Against Overtures 23 and 37
By David Coffin

Author’s Note: I am a member of the Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly. According to the requirements of the “Operating Manual of the Standing Judicial Commission” (OMSJC), I am committed to “perform the duties of [my] office with impartiality and shall be diligent to maintain the impartiality of the Commission” (OMSJC 2.10). Thus I am not permitted to make “any public or private statement that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome of a pending matter or impending matter in any court of the church” (OMSJC 2.5).

That notwithstanding, I am permitted to “make public or private statements in the course of [my] duties as a presbyter . . . with respect to biblical teaching, confessional interpretation, the principles of the form of government and discipline. . . .” (OMSJC 2.6). Nothing I have said in this essay is intended to intimate, hint, or suggest which party should prevail in any case that might come before me under our current BCO, or under these proposed amendments, should they be adopted.

A Presbyterian book of church order is properly designed to set forth the fundamental scriptural principles of the government of the church and a few practices and procedures that, prudentially, will provide a wholesome uniformity, consistency, and due process in the functioning of our government and discipline. A book of church order is not designed to settle all the questions or controversies that may come up in the life of the church. That labor belongs to the elders of the church, through their respective courts, beginning with those nearest to the circumstances, with each matter subject to the review of the court next higher.

Changes in our organic law should only be proposed and adopted when our regular order is shown to be deficient or has failed in some way. Stability of law is a very high value in any well-formed government, and that stability should not be disturbed except under necessity. 

Thus, one of the wisest of our American Presbyterian forefathers in matters of polity argued that a general objection ought to be considered against any proposed change in The Book of Church Order. He observed that any new language would undoubtedly include undiscovered ambiguities that might well have disastrous unintended consequences, consequences that would only appear when the provisions were tested in cases by sharp and contending minds seeking possible meanings to their advantage. Thus, he concluded, unless the change proposed is clearly necessary, the old language is to be preferred, because it has already been long-tested in cases, and persuasive precedents guide the church as to its meaning. In my judgment, the changes proposed in the Overtures are not clearly necessary.

The Overtures Lack Mature Consideration

Our General Assembly’s care for our Constitutional order, with the consent of the presbyteries, should not be used to satisfy the demands of social media. Our governmental order requires a mature consideration of Scripture, the facts before us, and a reasoned application of Scripture principles to those facts, as we bear with one another in love, in order to come to a faithful conclusion. This cannot come at first glance, or in the urgency created by allegations stirring popular fears. It requires patient, careful, thoughtful, and disciplined consideration. Our wholesome Biblical government is designed by our Lord to that end. To attempt to remedy what is in the first instance a local problem, by a Constitutional change, is a violation of that order. It subjects our government to frequent change driven, not by necessity, but by ephemeral concerns of parties in the church.

A book of church order is not designed to settle all the questions or controversies that may come up in the life of the church.

The language of the proposals now before the presbyteries could not have been subject to serious reflection and careful deliberation in the Assembly. Overture 23 was submitted to the Assembly as a single sentence of 30 words to be added to BCO 17, “The Doctrine of Ordination.” The Overtures Committee reported Overture 23 to the General Assembly as two sentences totaling 99 words, marked by multiple parentheticals and complex phrases to be added to BCO 16, “Church Orders—The Doctrine of Vocation.” The Overture Committee’s revision came to the floor a brief time before consideration. From comments overheard in the section of the Assembly where I was seated, many commissioners were clearly confused as to its meaning. Nevertheless, the vote passing Overture 23 was by quite a large margin, 1438 to 417.

Overture 37 did not undergo such an extensive revision (only 8 words added), but most the words added were to a list of sins without any apparent reason for their inclusion, or for the exclusion of other sins (see below). The vote passing Overture 37 was also by a large margin, 1130-692, though diminished by way of comparison to the former vote.

