Three Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) recently approved an overture requesting the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction over TE Peter Leithart, a teaching elder member of Pacific Northwest Presbytery.
Calvary Presbytery approved the overture at its April 25, 2013 meeting, and Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley Presbyteries approved the overture at their respective meetings on May 7, 2013. The vote at all of the meetings was unanimous or at least without audible dissent.
The Presbyteries were acting under the provisions in Book of Church Order (BCO) 34-1, which requires at least two Presbyteries to request General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction. The provision states:
Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal and two other Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction (to first receive and initially hear and determine), the General Assembly shall do so.
To assume original jurisdiction means that a higher church court can assume jurisdiction and handle issues affecting PCA members if their church court is not doing so, especially with regard to judicial process.
The questions about TE Leithart and his theological views have been before Pacific Northwest Presbytery for a number of years. The Presbytery had conducted an investigation of his views but did not find a strong presumption of guilt. A formal complaint was filed with the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) alleging that the Presbytery failed to find some of TE Leithart’s views contrary to the teachings expressed in the Westminster Confession and Shorter and Larger Catechisms, which define the PCA’s theological positions.
The SJC ruled that Pacific Northwest Presbytery had failed in not finding a strong presumption of guilt and sent the case back to the Presbytery for action. The Presbytery decided to file charges against TE Leithart alleging that he held and promoted views that were contrary to the Westminster Standards; specifically charges in five areas: on baptism, the covenants, imputation, justification, and union with Christ.
In June 2011, Pacific Northwest Presbytery held a trial, and the Presbytery found TE Leithart not guilty of the five charges. In November 2011, one month after the Presbytery met and adopted the judgments on the five charges, a complaint was filed against the actions of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. In April, 2012 the Presbytery denied the complaint at which point the complaint was carried to the SJC.
The SJC heard the complaint, RE Gerald Hedman v. Pacific Northwest Presbytery (Case 2012-05), in March 2013 and decided to deny the complaint, which means that the action of Pacific Northwest Presbytery that found TE Leithart not guilty of all charges had been affirmed. The vote of the SJC was 15 concurring, 2 dissenting.
As a result of the SJC’s decision, the three Presbyteries voted to approve the overture asking the PCA General Assembly to, “Assume original jurisdiction and direct the Standing Judicial Commission to hear ‘Pacific Northwest Presbytery vs. Peter Leithart,’ because PNWP has ‘refused to act’ per the provision found in BCO 34-1, by not declaring a mistrial in this case because of its chief prosecutor’s conflict of interest, stemming from his transition into membership of the Roman Catholic church.” »