Are P&R Churches “Wholly Inadequate” To Investigate Abuse?

Julie Roys reports that, on May 14, 2021, the Central Indiana Presbytery (PCA) approved a committee report recommending that the Presbytery bring charges against a pastor (Teaching Elder).

According to the Presbytery statement, the Presbytery will draft charges, conduct a trial, and if the pastor is convicted, determine disciplinary actions. The pastor is suspended from all official functions during the duration of the trial.

Roys notes, however, that the case was first presented to the presbytery in 2019. The presbytery declined to proceed. That decision was appealed and (presumably) the Standing Judicial Commission returned the case to the presbytery telling them, in effect, that they had erred and that they should have found that there was a strong presumption of guilt.

My intent here is not to comment on the merit of the case before the presbytery but to reply to those, e.g., Boz Tchividian, who believe that the church is incapable of addressing charges of sexual abuse (or apparently any charge of abuse). He writes: “Presbyteries are wholly unqualified to investigate allegations of clergy sexual abuse. While we’re at it, the Book of Church Order should never be the guide to investigating abuse in the church.”

Tchvidjian is wrong but so are those who think that there is no place for professional advice in abuse cases and the current case illustrates why. It is doubtless true that the visible, institutional church (e.g., Presbyterian and Reformed churches, hereafter P&R churches) has failed to address the problem of sexual abuse adequately. It is almost certainly true that most pastors are inadequately educated in the indicators and proper response to sexual abuse. It is also the true that too often P&R presbyteries (or classes, in the Dutch and German traditions) are tempted to become a sort of union and instinctively to protect an accused minister. It can be very difficult for members of a presbytery or classis to hear objectively allegations against a minister they have known and trusted. It is also true that ministers are sometimes subject to abuse and even false allegations. Thus, it is possible for P&R assemblies to become dismissive of serious charges.

A second issue is the pressure to relinquish duties entrusted to the church by our Lord to “the professionals.” In the post-WWII there was a rising tide of trust in “the professionals” across American society. Functions that had been performed informally were increasingly given to professionals of various kinds. Universities became more professionalized (PhD’s became mandatory for those wishing to teach or conduct advanced research). In the Modern and Late-Modern periods the legal and medical fields also became more specialized and professionalized including the development of the psychiatric, psychological, and therapeutic (counseling) disciplines.

Pastors have been counseling the flock since the beginning of the church but in the Modern period pastors were strongly encouraged to turn over virtually all counseling to professional psychologists and psychiatrists. Naturally there developed a reaction to that directive. After all, psychiatrists are physicians with specialized medical and psychological education but what is psychology? It is arguably an alternative theological anthropology, i.e., an alternative to the Christian explanation of the origins, nature, and problems of the soul inherent to humanity. As the Nouthetic, “Biblical,” and Christian counseling movements, to greater and lesser degrees, began to recognize psychologists as a cadre of competing counselor, some reacted by rejecting the use of “the professionals” altogether.

So, ironically Tchvidjian is the obverse of the staunchest of the Nouthetic counselors. The latter do not trust “the professionals” and this professional does not trust the pastors.

What Did Jesus Say?

It always seems like a good idea to ask what our Lord says. Our Lord was not a revolutionary. He recognized established social institutions, e.g., courts (Matt 5:25), the police and military (Luke 3:14), and physicians (Matt 9:12). He recognized implicitly the legitimacy of certain professions. As the Lord of creation (nature) and redemption (grace) he not only recognized both spheres, he created and instituted them.

Just as physicians, cops, and courts are part of the natural order in a fallen world, so too the church is inherent to the sphere of grace. It is the only institution in which saving grace is administered. When there is a problem in the congregation, when someone is accused of sinning against another, our Lord expressly commanded Christians to “tell it to the church” (Matt 18:17). It was to the visible, institutional church that he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19), i.e., the preaching of the holy gospel and the use of church discipline (Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 31).

When a member of the church or one of her officers (e.g., a minister) is accused of abuse, whether spiritual, sexual, or physical, that is a sin. As such it falls under the jurisdiction of the church. As useful as counselors, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists can be, our Lord did not say, “tell it to the social-service and psychological professionals.” He said, “tell it to the church.” Neither did he stipulate, “the church is competent to address moral and psychological misdemeanors but moral and psychological felonies must be turned over immediately to the professionals.”

The church, as the divine institution for the administration of grace, including church discipline, has a divine mandate to play its role in addressing abuse in the church.

Nature Is Also Real

Nevertheless, we live in a world in which creation is also real and natural knowledge, common grace (i.e., the general, benevolent providence of God in which believers and unbelievers are enabled to discover natural truths) are also realities. Simply because the church is the repository of grace and the divine institution for addressing sin does not mean that it is omnicompetent. Like lawyers and physicians, there are limits to what ministers know. Sometimes they need help. Sexual abuse is one of those areas.

