Alan D. Strange
Ordained Servant: December 2022
Also in this issue
by Meredith M. Kline
by John R. Muether
by Ryan M. McGraw
by Charles Malcolm Wingard
by Gregory E. Reynolds
by G. E. Reynolds (1949– )
1. A charge of an offense may be brought by an injured party, by a person not an injured party, or by a judicatory. The offense alleged in the charge should be serious enough to warrant a trial (cf. Chapter III, Section 7.b ). No charge shall be admitted against an elder, unless it is brought by two or more persons, according to I Timothy 5:19.
Comment: Here begins the elaboration of what the BD refers to as “judicial process,” a formal procedure that the church employs when informal procedures have proved unable to resolve differences between parties. There are several sorts of informal procedures that ought ordinarily to be engaged when one party alleges that another party has offended (sinned against) either that party or another: allowing love to cover a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8) and simply letting the offense go (Mark 11:25); or, when the offense cannot honestly be let go, the offended approaching the offender in terms of Matthew 18:15–16 and working through that with one or two witnesses; and then, if no satisfaction can be achieved by all these efforts, the offended may (not must; the offended is not obligated to initiate or to continue informal or formal process) bring the matter to the church (the elders) (Matt. 18:17).
Though Matthew 18:15–17 is explicitly cited below, and more will also be said there, it is perhaps helpful to address some misconceptions about Matthew 18 right up front at this point in our BD commentary, since Matthew 18 was adduced in my comment, immediately above. Matthew 18 involves some presuppositions that become obvious when teased out. The process set forth in Matthew 18 describes someone who is personally and privately offended—that is customarily recognized—though we also acknowledge that it may well be fitting to go personally and privately to an alleged offender even in the case of public sin (BD 3.5), if discretion suggests that it is wise, particularly if the parties are equals. The mention of equals leads to the observation that the process also presumes that the parties in view in Matthew 18:15–17 are equals, as defined by WLC 131–132 (cf. WLC 126–130). Matthew 18 clearly does not have in view a superior to an inferior, because an offended superior can ordinarily require that the inferior recognize the offense and offer amends accordingly. This is not to say that other Scriptures do not directly speak to superior/inferior relations and how they are scripturally to be conducted, but Matthew 18 has in view, ordinarily, the behavior of equals.
On the other side of the equation, Matthew 18 does not have in view inferiors going to superiors with alleged offenses. Such can perhaps be done in cases in which the superior is truly humble and will give a fair hearing to the inferior and even repent. Often, however, the very behavior that an inferior would be offended by involves an alleged misuse of authority and power on the part of the superior. If a superior is alleged to be abusing his office as a superior, it is unreasonable and irrational to insist that the inferior must approach him under the rubric of Matthew 18, as if they were the equals implied in the text (“if your brother sins against you”).
If the superior can be easily entreated by the inferior, then that is a happy, though perhaps unusual, situation, and Matthew 18 may be quite possible. However, if the superior is offended by being challenged by the inferior, as is often the case even when things are at the level of simple forgiveness—in which parties, whether superior or inferior, acknowledge sin and seek forgiveness and restoration—it is usually the case that an inferior is quite vulnerable and in no position to “go to the superior under the rubric of Matthew 18.” Even if the superior claims to be reasonable and approachable, he may not be, and the judgment of others about whether he can truly be easily entreated in the given case should or would need to be brought into view and the superior not simply be left to be judge in his own case.
All this is to say that Matthew 18 is not customarily in play in the case of a superior offended by an inferior: to insist that it is misguidedly puts them on the same level; at the same time, when an inferior alleges offense by a superior, especially of a serious nature (abuse of various sorts come to mind), the judgment of the church should usually be brought in as the first step (which should refer violations of the law to civil authorities), rather than the session wrongheadedly requiring a member alleging pastoral or other special officer malfeasance to “go to the pastor (or elder/deacon) and work it out with him in terms of Matthew 18.”
That is not the proper use of Matthew 18—to require inferiors claiming injury to go to superiors with whom there is no proper sense of a level playing field. Matthew 18, if carefully thought through, just as it is not required in cases of public sin, is also not required when a superior, especially in the discharge of his office, is thought by an inferior to have offended. An allegation of such to the local elders should be sufficient for them to seek to address the matter, involving the presbytery if and as necessary. Matthew 18 has too often been as heavy-handedly abused as was Job at the hands of his well-meaning but ultimately misguided friends.
When a matter is brought to the church, either through a Matthew 18 process or other ways in which such can occur (parties may simply be known to be at odds and needing reconciliation), the church can seek in several ways—by the whole session or a committee thereof—informally to help the parties reconcile or otherwise come to terms with each other. As a part of this, the church, or the parties, may wish also to use outside counselor(s) or mediating agencies (like Peacemakers) under the rubric of informal procedures. This highlights that when a matter is brought to the attention of a judicatory, either through allegations or their own investigation, it is not the case that the only actions which the judicatory can take is to proceed with formal judicial process. The judicatory may investigate matters and advise counseling, processes of reconciliation, and the like all to resolve difficulties and “redress” evils (FG 14.5. paragraphs 1 and 2).
