i

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 9

Alan D. Strange

Chapter IX
Complaints

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.

Comment: A complaint is sometimes confused with a charge. A charge is an allegation of an offense in life or doctrine, a violation of God’s Word (and the secondary, or doctrinal, standards), that is brought against an individual, though it can be brought against a group of individuals as well, alleging that they together committed a violation of Scripture and Confession. A complaint, on the other hand, is a written representation, other than an appeal or protest (appeals to higher judicatories or protests also allege error on the part of a judicatory), alleging that a judicatory has committed delinquency or error. Delinquency generally indicates illegality or otherwise unacceptable behavior. An error is a mistake. Note that a complaint is not the charge of an offense: the judicatory, when a complaint is brought against it, is not being charged with a sin as such.

The basis for a complaint then, ordinarily, is an allegation either that an illegality or something unacceptable (such as a violation of the Westminster Standards or the Church Order) has occurred or that a mistake has been made by a judicatory in applying the Scriptures or constitution of the church (the secondary and tertiary standards). All this is to say that the basis of a complaint is a substantive or procedural violation of the Scriptures, Standards, or Church Order, not that a judicatory has done something unwise, unhelpful, or the like. Judicatories acting within the Scriptures and constitution have discretion, and a member disagreeing with a particular action of a judicatory (e.g., “the recording system that the session wishes to purchase is too expensive”) has no right whatsoever to file a complaint. A disagreement with a judicatory acting within its lawful parameters is not subject to complaints from those second-guessing or disagreeing with the lawful exercise of its discretion.[1]

The second sentence of the section indicates the parties who, in the various judicatories of the church, have standing to bring a complaint. Standing involves the matter of whether a particular party or parties has the right and is qualified properly to bring a complaint. First, it says, “It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject . . .” This means that it may be brought, in the case of the session, by a member of the local church in question against the session of that church. It may also be brought by an officer, namely, a minister called by the local congregation as well as a deacon or ruling elder, the latter two also being members of the local congregation.

This means, then, in the case of a local church, that any members of the session (the elders and ministers serving on that session) may bring a complaint against the session. It is the case that the elders, together with the deacons, could bring a complaint, since they are all members of the local congregation: that is patent, of course. Additionally, ministers (pastor, associate pastor, teacher) who serve under congregational call and are thus members of the session may also file a complaint against the session.

This does mean, however, that the members of local church “a” would not have standing to file a complaint against local church “b.” Neither would the members of the session of local church “a” have any standing to file a complaint against local church “b.” As far as individual members of any particular local congregation are concerned, which would include elders and deacons but exclude ministers, they may not file a complaint against the session of another church; neither can a minister file a complaint against the session of another church in which he has no sessional service, but only in the church in which he is called and in which he has sessional service.

Having dealt with complaint at the sessional level and seeing that only members and ministers on a session in a particular local congregation can file a complaint against that session (when it comes to individuals who may do so, that is, other sessions can file a complaint against a session), the question now involves the presbytery. And the section indicates, as with a session, the one who has standing to file a complaint with a presbytery is one who is subject to a particular presbytery. This is taken to mean the body to which one is immediately subject.

For this reason, some have interpreted this as meaning that only ministers can complain against an action of the presbytery. Others have argued that since the presbytery, as the governing body of the regional church, is defined as consisting of “all the ministers and all the ruling elders of the congregations of the regional church” (FG 14.2), this would mean that, just as ministers can file complaints against a session because they are members thereof, so ruling elders can file a complaint against the presbytery of the regional church of which they are a part.

However, a called pastor or teacher is a continuing member of a session and for this reason, presumably, can file a complaint against it, even though it is not his court of original jurisdiction. It is not the case that all the ruling elders of the regional church are continuing members of the presbytery; rather, they are only occasional members, as commissioned by their own sessions to serve as commissioners at any given meeting of the presbytery. All ministers of the presbytery are continuing members and are subject to the presbytery’s immediate jurisdiction. For this reason, ministerial members of a given presbytery are always able to file a complaint against complainable actions of their presbytery as those who are continuing members of the governing body of their regional church.

Commissioned elders to any given meeting of presbytery should also be able to file a complaint against actions of the meeting to which they were commissioned, in my view. Is such standing to be granted, however, to all ruling elders, whether commissioned to a particular meeting of presbytery? This has been a subject of some debate. This commenter tends to believe that only ruling elders commissioned to a particular presbytery meeting, as well as any ministerial member, have proper standing to file a complaint against an action of that presbytery. I am also willing to concede that an argument can be made that any ruling elder of the regional church can file such a complaint. However, those who are unordained members of local congregations (this includes deacons but excludes ruling elders) do not have standing and may not file a complaint against the presbytery of their regional church.

