Beginning any discussion of power and jurisdiction within the PC(USA), it is important to remember that the denominational Constitution is prescriptive rather than proscriptive. A prescriptive constitution confers upon the judicatories of the denomination only those powers specifically enumerated. See, e.g., §G-1.0307, and §G-1.0308.
On the other hand, a proscriptive constitution surrenders to governing bodies all powers that are not specifically forbidden to them. It follows, then, that the governing bodies of the PC(USA) possess only those powers expressly delegated to them, respectively, in the Constitution. Any assertion to the contrary constitutes a patent usurpation of authority and contravenes the very foundations of Presbyterian polity.
Governing bodies have no civil authority or jurisdiction. See §G-9.0101. Moreover, the governing bodies have only shared ecclesiastical authority. Book of Order §G-9.0103 states in pertinent part:
All governing bodies of the Church are united by the nature of the Church and share with one another responsibilities, rights, and powers as provided in this Constitution.
While “higher” governing bodies may review the actions of a lower, the respect and obedience due to any governing body is both limited, §G-1.0307, and contingent, §C-6.174 . The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) determined in Johnston et al. v. Heartland Presbytery, Remedial Case 217-2:
G-1.0400 does not characterize the task of governance as power and authority to carry out edicts, but in terms of arriving at the “collected wisdom and united voice of the whole Church”. While the Book of Order refers to a higher governing body’s “right of review and control of a lower one” (§G-4.0301f), these concepts must not be understood in hierarchical terms, but in light of the shared responsibility and power at the heart of Presbyterian order (G-4.0302) (emphasis added).
The Westminster Confession of Faith (as amended in 1788) states the limiting conditions on the authority of governing bodies:
. . . which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word (emphasis added).
The current tendency of some leaders in the PC(USA) to view the governing bodies of the church as legislative bodies is historically flawed. Until 1983, the proper reference was to “judicatories” rather than to “governing bodies. Although the descriptor was changed with the reunion of 1983, the functions remained essentially unchanged. The powers of sessions, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly are powers of jurisdiction and interpretation of the Law of the Church which is the word of God. The Constitution, in both the Confessions and the Book of Order, is merely a historical compilation of the interpretation of that law by one particular branch of the Church universal.
It is also important to remember that § G-9.0103’s reservation of certain “powers not mentioned” is limited in its application to “governing bodies.” In other words, powers of governing bodies are distributed among the several judicatories, with those powers of the governing bodies which are not enumerated devolving to the presbytery. See, also, Strong and Bagby v. Synod of Mid-South (PCUS, 1976, pp. 92-99, (No. 1 - 1976)) (“It is critical to the maintenance of this form [of government] that the various [governing bodies] exercise the specific jurisdiction conferred upon them, neither usurping that not given them nor declining to exercise that given, whether by default or by attempted delegation. . . . ”) (emphasis added).
Strong and Bagby is often cited as support for the proposition that under the Book of Order of the PC(USA) only a presbytery can dismiss a congregation. Strong and Bagby was decided based on the Book of Church Order (“BCO”) of the old PCUS. There is no indication that the BCO contained any recognition that the congregation has its own discrete permissive powers, nor, apparently was any such issue briefed in that case.
Ultimately, the judicatories/governing bodies/councils of the denomination are limited in their jurisdiction to ecclesiastical matters, to be determined as a matter of theology. This limitation on church authority and jurisdiction was the genesis of the development by the United States Supreme Court of the “neutral principles of law” approach to instances in which church organizations were embroiled in matters of purely civil law.