Both Overtures, however, were taken up by the Assembly after a very long day of deliberation and debate, late in the evening, with weary commissioners showing increasing signs of impatience with prolonged consideration. In my estimation the Assembly was clearly not at its best in the actions taken. For want of matured consideration the actions on the Overtures appear to put the Assembly at odds with itself in its declaration that the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality is biblically faithful. Here it is instructive to note that the Ad Interim Committee could have recommended BCO changes, if any were deemed warranted.  Apparently, after its year-long study, the Committee judged the BCO to be adequate with respect to the matters under consideration. Further, in my judgment, this attempt to amend the BCO is futile with respect to the controversies now troubling the PCA. For example, it is unlikely anything in these amendments, had they been in the BCO before 2018, would have changed the ruling of the SJC in 2020-12 Speck v. Missouri.

The Overtures are Flawed and are Likely to do More Harm Than Good

Overture 23, as it came before the Assembly from the Overtures Committee, was much improved. Changing the chapter proposed for the amendment was wise, as chapter 17, “The Doctrine of Ordination,” sets forth what ordination is, not what qualifications are necessary in order to be ordained. Chapter 16 “Church Orders—The Doctrine of Vocation” does at least address the matter of qualifications. That notwithstanding, the specificity of the proposed language is jarringly out of place given the generalities characteristic of the rest of the chapter.

Further, there are several problems with the language proposed. With respect to “profess an identity,” in my judgment it would be unfortunate to introduce psycho-sociological jargon into our Constitutional standards. The term “identity” is not found in the English Standard Version of the Bible, nor in the Westminster Standards, nor in The Book of Church Order. The following parenthetical “(such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms)” is fraught with difficulty. The phrase “such as, but not limited to” appears to signify the same thing as “or like terms.” Does it qualify the list further in some way, or is it simply a redundancy? 

The complexity of the second sentence (80 words) makes it liable to misreading. At first, what seems to be in view is professing an identity using certain terms that “undermines or contradicts their identity as new creatures in Christ.” But the sentence continues by qualifying what it means to contradict their identity in Christ, such that it is no longer simply using certain terms, but using those terms while acting in a certain fashion. Three behaviors are identified, each of which, when combined with using certain terms, brings about the contradiction with their identity in Christ. First, “by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires”; or second, “by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification; or third, “by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory.” Given any one of these three behaviors, those who profess such an identity, are not qualified for ordained office. 

Now first, we must ask, are these three behaviors exhaustive of behaviors that will make the use of certain terms contradict identity with Christ? Who can say? I do not doubt that this question will give rise to controversy and litigation in this matter. Second, working backward, the conclusion seems to be that anyone who professes an identity using those terms or the like, who does not behave in one of the three proscribed manners, is qualified for ordained office. However, in speech after speech on the floor of the Assembly proponents of the Overture argued that anyone who professes an identity using those terms or the like, simply by using those terms, was contradicting their identity in Christ, and was thereby not qualified for ordained office. Such arguments suggest that this complicated provision might lead others to that position. But in any case, I suppose that many who voted for this provision will be dismayed at what it in fact allows.

These considerations lead me to the conclusion that, if amendment is necessary at all, we can surely do better than what is now before the presbyteries in Overture 23.

If amendment is necessary at all, we can surely do better than what is now before the presbyteries in Overture 23.

Overture 37 includes two amendments, one to BCO 21-4 (ordination of ministers) and the other to BCO 24-1 (ordination of elders and deacons). In both cases a paragraph is to be added to the directions for examination. As the language proposed is the same in each instance, my comments will be directed only to BCO 21-4.e.

In my judgment there are three serious defects in the language of this amendment. First, in an examination for office, with respect to personal character, the court is directed to give “specific attention to potentially notorious concerns.” I will pass over the mystery as to what the difference is between “specific attention” and regular old “attention” because there is a more significant problem evident in these terms. The phrase “potentially notorious concerns” is problematic for a rule to give guidance to an examination. It seems the court would be required to give attention to concerns that have the capacity (potential) to become well known for some bad quality (notorious). Thus, the court would be required to judge a candidate based on speculation as to what might be the case. That strikes me as a peculiar requirement, as it is hard to see how potential notoriety is a relevant concern in this context. 