Now the question of standing expands from that of the individual parties that may bring a complaint against the session or presbytery to that of “what other judicatories may bring a complaint against the session or presbytery?” One answer is simply that any session, regardless of presbytery, may bring a complaint against another session, and any presbytery may bring a complaint against another presbytery. Additionally, a session may bring a complaint against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it and to which it is subject. While there is debate over whether a session may file a complaint against another session in a different presbytery, there is not debate about whether a session can file a complaint against another session in its own presbytery or a session against the presbytery that has jurisdiction over it. In both of those cases there is a clear subjection: both presbyteries would be under the jurisdiction of and subject to the general assembly. In the case of a session against its presbytery, it is subject to it, and an appeal may be made by either party, depending on the way the decision goes, to the general assembly. All that is undisputed and thus garners widespread agreement.

The controverted case, the one that divides opinion with respect to the standing question, is the one of “one session against another session.” There are those who believe that the sessions in view here need to be in the same presbytery; otherwise, the reasoning goes, this results in potentially confused jurisdiction, allowing a session in one presbytery to complain against the session in another and, subsequently, to appeal an adverse decision of the complained against session to that presbytery and subsequently to the general assembly. This would allow the complaining session not only to take something to the general assembly by a route other than through its own presbytery, which seems anomalous and disorderly, but would also, in effect, allow a session to complain against the action of a presbytery to which it is not subject, a seeming violation of the principle that a session can only bring a complaint against its own presbytery.

There are others who reject this logic, and, in recent years, the GA has permitted a cross-presbyterial complaint and has also resisted attempts to clarify (or modify, depending on one’s position on the matter) BD 9.1 by amending it to read “one session against another session in the same presbytery.” Both historic and prudential arguments have been made maintaining that there should be the right for any session in any presbytery to file a complaint against any other session regardless of presbytery. Attempts from both sides to amend the BD (making explicit either that any session can file against another or that they must be of the same presbytery) have failed, and the language remains “one session against another session” (GA minutes from 2021–23). Thus, the interpretative battle continues and likely will continue in the coming years.

2. A complaint shall first be presented to the judicatory which is alleged to be delinquent or in error, and this judicatory shall be asked to make amends. The complaint shall be presented as soon as possible after the alleged delinquency or error, and always within three months, unless it is shown that it could not have been presented within that time.

Comment: A complaint against the action of a session does not start as an appeal to the presbytery, nor does the complaint against the action of a presbytery start as an appeal to the general assembly; this is how a judicial appeal works. Rather, a complaint, as an administrative action, shall first be presented to the judicatory which is alleged to be delinquent or in error. So, a complaint against an action of the session is first brought to the session, and the session alleged to be delinquent or in error is given opportunity to reexamine the action and either to defend it and deny the complaint or to agree that it erred or was delinquent and to sustain the complaint and make amends. The ones bringing the complaint have the right to ask for specific amends, but the judicatory, if it sustains the complaint, is not bound to those amends but may amend matters as it sees fit. It should here be noted that grounds for appeal of a complaint lie not only in the failure or refusal of the judicatory complained against to sustain, but proper grounds for appeal include amends that the complainant finds insufficient or otherwise unacceptable.

The complaint should be presented as soon as possible after commission of the alleged delinquency or error. In any case, it should be presented within three months after the alleged delinquency or error occurred. If a complainant seeks to present a complaint outside of this three-month period, he or she must justify to the court the granting of an extension, and the court should be clear on its reasoning if it grants an extension. In other words, a putative complainant, who wishes to file a “late complaint,” must show the reasons for why it could not have been presented within the three-month time frame, reasons that the court finds compelling and that prompts the court to take up the case. Otherwise, untimely complaints can either be found out of order or simply denied on the grounds of their not being timely. A ruling that a complaint is either out of order or is not sustained due to untimeliness is appealable by the complainants.

3. If, after considering a complaint, the judicatory alleged to be delinquent or in error is not convinced that it has been delinquent or has erred, and refuses to make amends, the complainant may appeal to the next higher judicatory having jurisdiction. The appeal shall carry the complaint to that judicatory. Appeal shall be entered at the earliest possible time. Before this action is taken, notice of intention to appeal must be given to the judicatory against which the complaint is directed. The complaint carried to the higher judicatory must be the same complaint presented to the lower judicatory.

