A Follow Up Regarding Abuse In The Church: We Are Talking About Practice

Last week I wrote an introduction to spiritual abuse and how laity and officers should respond. A correspondent writes to ask what the laity are to do when when ruling elders and ministers refuse to address a situation. May a lay member of a URCNA congregation address a matter herself? Yes, indeed, a lay person may indeed address a matter herself even if the local elders or ministers refuse. As I explained, the various NAPARC denominations and federations each have books of church order. Let us consider the church order of my own federation, the United Reformed Churches in North America. There is an article which speaks directly to this issue:

Article 31 – Appeals by Church Members
If any church member complains that he has been wronged by the decision of a narrower assembly, he shall have the right to appeal to the broader assemblies. An individual’s appeal must proceed first to the Consistory, and only then, if necessary, to a broader assembly. Until a decision is made upon such appeal, the church member shall conform to the determination and judgment already passed.

Thus, should it be the case that elders or minister(s) in a local congregation are unwilling to address an issue, a lay member should get help from a nearby minister or elder to write the complaint so that it is formed properly, is clear, and is concise. A complaint must layout the problem briefly and clearly and then it must ask the assembly (e.g., classis) to do something it has the authority to do. Sometimes complaints and appeals fail because they complain but they do not ask the body to do something. The assembly cannot just take action on its own initiative. It is, as I explained earlier, a court of appeals. It can uphold the appeal or deny the appeal or rule it out of order. A badly formed complaint is likely to be ruled out of order. The complaint may ask the classis (or synod) to overturn a decision and to try again. It may ask classis to send  church visitors to address the problem with the consistory and to seek reconciliation. It may ask for a doctrinal deliverance, in which case it is likely to be forwarded to synod (which may take two or three years). Here is where the help of an experienced minister or elder will help. The kind of action to be taken will be determined in large measure by the problem. If a ruling elder or a minister is being abusive, then it may be that classis will  instruct a consistory to discipline the minister. Should the sins be severe enough, there are provisions in the church order for the removal of a minister from office (articles 61 and 62).

This sort of case is just why it is important to read your church order. The URCNA church order is only 66 articles. It is brief and well organized. One may even search the church order online (as I did) to find the relevant article.

The process can be difficult but it is not impossible. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “a church if we can keep it.” Obviously, it is the Lord who has promised to preserve his church but he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes. The laity play a vital role in preserving the true church. In the history of the church, many times laity have risen up to hold delinquent ministers and elders to account.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!