A Complaint By Any Other Name . . .

Our church's Book of Church Order clearly distinguishes between a complaint and an appeal. A complaint may be filed against any action of a court; an appeal may be used only in a judicial case. Another difference is that a complaint goes first to the court alleged to be in error, while an appeal goes immediately to the next higher court. A further distinction is that a complaint may be lodged by anyone in good standing under the jurisdiction of the court, while an appeal may be taken only by a party against whom a verdict has been rendered.

While most PCA elders readily understand these essential differences, it appears that there is confusion among some of the denominational leaders on this matter.

In a case out of Rocky Mountain Presbytery, the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) ruled a complaint "administratively out of order." What led the SJC to rule Case 97-3 out of order was the contention that "an appeal was scheduled to be heard regarding the . . . action; and therefore, a complaint against that action is not permitted" (Letter from SJC Chairman John White).

There are only about four problems with the SJC's ruling. First, NO APPEAL WAS FILED! It is true that Rocky Mountain had granted what it called an "automatic right of appeal" in the matter of dismissing a church from its fellowship. However, it is not the prerogative of the court to determine if or how a party will contest a decision. There is NO EVIDENCE in the Record of the Case that an appeal was "taken." Thus the fact that Presbytery "scheduled" an appeal is totally irrelevant.

Second, THERE COULD BE NO APPEAL BECAUSE THERE WAS NO TRIAL! As noted above, an appeal is used only in a judicial case. However, the minutes of Rocky Mountain indicate that no trial as such was held. As a matter of fact, Presbytery's respondent, Dr. Paul Fowler, maintained that "Presbytery did not err by not pursuing judicial charges prior to dissolving the ecclesiastical relationship." But, if there was no trial, then there can be no appeal; hence the SJC's position is impossible.

Third, THE PARTY AGAINST WHOM A DECISION WAS MADE DID NOT FILE ANY PAPERWORK! Only the party against whom a judgment has been rendered may file an appeal. In this instance, the Pastor of the church filed a complaint, but he did so as a member of the Presbytery. If this were an appeal, only the congregation (or perhaps the Session) could have "appealed." But the Presbytery minutes clearly state: "Rocky Mountain Presbytery has not received from Evergreen Presbyterian Church notice of an appeal."

Fourth, IF THERE WERE AN APPEAL, IT WOULD HAVE GONE IMMEDIATELY TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY, NOT BACK TO PRESBYTERY! A complaint goes initially to the court which allegedly erred, while an appeal goes immediately to the next higher court. The request for "reconsideration" by Presbytery, which occurred in this case, could NOT have been an appeal, and could not legitimately be construed as such.

Approval of several BCO amendments last year means that, except in rare instances, the General Assembly no longer votes on SJC decisions. Thus there is no opportunity to reverse this decision, which has been made in the name of the General Assembly.

We were one of only 17 who voted against the new BCO provisions regarding the SJC at the 1996 Assembly; and we were the only one to record a negative vote in 1997 on the final enactment of them. We opposed this system because it lends itself to abuse and creates situations like that documented above.

We are not hopeful that this seriously-flawed system will be changed any time soon. But we do hope for the eventual replacement of the perpetual members of the SJC with men who can both understand the church's Constitution and demonstrate the integrity to uphold it.