Thoughts On Overture 12 From PCA General Assembly (2023) And Ascension Presbytery’s Sending The Overture To The Civil Magistrate: Part Two

Editor’s Note: In part one, we began an explanation for why Dr. Gordon believes both General Assembly and Ascension Presbytery acted unconstitutionally in sending Overture 12 to the magistrate. This second part will continue a discussion of the confessional considerations, picking up at the fourth point to examine Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This leaves the practical and historical considerations for part three.

4. Synods and councils are restricted in ways that individual church members, and even church officers, are not restricted. Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) does not restrict church members from handling or concluding matters that are not ecclesiastical. Nor does Chapter 31 restrict church officers from handling or concluding matters that are not ecclesiastical, provided that those church officers are acting in their “several” powers, as opposed to their “joint” powers.

The recognition of the distinct “joint” powers of officers over the church appeared as early as 1578 in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline, in its first chapter, entitled “Of the Kirk and Policy Thereof in General, and Wherein it is Different from the Civil Policy” (emphasis mine). In the earliest Presbyterian book of discipline, its very first chapter was devoted to distinguishing civil power from “kirk” power. In this first chapter, the different powers of the civil and ecclesiastical governments were described, and the different jurisdictions of the two powers were also described, as in the citation below (emphases mine):

  1. The kirk of God is sometimes largely taken for all them that profess the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so it is a company and fellowship, not only of the godly, but also of hypocrites professing always outwardly a true religion. Other times it is taken for the godly and elect only; and sometimes for them that exercise spiritual function among the congregation of them that profess the truth.
  2. The kirk in this last sense has a certain power granted by God, according to the which it uses a proper jurisdiction and government, exercised to the comfort of the whole kirk. This power ecclesiastical is an authority granted by God the Father, through the Mediator Jesus Christ, unto his kirk gathered, and having the ground in the word of God; to be put in execution by them unto whom the spiritual government of the kirk by lawful calling is committed.
  3. The policy of the kirk flowing from this power is an order or form of spiritual government which is exercised by the members appointed thereto by the word of God; and therefore is given immediately to the office-bearers, by whom it is exercised to the weal of the whole body.1

In its joint power/authority, then, the church officers exercise authority to edify “the congregation . . . to the comfort of the whole kirk . . . unto his kirk gathered . . . it is exercised to the weal of the whole body.” When officers gather to exercise their joint power, it is exclusively to edify the body, the congregation, the whole kirk, his kirk gathered, for the well-being of the whole body; it has no authority or jurisdiction over those who are not members of the visible church.

This description of church power among church rulers in the exercise of their “joint” powers therefore influenced subsequent church bodies, such as my PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), which contains this language in its Book of Church Order (all emphases mine):

1-5. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction is not a several, but a joint power, to be exercised by presbyters in courts. These courts may have jurisdiction over one or many churches, but they sustain such mutual relations as to realize the idea of the unity of the Church.

3-2. Ecclesiastical power, which is wholly spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in Church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction.

3-3. The sole functions of the Church, as a kingdom and government distinct from the civil commonwealth, are to proclaim, to administer, and to enforce the law of Christ revealed in the Scriptures.

3-4. The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church. They are as planets moving in concentric orbits.

3-5. The Church, with its ordinances, officers and courts, is the agency which Christ has ordained for the edification and government of His people, for the propagation of the faith, and for the evangelization of the world.

3-6. The exercise of ecclesiastical power, whether joint or several, has the divine sanction when in conformity with the statutes enacted by Christ, the Lawgiver, and when put forth by courts or by officers appointed thereunto in His Word.2

The consistent teaching of Presbyterian governments from 1578 to the present has been to restrict the exercise of its joint power to those within the church’s jurisdiction; and the consistent teaching of such Presbyterian governments has also been to distinguish church power and jurisdiction from civil power and jurisdiction. This distinction came to be known eventually as “the spirituality of the church,” and in his book on the matter, Dr. Alan D. Strange observes: “The idea, particularly as used by Charles Hodge, has to do with what might be called the ‘province of the church’—the nature and limits of its power.”3 The joint power exercised by church courts has no jurisdiction over those who are not members of the church; and has no jurisdiction over those (the civil authorities) who do have jurisdiction over them. From 1578 until the founding of the PCA in 1973,4 Presbyterian books of order consistently contrasted the powers and jurisdictions of church and state. None of those books contrasts church power with medical power, or labor-union power, or NEA power, or any other power; those books only address the respective differences between the divinely-instituted powers of state and church (and family) to ensure that the two are not confused. The restraints upon church power in those constitutions only relate to the gathered officers of the church in what they do “jointly,” rather than severally. Charles Hodge had little fear of being contradicted when he said regarding the General Assembly of 1861 that had adopted the Gardner Spring resolutions that required primary loyalty to the federal government rather than to the state governments:

It is the doctrine of the Scriptures and of the Presbyterian Church, that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world; that it is not subject as to faith, worship, or discipline, to the authority of the state; and that it has no right to interfere with the state, or give ecclesiastical judgment in matters pertaining to state policy.5

Nothing in these Presbyterian constitutions restrains the same officers, as individuals, from acting severally (although some Old School Presbyterians considered it bad form). Any preacher then or now could, for instance, preach on human sexuality, and sins against the same; gathered with other officers, however, his jurisdiction is limited to church members, church courts, and church agencies (which might include fraternal correspondence with other ecclesiastical bodies; I believe our fiftieth GA could properly have sent Overture 12 to other denominational bodies).

5. In the grammar of WCF 31.4, there are four parts: two prohibitions, and two potential exceptions to the second of those prohibitions:

Prohibition 1: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical.”

Prohibition 2: “and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.”

Potential exception 2a: “unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary”

Potential exception 2b: “by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

The first prohibition does not merely prohibit the church from “concluding” anything that is not ecclesiastical; it also prohibits the church from even “handling” anything that is not “ecclesiastical.” Medical practices—whether surgical or pharmacological—are not “ecclesiastical” by any recognized definition of the term. American Heritage Dictionary offers three definitions of “ecclesiastical”:

  1. Of or relating to a church, especially as an organized institution. 2. Appropriate to a church or to use in a church. 3. Of or pertaining to the church; relating to the organization or government of the church; not secular.6

Could the gathered church body adopt a constitutional amendment that bans its officers and members from performing certain surgeries or administering certain drugs? It certainly could, because it would be exercising its jurisdiction over the church members and officers. It has no jurisdiction over those who are not in the church, nor over those who do have jurisdiction over those who are not in the church.

The Presbytery of the Ascension exceeded its jurisdiction, therefore, when it instructed its clerk to send a communication to civil authorities in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, advising them how to govern their citizens, whether church members or not. Had Presbytery sent the Overture to the churches within its jurisdiction, it would have been acting well within the jurisdiction assigned to it (and, I may add, our Presbytery is ordinarily very circumspect about such jurisdictional matters).

The second prohibition is nearly absolute: “and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.” That is, the first prohibition already restricted the church from considering anything “that is not ecclesiastical,” which, by itself, would bar it from considering matters that concern the commonwealth. To make the matter even more clear, however, the Westminster Assembly expressly added a negative qualification, “not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.”

The second exception to the second prohibition (“by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate”) is now irrelevant, and it would not affect the confession if it disappeared entirely. For it is impossible now that any civil magistrate could ever require the advice of synods and councils, because there are entirely too many denominations of Christians.7 It would be, therefore, administratively impossible for the magistrate to solicit the “advice” of synods and councils if there were not an official state church, so this second exception need not concern anyone, and is now moot.

The first exception to intermeddling in civil affairs is not, however, moot: “not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary.” In theory, this exception could indeed be exercised. Note, however, that it requires two conditions: “humble petition” and “in cases extraordinary.” The exception does not permit “humble petition” or extraordinary cases, but “humble petition” in such extraordinary cases. A “petition” is not “advice.” According to our two catechisms, there are six “petitions” in the Lord’s prayer, and indeed the word “petition” only appears in those places and here in WCF 31.4, so those two places are the only other examples of what the Assembly understood by the word “petition.” We do not “advise” God to hallow his name, bring his kingdom, provide our daily bread, etc.; we “petition” him to do and provide these matters to us and for us. We do not advise him to forgive us; we petition him to forgive us. And, in each, we petition as a manifest inferior, to a superior who alone can provide for us what we would not otherwise attain. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “petition” is a fairly rare and formal form of request:

