A while back Joe Small of the Office of Theology and Worship wrote an article on church discipline. He said that things were as bad as they were (and are) in relation to church discipline not because we don’t have a good system for discipline, we do. We have problems because we no longer seek to reconcile people to God and each other about the little things. Church discipline, after all is really about reconciliation.
The first chapter of The Rules of Discipline it says in part:
The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.
In other words the disciplinary process of the PCUSA is not about punishment. It is about reconciliation. And as Joe Small says we have problems with the big stuff because we neglect the small stuff.
At one time the primary purposes of the Session in a local congregation were theological and disciplinary. The Session received and dismissed members. This was a theological function. When someone sought to join the congregation by affirmation or reaffirmation of faith the Session didn’t just look around nervously and ask why the individual wanted to join the congregation. The Session asked deep theological questions. There was a time, back in the mid nineteenth century when Presbyterian lay members of a congregation could explain the five points of Calvinism and do his or her best to convince a Methodist that she or he was wrong on the subject. People knew their Bibles and could quote passages and chapters (I suspect our saying “chapter and verse” comes from this) More important they thought about what they believed. Presbyterians read their Bibles, prayed regularly and kept an account for every day of how they had or had not pleased the Lord.
The Session expected much more of congregational members that we do now. When someone sought membership the Session expected that the proposed member could say what they believed and back it up by quoting Scripture. And if the person seeking membership was unable to do so they were not received into membership until they could do so. This was not a matter of elitism. It was the Session’s job to make sure a Christian was prepared for membership. The Session also concerned itself with the proposed member’s spiritual experience. In the minutes of a former congregation when the Session interviewed people for membership it was stated that the ones seeking membership were questioned as to their doctrinal and experimental religion. They had to be able to say what they believed and describe how they had come to believe and how their relationship with Jesus made them feel.
Further it was the Session’s job to provide ways for congregational members to continue their education. While Presbyterians believed that God chooses those who would go to heaven and hell it was the Session’s job (since they did not know the mind of God when it came to individual salvation) to teach church members to so believe and so live that they would be fit for the Kingdom of God. Part of this continuing education was what a Session called “the means of grace.” The simple definition of “the means of grace” is does this church member come to worship, go to prayer meetings and take the sacraments. If a member stopped attending worship a couple of members of the Session were sent to ask why that member was not availing him or herself of the means of grace. And if that member didn’t have a good reason (I broke my leg and can’t get down the stairs) the Session called that member to appear before the Session for a trial that would determine whether the individual would be disciplined or not. But the purpose of discipline, as The Rules for Discipline still say, was to bring that person into reconciliation with God and/or neighbor. This was discipline for the small things.
These days the Session of a particular congregation has a variety of problems even starting to do its primary task: seeking to teach members proper belief and proper ways to live. The first problem seemed like a good idea at the time but I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it was a profound mistake. That is the idea of having unicameral boards.
Curiously the term unicameral boards does not refer to whether a congregation has a Board of Deacons or not. Many congregations that have Boards of Deacons have a unicameral board. A bicameral board system is a church that has both a Board of Trustees and a Session. A unicameral board system is one in which the Board of Trustees and the Session are one and the same body.
At first glance. Particularly from an organizational and relational perspective it makes sense to have a unicameral board. Within the first five years after I was ordained I watched a major conflict between a Board of Trustees and a Session. It was over whether the Trustees should paint the wood exterior parts of the church building white or whether they should have vinyl siding put on that would cover the wood exterior parts. The Trustees had done all the work, priced it all out and figured that it could save a lot of money by covering the wood with vinyl siding. And no one told them that anyone had a problem with the idea. At the next Session meeting the Session invited the Trustees to meet with them to explain about the vinyl siding. The Session ultimately asked the Trustees to reconsider the vinyl siding given the emotional reaction of some church members to the idea. One of the reasons given was that I had been pastor of the congregation for three months. The unstated message was that I was a babe in the woods and was not ready to handle the blow up that would occur if vinyl siding was put on the 150 year old church building.
