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At its January and May 2021 meetings, the Presbytery of the Southwest struggled to understand whether a non-officer could bring a complaint against the presbytery. At its June 2022 meeting, the General Assembly of the OPC discovered it disagreed as to whether a session had standing to bring a complaint against a session in another presbytery.

I spoke to both these issues and have combined my remarks into one article that deals with both these questions with regard to Book of Discipline 9.1. I will not present the arguments set forth at General Assembly for a different view. I invite someone who argued for it to write an article that sets forth their viewpoint.

OPC Book of Discipline 9.1

A complaint is a written representation, other than an appeal or a protest, charging a judicatory with delinquency or error. It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject, by one session against another session, by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, or by one presbytery against another presbytery.

Standing for Personal Complaints

The phrase “to which he is subject” is the ambiguous phrase, capable of being interpreted in several different ways. One interpretation, based on the prima facie (first sight) reading, is that it allows all officers and church members to complain against an action or decision of the session of their church and against an action or decision of the presbytery their church is in, because they are all ultimately subject to their jurisdiction, but not against other sessions and presbyteries, because they are not subject to their jurisdiction.

But there are problems with this view that make it highly unlikely that the authors and General Assembly had this in mind.

  • First, while ministers and commissioned (voting) ruling elders can bring motions, debate, and vote in a presbytery meeting, other members of local churches have no standing to bring motions, debate, or vote in a presbytery meeting. Presbyteries do at times allow other individuals to address the body, but this does not give them privileges of the floor to make motions, debate, or vote.
  • Secondly, while our Form of Government and Book of Discipline do trump Robert’s Rules, nevertheless, in order to allow a non-officer to bring a complaint against the presbytery, the authors of BD 9.1 would have had to intend for BD 9.1 to overrulethe most basic law of deliberative assemblies, found in Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised 1:4, which only allows members of the deliberative body to make motions, debate, and vote.

All of this makes it extremely likely the authors and the General Assembly that adopted this had some other view in mind.

A second view is that the phrase, “to which he is subject,” refers to the judicatory which has original jurisdiction to hear charges against the individual. This interpretation is far more likely than the first interpretation. This interpretation would allow church members and ruling elders to bring complaints only against their session, since it is the judicatory that has original jurisdiction over them (BD 2.A.1). And it would allow ministers to bring complaints only against their presbytery, since it is the judicatory that has original jurisdiction over them (BD 2.C.2). Local church members and ruling elders could only bring complaints against actions of their presbytery by means of persuading their session to bring a complaint against the action of the presbytery.

While this view makes more sense than the first view, nevertheless, the unlikeliness of this interpretation is revealed in that a minister would not be allowed to bring a complaint against his own session, simply because it is not his court of original jurisdiction. But his session is a body in which he has standing to make motions, deliberate, and vote, so there is no reason why he should not be allowed to bring a complaint against his session. For this reason, it is very likely a third view is the best interpretation of this passage.

A third view is that the authors chose the looser and more general phrase, “to which he is subject,” to include two different kinds of subjection.

First, it includes the idea that all members (including ruling elders) of a local church may bring a complaint against their session because they are subject to the original jurisdiction of their session and that all ministers may bring a complaint against their presbytery because they are subject to the original jurisdiction of their presbytery.

But second, it also includes the idea that all ministers may bring a complaint against their session because they are subject to their session as “members of the session” (see Form of Government 13.4–5), that is to say, subject to the session as  members of that deliberative body. And it includes the idea that commissioned (voting) ruling elders may bring a complaint against their presbytery because they are subject to the presbytery as “members of a judicatory” (BD 8.2), that is to say, subject to the presbytery as members of that deliberative body. The basis for this is found in FG 14.3, which states: “Meetings of the presbytery shall be composed, insofar as possible, of all the ministers on the roll and one ruling elder from each congregation commissioned by the respective sessions.”

This interpretation explains that ministers, ruling elders, and members of a local church may bring a complaint against their session. And it explains that ministers and commissioned ruling elders may bring a complaint against their presbytery without having to bring it by way of an action of their session.

  • BD 8.1 states: “Any member of a judicatory who is entitled to vote on a question and who votes against the action or judgment of the judicatory thereon may request that his vote be recorded in the minutes of the judicatory.” And BD 8.2 states: “Any member of a judicatory may file a written protest stating his reasons for objecting to an action or judgment of the judicatory.”

    Notice in both: “Any member of a judicatory.” If we view “member of a judicatory” as always referring to one’s court of original jurisdiction, then these statements would prohibit commissioned ruling elders from having their negative votes recorded and from filing a written protest in the presbytery.

    Most certainly in this context, commissioned ruling elders are being included as “members” of the presbytery as a deliberative body (not in the sense of being under its original jurisdiction) and are entitled to participate in these actions. Why would they not be allowed to do so? BD 8.1 makes it clear that commissioned ruling elders were included among those who voted on the question.

  • Why would a commissioned ruling elder not be allowed to bring a complaint against his presbytery when he has standing to make motions, deliberate, and vote in a meeting of his presbytery? After all, a complaint is essentially a motion to rescind an action or decision, and an appeal is essentially a motion to reconsider an action or decision.

