Have you heard about the latest game on the ecclesiastical playground? It's called "Keepaway", and the object is to see how many official church documents bureaucrats can keep from the peasants who request them.
Actually, the game has been around for awhile. One can trace its origins to just prior to the 1994 General Assembly, when scores of requests for copies of the Legal Audit were turned aside by the Stated Clerk's Office. Using dubious logic and even more dubious law, the Administrative Committee stated that, because the Legal Audit was copyright by Gammon and Grange, the law firm that audited the denominational corporation, the audit could not be widely disseminated. (This is despite the fact that all members of the Assembly are members of the corporation, and under corporation law are entitled to inspect the records.)
Ninety ninety-four proved to be a banner year for playing Keepaway, as the Stated Clerk successfully survived an attempt to force him to release the letter he wrote, conveying the rebuke of the 1993 Assembly to the Christian Reformed Church. (He also refused the repeated request by two members of this year's Interchurch Relations Committee of Commissioners for a copy of that letter.)
But the intensity of the game has increased over the past several months, as both documents and requested information have not been forthcoming from those who profess that they are the servants of the church.
In the Spring 1997 issue of this publication, we demonstrated that we were referred from the Secretary of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), to the Stated Clerk, to the SJC Chairman, in our quest for a copy of the newly-revised SJC Manual. The Secretary, you will recall, claimed that he did not have a clean copy. The Stated Clerk said he did not have authority to release the document. And the Chairman did not return four phone calls over a several day period (and still has not returned them, nor even acknowledged at General Assembly that we had tried to contact him).
In the same issue, we covered the story of the turmoil within Reformed University Ministries. In an effort to speak with people from the "other side" of the controversy, we called two officials with the parent Mission to North America Committee (one staff member, one committee member), neither of whom returned phone calls. (In one case, the man's secretary telephoned to indicate that he would call three days later, when he got back into town--we waited in vain.)
At this year's Assembly, the Stated Clerk, in another twist in this game of Keepaway, apparently tried to keep a PCA minister away from the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. In this scenario, the teaching elder had attempted to appear before the Review Committee in order to present personally his concern that a particular presbytery may have violated the Constitution in keeping its minutes away from public scrutiny. The resulting confusion led to the Review Committee Chairman apologizing to his committee for having circulated that minister's letter of concern, and to him being kept away from making a personal appearance.
Since the General Assembly, we have been trying for several months to glean certain information from Mission to the World. As reported elsewhere in this issue, the staff at MTW has refused to yield the requested information.
In the church today, there are those who in a gentlemanly way earnestly contend for strongly-held convictions, while playing by the rules. Also in the church today, there are some who want to play Keepaway. It appears that, in accord with much observed behavior on a children's playground, they believe that might makes right. They also apparently feel that they own the playground for themselves, and therefore anything given to anyone else is a privilege, not a right.
In a former ecclesiastical connection, many of those who eventually formed the Presbyterian Church in America were likewise denied access to official documents. As the PCA approaches her twenty-fifth anniversary, how the denomination at large responds to a situation in which bureaucrats play Keepaway will go a long way toward determining what kind of church we will be.
A Question of Jurisdiction
Recently, a presbytery determined that a member of one of its congregations did not have standing to file a complaint. The court thus ruled the complaint out of order.
In our estimation, this action is one of the most disturbing aspects of the matter about which complaint was brought. This is especially so because of the view of the church which manifestly underlies the presbytery's ruling.
The question of "standing" in this matter revolves around the meaning of the sentence, "It is the right of any communing member of the church in good standing to make complaint against any action of a court to whose jurisdiction he is subject. . . ." (BCO 43-1). The key issue is, What is meant by "jurisdiction"?
Our Constitution uses the term "jursdiction" in at least two ways. It can refer to immediate and direct jurisdiction, as in a Session having original jurisdiction in judicial matters over members of a church, or as in a Presbytery having original jurisdiction in judicial matters over her teaching elders. However, it can also have a broader meaning, as in BCO 1-5: "These [ecclesiastical] courts may have jurisdiction over one or many churches, but sustain such mutual relations as to realize the idea of the unity of the Church"; and as in BCO 11-4: ". . . The Session exercises jurisdiction over a single church, the Presbytery over what is common to the ministers, Sessions, and churches within a prescribed district . . . ."