The church is well advised to take advantage of the insights available to believers and believers. This is not to say that such learning is neutral. Unbelievers are, as it were, playing in God’s sandbox. They are rebels who refuse to acknowledge that they are living in God’s world or to interpret reality according to God’s Word. Nevertheless, even the most rebellious child is capable of making a really lovely sandcastle. It would be foolish and a denial of the remaining image of God in humanity to refuse to acknowledge the gifts and insights of unbelievers regarding human behavior. When unbelievers study how sexual abuse comes about, what the preconditions and symptoms of it are, we are morally obligated to recognize those insights and account for them just as we account for the laws of physics. I have no idea whether the Wright Brothers were believers but I do know that they made a practical breakthrough in mechanical human flight. They helped to recognize that airfoils and propulsion work. We rely on those insights every time we get on an airplane. The church ought to consult with Christians and even non-Christians who specialize in discovering and addressing abuse so that we are more able to spot and address it. This is not a binary choice. The church should fulfill its vocation to address sin but it should do so with all the resources it has to hand.

There may also be aspects of natural justice in certain cases of abuse. E.g., sexual abuse by a minister of a parishioner is a serious moral offense and quite likely a criminal offense. In such a case, the state, as the divine institution for the execution of justice in the secular realm has its responsibility to fulfill. As citizens in the state, under the secular authority of the magistrate (Rom 13:1-7), the officers of the church have a moral and legal duty to report to the magistrate suspected crimes committed by laity and officers. The church is not called to “go it alone” when facing suspected physical or sexual abuse.

Conclusions

The church is not incapable of addressing various forms of abuse. In the case of the Central Indiana Presbytery, the church did ultimately recognize that these charges need to be tried. One of the great difficulties we Christians have is our over-realized eschatology. We expect secular courts to be slow. We understand that the process takes time but when it comes to the visible church, in part because it is the church, we tend to expect serious issues to be resolved immediately. It simply is not possible. Achieving justice in the assemblies of the church is about as difficult as it is in the secular courts. There are real obstacles to be overcome. It can be painful. It can be life-altering but we ought to pursue the process, even though it is difficult, for the sake of the victim, the accused, and Christ’s church.

The church is composed entirely of sinners. Some of those sinners are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, and are thus being gradually sanctified. Some of them are not regenerated, and thus unbelieving and under wrath. Church discipline is a gracious administration of the law of God in its first (pedagogical) and third (normative) uses. We do it because we hope and pray that God the Spirit will use the process to teach unbelieving sinners the greatness of their sin and misery and their need for the Savior. We hope and pray that the Spirit will use the process to bring the unregenerate to new life and true faith. We also hope and pray that the Spirit will use the discovery of sins and sinful patterns in the hearts and minds of believers to drive them to Christ again, to grace, and thence to sanctification.

It is understandable how underpaid, often criticized, and over-stressed and over-worked pastors may be tempted to rally together whenever charges are laid by the laity against the clergy but they must resist that temptation. Without becoming unduly suspicious of their fellow pastors, they have a solemn duty before the Chief Shepherd of the sheep (1 Pet 5:4) to put their duty to the sheep before their inclination to protect a fellow pastor. If a lay member has made false accusations, that sin should addressed too but we dare not presume that charges are false before they are investigated and all the more when it comes to sexual, emotional, or physical abuse by ministers.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    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.

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14 comments

  1. Back in the mid 1980s, in the on-the-road-to-apostasy PCUSA, a presbytery in PA had a minister accused of sexually abusing. Within a week of the committee on ministry learning of the accusation, the minister had admitted the acts and was gone from the church. Much, much later, he pled guilty in a secular court. Surely faithful churches can do as well.

  2. The wheels of justice grind slowly and church courtsmdon’t make for good clickbait on “discernment” sites. The slow nature is not evidence, in an if itself, of failure.

    Thank you for an excellent response.

  3. “Justice delayed is justice denied.” I am of the opinion that the excuse that “the church courts move slowly”, is just so much unnecessary foot dragging. When a “Statement” on this or that subject is desired, the pace of deliberations somehow quickens considerably.

    • The church courts moving slowly by design is a statement of fact. The processes laid out are meant to be deliberative and to afford parties involved the chance to support their claims and to be given a fair hearing. When especially entangled matters arise such as a presbytery clearing a minister of wrongdoing, special care must be taken to demonstrate both the validity of the case as well as the standing of those bringing the complaint or appealing for original jurisdiction. “Statements” on the denominational level aren’t that much faster as the committees/commissions appointed to give them generally work for a minimum of a year from GA to GA before they make one. Any faster statement has no official sanction and has as much corresponding force behind it. Mobs are fast, but they are often wrong. We ought to do things the right way, and whether you’re talking about carpentry or church governance, that takes time. Having been a member of ecclesiastical and secular bodies that were not careful and deliberative, I can tell you that the outcomes of hasty injustice are much worse than deliberative justice.

