those standards in which there was majority agreement and mentioned in the complaint were Westminster Confession of Faith 1-1, 21-3 and Book of Church Order 7-1. . . . There was unanimous concern among the majority as to Mr. Blaha's unequal views of the authority of prophecy in the Old and New Testaments. We were quite surprised to learn that some of our brethren on the SJC did not believe Mr. Blaha's views were exceptions or scruples to our constitution. Nevertheless, the majority ruling as to this issue is clear and correct: the views of Mr. Blaha are exceptions to the constitutional standards of the PCA."
The dissent maintains: "Mr. Blaha's belief that New Testament prophecy continues today and should be practiced in the church places his beliefs beyond the limits allowed in all previous cases in the PCA. Such views, which the majority of the SJC rules to be exceptions to our Constitution, are far more substantive than earlier cases that merely required presbyteries to be circumspect before approving Pentecostal type views. Since the SJC has ruled that his views were indeed exceptions, they should require Mississippi Valley Presbytery to present his views as exceptions to the Constitution and allow the court of original jurisdiction the opportunity to record and vote on the acceptability of those
Futhermore, the dissent says: "Though Mr. Blaha believes that the gift of tongues (and other extraordinary gifts) must be carefully handled in the church and though he says that they are 'not necessarily practiced in the worship of the congregation,' he goes on to say that 'these gifts of the Spirit must be beneficial for the life of the church.' This language leaves us in doubt as to Mr. Blaha's views concerning the practice of prophecy, tongues, healing and other such gifts in the worship service of the local congregation. Does Mr. Blaha believe that it would be appropriate in the worship service of a PCA church for speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues to take place? Since MVP has not had Mr. Blaha answer this question we have no way of knowing.
"In the area of prophecy, Mr. Blaha's views give even greater reason for concern than his views on tongues. The candidate believes that not only is the current manifestation of prophecy in the church not revelatory, but also that the NT gift of prophecy was not revelatory. . . . Viewing prophecy as continuing just as it did in NT times, this candidate's view of prophecy_which touches on matters of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture_needs to be examined more carefully in light of his views on the non-revelatory character of NT gifts of tongues and prophecy. This fact alone justifies reexamination.
". . . Earlier Assemblies have ruled that similar views were out of accord with our standards and not permissible as small exceptions. . . . Mr. Blaha's view . . . appears to grant revelatory content . . . to prophecy and tongues but does not wish to call it revelation. Even though Mr. Blaha does not wish to call this disclosing of God to individuals and groups revelation, it is clear that his view is exactly what was not allowed in [a previous] case."
The dissent states: "The SJC does not have the right, as is so frequently and forcefully argued, to substitute its judgment for that of a Presbytery. In this case it does not have the right to act for Mississippi Valley Presbytery by saying how they would react to the knowledge of the exceptions held by Mr. Blaha. We have no authority to say 'this wouldn't make any difference,' as the majority's reasoning does. . . . Having been made aware that the General Assembly considers these practices and views to be exceptionable should make a substantive difference when MVP rethinks this case. The right for Presbytery to recognize and vote on exceptions to the standards is basic to the Presbyterian form of government. The minority do not wish to take that inalienable and original jurisdiction away from the lower court by imposing our presumed opinions or predicting outcomes.
". . . [T]he majority report is a case of a higher court 'acting for' the lower court, which has never had the opportunity to review this candidate's views as exceptions.
"Even with the vague stance of the PCA on charismatic issues, once it is confirmed that the view was in fact an exception, then it would naturally follow that MVP should re-hear the examination in the light of that new context, regardless of the additional effort involved and regardless of their subsequent conclusion. The majority presumed that it could predict how the presbytery would act under such circumstances; the minority are not so prescient."
The minority concludes: "For these and other reasons, we ask the Assembly to reject the proposed decision and retry it, or to set aside the examination of Mr. Blaha and remand it to the presbytery of original jurisdiction with instructions to note this view as an exception to the Standards as per Judgment #1 in this case and to instruct the Presbytery to re-examine him and to give special care to the area of the continuation of extraordinary gifts. . . ."
Eight members of the SJC signed the dissent. Assuming the amendments to BCO 15 are finally approved, there may be a question as to whether or not the new provisions apply to the SJC for this year's Assembly. If they do, then the Assembly presumably would have a minority report before it on which it would have to vote.
