Matthew 18:15-18 is one of the most basic passages in Scripture concerning church government. It is for the purpose of restoring an erring brother and lays out various steps that must be taken to do so. First, you go to your brother in private and tell him of his sin between the two of you. If he repents, then you have won your brother Second, if he refuses to repent, you take two or three others with you as witnesses. Third, if he still refuses to repent, then you tell it to the church with the witnesses confirming it. Fourth, if he still refuses to repent, then he is to be “as a Gentile.” That is, the unrepentant person is to be put out of the church.
This begins as a matter between two individuals. It ends as a matter before the church if there is not repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. The goal of the whole process is restoration. In my experience after four terms on the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA, reconciliation and restoration almost never happened. Even when a complainant won the decision before the General Assembly’s SJC, there was little joy. Why? Because judicial complaints in Presbyterian polity are generally as toothless as filing a grievance with conference referees after a college football game. The most you can expect is for the head referee to say, “We agree with you, but there is nothing that can be done about it now. The score stands and the game was lost by your team. Sorry. We will try to do better next time.”
Jesus did not envision a situation where the whole process would result in a stalemate. Rather, he envisioned that the case would not be over until it was told to the church. Then, if there was still impenitence, a final decision would be made. Herein is the lesson. Justice that is finalized before the highest judicatory has ruled is not justice. It is the absence of justice.
Now the problem with every Presbyterian Book of Church Order with which I am familiar is that there is an unscriptural distinction between an appeal and a complaint. An appeal is only allowed to the person who undergoes a trial. If that person appeals to the next higher court, then the decision is suspended until the higher court acts. Yet, a complaint is allowable to any member of a church court at that level and can be filed against any action of the court. Unlike an appeal, though, a complaint generally does not suspend the action of the lower court. And that difference has opened the door to a great deal of injustice.
Over the four terms I served on the SJC, we had a few cases that were appeals, but not many. Most all the cases were complaints. Remember, complaints are generally toothless. I have a friend who is a trial lawyer and once won a great victory against an industry that most people said could never be defeated. He won the decision, but his client was awarded zero compensatory damages. In other words, he won, but he won nothing. That is the way the Presbyterian system is with respect to complaints. Yes, you have the right to file the complaint with the next higher court, but the actions of the lower court almost always continue in place during the process and even after the higher court decides the matter.
Consider this example. A Presbytery can illegally assume jurisdiction over a church which ultimately results in a pastor losing his position at a congregation. The pastor can then file a complaint. It will wind its way through the courts—first presbytery, the General Assembly—before a final decision is made. At the GA level, the decision might uphold the complaint of the pastor, but he will not be restored to his church. The Presbytery will get a light slap on their collective wrists and will be told, “Don’t do that again.” And that will be it. The complaint system appears to protect the rights of ministers, congregations, and church members on paper, but in reality it does nothing of the sort. Why? Because the finality of the decision already made by the lower court is almost never overturned and when it is it is simply on some small procedural issue that does not change the decision.
Consider another example. A Presbytery tries a man for heresy and clears him of the charge despite the General Assembly’s earlier decision that such views are contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith. A member or members of Presbytery then file a complaint that is first heard and denied by the court of original jurisdiction. Then, it is filed with the General Assembly. What happens then? Well, precedent says that the GA will then decide that the lower court has investigated the matter thoroughly, conducted a fair trial, and their opinion should be upheld. I have seen the courts work that way both as a juror and a representative of a complainant.
So, why is the system broken? It is very simple. Jesus taught that the matter is not to be decided until the whole process has been concluded. Our Presbyterian polity says that the decisions of the lower court may become final for all intents and purposes before the whole process has been concluded. That unscriptural position is the root of all kinds of problems. What if the decisions of the lower court were automatically suspended until heard by the higher court when a complaint was filed? Would that help to insure justice for all? I certainly think so.
Some people might feel that it would lead to too many frivolous complaints if every complaint suspended the actions of the lower court until it was decided by the higher court. I do not think so. First of all, the higher court would still have the power to determine if the complaint were in order. Second, toothless complaints have led to a great deal of anger and disillusionment among church members when even winning a decision has proved to be a hollow victory. Third, Jesus clearly teaches us to not take final action until the last resort has been tried. So, I actually believe that there would be fewer complaints and appeals simply because the lower court would know that the higher court very well might overturn or reverse their decision. Such knowledge has a sobering effect on lower courts and causes them to avoid making decisions by fiat authority. Decisions made by fiat authority result in judicial overreach, division, and destroy the Scriptural foundations of a denomination. Examples of such are all around us and scattered across the pages of church history. It is time, and past time, for Presbyterians to simplify their governing rules and not allow final decisions in complaints until the higher court has acted.
NEWS: I was contacted by five pastors last week who indicated their churches (three) or potential mission churches (two) are looking to come into Vanguard Presbytery very soon. I will not give the names until those ministers/ churches/ mission churches make their decisions in order to protect those ministers and churches. November and December should result in several new churches/ mission churches in Vanguard Presbytery for which we praise the Lord. I know of many other churches that are carefully and patiently educating their congregations on why they believe that Vanguard Presbytery is the best and right choice for them. There are 4-5 ministers who are being examined this evening, Monday, October 26th, by the Credentials Committee of Vanguard Presbytery. Al Baker and I have visits planned this week to three different cities in Tennessee where we hope to see new churches started. There are many other places where we will be traveling to talk with people about new church starts over the next few months. We are working on a program for Vanguard Presbytery and her member congregations to utilize social media to assist their church growth. Mark Turcio has some great ideas about how to do this and David Nee who is an administrator at the Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming, GA will be assisting us with the technical side. My interest is in seeing both existing and new churches built up through new members. When we get this plan finalized, we will share it with all Vanguard churches and mission churches. And Al Baker is working with many people and churches concerning evangelism.
Dewey Roberts, Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery and Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL