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Question and Answer

Bringing Charges against an Officer

Question:

I would like to receive some guidance regarding publicized information (meaning shared with the congregation) related to personal conflict. Specifically, when do matters become public to the congregation, and what level of detail is expressed?

I am also looking for guidance on the same questions, but how it relates to concerns brought to a session about a pastor, elder or deacon (church leadership) in cases where it regards sin, and also in cases where it doesn’t regard sin but does question the effectiveness of the person in his position.

Answer:

Dear brother,

Thank you for your question. It is not a simple one, having several parts to it, but I’ll try to be helpful.

Presbyterianism tries to biblically balance two realities:

  1. Leaders, being visible, are particularly vulnerable, and never more so than in the church where the sheer weekly contact of leaders (pastor, elders, deacons) is very public with members of a congregation. That is why Paul, I think, writes as he does in I Timothy 5 (referring back to Deut. 19:15ff.). Because leaders are vulnerable to false accusations, there needs to be protection of their reputations from malicious accusations.
  2. That being said, however, the congregation needs to be protected from false shepherds whose doctrine and/or life, harm the flock, and those shepherds who ‘lord it over the flock’ (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Those who raise concerns shouldn’t simply be dismissed as malcontents in what many times congregants have felt was a ‘circling of the wagons’, an ‘old boys network’ where leaders protect one another.

The OPC having arisen in a situation where J. Gresham Machen was falsely and with evil intent accused by his presbytery in 1936 and not given a fair trial, the OPC’s Book of Discipline protects the right of the accused. Yet it also gives a procedure by which charges can be brought. In fact, if a person needs assistance in preparing charges, a session or a presbytery is required to help that person put the charges in the best order possible so that charges cannot be dismissed on technicalities. And a person bringing a charge does not have to prosecute charges himself but can ask others to assist or even take over the matter. All this is laid out in the Book of Discipline (http://www.opc.org/BCO/BD.html).

But most of us are not eager to go that route, though it is very important that the OPC (and other Presbyterian bodies) has spelled out the procedure. We don’t want to begin as adversaries but as fellow believers, and that is where you seem to be, if I am reading you right. That is wise, so then we have to ask other questions:

  1. Have I prayed for wisdom, and asked the Lord to teach me about my own heart in this situation (think the plank and the speck in Matt. 7:1–5)? Have I recognized and confessed any sin on my part?
  2. Have I accurately (as accurately as I can anyway) assessed the severity of the situation? Have I tried to understand the situation in the best possible light using the ‘judgment of charity’ as it has been called, since I might not understand some important factors about the situation. The classic picture is of a member who felt slighted by her pastor when she had a particular need only to realize that he had an intense family crisis in his own life. Have I given the leader(s) the benefit of the doubt as I hope others would give to me?
  3. What is the nature of the issue that is concerning me? Can it be covered over in love (1 Pet. 4:8)? Is it just me or is it affecting the life of the church? Is there a pattern, have things been repeated? Does it involve doctrine or life? Both are important. False teaching or misuse of Scripture needs to be brought a session or presbytery which are both charged with maintaining the ‘peace, purity, and unity of the church’. But equally important is the life of a leader which can bring dishonor on the name of Christ (1 Tim. 3:1ff.). Additionally, in the New Testament the two, doctrine and life, are often intimately connected because our theology directs our living. Leaders are redeemed sinners just like me, is this sin more serious because of the person’s position in the church (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 123–130, 151)?
  4. If it is a personal offense by a leader towards me have I followed Matthew 18 (also see Matt. 5:21–26) in going directly to that person? A good rule of thumb is to try to keep things at the lowest level, that is, having the fewest persons involved according to Matthew 18. Only when it is apparent that a leader is dismissive of my concerns do I try to involve others.

Finally, you write about how public information should be in certain situations. Speaking from experience that is sometimes very difficult for those responsible to make a determination about what to reveal. Often a session tries to protect innocent parties when sensitive issues come to them, say in the case of two young people who become sexually intimate. In one case, the fact that the young woman became pregnant meant that the session needed to address it, but only after there are a private dealing with the couple, a confession of sin by them, and then it was presented as a gospel lesson. The couple was married and became faithful members of the church. But suppose a young child had been molested by a older person? A session might discipline the offender but refrain from giving many details. This calls for wisdom on the part of the elders and we need to pray for them in these things.

I hope this is helpful. It is, as I said, not a simple thing, but in a church where we treasure and seek to live by the gospel, we are can talk, confront, forgive, and restore because we all come as those in need of the grace found only in Jesus Christ.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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