Polity Matters: How Reformed Churches Might Have Handled The Chandler Situation

Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of The Village Church, a megachurch of about 14,000 members in Flower Mound, TX, which is a northern suburb in the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex (it is the top of the triangle of the three). After the departure of Mark Driscoll, Chandler also became the leading figure of the Acts 29 Network, which is the closest thing to an ecclesiastical expression of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. In late August of 2022, Chandler took a leave of absence from his position after disclosing that he had been exchanging direct messages (DMs) via Instagram that he and the other elders deemed “too familiar” and “unwise” (but non-sexual) with a woman who was not his wife. This episode was big news. The story not only hit the local paper but even the New York Post. Earlier this month, Christianity Today reported that Chandler has been “restored” to ministry in The Village Church. Daniel Silliman writes, “He said that after a three-months leave and a discipline and development process, the elders were affirming Chandler’s restoration without any second thoughts. Chandler’s return, he said, reminded him of when an athlete comes back after knee surgery.”

Interest in Chandler and this episode remains high. As I write, it is among the top stories on the Christianity Today site. It has provoked a response from Rick Pidcock on Baptist News Global. I do not share all his concerns, but I surmise that he speaks for a number of people. What I hope to address here is not the particulars of this case but the process.

The Village Church is part of the Acts 29 Network, but a network is not a denomination or even a federation. The Reformed approach to polity and discipline, when followed faithfully, might have helped in this case. Pastors sin. They do and say foolish things. When that happens and when they submit themselves to their brothers and fathers in the faith, there is a process to be followed. It varies somewhat within the Reformed churches. The confessional Dutch Reformed churches might follow a slightly different process from the American Presbyterians, but the broad outlines would be similar enough to be instructive here.

Let us imagine that the pastor of a confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) congregation were approached by the friend of a woman with whom that pastor had been sharing DMs. Let us imagine that the DMs are, as reported in this case, not sexual in nature but the sort of thing that colleagues in a company might share. Obviously, in a post-me-too world (and in a world where Human Resources departments have become synonymous with “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Critical Theory, etc.), any such informal communication is fraught with unhappy potential outcomes. The New England Puritans never had the sort of social control that DEI-inspired HR managers now have. Nevertheless, let us continue the thought experiment. Let us imagine that they are sending memes, jokes, and wisecracks back and forth but that a friend of the female involved in the DM exchange is convicted that this sort of “familiar,” private communication between a pastor and a woman is inappropriate. Let us say that the offended party (not the person exchanging DMs) approaches the pastor to object. What should happen?

First, kudos to the person who first approached the pastor to object. It is even surprising this happened in 2022. An offended person is perhaps more likely to take such concerns to social media before approaching one of the parties.

Second, the offended party has a point. Here I reiterate my support for the Pence or Graham Rule. Pastors should be held to a higher standard, and it is not particularly wise for a pastor to be exchanging DMs (though the spouses of both parties were aware of the exchanges and not offended or concerned) with someone of the opposite sex over an extended period of time. Call me a prude and I will say, I am being prudent. Wisdom is the operative category here. The news coverage and analysis (linked above) does not seem to grasp this category, but it exists. Wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs) makes up a major section of the Old Testament and significant portions of the New Testament (e.g., James is heavily influenced by the wisdom literature and our Lord himself taught in a similar manner). There are actions that may be unwise or foolish and yet not sinful. Foolishness can lead to sin, however, and prudence guides us away from things that lead to sin.

Let us say that the pastor, when confronted by the concerned party, dismissed the concern. Now what? In a P&R church a concerned party would have recourse to the session or to the consistory, i.e., the ruling elders and minister(s). The concerned party could approach the consistory in writing or ask to appear before them to make his or her concerns known. The matter is now before the consistory and they have a responsibility to investigate, evaluate, and, if necessary, correct the minister. Should the consistory refuse to take up the matter (such a response is known both in the megachurch world and even in the P&R world), a member of a P&R church would have the right to complain to the regional assembly (i.e., the classis, in the Dutch and German churches and the Presbytery in the Presbyterian churches). Indeed, in Presbyterian churches, the minister’s credentials are sometimes held by the presbytery so they might even be the body of original jurisdiction. In any event, there is an avenue of complaint and appeal. In the federation of churches (United Reformed Churches in North America), an aggrieved person may even appeal to Synod, should the appeal to classis be unsuccessful. Along the way, in P&R churches, the complainant has a right to counsel, someone to help them through the process.

