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Conflict Resolution in the Church, Part 2

Alan D. Strange

Humility is needed on all sides in church discipline—in the offended and in the restoring parties. All are challenged in this process to walk humbly coram Deo. Matthew 7:1–5 teaches that the offended is to be quite aware of his or her own sin, and even of contribution to the offending party’s sin. We can properly speak of an “innocent party,” but even that party is not without sin. We tend to minimize our faults and to maximize those of others. We need true humility so that in the whole process we really listen to one another, which very easily is lost when feelings run high (Phil. 2:1–11).

Galatians 6:1–5 is particularly relevant to the consistory or session as a restoring party. Those involved in restoring should be humble, profoundly aware of their own sin and need. In the process of protracted and perhaps difficult dealings this can be quite a challenge to the men on the consistory or session, who can easily become defensive and entrenched in a position, particularly against a party perceived to be willful or resistant. In the sinning/offending party, the end sought is repentance/humility.

The elements of biblical repentance (mirroring faith) are recognition and acknowledgement of the sin. Since God’s holy law has been violated, no small part of repentance involves hating the sin, in other words, having God’s perspective toward the sin. In addition to hating the sin, repentance includes turning from the sin, with an endeavor after new obedience.

True repentance does not mean that the party is no longer struggling with the sin (having gained “higher life” or a perfectionistic victory). This is perhaps the trickiest part: charity should prevail; turning from the sin does not mean never repeating it, but truly hating it and turning from it when it manifests itself. The party ought to be truly humbled and desire to walk in new obedience. We ought to restore when true brokenness is evident, not requiring victory altogether over the sin (CO Articles 57–58). Restoration is one of the greatest joys of ministry, and I have been privileged to witness several striking instances of it, in some cases after many years of rebellion on the part of excommunicated parties.

There are several different ways in which matters may be brought before a judicatory. A person may come as his own accuser (BD 5.1). In such a case, the judicatory must ascertain what the offense is. This cannot be assumed but must be clearly established from the law of God. Is it serious? Perhaps consistorial/sessional or pastoral counsel will suffice. This step needs to be very carefully handled. If a real offense has been committed (not someone confessing to something that is not sin, as someone once confessed to me having wine, not to excess, at a wedding reception) and its seriousness is clearly established, then the questions are: Is the party repentant and what shall the censure be?

Allegations of sin may be brought to the elders from the offended party or from witnesses. Those bringing the allegations must be able to testify to the inability to resolve matters under the first two steps of Matthew 18 already examined. Alternatively, the offense because of its very nature (that has a public character given its nature, e.g., adultery) must be brought before the consistory/session, even though it is known to a few, and the guilty party may seem repentant.

A charge may be brought to the elders (BD 3.1–3 details the steps in the institution of judicial process). Make sure that section 3 is satisfied (“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.”), as is required in BD 3.7a., which describes the preliminary investigation that must occur for the judicial process to go forward.

There are several circumstances that may occasion the bringing of a charge and determining how it is handled: if the offense is public or against the consistory/session, the offending party is brought directly before the elders; it may be brought directly to the elders if the offense is known by them or if the offense is widely known and brought by other parties. A charge of an offense may also be brought by someone who has something against an elder or the pastor not personally resolvable (BD 3.1).

When matters are brought before the consistory/session, it must seek to assure itself that such matters ought to be before it; that the parties have done their utmost to resolve the matters privately first, remembering the admonitions of BD 3.4–5, which require offenses to be resolved as privately and locally as possible. The BD and the URCNA CO (Articles 51–66), by the way, is the church’s application of the Scriptural/confessional principles governing church discipline (see BD 1 and 2), not an arbitrary set of rules that stand over against Scripture.

 The consistory/session, once it has ascertained that a serious offense may have been committed, may invite the accused to come as his or her own accuser. If the accused declines, then judicial proceedings may be instituted in accordance with BD 3.3. The judicatory would then proceed to a preliminary investigation in accordance with 3.7b or 3.8. This is not at all perfunctory and in certain cases, doctrinal ones, for e.g., is perhaps the most important part of the judicial process. The judicatory would then proceed to trial if the preliminary investigation demonstrates that such is warranted. The rest of the proceedings that follow are set forth in BD 4, which details the actual trial of a judicial case.

If a trial is to be held, judicatories shall ordinarily sit with open doors, unless there is a manifest need for the doors to be closed (in the case of sensitive testimony and protecting the good names of witnesses). In the case of heresy, the doors must be open as all teaching is public. In any case, the doors should not be closed to protect the accused but to protect non-accused parties to the matter and possibly witnesses. Closing the doors for the sake of the accused looks like an “old-boys club” protecting one of its own. Conversely, closing the doors so that the proceedings of the judicatory will not be witnessed can look like railroading the accused and turns the judicatory into a “star-chamber” proceeding.

