Polity Matters…A Lot

“Polity, at its best, is really the embodiment of ecclesiology.  The Book of Order is the manifestation of who we are as the Church, as we live it out together.”
– The Reverend Forrest Claassen, Installation Service as State Clerk of The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Fall 2013

When our polity changes, the manifestation of who we are as the Church changes, which is why I want to share this eye-opening analysis of ECO polity with you. It was written by The Reverend Dr. Daniel M. Saperstein, Co-Leader for Mission and Partnership for the Synod of the Sun, PC(USA) for First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX.

Dan’s complete, and very thorough analysis, is available for you to read here Notes on ECO Polity.

The following are very pertinent excerpts from his analysis:

“In the PCUSA, the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (F-3.02) express how the checks and balances within the polity serve to maintain order and justice. The genius of Presbyterian polity is that as authority in the church expands, so does the scope of accountability, so that issues are ultimately decided by the voice of the whole church.

A comparison of the PCUSA and ECO polities will demonstrate that one key distinction between the two is ECO’s greater location of power in pastors and sessions without adequate accountability either to the presbytery above or to the congregation below. If the oft-cited criticism of the PCUSA by ECO-bound churches is that it is too restrictive in its polity but too lax in its theology, ECO is precisely the opposite – overly restrictive in theology while giving free rein in polity.

 It is not that the PCUSA has elevated polity over theology. Rather, the PCUSA recognizes that polity is the practical expression of our theology. So the question in choosing between polities is which more accurately represents a faithful theology.”

“The ECO constitutional documents are identified as the statement of Essential Tenets, ECO Polity, and the Rules of Discipline. These outline a denomination that is Presbyterian only in the broadest sense of the term. Church councils above the session have virtually no authority to direct the life and ministry of lower councils. There is no provision for administrative review and oversight. There are no structures to promote or ensure inclusion of persons across race or gender. Property and finances are exclusively under the control of sessions. Even the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a congregation could be commissioned without recourse to presbytery. In these regards, the denominational body the polity most resembles is not Presbyterian, but Southern Baptist.”

Some of my primary concerns with ECO polity, which Dan points out, include:

