In my experience, the vast majority of elders and ministers are selfless, gracious, kind, patient, and Christlike men. Most serve sacrificially. Most serve out of love for their Savior and out of love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Unless one has served on a consistory (in the Reformed churches) or a session (in the Presbyterian churches) one probably does not appreciate the degree to which ministers and elders sacrifice themselves (to borrow a phrase) for Christ, his gospel, and his church. We should remember that Ephesians 4:11 describes the special offices in the church as “gifts” to the church and we should receive those gifts with grateful hearts.
We should also remember that as late-modern people we live after about two centuries of radical democratization (egalitarianism). This leveling spirit has dominated Western society since the French Revolution. In the USA it began to appear during the Jackson administration (1829–37) and has only increased in intensity and speed since then. The internet may be the greatest force for social leveling yet seen in human history. We see the results of this leveling all around us. In the 1990s a presidential candidate appeared on a talk show to discuss his underwear. Before that President Nixon appeared on the television comedy Laugh In. Most recently we have seen Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg mount what look like the early stages of a presidential campaign by appearing at (and looking totally bewildered by) an Iowa truck stop. This leveling effect (and affect) has influenced the way we look at all authority figures. People resist police officers on the assumption that no one has the right to detain or arrest them. People look at pastors and elders differently than we once did. In a world in which all claims to authority are regarded as groundless assertions to be deconstructed, Christians are even suspicious of pastors and elders. Under the influence of the leveling spirit of the French Revolution, even the most legitimate and righteous exercises of the ministerial authority of the church are regularly dismissed as illegitimate or arbitrary. This is not an entirely new problem. The pastor who wrote to the Hebrews had to exhort them, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).
This is a fallen world, however, and thus all ministers and elders are sinful. Sometimes sin manifests itself in abusive behavior on the part of authoritative church assemblies and courts. Again, we are not now discussing the legitimate, righteous, divinely instituted and authorized exercise of the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19; 18:17,18; 28:18–20). Here we are thinking of those unusual instances when elders and ministers cross the line and abuse the authority given by Christ to their offices. It is not possible to describe all the ways this has happened or might happen but I am aware of a case where a minister physically kicked a parishioner. There were some mitigating circumstances but there is no excuse for a minister striking a member. There have been cases in which elders tried to dismiss the minister without due process. There have been cases where members have been summarily excommunicated and cases where ministers have threatened to ruin a member for disagreeing with them. Yesterday I read of a coverup of a sexual abuse scandal by a denomination. I have previously described a case in my own federation where a consistory and a classis mishandled a doctrinal complaint by a lay couple. Fortunately, their righteous cause was vindicated at synod. The list could continue but the reader gets the picture.
Why does such abuse happen? As suggested above, the over-arching answer is sin. It corrupts our minds, our wills, and our affections. Ministers and elders are not immune from its effects. The churches call men to these offices because the churches see in them the sort of qualities that Paul catalogues in the pastoral epistles. We know that the men called, examined, and ordained are sinful but we hope and expect that they are mature enough to fulfill their offices. Sometimes, however, the churches err and sometimes people change or sinful behavior patterns emerge after ordination. There are group dynamics for which to account too. Deliberative bodies in the church (e.g., consistory, council, session, classis, presbytery) are composed of mostly underpaid, under appreciated ministers and elders who volunteer their time, often at their own expense. When criticized it is a temptation for these bodies to respond defensively to criticism or even to lash out at critics. Serving the church can be isolating and bodies can lose a proper sense of accountability to other bodies (e.g., session to presbytery or classis to synod). Sometimes men confuse their own desires for the will of God. Sometimes ministers lose the sense that they are servants of Christ’s Word and sacraments. In some settings they act like or are treated more like a chief executive officer. There may also be medical or psychological problems that may contribute to a change in behavior. The potential subsidiary reasons for abusive behavior are many.
