8 Unusual Difficulties
In the maintenance of good order, and the administration of equitable discipline in a Church, there will at times arise cases of unusual difficulty; cases which require more than ordinary wisdom and prudence to manage justly, not to say satisfactorily; not so much, perhaps, because of the gravity of the offense, as because of the persistency of those concerned, the complications which arise in the progress of the case, the party spirit which may be engendered, and possibly, worst of all, the mistakes which the Church itself may make in the treatment of the matter. These mistakes thus give the culpable parties occasion to complain at the course pursued, even when they would not have condemned the final issue itself.
I. A Divided Church.
It is probably safe to say that two-thirds of such vexatious cases grow out of misjudged or mismanaged discipline. A wiser course pursued would, in most instances, have reached a just and a peaceful termination. But prejudice, self-will, and heated passion, make partisans contend for the mastery, and rend the body of Christ. Our churches do not have too much discipline—indeed, they have too little—but it is often so unwisely administered as to produce more evil by the method than is removed by the act. It may be too much influenced by personal animosities, by a party spirit engendered, or by ignorance of the principles according to which all true discipline should be exercised.
Such proceedings, even when instigated by sufficient provocation, may degenerate into a mere party or personal conflict for supremacy, in which leading members and related families become identified, and the pastor himself, possibly, involved. Alienations are produced, bitter feelings engendered, and discord rends the Church. The example becomes a reproach, bad men rejoice, and the good are grieved. Injustice has most likely been done to some one, if not by the final act, yet by some of the passionate and ill-advised proceedings leading to it. Unable to harmonize their difficulties, advice from outside is sought, a Council is called to extricate them from the difficulty. Each party of course believes itself to be right, and as firmly holds the other to be wrong.
All that a Council can do is to hear patiently the statements of all parties, corroborate, or disprove confused assertions, so far as possible, by collateral testimony; sift the mass of excited personalities from the vital facts and the underlying principles involved; make a careful digest of the substance of the case, what and where they judge the mistakes and the wrong to be, and advise what course they think the parties concerned should pursue. The Council has, of course, no power to enforce its decisions, to impose penalties, or to compel the performance of its recommendations. But if the advice is carefully and kindly given, and seems reasonable and wise in itself, public sentiment will sustain it, and bear with a heavy moral force against those who reject it.
One very common and very serious difficulty is, that Councils, when called for such purposes, do not usually take sufficient time to thoroughly understand the case, and to put in proper form their findings. The members have little time to devote to other people’s troubles, and but little patience to unravel the confused tangle of personal contentions which have run through months and years of conflict. Hence they are likely to hurry through the examination, make a hasty and not too well considered report, dismiss the case, and return to their homes. The report, which was kindly meant to be equitable to all parties, very likely will not be acceptable to any, and the conflict will continue.
True, a similar fruitless issue may follow the most patient and considerate action, owing to the perversity of the contestants; yet a Council, when called for advice, should give all the time and care which the gravity of the case demands. If the party squabbles of misguided good men and women do not deserve so much, yet the peace of the Church, the cultivation of Christian virtue, and the honor of the Christian name, are worthy of such labor for their maintenance.
The Order of Proceedings.
When such difficult cases are to be investigated by the aid of a Council, the order of proceedings would be substantially as follows:
1. The Council is to be organized the same as for other purposes by the election of a moderator and clerk; by prayer for divine guidance and a right spirit; by the preparation of a list of messengers, showing how many messengers are present, and from how many and what churches they come; and then by a distinct statement of the object for which they are convened. This statement may be made by the moderator or by those who have called the Council. Usually it is enough to read a copy of the letter missive, which should set forth the object of the call. This object must be kept in view, and not departed from during the proceedings. No foreign or extraneous matters should be admitted; nothing beyond what may be presented as evidence or for the elucidation of the main question. Of the relevancy of such matter the moderator must judge; and if his decisions be doubted, the Council must decide by a vote.
2. Those who have called the Council will then present their case as they wish it to stand before the body. In doing this they will pursue their own course and make such a presentation as they choose, embracing statements, documentary evidence, and the testimony of witnesses. In doing which they should not be interrupted, except that questions may be asked for explanation of matters not understood.
3. If it be a mutual Council the party which considers itself aggrieved and seeks redress, will present its case first; a full statement of all the facts bearing on it, with the testimony of witnesses if desired, and documentary evidence.
4. Following such a presentation, the other party will make their statements with such collateral evidence as they desire to offer, and with such reply to the other side as they may wish to give.
5. To this, a rejoinder of the first party may be made, with explanations, refutations, and new evidence, if any be had. And to this a rejoinder by the second party is allowed.
6. If it be an ex parte Council, in which no second party appears, there will of course be no rejoinders, but the chairman or members will ask such questions as may elicit the fullest information, and present the whole case clearly to the minds of the members of the body.
7. The discussion should close when the Council is satisfied that all the facts, in their proper relations are before them, so that they fully understand the case on which they are to express an opinion.
8. No discussion, crimination, or contradiction between the parties themselves should be permitted. No other interruption than asking or answering questions for information should be allowed by the moderator; otherwise irritation will be increased rather than allayed. The moderator should protect all parties in the exercise of their rights, that the simple truth may be reached.
9. It would not be in accordance with usage, nor consistent with the principles on which such references proceed, for parties in difficulty to procure the services of lawyers, the more skillfully to present and defend their course. It is not a contest before a civil tribunal for a judgment, but a confidential reference to brethren for advice. There could, however, be no objection, if parties deemed themselves unable to do themselves justice in the presentation of their case, to have some member of the Council act for them in the matter. Or, did the Council agree and no party to the difficulty object, have some brother outside, whether layman, lawyer, or minister, perform this service. No person, however, outside the Council and the parties in dispute, could have any right to appear before the body in advocacy. If they so appear at all it would be only by permission of the Council and of the parties calling it.
10. As the single object in statement and discussion should be the attainment of truth, by the ascertainment of facts, therefore the technicalities of legal proceedings in secular courts need not be regarded, but parliamentary rules should be observed, and good order strictly maintained through all the proceedings.
11. When all the evidence is in, and all the facts are supposed to be understood, it is voted that the case be closed, the parties retire—spectators too, if such be present—and the Council goes into private session for deliberation. Or the Council itself may retire to some convenient place for deliberation, all others remaining if they so desire.
12. In private session there is a free and full discussion of the subject; perhaps the moderator sums up the case by presenting in condensed form the various points which constitute its substance. If there be any forgetfulness of facts, the parties can be recalled to repeat their statements. Then a committee may be appointed to embody the results of their deliberations in certain resolutions. This expression of opinion is sometimes called the findings of the Council, and is twofold, as containing: I. The substance or result of the investigation as they understand it; 2. The opinion expressed as to the merits of the case, embracing the advice given to the parties asking counsel.
13. It would seem proper that in making up these findings, no statement or resolution should be adopted except by a unanimous vote, though of course a majority vote would carry any question.
14. When the work is completed the parties are called in and the moderator announces the result by reading the statement. This statement, when once made on the basis of facts as presented, is understood not to be subject to revision or change. And yet it is supposable that a case might occur where facts or evidence had clearly been misapprehended, and the findings might and should, by unanimous consent, be modified accordingly. But this could not be done after the Council had finally adjourned. A Council ceases to exist on final adjournment.
15. It is usual to give the parties calling a Council authenticated copies of the proceedings and the results reached; and also, if desired, to order their publication.
16. If the proceedings be in the nature of a trial of some person or party before the Council, who may be called on to answer to an accusation, or to refute charges made, then the accused, as in all other cases of trial, must have copies of all charges, with specifications, including times and places and names of witnesses, served on him sufficiently long before the trial to allow him full opportunity for preparation to answer for and defend himself before the body.
The foregoing statements cover the ground for the treatment of difficult cases of discipline in all ordinary circumstances where outside help becomes needful. Extraordinary cases develop peculiar features, which must be judged by general principles and the good sense of advisers called to consult. It must be presumed that those called upon for advice, whether Council or Reference, are impartially disposed to ascertain the facts, and to act in kindness and equity toward all concerned.
II. An Excluded Member.
Another frequent occasion for dissension and strife in the churches, leading to protracted conflict, and, most likely, to the calling of a Council, is that of excluded members. Such disfellowshipped members very commonly, and perhaps very naturally, believe themselves to have been unfairly dealt with, and unjustly excluded. This feeling is the more likely to be entertained if they have occupied a prominent position in the Church, and if the disciplinary course, which finally led to exclusion, was protracted and exciting. Then it is likely to be regarded as the act of a hostile party, and not of the Church, as such—the result of passion, and not an act of justice.
