A Look Behind the SJC’s Johnson Decision and What It Means for the PCA
By Larry Hoop
Johnson decision

On Oct. 22, the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) released its decision in Case 2020-12, one of the two Speck v. Missouri Presbytery cases, popularly known as the “Greg Johnson Case.” The case is the culmination of a controversy that has roiled the PCA for more than three years. Because so few PCA members have had direct experience with the SJC’s detailed procedures (its manual runs some 60 pages), byFaith is providing a closer look at the decision, hoping to reveal how (and why) SJC procedures have been applied in this case.

Speck v. Missouri Presbytery: Needed Background

In July 2018, Revoice, an organization created to support Christians who experience same-sex attraction while upholding the historic Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality, held its first conference at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, a PCA congregation in Missouri Presbytery. The conference generated controversy in the evangelical community, and especially in the PCA. Teaching Elder (TE) Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial, defended Revoice in several public settings; while doing so, he also acknowledged his personal struggles with same-sex attraction. 

This triggered a complex sequence of events: 

  • Nine communications were sent by various sessions and presbyteries requesting that Missouri Presbytery take action. 
  • In response, Missouri Presbytery created five committees to investigate various aspects of the controversy. One of those committees investigated four allegations against Johnson to determine if there was a “strong presumption” that he was guilty of any of them. The committee found that no such presumption existed. 
  • The full presbytery subsequently adopted its recommendation. 
  • TE Ryan Speck, a member of Missouri Presbytery, filed a formal complaint against this action. 
  • Because the denomination’s Book of Church Order (BCO) requires that such a complaint first be heard by the accused body, a commission of Missouri Presbytery considered the complaint and proposed that the presbytery deny it. The full presbytery did so on Nov. 16, 2020. 
  • Speck then took his complaint to the PCA’s highest court, the General Assembly (GA). 

Under the BCO, such matters are committed to the SJC. The 24 members of the SJC — 12 teaching elders and 12 ruling elders — are elected by the GA to serve four-year terms. As a commission of the General Assembly, the SJC has the authority to “deliberate on and conclude the business referred to it” (BCO 15-1), meaning that when the SJC reaches a decision in a judicial case, it is the decision of the Assembly itself and is final. 

Basics of SJC Procedure

Before we look at the specifics of Speck v. Missouri Presbytery, there are a few matters about SJC procedure that will be helpful to know. 

 — An SJC decision is binding only on the parties directly involved in the case. In contrast to the U.S. court system where the decision of the higher court is binding in similar cases before a lower court, there is no obligation for a session or presbytery to follow a decision of the SJC when ruling on a similar case (although SJC decisions may be referenced in similar cases as to any principle decided in those cases). Thus, the SJC ruling in the Speck case does not establish a binding PCA precedent regarding same-sex attraction or any other issues the case raised.

— While cases are normally assigned to a judicial panel of three SJC members, the SJC’s manual allows officers to determine if a case should be heard by the full commission. Such was the case in Speck v. Missouri Presbytery.

— Each case is decided only based on what’s found in the Record of the Case. The clerk of the lower court (in this instance, Missouri Presbytery) assembles the Record, which includes every document relevant to the case. Either party may request a document be excluded or added, and if the other party objects, the hearing body (whether a panel or the full SJC) decides the matter. The hearing body may also decide to exclude material from the Record they consider irrelevant to the case or may require that additional material they deem relevant be included. In the Speck case, the SJC required additional material – answers to 25 questions they submitted to the presbytery’s representative (TE Tim LeCroy) and to Johnson for the purpose of “ascertaining … [Johnson’s] actual or present theological convictions,” which the commission believed were not clear given that the Record covered “multiple years of [his] writing, speaking and judicial processes.”

— Some may wonder about the wording of the phrase “the SJC finds that it was not unreasonable for the Presbytery to conclude . . .” which occurs several times in the decision. The SJC framed their decision this way because the BCO places the responsibility of determining a “strong presumption of guilt” on the court of origin (in this case, Missouri Presbytery), and states that a higher court should exercise “great deference” toward a lower court “in matters of discretion and judgment” because of the lower court’s “familiar acquaintance” with the events and parties involved (BCO 39-3.3). Thus, the SJC could not reverse the judgment of the presbytery apart from a finding of “clear error.” On the contrary, the SJC found that it was not unreasonable, given the Record and the presbytery’s greater acquaintance with the matter, for the presbytery to conclude no such presumption existed. 

