Stopping Jerks from Abusing the Church

By Eduardo Eduardo | Posted at 20:09

In my last piece, I examined how there is a species of creature known as the jerk, someone inclined to grab power at organizations with no regard to the cost meted out to other people. Churches, unfortunately, are often the targets of these people. In this essay, I want to consider historical approaches to balancing power in the church and how they may grant insight into protecting churches from jerks.

Too often, as we saw in my essay, as well as Tim’s report I referred to previously, jerks thrive in churches because power is granted to leaders without appropriate checks-and-balances for the other members. In programs such as the one espoused by Peacemaker Ministries, much emphasis is given on disciplining members for their sins, but what of leaders who make serious mistakes.

For any Christian, this would break the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, firstly; and secondly, it would break the common-sense principle of “the more power being given, the more controls, check and balances applied.”

Organizations who want to espouse granting power to leaders but few protections to members under the justification that somehow this is “biblical” might want to review not only Biblical texts on church discipline (especially those of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians), but also classical treatises such as the Manual of Church Discipline of Eleazer Savage, and the 1619 Church Order of Dordrecht, which allow for a more balanced view of church discipline.

The latter document is particularly enlightening. Some of its provisions, I think, might appear especially interesting to current users of Peacemaker materials. They are, of course, geared towards European Reformed church polity (that is, the form of governance for churches), but the intent of the articles is enlightening:

Art. 71. As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, and exempts no one from civil trial or punishment by the authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censure, to reconcile the sinner with the Church and with his neighbour, and to remove the offense out of the Church of Christ.

And these two:

Art. 79. When Ministers of the Divine Word, Elders, or Deacons have committed any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the Church, or worthy of punishment by the Authorities, the Elders and Deacons shall immediately, by preceding sentence of the Consistory of that Church and the nearest adjoining Church, be deposed from their office, but the Ministers shall be suspended. But whether or not they are to be entirely deposed from their office shall be subject to the judgment of the Classis.

Art. 81. The Ministers of the Word, Elders, and Deacons shall exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.

In other words: every church member is subject to church discipline; this discipline exempts no one from civil trial or punishment; and church officers and staffers are to be bound by a higher standard. Now, do we see this in the Peacemakers?

Some food for thought: As Tim mentioned in his article, one of the keystones of the Peacemaker’s program is to get church members to agree to an “informed consent” document where they waive their rights to litigation in a very sweeping way.

However, we already saw that church discipline documents back from the early 17th century explicitly reject that waiver. One could say that this goes against the provision of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; but in my opinion this refers only to lawsuits against members of the church. This might not apply to lawsuits against people who are so deeply entrenched in their sin that they cannot help but sever themselves from the bond of communion.

What should one do, then? Should you sign the “informed consent” document? If your church is run by jerks, and if they are going to use Peacemakers' materials as one of their tools, should you sign the waiver agreement? I would like to say, “it depends,” but no. My advice is to refuse signing any contract or legal agreement until you contact a lawyer and seek qualified legal counsel.

However, if you have already caved in and signed, I also would advise you to seek a lawyer. I am not one of them, and I cannot advise on English or American common law; but I do know something about civil law (the legal system prevalent in most of Europe and Latin America), and one of its principles is that “informed consent” can never be achieved by error, fraud, or duress, such as the peer pressure of church leaders and fellow members (for a normative example of that, see Art. 1948 of the Louisiana Civil Code).

Peacemakers can be a helpful tool for the local church, and it offers a corrective to help return to the teachings of Biblical church discipline. But if their program – or any other program or concept presented for adoption in a church — does not provide for greater accountability for elders, pastors, and assorted leadership than the regular members, hold it off, and watch carefully where you put your signature.

That’s the best way to protect yourself from jerks.

Eduardo Sánchez is a contributing editor and senior international correspondent for Open for Business.


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