The judicatory may deny the accused the privileges of office or membership until the case is concluded. This is generally done in the case of scandalous and/or notorious sin, either for office or general membership or both. And it may also be done in the case of a charge of heresy for the teaching officer when it would be thought injurious for him to continue teaching.

Trials may be conducted in absentia when the accused refuses or fails to show up for his trial. The first no-show calls for a second summons; at the second no-show, the trial may proceed. This is arguably inferior to the PCA’s procedure: a no-show brings forth a summary judgment on the charge of contumacy, which must be dealt with before the presenting charge can be considered. The elders may wish thus to charge a no-show, requiring them to deal with obstinate rebelliousness before proceeding to deal with the substance of the presenting offense.

The clerk should take roll at the beginning of every session. A person must be present at each session to vote on the specifications and charges though he may otherwise deliberate, ask questions, and propose motions (BD 4.C.2.b). The clerk should keep a careful record of the trial (but a transcript is not required).

The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty—as a biblical principle; concomitant with that is the notion that the prosecution bears the burden of proof. We are not told whether or not that means “beyond reasonable doubt” or a “preponderance of the evidence.” The accused can sit in judgment on no part of his case, including the preliminary hearing (if he is a member of the judicatory). The accused is entitled to counsel, as long as such is a member in good and regular standing of the OPC (for those tried there). The accused may raise objections as noted in BD 4.B.2:

The accused may object to the competency of any witness and the authenticity, admissibility, and relevancy of any testimony or evidence produced in support of the charge and specifications. The trial judicatory shall decide on all such objections after allowing the accused to be heard in support thereof.

Several matters arise with respect to the witnesses in a trial. Initially in the preliminary investigation the competency of a witness is to be determined. Is the witness of sufficient mental capacity to testify? Is he properly an “eye-witness”? The credibility of a witness is determined by one who, during the trial, stands up under cross-examination. Depositions may be taken by commissions and witnesses when summoned are bound to appear (before the proper body). Pursuant to BD 4:B.4, the accused may request that witnesses not testify in the presence of other witnesses.

The rules for evidence are as follows: it must be factual, not mere opinion (if not expert, do we have such?) or conclusions. Evidence can be direct—eyewitness, letter, etc. Evidence may be circumstantial—matters surrounding the alleged offense (“I drove by and saw him leaving her house at 9:30 on the date in question”). Specifications may be established by the testimony of more than one witness or duly authenticated documentary evidence. We sometimes feel stymied in this regard, being certain that a person has committed a deed but lacking sufficient direct or circumstantial evidence. We must remember that it is our duty to adhere to this standard and not to seek to bring to light what only Judgment Day may. It is unsurprising to find the world in its fear seeking for ultimate justice now. We should not fall prey to this in the church.

An examiner is to be appointed by the judicatory. He conducts the exam on behalf of the body, though other members always retain the right to take part in the examination as they see fitting. “Prosecution” witnesses are first examined by the judicatory. Then such are cross-examined by the accused and/or his counsel. The judicatory may then conduct a re-direct examination, and the accused may follow with a re-cross examination. The subject matters of the re-directs and re-crosses are restricted to that already in evidence. Leading questions are permitted only under cross-examination (only when the witness is presumed to be “hostile” and not friendly). “Defense” witnesses are first examined by the accused, may be crossed, with the defense given the last examination on re-direct. In the OPC BD the defense always gets the last go at witnesses.

If new evidence is presented against the accused, he must be given a reasonable time to examine and prepare his defense. Exculpatory evidence produced by the accused must be examined by the judicatory, and it must take action accordingly.

Trial proceedings are as follows. The first meeting of the trial is pro forma, involving, first, a formal reading of the charges and specifications; then, a fixing of the time, date, and place for the second meeting. The accused is given citations to call witnesses.

The “second meeting” of the trial is the way to which all the rest of the trial is referred. The accused may at beginning of the second meeting interpose objections dealing with everything done up to this point, including matters germane to the preliminary investigation. The trial judicatory may dismiss the charge(s) or amend them (in a non-substantive way). If the trial judicatory determines to proceed to trial, the accused shall plead. If he pleads “guilty,” the trial judicatory proceeds to censure. If he pleads “not guilty,” the trial judicatory proceeds to trial. The accused may also, after the presentation of the “prosecution’s” case, move for dismissal of the case.

At the conclusion of the trial, the accused makes final arguments (if the examiner has a summation, the accused follows). Then the trial judicatory (not the accused or his counsel) deliberates on each specification and charge. If “guilty,” the trial judicatory proceeds to the censure phase. Censure is first proposed and then pronounced after the expiration of time for filing an appeal. Censures may be of the following sort: admonition, rebuke, suspension (definite or indefinite), and excommunication (censures are described in greater detail in BD 6 and CO Articles 55–56).