In our opinion, the latter sense of jurisdiction must be what is in view in BCO 43. While we are prepared to set forth a detailed and technical analysis as to why this is true, at this time we want to concentrate on the theory of the church which appears to undergird this presbytery's action.
Basically, there are two views of the church in the PCA today. One understands the relationships among the church courts in a mechanistic way. Although professing an allegiance to Presbyterianism, it is an ecclesiology which breathes a rabidly independent spirit. The church is conceived in terms of structure, with the congregations and presbyteries being essentially autonomous parts which just happen to be in relation to each other.
The other perspective believes that the church is a body. Using the most familiar New Testament figure for the church, this school of thought perceives that there is organic unity among all believers, and especially among those who are in the same denomination. Particularly, Presbyterianism involves not just a skeletal structure, but a body. Apart from a context of organic unity among all its members, the system becomes twisted and distorted.
Because of the organic nature of the church, anyone under the jurisdiction-even if not immediate jurisdiction--of any church court may complain its actions. Ramsay's classic commentary on the Southern Presbyterian standards (from which we derived our own Book of Church Order) says: "A complaint may be taken by any person (though never by a court) who is a member of the church and submissive to its authority." At least a dozen times, cases were entertained by the PCA General Assembly even though the complainants were not teaching elders.
One of the supreme ironies in the PCA today is that those of us who hold to a traditional Presbyterian vision of the church are often thought of as having "hierarchical" views-views that go contrary to a "grass roots" concept. In point of fact, those of us that are the most conservative respect the individual and his right to be heard. This is not as much a celebration of the individual as it is a celebration of the unity of the whole. It is a recognition that we need to hear prophetic voices (not in the sense of inspired, of course) from whatever source they come. It is also an acknowledgement that sometimes the little old lady on the back pew has more sense than an entire group of elders.
The mechanistic view of the church engenders the perpetuation of privilege and oligarchy (rule by a few). It distorts the Presbyterian system, and is the cause of much of the turmoil within our beloved denomination. Most importantly, it belies a tendency to think of the church as belonging to men rather than to Christ, the Husband of the church which, as a whole and as individuals, submits to Him.
"Oyez, oyez, this court is now in session! Come and present your case and you shall be heard!", cries the court bailiff. It is only when the courts of the church are likewise open that both justice and the righteousness of the Lord will flow freely.
We can glean this, first of all, from noting that the phrase says "a court", not "the court": the use of the indefinite article implies that there may be more than one court to whose jurisdiction a person is subject. (This point is strengthened by noting that the BCO was modified several years ago to provide that no complaint may be entertained against the General Assembly; however, no one is subject to the direct and immediate jurisdiction of the Assembly.) Secondly, we can say that under the notion put forth by Palmetto
It appears that there may be many disturbing aspects to the way Palmetto Presbytery handled a recent "case without process." At this point, we particularly want to focus on the way that the court dealt with the complaint which had been filed against its action.
Our Book of Church Order, in Chapter 43, speaks of who may file a complaint: "It is the right of any commmuning member of the church in good standing to make complaint against any action of a court to whose jurisdiction he is subject. . . ." Palmetto Presbytery ruled, in essence, that an individual member of a congregation (unless he is the ruling elder commissioner to that meeting of presbytery) does not have the right to complain the action of a presbytery. The key question, then, in determining if Palmetto was right in this view, is what is meant by the term "jurisdiction"?
The Constitution speaks of jurisdiction in several senses. For example, in a judicial matter, there is the court of original jurisdiction. Process against a member of a congregation is to be started in the Session to whose jurisdiction he is subject. (And, process against a minister is lodged with his Presbytery.) It would appear that Palmetto was utilizing this understanding of jurisdiction in making its ruling.
However, jurisdiction can also have a broader sense. BCO 1-5 says that ecclesiastical "courts may have jurisdiction over one or many churches, but they sustain such mutual relations as to realize the idea of the unity of the church." And BCO 11-4 states: "The Session exercises jurisdiction over a single church, the Presbytery over what is common to the ministers, Sessions, and churches within a prescribed district, and the General Assembly over such matters as concern the whole Church. . . . Although each court exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters especially belonging to it, the lower courts are subject to the review and control of the higher courts, in regular gradation. These courts are not separate and independent tribunals, but they have a mutual relation, and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole Church performed by it through the appropriate organ."