  • (Note: Complaints and appeals are also needed in our standards because our church is not merely composed of one deliberative body/judicatory but many related deliberative bodies/judicatories, and therefore complaints and appeals are needed for our judicatories to gain access to other judicatories in our church.)

For all these reasons, I think this third view is the interpretation of BD 9.1 intended by the General Assembly that adopted it.

Now, I think it helpful to comment that none of the above denies non-officers access to the courts of the church. It simply means that they must seek to persuade their ministers and/or ruling elders to address their presbytery and the General Assembly concerning matters about which they are concerned, and that they must seek to persuade their local session regarding any complaints they think should be brought against sessions or presbytery.

Standing for Sessional Complaints

Can a session bring a complaint against a session in another presbytery?

At the 2022 General Assembly, the Committee on Appeals and Complaints proposed amending our BD 9.1 by the addition of the bold text in the following:

A complaint is a written representation, other than an appeal or a protest, charging a judicatory with delinquency or error. It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject, by one session against another session in the same presbytery, by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, or by one presbytery against another presbytery. (emphasis added)

Ground 3 of the Committee’s report stated: “The Committee thus wishes to add the four words (“in the same presbytery”) so that the matter is clarified in the direction that it believes to be correct.”

The Assembly was strongly divided on whether to amend it to read “in the same presbytery” or “whether in the same or another presbytery,” and no change to the text was adopted.

Ground 9 of the Committee’s report stated:

“In each of the other three cases, the complaint may only be brought by a party subject to the same judicatory (the session, presbytery, or general assembly, as the case may be). In the case of a complaint from a session in one presbytery against one in another, there is no shared or joint judicatory.”[1]

Notice that this argument states that in three of the cases, the BD clearly states that the party that brings a complaint against a judicatory must be “subject to the same judicatory.” Notice also that this argument states that if a session is allowed to bring a complaint against a session in another presbytery, this situation fails this requirement, because there is no “shared or joint judicatory.”

But what is the basis for this requirement? First of all, this is drawn from the principles of deliberative bodies. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (12th ed.) 1:4 states that a person must be a member of the body in order to make motions, deliberate, and vote. That is to say, he must have “standing” before the judicatory in order to do these things. This paragraph in chapter one of Roberts Rules expresses the most basic and foundational principle of parliamentary law upon which all other principles in Roberts Rules and in our Form of Government and Book of Discipline rest.

Members of a local church may bring a complaint against their session because they are members of the local church and subject to the session’s discipline, even though they are not members of the session. Officers may also bring a complaint against their presbytery because they are members of the presbytery as a deliberative body and subject to it. Sessions may bring complaints against their presbytery because they are subject to its jurisdiction. Sessions may bring complaints against other sessions in the presbytery because both of them are subject to the jurisdiction of the same presbytery. And presbyteries may bring complaints against other presbyteries because both of them are subject to the jurisdiction of the General Assembly.

The writers of our Book of Discipline did not unambiguously state whether a session can bring a complaint against a session in another presbytery or only against one in their own presbytery. Evidently, the matter was obvious to the General Assembly that adopted it, but unfortunately, it is not obvious to us today.

If we answer the question as to why presbyteries in the same denomination can bring complaints against one another by saying that they are both subject to the jurisdiction of the General Assembly, then we have our answer that only sessions that are subject to the authority, oversight, and discipline of the same presbytery can bring a complaint against one another.

Notice that the first half of BD 9.1 deals with individuals bringing complaints, and the second half deals with judicatories bringing complaints, but the two are parallel.

Consider a situation in which a couple divorce and then attend different local churches in the same presbytery. One or both of them might have valid reasons to be upset over actions taken by the ex-spouse’s session but cannot bring a complaint against it because this individual is not a member of that church, is not subject to that church’s authority, and (except for the case in BD 3.6 when bringing charges that do not warrant a trial) cannot be disciplined by that session. In short, the individual has no standing to bring a complaint.

Notice that this situation involving two individuals in different churches is parallel to the situation of two sessions in different presbyteries that want to bring complaints against each other or their presbyteries. Our presbyterian forefathers clearly did not see the need to grant these two individuals standing to bring a complaint to a session where there is no shared or joint judicatory. It does not make sense to argue that our book grants standing to a session to bring a complaint against a session or presbytery where there is no shared or joint judicatory.

Working These Things Out

But how then do we resolve such sticky issues between two such parties? Does this tie our hands from being able to resolve it? Does this make dealing with such situations terribly burdensome? No, it does not, for two important reasons:

First, this is not burdensome because both in the case of individuals and judicatories, handling such a matter should always begin with much informal conversation and discussion and peacemaking by the different representatives of the judicatories, before ever thinking about a complaint. Complaints and charges should always be viewed as a last resort, to be used only after all other steps of biblical conflict resolution have been pursued and failed.

