Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heads, They Win; Tails, We Lose

"Okay, let's flip on it," someone would say when I was a kid. "Heads, I win; tails, you lose." Obviously, if I get into that kind of an arrangement, I'm going to lose.

That's the way I'm beginning to feel about the system of Presbyterian Permanent Judicial Commissions: When those of us who are conservative or evangelical enter in, it seems that most often we're going to lose. But worse, it seems that when just plain common sense and obvious intent enter in, they come out losers, too.

Take two cases that hit Presbyweb Saturday.

Case #1: Sacramento Presbytery. In this case, the presbytery charitably voted not to appeal a secular court case that had allowed a congregation to retain its property while transferring into a sister denomination. In other words, the presbytery altruistically chose the welfare of the worshipping congregation over pure possessiveness on its part.

However, such good motives cannot go unpunished in an aggressively litigious atmosphere encouraged by our Stated Clerk's office. Three disgruntled pastors from a church on the losing side of the vote filed a "stay of enforcement" with the synod Permanent Judicial Commission. A stay of enforcement usually keeps something from happening--an ordination, a rebuke, a rule change, etc.--until after some dispute has been settled in the church courts.

Not this time.

This time, the "stay" is causing the tiny minority's desires to be carried out, against the will of the large majority. This "stay" plays out in an amazingly convoluted and unusual way in this case, actually causing an action rather than suspending action.

Since the "stay" is actually going to cause the exact action to occur that a strong majority of the presbytery voted not to do, there seems to be a need for the majority now to stay the "stay"!

Quite simply, the presbytery voted not to go to court to appeal, but yet the stay of enforcement forces the presbytery to appeal. In other words, according to the members of the synod PJC, to hold off on not appealing means that the presbytery must appeal. Thus, the presbytery officers were summarily ordered to file the appeal, and they did.

So much for the fundamental of Presbyterian polity that "a majority shall govern" (G-1.0400). Three people in Sacramento made the presbytery do the mean-spirited action it had voted not to do--and this is supposedly through a "stay" of action, which, during a time of legally sorting things out, ought to restrain action rather than force it!

Case #2: Twin Cities Presbytery. Here, a former pastor had surrendered his ordination because he would not support chastity as an unmarried gay man. He has now decided that the time is ripe still to refuse to abide by "chastity in singleness" but take his ordination back after all. His presbytery concurred, and some presbyters filed a remedial complaint.

The complaint seems justified. Our underlying policy on homosexual practice specifically names it as sin. It says that "all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life" and that "God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice." And yet the presbytery has just handed back to this scofflaw his ordination.

Permanent Judicial Commission decisions have set the precedent about "fidelity and chastity" that "the church has decided to single out this particular manner of life standard and require churchwide conformity to it for all ordained church officers" (Bush, 218-10). The General Assembly PJC has decreed that "violations of behavioral standards are to be addressed through repentance and reconciliation, not by exception or exemption." And yet, the presbytery made an exception, because the guy had formerly been ordained and just wanted his papers back.

So, what does the synod PJC rule about the remedial case? It refuses to sustain the complaint. Why? Because, strictly speaking, previous precedential decisions were about getting ordained, not about restoring ordination, so apparently they don't apply. Also, the guy is not ministering within the PCUSA, but at an independent seminary, in a validated ministry.

Thus, in classic casuistic reasoning that can ignore the meat of the matter and forget its original purposes in order to concentrate on extraneous circumstances until a way is found around an obvious restraint, the synod PJC ignored Presbyterian convictions and policy and let the fellow go his merry way with his ordination restored.

Never mind that we officially call homosexual practice sin, that we forbid ordination of those not willing to practice fidelity or chastity, that sinful behavior is not to be winked at but repented of. Never mind that we would not ordain new folks with this guy's attitude and practice, and don't really need any more renegades running around who will not abide by our polity. No, never mind. A way was found to ignore the obvious and to approve the unapprovable.

Jesus said to people like this: "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matt. 23:24).

The camel in this case is that homosexual practice is sin. Everything we do about the subject as a church, therefore, ought to flow from that starting point. And the flow ought not take us to the place of giving back an ordination rightfully renounced at an earlier point by a person who will not practice what our standards say he must.

We have a judicial system stuck in gnats and missing obvious camels. And for those of us who just want to uphold biblical morality or further congregational ministry apart from vindictiveness--well, it seems to end up heads, they win; tails, we lose.


Blogger Presbyman said...


