Diseases of Church Government

J. G. Vos

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 2, no. 4 (October 1993)


Part 1 Ė Regarding Compromise as a Principal

Anyone who wishes to purchase a curio or object of art in an oriental bazaar should realize beforehand that compromise is of the essence of such a transaction. Many an American tourist has been roundly “stung” by immediately paying, without question or objection, the price first asked by the merchant, only to have the latter laugh at his simplicity once he is out of earshot. In such circumstances haggling and bargaining is not only the accepted practice, and so recognized by all parties (except American tourists), but is also something of an end in itself. It is not merely a matter of the economic facts of life, such as supply and demand; the bargaining process is itself a form of pleasure, a battle of wits which affords the participants something of the satisfaction of a game of chess. It is known at the beginning of the process that if a sale finally takes place, it will be at a figure which is approximately one-half of that originally asked by the seller. But the tacitly accepted rules of the game forbid that this final price be arrived at directly, by a shortcut as it were; it must be reached by a process of repeated offers and bids, each of which involves a degree of compromise on the part of the bargainers.

Americans, not having the oriental point of view, tend to regard this long drawn-out process as a nuisance and a waste of time. Probably no one, however, would pronounce it morally wrong, or sinful in itself. But it is different in the case of bargaining or compromise in the courts and assemblies of the Church of Jesus Christ. In the processes of church government and discipline, compromise may sometimes be unavoidable, as the less of two evils, but it should never be regarded as the ideal mode of procedure. Compromise is not an ideal nor a principle, and it should not be regarded as the normal and proper way of concluding church business, whether administrative or judicial.

Matters come before church courts and assemblies in various ways, such as by petition, by complaint, by appeal, or by reference from a lower court. It is the duty of a court of Jesus Christ to determine the matters before it according to righteousness. The true aim of a court of Jesus Christ is not to satisfy the greatest possible number of people, nor to seek at all costs to avoid displeasing anyone, but to glorify God by carrying out as fully as possible the will of Christ, the Head of the Church. Just as the decisions of civil law courts cannot please everybody, so the decisions of church courts cannot please everybody. But church courts should always aim to please the Head of the Church.

The conclusion of business according to righteousness is clearly the Scriptural ideal for church courts and assemblies. Yet it is to be feared that the actual practice, in various American denominations at least, often falls far short of this ideal. And it is to be feared, even, that this ideal itself is not always recognized as the true ideal. Over against this Scriptural view of the transaction of church business, there seems to exist another view, which regards compromise as the normal and proper way of handling church business. Thus compromise tends to supplant righteousness as the norm. And this tendency to regard compromise as proper and normal—to regard compromise as a principle—is an immoral tendency. When this tendency becomes firmly fixed in a denomination, it is like a cancerous growth; it “will increase unto more ungodliness” (2 Tim. 2:16). Neither individuals nor church courts can tamper with the moral law without reaping, eventually, what they sow.

It would be easy to give concrete instances of the tendency we are discussing from American church history, taking our examples from both large denominations and smaller ones. Instead of citing such examples, however, we shall endeavor to present an outline of the pattern which compromise often takes in church courts. Let us say that a complaint has come before a presbytery or synod or other church court, alleging improper action on the part of some church organ. It may be, for example, that a minister or group of ministers have filed a complaint with their synod, alleging improper action on the part of their presbytery. This complaint comes before the synod, accompanied by various items which are presented as evidence. The synod is then faced with the necessity of doing something about the matter. Under the customary procedure in most Presbyterian denominations, such a complaint will first be referred to a committee for study—either a regular committee on discipline, or a special committee appointed for that particular matter.

The committee studies the matter and later brings in its report, with specific recommendations for action on the part of the synod. This is then taken up for debate and possible adoption. If the matter is one on which there is a sharp difference of opinion, there may be considerable debate, with speeches both for and against the recommendations of the committee. The procedure may become more complicated by motions from the floor for amending the committeeís recommendation, or for substituting something else for it. As the debate continues it may be not only wearying, but even somewhat painful.

