The recent schism in one of our congregations, which has had repercussions throughout the denomination, is a grief for everyone involved. The church of Christ has been rent. Families and friends are divided. Before God we lament, cry for mercy, and submit to His chastening hand (March 1 editorial).
The schism is also a threat to the denomination, since those who have departed are calling us and our children to leave the alleged apostatizing PRCA and join them. So serious is the PRCA’s departure that for them not to “come out from among” us and be separate would be sinful disobedience to God. Those who join them, join in making the same statement for themselves. The editorial of March 15 addressed this and the terrible charges that break with the relentless regularity of ocean waves against the PRCA.
The April 1 editorial pointed out that, regarding the doctrine of works, there are two dangers that must always be avoided in Reformed churches. As has been said, “Christ is always crucified between two thieves.” On the one hand, a wrong doctrine of “works” may make works part of the ground or means or instrument of our salvation. Works, then, take credit for salvation. On the other hand, a different error in the doctrine of “works” makes works unimportant, unnecessary, maybe impossible, and probably an affront to justification by faith without works. If a preacher enjoins obedience, such preaching is damned as “conditional theology.” If a Reformed church will survive, she will always be on guard against both errors.
The present editorial addresses the disorder involved in every schism and particularly this schism. Schism itself is disorder in God’s church. But schism is often surrounded by other disorder and this schism is no exception.
To say that disorder is part of the story of this schism is not to deny the seriousness of doctrinal error. Doctrinal error is serious. But God’s people must also see that when doctrinal error is confronted in a disorderly way, schism will be the inevitable result. God is not pleased to correct error through disorderliness. He will judge disorderliness with a heavy hand. Those judgments may well include sinful division. His judgments might not end there.
An older Church Order authority once said (I paraphrase): “The best way to turn a difficult church problem into an impossible-to-solve church problem is to set aside the biblically based principles of the Church Order.” To say that doctrinal controversies are difficult is an understatement. Usually, they are agonizing. Add to that, doctrinal struggles down through the ages rarely have been settled in a few years. Those two realities— the difficulty and length of time—often tempt those involved in controversy to become impatient, grow frustrated, and then resort to behavior that violates the “biblically based principles of the Church Order.” This is the “disorder” I Corinthians 14:40 forbids: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” Paul is speaking about the orderliness in church life. For “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (v. 33). What happens when church order is disregarded?
When the proper way of addressing error and ridding the church of false teachers is ignored or shrugged off for one reason or another, one of the first appearances of disorderliness is the disorder of private excommunication. Private excommunication has been common in the church but is rarely exposed as the evil that it certainly is. ‘Private excommunication’ is my label for conduct that will go something like this. A certain member (or members) of the church decides that another member (usually an officebearer and probably a minister) has a weakness. This certain member does not declare the other member a heretic at first, but initially will insinuate it in various ways and simply declare to his family or friends that this other man is, for example, ‘not thoroughly Protestant Reformed.’ That is enough to create momentum in this exercise of ‘private excommunication.’ It can be considered the ‘first step’ of disorderly discipline. Soon, the accusing member has told a few more of his friends and his children have told their friends. By this time already the damage likely will not be undone.
The accusation (which is either slander or backbiting) is not brought to the man himself so that he can repent. It is not brought to his consistory to be adjudicated by the men Christ appointed to judge such charges. The charge is made to other individuals who, in growing numbers, nod their heads at the accusations or insinuations. A consensus has been reached: “This man is not faithful.” No orderly vote is taken, but a ‘decision’ is made, nevertheless. A judgment has been adopted. In the minds and lives of the group the accused is excommunicated. For all practical purposes, he has been put out of the sphere of their churches. This is disorder of the highest magnitude.
If someone would be bold to ask these ‘private excommunicators’ why they speak in such a manner about members in good standing in the church, the concern is probably dismissed because they are only ‘identifying weaknesses in the churches’ as those who want to keep the church strong. But so it goes. No hearing has taken place. No formal grounds have been established officially. The accused has had no ability to answer charges to defend his name. But he has been condemned and excommunicated, nevertheless. This is disorder.
Contrast good order and disorder. When good order is followed, there will be: 1) brotherly admonitions; then 2) formal charges; 3) careful deliberation by officebearers appointed for such work; 4) well grounded decisions; 5) which can be examined (and protested if need be) and 6) which can be used to teach the other members of the churches what is truth and what is error; also, 7) a penitent errorist is corrected and restored, and an impenitent teacher of false doctrine is removed from office and declared outside the kingdom. Compare that to the disorder of ‘private excommunication’: 1) There are no brotherly admonitions; 2) no formal charges; 3) deliberation takes place over coffee or beer; 4) no grounds are put on paper, which then 5) can be examined by the public; 6) thus, the members of the churches are taught nothing, officially; 7) the accused can do nothing but stand condemned in the court of public opinion. If he wants to respond, he is tempted to use the same disorderly forums in which he was condemned. If he is wise, he will commit his way to God who judges righteously (I Pet. 2:23).
