SJC Declares that Congregations and Presbyteries are Responsible to Prevent and Correct BCO Violations by Sessions

Midway’s Senior Pastor might decry such a notion as “Congregationalist” thinking.

The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) of the PCA has rendered a decision on Judicial Case 2021-12 and the decision was recently provided to The Midway Guardian. It may be of interest to readers since it is the SJC’s decision on the complaints that alleged that the Session of Midway Presbyterian Church violated the constitution in a variety of ways at a divisive congregational meeting on July 19, 2020 where three Assistant Pastors had their call changed to that of Associate Pastor. Readers may recall that events surrounding this meeting resulted in the conviction of Ruling Elder Philip Dudt, who brought an alternative motion urging caution at this same meeting. Multiple other Ruling Elders also expressed concern and urged caution on the topic of pastoral elections at the church, while others sought to self-justify their obvious procedural missteps.

The SJC decision on 2021-12 is also notable because it was the Northwest Georgia Presbytery’s alleged mishandling of the complaints against the Session’s behavior at the meeting that led to the 40-5 credible report that has been the catalyst for additional charges against other Ruling Elders at Midway – the unconstitutionality of which is documented thoroughly elsewhere.

One thing is for sure, the congregational meeting at Midway Presbyterian Church on July 19, 2020 will go down in history as a pivotal moment when the church was sharply divided by the Session and Senior Pastor’s insistence on pursuing a pastoral election that significant portion of the church was opposed to pursuing – which to date has resulted in 2/3rds of the pastors elected departing Midway and 1/3rd of Midway’s Session indicted and charged.

The Decision

Strikingly absent from the SJC decision on 2021-12 is commentary that in any way affirms that the Session at Midway or Senior Pastor David Hall as Moderator acted appropriately at the July 19, 2020 congregational meeting. Rather, the SJC suggested how violations of the Book of Church Order (BCO) are to be appropriately handled. This implies strongly that Midway’s violations, just as the Northwest Georgia Presbytery determined, were apparent.

The SJC decision on 2021-12 comes after the Northwest Georgia Presbytery voted to concur with the complainants that the Session of Midway Presbyterian Church did violate provisions of the PCA’s BCO at the congregational meeting on July 19, 2020. Previously, the presbytery’s judicial commission had concluded after lengthy study that every provision of the BCO alleged to have violated was in fact violated, notably stating that ”In effect, the session elected itself as a pulpit committee and thus took away the congregation’s constitutional privilege to determine the pulpit committee. This muting of the congregation’s constitutionally given voice is a theme in the actions of the session. We note that the respondents for the session expressed concern in their brief that a pulpit committee could make choices contrary to the majority will of the session. This suggests to us that the choice to avoid a pulpit committee was, at least in part, a maneuver to control congregational input in the process of electing three associate pastors.

The SJC ruled the 2021-12 complaint judicially out of order on the grounds that responsibility for preventing and remedying constitutional violations in congregational meetings, according to them, rests with the local congregation and the local presbytery. The SJC stated clearly that any of the ”acts” violating the constitution that the Session undertook at the meeting ”could have been rejected by the majority vote of the congregation, and the Session would have been powerless to order it otherwise.” This is a profound finding because it plainly places a lot of responsibility on the congregation to act – exercising its powers.

This position of PCA’s highest court stands in sharp contrast to Midway Senior Pastor David Hall’s recent assertions from the pulpit that the Holy Spirit directs the Elders of the church with special “unmistakable direction” that ordinary congregants do not receive, and that such urgings of the Spirit direct who is to lead the church. David Hall has described this as the difference between ”Presbyterian government” and ”Congregationalist government.” Never mind that the Bible in Acts 6 and the BCO clearly place the responsibility of choosing leaders in the church on the congregation. The presbytery’s judicial commission even ruled against Midway in the past sayingThe congregation must be allowed to decide which pastor, or pastors, is “most suited to be profitable to the spiritual interests of the congregation” and that begins with a pulpit committee.”

The SJC’s decision on 2021-12 corrects a misapplication of authority to determine who leads in the church purveyed by Midway’s Senior Pastor and Session. If the Session is ”powerless” according to the SJC to prevent a congregation asserting its will in a congregational meeting, then their role in the polity of PCA churches is abundantly clear. Congregations are to select their own leaders, and call or even dissolve the calls of pastors at their pleasure. Midway’s senior leadership should take note.

The second party that the SJC holds responsible is the presbytery. Similar to the action recently taken by the Northwest Georgia Presbytery, where they started an investigation into ”disorder and contention” at Midway Presbyterian Church, the SJC stated in their decision on 2021-12 that the presbytery has the ”power” per BCO 13-9.f “…visit churches for the purpose of inquiring into and redressing the evils that may have arisen in them…” In addition, the SJC suggested that presbytery could ”take note of constitutional deficiency in a congregational meeting in their review of records of the Session (note BCO 25-5, last sentence of BCO 13-9(b)).

What does this mean?

The takeaways from the decision of SJC 2021-12 are simple, yet profound.

  1. Congregations have power and authority to select and remove their leaders. As The Midway Guardian has always asserted, this is their duty as God holds church members accountable for the actions of their leaders.
  2. Presbyteries have power and authority to address and correct constitutional violations and ”evils” that arise in the local church. This is their duty as God has placed the local church, in particular its pastors, under their care and authority.

Members of Midway Presbyterian Church who find themselves besieged and troubled by the apparent disorder and contention at the church can take heart that despite what recent sermons from their pulpit have asserted, they do have license to think for themselves as well as the duty to distrust what is apparently wrong. They can and should correct such wrong. These same members may also take heart that they are a part of a Presbyterianism system, where there is a higher court, the presbytery, that is charged with their care and protection when things are apparently wrong. This same presbytery can and should correct such wrongs.