Last month I wrote a post on the tension that sometimes arises between mission and more formal processes, like ordination, within a denomination. This month, I would like talk about another formal structure set out in Sovereign Grace’s Book of Church Order, the judicial process. Making a connection between a formal judicial process and the mission of the church might at first seem tenuous. Even in a well establish church, a formal judicial process might seem to be another case of denominational overkill, let alone its benefit and necessity for a church plant. However, my position is that a formal judicial process is vital for preserving and protecting the purity of our doctrine, elderships, and members of local churches so that we might be best positioned to carry out our mission to proclaim and display the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world around us.
Accountability and Protection
Before discussing the various ways a judicial process preserves and protects local churches, it’s worth noting that the judicial process is not solely punitive. The judicial process does provide accountability when an elder is disqualified or when a team of elders drifts from key doctrinal distinctives or core tenants of the faith. However, a judicial process also serves to promote unity, bring about reconciliation, give due process to an elder who is wrongly accused, and protect local church members from misapplied church discipline. It works to redemptively hold men and women accountable for their sins while also working to protect and exonerate those who are being unjustly treated. A formal judicial process provides a fair and clearly laid out process for walking through the inevitable challenges that arise in church life.
Here are three areas where a judicial process serves the local church
Purity of Our Doctrine
Doctrinal distinctives don’t change overnight. The gospel isn’t lost in a generation. But distinctives and core tenants of the faith can and will be lost in our local churches if we are not vigilant to preserve and protect them. Last month I wrote about how ordination seeks to preserve and protect the doctrine of the local church by carefully examining each elder prior to ordination. As helpful as this process it, it is insufficient to assure long-term doctrinal fidelity. It is possible for an elder or a whole team of elders to, over time, shift doctrinally. In order to protect the doctrinal purity of our local churches we must a formal process in place that is able to hold elderships and local churches accountable when they drift doctrinally.
We can plant and replant churches, build relationships, serve our communities, and study our culture, but if our message is compromised due to doctrinal drift, in the end what will we have to offer those we are reaching? Even if we are sound doctrinally today, what steps are we taking to make sure that is true 25, 50, 100 years from now? Who will be there when we are tempted to drift to call us back, hold us accountable? What structure is in place to both protect and preserve the glorious truths of the gospel we are laboring to proclaim in our churches and to the world?
Purity of Our Elderships
The character and reputation of elders are what give them credibility to minister within the church, and are the measuring stick of how many outside the church view what it is to be a Christian. Few things hurt local churches and the reputation of Christ more than the disqualification of an elder. The pain of an elder failing publicly is only worsened when this failure is insufficiently addressed or addressed in a sloppy manner.
It is important to note that the mishandling of situations like this is not limited to insufficient consequences for an elder that has failed morally. It can also be the mishandling of an elder that in the end is proven innocent. Once the character and reputation of an elder are called into a question, whether guilty or innocent, his ability to lead and minister are significantly diminished, if not lost. Having a judicial process that rightly applies 1 Timothy 5:19-22 is vital to carefully examining and disciplining an elder. It is vital that charges against an elder are handled in such a way that the guilty elder is appropriately held accountable, and the innocent elder’s reputation is preserved, allowing him to continue minister to those within and without the local church without a cloud of suspicion.
I must add, at this point, that relationships are not a substitute for a formal process. When things are going well, it’s hard to imagine how difficult and divisive sin can be. Relationships among elders on a team and with other elders in a region are vital, and something we treasure at my local church and within our region in SGC. Sadly, the failure of an elder is often accompanied by significant relational strain among fellow elders. If relationship is your sole strategy for working through situations like these, you will find that it is insufficient to bear the weight of the conflict at hand. It is at times like these that a formal process, carried out fairly and impartially, is a gift meant, not to replace relationship but to preserve it.
Purity of Our Local Churches
The failure of elders is a public reproach upon the gospel that rightfully receives attention from the world. However, it is easy to forget that every single day we represent Christ to the world around us. If it is true that elders are a measuring stick of what it means to be a Christian, it is also true that the lives of members in our local churches are also a measuring stick. Every single day we claim Christ and live out our lives before a watching world.
If Christians live in open sin before the world they too bring reproach upon the gospel. It leads a dying world to question what hope is there in the gospel when those who profess to believe it live no differently than they do. Paul in 1 Corinthians is concerned with this exact thing. There was a man among the Corinthians who was living in open, unrepentant sin. Paul strongly admonishes the church to deal directly with this issue for the sake of the man and for the sake of gospel witness to the world. If a church fails to discipline someone who is openly and unrepentantly sinning, we as a denomination have a responsibility to hold that eldership and church responsible for their actions.
On the flip side of this, it is possible for elders to misapply church discipline.
They may, in an effort to work for the purity of the church, unfairly handle the discipline of one of their members, failing to follow a due process meant to care for this member in a redemptive manner. And frankly, due to their own sin, they may unjustly exclude someone from the church who is either innocent or who is better served through a less severe measure of discipline. Members of our churches need to know that there is recourse they can take to challenge the misapplication of church discipline. Our BCO sets out a process whereby they can contact elders outside their local church and appeal the church discipline process.
Church life is inevitably messy. Christ’s church is a redeemed church, but it is also a church growing to be more and more like Christ. Sin still dwells within in us. In order for us to live in unity with one another and proclaim and display Christ to the world in a worthy manner, we must work to preserve and protect the purity of our doctrine, purity of our elderships, and purity of our local churches. In order to do this we must proactively create processes that will serve us well for the long-term as well as during moments of crisis. Doing so will more readily ensure that our mission to make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ will remain vital and strong for years to come.