  1. The action of formally asking, begging, supplicating, or humbly requesting. . . 2. A supplication or prayer; an entreaty, esp. a solemn prayer to the Deity. 3. A formally drawn up request or supplication, esp. a written supplication from an individual or body of inferiors to a superior, or to a person or body in authority (as a sovereign or legislature) soliciting some favor, privilege, right, or mercy, or the redress of some wrong or grievance.8 (Parenthesis original)

OED’s second definition seems to be largely a religious prayer; their first and third definitions may pertain to our circumstances. What is implicit in “humbly” requesting in the first definition is specifically stated in the third, by mentioning a “body of inferiors to a superior.” We (the church) do not regard the church to be “inferiors” to the “superior” civil magistrates. Rather, we assent to something like the idea of “sphere sovereignty,” in which state, family, and church are equally authorized by God to act within their respective arenas. If the magistrate ordered parents to rear their children in a particular way, parents would have a right either to resist/disobey, or to petition humbly that the state stay within its own bounds. If the magistrate ordered frequent (or infrequent) communion, churches would have the right to resist/disobey, and to petition humbly that the state abide within its own bounds. Parents need not “petition” the state to be parents or function as such; and churches need not “petition” the state to conduct the affairs of the church.

One could easily imagine an example of a “humble petition in cases extraordinary” that would satisfy the confession’s language. Churches in Nevada would have had every right to petition the state not to close churches during Covid while leaving the casinos open, or to prohibit them from serving the Lord’s supper if they were open. It would be “extraordinary” for any magistrate to favor non-ecclesiastical citizens over ecclesiastical citizens, or to prohibit ecclesiastical citizens from fulfilling their ecclesiastical duties. It would be right to petition such a magistrate for our full rights, as A. A. Hodge said, “where the interests of the church are immediately concerned.” As citizens and as church members, we had the first-amendment-right of both assembly and religion, and the state of Nevada abused its authority by permitting gamblers to assemble but not permitting religious citizens to assemble. Our assembling is indeed a matter that is “ecclesiastical,” and therefore this circumstance is consistent with the language of Confession of Faith 31.4. Church members or church judicatories in any state during Covid had the right to petition the state to permit them to assemble and practice their religion. Meeting as a religious body certainly satisfies A. A. Hodge’s “where the interests of the church are immediately concerned.”

Our churches today already are sovereign within the ecclesiastical realm to instruct our members regarding biblical sexual ethics. The state currently permits us to declare that homosexuality is a sin, for instance, even though it permits gay people to marry; and it does not require ministers to conduct such services if their conscience does not permit doing so. The state permits the church to teach parents not to assist in trans-gendering their children, and it permits the church to teach physicians and surgeons who are church members not to participate in such.

There is nothing “extraordinary” about governments governing, and nothing “extraordinary” about governments permitting behavior that is contrary to the ethics of Christian people. Gambling, for example, has ordinarily (and rightly) been regarded by Christian ethicists as contrary to the law of charity, because, in gambling, one can only win by another’s loss (and some Christian ethicists regarded it as an atheistic unbelief in polytheistic providence and/or a belief in Fate). Thousands of marriages and families are injured and often destroyed by legalized gambling, so its effects are indeed profoundly harmful. If anything, it is “extraordinary” for civil governments to fund themselves partly by revenues made from such an evil practice; yet our General Assembly and Presbytery have not petitioned the cessation of such abuse of civil authority. It is not “extraordinary” that sinners sin (even Ms. Swift knows that “haters gonna hate”), and the Westminster Assembly, with its strong doctrine of depravity, was entirely too wise to believe that sin—whether by individuals or by magistrates—was or is extraordinary.

One test illustrating why A. A. Hodge’s interpretation is the better interpretation of WCF 31.4 is this: ask whether we would have been negligent in our task had we not considered Overture 12 at all. When we look at Assembly’s other tasks—supervising church planting domestically, overseeing foreign missions, assuring that the administrative office of the denomination has the resources needed to do its work, reviewing records of the various Presbyteries—we would likely conclude that if we had not done such things, we would have failed to fulfill our responsibility. Now ask the same question regarding Overture 12: Had the Overture never been written, or been considered at all by the Assembly, would we have failed to fulfill our responsibility? I believe even the strongest proponents of Overture 12 would answer this in the negative. To ask, “May we address Overture 12 (or others like it)?” is very different from asking, “Need we address Overture 12 (or others like it)?”

