As of the writing of this article, two hotly-contested amendments to the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) have just failed to reach the required approval by two-thirds of our presbyteries. These proposed amendments have occasioned no small debate within our denomination. Supporters argued that these amendments, admittedly imperfect, were a necessary step to protect the church; opponents argued that these imperfections rendered the amendments fatally flawed.
As I considered these discussions (and knowing that more such amendments may be in process), I came to realize my need for a coherent “philosophy” for evaluating BCO amendments. That is, I needed to think about my thinking about amending our constitution.
Reflecting on this need over the past few months, I came to articulate the following five criteria for considering and evaluating BCO amendments. These criteria are offered here without particular comment on the substance of the recently-defeated amendments.
1. Before amending the BCO, we must demonstrate that there is an actual problem (or confusion) in the church. It is insufficient to merely assert or assume the existence of a problem.
BCO amendments are most helpful when they address clear, defined problems or confusions in the church. Thus, the first task of any proposed amendment is to demonstrate that such a clear, defined problem exists. For example, there has been apparent confusion in our disciplinary process about the first clause of BCO 32-20: “Process, in case of scandal, shall commence within the space of one year after the offense was committed, unless it has recently become flagrant.”
Some courts have taken this clause to establish a functional “statute of limitations” on offenses. That is, offenses occurring more than one year prior could not be disciplined by sessions/presbyteries. This was not the intended function of the paragraph, and an uncontroversial amendment is now being approved by the presbyteries. Here we see a clear, defined problem ably remedied by a clear, defined change to the constitution.
Conversely, BCO amendments are ill-suited to remedying vague, inchoate, or systemic issues. “Encroaching liberalism,” “coarsening dialogue in our church courts,” or “sending a message to the culture” are not clear, defined problems. Apart from the difficulty of quantifying such problems, how could a BCO amendment possibly “fix” such issues?
In my doctoral work, I study organizational health. One school of organizational leadership — adaptive leadership — distinguishes between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.” Technical problems are clearly defined issues in an organization that can be “fixed” by the proper application of technical expertise. In a church setting, a technical problem might be purchasing additional chairs because the worship service is becoming over-crowded. Churches do not split over technical problems.
Adaptive challenges, though, are thornier. These challenges are difficult to identify and addressing them requires changes in organizational culture. In a church setting, an adaptive challenge might be the years-long process of discussion and repentance needed for a church to value and welcome people of different classes and ethnicities. The architects of adaptive leadership argue that the biggest failure in leadership is treating adaptive challenges like technical problems.
In this first criterion, I am arguing that BCO amendments are best suited to technical problems in the church. While BCO amendments might be part of addressing an adaptive challenge, no complex, systemic issue can be fixed simply by changes to the BCO. The first task of those who want to amend the BCO is to demonstrate a clear, defined, and “fixable” problem.
2. Before amending the BCO, we must demonstrate that the problem/confusion stems from a deficiency in the constitution of the church. The mere existence of a problem is an insufficient reason to amend the BCO.
If a clear, defined problem is identified and agreed-upon, proponents of an amendment must also demonstrate that the problem arises from a deficiency in the BCO. This deficiency might be a lack of clarity or a lack of needed provisions. It is important to note that there are clear, defined problems that do NOT stem from a constitutional deficiency.
For example, multiple studies over the last 10-15 years have demonstrated a “crisis” in the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health of America’s clergy. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors are burning out and leaving ministry in unprecedented numbers. One recent Barna study found that 38% of American pastors had seriously considered leaving ministry over the past two years.
This is a clear and defined problem, but it is manifestly NOT a problem arising from a constitutional deficiency. No BCO amendment can remedy this issue, for it does not stem from a lack of clarity or provision in our constitutional documents but rather cultural, systemic issues in the broader church.
BCO amendments are ill-suited to remedying vague, inchoate, or systemic issues.
On the other hand, as already noted, confusion about whether or not BCO 32-20 establishes a “statute of limitations” is indeed a problem stemming from a constitutional deficiency. It can be remedied by a clarification of language.
The mere existence of a clear, defined problem is insufficient reason to amend the BCO. That problem must be shown to arise directly out of a constitutional deficiency.
3. Before amending the BCO, we must demonstrate that the proposed amendment actually addresses the problem in the church. The “need to act” does not outweigh the necessity of showing how amending the BCO remedies the actual problem.
If a clear, defined problem is identified, and it is also demonstrated that the problem arises from a constitutional deficiency, proponents of amendment must still demonstrate that a proposed amendment actually addresses the problem in the church. The proposed amendment must bring clarity and resolve the issue.
