Does Polity Trump Theology? A Re-examination of The PCA’s Decision in the Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery

When process and procedures prevail over confessional issues the Church is in danger of losing its power to hold ordained officers accountable for their views.

The SJC’s decision in Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery is a precedent setting case. It is a denial of the rights of due process and the denial of the rights of protest in any and every case where the right procedures have been followed by the lower court. The SJC essentially has taken the position that there are no obligations more important than good ecclesiastical order. This is a position which will be the death knell of the PCA as an evangelical denomination…This position says that no one in the lower court has the right of protest, dissent, or complaint unless there has been some failure in polity and good ecclesiastical order.

 

In 2013, the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) decided in the complaint of RE Gerald Hedman vs Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNW), which alleged that the presbytery erred in its decision in their trial of Peter Leithart. The SJC denied the complaint, which had the effect of exonerating Leithart and his views regarding Federal Vision (FV) and the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I was the representative for the complainant, RE Hedman; obviously, I would have preferred that the SJC would have sustained the complaint.

For these last three years I have wanted to write an article giving my assessment and understanding of this 2013 decision. However, I wanted to finish my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, which is a critical examination of Federal Vision theology, before I did so. That book has been completed and is published.  The Aquila Report carried a review of my book by Lane Keister, a fellow PCA minister (Is the Federal Vision Gone? A Review of “Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision”).

Lane opined that I made a tactical mistake in my representation of the complainant in the case by dealing with sundry theological issues. He also expressed the concern that he made the same mistake in his testimony before PNW during the course of the trial. He believes that we both should have stuck with framing the debate in terms of Leithart’s departure from Westminster Confession of Faith. I disagree with both assertions and here is why.

First of all, I did not raise the extra-theological issues in that case; Peter Leithart did in his written defense, which was included in the Record of the Case (ROC). Leithart’s defense counsel also raised the extra-theological issues by calling expert witnesses to “testify” that Leithart’s views were supposedly within the undefined (by them) Reformed tradition. Further, defense counsel placed several hundred pages of theological writings in the ROC that supposedly exonerated Leithart’s views.

I knew I would be criticized either way: for responding to the theological issues raised by the defense counsel or not responding to the defense’s assertions.  I decided it would be a mistake not to respond at all to the defense’s arguments.

The documents and testimony in the ROC left the impression that the just about the entire Reformed community since the Reformation was clearly on Leithart’s side regarding the matter of baptismal efficacy, etc. Thus, I in the Brief for the case I wrote a theological response to those extra-theological issues; however, the SJC Manual limits all Briefs to 10 pages. But both the complaint in that case, which I had also written on behalf of the complainant, and my oral arguments presented at the hearing before the SJC dealt with Leithart’s departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith. My oral arguments were not about those extra-theological issues. I restricted myself to the ROC, which was over 700 pages, and the PCA’s Constitution.

Second, I had served as chairman of the panel in 2009 that heard the first complaint against the actions of Pacific Northwest Presbytery concerning Peter Leithart’s views. At that time, I was serving my fourth term as a SJC member. The 2009 panel’s proposed report dealt with the issues strictly on the basis of Leithart’s departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith and did not get sidetracked on other theological issues. When the panel’s proposed report was considered by the full SJC, there were several SJC members that challenged the contentions and remedies in the proposed report. The SJC’s final decision was to remand the case to PNW, listing several options on how PNW could proceed. PNW chose to charge Leithart with certain alleged theological errors that had been presented in the SJC decision and conducted a trial.  Leithart was found not guilty of the charges, and it was this not guilty verdict that led to the complaint which was heard and decided in by the SJC in 2013. As I see it, the complaint heard in 2009, which alleged that Leithart’s views were contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith, did not work either.

Third, it is my contention that RE Hedman’s complaint was not really lost in March, 2013; it was lost long before then. It was lost in 2007. On the day the General Assembly was scheduled to vote on the Report of the Ad-Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies, a fellow minister told me that the GA would not decide the issue that day. He said that there were a lot of “big guns” that were going to oppose the report and it would not be settled at or by that Assembly. Well, the Ad-Interim Report was adopted, but those “big guns” had been maneuvering behind the scenes for several years to make the Federal Vision a non-issue.

Yet, there is one very important thing that resulted from the complainant’s 10 page Brief submitted in 2013. It exposed some changes taking place on the SJC and made them reveal their true position. What I observed is that the SJC did not want to discuss any theological issues at the hearing – not even Westminster Confession of Faith issues. They decided the case on the basis of a new and emerging philosophy: that polity trumps theology. One observer present during the hearing remarked: “That was an amazing case to watch. You argued the Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith and the SJC was not interested. The Presbytery argued polity and the SJC decided in their favor.” It is a sad commentary on the SJC and the state of the PCA if polity and process are apparently now considered more important than theological and confessional matters.

The argument from the SJC seems to be watertight. Their argument was and is that they have to follow polity and defer to the lower court. But this is a superficial argument. The SJC does not always have to defer to the decisions of lower courts in cases where the right procedure has been used. BCO 39-4 provides the following:

The higher court does have the power and obligation of judicial review, which cannot be satisfied by always deferring to the findings of a lower court. Therefore, a higher court should not consider itself obligated to exhibit the same deference to a lower court when the issues being reviewed involve the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church. Regarding such issues, the higher court has the duty and authority to interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and understanding, regardless of the opinion of the lower court.