The Session, according to the Book of Order, had the right to overrule the Trustees. Instead they asked the Trustees to reconsider their decision. And since it was a small congregation in a small town most of the Trustees were related to members of the Session. It took me quite a while to figure out the dynamic.
The important point here is that under most normal circumstances the Session would not have concerned itself with the property and the finances of the congregation. That was the Trustee’s job. The Session already had a heavy task: the theological and spiritual well being of all the members of the congregation. When a Session also takes on the work of the Trustees the property and finances of the congregation come to the fore, taking the place of the spiritual needs of the congregation. Soon Session meetings become similar to board meetings of corporations. Session members even ask why prayer is necessary at a meeting or why they should be bothered with spiritual tasks. After all, their job is really to deal with the business (property and finance) of the congregation!
If the Session of a congregation truly takes the theological and spiritual well being of the members seriously it has a heavy task indeed. It does not have the time to do the work of the trustees as well. But the Session that seeks to do its true work runs in to a greater problem: the American mindset and way of life.
For good or evil the American experiment has over the years made the doing of this task impossible. The reason is the American ideal of the individual. Americans as a group prefer autonomy in its original meaning: that each person is a law unto him or herself. Americans do want some basic laws so that they can live through the day. They want people to stop at traffic lights, to stay within 20 miles per hour of the speed limit and to not be killed in the process of the theft of their expensive footwear. They are willing (for the most part) to go through the indignities of the security process at the airport so that no one else will take the plane over and fly it into a building. But the first and most important law for every American, the one we want the government to protect the most is the right to be left alone. We aren’t so sure that we want the guy down the block who continually cleans his extensive hand gun and semiautomatic rift collection on his front porch to have the same rights that we have. But if I am sitting in my family room watching the NCAA basketball finals on my large screen TV, hurting no one, I should be left alone.
While this American ideal of independence is a great gift for the common man or woman it is destructive to theology and church discipline. As far back at the 1790’s a theology that probably grew out of the American ideal of independence and rights dealt a fatal blow to Reformed theology and discipline. That theology came out of Yale Divinity School. It was named Hopkinsianism, the New Haven Theology or the New Divinity. Basically it said that humans did not inherit original sin. Humans were literally able to not sin and thereby have no need for the death of Jesus for their sins. In actuality humans, because the society in which they were raised, were brought up to sin and thus needed atonement through Christ.
Notice how the ideal of independence moves with the idea that each person is responsible for their sins. Sin is only act, not a state of being. One did not inherit original sin but rather learned sin, much as one learns bad behavior. Carry this idea of individual independence and responsibility and one will have strong objections to the idea that a group of humans called the Session should or could have any responsibility to guide another human in the ways of salvation and sanctification.
Ultimately the true role of the Session has fallen to a now unconscious belief that what one does and thinks, as long as one does not break the law, is no one else’s business. Sessions now quail at the idea of actually asking potential members what they believe. And unless they are strict Evangelicals (that is Baptists or their ilk) members of a Presbyterian Session will never ask a potential member about her or his spiritual experience which in this case means a narrative of the way from damnation to salvation with all emotions felt named and maybe acted out along the way. Yet well into the mid nineteenth century such questions and appropriate answers were expected.
Asking further questions about the state of each member’s soul, another primary task of the Session (asked just prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to see if members should or should not present themselves to receive the sacrament). The reception of the sacrament was not a right for all baptized Christians but rather a privilege not so much earned as confessed. Elders regularly interviewed all members of the congregation about their spiritual and moral lives prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If one did not satisfy the elders (who usually went out in pairs) as to the state of their souls that person did not receive a communion token. And if one approached the front of the sanctuary to receive the sacrament without a communion token one simply was not served.