  4. Roys’ site seems to be trending in the direction of Woke clickbait. I am also concerned that lay people feel entitled to adjudicate church discipline on the internet court of public opinion.

    Is it just me, or was the SJC able to rule fairly quickly in this matter compared to the Greg Johnson case?

    • “Roys’ site seems to be trending in the direction of Woke clickbait. I am also concerned that lay people feel entitled to adjudicate church discipline on the internet court of public opinion.”
      I have been of the opinion that nearly all discernment are that way anymore. They usually start off with a person either dissatisfied with a church, called it abuse, or really was spiritually abused and now has become the internet ‘pope’ on alleged abuse.

      • Trent and Bryce,

        I don’t agree with all of Julie’s complaints but she has done a good job keeping track of abusers and wolves (e.g., MacDonald and Driscoll et al.) I understand that some are unhappy with her criticism of MacArthur. Even if, for the sake of discussion, she has been too hard on MacArthur, ghat doesn’t invalidate all reporting.

        “Woke”? What’s “woke” about her reporting or analysis?

        Let’s not abuse that word so that it becomes a way to marginalize everyone with whom we disagree.

    • Many of her criticisms of MacArthur were guilt-by-association. Other criticisms, such as his decision to return to church resulting in a COVID “outbreak” were lacking in fact and data. These criticisms also tended to side with local authorities that had already been rebuked numerous times by courts, including the Supreme Court. She has also gone after his finances and has called his lifestyle “lavish” despite it being fairly easy to achieve for someone who bought real estate in California a long time ago and was relatively diligent with above-average compensation. Overall, she has produced much more heat than light on MacArthur and slanted her reports against a man who has been a faithful minister. Her attack on MacArthur seems to have started after his attack on Beth Moore.

      Her reporters tarred Canadian pastors who defied government orders similarly as men who were careless with their flocks, narcissists, and lacking in adherence to Romans 13. Having watched these men speak for themselves, I think our ability to know what’s going on thousands of miles away is extremely limited and we should keep our mouths shut about their situation rather than play armchair quarterback.

      Her reports on abuse seem suspect aside from the obvious cases, and I’ll grant she has had some successes. As you know, the definition of “abuse” has become stretched and the term weaponized in various ways by the Woke. I have seen faithful ministers accused of “abuse” lately by unhinged laity clearly in need of discipline. She seems to use the term rather carelessly herself. Accusations by lay women are uniformly presented as credible much like the secular #MeToo movement. In a recent opinion piece, this seems to have reached the point where women who have participated in adultery are absolving themselves of any culpability by yelling, “Abuse!” in a way that Scripture does not (Deut 5:18). This is just following the pattern of the culture.

      Roys is also coy about her opinion on female clergy and has flown top cover for allied feminists like Beth Moore and others. I won’t name the latter because it’s a contentious issue within NAPARC at the moment.

      Bob Smietana’s articles on her site are exactly what you’d expect from a secular newspaper reporting on religion which is the overall drift of her site. It’s more of a secular newspaper reporting on religion than a Christian ministry in search of the truth. I don’t see a Biblical mandate for this sort of ministry either. It operates well-outside church structures and courts as a tale-bearing gadfly.

      To summarize: her personal connections, her slant on the news, and her use of terms and liberality with accusation indicates Woke. Her claim to be conservative seems to be more squid-ink than anything else. Her factual reports seem largely unnecessary. Do we really need another news service to cover guys like Driscoll and McDonald or rather a Reformation? It should be obvious to everyone why not to attend churches like theirs.

  5. Hi Scott,
    It depends on what kind of abuse. If it is allegedly criminal, but not admitted person should be immediately suspended from office and police should be called in to investigate (usually this is mandatory). If it is not criminal (eg adultery), suspended and church disciplinary procedures followed. But here as you point out many failing on the part of the church are often evident.

    • Hi Rowland,

      I agree.

      E.g., sexual abuse by a minister of a parishioner is a serious moral offense and quite likely a criminal offense. In such a case, the state, as the divine institution for the execution of justice in the secular realm has its responsibility to fulfill. As citizens in the state, under the secular authority of the magistrate (Rom 13:1-7), the officers of the church have a moral and legal duty to report to the magistrate suspected crimes committed by laity and officers.

  6. I wonder if trials of P&R church officers begin one level too low to be impartial. I’m all for things being handled at the lowest level possible, but right now an elder accused of impropriety by a church member gets his case heard by his fellow elders first–a minister’s case by his fellow ministers. Often the complainant is unknown to the court, while the officer is a well-known, fellow-worker, friend and colleague. Sure, there is appeal, but by then the verdict of the lower court strongly weighs on further proceedings. In the meantime a lot of time and energy has been spent on initial proceedings that never had a chance until and unless the higher court gets involved.

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