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General Assembly Nominating Committee

Rules of Discipline Task Force - Application Due Nov 21, 2016


Rules of Discipline Task Force – Item 06-14 – 222nd General Assembly (2016)



The 222nd General Assembly (2016) created a Rules of Discipline Task Force, to be charged with revising the entire Rules of Discipline to make the Rules of Discipline more accessible to the church, to preserve and enhance the accountability of councils and individuals to the church, to expand the role of mediation and alternate dispute resolution, and to provide flexibility in crafting censures and remedies, particularly in light of recent learnings in ethical and social development and experiments by the secular legal system with alternative sentencing. The task force, which shall be appointed by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) Moderator, shall release its proposed revised draft by September 2017, and shall gather comments and present a final report to the 224th General Assembly (2020). 


The Rules of Discipline express a profound vision:

The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ. (Book of Order, D-1.0102).

Unfortunately, the vision does not match the reality. The Rules of Discipline are confusing to those who are unfamiliar with them: one cannot read the Rules of Discipline and understand how the process works. Moreover, much of the binding authority interpreting the Rules of Discipline is found only in decisions of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission or authoritative interpretations by the General Assembly. That authority is accessible only to persons who know about and can access the Annotated Book of Order and/or the Stated Clerks’ Handbook.

The Rules of Discipline are poorly organized. The chapters pertaining to remedial actions describe what a complaint is (D-6.0201) and who may file it (D-6.0202), only after explaining in detail how to request a stay (D-6.0100). The necessary subject of a remedial action, a delinquency or an irregularity by a council, is defined four chapters earlier (D-2.0202). Jurisdictional requirements, also known as preliminary questions, while implied in D-2.0202 (definition of irregularity and delinquency) and D-6.0202 (who may file), are actually found in D-6.0305—Examination of Papers. Confusion about who may file has been particularly acute in cases involving synod administrative commissions assuming original jurisdiction over presbyteries, including presbytery administrative commissions, for example Hwang v. Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, Remedial Case 220-05 (2011); Kim, et al. v. Administrative Commission of the Synod of Lincoln Trails, Remedial Case 221-07 (2013).

The chapters pertaining to disciplinary actions are equally confusing. An “offense” is defined only as “any act or omission by a member or a person in an ordered ministry of the church that is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (D-2.0203b). However, there is also a significant definition of “sexual abuse,” found in D-10.0401. Section D-10.0401 provides the statute of limitations for offenses, but does so only in the context of explaining when charges may be filed. Inexplicably, while there is no statute of limitations for sexual abuse, the usual five-year statute of limitations applies to all other forms of abuse, including serious, perhaps even fatal, physical abuse.

Above all, it is time to evaluate the wisdom of the Rules of Discipline. The advantage of our current process is that it acts as an intervention—confronting the accused with the consequences of his or her own behavior—while also giving the victim a voice. The requirement of a public rebuke provides for transparency: rebukes put the basic facts on the table, and guarantee both that misconduct will not be swept under the rug and that those involved in the disciplinary process—the stated clerk, the permanent judicial commission, the investigating committee—cannot act as a secret police.

However, the current language required in rebukes is quite harsh (see, e.g., D-12.0102), and out of proportion for many offenses. For lesser wrongs, the harshness of the mandatory rebuke promotes alienation rather than healing and restoration. Because there is no censure that does not include a rebuke, and no flexibility to temper the language of a rebuke to fit the severity of the offense, one ends by rebuking a jaywalker with the same words one uses to rebuke an ax murderer. The only alternative to public shaming is sweeping the problem under the rug. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can do better than this. We have much to learn, particularly from the secular legal system’s experiments with alternative sentencing for juveniles and misdemeanors.

Over the past decade, the Form of Government has been substantially revised, and a revised Directory for Worship will be presented to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) for consideration and adoption. It is time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to turn its attention to the Rules of Discipline, so it may fulfill the promise of its Preamble.

The purpose of discipline is to honor God by making clear the significance of membership in the body of Christ; to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community; to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved; to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration; to uphold the dignity of those who have been harmed by disciplinary offenses; to restore the unity of the church by removing the causes of discord and division; and to secure the just, speedy, and economical determination of proceedings (D-1.0101).

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