Now, while the presumption is, that in such cases the Church was right in its action, and the individual was justly disfellowshipped, the fact may be, and sometimes evidently is, that the action of the Church has been ill-judged and unjust, and the individual has good cause for complaint. This is most likely to occur where the exclusion is the issue of a protracted dissension between contending factions, maintained by headstrong leaders and partisan adherents. Moreover, it is sometimes true that, while the individual justly deserved discipline, and possibly exclusion even, on the merits of his case, yet the manner in which the case was managed, and the method by which the result was reached, were improper, ill-considered, and unjust to him.
For these reasons, if for no others, an excluded member has a right at least to lay his grievance before a Council, and ask such relief as their opinion and advice may afford. If it were not so, and if, as some have absurdly claimed, an excluded person should not be allowed the right of calling a Council, then such prohibition must be urged on the ground either that the Church could do no wrong, or else that an excluded member should have no redress for wrongs inflicted by unjust Church action; both of which suppositions are monstrous.
Church independency and personal liberty are both to be conceded and defended. If any man believes himself to have been wronged, he has the inalienable and unquestioned right to lay his grievances before any man or any number of men, and ask their opinion and advice. When a Church has excluded a member, their connection with him and control over him ceases. They have no further right to say what he shall or shall not do, nor what others shall or shall not do respecting him. And for churches or ministers to enter into a compact, formal or implied, that, because he is an excluded man, they will not even hear his statement, nor give advice, would be the most intolerable religious tyranny—especially for liberty loving Baptists. Such a proscription would approach the anathema of papal excommunication.
A Church may exscind a member judged unworthy of further fellowship, after due process of disciplinary law; but having cut him off, they cannot continue to hold the rod in terror over him, and bar him from the counsel, and even from the sympathy of others, simply on the ground of their action. And they ought to be ashamed of themselves if in any wise they attempt to follow him with maledictions after they have cast him out.
While, therefore, the presumption is, that the action of the Church in his exclusion has been just and right, the possibility is that it may have been unjust and oppressive. And such a possibility entitles the individual to a hearing before unprejudiced brethren, should he so desire—not being able to find relief in any other way.
What Causes Invalidate Church Action?
Since a Church may err, and invalidate its action of exclusion by irregular and unjust methods of procedure in discipline, as well as for insufficient cause in exclusion; we may inquire, what are the more common mistakes in processes of discipline, which would invalidate such action and give a member, thus disfellowshipped, good reason to complain of injustice done to himself?
1. He might complain that his exclusion was for insufficient cause, even though the proceedings in the case were orderly and fair. The Church, of course, would hold a different opinion; therefore, those who undertook to advise him would need to know the facts as the Church understood them, in order to advise discreetly.
2. It might be claimed that no first steps had been taken by those whom he had offended, in case his offense was a personal one. No matter of personal difficulty should be brought before the Church until the aggrieved member, who brings the charge, shall first have faithfully pursued the course prescribed by our Saviour in the eighteenth of Matthew. Whoever fails to follow this direction, makes himself an offender and subject to discipline for so doing.
3. The Church may have acted on his case without having furnished him with a copy of the charges or having allowed him opportunity to hear the witnesses against him, or sufficient opportunity to defend himself. All this would be unfair.
4. Final action on his case may have been taken on some unusual occasion, at some other than the proper meeting for hearing such cases, and without due notice to him that his case would be then acted on and decided.
5. There may have been refusal or failure to give full opportunity for defense before the Church, as a body, rather than before the officers or some committee, privately. It is the right of each member, when accused, to defend himself in the presence of the whole Church before he is condemned by it.
Other irregularities might occur, but the above named are such as are most likely to take place.
What Course Shall He Pursue?
It would be a piece of very great folly for every excluded member, exasperated at what he thinks unfair treatment, to undertake immediately to precipitate a Council in the hope that they will right his wrongs, and antagonize the Church on his behalf. There are certain preliminary steps which good order requires him to take to justify the calling of a Council for his relief.
What Are These Preliminary Steps?
