Thursday, February 21, 2008

Baptist Church Courts

An interesting comment thread at SBC Outpost has erupted, in which ecclesiastical courts have been mentioned.

A few observations:

On the one hand, Baptists have not historically recognized ecclesiastical courts on the order of say the PCA and OPC which are, after so long it's hard to know how long, have only now begun issuing final rulings regarding the Federal Vision.

On the other hand good old fashioned church trials have been held even in SBC history. For example, there was one involving RBC Howell and FBC Nashville in the 19th century. The SBC resolved it by seating FBC's messengers when the TNBC had refused at their state convention, then the SBC elected Howell president. After Graves spoke his peace about missions, the SBC ignored him and then Howell resigned, and that was how the SBC spoke then.

A conflict like this one should never have reached the courts without being arbitrated by a presbytery. You know the P word is not unheard of in our history. It's just not convened often. Something like this should have happened before this went to the secular courts:

Dr. Klouda and the elders of her church should have contacted the elders of Dr. Patterson's church. They should have agreed to a selection of a balanced jury drawn from the local association (or associations if not in the same one), and Patterson should have been confronted by his elders.

Now, I'll say this, I think some of us are skeptical that the eldership of his church would even agree to that. Indeed, with a celebrity like him, it's hard to know if any pastors would have the courage to sit him down and place him under any sort of church discipline - and this is true of any celebrity in any church. So, I think that may be why it was not done. I don't know, maybe it was and refused.

At any rate Baptist ecclesiology does, in fact, allow for such a process, and it would be from the local association up, not top down, eg. from the SBC itself. The SBC would be the final court of appeal, and it could choose to act like it did with Howell and Graves or in another way.

We can find it in documents like the Charleston Association's Book of Discipline and their history.

I'll quote:

Query. 6. f12 Whether all matters debated in a church are to be determined byplurality of voices, and that determination final, though it grieve theconsciences of some?

— Answ. No church, or majority of a church, has power to bind the conscience: If therefore the majority should introduce errors subversive of the peace of the church, and wound the consciences of the brethren, the minority may, after all proper methods to reclaim the rest by calm reasoning, by calling in the assistance of other churches, and by referring the matter to the Association, should these prove ineffectual, be received as the church, and the majority disowned

Notice, before forming their own church, the minority could petition their grievance to the Association.

From the Book of Discipline (emphasis mine):

The benefits arising from an association and communion of churches are many.

In general, it will tend toward maintaining the truth, order, and discipline of the gospel.

By it the churches may have such doubts as arise amongst them cleared, and this will prevent disputes (Acts 15:28-29).

They will be furnished with salutary counsel (Proverbs 11:14).

Those churches which have no ministers may obtain occasional supplies (Song of Solomon 8:8).

The churches will be more closely united in promoting the cause and interest of Christ.

A member who is aggrieved through partiality or any other wrong received from the church may have an opportunity of applying for direction.

A godly and sound ministry will be encouraged, while a ministry that is unsound and ungodly will be discountenanced.

There will be a reciprocal communication of their gifts (Philippians 4:15).

Ministers may alternately be sent out to preach the gospel to those who aredestitute (Galatians 2:9).

A large party may draw off from the church by means of an intruding minister,or other ways, and the aggrieved may have no way of obtaining redress butfrom the association.

A church may become heretical, so that with it its godly members can no longer communicate, yet it can obtain no relief but by the association.

Contentions may arise between sister churches, which the association is most likely to remove.

The churches may have candidates for the ministry properly tried by the

These and other advantages arising from an association must induce every godly church to desire a union with such a body. But should any stand off, it would argue much self-sufficiency (Revelation 3:17) and little or no desire after the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3) or mutual edification (1 Corinthians 12:11-14).
The SBC (or any Baptist denomination or state convention composed of more than one association) is a Meta-Association, so establishing a system - from the bottom up not the top down - is the way to go. Ecclesiastical courts are not out of bounds in Baptist ecclesiology. They are just rarely used, particularly in this day when the emphasis is laid on the individual, autonomous church.

The standard argument against ecclesiastical courts in Baptist polity is that it infringes on the autonomy of the local church. However, I would say that such courts are warranted using these general guidelines:

1. A.A dispute within the same church is to be handled by that church. The association is the next level of appeal.

B. If the dispute is between individuals in two different churches, and these two individuals agree to abide by the decision of the elders of either (a) one of their churches, or (b) a presbytery of elders from both churches, the matter is settled. If one disputant dislikes the decision, he may appeal to an association if one exists, but if not, he has no recourse. Incidentally, this has happened to me in recent history. Unfortunately the disputant did not like the decision. Those of you who have said that I need to reconcile with my brother may not be aware of this fact. I'm not the problem here. The problem is that this brother said he would appeal to my elders, I went ahead and brought them into it, they made their decision, and he didn't like it. There is no association to which he can appeal, so I'm left now with his buddies making smart comments from time to time that I need to reconcile with him. The onus is not on me to reconcile when I've been cleared by my elders.

C. If disputes between individuals from two separate churches or associations cannot be resolved at the local church level: The first level of appeal is a presbytery convened at the level of the association if they are in the same association. If in a different association, then the DOM's from those associations should work with the conflicting parties and the elders of their respective churches to do this. Those presbyteries should give priority to the decisions made at the first level and should not, except after very, very careful judgment contradict them. If it gets to this level, it should be understood that the disputants will abide by the decision, period. In this case, the presbytery should act more like a court of appeal, not a new court holding a new "trial."