Thanks for this post! You have summarized the great and growing frustration many people feel about how business is conducted in this denomination, even in denominational courts. It does appear to be a stacked deck and a crooked game, where sophistry rules, and where there are never any consequences for flouting the Constitution, at least when it comes to issues of ordination and marriage. On the other hand, congregations that want to leave, even if they can work out reasonable terms with their Presbytery, are made to suffer, suffer, suffer at the hands of a vindictive little band of property legalists. And even the Presbyteries are made to suffer if they don't bend their knee to that tiny minority.

Our polity is being applied to suit the interests of a relatively few malcontents while spitting at the great majority of Presbyterians.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

8:32 PM, May 17, 2008  
Blogger Mark Smith said...

I'll repeat what I said over at Viola's blog.

The Sacramento pby officials needed to file the appeal in a timely manner in order to preserve the pby's rights in the civil case. Failing to do so would amount to the Synod PJC being summarily ignored.

The appeal can always be withdrawn if the Synod PJC rules in favor of the presbytery. If the appeal hadn't been filed, the presbytery would have no recourse if the Synod PJC decided for the complainants.

This appeal is a stop the bleeding move - in order to keep the patient alive until the doctors (complainants, Presbytery, Synod PJC) finish arguing about the treatment.

9:24 AM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Viola said...

Since Mark brought his thoughts over here I will bring my answer and more.

I don't think you quite understand what I have written. The Presbytery officials did file after the Synod ordered them to, but that is not preserving the Presbytery's rights. The Presbytery's rights should be to go with the vote they had not to appeal the case. They are being forced to appeal a case they did not wish to pursue. The fact is, beyond the immorality of this--the Presbytery is almost broke and still owing on the case. By next year they may be unable to pay their bills.

My own thoughts on this, and I can be quite a cynic is that The Synod realizes that we are almost broke and this places them in a position to take more control of our Presbytery. We are in a three Presbytery Partnership over which which they have a lot of influence. They have just placed a temporary Executive Presbyter over us from the Redwoods Presbytery. It was a surprise at our last Presbytery meeting, not even on the docket. They let us know that they are very generous and are paying the new Executive Presbyter Rev. Dr. Gary Torrens.

Viola Larson
Sacramento California

12:05 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Mac said...

What will really be interesting to see is whether the Trustees of Sacramento Presbytery, Inc. (a California corporation) are sued by one or more members of the presbytery for breach of fiduciary duty. The corporation is the party to the suit, not the ecclesiastical presbytery. The voting members of the corporation overwhelmingly told the officers of the corporation to refrain from appealing the decision of a California court. I suspect that, in part, the decision to refrain from appealing was to avoid further needless expense.

Now the corporate Trustees have placed the interests of a third party which has no legal interest in the corporation, i.e., the Synod, ahead of the interests of the corporation in contravention of their duty to the corporation. (I am betting that the articles of incorporation and by-laws of Sacramento Presbytery, Inc. do not include the synod as a parent corporation.)

I suggest that the Trustees may be susceptible to a suit to recover the additional legal costs to be incurred. The synod may also be susceptible to a suit in tort for interfering with the operations of Sacramento Presbytery, Inc.

12:18 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Viola said...

Did you read the last paragraph I wrote in my reply to Mark. I am wondering what your thoughts are on that?

Viola Larson

12:26 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Mac said...

Viola: It makes perfect sense to me. By placing their own man in your presbytery, they are punishing a body that has repeatedly demonstrated that it will not march to the beat of Louisville's drum when it comes to property matters.

The problem is that the denominationalist have bought into Louisville's line that G-8 is an ancient part of presbyterian polity and that there is some duty on the part of presbyteries to defend it to the death. In fact, G-8 is a hastily drafted and inserted attempt to provide a political and ecclesiastical solution to a civil matter. prperty law is not a matter that comes under ecclesiastical jurisdiction; that is a meatter left to the civil magistrate. Cf., Romans 13:1-6.

G-8 is (probably) unenforceable in a majority of US jurisdictions and Louisville knows that. The solution is to create an episcopacy that will do it bidding.

Michael R. "Mac" McCarty
Downingtown, PA

1:24 PM, May 19, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

May 20 update on my example #2:

The Witherspoon Society account was wrong and had to be updated (see

It turns out that only the executive leadership of the synod PJC rejected the remedial case about the presbytery decision to give the guy his ordination back, and the ruling is only temporary. If the proper parties appeal within the correct window of time, the whole PJC may yet take up the case to make a decision.

So, the wheels of justice grind on, but hardly in a fashion that is "speedy and economical," as the Rules of Discipline (D-1.0101) seek.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:43 AM, May 20, 2008  

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