1. He should, after a little time, and when the heat of excitement has died down, make an appeal to the Church for a rehearing of his case. In doing this he should give his reasons for claiming that he did not have a fair trial, and that he was unjustly judged. If a new hearing should be granted, with the opportunities he claims, then he must submit to the results. If the new hearing should be granted, but with similar irregularities as at first, then he is left in the same attitude as at the end of the first trial. If a re-hearing be refused, then :
2. He should request them to unite with him in calling a mutual Council to which the case may be submitted. If this request be granted, he will have the selection of one-half of the Council. Whatever the result of such a reference may be, it would be unwise for him to prosecute the matter any further. At any rate, the action of a Council so convened must be very extraordinary to justify him in any further attempts at self-vindication. If this request for a mutual Council be declined by the Church, then :
3. He might present himself to some other Church and request to be received to its fellowship on his experience, as an excluded member, giving them all the facts. The Church thus appealed to might think it wise to call a Council to advise them as to the propriety of receiving a member excluded from a sister Church. Should they, however, see fit to receive him—as they would have an undoubted right to do without a Council—that would dispose of the case, giving him Church standing and fellowship again, and he would have no occasion to pursue the matter further. And should this be done, the Church which excluded him could have no just ground for complaint. One Church has the same right to take a man in as another has to put him out. But should the Church appealed to, for any reason, decline to receive him or to call a Council, then
4. He might with propriety—and it would be his undoubted right to do so, as the only further step toward redress — call an ex parte Council, before which the whole case could be laid; both as to his trial and exclusion and as to his subsequent efforts for reconciliation. Of course he should be ready to place before the Council, when convened, all the facts and evidence needed to justify his course in having called them together.
5. Any one thus calling a Council should have a clear and definite idea of what it can and what it cannot do. Otherwise he may be much disappointed in the result. He must not expect a Council to right all his wrongs, fancied or real, to redress all his grievances, or to punish the Church for what he believes, or even they may think, misjudged and unjust action in his case. The functions of a Council not being judicial, but advisory only, they can, at most, only express an opinion on the merits of the case, and give him advice. Even the expression of an opinion on the merits of the case they may withhold, but some advice they are bound to give; it was for that purpose they were called, and accepted the invitation to sit as counselors. The moral effect of their opinion and advice constitutes the only vindication or condemnation they have the power to pronounce.
III. An Accused Minister
One of the most grave and difficult cases of discipline which is likely to arise to vex, and possibly to divide a Church, is that of a minister who has lost public confidence, and who, by unchristian or unministerial conduct, is believed to be unfit to discharge the functions of, or to remain in, the sacred office.
No case occurs where churches more need the wise and prudent advice of others, or where a Council finds a more legitimate field for its friendly offices than this.
Great caution should be exercised, even in giving heed to unfavorable reports against a minister of the gospel. Christ’s anointed ones should not be touched with unholy hands. The Apostle wisely decreed that, “Against an elder, receive not an accusation except at the mouth of two or three witnesses.”—1 Tim. 5:19. Charges which implicate their moral or ministerial character should not be entertained, only on very strong evidence. Their position is a very delicate one. Called by professional duties into almost all sorts of company, and placed in well-nigh all kinds of positions, evil-minded persons can, if disposed, excite suspicions against them on the most trivial occasions. They themselves are bound to exercise perpetual vigilance and care, while their reputation and good character, on which their comfort and usefulness so much depend, should be sacredly guarded and defended. But their sins should not be covered when they deserve exposure, nor should they escape discipline when they merit it.
Such cases are important and difficult, because: First—Of the high position and wide influence of a minister, and the fact that he stands before the public as an example of godliness, a religious teacher and leader of the people. If he proves himself an unworthy man his case becomes more a reproach and scandal to religion, and more an obstacle to the progress of truth than if he were a private member of the Church. The purity of the ministerial character and the honor of the Christian profession must be vindicated.
Second—A minister’s character and good name must be held sacredly and dealt with tenderly, since they are his richest possessions, and usually all he has as a means of usefulness, for the maintenance of a respectable position in society, or the continued support of himself and family with the ordinary comforts of life. When these are gone, all of worldly worth is gone. They must not be trifled with.
Facts to be Kept in Mind.
In dealing with such a case, therefore, unusual caution should be exercised; and there are few churches so strong, so wise, so well-balanced and self-contained that it would be prudent to proceed to extremities without calling a Council, or in some way securing outside aid and advice.