I referred to this provision in the hearing before the SJC and argued that the case before them was more than procedural; it touched on the Westminster Standards and as the higher court they should consider it in this way. The argument fell on deaf ears. The SJC even hid behind the excuse in their written opinion that the Brief had not proven the case. This is simply not true. The written complaint demonstrated the case with numerous statements from Leithart’s own writings that showed his views were out of accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

More importantly, the SJC is the PCA’s highest judicial court and it is their responsibility to uphold the PCA Constitution, which includes the Confession of Faith, the Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order. They cannot hide behind excuses of alleged failures to argue almost exclusively in the areas of procedure and process.

To argue that they must defer to the lower court, even when the proper interpretation of the Constitution is at stake, is not healthy for the PCA.  When the proper interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith is involved the SJC must consider the issues raised in complaints seriously. In the Leithart case, either FV is in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith or it is not. The responsibility for reviewing and making confessional determinations has been assigned by the General Assembly to the SJC; not to individual members or to presbyteries. I contend that in the Hedman complaint, the SJC punted and left the PCA without a clear confessional decision.

In my research for a book that I hope to publish soon, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, I came across comments by Charles Hodge’s on the Act of Itineration of 1737, which was adopted by the Synod of Philadelphia of the original Presbyterian Church in America.  That Act forbade ministers from preaching in the parishes of others without the latter’s consent. It was really an effort to thwart the Great Awakening by ministers who were not in favor of it. On the surface, the Synod seemed to simply be upholding the rights of church courts to govern those under their care. As Charles Hodge wrote:

This act is not so much an illustration of the power of the synod, as it is a declaration, and enforcing the rights of presbyteries. It is merely provided that no man should preach in any congregation against the will of the presbytery under whose care such congregation was placed. This is a principle fully recognised in our present constitution.[i]

Yet, there were more important issues at stake. Gilbert Tennent was the principal figure to lead the opposition to this Synodical Act. He would have certainly agreed that anyone who preached in the parish of a converted minister or created a division within the bounds of such was guilty of a schismatic offense. Tennent did not view his actions in that light. He felt an obligation to preach to those who were suffering under a barren ministry and he made no apologies for his actions. No court on earth could have persuaded him to act otherwise. Thus, Hodge agreed that Tennent’s principle was right:

In this he was clearly right, as far as the principle is concerned. There are obligations superior to those of mere ecclesiastical order; and there are times when it is a duty to disregard rules, which we admit to be legitimate both in their own nature, and in respect to the authority whence they proceed. It was on this principle that the apostles and the reformers acted. It is analogous to the right of revolution in civil communities; and consequently the cases are very rare in which it can be resorted to, with a good conscience.[ii]

Of course, the SJC did not have to exercise the extraordinary right of revolution in order to make the right decision. But they do have authority and responsibility to make sure the Church’s Constitution is being properly interpreted.

The SJC’s decision in Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery is a precedent setting case. It is a denial of the rights of due process and the denial of the rights of protest in any and every case where the right procedures have been followed by the lower court. The SJC essentially has taken the position that there are no obligations more important than good ecclesiastical order. This is a position which will be the death knell of the PCA as an evangelical denomination. It is a position that cannot be carried out consistently without doing great harm to the denomination. This position says that no one in the lower court has the right of protest, dissent, or complaint unless there has been some failure in polity and good ecclesiastical order. Perhaps SJC members would not like to state their position so boldly, but if they try to walk back their new position it only makes it more difficult for them to defend their decision in the Hedman case.

Having served for fifteen years as a SJC member, I observed a change that took place on that court along the way. In the beginning, there were strict constitutionalists like Jack Williamson, Mark Belz, Dominic Aquila, David Hall, myself, and others. Cases were decided by first finding the relevant parts of the Constitution and then applying the Constitution to the cases fairly. Before I left the SJC in 2010, the body had changed. Members approached issues differently. They first decided what they wanted to do and then began to search through the Constitution to find some place which they could bootstrap to their positions. I have been in meetings where two or three different parts of the Constitution were referenced in the course of an hour or less. When one place was shown to be irrelevant, the parties would scramble to find another place that they could bootstrap. That is simply a wrong approach to deciding cases.

If the SJC continues to act with this new and emerging philosophy for judging and deciding cases, that the court cannot uphold a complaint against the lower court unless there is clear error in their procedure or process, then there is no theological, moral, or spiritual position that is safe. This is the very approach to polity and judging cases that brought ruin to the PCUS and it will do so to the PCA as well. The denomination will be a charade.

Presbytery will do things correctly, by the book, what is right in its own eyes; meanwhile heresies will multiply. When the spiritu and theological body of the PCA is placed in a coffin for its final resting place, look closely at the maker of the casket. It will read: Polity Trumped Theology.

But remember this. The PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission is not the final court of appeal. There are other courts of appeal. There is the court of public opinion. There is the court of ecclesiastical history. And there is the court of the Lord Jesus. I have no doubt that church history is going to be very critical of the SJC’s decision in Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery, and may even mark it as the decision when the PCA began its declension.

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone PCA in Destin, Fla.

[i] Charles Hodge, The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part I, 1705-1741 (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1839), 248.

[ii] Ibid., 248-249.

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