A hypothetical example: Imagine that the proposed amendment to BCO 32-20 read: “Process, in case of scandal, shall commence within the space of one year after the offense was committed, unless it has recently become flagrant. This is not a statute of limitations.” While the amended language clarifies that the paragraph does not establish a statute of limitations, it does not resolve the issue, because it sheds no light on the meaning of the confusing language.
The chief point of this criterion is to note that merely proposing a solution to a problem does not guarantee that proposed solution actually remedies the problem.
4. Before amending the BCO, we must demonstrate that the proposed amendment is the best way to address the problem in the church. Even if a proposed amendment provides some remedy, it may not provide the best (or wisest) remedy.
This criterion is not meant to establish an impossible threshold for amending the constitution. Rather, it requires due and reasonable consideration of whether a proposed amendment is the most helpful or wise way to address a problem in the church.
Productivity expert Cal Newport suggests that we often appropriate technology with an “any benefit” approach. By this, he means that individuals consider “any benefit” a sufficient justification for the adoption of a new technology. By this approach, we fail to consider the implicit tradeoffs, limitations, drawbacks, and unintended consequences of particular technologies.
My urging in this criterion is that we not adopt an “any benefit” approach to amending the BCO. We must guard against the tendency to see any (partial) remedy to an identified problem as a sufficient justification to embrace that remedy.
This criterion is not calling for “perfect” language in all proposed amendments (although I believe we should be precise and careful when amending the BCO); it is rather calling for thoughtful, multi-faceted consideration of problems in the church. This prevents us from embracing partial measures that may address symptoms of complex issues without ever addressing root causes.
One related, additional consideration here: We must avoid the temptation to provide church-wide solutions to local problems. In other words, if we are concerned with the behavior of particular officers or courts, it is usually best to utilize current provisions in the BCO (BCO 31-2, 32-2, 40-5, 42-1, 43-1, etc.). Constitutional changes are neither the best nor the most efficient means of addressing isolated issues. While they might provide some remedy, that remedy has potential to lack the nuance or flexibility needed to address particular issues and individuals.
5. Before amending the BCO, we must demonstrate that the proposed amendment is unlikely to result in further (or additional) problems/confusion in the church. Every change has unintended consequences. Amendments to the BCO must be carefully scrutinized for such issues.
This is perhaps the most difficult criterion, as it asks proponents of amendment to consider the unintended consequences of constitutional changes. These are, by definition, unintended.
For this reason, BCO amendments must be subjected to robust scrutiny. Once a provision becomes part of the constitution, the language, not the intent, becomes binding on the church. This is why the language matters, and why we must be hesitant to adopt any constitutional change with imprecise, unclear, or undefined wording. The BCO is essentially a legal document, and the words themselves, not their intent, are the final authority. At times the BCO is intentionally vague, where courts have latitude to use wisdom in their particular contexts. At other times, unintentionally vague language causes confusion and frustration.
We must guard against the tendency to see any (partial) remedy to an identified problem as a sufficient justification to embrace that remedy.
Every proposed amendment to the BCO brings potential for both clarity and confusion, and thus, every amendment brings unintended consequences. We must focus on the actual words of proposed changes, not the intent behind them, in order to minimize the effects of such consequences.
Two Concluding Thoughts
The burden for demonstration rests on those calling for amendment. If we cannot demonstrate these five criteria clearly, then we ought not amend the BCO.
In discussing constitutional amendments, the burden of demonstration rests with those who propose changes. Those who offer amendments must demonstrate the particularity of the problem facing the church, they must demonstrate that this problem stems directly from a constitutional deficiency, and they must propose a limited and judicious solution that brings needed clarity.
There must be a basic presumption of the adequacy of our constitution, and thus, the burden for justification rests with those wishing to change the status quo. In other words, if you want to change the BCO, it is not my responsibility to say why we should not, but your responsibility to say why we should.
At end of the day, we must trust the courts of the church. If we cannot, then any BCO amendment is ineffective.
No BCO amendment can make the courts of the church virtuous. We must presume that the courts are acting in good faith and seeking to uphold the Scriptures and the constitution of the PCA.
Amendments to the BCO that arise from suspicion of Sessions and Presbyteries have a strange logic: will courts that ignore Scripture be bound by BCO changes? If we cannot trust the courts to follow the Bible, Westminster Standards, and BCO, then the constitution is truly beyond amending, and the church is corrupt.
For my part, I believe that our sessions and presbyteries are, in large part, seeking to walk in faithfulness. When they have failed to do so, the provisions of our BCO have generally served us well. If courts prove to be acting in error, we have ample constitutional provisions for correction. Concerns with particular courts must be addressed particularly. If our constitutional provisions here are demonstrated to be inadequate, I would be in full support of measured, judicious amendments.
Todd Gwennap is the Pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church, Warrenton, VA.
This article was first published on the Semper Ref website. It has been republished with the author’s permission.