Ambiguities in Book of Discipline 9.1, Standing Revisited

Stuart R. Jones

OP minister Joseph Keller has helpfully brought attention to certain ambiguities in the Book of Discipline (BD) regarding complaints. An addendum is offered here to explain likely sources of the ambiguities, which in turn may provide understanding and potential guidance in resolving the problems of applying BD 9.1 to particular cases.

An examination of the 1934 PCUSA BD (a text is available in the 1934 GA minutes, inter alia) and the earliest OPC BD shows several significant changes to the rules on complaints, the two most relevant changes being these: 1) complaints in the PCUSA did not originate at the level of the judicatory said to have erred but were filed with the next “higher” judicatory (i.e. the appellate judicatory), just as an appeal of a judicial case is filed in the OPC today; 2) the 1934 PCUSA BD distinguished between memorials (effectively a “complaint” by a judicatory against a judicatory) and complaints (a “complaint” brought by qualified individual members).

Personal Complaints

When the OPC came into being, the 1934 PCUSA BD served as an exemplar but was revised and sometimes simplified in textual language. Though the OPC BD was revised in the 1980s, the ambiguous portions in view here remained unchanged. The 1934 BD reserved the term “complaint” for what has been called a “personal complaint.” The relevant text follows:

A complaint is a written representation by one or more persons, subject to and submitting to the jurisdiction of a lower judicatory, to the next higher judicatory against a particular delinquency, action, or decision of such lower judicatory in the exercise of administrative discipline. (1934 PCUSA BD 12.8)

The Stonehouse Committee provided the text for the OPC BD prior to 1983, which showed a tendency to economize on the wording of the exemplar even when no substantive change is in view. Thus, the OPC BD simply states, “to which he is subject” rather than “subject to” and “submitting to” and omits the word “jurisdiction” until the scenario of a session complaint against presbytery is addressed. The 1934 BD, however, makes clear that jurisdiction of some sort is in view. It does not resolve the anomaly of denying standing to a pastor to complain who is not under the original jurisdiction of a session, but it also does not use the term “original jurisdiction” (as it does in BD 2.1).

The 1884 PCUSA BD (text in 1883 GA minutes) states:

A complaint is a written representation, made to the next superior judicatory, by one or more persons subject and submitting to the jurisdiction of the judicatory complained of, or by any other reputable person or persons, respecting any delinquency, or any decision, by an inferior judicatory. (1884 BD 9.84)

The latter part of this provision on standing was likely regarded as opening the door too widely, but it may reflect the view that complaints provide a corrective vehicle for guarding the purity and good order of the church, even when a person is not personally injured by a judicatory decision. George Hill states that an inferior court may pronounce a judgment that “may do no wrong to any individual . . . yet the judgment may appear to some of the members of the court contrary to the laws of the church, hurtful to the interests of religion, and such as involves in blame or danger those by whom it is pronounced.” Such cases allow a right to record dissents and to bring complaints according to Hill. He states, “The members of every church judicatory are thus taught to consider themselves guardians of the constitution.”[1]

Hill’s view of complaints relegates standing to members of the judicatory. This is consistent with Keller’s “third view” and the general custom that I have seen in the OPC. The only thing added to Hill’s view is the power of members of the local church to complain against sessional acts. The language “subject to” is reminiscent of membership and ordination vows, and in the case of church disputes there is a necessity to respect the court where jurisdiction over the dispute is being exercised.

If the third view is generally agreed upon, better wording of the Book of Discipline is possible. Great care is needed in such an amendment, however. The text of the BD, which has survived since the OPC came into existence, may be anachronistically read in view of the Form of Government which was revised in 1978. The ecclesiology of that standard (FG 14.2) states that as the presbytery is the governing body of the regional church, “it consists of all the ministers and all the ruling elders of the congregations of the regional church.” Traditionally, a minister would likely be entitled to bring a complaint regardless of whether he had attended the particular meeting where a disputable act took place. This was less certain in the case of a ruling elder deemed to be a representative of his local church. The direction of the Form of Government revision was toward parity in the office(s) of ministers and ruling elders, so this question would need clarification. Though the regional church has a continuous existence, as does its officers, a judicatory has a more discrete existence.

Judicatory Complaints

The OPC, probably in the interest of stylistic economy, made a major revision to the 1934 PCUSA BD provision on memorials by incorporating it into a wider conception of complaints. Chapter 14 is entitled: “Of Differences Between Judicatories.” It begins:

Presentation of a Memorial.—Any judicatory deeming itself aggrieved by the action of any other judicatory of the same rank [italics supplied], may present a memorial to the judicatory immediately superior to the judicatory charged with the grievance and to which the latter judicatory is subject, after the manner prescribed in the sub-chapter on Complaints (Chapter xii, Sections 8-15, Book of Discipline), save only that with regard to the limitation of time. (1934 BD 14.1)

Here the memorial/judicatory complaint clearly indicates that the complaining judicatory must be of “the same rank” but does not require an immediately common superior judicatory for the two equally ranked judicatories. Originally, the OPC BD apparently saw no need to clarify this point, which the passage of time now renders more remote and ambiguous.


[1] George Hill, A Compendium of the Laws of the Church of Scotland, Part I (2nd ed., Edinburgh: 1837) 481–82.

Stuart R. Jones is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who has served as a pastor. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: March 2023


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Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 3: The Importance of the Devotional Life

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