Comment: A complaint is brought by parties with standing (if parties bringing such do not have standing, the complaint is out of order and not properly before the judicatory) to a judicatory. The judicatory to which it is brought must consider it, in a timely manner, and either sustain the complaint (and make appropriate amends) or deny the complaint because it is not convinced that it has been delinquent or errant as the complaint alleges. In the case of a judicatory denying a complaint, the one bringing the complaint has the right, should they choose to exercise it, to appeal the denial of the complaint to the next higher judicatory. This means that a complaint brought against a session by a member of that local congregation may be brought on appeal to the presbytery and, if satisfaction is not achieved there, may be further appealed to the general assembly (a lack of satisfaction may include dissatisfaction with the amends offered by the complained against judicatory, as noted above). Complaints duly brought against the presbytery may also be brought on appeal to the general assembly.

The appeal document, which may contain reasons for why appeal is being made (see comments on BD 9.5, below), is not what will be chiefly considered by any appellate judicatory; rather, as the last sentence of this section indicates, and the importance of this can be hardly overestimated, it is the complaint itself that will receive the lion’s share of the attention of the appellate judicatory: this is the reason why the complaint brought on appeal must be the same complaint as presented to the lower judicatory.

For example, a complaint filed against a session may ultimately be brought on appeal to a general assembly. That complaint will have appeal documents accompanying it that were its carriers to the presbytery and then to the general assembly. The general assembly considering it may give whatever weight it deems appropriate to the reasons contained in the appeals document, but ultimately its chief consideration will be given to the original complaint document. It is that document that the appellate court will either sustain, deny, or remand (see comments on BD 9.6, below).

4. When a complaint has been carried to a higher judicatory, the clerk of the judicatory which is charged with delinquency or error shall submit to the clerk of the higher judicatory the relevant papers, including a statement of the facts of the case arranged by date in the form of a chronology, and a certified copy of any minutes or other documents evidencing the alleged delinquency or error. The clerk of the higher judicatory shall give the complainant and the judicatory against which the complaint is directed reasonable notice of the time, date, and place fixed for the hearing of the complaint by the higher judicatory. Neither the complainant nor any member of the judicatory whose alleged delinquency or error is complained of shall propose or second motions, or vote in any decisions concerning the matter.

Comment: This section describes the details of the process in the appeal of a complaint. When a complaint has been carried to a higher judicatory, the clerk of the judicatory from whom appeal is taken (the judicatory charged with delinquency or error) shall submit to the clerk of the higher judicatory to which the appeal is brought, the relevant papers. Among the relevant papers is, minimally, a statement of the facts of the case arranged by date in the form of a chronology, a certified copy of relevant minutes, or other documents that may give evidence of the alleged delinquency or error. All this information shall be transmitted to the clerk of the higher judicatory with as much dispatch as possible.

The clerk of the higher judicatory to which appeal is taken shall notify the complainant and the judicatory against which the complaint was brought, of the date, place, and time when the appeal will be heard by the appellate judicatory. This is qualified by “reasonable,” meaning that the notice for the time of the hearing of the appeal should be duly in advance of the hearing date, so that all parties (complainant and judicatory on appeal) can readily be in attendance because there is sufficient advance notice given for the adjustment of schedules. At the hearing of the appeal, none of the involved parties (the complainant and the judicatory complained against) may make motions, second motions, and vote on motions (which is to say, engage in any of the activities that characterize those who have the right to rule in a body). It is always the case that one may never sit in judgment in or on their own cases. This is true in administrative discipline as well. A judicatory whose decision is taken to a higher judicatory on appeal may not be active in the way herein described (though they have privilege of the floor).

5. If a complaint against a session has been carried to the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, and the presbytery has rendered a decision, either the complainant or the session may appeal the decision to the general assembly. The appeal shall carry the complaint against the session to the general assembly and the general assembly shall adjudicate the case as constituted by that complaint. Appeal shall be entered at the earliest possible time. Notice of intention to appeal, and copies of the appeal itself, shall be given to both lower judicatories, and the clerks of those judicatories shall submit the relevant papers to the clerk of the general assembly. Reasons may be appended to the appeal. These reasons may include alleged delinquencies in the presbytery's handling of the case and other matters germane to the issues of the case as constituted by the complaint against the session.

