GAPJC Decisions Put the Squeeze on Evangelicals

October 30, 2012

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC)  has issued three Decisions after hearing oral arguments last Friday in Louisville. Each is disappointing to evangelical conservatives in the PCUSA, but taken together they create an odorous outcome for any presbytery trying to uphold a biblical understanding of marriage or congregations desiring a peaceable withdrawal from the denomination. A quick rundown of the case Decisions, which can be read in their entirety on the GAPJC website (scroll down to 221-02, 221-03, and 221-04): 

221-02, Newark Presbytery v McNeillIn 2009, Presbyterian teaching elder Laurie McNeill was married, according to Massachusetts law, to another woman. The ceremony was conducted by two Episcopalian priests in an Episcopal church, and publicly announced at the next meeting of Newark Presbytery. Disciplinary charges were filed against Ms. McNeill, and the Presbytery’s PJC acquitted her of all charges. An appeal was filed with the Synod of the Northeast, which affirmed the Presbytery’s decision. An appeal was received by the GAPJC based on constitutional interpretation issues. The GAPJC was unconvinced, however, and upheld the lower PJC rulings on the following basis:

• Ms. McNeill was not married in a PCUSA church or by a PCUSA teaching elder;
• Ms. McNeill made clear publicly that the PCUSA did not recognize her relationship as a marriage;
• No evidence was previously provided to claim that Ms. McNeill’s “marriage” violated Scripture or the Confessions, and it is too late to introduce that argument now;
• Since Ms. McNeill was not required to testify, nor to incriminate herself, it must be proven by another means that her “marriage” was in fact sexually expressed. To quote a concurring opinion, “While it is tempting to assume that ‘happily married’ persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption.” They want pictures, folks, taken last night.

Bottom line: It is okay for a PCUSA teaching elder to marry someone of the same sex, just so long as the PCUSA had nothing to do with the ceremony itself.

221-03, Tom et al v San Francisco Presbytery: In 2009, San Francisco Presbytery unanimously adopted a Gracious Dismissal Policy, requiring departing churches to pay Presbytery annually for five years: (1) funds to offset declining per capita and (2) funds to offset a declining contribution to the mission budget. Community Presbyterian Church of Danville was dismissed by the Presbytery pursuant to this policy the following year, agreeing to pay a lump sum of $108,640 and another $210,000 total over five years. The three complainants filed a remedial case against the Presbytery, but the Presbytery’s process was sustained. They appealed to the GAPJC, but before that appeal was heard, the Danville church was dismissed with its property to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The GAPJC, recognizing that an irrevocable action had taken place, nevertheless chose to “exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and to prevent future violations.” To this end, the GAPJC ruled that a presbytery must “exercise due diligence regarding the value of the [church’s] property. . . Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake.”

Bottom line: To cut a fine point here, the ruling does not require presbyteries to exact a payment for property held in trust by a congregation when it departs. It only requires an evaluation, a taking into account the value of property, and “fiduciary responsibility” to act in the best interest of the presbytery (and PCUSA). However, the interpretation of this somewhat vague language, particularly in those presbyteries that do not have dismissal policies at all, is likely to embolden presbyteries to become more aggressive about extracting money or property from departing congregations.

221-04, Larson et al v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos. In September 2011, Los Ranchos Presbytery passed a resolution advancing its belief that the manner of life required of teaching elders within its bounds included fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness, and indicated that all candidates for ordination or membership in the presbytery would be notified of this policy as they came under care or initiated a transfer. Twenty-one members in opposition to the Presbytery filed a remedial case, which was heard by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. After a May 2012 trial, the SPJC upheld the Presbytery’s resolution, but this decision was appealed to the GAPJC.

The basis for the appeal was the claim that the Presbytery improperly restated the Constitution, overreached its authority, and violated the conscience of members of the Presbytery. The GAPJC ruled that a presbytery policy taking the place of a case-by-case evaluation of each candidate is out of order. It made the distinction between declaring to the whole church what it believed was an acceptable manner of life (allowed) and notifying potential candidates of the policy (not allowed, because it “would have the practical effect of discouraging [candidates] prior to the required case-by-case evaluation or examination”).

Bottom line: Presbyteries are barred from determining, apart from the formal examination process, what constitutes a manner of life appropriate for ordained office. A presbytery membership in full agreement about such a standard is not affected by this ruling; but a contentious presbytery will conduct the debate again and again. The evangelical and pragmatic see this as a colossal waste of time; liberals see it as an opportunity to make debates unpleasant enough to wear down opposition to a progressive trend. And then, a “new normal” is adopted and the conscience violated is the conservative one.

All in all, not a good day for evangelical and orthodox Presbyterians, particularly those in divided presbyteries. More on this in my next post.

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10 Responses to “GAPJC Decisions Put the Squeeze on Evangelicals”

  1. Jason Huff Says:

    The McNeill case is the worst spiritually, as it sets aside the entire concept that one’s whole life is governed by God. It assumes that the PC(USA) has nothing to do with things done outside the church. This is a diseased way of looking at life and does violence to Christ’s claim on our whole selves.

  2. Floyd Rhoades Says:

    UPUSA is in morality free fall

  3. Adel Thalos Says:

    Thank you for your continued faithfulness. Your assessment is spot-on and very helpful.

  4. Bruce Becker Says:

    It is an odorous outcome and an onerous outcome. It not only offends my olfactory glands. It breaks my back. The decisions are beyond repugnant. They are ruinous nonsense. God help us.

  5. MT Dave Says:

    At some point, some sharp lawyer (most likely in a property case in civil court) is simply going to point at the bizarro world style decisions from the GAPJC and argue that the PCUSA constitution exists only on paper, and is so vague as to be uniterpretable.

  6. Bob Bullock Says:

    Invaluable analysis! Thank you Mary.

    Bob Bullock

  7. TPT Says:

    This is why I left. The battle has been won by the “progressives,” now they are just shooting the wounded.

  8. Samuel Lee Says:

    Since the GAPJC’s decision on Larson vs. the Presbytery of Los Ranchos case now prohibits and nullifies any Presbytery from adopting a predetermined standard of conduct appropriate for ordained office, does it also bars any Session of an evangelical congregation from adopting the predetermined faithfulness and chastity standard for its congregation?
    I would like an answer on this question from those who are more informed in our polity. And I believe this issue will have enormous implications at local level.

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