At this stage someone is likely to come forward with a proposal that the whole matter be terminated by a compromise solution, which he proceeds to outline. The typical form of compromise solution avoids pronouncing on the actual right or wrong of the matter originally complained against. Instead, without committing the court as to the righteousness of the complaint, the proposed compromise grants to the complainers some concessions, and at the same time some recommendations as to future action which, it is felt, will tend to remove the cause for similar complaint in the future.

This compromise plan is not proposed on the ground of righteousness. It is urged on the ground that it will promote the peace of the church, that it will avoid scandalizing the young people, that it proceeds from Christian love, and so forth. Perhaps several very emotionally-colored speeches will be made. Then someone will call for the question, the vote will be taken, and the compromise will very likely become the official decision of the court. Some will go home satisfied, and others less satisfied. But few, perhaps, will ask the question, What did the great Head of the Church think of the decision?

The plea of Christian love, of zeal for the peace of the church, and so forth, which is put forth by those who promote compromise, is rather nauseating. The tacit implication of this plea is that they only are actuated by such noble motives as Christian love, while those who hold that the issue should be decided on its merits without compromise are not moved by Christian love. Does Christian love imply that compromise must be regarded as a principle? Does Christian love mean that church courts must split the difference between right and wrong, and make some concessions on both sides? Are those who are opposed to this sort of procedure necessarily lacking in Christian love? Surely these questions must be answered by an emphatic No. The fact that some brethren do not talk a great deal about Christian love does not mean that they are not actuated by Christian love. It is possible, certainly, that they have a deeper and truer Christian love than do the promoters of compromises. For real Christian love seeks the purity of the church as well as its peace; real Christian love includes love for God and for His truth and for righteousness, as well as love for brethren with whom one may not agree about important matters.

In the foregoing discussion we have been concerned only with matters involving a real difference of right and wrong, or those in which at least one of the parties holds that there is a real issue of right and wrong. We are quite aware that church business includes some matters which not only may properly be determined by compromise, but which really cannot be determined in any other way. These are matters which do not involve an issue between right and wrong. For example, in formulating a church budget for the coming year, there must necessarily be compromise all around. The different fields of work request certain sums of money for the year, but these requests add up to more than can be regarded as available. There must be compromise. That of course is entirely legitimate. There are other administrative matters not involving a moral issue which may properly be settled by compromise. For instance some may prefer for the next meeting to be held in June, while others would rather have it in August; this may properly be settled by deciding to hold the meeting in July. Many similar matters will readily occur to the mind of the reader. It is not such matters as these that we have in mind. When we say that it is wrong to regard compromise as a principle, we mean compromise where at least one of the parties maintains that a moral issue is involved. When compromise is regarded as the ideal way of settling such matters, it should be regarded by all who love Godís law as a serious disease of church government.

Part 2 - Following the Line of Least Resistance

It has been aptly remarked that following the line of least resistance is what makes rivers and men crooked. The winding, meandering river has followed the line of least resistance. And the man whose life reveals numerous deviations from the straight and narrow path has followed the line of least resistance. When faced with a moral crisis involving a difficult decision, he regularly takes the easy way out of the situation. To choose the path of righteousness would involve self-denial and suffering, perhaps also embarrassment and reproach. So the man who follows the line of least resistance chooses the easy way out, and by doing so he sins against God, deepens the corruption of his own character, and makes it harder for others to do right.

The Church in its organized form is also subject to the temptation to follow the line of least resistance. And it is sad but true that church courts, when faced with a crisis involving a moral issue, often follow the line of least resistance, taking the easy way out of a bad situation, instead of accepting the position of self-denial, suffering and reproach which befits the body of the rejected and crucified Christ. Too often the courts of the Church of Jesus Christ have chosen to avoid looking a bad situation squarely in the face and dealing with it according to righteousness, in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Head of the Church. Too often a carnal fear of embarrassment, suffering and reproach has led to an easy but unrighteous solution—a solution which obscures the moral issue involved, and results in a superficial but false peace and harmony in the Church.

