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The Historical Development of the PCA Book of Church Order

Chapter 29 : Offenses

Paragraph 1 : Definition of Offenses

29-1. An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the doctrines or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture.

[Historical Summary : The current PCA text probably dates to a minor change effected in 1974, though this has not yet been confirmed in our search.]

ANTECEDENT TEXTS:
PCA 1973, RoD, 3-1, Adopted text, as printed in the Minutes of General Assembly, p. 145
An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles of [sic] practices of a Church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the National Presbyterian Church as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture as interpreted in these standards.

Continuing Presbyterian Church 1973, RoD, 3-1, Proposed text, p. 40
An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by _____________________________ as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture as interpreted in these standards.

PCUS 1933, RoD III, § 173
PCUS 1925, RoD III, § 173
and
PCUS 1879, RoD, III-1
An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture as interpreted in these standards.

PCUS 1869 draft, Canons of Discipline, I-3
An offence, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the principles of Church-order contained in the formularies of government, discipline and worship, are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States, as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation both to faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offence, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture as interpreted in these standards.

PCUS 1867 draft, Canons of Discipline, I-3
An offence, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the principles of church-order contained in the formularies of government, discipline and worship, are accepted by the Presbyterian church in the United States, as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation both to faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offence, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture as interpreted in these standards.

PCUSA 1858, Revised Book of Discipline, I-2

An offence, the proper object of discipline, is anything in the faith or practice of a professed believer which is contrary to the word of God; the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, being accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation both to faith and practice.
Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any judicatory as an offence, or admitted as matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture, or from the regulations and practice of the Church, founded on Scripture; and which does not involve those evils which discipline is intended to prevent.

OTHER COMPARISONS:
OPC 2005, III-7b.2
An offense which is serious enough to warrant a trial is: (1) an offense in the area of conduct and practice which seriously disturbs the peace, purity, and/or unity of the church, or (2) an offense in the area of doctrine for the nonordained member which would constitute a denial of a credible profession of faith as reflected in his membership vows, or (3) an offense in the area of doctrine for the ordained officer which would constitute a violation of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as that system of doctrine is set forth in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms.


COMMENTARY:
William Childs Robinson,
in The Presbyterian Journal, 20 January 1960, page 13:—
According to the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church, US, what is an offense, and what is the proper ground of an accusation? Are there two grounds on which an act may constitute an offense, or only one? Two grounds of accusations, or only one? A century ago in the undivided Presbyterian Church (Old School) there were two grounds, but the General Assembly of that body had just given its tentative approval to a revision offered by an ad-interim committee with J. H. Thornwell as Chairman which changed this two-fold ground to a single basis. With the War and the separation of the South in which the Chairman lived, the matter of the change died in the USA Church, but was continued in the Southern Church. Indeed the Book of Church Order sent down by our General Assembly to the presbyteries in 1887 listed the two different and divergent definitions and directed the presbyteries to choose between them. The full meaning of our present definition, then, is only realized when it is seen that the other view was re-jected when the present one was accepted. We invite a careful reading and a close consideration of these two definitions which we have labeled respectively, "A" and "B". "A" permits only one matter of accusation, one ground of offense; "B" prescribes two.
The Rules of Discipline, CHAPTER III. Of Offenses.
A Separate and distinct vote is required by the General Assembly making choice between these two definitions of offense.
A. An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship, are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture, as interpreted in these standards.
B. An offense is anything in the principles or practice of a Church member which is contrary to the Word of God; or which, if it be not in its own nature sinful, may tempt others to sin, or mar their spiritual edification. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any judiciary as an offense, or admitted as matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture, or from the regulations and practice of the Church founded on Scripture, and which does not involve those evils which discipline is intended to prevent.
Now the presbyteries voted the first of these definitions (A) and in so doing voted down the second one (B). Accordingly, any Session or Presbytery, Synod or General Assembly which treats a deviation merely "from the regulations and practice of the Church founded upon Scripture" as a matter of accusation and as a ground of discipline is using a principle which our Church rejected, and is not properly using our Book of Discipline to which our third ordination vow obligates us.