All this was done not to judge the members of the congregation but rather to reconcile those members to God. And at times the Session was asked to reconcile members one to another. Sometimes people went to the Session rather than civil courts to seek help in reconciling with their neighbors. Curiously today congregations go to civil courts to seek help in severing their ties with their neighbors (or in this case presbyteries and denominations.
The point of all of this is to describe regular discipline. The Session acted as a loving guide to help the members of the congregation down the road of life in what they believed and what they did. No one asked how dare someone come to their house and ask about their prayer life. Neither did anyone ask why a group called a Session should have the right to decide whether someone may join a congregation or not. Yet today it is assumed by all, including the members of the Session that no one has the right to ask a congregational member or someone seeking membership about their theology, their prayer lives or their daily lives. Members of Sessions are embarrassed to ask even people seeking ordination as elders what they believe. And it is the rare Session that would question the behavior even of one of their own. An elder openly commits adultery yet the other elders on the Session are too embarrassed to ask the elder if she is committing adultery and if so why that person has not resigned from Session.
All of this, aside from the final statement about adultery is a description of ordinary discipline and how we got to the point where we just don’t do it anymore. Even extraordinary discipline, such as requiring an elder who is in an adulterous relationship to step down off of Session is rarely done and then only with great embarrassment. For that matter Sessions have to be careful. Church boards have been sued for defamation of character and have lost such suits even when the person suing the board has indeed been committing adultery! The defaming, one must conclude, comes from making the sins of the one bringing the suit into the eyes of the public. In the case of the Presbyterian system of discipline, dismissing a member from the ordained office of elder is made becomes public when that person no longer goes to meetings of the Session or serves communion. For the most part neither ordinary nor extraordinary discipline (for the purpose of reconciling persons with God and each other) is done for the good of congregational members.
However we are all too quick to seek extraordinary discipline in the case of Ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
The hurdles one must jump to be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are many and high. Just the learning of Hebrew and Greek is a hurdle that many cannot overcome. But beyond the learning of Biblical languages, one must present satisfactory transcripts from an accredited college and an accredited seminary. There are regular reports to and meetings with a presbytery committee. There are required courses including Clinical Pastoral Education and Field Experience. There are five standard exams. Finally a presbytery while examining a candidate for off can question that person on any subject at all, as long as the questions are pertinent to that particular candidate.
After one receives a call and is ordained, however, there is little if any dicipling of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. No one asks the MWS about their prayer life, what they are thinking about theologically, even how things are working out in their ministry. There is only the required every three year visit from members of the Committee on Ministry and many COMs are too busy with crisis situations to do even this minimal discipling Thus ordinary discipline is simply not done for Ministers of Word and Sacrament either.
Extraordinary discipline is another matter altogether. A disciplinary case may be filed rather easily. There is a particular form that must be used which is found at the back of the Book of Order. The person making the allegation must state what the person being accused has done wrong, give some minimal evidence, and show quotes from the Bible, the Book of Confessions or the Book of Order as to why, if the person against whom the allegations are made should be disciplined. Please remember that the system is to be for the purpose of reconciliation between a Minister of Word and Sacrament and God and/or with another person.
The problem is that often one would not reach the stage of a disciplinary case if each pastor (and elder and church member) had a spiritual advisor or small group. Since neither presbyteries nor sessions are willing or able to do the hard work of ordinary discipline we must find new ways. Requiring a spiritual advisor or a small group (led by a person with some training in the area) would be one step on the road to resuming ordinary discipline.
In the meantime we jump from case to case of extraordinary discipline, some of which concern issues about which all would agree allegations must be brought (such as sexual abuse of a child) and others which are matters of great debate in the denomination and people test the system to see if the Permanent Judicial Committees of Presbyteries, Synods and the General Assembly will interpret a section in the Book of Order as does one who brings an allegation or not.
In any case our current system is not so much broken as abandoned. God requires us, for the good of us all, to find some way that will work to give the gift of ordinary discipline to officers and members of the Church. And then maybe Permanent Judicial Commissions would have less to do.