Ever since the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) was formed ten years ago, it has been the object of suspicion. It is not hard to understand, prima facie, why this would be so. After all, from the beginning of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) through 1989, cases were assigned at each General Assembly to commissions which were nominated by the Judicial Business Committee of Commissioners and elected, as a slate, by the Assembly. The Judicial Business Committee of Commissioners, comprised of representatives from all of the presbyteries, always tried very hard to be fair in the selection of those men for the various commissions.
Since the SJC's inception, however, each man nominated for the SJC is voted on individually, meaning that it is far easier for a dominant ecclesiastical "party" to choose all (or virtually all) of the membership of the SJC. This means that, in effect, views which are representative of a strong plurality can dominate the decisions handed down.
Further entrenching the SJC has been a set of new provisions, enacted in 1997, which allow for the General Assembly to vote on SJC decisions only when at least one-third of the SJC submits a minority report within 24 hours of the SJC meeting at which the verdict has been rendered.
In our opinion, this system is a bad system. It has enabled one ecclesiastical philosophy to foster its agenda via judicial edicts, apart from debate or discussion or even vote in the courts of the church. More than that, the system constitutes an "old boy network," in which disagreeing with the dominant views becomes difficult. (In the original system, the commissions were always comprised of different people; with the SJC, members can be perpetually elected to four year terms, with no mandated rotation off the Commission. This has created a "private club" mentality-much like what has happened with the U. S. Congress.)
Of course, there is such a thing as a benevolent dictatorship, and the mere fact that some prominent individuals always seem to get selected would not, in and of itself, imply injustice. However, there is no question that great injustices have been perpetrated by the SJC (and, we might add, with the accomplice of the General Assembly as a whole).
To cite but a few examples, we would note the cases in which the SJC ruled that the defense could be denied the opportunity to call witnesses; the case in which the SJC ruled a complaint out of order on the basis that an "appeal" had been taken when in point of fact nothing of the sort had occurred; and the case in which the SJC ruled that because a Session had met with a man accused of public scandal, that the lower court had indeed "acted."
The last-mentioned case is especially relevant to the situation now at hand-the judicial case of Presbyterian Church in America vs. John Wood. Both cases involve Tennessee Valley Presbytery, and both cases have to do with petitions sent to a higher court to assume original jurisdiction.
On a previous page, P&R News has offered an evaluation of the position of the SJC officers in ruling the case against John Wood out of order. We believe that it is patently obvious that the SJC officers have a pardigmatically-tainted view of the facts, and have misconstrued the Constitution, on their way to arriving at a conclusion.
There are many in the PCA who believe that these contortions were deliberately contrived. We intend to be more charitable than to impute motives to those who so evidently have botched the case. But whether through incompetence or conspiracy, there is no doubt that the outcome is inexcusable.
The question that remains, therefore, is this: Does the PCA care, or will it remain apathetic? Our hope and prayer is that the grassroots of the denomination will be concerned enough about matters of justice-administered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ-to rise up and demand better than what the SJC officers have offered.
For about a year, the country was subjected to tortured definitions of words offered by William Jefferson Clinton and his cronies. We presume that most folks in conservative Reformed circles were rather disgusted by such tactics.
It would appear, however, that President Clinton is not the only one engaged in such flights of fancy. Now we are being told that when a woman, in public worship, delivers a lengthy message featuring exegesis and application of Scripture, she is not "preaching." At least that seems to be the position which the Session of a certain PCA congregation is taking.
(Forgive us for being so naive. But if she looks like a preacher, and talks like a preacher, she's probably a preacher. And what she is doing is probably preaching.)
This type of re-definition is really nothing new. J. Gresham Machen, who helped found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, battled the modernists in the 1920s and 1930s. In a 1922 sermon, Professor Machen noted that the "liberals" were misusing language, so that commonly-accepted words no longer meant the same thing. The needed spiritual revival, he added, would come only when basic honesty was restored to intellectual discourse.
It is bad enough for a PCA congregation to ignore our heritage, and to continue to plunge our denomination into turmoil through an unorthodox interpretation of Scripture. It is perhaps even worse for that same church to try to pretend that its activities are not really what everyone knows them to be.
Mr. Clinton got away with his linguistical gymnastics. The question for the PCA is, Will we allow a church, even a rich and prominent one, to do the same?
Have We Forgotten the Gospel?
One of the dominant themes to the news in this issue of the newspaper is the widespread sympathy toward Roman Catholicism in conservative Presbyterian circles. This is true whether we look at the continuing Covenant College controversy, or the decision by World magazine not to run a pro-Reformation ad, or the participation of a PCA minister in an ecumenical service with Roman Catholic priests.
This is not to say, of course, that any of the people involved in these matters has embraced Roman Catholicism. We are sure that they would still want to profess an allegiance to the Protestant faith. Nevertheless, it is still the case that their actions may have belied an attitude of openness to Rome.
Our research for these stories has caused us to think deeply about the state of the Protestant church. And what we have concluded troubles us greatly.
We are being forced to conclude that there is very little appreciation for the martyrdom of our Protestant forebears; and very little knowledge of the precious truths for which they fought and bled and died. And the truths to which we refer have to do with the gospel itself.
At the heart of the gospel is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And the foundation for that reality is the doctrine of imputation.
This is the key to the Lutheran Reformation: that guilty sinners are pronounced "not guilty" not on the basis of anything that they can do, but on the basis of what Christ has done. Our sins are imputed to Him (put to His account), and His blood and righteousness are imputed to our account. We are justified before God solely on the grounds of a transaction-an objective, legal declaration.
But from how many Protestant pulpits (or, for that matter, from how many PCA pulpits) is this foundational teaching being sounded forth?
We are convinced that the reason why so many evangelicals think that they have found a kinship with Roman Catholics is because of sharing what appears to be a common experience. But without the objective basis for salvation, there can be no genuine experience. For ourselves, we do not doubt that there are Catholics who are true believers in Christ. However, in order for them truly to be trusting in Jesus alone for salvation, they must, whether implicitly or explicitly, reject official Roman Catholic dogma.
But it is one thing to recognize individuals who appear to have a genuine piety. It is quite another to endorse their affiliation by actively participating in a mass, or to refuse an ad which calls people out of a false system. And we fear that the reason there may be a "softness" in this area is because, in more ways than we might like to realize, the Protestant church today has forgotten the gospel. Bob Shapiro