F.P. Ramsay, Exposition of the Book of Church Order
(1898, pp. 176-180), on : Rules of Discipline, III-1
CHAPTER III. OF OFFENCES.
After defining offence in the first paragraph, offences are classified : the second paragraph specifying what is common to them all ; the third, the distinction of offences into two classes according to the persons whom they injure ; and the fourth, their distinction into two classes according to the persons to whom they are known.
152.--I. An offence, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the principles or practice of a church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God.
The meaning is not that there ought to be judicial prosecution of every offence in every instance, this paragraph not being intended to constrain the court to prosecute where judicial prosecution is not advisable ; but the meaning is that there may be judicial prosecution for any principle or practice contrary to the Word of God, taking away from the accused every plea but that his principle or practice is not contrary to the Word of God. What is contrary to a custom of the Church, or to some deliverance of a church court, or even to a symbol of doctrine or government, is not an offence unless it is contrary to the Word of God ; but anything contrary to the Word of God is an offence. Even to this, however, there is one practical modification in this Church :
The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly,
slightly amended, cf. 141 and remarks,
together with the formularies of government, discipline and worship, are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered as an offence, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture, as interpreted in our standards.
To the general statement that our courts may treat anything contrary to the Scriptures as an offence, there is the exception of that which, though contrary to the Scriptures, is not contrary to the standards. This is on the ground that the Church is restrained by her covenant with all her members in the Constitution. If it be objected that then the Church thus cuts herself off from obeying Christ by enforcing his law in every part of it, the answer is, that the Church retains the liberty of amending her standards so as to make them exact and complete, if at any time she should discover any error or defect in them.
But if she should be on the point of judicially prosecuting for something contrary to the standards indeed, but not to the Word of God, she must not enforce the standards as law rather than the Scriptures ; for only the Scriptures is law in this Church. (Cf. pars. 9, 10, 17, 19, 60, the first question in 112, 119 and 135, and many other passages in the Book of Church Order as well as in the doctrinal standards.) In human government, where the legislature is as fallible as the judiciary, the interpretation of the law by courts may be treated as itself law, within certain limitations ; but not in the Church, whose law, the Scriptures, is infallible, but whose standard interpretation, the symbols of doctrine and order, are fallible. If it be said that the Constitution is a covenant, and that by its acceptance we are all bound to treat its interpretation of the Word as being the Word of God, the answer is threefold. The members generally have not accepted this Constitution in the same comprehensive sense as the officers, and have not even been asked whether they accept our doctrinal standards as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures, or whether they approve the government and discipline; and yet the definition of an offence is the same for unofficial as for official members. In the second place, the officers have accepted the standards as fallible and amendable, over against the Scriptures as infallible and incapable of amendment ; and this vow of belief can bind no Presbyter to find any one guilty of an offence, of a sin against God (153), because of something which the Presbyter believes not contrary to Scripture. And in the third place, the Constitution subordinates itself to the Scripture, and it would be disloyalty to the Constitution itself to let it displace the Scriptures in controlling one's thinking or action. The Constitution is not afraid to be thus brought back continually to the very Word of God ; thus will its scripturalness become more and more manifest.
The form of indictment is not treated or prescribed in this paragraph, but the principle is laid down in this and in the following paragraph, that an offence is something contrary to the Word of God, a sin against God ; and "the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures." (Confession of Faith, Chap. I, Par. 10.) And it is unconstitutional to make the Constitution, which is itself decrees of councils, the supreme judge in controversies that involve judicial prosecution.
At the same time if one holds an interpretation of the Scriptures different from that of the Church as expressed in her standards, and fails to convince the courts of the Church that her interpretation is error (as, of course, he most probably will fail), he must not expect the court to judge him according to his interpretation. As long as his ordination vows are fulfilled in his own conscience, he need not, from his point of view, surrender anything that he has received from the Church upon taking these vows ; but if, from change of views, or from any cause, he ceases to fulfill those vows, he must, as a covenant-keeper, stand ready to surrender whatever dignity he got in the Church by making the vows. No man can, by vows of any sort, make it his duty to disbelieve the Word of God, or to disobey his commandments ; but no man has a right to obtain any honor in an organization upon condition of certain promises, and then insist on retaining it while breaking those promises. When the individual and the Church differ on the question whether he is fulfilling his vows, each party must decide and act, knowing that Christ is the only Lord. Yet both parties, and no less the individual than the Church, must remember that to maintain the truth of Christ, in way and temper contrary to Christ, is to misrepresent, and, it may be, to betray his truth.

Charles Hodge, on Chapter 1, paragraph 2 of "The Revised Book of Discipline" (1858), pp. 694-697.