This tendency to follow the line of least resistance, it would seem, springs from a double root. In the first place, it springs from the indwelling sinfulness of men—even of Christian men. The Bible is realistic in reporting the sins of the saints. Noahís drunkenness, Abrahamís untruthfulness, Davidís adultery and murder, Peterís thrice-repeated denial of Christ—all these and others are truthfully reported in Scripture. Clearly even true believers have within their hearts a fearful tendency toward evil. Even persons in positions of leadership and responsibility in the Church, such as ministers and elders, have in their hearts this sinful nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that church courts, even in their solemn decisions made in the name of Christ, may be guilty of great sin.

The other root of the tendency to follow the line of least resistance, we believe, is the modern philosophy of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is not merely a specialty of a few university professors. It has deeply infiltrated our modern life, and is constantly being subtly propagated by our educational system, our popular magazines and newspapers, and other media of our modern culture. Pragmatism leads people to say that results are more important than principles. It leads people to feel that the end may justify the means, that a particular course of action may be proper if it can be expected to achieve favorable results and avoid unfavorable ones. People who are influenced by the viewpoint of Pragmatism do not ask “Is it right?” but rather, “What will happen if we do it? ”

Church courts are composed of fallible men. The fact that they are Christians does not take away their human fallibility. Being human, they are influenced by the prevailing thought and culture of their time. That this prevailing thought and culture may be directly opposed to the mind of Christ is seldom realized. It is not to be wondered at, then, that church courts of the present day sometimes manifest a tendency to adopt the viewpoint of Pragmatism, in which the all important question is not “Is it right?” but “What will happen if we do it?”

A good many examples could be cited of church courts following the line of least resistance. The writer has observed this kind of action in connection with several widely varying issues. It is not proposed to describe or discuss all of these, but only to portray one type of such action. What we are about to describe is not a particular case but a pattern which has occurred, with variations of course, over and over again. The pattern is manifested in some such way as the following.

A bad situation develops in a congregation. Some of the members—perhaps many of the members—become disaffected toward their pastor. It may be that the pastor is at fault, perhaps seriously at fault. Ministers are human and they are sinners, therefore it is entirely possible that the pastor may be to blame, in whole or in part, for the bad situation in the congregation.

On the other hand, it must be realized that church members are human and also are sinners. As there are no perfect ministers, so there are no perfect congregations. It must not be assumed, therefore, that if a bad situation develops the minister it to blame. It is certainly possible that the blame may rest, in whole or in part, on the congregation—either the congregation as a whole, or a part of its officers and members. What happens when a congregation, in whole or in part, becomes disaffected toward its pastor? The pattern is surprisingly uniform. In one way or another, pressure is put on the pastor to resign. This may be done gracefully or it may be done disgracefully, but it is often done. It may be done by economic pressure. Ministers and their families have to live, and it is possible to force a minister out of a congregation by keeping his income below what he and his family can live decently on. Official church rules about minimum salaries have mitigated this sort of thing, but not by any means entirely eliminated it. Many a minister with a family to support receives less salary than is received by school teachers in the same community.

Ministers may be forced out of congregations by social pressure. It is possible to make things so downright unpleasant that only a minister with determination like iron and brass (Jer. 1:18) can bring himself to face it out. The writer has known of cases where some church members refused to shake hands with their pastor after Sabbath services. Such conduct does something to a minister and it also does something to his wife and children. A minister might steel himself to face it out if he were the only person affected, but it is hard to keep his wife and children in such a hostile atmosphere.