D. Now, in the Klouda case, the civil law may have been violated. A secular court can determine that too. Secular courts are not, contrary to popular opinion, out of bounds for Christians.

2. If the conflict arises between two whole associations, then the state convention is the right place of arbitration.

3. If state conventions cannot agree and it rises to a level that disturbs the peace in the whole Convention, then the other states and the SBC should intervene.

4. As stated above, the SBC can also taken action through the seating of churches' messengers. In theory, the SBC could refuse to seat two individual messengers who have refused to allow their conflict to be resolved. They could refuse to seat the messengers of their churches if the churches have not taken steps to resolve this issue.

I am reminded of a particular instance in Scripture about two women in the church whose personal problems had disturbed the peace...


  1. Gene,

    Nice post.

    You lost me when you wrote, "Now, in the Klouda case, the civil law may have been violated. A secular court can determine that too. Secular courts are not, contrary to popular opinion, out of bounds for Christians."

    1. So does this mean you have no issue with Dr. Klouda filing suit against Dr. Patterson?

    2. When is it out of bounds for Christians to resort to the secular courts?


  2. Scott, that's a good question:

    1. No, I do not. In the case of Dr. Patterson in particular, I know the church of which he is a member and I don't believe Dr. Klouda would receive a fair hearing. The members of that church and their pastor read like a list of the "Good Ole Boy" network in the SBC. I'm also not altogether sure, given the high profile of this case and feelings on the other side, that Dr. Klouda's church or any other could do it either.

    By the way this applies, right now to some other cases. This sense also includes those who have accused Wade Burleson of all sorts of things. I know for a fact that he offered to go through the process I outlined above with certain trustees at the IMB. They refused. So much for their sense of "Baptist identity."

    In the case of these sorts of very high profile people, if you ask me, I would go to a truly impartial place that had no "dog" in the hunt at all, like John MacArthur's church or John Piper's church, or GARBC churches, or even the PCA, where they have lots of experience in ecclesiastical courts. The SBC is too polarized a place right now.

    2. Even if he was cleared by his elders, I do believe that the secular courts should determine if the secular law has been violated. I would feel the same way about any case. Say you employed a Christian contractor to work on your house and he failed to uphold his end of the contract. You have two rights:

    1. To adjudicate the dispute via his elders and yours.

    2. If that outcome fails, you have the right to secular arbitration or the right to sue, depending on the laws of your state. If you feel that the elders of his church are unqualified or that you were unfairly treated, you still have this right, see 4.

    3. I don't believe that SWBTS is a "church." It may be considered so for legal purposes, but legal purposes and ecclesiastical purposes are not convertible.

    2 (your question) and part 4 of my answer:

    a. I've been over that several times at SBC Outpost. Typically, Christians who say Christians should not resort to the secular courts at all appeal to 1 Corinthians 6. Indeed this is, I think, the most frequently invoked text over there. This is a superficial appeal for the following reasons:

    i. At best, all that can be demonstrated is that Paul is saying that they should not go to the secular courts before attempting to adjudicate their concerns within the local church.

    ii.The issue Paul is discussing in 1 Corinthians 6 is not a universal command that Christians never go to the secular courts.

    Paul is discussing the apparently common practice of settling noncriminal property cases before non-Christian judges or arbitrators.

    With respect to the Klouda case, if SWBTS violated the nondiscrimination laws of the federal and state governments, the matter is, by definition, not, not a simple noncriminal property case. The Klouda case involves contract law on the one hand and nondiscrimination laws on the other.

    Paul specifies in Romans 13 that criminal cases are to handled by the state.

    Pragma echon (having a lawsuit or dispute) refers to different kinds of property cases. Tolma (dare) is a strong admonition, not a command, for Christians to take those sorts of legal grievances for settlement before qualified Christians. In the case of 2 above, elders of a church may not be qualified, for they may have no experience with contract laws at all. Lawyers who serve in both churches or an association, if any, under the leadership of the elders could be qualified to adjudicate the matter.This is where an association comes in handy, for if neither of your churches has any lawyers in it, others may and probably do. If they are not available, you have recourse to the civil magistrate.

    Back to the text, in this way, he allows for the possibility that Christians can take some of these cases to the state. He is taking as his model, the Roman practice of allowing Jews, to take one example, apply their own law to property matters, and Christians, not at that time a separate class, he gives this same privilege.

    The rabbis said that it was unlawful to take cases before Gentile judges. In their model, 3 judges would settle the case (Craig, 1 Cor., IB, vol. 10, p.69). If appeal was made to Roman law for the right of Jewish and Christian communities to try their property cases, certainly then, they had a corresponding right to go to the civil courts too.

    So, a church case can, today, be brought into the civil courts to determine the extent of congregational rights, for example, the right to retain the property of the church (I know of two cases right now before the magistrate in my own area that are like that). Paul's concern here is not that Christians were going before the civil courts and therefore instructing them not ever to do so under any circumstances (and by extension all Christians everywhere at all times), but that they were bypassing the first level of arbitration, the local church, for these sorts of cases.

  3. My goodness, don't tell me there is an organisation with ecclesial authority above the local church. Is that in the bible? If not, why on earth would someone subject themselves to it? If so, who gave the authority to break with Rome?