The second point which this chapter is designed to settle, is the grounds of discipline, or the occasions which call for its exercise. What are these things which the church is authorized and bound to visit with ecclesiastical censures? In other words, what is an offence, in the ecclesiastical sense of that word? The answer given to this question in the second section of this chapter is, 1. That an offence is something “in the faith or practice of a professed believer contrary to the word of God.” An offence, therefore, is something contrary to the word of God. This is a very important provision; no man and no church has the right to alter the terms of Christian communion; or to prescribe any new conditions on which we may maintain our church and standing unquestioned. We may think many things —drinking wine, for example—to be wrong, because inexpedient, but unless drinking wine is forbidden in the word of God, it cannot be made an ecclesiastical offence, or ground of discipline. We may reason with a man, or exhort him, or admonish him, who, as we think, is acting in a way which injures the cause of Christ; but unless the thing done be forbidden in the word of God, we have no right to arraign him before a church court, or to interfere with his full enjoyment of church privileges. The reason of this is plain. His acting in a way which we regard as inexpedient, may be compatible with his being a true Christian. His views of expediency may differ from ours. His views may be right, and ours wrong. He has as good a right to his opinion as we have to ours. Expediency can never be made the ground of determining the terms of church communion; because expediency depends on circumstances, and is a matter on which men may honestly differ. Uniformity and security depend on our adhering to the rule, that nothing shall be regarded as an offence but what the word of God forbids. If we abandon this principle, we shall be at the mercy of every new theory and every form of fanaticism which for the time gains ascendency. Matters of dress, modes of living, meats and drinks, fasts and festivals, and a thousand other things about which God has left us free, will be made terms of communion, or grounds of church discipline.
2. Among us, as Presbyterians, nothing can be regarded as an offence which is not contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith or Catechisms. No man has a right to interpret the Scriptures as a rule of discipline for others than himself. He may think that the Scriptures condemn certain forms of opinion, or certain modes of conduct, but he has no right to make his private judgment the rule of faith and practice to others.
We have agreed among ourselves to take the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as a faithful exposition of the system of doctrines and rule of duty taught in the Bible, and by that recognized exposition, and not by our own private judgment, we are bound to act in the administration of discipline. One man may think that the Bible forbids slave-holding, or the use of intoxicating liquors. Another, with equal honesty, may regard these opinions as not only contrary to Scripture, but subversive of their authority, by putting another rule in their place. The abolitionist, or the ultra-temperance man, cannot make his opinions the rule of discipline; nor can his opponent. We have agreed to abide by our own standards in the administration of discipline. Outside of that rule, so far as our church standing is concerned, we may think and act as we please. Every man, therefore, in joining the Presbyterian church, knows beforehand what he has to expect, and by what standard of faith and practice he is to be judged.
3. But although nothing is an offence which is not contrary to the Scriptures, it does not follow that everything contrary to the Scriptures is an offence. The words offence and discipline are relative terms. An offence is anything which is a proper ground of discipline. If, therefore, you take the word discipline in its wide sense, every sin is an offence; but in the restricted meaning of the word discipline, nothing is an offence, which is not incompatible with the terms of Christian or ministerial communion as laid down in our standards. An offence bears to ecclesiastical law, the same relation that a crime does to the civil law. It is something for which a man may be legally prosecuted, and if convicted, punished. Hence in our Book, both in its present, and in its revised form, it is said nothing is to be regarded as an offence “which does not involve those evils which discipline is intended to prevent.” A church member may be admonished, or rebuked on account of his want of proper zeal, or for lukewarmness, or for his covetousness, pride, despondency, and the like, but he cannot, on these grounds, be arraigned before a church court, unless they are of such a character as to prove that he is not a Christian. These, in their ordinary form, are not the evils which discipline, in the restricted sense of the word, is designed to prevent. The end of discipline is to secure conformity on the part of members and ministers to the terms of Christian and ministerial communion. And as our church does not pretend to demand perfection of Christian character and conduct as a condition of church-fellowship, nor perfect knowledge or entire freedom from error, as a condition for ministerial fellowship, so every shortcoming from the standard of perfection in either case, is not to be regarded as an offence. Nothing is an offence, but what, if persisted in, would justify either suspension from the privileges
of the church, or from the office of the ministry. The importance of this distinction between a sin and an offence, will be at once perceived. No minister or church member would ever be safe from prosecution, and no judicatory could ever know whether they were called upon to prosecute or not, if every sin were an offence, or a just ground of judicial process. Minor evils are to be corrected by admonition, instruction, and the ministry of the word. It is only these evils in the faith or practice of a church member which bring disgrace or scandal on the church, as tolerating what the Bible declares to be incompatible with the Christian character, which can be a ground of process. Such is not only the theory but the practice of the church. We never hear of any professing Christian being arraigned and put on trial, unless for some immorality, or some such denial of the truth, or such neglect of his duty as a professor of the religion of the Lord Jesus, as affords good ground for calling the sanctity of that profession into question.



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Chapter Index [links to Par. 1 of each chapter]:
FoG..
1
2
3.
4
5.
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
I. King & Head of Church
.§1.
§4
§5
RoD
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
II. Preliminary Principles
§1
§2
§3
§4
§5
§6
§7
§8
DfW
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
[FoG = Form of Government ; RoD = Rules of Discipline ; DfW = Directory for Worship]