BD. 3.5 specifically requires this in the case of charges. It says:

No charge of a personal private offense shall be admitted unless the judicatory has assured itself that the person bringing the charge has faithfully followed the course set forth in Matthew 18:15–17; nor shall a charge of a private offense which is not personal be admitted unless it appears that the plaintiff has first done his utmost privately to restore the alleged offender.

Our judicatories have a solemn responsibility to require that the parties diligently seek to work out their differences personally and privately before escalating the matter to that of a trial. Additionally, we should keep in mind that a trial is far less likely to result in reconciliation than is private face-to-face peacemaking effort; and, very sadly, a trial often even fails to convince the party that the court judges to have sinned that he ought to repent.

Likewise, in situations where complaints are often quickly brought, the respective parties ought to seek to sit down and work together informally to resolve the conflict before bringing a complaint.

Secondly, this is not burdensome because BD 9.1 deliberately puts pressure on us to respect the oversight that is in place instead of trying to do their job for them. And this is a very important thing for us to recognize and do.

This prevents the rare, but very possible, abuse of a session bringing complaints against many sessions throughout the country. Even if only one complaint is brought against one session in another presbytery, we should realize that that session already has an overseer that is responsible to shepherd and correct it as necessary, namely, their presbytery. We should trust their presbytery to do their job or, if necessary, should informally encourage members of that judicatory to do their job, and then we should seek to show respect for their authority, oversight, and jurisdiction. Surely, if this is a serious error, there must be some officer in the other session or presbytery that we can persuade to address the matter.

It appears to me that allowing sessions to bring complaints against any session in the denomination is based upon a misunderstanding of the principles underlying our standards, damages the lines of Presbyterian authority, oversight, and jurisdiction that undergird our standards, and may impose a great burden upon the session to deal with multiple conflicting complaints.

To return to the example I gave above concerning two ex-spouses holding membership in different churches, notice that the rules for complaints in BD 9.1 deliberately place pressure on the individual to work through his own session and ask his own session to address the matter with the other session and, if necessary, that his session file a complaint against the other session. This pressure might also encourage the individual to seek someone in the ex-spouse’s church (preferably an officer who understands our standards) to address the matter. This would wisely involve others, and especially officers, to examine whether this really is a wise idea or not before doing it. And it would also prevent the rare, but very possible, abuse when a disgruntled person brings many complaints against a session that does not have the oversight or authority or jurisdiction to shepherd the individual with regard to these matters.

Such situations like this are very messy and may be referred to as a “perfect storm,” like the 2000 film “The Perfect Storm,” in which there was no way out of the storm for the sailors. A perfect storm in church discipline occurs in situations when two individuals are at odds with each other and seek to carry their fight to the judicatories of the church but are under the oversight of different judicatories. And due to these circumstances, the two judicatories are very likely to each take the side of their own member, because there are plenty of wrongs for everyone to be upset about. The result is that the fight escalates through the sessions to the presbytery and the general assembly. And the result is that it is almost impossible to achieve reconciliation between the parties, or the judicatories.

In such perfect storms it ought to occur to us that the best way to handle such volatile situations is for the two sessions to informally sit down together and resolve to work together as one before Christ in order to seek the peace of the couple and the church. This can also be done in other difficult but similar situations. Representatives of two factions in one presbytery can informally sit down together and resolve to work together as one before Christ in order to seek the peace of the church. And representatives of two different presbyteries that are at odds can informally sit down together and resolve to work together as one before Christ in order to seek the peace of the church.

Even in cases in which charges have already been filed, there are still other possibilities. In one case in which the accused pled guilty to one of four charges, the moderator of the presbytery asked for a recess for the parties and their counsels to meet with him and talk. They repeatedly met together with the moderator serving as a mediator, and each party repeatedly met separately with their counsel. Over a period of eight hours they came to a resolution. The accused pled guilty to two charges, and the bringers of the charges agreed to drop the other two charges. A censure and conditions for its removal were agreed upon, and all of this was presented to the presbytery which quickly adopted it. As a result, a case that might have taken a week to hear was resolved in one day’s time, with everyone satisfied with the result.

I want to be clear that none of the above encourages us to turn a blind eye to sin but rather encourages us to strive to work with our brothers, rather than against our brothers, in other jurisdictions.

It also helps us to avoid meddling in our neighbor’s affairs unnecessarily. We should remember that “good fences make good neighbors.” We should endeavor to stay out of our neighbor’s business (1 Tim. 5:13). We are much removed from the details of what is going on and have very likely only heard a very incomplete and distorted account of the issues.

We can certainly offer advice and help if we are willing to spend the many, many hours listening to both sides of the story, but we should not try to get involved where our help is not requested. Just as our Lord said that each day has enough problems of its own for each of us to deal with (Matt. 6:34), so also each day has enough problems of its own for each of his judicatories to deal with. Let us not unnecessarily multiply them.

Endnote

[1] Agenda of the 88th (2022) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1207.

Joseph A. Keller serves as the pastor of Christ Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: February 2023

Complaints

Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Understanding the Voices of the Electronic World, Chapter 1

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 3.7–8

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 2: The Importance of a Lowly Heart

Justification: A Lutheran Perspective: A Review Article

Regeneration

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