Permanent Judicial Commission decision

On January 7, 2015 the Permanent Judicial Commission of Grace Presbytery found Joseph B. Rightmyer guilty of eight charges that he violated the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) when he served as Interim Pastor of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas during the time when the congregation voted to leave the denomination.

Among other charges he was found guilty of “moderating the Session of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and permitting it to vote to call a congregational meeting to vote on whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an action not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This action is in violation of Book of Order G-1.0503… and contrary to Grace Presbytery’s “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination.” This action is in violation of the ordination vow W-4.4003e.

G-1.0503: Business to be transacted at meetings of the congregation shall be limited to matters related to the following: a. electing ruling elders, deacons, and trustees; b. calling a pastor, co-pastor, or associate pastor; c. changing existing pastoral relationships, by such means as reviewing the adequacy of and approving changes to the terms of call of the pastor or pastors, or requesting, consenting to, or declining to consent to dissolution; d. buying, mortgaging, or selling real property; e. requesting the presbytery to grant an exemption as permitted in this Constitution (G-2.0404); f. approving a plan for the creation of a joint congregational witness, or amending or dissolving the joint congregational witness (G-5.05).”

W-4.4003e: Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?”

The censure imposed by the Permanent Judicial Commission was removal from the ordered ministry of teaching elder. This means that he is no longer a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is no longer a teaching elder member of Grace Presbytery. This is the highest level of censure permitted by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). For a copy of the full decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission, click here. The entire disciplinary proceedings are found in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order, Rules of Discipline.

In brief, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) assigns oversight of teaching elders (ministers of Word and Sacrament) to the presbytery – the regional governing body of the denomination. Grace Presbytery is comprised of 156 congregations in North and East Texas. The presbytery meets quarterly to conduct the business and mission of the Presbyterian church in this region.

Matters of discipline concerning teaching elders are assigned by the constitution to the Permanent Judicial Commission (a panel of nine teaching elders and ruling elders elected by the presbytery). When accusations are made against a teaching elder, a special Investigating Committee is formed to determine if there is probable cause to believe that the accusations are true. After a thorough investigation, and if the Investigating Committee believes the accusations are true, charges are formally filed with the Stated Clerk. When charges are filed, the Permanent Judicial Commission conducts a trial which includes the presentation of charges (alleged violations of the constitution or the Scriptures) and presentation of evidence. The accused has the right to remain silent, to be represented by counsel and is given an opportunity to present witnesses, evidence and argument in rebuttal to the charges.

After a full trial, the Permanent Judicial Commission determines whether or not the accused is guilty or not guilty. If a determination of guilt is made (by a two-thirds vote), the Permanent Judicial Commission determines the level of censure which will be imposed. A verbatim written record of the hearing is made. If requested, and if there are constitutional grounds, an appeal of the verdict may be made to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Sun.

The Purpose of Discipline in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is set forth in the Book of Order, Rules of Discipline, Section D-1.0101:

“Church discipline is the church’s exercise of authority given by Christ, both in the direction of guidance, control, and nurture of its members and in the direction of constructive criticism of offenders. The church’s disciplinary process exists not as a substitute for the secular judicial system, but to do what the secular judicial system cannot do. Thus, 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. In all respects, all participants are to be accorded procedural safeguards and due process.”