  • The polity of ECO rests on covenants of partnership (membership) and accountability. The use of covenant language suggests that the unity of the church envisioned is contingent on keeping covenant. Unlike the PCUSA Constitution which states that the particular congregations collectively constitute ONE church (F-3.0201), the ECO polity reflects a unity that is a covenantal association of individual churches.
  • ECO restores the office of Assistant Pastor, elected by the session only (not the congregation).  The PCUSA discontinued this because of abuse of pastors in this tenuous role. It is noteworthy that while Assistant Pastors are accorded a vote at presbytery, they do not have a vote on the session they serve.
  • Nowhere does the ECO constitution grant presbytery the authority to set minimum terms of call.  And neither pastors nor congregations have recourse to presbytery in the negotiation of call terms.
  • Presbyteries have the authority only to “settle differences between congregations and pastors” (3.0103). They do not have authority to enter into congregations in conflict or to take original jurisdiction of congregations that are unable to manage their affairs.  While some may welcome this change, it raises the question of whether ECO is in fact a hierarchical denomination with an essential unity, or a mere convention (à la Southern Baptists). It does not protect a congregation from abuse by a rogue session, or unresolved differences within congregations.  Trinity experienced and benefited from this kind of help from Los Ranchos Presbytery ten years ago when the presbytery recognized a problem at Trinity and stepped in to handle it and the subsequent dismissal of our pastor.
  • Whereas the PCUSA Constitution requires that presbyteries consist of at least equal numbers of elders as of minister members, in ECO this is reversed, that is, the number of minister members will at least be equal or greater than the elder commissioners.
  • The Synod executive council is given great power for the whole denomination without the requirement that its decisions be accountable to the representative assembly.  It consists of only 6-9 persons, with a guarantee of only three elder members.  The delegation of such sweeping authority to a small body, with no requirement of representation or inclusion that could conceivably be dominated by a supermajority of pastor members is contradictory to the Presbyterian principles of accountability and parity among ruling elder and teaching elder presbyters.
  • The issue of church property has taken on an increasingly central role in the decisions of churches to move to ECO from the PCUSA. ECO polity contains no property trust clause, leaving property solely in the hands of the local congregation, and prohibits the presbytery from exercising any partnership with congregations in the mortgage financing of building loans (4.0102).  This may provide some sense of satisfaction to those who are concerned that a trust clause may be exercised against their wishes in church disputes, but it also removes an important protection for congregations from abuse by leaders or an influential group. It also removes from smaller congregations an important resource for acquiring funds to expand their ministry, especially when they are in an early phase of development.
  • Pastor CEO?  An odd provision of chapter four also provides that the session or other governing board shall elect an elder, pastor, or staff member to serve as the chief executive officer of the corporation and may elect other corporate officers as it deems appropriate or as required by law. (4.0101).  The idea that the pastor could also serve as the CEO of the church corporation by election of the session reflects a pastor-centric leadership model that is deeply contrary to the historic practice of Presbyterian polity.
  • The Essential Tenets document is part of the constitution, along with the polity and rules of discipline. Every explanatory statement in the Essential Tenets document therefore is written into the constitution and has not only the requirement of a supermajority of presbyteries to amend, but a supermajority within the presbyteries. This is an extremely high bar of amendment, exceeding that of the U.S. Constitution (which only requires a majority vote by three-fourths of the state legislatures).
  • The Confessions of the Church are not part of the ECO constitution. There is no provision in the constitution for adopting or amending confessions. Claims therefore that they share a common confessional perspective with the PCUSA are false; the only functional confession of ECO is the statement of Essential Tenets. Indeed, this has a higher standard of amendment than do the confessions in the PCUSA.
  • ECO has no comparable section to F-3.01 and F-3.02 of the PCUSA Constitution, which outline the Historic Principles of Church Order (“preliminary principles”) and the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (“radical principles”). There is no statement affirming the rights or limits of conscience. There is no statement regarding the principles of government. There is no statement regarding the requirement of mutual forbearance when consciences collide. These principles are at the core of the PCUSA polity. They assure that rights are protected. No such assurances are evident in the ECO constitution. The ECO constitution also omits the historic statement of the Great Ends of the Church.
  • The polity of ECO, with its unaccountable leadership (synod executive council), weak structures of hierarchical protection and accountability, and Congregationalist emphases creates an environment in which basic rights and freedoms of members can be trampled.
  • The ECO constitution provides for equal powers of appeal by the accusers in a disciplinary case where a verdict of not guilty is rendered. The PCUSA had briefly offered limited powers of appeal to accusers, but even those limited powers have been rescinded. In ECO the possibility of double and even triple jeopardy exists for a person found not guilty at trial.

There is at least one concern Dan has which I am not certain can be sustained and that is:

  • Presbyteries have the power: (3.0103g) [To] receive, dismiss, examine, install, provide pastoral care for, and discipline pastors.  However, nowhere does the constitution grant presbytery the role of approving calls. The “tripartite” call of the PCUSA apparently becomes a “bipartite” call between a congregation and a pastor.

ECO polity is very abbreviated (low control) and depends on the high level of trust expected within the denomination. However the abbreviation leaves too much room for interpretation, or misinterpretation as the case may be.  Trust is high today because those who are forming ECO have been in relationships with each other for many years.  But can that trust be passed on going forward?  Trust cannot be inherited.

Finally, watch and listen to the Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, discuss John Calvin’s suspicion of the potential for the abuse of power in the church.

“Calvin was suspicious of too much power being held in one person’s hands, say a bishop’s hands because of the corrosive possibilities of such power.  Calvin did not trust the trappings of imperial status and the potential for tyranny when so much power was held in one person’s hands.  Calvin was also suspicious of power being held finally in the hands of a congregation, period.  Pure congregationalism, he thought, was hampered by two weaknesses. First, congregationalism is an order of church life that is designed for saints and not for nominal Christians.  And secondly, congregationalism runs the risk of devolving to emphasis simply on the local church and thus loses the universal character, or catholicity, of the church.”

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

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