Comment: In the case of the appeal of a complaint against a session that has been carried to the presbytery having jurisdiction over it, and the presbytery having rendered a decision to sustain or deny the complaint, either the complainant or the session complained against may appeal the decision to the general assembly. What goes to the general assembly, the second sentence makes clear, and is adjudicated by that assembly, is the case as constituted by that complaint. In other words, the appeal document, which is the carrying document, is not what the general assembly rules on, but rather, it rules on the complaint as originally brought, as noted above, that is now before the general assembly on appeal.

The appeal is to be entered “at the earliest possible time,” such a statement giving a degree of discretion on the part of the appeals court in considering its timeliness. When the appeal is filed with the general assembly, both the notice of intention to appeal and copies of the appeal itself should be furnished to both clerks of the lower judicatories (of the session and of the presbytery). Accordingly, the clerks of the two lower judicatories should furnish all the relevant documents to the stated clerk of the general assembly.

The appeal document itself, as noted above, serves to carry the complaint against the session to the general assembly; reasons for appeal may be appended to this carrying document, and these reasons “may include alleged delinquencies in the presbytery’s handling of the case and other matters germane to the issues of the case as constituted by the complaint against the session.” In other words, the appeal document, as the carrying document to the higher judicatory to which appeal is being made, may give all sorts of information, as long as it is germane to the complaint, reflecting circumstances and the like, matters that support the complaint. However, as noted in BD 9.3, the complaint carried on appeal to the higher judicatory must be the same complaint as originally brought, and it is that complaint, as noted in this section above, and not the appeal document itself, that the appellate judicatory must ultimately consider and render a decision on.

6. A complaint, carried by appeal to a higher judicatory, may be sustained; or, denied; or, remanded, with grounds, to the next lower judicatory. A decision to remand shall state whether jurisdiction in the matter is being returned to the lower judicatory, or retained by the higher judicatory.

Comment: A complaint carried by appeal to a higher judicatory (a presbytery or general assembly), by either the complainant(s) or the judicatory complained against, may be sustained by the appellate judicatory, denied, or remanded with grounds. In the case of a remand, it is to the next lower judicatory, meaning that the general assembly remands everything to the presbytery, and the presbytery to the session, in cases in which it deems such appropriate. The higher judicatory may retain jurisdiction, which is to say that it may remand (send it back down) to the next lower judicatory but require that judicatory to report back to it about the final disposition of the matter. This is a way that the higher judicatory, if it wishes, may retain oversight of the matter until it is successfully concluded.

Alternatively, the appellate judicatory may choose not to retain such oversight and may return jurisdiction to the next lower judicatory. If a general assembly returns jurisdiction to the presbytery, the presbytery may retain it or decide to return it to the session in the cases of a complaint brought originally against a session. In any case of remand, it ought to be “with grounds,” which means that the appellate judicatory remanding the complaint should furnish the reasons for doing so (i.e., provide its rationale) and thereby give appropriate guidance to the next lower judicatory.

7. If a judicatory is adjudged delinquent or in error by a higher judicatory, the higher judicatory shall determine what amends are to be made.

Comment: In the case of appeal (from the session to the presbytery or the presbytery to the general assembly), the appellate judicatory, ultimately the highest one to which appeal is made, shall determine what amends are to be made in cases of complaints sustained on appeals. As noted, the bringers of the complaints may propose amends. Even as the judicatory to which the complaint is originally brought is not bound to those amends, neither are any appellate judicatories. Appellate judicatories are thus free to order the amends that they think most fitting in the case. In any and all such cases, if the desire for appeal continues until the final court of appeals, the general assembly will have the last word on what it deems to be appropriate amends.

[Suggested forms to use when filing a complaint or for an appeal are located on pages 174–75.]

Endnotes

[1] Alan D. Strange, “Conflict Resolution in the Church, Part 2,” Ordained Servant (Dec. 2019), https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=786.

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 OPC in South Holland, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2023. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations

Subscriptions

Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: November 2023

The Martha Complex

Also in this issue

DO! DO! DO! Back to the Old Legalism Again!

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Hearing God’s Word in the Modern World,[1] Chapter 8

The Elder, the Session, and Leadership: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 9

A Tale of Two Exegetes: A Review Article

The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton: A Review Article

“Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” from Cymbeline, Act IV

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive

CONTACT US