I am chair of our regional synod’s Judicial Business Committee. For the uninitiated, that’s a small team of pastors and elders who handle the business of church law and church justice. That means I have to be up on church discipline, and church rules and regulations, especially when these things break down in practice. My committee collects documents. We investigate. We hold hearings. We call witnesses. We take testimony. We present our findings to the assembly of the regional synod, which then has to function like a court, and render a verdict. Sometimes against one of its own.
Some cases arise from pastors behaving badly. Some arise from faulty decisions by church councils. In each case, somebody makes an accusation. The accusation takes the form of a Charge (for bad behavior) or a Complaint (for a faulty decision). Sometimes the faulty decisions seem like innocent mistakes, like if a council decided something with a simple majority instead an occasional two-thirds. But ignorance, haste, or even laziness can be harmful. Rarely is it a matter of malice, but on odd occasions you get a case that makes you wonder how Christians can deceive themselves!
In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the church rules are generous by design, and you can get away with bad behavior for a long time. Our Church Order assumes generally good behavior and good will. It does not anticipate recalcitrance. It assumes that people will play by the rules and accept the decisions of assemblies. But it’s possible for pastors and council officers to flout the generosity of the Church Order and get away with it. Our church structures actually don’t have much clout. We have little power to sanction, compel, or coerce. As my friend Joshua Bode says, “The church has no police.” Often the wheels of church justice turn too little and too late. And yet this is the task of my committee, to manage the down side of the church.
I wonder how many readers of the Reformed Journal have ever served on such a committee, or would want to! It’s so far removed from “Desiring the Kingdom” or “redeemed cultural discipleship” or discussing poetry or music. It’s just the debris and detritus of the institutional church, and often the church at its worst—organized religion behaving badly.
When we lived in Hoboken my wife and I used to go to the Court Street Tavern on Monday nights. Once a month that would be after our church council meetings. One time, after a difficult council meeting, our waiter noticed my collar and said, “You know I believe in God but I’m just not into organized religion.” I nearly exploded. “You think I do this because I’m ‘into organized religion?’ You don’t know shit about organized religion!” I drank my beer, calmed down, and apologized. But I had probably confirmed his prejudice.
Garbage and Plumbing
Here’s a paradigm story:
Calvin Registrar: “You can’t register for Greek 102 because you failed Greek 101.”
Calvin Student: “But I have to take Greek 102 to get into seminary.”
Registrar: “Maybe you shouldn’t go to seminary.”
Student: “But God called me to full-time Christian service!”
Registrar: “You don’t have to be a preacher to serve the Kingdom. You can serve the Kingdom just as much by driving a garbage truck. Maybe you should go back to Chicago.”
Now actually I admire the legendary Dutch Calvinist garbage-men of Chicago. And think of how much money they’ve poured into the Christian schools. But it’s a smelly business, and so is a judicial business committee. We collect and dispose of the garbage of the institutional church. And it has been my lot to chair the judicial business committees of three different classes and now this regional synod. Why should I do this, when I might better spend my time on Christ-and-Culture or spiritual iconography in the films of Tarkovsky? Or how to convert my front lawn into a haven for native pollinators? Why do I end up having to act like a canon lawyer when I want to live like Wendell Berry?
Let me compare the Realm of God to a house, and the institutional church to the kitchen (for Word and sacraments) and the bathrooms (for sin). That makes church discipline the plumbing. And that makes my judicial business committee a team of plumbers. Compared to garbage-collectors, plumbers get to build, repair, deliver clean water, and enhance comfort and cleanliness, but they also have to put their hands in human waste (see the “s” word above). While some of you are exploring how to witness to the art scene in Toronto or the wonders of the sacraments, I spent yesterday writing up a report on a case between a consistory and its classis, and I worry that, even with the right decision, little justice will be served.
Most of my minister colleagues prefer to serve on other committees, but I don’t mind the work. It helps that I’m such a Calvinist, with a Calvinist bent for law and order. I even think that good order is good for mission. I’m usually the local expert on Church Order. I esteem church history, and as my friend Steve Pierce put it, “the Book of Church Order is the history of past mistakes.” Also, being a child of Brooklyn, I’m used to people thinking I’m critical. And I’m an Enneagram 1 who likes things to be right. (Let’s not even imagine 7s and 8s when it comes to judicial business.) And so I always get appointed, and am usually the chair.
The institutional church has always had its own system of courts. The ultimate biblical warrant for this is Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 6. Over the centuries, as the church gained institutional power, its courts often came into conflict with civil courts. This conflict caused the infamous murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1162 and was one of the issues addressed by the Magna Carta. Until very recently the Roman Catholic Church has tried to keep the sexual offenses of its priests out of civil jurisdiction. Churches in the Reformed tradition are less jealous for their rights and prerogatives over against the civil power. And yet there are some behaviors and actions that may be perfectly legal from a civil point of view but are not allowed in a Reformed church.
Our church courts in the Reformed tradition are our assemblies. The local consistory was invented by John Calvin in order to do church discipline, case by case, and not much else. The Belgic Confession requires church discipline to be handled by councils of pastors and elders. In former times we ordinarily called our councils and assemblies the “courts of the church,” but we rarely say that now. In the RCA, these courts are the local boards of elders, the classes, the regional synods, and the general synod. (The Christian Reformed Church, for better and worse, does not have regional synods.) The last time the General Synod of the RCA behaved like a court was in 2005 for the famous trial of a theology professor who was the president of one of our seminaries. That was such an unfamiliar and awkward experience that the procedures of the trial were in question.