In a connectional body, the local ministers and elders are accountable to the ministers and elders in the region and even beyond, to ministers and elders at the national, synodical level. These degrees of accountability protect both the accused and the accuser. They provide for a greater degree of transparency. To be sure, the public is not entitled to all the details of a discipline case, but one of the complaints that Pidcock made about the process was the lack of transparency. When a minister announces to a congregation that he is being removed from ministry for a time because of unwise communication with a woman who is not his wife, it seems wise to be very transparent about what happened, what steps are being taken to correct the behavior, for how long the minister is being removed from ministry, why, and on what basis and when he will be returned. The absence of such transparency is bound to provoke doubt. Are the elders covering up for an important and influential leader, in whose success they are invested? Again, should a local P&R session address this case the way the elders at The Village Church did, these very same questions and objections would (and should) arise. This is where the complaint and appeal process serves the church well.

The impulse in a megachurch, as in a big corporation, is to protect “the brand” and often the figurehead at the top of the organizational church is the brand. The impulse in the visible church should not be to protect the brand but to protect the sheep and the name of Christ. Preachers come and go, but Christ and his church will remain after the latest personality retires and fades from memory. Pastors and elders in P&R churches pledge to uphold the Word of God as confessed by the churches and to protect and defend Christ’s flock. Of course, the elders ought to be concerned about the pastor’s spiritual well-being and that of his family, and they must shepherd the soul of the concerned person too.

Why not be transparent? Beside the institutional impulse to protect the brand, it is easy for church leaders to become defensive of “our guy.” This goes to the function of grace in the church. This goes to true humility, which is grounded in grace. When leaders know the greatness of their sin and misery and when they are deeply convinced that they stand before God only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, then they are free to admit what they are: sinners who sin. There are no sinless pastors in this world. We are all pilgrims. We all err. We are all subject to correction. When one is seized by the supremacy of grace, it is easier to for a pastor to say, “You make a very good point. It probably is not very wise for us to exchange these sorts of personal messages.” Professional business is frequently done by text or by internal messaging platforms (e.g., slack) but those communications are professional and not personal.

Finally, wisdom is not a popular category of analysis in our age, but recovering wisdom as a category as well as the virtue of prudence would benefit all of us. Even if exchanging personal messages via DM, is not sin is it wise? What is the relationship between folly and sin? It seems that Proverbs has much to say about that.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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6 comments

  1. I think we have an even better process in the PCA in that after someone knows that a Minister/Pastor is guilty of a private offense, he first must go to the offender. Keeping that which has not become a public matter private. Though I’d be willing to bet most go to another Church member or Elder first. If there is no contrition after this private confrontation, then the complainant goes directly to another minister of the Presbytery, the regional body of which the PCA minister retains his membership, and reports his Pastor’s offense. I think this to be a better system because it makes the first court, the Presbytery, a much more objective body than the local Session, men in which he is most familiar and is most likely to be protected.

  2. Polity matters *if* it is followed. We can probably all cite examples where it wasn’t. Any polity is only as effective as the men charged with administering it. Therefore, I don’t think P&R churches should boast, “There’s no way that could happen in our church.” when other churches fail at discipline. We have the structure and means for just administration of discipline if we will do it righteously.

  3. Dr. Clark: Transparency considerations aside, what did this church do in this matter that was unjust discipline? The most that is being pointed to is that what the pastor did was unwise. In fact, three months seemed a bit excessive. I say transparency aside because in my particular PCA church, lack of transparency is standard operating procedure by our leadership.

  4. Scoffers will scoff but the PCA system worked pretty well with the Memorial PCA debacle. The Memorial Session is said to have erred. The Presbytery found no error. One Presbyter complained up the chain. The General Assembly SJC affirmed the Presbytery in their efforts to investigate. Other Presbyteries complained about the process. The SJC reexamined the circumstances in light of more circumstances coming to the fore and the darkening of the PCA’s image. The SJC basically kicked the situation back to the Presbytery to take another look at themselves. The pot got too hot for Memorial and they baled. Might not be a perfect outcome but it got the job done.

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