In the calling of such a Council the following facts are to be kept in mind:
1. As in all other cases, it must be accepted that Baptist Councils are advisory only, and never authoritative. They are called to give advice to those who have called them—advice based on their knowledge of the merits of the case, after having carefully examined it.
2. Neither ministers nor others can organize themselves into a Council, nor can they, self-moved and unasked, call one for the trial of a minister whose presence may be unwelcome to them, and in whose character they may have no confidence. Such cases have occurred; but such an act is a gross outrage on personal rights and Church independency, as well as a violation of Baptist polity, by an unlawful assumption of authority.
3. A Council called to advise in matters relating to the trial of an accused minister can only be called by a Church; and by that Church of which such minister is a member. Any other Church could call a Council to advise them what course they ought to take in respect to the fellowship of a Church which persisted in sustaining a pastor whom they believed unworthy. A party in a Church—even a very small party—might call a Council to advise them as to their duty, if their Church were sustaining a minister in whom they had no confidence; but in neither of these cases could a Council try or pronounce judgment on the character of the man himself. They were not convened for that purpose. They could only advise those who called them, as to their duty in the premises.
4. A Council, having no ecclesiastical authority, cannot be called to try, and, if found guilty, to depose a minister. Judicial acts belong to a Church, and not to a Council; nor can a Church transfer its authority for the exercise of judicial functions to any other body. A Council, in order to express an opinion and give advice, is asked to examine all the facts, consider all the circumstances, sift and weigh the evidence on all sides, the accused having full opportunity to defend himself. In a modified, but not in a judicial sense, it may be called a trial of the accused: because it is a search for the merits of the case, by an investigation of all the facts, and a sifting of all the evidence.
5. The minister on whose case his Church may call a Council, is not obliged, and cannot be compelled, to appear before such a Council, or in any way submit his case to them. He is amenable to the Church alone. But it is his right to appear before them, have copies of all charges, hear all testimony, examine witnesses, and answer for himself. And usually it is better for him to take this course than to stand upon his reserved rights, and treat a Council with disregard. The presumption is, that a company of Christian men will judge impartially on the evidence placed before them. And though this presumption may not always be justified, it is better for one to meet all charges frankly, and all accusers face to face, than to seem to evade an investigation of matters laid against him.
6. There is no absolute necessity inherent in the case itself, for the calling of a Council in the discipline or trial of a minister. If done at all, it is done for expediency, and not from necessity; for order and safety, and not for authority. But because many churches are weak as to numbers, and inexperienced in the treatment of difficult matters, because, in serious and complicated disciplinary proceedings, there is likely to be much irritation and impetuosity, when even good men are too much influenced by party zeal and prejudice—therefore it is wise to call in the experienced, prudent and impartial, for advice. Such advice will invest the church’s final action with weight, and give the public greater assurance of its equity and justice.
7. In most cases of the kind, where a Council is resorted to, it is best to make it a mutual Council, by agreement between the Church and the accused. He would then have the privilege of selecting onehalf the members. If this be not done, and the result be unfavorable to him, he will be almost sure, with the advice of friends—for he will have friends—to call another to counteract the influence of the first, and to place his case in a more favorable light before the public.
8. After the investigation has closed, and the Council rendered its opinion and advice, the Church will take such action as, in view of all the facts, may be deemed wise and right. They are not obliged to follow the advice given. The Council has no power to enforce its recommendations, and should have no desire to do it. The responsibility of the final action lies with the Church. But the advice given would naturally constitute an important factor in their final decision. It would require very weighty reasons to justify a Church in disregarding the judgment and advice of a Council of its own selection. Such a case would seldom occur.
The Church’s Final Action.