If the session wishes to use informal processes and such fail, or if the session deems it best to go more quickly to formal judicial process, the beginning of such formal process is the bringing of an alleged offense to the judicatory. When an offense meeting the test of this chapter (below, especially BD 3.3) is brought by the eligible parties (offended, another party—presumably a witness—or a judicatory), the judicatory to which it is brought shall follow all the rules of this chapter in processing, chief among them that the offense alleged in the charge is serious enough to warrant a trial. This presumes that it is, indeed, an offense, meaning that what is alleged is contrary to the Word of God, which cannot simply be taken for granted, and will be addressed fully under BD 3.3. And even then, the offense may be deemed by the judicatory not sufficient to warrant trial. The Bible’s warning that there must be at least two witnesses when charging an elder is also cited here. Does that mean that other parties may be charged by fewer than two persons? No, two or three witnesses are required for all charges, the details of that requirement treated below.
2. No charge shall be admitted by the judicatory if it is filed more than two years after the commission of the alleged offense, unless it appears that unavoidable impediments have prevented an earlier filing of the charge. A charge shall be considered filed when it has been delivered to the clerk or the moderator of the judicatory.
Comment: This section sets forth what is commonly called at law a “statute of limitation.” A charge of sin, and thus any offense respecting such, needs to be handled in a timely manner (even the pagans admit that “justice delayed is justice denied,” and Western law, at least back to Magna Carta, expresses the need for timely justice). That being admitted, a two-year statute of limitation recognizes that there are good reasons for why one may not immediately, and perhaps should not immediately, institute judicial process: for instance, the Matthew 18 process or other valid reasons may delay a charge from being filed immediately. In any case, parties are generally well-advised to seek to remedy alleged offenses short of filing charges (see the comments on section 1, above).
Thus, one should not ordinarily prefer charges quickly; on the other hand, undue delay in filing charges creates its own set of problems, not the least of which is to permit a matter to go unresolved, allow it to fester, and develop into bitterness or the like. One should neither rush to formal judicial procedure nor put off doing so unduly, especially in a case in which there appears to be no other remedy. Nothing can be substituted for sound wisdom in these matters. When it comes to law (Hebrew torah), one must never dispense with wisdom (Hebrew hokma). To do so leads to straining at gnats and swallowing camels, forsaking both justice and mercy (Matt. 23:24).
The clause of the first sentence merits some comment. The statute of limitations is two years, unless certain circumstances prevail, what the BD refers to as “unavoidable impediments,” which have prevented an earlier filing of the charge. This has occasioned no little controversy among us. Amendments to this part of the BD have been offered in recent years attempting to define unavoidable impediments along the lines of personal abuse, recognizing that this may take a longer period to come to terms with before reporting, often due to a sense of shame on the part of those sinned against. Sometimes sin may involve a pattern of behavior suggesting that the action of a year or two ago (within the statute of limitations) may also properly bring into view similar sins (of previous years) lying beyond the current statute of limitations.
The general assembly has referred such attempts to the Committee on Appeals and Complaints, not believing that the proper remedy has quite yet been reached. One suggestion that has floated about is something along the lines of eliminating the words “unavoidable impediments,” since those words have occasioned much debate and instead simply requiring circumstances that seem to the judicatory, in its exercise of discretion, to warrant the admittance of a charge that lies beyond the statute of limitations. All this is to say that there has been an increasing recognition that a too narrow construction of the statute of limitations may be detrimental to justice and mercy and that a greater leeway may be taken by a judicatory as long as it properly documents the reasons for allowing a charge(s) that lies outside the two-year statute of limitations. The last sentence of this section of the BD makes it clear that a charge of an offense is considered formally filed when delivered either to the clerk or the moderator of a judicatory.
3. Every charge of an offense must: (a) be in written form, (b) set forth the alleged offense, (c) set forth only one alleged offense, (d) set forth references to applicable portions of the Word of God, (e) set forth, where pertinent, references to applicable portions of the confessional standards, (f) set forth the serious character of the offense which would demonstrate the warrant for a trial.
Each specification of the facts relied upon to sustain the charge must: (a) be in written form, (b) declare as far as possible, the time, place, and circumstances of the alleged offense, (c) be accompanied with the names of any witnesses and the titles of documents, records, and recordings to be produced.
Comment: Neither this section nor any that follows should be taken as pro forma and quickly gone through in the examination of a charge brought to a judicatory. First, every charge of an offense must be in written form. The judicatory cannot deal with oral allegations of offenses but must have any charge(s) properly before it in written form. The second item listed here—that every charge of an offense must set forth the alleged offense—must also be carefully attended to. This seemingly simple requirement contains more than at first meets the eye. It should here be noted that the judicatory to whom the charge of an offense is brought must at this point determine whether the alleged offense is in fact an actual offense. That is to say, the alleged offense must be determined at this point to be a real violation of God’s Word if it were ever proved true. Often, such a determination is easy, obvious, and patent: someone is charged with adultery, for instance, which is a violation of the seventh commandment and also detailed at other places in the Bible and the Westminster Standards as a true offense. No one would question that adultery, if proved true, would indeed be an offense (and a chargeable one). I labor to make my point: The judicatory is not at this point to determine whether the offense has been committed; rather the judicatory is to determine that what is alleged as an offense is in fact an offense, not potentially an offense.
