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When Justice is Out of Order
Did you know that PCA church courts are more likely to block complaints from women than those from men? I suspected that to be the case, but didn’t have the data to prove it until digging through the past 49 years of PCA judicial proceedings.1 I was curious if there is objective support for concerns raised by others in the PCA about how the church courts are serving its members, especially the vulnerable. For example, the PCA magazine byFaith did a write up when the Ad Interim Study Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault published their report earlier this year. One of the committee members interviewed for that article expressed concerns in particular about help for female church members:
“Women in the PCA must recognize there is more work to be done (a lot of educating to be done!) before they can have assurance their case will be shepherded well.”2
That comment raises a question: why would women want or need “assurance [that] their case will be shepherded well”? We could easily answer that question through personal testimony, but in my experience, the testimony of women carries much less weight than men. So consider with me some objective data to see if it answers why women need assurance their cases will be shepherded well.
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In the last 50 years the highest court of the Presbyterian Church in America, the General Assembly and its Standing Judicial Committee (SJC), has heard 429 cases.3 Of those 429 cases, 138 were ruled “out of order” on either administrative or judicial grounds. These out of order (OOO) rulings are based on the requirements of the PCA constitution, the Book of Church Order (BCO). The BCO provides detailed and often complex rules to which a case must conform in order to be adjudicated, including time frames for filing complaints, questions of jurisdiction and which church court is responsible, and who has the right to seek assistance from PCA courts. Once a case is ruled OOO, the church court is essentially done with the matter unless the member objects to the ruling and seeks assistance from the next higher court.
So 138 out of 429 cases were determined to be OOO. That is a high percentage (32%), nearly 1/3 of all cases.4 There has also been an increase over the last 40 years, starting in 1992, in the rate of OOO rulings. If we take the last 10 years since 2011, the average number of OOO rulings is 47.25%.5 That’s quite a big jump from the overall rate of 32%. With that average and overall increase, one wonders if members of the PCA should expect future cases to have a 50/50 chance of being heard.
To this author, those are startling statistics. But there are statistics that are yet more startling. These arise from cases brought by or involving women. Overall, I counted a total of 29 cases related to concerns raised by women.6 It is not always clear what the original issue was, but the majority of these cases related to marital disputes, abuse, infidelity, and divorce. Additionally, many of these women were put under church discipline for “pursuing unbiblical divorce” from an (alleged) abusive husband. While the OOO statistics below should be startling regardless of the specific issue, they take on additional significance from the context of caring for vulnerable and hurting sheep. Numbers can help clarify matters, but only when we remember there are real faces behind them, women who had the courage and fortitude to continue asking for justice despite difficulties and setbacks.
Out of the total 29 female cases, 12 were ruled OOO by the SJC (41.4%). This is a higher rate than the aggregate OOO rulings (32%). Additionally, the rate has increased over time. Out of 8 female cases between 2011-2021, 5 were ruled OOO (62.5%). That is twice the rate of all SJC OOO rulings.
Based on those numbers, it would appear that A) women have always had a more difficult time seeking judicial assistance in the PCA, and B) women will have increasing difficulty in years to come. I suggest those as objective conclusions based on the data, even though the data set is small. And before jumping to causal explanations that would either assign blame or remove responsibility from any party, consider this quote from the PCA Ad Interim Committee on Judicial Procedure from 1996:
“Note, however, that in general these recommendations are designed to foster justice in our system, as well as the perception that our system is just. If they achieve only the latter, our labor will have been worthwhile, for such a perception is essential to the moral and spiritual force we trust our discipline will have for the good of the church.”7
When a woman’s case is twice as likely to be blocked on procedural grounds, it is difficult indeed to perceive “that our system is just.” Based on the data alone, it looks quite unjust. And the men who made that statement were aware that “perception [of justice in the PCA system] is essential to the moral and spiritual force we trust our discipline will have for the good of the church.” Can there be any “moral and spiritual force” for disciplinary processes that appear unjust?
Thanks to the DASA Committee Report there is hope on the horizon for better care of the vulnerable and oppressed in the PCA. But from my own personal experience working with abuse victims, the problems and difficulties are significant. Regardless of intent and cause, these OOO statistics help explain why there is risk for vulnerable and wounded sheep scattering because they are not finding protection from the shepherds (Ezekiel 34:4-6). What then are we to do? Do we just say, “the rules are the rules,” and people are responsible for educating themselves in complex ecclesiastical law? If that is the case, then the only fair solution would be a new class of ecclesiastical lawyers to assist congregants in navigating the church judicial system. For a number of reasons, including the fact that such lawyers would be working entirely pro bono, I highly doubt that will happen.
However, I heard a better suggestion recently from another PCA pastor. Perhaps these OOO rulings are the result of over-allegiance to a manmade system, good intentions notwithstanding. Jesus might just be the example we need. Like Jesus and his calculated disobedience to Pharisaical legalism, the pastor said that “sometimes we need to disobey the BCO.” Powerful words. Disobeying a constitution is no small thing. I know many would disagree with that statement and instead believe in strict rule-following, no exceptions allowed. But if we continue down that road, church discipline will lose its “moral and spiritual force” when, at the end of the day, the sheep don’t perceive any justice in the discipline. Moral and spiritual force are sacrificed on the altar of rules and procedures.
At this point, I’m guessing some readers might be thinking of words from our Savior that came to my mind after I saw the results of this research. Far be it from me to call anyone a Pharisee, but I am convinced we are facing a similar challenge to fulfill rather than neglect the weightier matters of the law:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
See Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/index.html. Data from 2022 is not available yet, I plan to update and revise my findings once the 2022 GA Minutes are published.
Calculating total number of cases is not straightforward. For these statistics I omitted cases that were either abandoned or withdrawn. Additionally, there are often multiple “cases,” “complaints” and “appeals” each year that relate to the same substantial matter. As much as possible, I counted the number of cases in accord with how the SJC reported them, e.g., if they grouped multiple cases together and ruled them as one, it only counted for one case.
This is in the ballpark of a calculation from ruling elder and SJC member Howie Donahoe in a dissenting opinion from 2018: “In the 18 years between June 1997 and June 2015, the SJC rendered out-of-order rulings in 94 cases, i.e., in 36% of the 257 cases it received” (https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/46th_pcaga_2018.pdf, p. 579).
2019 and 2021 are anomalous, with 100% and 0% out-of-order rulings respectively. If 2022 likewise had zero cases ruled OOO there might be cause to rethink the overall trend.
The low number might be explained by factors such as 1) complexity of judicial process outlined in the Book of Church Order 2) lack of female-representation in church courts, and 3) poor shepherding of cases, eg, women being disciplined for seeking divorce from an abusive husband.