9. The final action of a Church, as to an accused minister, may take any one of the following forms:
a. That of an acquittal; where no fault worthy of further consideration was proven against him; the charges were not sustained, and he is pronounced innocent.
b. That of admonition; indiscretions which caused reproach and hindered his usefulness, having been shown; suspicions being excited, the enemies of religion had occasion to magnify his faults to the injury of the cause of truth. To caution and admonish him to greater circumspection may be all which the case requires.
c. That of a withdrawal of fellowship from him as a minister of the Gospel, with a declaration, that in their opinion he is unworthy of, and unfit to continue in, the ministerial office. This may be done, and the man still be retained in the fellowship of the Church as a private member. There may be faults which would disqualify him for the exercise of a public ministry, which might not unfit him for private membership. Such an act of disfellowship as a minister, would virtually be an act of deposition from the sacred office, so far as any act of Church or Council could depose him.
d. That of the withdrawal of fellowship from him as a Church member; thus excluding him from the body. This, accompanied with a declaration of his unworthiness as a minister of the Gospel, constitutes the final and utmost act of the Church’s disciplinary power, in such a case. They can do no more. This puts him out, and deposes him from the ministry, so far as any human power can depose him. It also clears the Church from any further responsibility as to his character or conduct. His disfellowship as a member adds emphasis to his disfellowship as a minister.
To the above-named acts a Council may advise; but the acts themselves, to be valid and of any force, must be the acts of the Church and not of the Council. It would be an impertinent assumption for a Council to attempt such an exercise of ecclesiastical authority.
Shall Another Council Follow?
10. If the final action of the Church—based on the advice of a Council—be unfavorable to the minister on trial, and result in his degradation, or exclusion, he will very likely think that still greater injustice has been done him, and seek relief by calling another Council. If the former was a mutual Council, in the calling of which he had part, and to which he consented to commit the case, it would be extremely unwise for him to prosecute the matter further—except, indeed, in very extraordinary circumstances. If the former were an exparte Council, called by the Church without his concurrence, there would be more occasion for him to call another, especially if so advised by wise and prudent friends. It certainly would be his right to do so, should he be further disposed. But the fewer Councils the better. It is quite as well to suffer for want of them as to suffer by means of them.
Should he decide to call another, three rules should be observed in reference to it:
a. He should invite the Church to unite with him, and make it a mutual Council, in whose judgment all parties might acquiesce. Nor should he hesitate to do this, because the Church had hitherto refused similar requests from him. To repeat the request would put his case in a better attitude before those who might be called to consider it.
b. Have the Council larger than the previous one, and, if possible, more marked for wisdom and experience. Some would advise that such a Council should be composed of new men entirely, since those on the previous Council had already judged the case, and could hardly re-judge it with impartiality. Others would advise that it be composed largely of the same members, with such additions as might counteract any local or personal prejudice that might previously have existed. And this would seem a wise course.
c. Such new Council, when convened, should confine its action strictly to the object for which it was called. It should not attempt to traverse the action, either of the Church, or of the previous Council, and should consider them only so far as to obtain information, in order that they may justly and wisely form an opinion and impart advice.
By such a course the action of councils will, so far as practicable, prove conservative and salutary, vindicating the right, and giving furtherance to equity and truth.
Note 1.—A Council possessing no ecclesiastical authority can neither make nor unmake a minister. No Council, therefore, can put a man out of the ministry. All it can do, is, to declare him, in their opinion, unfit for, and disqualified to remain in, the ministry, and that they cannot fellowship him as a minister; and they can add the advice, that the Church exclude and depose him.
Note 2.—Though all ecclesiastical authority resides in a Church, yet a Church cannot, in any absolute sense, depose, and put a man out of the ministry, except so far as that ministry relates to themselves. They can depose him from being their minister, and declare him, in their opinion, unworthy to fill the sacred office. But any other Church can have him for their minister, if they so desire, since each Church is entirely independent as to the choice of its pastor and the management of its internal affairs.
Note 3.—Such action, however, on the part of councils and of churches, though having no power to compel silence, or to enforce penalties, substantially effects the same end, through the force of public sentiment. This will, sooner or later, lead an unworthy man to retire from the ministerial calling.
Note 4.—A Church might declare a man unfit for the ministry, and depose him from the office, and yet retain him in its fellowship as a private member. His ministerial rather than his Christian character being involved in the discipline.
Note 5.—If a minister be excluded from the fellowship of a Church, such exclusion is equivalent to a deposition, so far as Church action can effect a deposition. For if he be not worthy of Church fellowship, he surely is not worthy to hold the office and discharge the functions of a Gospel minister.
Edward Hiscox (1814-1901) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was converted to Christ in 1834 and began to preach the gospel four years later. He is best known for authoring the “Standard Manual for Baptist Churches” (1890) and the “New Directory for Baptist Churches” (1894).