Frequently the general public, and sometimes even those that ought to know better, speak with disdain about the strict observance of technical rules and methods in the deliberation upon and final settlement of any question. To them a “technicality” is so much red tape. Or, what is worse, to maintain technical principles is to them only an excuse on the part of an assembly for reaching the wrong decision. To say that a certain request was not received by an ecclesiastical gathering on the ground of a “technicality” in their mouth means that such gathering merely looked for some excuse to reject it. When a protest is declared out of order by such a meeting on the ground of a “technicality”, they accuse the assembly of bad “politics”. When an individual, consistory, or classis committed a technical error, and the case is brought to the attention of the proper assembly, and the later condemns the party that committed the error, it is enough to say contemptuously that the whole case was treated and condemned on the ground of a technicality, in order to make many people believe that it was mistreated. Technicalities, according to this view, are of little or no importance, and they may readily be set aside, and easily be transgressed.
Now, we would not defend the proposition that a technical rule may never be overruled, nor would we deny that mere technicalities are sometimes used to cover up an attempt to get rid of a case or to do the wrong thing. A case may be very clear, and very urgent and important, and the party involved in such a case may very evidently have the right on his side; and he may have committed a very slight technical error in ignorance of the method he should have followed in handling his case; and in such a case it may be the consensus of opinion that the technical error had better be overlooked and the case itself be treated. But this is not usually the case. In fact, it should be regarded as belonging to the extreme exceptions. Fact is, that technicalities are of great importance. They are very closely related to the moral side of any case. And although it is true that those who speak lightly of them, and who easily transgress them, may do so in ignorance of the proper rule to be observed, it is much more often the case that such transgression of technical rules is done consciously, and with the purpose of attaining to one’s end right or wrong. An individual or assembly that violates technicalities is certainly guilty of mismanagement, and in so doing violates God’s laws of justice and truth.
What is a technicality? It is a formal point of order. It concerns the technique of a case, the proper rule to be observed, the proper method to be followed in the treatment of a certain case, whether it be by an individual, or by an assembly. Technicalities are not inventions arbitrarily introduced either by the individual or by the assembly in any given case, but they are established rules, applicable to all cases alike, and always to be observed. Our Church Order is a whole set of technicalities. And they are agreed upon and laid down for a very definite purpose. They are not mere empty formalities that may just as well be dispensed with, or whose violation has no bearing upon the decision reached or the judgment rendered in any given case. On the contrary, they are rules that are adopted to safeguard the proper treatment of a case, and to assure to all parties involved that justice shall be done to them. They are based on the correct supposition that one cannot do justice in a way of injustice, that he cannot reach a right end by pursuing a crooked way; or, positively speaking, that justice and truth and love require us to walk in certain ways and to pursue certain methods in the treatment of any given case. They are, therefore, themselves profoundly moral, ethical, spiritual. The end does not merely not justify the means, but the wrong means are not conducive to the right end.
Let me give a few concrete illustrations. The well- known rule of Matthew 18 is a technicality. It requires that when a person, a brother, has sinned against someone, the latter must rebuke the former personally, before he can even take witnesses with him, and he must have rebuked him in the presence of witnesses, before he can take the matter to the church. What is the underlying principle of this technicality? Brotherly love, the desire to save the erring brother. Suppose this rule is violated. A person brings an accusation against a brother before the consistory without having first followed the rule of Matthew 18. He is refused a hearing by the consistory. The accusation may be perfectly true. And the accusing brother may be very much offended at the consistory because the latter refused to take up the case. He may even spread the report far and wide that the consistory refused him on the ground of a mere “technicality”. Yet, the consistory was right, and the accusing brother was wrong. And the latter was not merely technically wrong, but also morally, ethically: he violated the law of love! He did not have it in his heart to save the erring brother, but to destroy him. And if he will but honestly examine his heart, he will discover that hatred inspired and motivated him in violating the technicality of Matthew 18. And no consistory or broader gathering should ever allow itself to be persuaded that one who violated this rule acted in the spirit of the love of Christ. Or take the case of a person that directly appeals to classis without having served notice and a copy of his protest or appeal upon his own consistory. Perhaps, in regard to the matter of his protest the protestant has justice on his side. Yet, his protest is not received by the classis on the ground of a technicality: he did not serve a copy of his protest upon his own consistory. What may be the reason for this violation of the proper rule on the part of the protestant? It may, of course, be mere ignorance. But more often there is another reason. He refuses to acknowledge the consistory. Deliberately he ignores them. He does not trust them. He really does not live in the relation of Christian love to his consistory. He wants to expose them. He appeals to classis. But whether the one or the other motive is the reason for his action, he did not offer his own consistory the opportunity to treat his protest. And the classis refuses even to read it on the ground of this technicality. Or, take the case of the deposition of an officebearer by a consistory. The Church Order demands that “elders and deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the Consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office”. The consistory violates this rule by not taking into consideration or by disregarding the judgment of the consistory of the nearest Church. The deposed office-bearer takes his case to classis, and he wins his case on the ground of a mere technicality: he was not deposed by a double consistory. Whether or not he was worthy of deposition is left an open question; the classis does not and cannot even discuss this. And the reason for the rule is very evident. Article 79 of the Church Order requires that it shall be made perfectly evident that the deposed officebearer was worthy of deposition, and proceeds on the perfectly reasonable assumption that the judgment of one’s own consistory alone cannot be regarded as sufficient, because that consistory is interested in the case, and may easily be biased. Hence, the judgment of a neighboring, disinterested, unbiased consistory is required to depose an elder or deacon.
Technicalities, therefore, are extremely important, and no individual or assembly should be permitted to violate them. And wherever they were violated, the error should be rectified, and the case should be retried according to the proper method.