In 1977, I was on my first trip to Great Britain and spent a few days in the home of Iain and Jean Murray in Edinburgh, Scotland. One day, I made a comment to Iain that Presbyterians—rather than Independents—had the correct form of church government. He replied, “Yes, but Independents often have more of the spirit of Scriptural church government than Presbyterians.” Being the slow learner that I am, it took me a while to understand exactly what he meant. Hopefully, my eyes are now wide open.
Church government is not a subject that interests most Christians—even ministers. I sometimes hear people say something like this: “I am interested in the doctrines of the Reformed faith—not church government.” I have said things like that myself. Most of us have. Most of us are never really interested in church government—until we are on the receiving end of the abuse of church power.
Over the past week, I have received several emails or phone calls from people who have suffered from the tyrannical abuse of church power. In one situation in a Presbyterian denomination, there were twenty-two violations of that denomination’s BCO by a church session. I could understand one or two, but twenty-two? In the four terms I served on the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA, I never saw a case where there were that many errors—whether intentional or unintentional. It would make me feel a little better if the minister and session that made these errors were progressives, but they are not. It points out something very important for all of us to remember—abuse is a sin problem, not a doctrinal problem only. A person can be correct on doctrine and wrong on church power. That is why we need good rules of church polity. But, more than that, we have to have elders who are men of Christian good-will and who will function as servants of Christ—not lords of others. The latter is only possible where the Spirit of God is working in the hearts of such leaders.
Another person wrote me something like this (since I did not request permission to quote them, I am going to just paraphrase): “The elders at our church are not really examples of Christians. They focus more on their power over the church and have to tightly control everything. It is hard for me to respect them. I am finding it more and more difficult to worship there.” In a mega-church, one former member told me in recent weeks that the senior pastor tightly controlled everything and there were many accusations against him of the spiritual abuse of the members. Then, there was a former member of another mega-church who wrote me that if we really did go back to the Scripture alone, we would become non-denominational. Finally, an ordained ruling elder told me that his nomination for elder was rejected by the session of the church without his knowledge for unspecified reasons without any training or any examination. In each instance, the people are suffering or have suffered under the tyranny of the abuse of church power.
What can we say to all of this? First, I agree with the old saying: “That government governs best that governs least.” I hope it will someday be said of Vanguard Presbyterian Church that the secret of our church government is that we govern well because we exercise church government so seldomly. We have simplified our form of government (and made it very difficult to amend our BCO) because we believe that almost all of the changes to church polity that have ever been proposed are in the direction of giving church courts more control and authority—usurped authority because such changes cannot be proved from the Scripture.
Second, there are some simple principles in the Scripture that guide us. 1 Peter 5:1-3 gives us important principles about elders: “Therefore I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” True shepherding includes several things, but especially these two—‘not lording it over’ others, but ‘proving to be examples to the flock.’ In all of the contacts I received over the past few weeks, those were the two ways in which church power was abused. Pastors and sessions were not examples to the flock, but instead were guilty of lording it over them. True ecclesiastical power is for the building up of the church—not for having control over the flock nor for subjugating the flock nor for lording it over the flock. Elders are to be eager to do God’s will, to instruct the flock in what the Scripture teaches, and are to bind up their wounds. Those are the positive sides of Scriptural discipline. The negative side of discipline ought to be used only as a last resort with tears in one’s eyes. It is better to be accused of being too lenient on a transgressor (as I once was with a man who stole $6,450 from our church which was repaid by his parents) than to be too harsh and too hasty. The example for that is the Lord Jesus who knew that Judas was a devil (John 6:70) and said to that man when he betrayed Him, “Friend, do what you have come for” (Matthew 26:50). Harsh methods very rarely minister to anyone. Jesus knew that. His under shepherds must learn to follow His example.
Sometimes I have had to counsel various church members, officers, and even ministers not to trust their church courts when the court says, “Trust us to do the right thing.” The rules of the BCO are there for the purpose of requiring justice and gentlemanly behavior from every church court. When elders ask others to trust them, they are really asking that the rules be suspended and that you trust the good will of men rather than be protected by the rules of due process. If someone chooses trust in men over Scriptural rules, then he or she can expect neither due process nor justice in the final result. Most men will almost always fail you. Even due process is no guarantee of justice. Yet, without due process it is almost certain that there will not be justice. Whenever people have simply trusted the session, presbytery or General Assembly to just do the right thing, they have almost always been disappointed to learn that their trust was misplaced.
In a civil court decision last October in which Jane and I were involved concerning our grandson, the judge asked the parties this question, “Are you agreed to have this matter decided by next Friday?” All parties and their attorneys agreed. Later, the judge wrote in his opinion that Jane and I had waived our rights of due process. That was a lie and it became the pretext for the judge to dismiss our case with prejudice. My attorney was dumbfounded and called me with the question, “When did we waive our rights of due process?” We did not. I have been involved in ecclesiastical law for too long to ever agree to waive my rights of due process. Due process does not guarantee just decisions, but waiving due process will almost always guarantee that those decision are tyrannical and abusive. No judge in any court worth his gown would ever ask the parties to waive their rights of due process. The USA is supposed to be a nation of laws—not a nation of powerful individuals. The church of the Lord Jesus is supposed to uphold the laws of King Jesus, our benevolent Prince, rather than the whims of individuals. There is only One who rules over the Church. The rest of us, therefore, can never lord it over anyone.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.
We the Members and Officers of Vanguard Presbyterian Church, in order to form a more perfect Denomination, govern with Scriptural justice, ensure ecclesiastical Tranquility, provide for the defense of the Faith, propagate the Gospel, evangelize the Lost, pray for Revival, uphold the Scriptural view of Creation, promote Scriptural Sexuality and Purity, and secure the Blessings of Liberty in Christ to ourselves and our children, do establish this Constitution for Vanguard Presbyterian Church.