The curse of social media
Fueling the practice of ‘private excommunication’ is the ability to publicize the damning accusations through social media. What only twenty years ago could not have happened now takes place commonly and, it seems, with apparent impunity. What might have remained in a small group a generation ago now goes viral through the Internet within days or even hours. And ‘going viral’ is a good description of the sin. The deadly infection spreads rapidly from one small group to more small groups, which soon become large groups. The small-group email somehow is leaked. And when nothing is done to check the sin, others are emboldened to publish on the Internet their similar criticisms. There is no end of forums through which to get the word out.
Readers understand that there is nothing hypothetical in this at all. It is most serious disorder in the church of Jesus Christ.
But for this sin to do its damage, another reality must be in play. There must be a devil, as they say, not only on someone’s tongue (to speak the evil), but in someone else’s ear (to give the evil a hearing). In former days private violations of the ninth commandment could be checked somewhat easily by saying, “Now, why do you tell me this?” That would often halt the sin in its tracks. But the ability that the Internet has to distance a writer from personal accountability makes it even more difficult to stop.
This explains why my response to friends who ask me, “Have you read…?” is usually, “I don’t read social media posts.” And why my response to their plea, “But can’t you expose the lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations that I’m reading all over the place?” is, “Then I would be guilty of the very evil you speak of.” A Christian ought not listen to evil. If he does hear it, he must be willing to respond to it in a Christian manner: go to the brother; if there is no repentance, bring him to his consistory.
It is more than a “by the way” here to say that any man who does hear evil and quickly believes it without careful investigation shows himself by that to be wholly unfit to be an officebearer (certainly), and unworthy even to claim interest in Jesus’ ninth commandment. These ignore the promise Reformed Christians make in the Heidelberg: “I will not judge nor join in condemning any man rashly or unheard.” More than once this magazine has reminded our readers of the important place Proverbs 18 ought to have in our lives: “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him” (v. 17) and “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (v. 13). To translate this in language our children understand: “Before you form a judgment about anyone or anything, you better hear both sides of every story, or you show yourself to be foolish.” It is a great irony that some ‘defenders of truth’ will so easily violate the commandment about speaking truth.
Judging rashly and unheard is a plague these days, and hastens the evil activity of ‘private excommunication.’
Justifying the evil
A defense of this present disorderliness is, “But error in the church is so serious that we may not be silent. Truth is so important that to wait for protests and appeals to work will result in the loss of truth.” Or this, “Article 55 of the Church Order and the Formula of Subscription require officebearers to defend truth and expose error.”1
The Church Order was developed carefully over the course of centuries and adopted in church assemblies by mature officebearers who had been “around the block’ a few times. They understood controversy. They were determined to preserve truth. They had a holy hatred of error. For this reason, woven into the very fabric of the Church Order is the calling for officebearers to preach truth everywhere, adhere to and vindicate sound doctrine, assault error, expose the lie, and then bind one’s self to this calling by signing the Formula of Subscription (see Church Order, Arts. 4, 9, 16, 18, 23, 44, 49, 53, 54, 55, 61, 68, 71, 72, 79, 80).
At the same time, these fathers knew that rooting out error must be done in an orderly manner. The orderly manner is given in Article 31. The Standard Bearer has shown what the proper and historically Protestant Reformed understanding of Article 31 is. It is disorderly in the church of Jesus Christ to expose error and ignore the church orderly way of Article 31. Any church or group that sanctions that disorder will soon find itself plagued with it. Now, it seems, anyone may make his own judgment that ‘this elder’ is embracing error or ‘that minister’ is promoting the lie. Then, rather than bringing an orderly charge of sin against him, they will publish a newsletter or blog post and carry out private excommunication. The church may not permit this.
People of God, this is a brotherly, but sharp warning.
Regarding the calling given to officebearers in Article 55, it should be noted that there is an important difference between exposing error without and exposing error within the churches. Every minister must write and preach against errors that threaten from the outside, at times even naming names of preachers or books that promote heresy. But when a threat is detected from within, the way of addressing it is not from the pulpit or in writing to the public, but the orderly way of bringing carefully formulated charges to a consistory for Christ’s officebearers to judge.
Imagine your minister being called a heretic by his colleague in the neighboring church. Imagine your husband who is an elder being labeled unorthodox by a fellow elder in the same congregation. This disorder must not be allowed even if one thinks that the error is so serious that he cannot wait to address it in the orderly way.
In the end, the ‘heretic’ will be cut off by the private excommunicators. But his ‘excommunication’ will not have been by Christ. This disorderly binding on earth is not bound in heaven (Matt. 18:18).
The other defense of the disorderliness is, “The orderly way is not working because the churches are already so full of disorder. Why, then, would one attempt to walk the church orderly way if the system is broken?” If one reads and is inclined to believe the whistleblowers’ accounts of supposed corruption and disorder in the churches without investigating the matter for himself, the reminder again is in order: “He that is first in his own cause, seems just….”
But disorder may not be justified as a response to disorder, any more than we would justifying uprising against the American government because it is so full of corruption.
“God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
It is necessary and it is possible both to defend the truth against error and live orderly. It is necessary and it is possible to do both at the same time. If a church departs from either, she cannot survive because God is not the author of confusion.
May God grant orderliness “in all the churches of the saints.”
1 Article 55 reads: “To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.” (Cf. prca.org/about/ official-standards/church-order.)