Authority is a strange thing. There is that which exists on paper and that which, in practice, is ceded by the governed to the governors. This happens in business when a manager begins exercising authority that no one knew she had. Her subordinates look at each other as if to ask, “Can she do that?” She is doing it and no one is objecting, so, apparently the answer is yes. This happens in the church. So much of the business of the church (especially in small P&R congregations) falls to the elders and minister that they begin to assume authority that they do not have. Sometimes the congregation is unaware of limiting documents (e.g., the church order) and they simply assume that the elders and ministers may do as they will.
Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches are well structured to address abuses. They have well established mechanisms and bodies for addressing such things. Let us imagine elders and ministers commit some sort of abuse. What may the congregation do? How may they respond? How should they respond? Ordinarily, the first thing to do is to follow Matthew 18. There are exceptions. If an act is public (e.g., a sermon or a pronouncement of church discipline) then Matthew 18 does not necessarily apply. In that case the process would begin with a complaint to the local consistory or session. Should a minister sin against a member privately, then he should be approached according to Matthew 18. If that fails the next step is a complaint to the session or consistory. The basic form of a complaint is straightforward. In it the complainant should give the basic information. It needs to be addressed specifically to the relevant body. Let us say that the process is beginning with the local consistory or session. It should be addressed to the clerk of that body. The body to whom it is being sent should be named. It must be dated. The persons against whom the complaint is being made should be named and the matter (e.g., doctrine or practice) of the complaint should be stated briefly and clearly. This is essential. The body cannot address the complaint if they are unable to understand what is begin alleged. In this section, the complaint should state clearly and briefly what action the complainant wants the body to take. It must be something the body receiving the complaint has the authority and the ability to do.
The second section of the complaint are the grounds. These are the fact of the matter and the reasons for the complaint. Again, these should be expressed clearly and each distinct ground should be numbered.
The final section of a complaint includes any accompanying documents that will help the adjudicating body to understand the case and to see the problem. This might include correspondence, contemporaneous notes or memos and the like. Of course the complaint must be signed and each page numbered. It is helpful to deliberative bodies if every line of a document is numbered. Thus, during deliberations, the body can turn to a specific page and to a specific line number. In any significant proceeding it may be useful to send registered mail so that there is a record of its receipt. The action should begin with the body where the action originated and then proceed from there.
The same pattern applies to an appeal. Should a body make a decision from which a member wants to dissent formally (e.g., the complaint is rejected), the assembly to which the appeal is being made and the action taken must be specified. The appeal should explain briefly and clearly why the appeal is being made, what action the appellant wants the body to take, and why (grounds). As before, the appeal should include relevant supporting documents (e.g., minutes, explanatory letters or memos etc). Appeals are ordinarily made to broader assemblies or to higher courts. So, a consistory/session action is appealed to classis/presbytery and a classis/presbytery action is appealed to synod/general assembly.
This essay is not intended to substitute for actual, live, personal counsel. Circumstances, policies, and procedures will vary. Anyone seeking to make a complaint or an appeal should get counsel from a minister or elder familiar with the relevant church order. Ministers who are asked for help in a process should give it even if one disagrees with the action. Members have a right to complain against and appeal the actions of the assemblies and/or courts of the church and it is part of our job to help them do it and not to prejudge the outcome.
The intent of this post is not to foster litigiousness among the members in Christ’s church but it is intended to inform the sheep in Christ’s flock that should abuse happen they are not alone. In P&R churches setting there are avenues, procedures, and bodies whose function is to protect the sheep when pastoral care breaks down or fails at another level or in another body.
Church discipline is one of the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession art 29). This is all part of the process of being a disciplined church. It is difficult and expensive. It costs time and energy. There is no guarantee of the desired outcome. Experience tells me that the deliberative bodies of the churches usually get things right but not always. Those who enter the process must be prepared for an unfavorable outcome. They must be prepared to be corrected in case they are wrong and they must be committed to living with the frailty of the visible, institutional church. When Christ promised that he would always be with his church (Matt 28:20) and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her (Matt 16:18) he was not promising that life in the church would always be agreeable. The gospel promise is that he is with us and in the midst of the church even though it is sometimes disagreeable (Phil 4:2).