Private citizens, church members or not, especially in a democratic republic, have every right not only to petition, but to advise their elected representatives. Christian individual citizens, qua individual citizens, have every right to send an Overture such as the one endorsed by the General Assembly and Ascension Presbytery to their elected representatives. The Westminster Assembly placed no restriction on the rights of private citizens (other than to obey the “lawful commands” of the magistrate); it did, however, expressly prohibit “synods and councils” from “handling” or “concluding” civil matters which concern the commonwealth. If our church courts do not discipline themselves by the instructions of WCF 31.4 now, we will likely become like the mainline Presbyterian body from which we came, expending ever-increasing time and energy advising magistrates, and expending decreasing time and energy shepherding the flock.

Notes

  1. The Second Book of Discipline, 1578, Scotland, 1.1–3.
  2. Book of Church Order, Presbyterian Church of America, 2023, 1-1, 3-2–3-6.
  3. Alan D. Strange, Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church (Crossway, 2024), 39. See also Strange, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Ecclesiology of Charles Hodge, Reformed Academic Dissertations (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017). Strange also observes that three differing understandings of the spirituality of the church emerged among Old School Presbyterians: a northern view, a southern view, and a border-states view.
  4. I am insufficiently informed on or persuaded whether the EPC Book of Order continues this tradition or not; there is evidence of distinguishing church power from civil power there (BOG 2-3, 3-1), but less compelling evidence of its awareness of the distinction of joint and several power (BOG 3-3). Thus, I did not extend the date to the EPC’s founding in 1982, but chose instead to end it at the date of the PCA’s founding in 1973.
  5. Cited in Strange, Empowered Witness, 82.
  6. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2022) s.v. “ecclesiastical.”
  7. There are twelve NAPARC communions alone, three large Lutheran bodies (WELS is as large as the PCA, and Missouri Synod is four times the size of the NAPARC churches combined), and Baptist denominations reproduce as frequently as do the Presbyterian ones.
  8. Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023), s.v. “petition.”

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.

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    Dr. T. David Gordon is a teaching elder in The Presbytery of the Ascension. Before retirement, he taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary (1984–98) and Grove City College (1999–2021).

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3 comments

  1. I think many men knew better but were afraid to vote against it. Either that or they just simply got caught up in the frenzy and failed to use their brain. Then again there is the Postmil wing that carries a big stick with the cons. Thanks for reminding us who we are and where we came from.

  2. “Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging, every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. (WCF 23.3, 1787/88)”

    The desecration of natural law via a chipping away of sacred reality in the secular realm may not ensure such protections. Covid restrictions is an example of manipulated and ultimately warped priority. The foundation for a proper and lawful action on the part of the magistrate is in jeopardy. What is religion? and whose religion? are the underlying question. What is lawful? Who has authority? Ultimately, God is in control. But old standards of application and argumentation are not going to be as compelling. Religious commentators on cultural and civil affairs need to dig deeper into the heart of anthesis. (The attack does not come in one fast swoop). I’m not saying the author is wrong but there’s an old paradigm being taken for granted in the reasoning. We should shift our perspective a little bit.

    We don’t confront the nationalists by denying the deeper antitheses. But there’s no righteousness in me to place myself in a favorable position. I could never be a nationalist. I’m just an observer.

    • AJ,

      You stopped quoting too soon:

      It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

      When the Americans revised the confession they wanted to eliminate the federal church but they assumed that most Americans would be nominally Christian and they were right for a long time. But the end of the chapter also accounts for those who aren’t Christians.

      I’ve no idea what you mean by “sacred reality in the secular realm.”

      The American founders didn’t need the Confession to explain natural law. See the Declaration of Independence. They appealed to God as Creator (nature), not Redeemer (grace).

      The spiritual antithesis between belief and unbelief is real but it’s a mistake to leverage that antithesis to make a political anthesis. Politics isn’t inherently theological. This is the very mistake that the CNs make, which I’ve addressed in my commentary on/reply to the CNs. Perhaps you missed it?

      https://heidelblog.net/christian-nationalism

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