What follows is a parade of horribles, beginning with “relational sins.” I must confess that I haven’t a clue what “relational sins” refers to. “Sexual immorality” comes next, with a parenthetical elaborating on the phrase. But why these, and not other forms of sexual sin? What is the standard for inclusion? The list continues with “addictions, abusive behavior, racism and financial mismanagement.” This part of the list was amended by adding an additional sin (oddly, to make the provision more palatable). But here is the problem. When you have a list, as part of a rule, the question provoked is always, what of the matters left out? The drafters did try to mitigate that concern by including “such as, but not limited to” to show those listed are only meant to be exemplary. However, whenever one puts such a list in a rule, the question is always, are there other concerns or not? And if there are other concerns, why are these more important than the ones left out? Do these have some special significance that others do not have? Such language introduces significant uncertainty as how the rule is to be interpreted. Further, it invites further enumeration as new controversies arise, hardly a desirable state of affairs.

The last defect to consider, and it strikes me as fatal, is found in these words: “While imperfections will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus.” This requires the examining court to have some way of discovering both how a person is seen by others (some others, or a majority of others?) and how a person speaks about himself (some of the time, or most of the time?). Is he known by others according to his remaining sinfulness (some or mostly?) and does he speak of himself with respect to his remaining sinfulness (some or mostly?) rather than the work of the Holy Spirit?

This presents the court with a remarkably difficult and complicated task. Consider, for example, Rosaria Butterfield, a same-sex attracted woman who, by God’s grace, came to faith in Christ, and has done wonderful work in sharing her testimony. Let us imagine she was a man, and thus potentially qualified for office. The sentence under review, it seems, would exclude her from office because she is surely known by reputation and by her self-profession according to her remaining sinfulness. She is, of course, known for more. However, the text requires “not be known” by remaining sinfulness “but rather by” the work of the Holy Spirit. This phrasing presents a false dichotomy.

This concern was brought powerfully before the Assembly during the debate, but to no avail. Ruling Elder Kyle Keating from Missouri Presbytery was a member of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality. During the report of the AIC on Wednesday, Keating spoke about the fact that he has had, and does have, to battle with same-sex attraction—even as a married man. Keating went to the microphone late in the debate on Overture 37, and he said this:

I stood on the stage with several men as a part of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality. And myself and one other of those men described in brief the reality of our stories, that we have and do experience same-sex attraction. I have heard from many speakers that these overtures and this language is not intended to apply to certain subset of people if they jump through the right hoops. But the language in these overtures is far too vague to actually communicate that. “known by self-profession for remaining sinfulness.” It could mean a number of things. And to be honest, it could possibly mean what I did on the podium yesterday. I don’t believe it was the intent of those who put forth these overtures to disqualify men like me from ordained office. I think, however, that these overtures are worded in a way that they could very well be used to accomplish that purpose. Does the Body really wish to put this language in our Book of Church Order that could potentially be used to disqualify men in good standing who are a part of the kind of work that put together this report on human sexuality?

That speech should have carried the day, but unfortunately, it was very late at night. We were exhausted. We had been working for hour upon hour. In that context, Ruling Elder Keating’s speech apparently made little difference in the mind of the Assembly and thus we have a defective proposal before us. It is my hope that his speech will now help us to remedy our error.

In my judgment, our current standard in BCO 21-4, requiring an examination of officer candidate’s “acquaintance with experiential religion, especially his personal character and family management (based on the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:6-9). . . .” and the like language in BCO 24-1, has been, and will continue to be, sufficient to set forth concisely the examining court’s Scriptural responsibility. And, if it is finally shown that something must be done to change it, I am sure we can do better than the proposal before us. 

The task of the courts of our church is regularly complicated by BCO provisions that contain unclear or equivocal language. These proposed changes will only add to that burden.

David Coffin is a member of the Standing Judicial Commission. He served as senior pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Va., for 27 years and is now New Hope’s assistant pastor for biblical and theological instruction.

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