Can EPC Congregations Renounce Jurisdiction?
No, they cannot. Sorta.
This will be my final post for awhile on EPC-polity insider baseball. I can’t keep boring all of my half-dozen readers.
The context and explanation of this question and answer are important for EPC polity. The “renunciation of jurisdiction” is a constitutional principle of the EPC that is a natural consequence of our ecclesiology. Courts of the church (Sessions, Presbyteries, the General Assembly) have spiritual jurisdiction over their constituents (members of the local church, pastors and churches of the presbytery, the presbyteries of the church; BoG 16-2, BoD 1-11, 4-2.) Each court only has authority – which is spiritual in nature and only relates to the function of the court – over the people that belong to it. So local church X does not have authority over the worship and membership of local church Y. Nor does local church X have authority over people who are not members or participants in its worship.
This is relevant to the issue of church discipline. A local church may only exercise discipline over people within its jurisdiction: members and participants in the life of the congregation. But the EPC is not a cult; no one is ever compelled to remain a member of an EPC congregation. They can renounce their EPC membership at any time, which is formally called renouncing jurisdiction. This is spelled out in the Book of Discipline 4-5, and is referenced in relationship to officers of the church in BoG 14-2B.3 and 14-4C. These are the only constitutional references to renouncing jurisdiction. Therefore, BoD 4-5 is central to understanding this process. Renouncing jurisdiction is done individually; if in writing, by communication to the Stated Clerk of the relevant court; if orally, the court needs to confirm in writing that the renunciation did in fact occur; if there is no response within 10 days, the court treats the renunciation as final. No court is allowed to continue the disciplinary process for any individual who has renounced jurisdiction without that person’s permission since they are not outside the authority of that court.
So, renouncing jurisdiction is a logical consequence of our polity, wherein a church only has authority over its members. The EPC constitution only ever applies renouncing jurisdiction to individuals who revoke their membership, something they are free to do at anytime.
What about local congregations? Well, local congregations are under the jurisdiction of their respective presbyteries (BoG 16-2, 19-4A). And a local church has the irrevocable right to leave the EPC (BoG 6-7). The pattern here is similar for individual members. The presbytery has jurisdiction over the local church, and the local church is free to leave, and the EPC cannot force a church to stay in the denomination. However, critically, BoG 6-7 says that congregations are free to leave according to the process described in BoG 5-10. The process has three steps.
- The Church Session needs to alert the Presbytery that they are planning on leaving. Once this notification is made
- The Presbytery may take no action to dismiss, dissolve, or divide the local church until all the proceedings of BoG 5-10 are fully completed.
- The Presbytery still has the right to exercise discipline during this time period and the notification cannot be construed as prohibiting that or preventing the Presbytery from having access to the Session and Congregation.
- The Session must then call a Congregational meeting, which requires at least two Sunday services advance notice with the purpose of the meeting stated (BoG 7-2), with representatives from the Presbytery present with the right to present the Presbytery’s perspective. The motion to leave the EPC must be discussed at this meeting. The meeting must then recess for at least three months but not more than six, with the date to reconvene established at the current meeting.
- The congregation is to reconvene at the appointed time with representatives from the Presbytery again present and able to speak. The motion to leave the EPC must be discussed, put to a vote on a written ballot, and requires a two-thirds majority to pass. If it passes, the Presbytery must dismiss the church with all of its assets. The Presbytery must provide for the continued EPC membership of those congregants who did not wish to be dismissed.
This is the only procedure provided by the EPC constitution for a congregation to leave the denomination. It is binding on both the congregation and the Presbytery. In fact, the Presbytery is specifically prohibited from circumventing this section once it is invoked. How does an EPC congregation renounce jurisdiction? By leaving the EPC according to this procedure. A Presbytery does have the option to kick a congregation out by dissolving it (BoG 5-9), but is not allowed to dissolve a congregation that has initiated the dismissal process until that process is finished and is never allowed to dissolve a congregation that can be reasonably deemed viable.