Divorce and the Ministry
Case 96-2, Benjamin Robeson, et al. vs. Central Georgia Presbytery, concerns the reception of a man to the presbytery, who, while a Baptist minister, had committed adultery, was
divorced by his wife, and subsequently re-married. The SJC first determined that "a man who admits to adultery while a minister in another denomination, and who admits to being the guilty party in a divorce and remarries another woman other than his first wife" is NOT "absolutely prohibited by the Book of Church Order from being received as a Teaching Elder in the PCA." However, regarding the particular case, the SJC ruled that not enough information was available and therefore remanded it back to
Central Georgia for further consideration. Included in the issues raised by the SJC are the following: irregularity in receiving the man as an ordained minister absent evidence of current ministerial credentials; failure "to investigate thoroughly the facts of the candidate's adultery, divorce, and subsequent remarriage"; apparent lack of disclosure of "the circumstances surrounding his prior adultery, divorce and remarriage . . . to the pulpit committee, the Session, and the congregation"; and, in light of
the spirit of BCO 34-8 (restoration to office only if "general sentiment of the church [is] strongly in his favor"), the failure to demonstrate "that there is a strong sentiment beyond the local church level to restore this candidate to the office of minister." The voting on this case was 12 concurring, 4 dissenting, 4 absent, and 2 recused.
Case 95-10 is the appeal of Stuart Merriam vs. Tennessee Valley Presbytery. The SJC found that Tennessee Valley "did not practice and follow the principles of and procedures for due process as set forth in the PCA Book of Church Order in dealing with Dr. Merriam. The case is therefore remanded to [Presbytery] for a new trial which complies with the PCA Book of Church Order provisions for due process." TE Merriam had been convicted in Papua New Guinea, where he is a missionary, of "unnatural acts against minors who at one time or another had lived with Dr. Merriam and his wife." The SJC concluded that the Presbytery judicial commission "did not follow principles of and procedures for due process outlined in our BCO. Instead, they relied on the 'due process' of the Papua New Guinea criminal court. We know little about the judicial process in New Guinea; but we hold that it cannot and should not be substituted for a trial in a Court of the Church of Jesus Christ. . . . One of the most serious of [the numerous] violations was [Presbytery's] failure to appoint counsel to represent the accused (BCO 32-3). The [Presbytery] sought to conduct an ecclesiastical trial while TE Merriam was necessarily absent due to travel constraints imposed on him as a condition of probation in Papua New Guinea." The SJC heard this case even though, according to the Record of the Case, it was not filed in a technically timely fashion. Case 96-7 is a Reference from Tennessee Valley, asking that the SJC "take up the case against Stuart Merriam and make final disposition." The SJC, however, denied "the request to accede to [the] Tennessee Valley Presbytery reference."
Case 96-3 is a Memorial from John T. DeBardeleben, III, a deposed minister of Philadelphia Presbytery, concerning the declaration by Peace Valley Presbyterian Church that his wife had just grounds to divorce him. It had appeared from a case the previous year that he did not have recourse to the courts of the church because his church membership had, subsequent to his degradation from office, been in Princeton (NJ) Presbyterian Church, which is not in Philadelphia Presbytery. In this year's ruling, the SJC finds that "Mr. DeBardeleben's lack of standing before Philadelphia Presbytery was a matter of his own doing. He joined the Princeton Presbyterian Church in New Jersey Presbytery (where the suspension from the Sacraments was removed by the Princeton Session) even though he knew that a matter of vital interest to him was pending before the PVC Session." The SJC states: "When a member of a court fails to lodge timely complaints, the higher courts do not have an absolute obligation to reverse a lower court's action merely because a complainant is not satisfied with the outcome and wished for further review."
RE Dale Peacock had on the related case last year filed a concurring opinion which "noted the apparent injustice which was occurring in not allowing the review by higher courts of a very significant action by a lower court directly affecting the marriage of two members of the PCA." In a concurring opinion on Case 96-3, Mr. Peacock says: "Because of critical facts emphasized during the argument and consideration of this case, this concurring opinion is now persuaded that Mr. DeBardeleben did have the ability to seek review of the decision which ultimately resulted in the Church's sanctioning of his wife's divorce. He did not, however, timely avail himself of that review."
In Case 96-1, the SJC denied Hugo Andrino's complaint against Southern Florida Presbytery, in sustaining the action of the Session of Shenandoah Presbyterian Church in administratively removing the complainant from the Shenandoah Christian School Board. The ruling states that the "Session acted in accordance
with BCO 12-5(d) which gives the Session authority 'to establish and control all special groups in the church.'"
In Case 96-4, the SJC found that Pacific Presbytery did err in not properly handling the complaint of RE Ray Larsen. However, it also found that "the Moderator did not err in his conduct of the congregational meeting of Calvary Presbyterian Church [Glendale, CA] on January 23, 1996."
The Commission ruled that Case 96-5 (Paul Jones vs. Central Florida Presbytery) be found out of order, for failure of the complainant "to make accusation about specific actions of the Presbytery." The SJC Officers also "noted that Mr. Jones is under censure--indefinite suspension from the sacraments by the Orangewood Session . . . and under BCO 31-8 the court is enjoined to exercise very great caution before receiving accusations from such a person."