 Timeline for the SJC Ruling

In accordance with SJC procedure, both parties presented preliminary briefs setting forth their positions. On March 25, the SJC held a hearing during which the presbytery representative and Speck and his assistant, TE Dominic Aquila, presented oral arguments and fielded questions. By the end of May, both the presbytery and Johnson had provided the SJC with their answer to the 25 questions. Each party had also filed a five-page addendum to their initial briefs. 

When the SJC reconvened in July, members determined that it would be best to have a proposed decision on the table to provide focus for their discussion as they worked toward a final decision. Five names were pulled at random to comprise the drafting committee. The committee held two teleconference meetings and met in person for a full day, during which they examined everything related to each allegation in the 600+ pages of material in the Record – documents provided by the presbytery and Speck in support of their positions, as well as the responses from the presbytery and Johnson to the 25 questions posed by the SJC. 

In its Report, the drafting committee recommended the complaint not be sustained and supported its conclusions with 15 pages of quotations from Johnson’s writings and other statements on the subject of each allegation. In the end, the decision was adopted by a 4-1 vote. This decision was then adopted by the entire commission by a vote of 16-7.

The heart of the decision proposed by the drafting committee and adopted by the entire SJC concerns two issues: 

1. Did Missouri Presbytery violate BCO 31-2 in the manner of its investigation of the allegations? BCO 31-2 requires that a session or presbytery “shall with due diligence and great discretion” demand from those under their authority “satisfactory explanations concerning reports affecting their Christian character.” The issue here concerns the manner in which of the presbytery conducted its investigation: Did it exercise the “due diligence and great discretion” this paragraph requires in its investigation? The SJC concluded that the Record did not demonstrate any violation of this responsibility.

2. Did Missouri Presbytery clearly err at its meeting on July 21, 2020, when it declined to commence process on any of the following four allegations? This issue concerns the substance of the conclusion arrived at by the presbytery as a consequence of its investigation: Was it proper to conclude that Johnson had supplied “satisfactory explanations” concerning these allegations against him and thus decline to proceed to a trial? This issue was divided into four sub-issues detailing each of the four allegations Speck raised against Johnson:

2.a. Allegation 1: Same-sex Attraction & sin – Johnson “denies that same-sex-attraction is sinful and thereby fails to properly distinguish misery from the sin which give rise to it.” 

2.b. Allegation 2: Identity – Johnson “compromises and dishonors his identity in Christ by self-identifying as a same-sex-attracted man.” 

2.c. Allegation 3: Sanctification – Johnson “denies God’s purpose and power to sanctify same-sex attracted believers by minimizing the pursuit of orientation change from homosexual to heterosexual.” 

2.d. Allegation 4: Qualification – Johnson “cannot meet the biblical ‘above reproach’ qualification for the eldership since (a) homosexual inclinations are sin proper and are more heinous for being “against nature,” and since (b) TE Johnson identifies as a homosexually-inclined man.”   

The SJC, in agreement with the drafting committee, determined that if the Record revealed that any of the first three allegations accurately reflected Johnson’s views, it would have been proper to sustain the complaint against the presbytery. In regard to the fourth allegation, the commission determined that if the Record demonstrated that Johnson had, for example, been involved in homosexual behavior, had cultivated unrepentant lustings, had taught that either homosexual behavior or lustings are not sinful, or had not been continually seeking to mortify sinful temptations, this allegation would be accurate and it would have been proper to sustain the complaint. 

The SJC discovered no evidence of clear error in Missouri Presbytery’s finding no “strong presumption” that Johnson is guilty of any of the four allegations.

Related Cases

Two cases related to Johnson, Memorial, and the Revoice Conference are still pending before the SJC. Speck filed a different complaint against the presbytery’s disposition of matters related to the report of a committee it set up to investigate Memorial’s role with the Revoice Conference. This complaint has been heard by an SJC panel and is awaiting final action. 

The other case grows out of a BCO provision allowing two presbyteries to request the GA assume “original jurisdiction” (the right of a court to hear a case for the first time) when another presbytery “refuses to act” against one of its members “in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal” (BCO 34-1).

Three presbyteries, arguing that Missouri Presbytery’s failure to bring Johnson to trial constituted such a refusal to act, requested by overture that the GA assume original jurisdiction. As with all other matters covered by the Book of Church Order, such a request is referred to and decided by the SJC itself. The SJC had determined it would not consider this request until it had first acted on the Speck complaint. Consequently, the case regarding the three presbyteries’ request won’t be considered until the next SJC meeting.

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