Overture 8, submitted by Southwest Presbytery, seeks to change the procedures that govern the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). Overture 3 from Grace Presbytery and Overture 11 from Calvary Presbytery also address the issue.

The recent flurry of SJC-related overtures comes in response to the case of Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery. Five charges were brought against Teaching Elder Peter Leithart relating to baptism, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the covenant of works/grace structure in the Westminster Standards, the distinction between justification and sanctification, and the possibility of a person who is united with Christ falling from grace. Pacific Northwest acquitted him of these charges, and Ruling Elder Gerald Hedman filed a complaint against this action. Both the Presbytery and the SJC denied the complaint. Though two church courts have concurred, their decisions have stirred controversy.

According to Teaching Elder Mark Rowden, who drafted overture 8, the ultimate issue has nothing to do with Leithart. It’s about accountability. In Rowden’s view the SJC has become insulated, and the isolation stems from the fact that, in Rowden’s words, the SJC “isn’t accountable to anybody.”

Overtures Would Revert to Older System

The current SJC procedure was established when the General Assembly adopted the recommendations of the 1996 report of an Ad-Interim Committee on Judicial Procedure. That committee was formed in response to widespread frustration with judicial process. A number of overtures at that time noted the system’s inefficiency and its failure to bring cases to a timely conclusion.

After three years of work, the Committee presented its recommendations, including the provision that makes SJC decisions final. Under the former system, SJC decisions had to be ratified by an Assembly that hadn’t heard the cases and was prohibited from debating the merits of the decisions. The Committee argued that as a commission of the General Assembly, the SJC is authorized to act on the Assembly’s behalf, and to conclude the business assigned to it. The earlier system, the Committee said, was a hybrid: the SJC was a commission in name, but was treated like a committee in that its recommendations had to be approved by its parent body, the General Assembly. As a result of the adoption of this recommendation, SJC cases — and the Assembly’s discussion of them — can no longer be prolonged indefinitely.

Overtures 8 and 3 would revert to the previous procedure, mandating that the General Assembly approve all SJC decisions.

Accountability, Not Character

Rowden is quick to point out that he doesn’t question the competence or character of the current SJC members. “I don’t think the men currently on the SJC or those who have been on the SJC the last few years are bad men or that they have made bad rulings,” he said. “I trust these guys; they do good work. I just think Dr. (D. James) Kennedy was right when he said, ‘Men don’t do what you expect — they do what you inspect.’” Without appropriate accountability, Rowden sees the potential for abuse.

Overreaction or Return to Consistency

Rowden acknowledges that the Leithart case has brought attention to this issue, but he says he’s been uncomfortable with the current procedure since it was adopted. Consequently, he doesn’t view Overture 8 as regressive; in his view, the motion’s passage would mark a “return to consistency.”

To support his point, Rowden points out that at the presbytery level judicial decisions have to be ratified by the presbytery before they become the action of that body. He cites BCO 11-3, which says, “all church courts are one in nature.” It follows then, Rowden believes, that the General Assembly should follow the same procedure. “The SJC is our judicial commission,” Rowden says, “their decisions shouldn’t be final until we make them final.”

In Houston, the Assembly will decide: Are these overtures an over-reaction to a single case? Or a “return to consistency.”