The difference between something being patently an offense and potentially an offense is to be determined right at this point, not later in a formal preliminary investigation and certainly not in a trial. A judicatory does not conduct a preliminary investigation and certainly not a trial to determine whether an alleged offense is properly an offense. Rather, at this point in BD judicial process, the judicatory is to determine whether the alleged offense is an offense, though it is not at the point of determining things like whether it is serious enough to warrant a trial and whether or not it has been committed, the latter determination reserved for a trial. The judicatory at this point is determining whether what is being alleged is something that is a proper offense in terms of BD 3.3.(b). An example of something that is not an offense is the case in which someone is said merely to have played a game of cards or have had a glass of wine at a wedding, both of which have been alleged to be offenses in cases before, but which, on their face, no judicatory should properly regard as an offense under this rubric of the BD.
A trial, or even a preliminary investigation, is not meant to be a fishing expedition to determine whether a disliked party has possibly committed some wrong. Charges, in fact, should be proffered only as to the wrong alleged, not because the bringer of the charge has an animus against an alleged offender and is looking for something to charge the person with. We are to be neither respecters of persons, shielding parties we may like because they have been charged, nor should we be despisers of persons, too ready to receive any allegation if it does not state a clear offense but invites a fishing expedition to see if the person might have committed some offense with which we may charge them.
Once it has been clearly ascertained that what is being alleged to be an offense is, in fact, an offense, not needing further judicial process to determine whether it is an offense (if such is needed, let the judicatory look into the matter without reference to a particular case, perhaps through a study committee or other governmental process), then the judicatory may proceed to (c). Here the judicatory should assure itself that each charge is properly discrete, which is to say, that it contains only one alleged offense. Other alleged offenses in any given situation warrant additional charges, not seeking to combine multiple alleged offenses into one charge. Items d. and e. highlight the requirement that each charge of an alleged offense must contain relevant citations from the primary (biblical) and secondary (confessional/catechetical) sources. This helps keep in focus the question of whether what is alleged as an offense is indeed biblically and confessionally regarded as an offense. To put it another way, if what one takes to be an offense on the part of another is not a clear violation of one of the commandments of God (as summarized in the Ten Commandments and usually as interpreted by the Westminster Standards), then the claim that the alleged offense is indeed a sin is dubious at best. Any alleged offense should be able to be shown a violation of God’s Word, not simply something that irritates or frustrates the bringer of the charge(s). Item f. is of great importance, along with these other items in BD 3, and may not be overlooked. This item requires that there be in the charge itself, as brought to the judicatory, a reasonable argument that this charge of an alleged offense is serious enough to warrant a trial. Something may be indeed a violation of God’s Word in a lesser degree that is not a sin serious enough to warrant trial. Another way of putting this is that a charge of an alleged offense is not to be brought if the bringer cannot make a good faith argument that the alleged offense is of a serious nature, such that warrants further judicial process. Let us imagine that one person said something taken to be offensive by another; it is not enough to allege offense and to note that the offending party was “insensitive” to the offended party. The alleged offense needs to be shown to be a serious sin that warrants trial. This is perhaps one of the thorniest matters confronting the judicatory in processing charge(s). Many examples could be adduced here, but the best thing is for the judicatory to seek to put itself in the place of the offended in gauging the seriousness of the alleged offense.
The last paragraph addresses the requirements that pertain with respect to the specifications that must accompany any charge(s). As noted, specifications in a charge detail the particulars of the offense that constitute the charge. Any given charge may have multiple specifications. For example, in a charge of adultery, specification 1 may be that the parties in question, not married to each other, were seen at a restaurant on such a date not only having dinner together but also displaying affection appropriate only for committed couples. Specification 2 may be that such were seen at the movies or a ball game together acting in the same manner. The specifications of a charge, in other words, put the meat on the bones and give the actual details of what makes this charge credible, serious, and all the rest if proved true.
To that end, several things must obtain when it comes to specifications: each specification of fact relied upon to sustain the charge must meet a set of requirements. First, each specification must be in written form. Second, each specification must provide the relevant and necessary details to sustain the charge, particularly the date/time, place, and circumstances (as exampled in the above paragraph) of the alleged offense. And lastly, each specification must be properly evidenced, accompanied by the names of witnesses to the act and/or the titles (or a list) of documents, records, and recordings that may be produced in witness to the alleged offense. Again, it is important that the judicatory assures itself of all these matters in BD 3.3 before proceeding on in the judicial process.
Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of First Orthodox Presbyterian Church of South Holland, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, December 2022. A list of available installments in this series appears here.
Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds
Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
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Ordained Servant: December 2022
Also in this issue
by Meredith M. Kline
by John R. Muether
by Ryan M. McGraw
by Charles Malcolm Wingard
by Gregory E. Reynolds
by G. E. Reynolds (1949– )
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