Some denominations have officially adopted definite forms of procedure by which a congregation, at the end of a set term of years, can vote on whether the pastor shall be called upon to continue as their pastor for another term of years. The so-called five-year plan adopted by the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America provides such forms of procedure. This plan provides certain safeguards against improper pressures and certain compensatory benefits to ministers who are not asked to continue in their pastoral charge. On the other hand, the “five-year plan” seems to be open to certain abuses. It may encourage some church members to think that they have a right to vote against their minister for no reason at all except that they would like a change. Whether this apparently rather common notion is in harmony with the Scriptural teaching on the relation between pastor and people is a serious question. It is one thing to ask a pastor to resign for valid reasons; it is another thing to ask him to resign for no reason at all. In this connection, it seems strange that the Book of Church Government of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (adopted 1945), Chapter VIII, Sections 10 and 11 (Constitution of R. P. Church, page 256) requires a pastor who wishes to resign to present “valid reasons” for his request, whereas in the case of a congregation wanting its pastor to leave, no “valid reasons” are required; apparently a majority of the members of a congregation can petition the presbytery to dissolve the pastoral relationship, without presenting any reasons for this request to the presbytery. It would seem that pastor and congregation should be on the same basis, and that in case either requests the presbytery to dissolve the pastoral relationship, valid reasons should be presented.

The so-called five-year plan is also liable to abuse in that it may, under certain circumstances place a minister under a strong temptation to preach a toned-down, man-pleasing message in order to avoid losing his pastorate. Where influential members of the congregation are known to be opposed to certain doctrines or principles of the church, a minister may be powerfully tempted to avoid preaching on or emphasizing these matters lest he lose his position. The result of opposition to a pastor on the part of his congregation is usually that the minister decides, or is persuaded, to resign “gracefully.” This may be with the benefits provided by the “five-year plan,” or perhaps the minister may be promised that if he leaves by a certain date without resistance, the congregation will continue to pay his salary for two or three months beyond that date. The resignation is presented to the presbytery or other church court having jurisdiction, with the statement that the pastor and the congregation have come to agreement that it would be for the best for the pastoral relationship to be dissolved. The presbytery hears brief statements by the minister concerned and by representatives of the congregation. This is followed, perhaps, by some discussion which, however, seldom inquires into the real causes of the breach between pastor and people. There is general agreement that it is a bad situation. Finally the decision is reached that under the existing bad circumstances, it would be “for the best” for the pastoral relationship to be dissolved.

The congregation will very likely have a farewell social for the departing minister. On the surface everything will be sunshine and roses. Speeches will be made, prayers will be offered, gifts will be presented. The program will be nicely written up in the church paper, as well as in the local newspaper. The minister leaves town in an apparent atmosphere of friendship and goodwill. But the real truth may be—regardless of who is to blame—that it is the funeral of another wrecked pastorate.

What is wrong with the pattern which has been described above? Just this: the presbytery or other church court took the line of least resistance, instead of investigating and settling the matter according to righteousness. It did not ask “Is it right?” but rather “Will it have good results?” The presbytery had a sick congregation within its bounds. It neglected attending to this sick congregation until matters came to a crisis. Then it took the easy way out. A congregation having valid complaints against its pastor should seek a remedy by the lawful processes of church government, not by the application of lawless pressures. If personal conference in a spirit of love and friendship does not remedy the situation, the congregation has the right to petition the presbytery to investigate matters. If the minister is neglecting his work, if he is preaching heresy, if he is guilty of other offenses, the presbytery should be informed, and being informed, it should investigate and act as the situation may require. The delinquent pastor should be dealt with by the presbytery, which has lawful jurisdiction over him in the Lord. If the matters alleged are embarrassing, the presbytery can discuss the matter behind closed doors, in executive session. But it can and should act as righteousness requires.

A congregation wanting its pastor to leave for no special reasons should at least have the grace to wait until the end of a five-year term and then vote on him in the orderly manner prescribed by the rules of the denomination. Even so, it should be realized that something may be legal without being right in the sight of God. To vote to ask a pastor to leave his charge without giving “valid reasons” for this demand may be legal according to officially adopted rules of church government. Whether it is right in the sight of God is another question.

But a congregationís disaffection toward its pastor may not be the ministerís fault at all, or it may be his fault only to a minor degree. Perhaps the minister has done his duty by preaching plainly against sin. Perhaps he has incurred the enmity of the leading members by speaking to them of their sins and exhorting them to repent. Perhaps he has faithfully preached and taught the accepted standards and principles of the denomination, thereby incurring the opposition of those members who are bent on doing as they please and are more or less openly violating their own profession and membership vows. It would be very unrealistic to deny that such conditions sometimes exist. Under such circumstances a ministerís life may be a very painful one, and it may be extremely difficult for him to go about his duties with a serene countenance and a cheerful attitude of mind.