The appeal process (in a judicial case) allows ten days to file notice of appeal after proposal of censure; thirty days to perfect an appeal (the appeal process is described in BD 7; CO Article 31 provides simply the broad right of appeal). Only the accused (or a reversed judicatory) can appeal a judicial verdict. Appeal may be on the censure as well as on the verdict. The records of the case must be sent up to the appellate judicatory by the clerk of the judicatory of original jurisdiction. The appellate judicatory (excluding the members of the judicatory from which appeal is taken) may reverse, modify, or uphold judgment of the lower judicatory.

There is, in addition to judicial discipline, administrative discipline. Judicial discipline involves charges brought against individuals for sin, not against judicatories (whose members could be charged, though this would provide remarkable challenges), and only for sin serious enough to warrant trial.

Administrative discipline involves complaints brought against judicatories for errors or delinquencies (detailed in BD 9; CO Article 31 establishes the broad right of appeal). It should be noted that such errors or delinquencies must be of constitutional magnitude and may not be properly filed for allegations of lack of wisdom or poor judgment (there are other ways of dealing with that). Rather, complaints address doctrinal errors or delinquencies committed by a judicatory regarding the Scriptures and standards, and also polity errors or delinquencies which are violations of the Book of Church Order. Complaints may not be brought in judicial cases. All that is objectionable in a judicial case must be stated as specifications of error in the judicial appeal (BD 7.2).

Here are some circumstances under which actions subject to a complaint might occur: A session/consistory or presbytery/classis makes a decision (error) or fails to make a decision or take a necessary timely action (delinquency) which is alleged to violate the Scriptures or the constitution of the church (the doctrinal standards or the church order), and such alleged error of delinquency can in no other way be remedied.

The complaint must be processed as soon as possible, but within three months (unless some extraordinary circumstances exist). It is the burden of the complaint to set before the judicatory as clearly as possible the alleged errors or delinquencies. The appeal of a complaint from the body complained against shall be entered at the earliest possible time, with reasons appended, and becomes the vehicle for taking the complaint to a higher judicatory, which shall consider the substance of the original complaint above all else.

Grievances against the pastor should be brought, first of all, to him and/or the elders. If private, concerns should be brought to him alone, and the parties should attempt to work through them. If with specific reference to his office (preaching, counseling, etc.), the concerns should be brought to him and then to the elders. The elders should engage in judgment (CO Articles 61–62). They should be prepared to hear the grievance and advise the pastor. The pastor should listen carefully, and the parishioner(s) should carefully heed the elders’ words.

Here is another difference between the OPC and URC church orders. Not only are the rules concerning discipline more detailed within the Presbyterian (and many other continental) church orders, but also original jurisdiction with respect to a charge against a minister vests in the presbytery in all the Presbyterian church orders. In the URC, a charge against the minister would be handled at the local level rather than the classical level (though there would be consultation more broadly) as set forth in CO Article 61:

When a minister, elder or deacon has committed a public or gross sin, or refuses to heed the admonitions of the Consistory, he shall be suspended from his office by his own Consistory with the concurring advice of the Consistories of two neighboring churches. Should he harden himself in his sin, or when the sin committed is of such a nature that he cannot continue in office, he shall be deposed by his Consistory with the concurring advice of classis.

What constitutes serious sin with respect to the office-bearer is set forth in CO Article 62.

For the Presbyterian, if two or more witnesses have a concern with the pastor, then, while the session should think about a charge if the pastor denies the allegation or admits it and refuses to repent, the charge itself would be heard and tried in the presbytery. Nevertheless, a charge coming to the presbytery against a pastor should ordinarily come with the session’s having drafted or endorsed it, as the judgment of the local elders is always of great importance. Rulers ought to be humble and members submissive throughout the process. Here it may be noted that elders ought themselves to engage with some regularity in the time-honored practice of mutual censure (CO Article 63). Consistories (and councils) practice mutual censure variably, but it is an accountability mechanism that permits office-bearers to make sure (in a roundtable fashion), at some designated intervals, that all are at peace with each other or are committed to doing what needs to be done to achieve restored relations. Elders especially benefit from unity in their work, and mutual censure is an opportunity to address concerns that may impede such unity and allow office-bearers to go forward in mutual respect and affection.

It is proper for a pastor to hear criticism and not immediately respond. All appearance of defensiveness should be avoided, and forgiveness sought wherever possible. Elders should use discretion in visits or other occasions and direct that private offenses be dealt with accordingly and refer alleged public offenses to the pastor and session.

Finally, Psalm 133 furnishes us with an excellent conclusion to this essay, speaking as it does of the goodness and beauty of brotherly unity:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

The unity of which the Psalm speaks is the end of all church discipline that seeks to promote the purity, peace, and unity of the church.

Reconciliation and resolution of conflict, in other words, lead to the beautiful unity celebrated by Psalm 133 and for which we long more and more in all of our worshiping assemblies. May God grant us such unity, with him and with each other as members of his mystical body, here and hereafter, until that perfect day when we enjoy unity in a world brought to its eschatological goal in which heaven and earth are one and God is all and in all.

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 New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, December 2019

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