Church courts are different from civil courts in that the members of the assembly are both judge and jury. The whole body of the assembly hears the case, the whole body votes on the decision, and the whole body chooses the remedy or sanction. The only other example of this that I can think of is the House of Lords in the British Parliament. Historically a Peer of the Realm was exempt from the usual civil courts, and could only be tried by his peers. A pastor is being tried by his or her peers when being tried in a classis, and this can be awkward for all involved. And awkward to be a member of the committee that presents the case and recommends the outcome. Of course the majority can choose to defy the committee’s advice and decide otherwise.
When our assemblies do their familiar business, they are not supposed to be hierarchical. In theory they are not “higher” and “lower” but “broader” and “narrower.” The broader assemblies are not supposed to impose themselves on the prerogatives of the narrower ones; a synod should not do what a classis can do. But when it comes to judicial business, the assemblies can’t help but be hierarchical. This is because each level of assembly serves as an appellate court for the one below it, and its decisions can be appealed to the one above it. When regional synods do judicial business it is usually as appellate courts. Some cases can be appealed all the way to the general synod, which is the supreme court of the denomination. There is no appealing a decision of the general synod. The RCA system is flawed in that theology professors are tried by general synods, which means there is no possibility of appeal, except to the next general synod, which is at best a poor solution to a real problem. And that’s inherently unfair.
Another problem will arise if the RCA, in its impending attempt to restructure itself, does away with regional synods. This will severely limit the structures of appeal, and the general synod will be swamped with local cases—every appeal concerning a pastor or a consistory. Further, every complaint against a classis will have to go right to the general synod, with every appeal having to go to the next general synod, which would more than overload the general synod’s agenda. From the judicial point of view, to discard the regional synod will not be a good thing at all.
The RCA has a well-established set of Disciplinary Procedures that are part of our Constitution. They have been tested over time, and they have a lot of wisdom. They tend to be generous rather than restrictive. Most RCA people have confidence in these procedures, so that’s good. But not everyone does, and that’s a problem. As the RCA intentionally increases its diversity, a lot of things that used to be customary and habitual are unfamiliar to new pastors and elders. Many innocent mistakes are made in practice, while other deviations seem to be intentional. Pastors are coming into the denomination, for example, with different views on their powers relative to their boards of elders. Classis members are taking actions and making decisions that they feel right about even though they are violations of the Church Order. This is causing a gradual increase in complaints about procedural matters. We are having to make uneasy decisions about which matters deserve judicial consideration and which can be ignored, and that weakens the authority of the whole. The Disciplinary Procedures come to be felt as an abstract stricture rather than the practical expression of justice and love, while the Church Order is general is regard as a hindrance to mission.
The way our denominations have evolved, our synods, classes, and boards of elders spend most of their time on other things than disciplinary procedures. We want to do positive things like mission, church planting, visioning, social witness, etc. And the denominational leadership of the RCA prefers to treat our general synod as a convention more than a deliberative body. So it’s always a downer when we interrupt the usual business to go into “judicial session,” restricting the floor and closing the doors, and the delegates becoming a jury. Perfect justice is impossible. Resentment is inevitable, even acrimony. Everyone is relieved when it’s over. At least in the RCA.
And I’m the guy who manages these things. A regular Thomas Cromwell. My judicial business committee is a bit like a grand jury. A case is delivered to the regional synod’s stated clerk, who directs it to me, and then I gather our committee. We review the case. Is it a Charge or a Complaint or an Appeal? The procedures are different. A Charge is the most serious, and there are stricter rules. When we consider an Appeal, we are not redoing the original trial and coming up with our own wiser decision, but only considering whether the lower body did its job right by correctly following the procedures and displaying no bias or “manifest injustice.” (Sometimes we find in favor of a classis’s decision that we might have decided differently if it were up to us.)
We investigate. Was proper notice given to all parties? Are all the documents available? Does the case have merit? Should we dismiss it or go on to a hearing? How shall we conduct the hearing? Shall we call witnesses? How picky should we be on minor mistakes? Of course, the rules require our absolute confidentiality and that we have no contact with either party except through the stated clerk. Our committee prepares a report, and it’s our report that is put before the assembly in its judicial session, so everything depends on our report being professional, accurate, articulate, and scrupulously fair. And because I get invested, I like it to be clean and elegant.
In many cases it is recommend that parties will have first tried conflict-resolution and reconciliation. But by the time the matter gets to us, it’s unfortunately down to an either-or. Even when the case is a matter of innocent ignorance or sloppiness, a win-win is no longer possible. One side will lose. My committee wants the side to win that we think is more in the right. Well, more than that, I want my committee to win. I confess it, I want to win. I get competitive. Argue against our findings and I will try to best you on the floor. And the sin is pride, I confess that too. Hey, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Is this business real service to the Gospel? Does it have any share in the power of the resurrection? Does it witness to abundant life? Does it really express the love of God? I really don’t care about the worldly reputation of “organized religion,” but I am jealous for the institutional church. And if the church is to be, as Hendrikus Berkhof once said, “The witness and first-fruits of the Kingdom,” then you be the judge.