When a minister is put under pressure to resign and he honestly believes that the principal fault is not his own, it is his moral duty to report the situation to the presbytery and to call for an investigation of conditions in the congregation. For the minister to resign “gracefully” may be the pleasantest way out of an ugly situation, but it is morally wrong if he believes that the fault is on the side of the congregation. Ministers should not resign “gracefully” when under fire. The matters at issue should first be investigated by the courts of the church, and determined according to righteousness. Then after righteous judgment has been executed, if the minister wishes to resign and seek a new field of service it is his privilege to request the presbytery to release him from his pastoral charge. But until the bad situation in the congregation has been faced and dealt with according to righteousness the minister owes it to himself, to the church at large and to the Lord, to refuse to be pushed out by unlawful pressures.

It has been this writerís observation that presbyteries seldom investigate troubles in a congregation thoroughly. It is much more common, after hearing both parties briefly, to decide that it will be “for the best” just to terminate the pastoral relationship. The present writer cannot claim that he himself is free of responsibility for such following of the line of least resistance. He makes no claim of being more righteous or consistent than others. The purpose of these articles is not to justify or condemn anyone, but to call attention to weaknesses, abuses and sins in church government, in the hope that these may be duly considered and if possible corrected.

Why do church courts hesitate to deal with bad situations in congregations according to righteousness? It would seem that sometimes, at least, this is owing to a carnal fear of consequences. For example, it may be known that a number of people in a congregation are opposed to some of the doctrines and principles of the denomination. They may be trying to get rid of their pastor because he preaches faithfully on these matters, and they resent the implication that they are unfaithful to their own profession and vows. Perhaps some prominent members and some financial “pillars” of the congregation are involved. The session or presbytery fears that if anything is said to these people about loyalty to their profession they will leave the church in a huff. So a faithful minister is pushed out of his charge, and a sick congregation is left in its sickness, untreated and unhealed. If their next pastor does not accommodate himself and his message to the congregationís sickness, he will not last long in that charge.

What is needed in situations of this kind is not merely prayer for revival, but positive action on the part of the presbytery. When a crisis occurs in a congregation, a special meeting of the presbytery should be held This should not be a hasty half-day or one-day affair. The presbytery or a duly empowered commission of the presbytery should meet within the congregation where the trouble is for as long as may be necessary to get at the root of the matter. If it takes four or five days to find out what the real root of the trouble is and administer corrective measures, that will be time well spent in an acceptable service to Christ, the Head of the Church. If the pastor is at fault, he should be counseled with and admonished as the facts may require. If the congregation or the session is to blame, the same course should be followed. If individual members are to blame for the trouble, they should be dealt with faithfully, without respect of persons. The trouble should be adjudicated according to righteousness, difficult and painful as this may be. Oh, but if such a course be followed, people will leave the church, it will be objected. Very possibly they will. There is no way to maintain righteousness and at the same time conciliate people who want to have their own way. There is no way to maintain the rules of the Lordís house and at the same time please people who are living in sin. Instead of the present common attitude of extreme reluctance to offend anyone and risk their leaving the church, we should heed and obey the instructions of the apostle Paul: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality” (1 Tim. 5:20, 21).

A minister owes something to his church. He has taken her vows upon himself. He has solemnly pledged himself to follow no divisive courses from the doctrine and order which the church has officially recognized and adopted. It is his duty to preach that doctrine and practice that order faithfully and consistently, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. A minister is not to preach in accordance with the likes and dislikes of his congregation.

He is to preach in accordance with the solemn vows he took when he was installed as pastor of the congregation.

A denomination also owes something to the minister who has given his life to serving Christ in its congregations. If it is the ministerís duty to preach and practice the doctrine and order which the church has adopted, it is the denominationís duty to protect


This article first appeared in Vol 9 of Blue Banner Faith and Life, issues 2 and 3, published in 1954.