Why can’t a church renounce jurisdiction instantly, like an individual member can? There are two reasons: First, a congregation is composed of multiple people with differing view points. They need time to deliberate upon and consider the proposal to leave. Second, a number of people may not want to leave the EPC, and the right to effectively dissolve their membership in their EPC congregation by leaving should not be done rashly. This is why no other group (like a Session or Presbytery) is given the authority to just remove a local church from the EPC. So if a Session or congregation wants to renounce jurisdiction, they need to follow the procedures in BoG 5-10.
But what if a church Session or local congregation is being contemptuous of the Presbytery, one of the three grounds for church discipline (BoD 1-2, 1-8)? Well, first, requesting dismissal can never be construed as prohibiting a Presbytery from carrying out its duty to execute church discipline. A misbehaving church that is attempting to leave can still face discipline during that time. The idea that someone acting sinfully means that they are renouncing the jurisdiction of the church is ludicrous. It would effectively eliminate church discipline as a meaningful category.
“Hey you! Stop sinning!”
“They’re not stopping, so they must have renounced jurisdiction. There’s nothing more we can do.”
Second, only individuals can actually be censored by the church, not organizational units. So individual congregants or Session members could still be disciplined during a dismissal process. This is important to remember, because a congregation may not actually achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to leave. If the dismissal process fails, then the Presbytery will have to discipline the contemptuous members anyways. But individual members would have to be tried and disciplined, not the whole congregation (Can you imagine? “You’re barred from the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because your elders are terrible people.”) The individual members may renounce jurisdiction during this process to avoid Presbytery discipline, but the congregation as a unit can’t. If enough of the Session or congregation renounces jurisdiction or is censured, then the Presbytery may eventually be forced to dissolve the congregation, but only if the church is no longer viable.
There are two recent scenarios from my Presbytery where this played out, one bad and one not as bad.
In the first, a local Session was sinfully defying the Presbytery and informed us in a manipulative fashion that their church had voted to leave the EPC. A meeting of the Presbytery was called to vote on dismissing this congregation on the grounds that i) they had already voted to leave and ii) the Session’s sinful intransigence amounted to renouncing jurisdiction. In its deliberations, the Presbytery rejected this argument and instead instructed the moderator to follow the procedures in BoG 5-10, including having Presbytery representatives present at the congregational meeting. This last part was crucial, since we as a Presbytery did not believe the congregation was aware of the true nature of the interactions between us and their Session. We wanted to provide an opportunity for the truth to be shared publicly and for those in the church who did not want to leave the EPC to receive our assistance. Unfortunately, a few days before that congregational meeting was scheduled, a letter was solicited from the church Session, stating that they had renounced jurisdiction. On that basis the congregational meeting was never held. Our next Presbytery meeting was months later and at that point the local congregation had already been removed from the rolls of our Presbytery and denomination. The topic was not revisited.
Some questions to ask of this scenario include whether a Session has the authority to renounce jurisdiction on behalf of a congregation, and if so, what is the procedure and threshold for that according to the EPC’s constitution? If a congregation can renounce jurisdiction in a way distinct from voting to be dismissed, what is the procedure and threshold for that according to the EPC’s constitution? These questions should reveal the obvious: there is no such authority or procedure.
The second scenario involved a local congregation that was searching for a new pastor. They did not consult with the Presbytery, but instead hired an outside firm that recommended that they join a different denomination. The local church agreed and went through that denomination’s process of joining, a process which involved the local church effectively dissolving legally and merging with a congregation of their new denomination. At this point our Presbytery became aware of the situation. Proper procedures had not been followed by the local church, and the Presbytery’s best response should have been to acknowledge reality (the church is gone) and dissolve the local congregation (that only existed on paper) since it was no longer viable. Unfortunately, the precedent of the first scenario was cited, and the congregation was treated as having renounced jurisdiction.
In this second scenario, the final result would have been the same if the dissolution process had been followed instead. The error was in using the previous renunciation of jurisdiction as a precedent. There is no reason for us to make the same mistake going forward. We should continue to insist that the procedures in our constitution are upheld.