Does Polity Trump Theology? The PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission decision in the Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery case re-examined
For a few years now I have wanted to write an article giving my take on the 2013 decision of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission decision in the complaint of RE Gerald Hedman versus Pacific Northwest Presbytery concerning their trial of Peter Leithart. I wanted to finish my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision, which dismantles Federal Vision theology, before I did so, though. That task has now been completed.
On April 27, 2016, TheAquilaReport carried a review of my book written by Lane Keister, a friend and fellow PCA minister. Lane opined that I made a tactical mistake in my representation of the complainant in that case by dealing with sundry theological issues. He also expressed the concern that he made the same mistake in his testimony before Pacific Northwest Presbytery in the trial. He feels 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 with his written defense of himself which was included in the record of the case. The Defense for Pacific Northwest Presbytery also raised the extra-theological issues by bringing in expert witnesses to “testify” that Leithart’s views were supposedly within the undefined (by them) Reformed tradition. Plus, the Defense for Pacific Northwest Presbytery placed several hundred pages of theological writings within the record of the case that supposedly exonerated the views of Leithart. Though I was faced with a situation where I would be criticized if I did and criticized if I did not, I felt that it would be foolish to make no response to the theological issues raised by the Defense for Pacific Northwest Presbytery. The impression made by the record of the case was that the whole Reformed community since the Reformation was clearly on the side of Leithart on the matter of baptismal efficacy, etc. Thus, I wrote a theological response to those extra-theological issues which was limited to 10 pages by the SJC manual of the PCA. But both the complaint in that case (which was written by me) and my oral arguments 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 record of the case (which was over 700 pages) and the Constitution of the PCA.
Second, I was chairman of the panel that heard the first complaint from parties within Pacific Northwest Presbytery concerning the views of Peter Leithart in 2009. At that time, I was still serving out my fourth term as a member of the SJC. That panel’s 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 any theological issues. When the panel’s report went before the full SJC, there were several members of the full body that ridiculed it. The result was that the case was sent back to the presbytery with several options on how to proceed. The presbytery chose a trial of Leithart and the decision of that body led to the complaint which was heard in 2013. Thus, sticking to the Westminster Confession of Faith in the complaint heard in 2009 did not work either.
Third, the complaint by Gerald Hedman was not lost in March of 2013. It was lost long before then. It was lost in 2007. On the day that the General Assembly was scheduled to vote on the Ad-Interim Report concerning the FV and the NPP, 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 that Assembly. Well, the Ad-Interim Report was adopted, but those big guns have 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 10 page brief I submitted for the complainant in 2013. It smoked out the SJC and made them reveal their true position. As a result of my brief, they did not want to discuss any theological issues at the hearing before the whole SJC— not even Westminster Confession of Faith issues. They decided the case on the basis of their new position, that polity trumps theology. My wife was an observer at that case and she commented to me afterwards: “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 is considered to be more important than theology.
The argument from the SJC side seems to be watertight. Their argument was and is that they have to follow their polity and defer to the lower court. But that is a superficial argument. First, the SJC does not always have to defer to the lower court’s decision in cases where the right procedure has been used.
BCO 39-4 says:
“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 read that section to the SJC in March of 2013 and made that argument, but it fell on deaf ears. They even hid behind the excuse in their written opinion on the complaint that I had not proven the case. That is simply not true. The written complaint proved the case with numerous statements that showed that Leithart’s views were out of accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith. More importantly, the SJC is the higher court and it is their responsibility to uphold the Constitution. They cannot hide behind any excuse of my alleged failures and they cannot defer to the lower court when the proper interpretation of the Constitution is at stake; which it is when the proper interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith is involved. Either the FV is in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith or it is not. But the buck for making that determination stops with the SJC; not with me; not with the presbytery. In the Hedman complaint, the SJC punted the ball. Another member of my congregation was also present at that hearing. As soon as it was over, he said to me: “I will tell you one thing. If you lose this case, it will be purely political. They don’t want to open that can of worms.” In his opinion, therefore, the SJC’s decision was dereliction of duty. I agree with him.
In research for my soon to be published book, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, I came across Charles Hodge’s comments on the Act of Itineration in 1737 which was adopted by the Synod of Philadelphia of the original Presbyterian Church in America. That act forbade ministers 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.
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.
Of course, the SJC did not have to exercise the extraordinary right of revolution in order to make the right decision. They have all authority to make sure the Constitution is being properly interpreted.
The decision of the SJC 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 procedure has been followed by the lower court. The SJC essentially has taken the position that there are no obligations more important than good ecclesiastical order. That 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. That 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, the 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 complaint.
Having served fifteen years as a juror on the SJC, 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 take this new position that the court cannot uphold a complaint against the lower court unless there is clear error in their procedure, then there is no theological, moral, or spiritual position that is safe. That approach to polity is the same one that brought ruin to the PCUS and it will do so to the PCA as well. The denomination will be a charade. Every presbytery will do what is right in its own eyes and heresies will multiply. When the spiritual 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 Trumps 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. I don’t think Jesus was pleased either. After he all, He said, “Beware of the false prophets.” (Matthew 7:15).
Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Destin, FL
 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.
 Ibid., 248-249.