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Studies & Actions of the General Assembly of
The Presbyterian Church in America

24th General Assembly, 1996, 24-17, pages 115 - 126.

by T. David Gordon

Some of the very best shepherds I have ever known, in terms of pastoral ability, are simultaneously some of the worst judges (in the Church courts). Most of the literature designed to assist elders in fulfilling their duties (what little there is) focuses more on the pastoral than the judicial dimension of the office. What is here written is intended primarily for the benefit of elders and elder-candidates. The references to the constitution are references to the Presbyterian Church in America (and thus the subtitle's reference to "elders in the PCA"). It is hoped that the views here proposed would be of similar usefulness, however, to elders in other Presbyterian and Reformed communions.

Two Hats
The sometimes-forgotten reality of life as a Presbyterian elder is that the elder wears two hats. Most of the time, the elder is a shepherd, and wears a shepherd's hat. In this role, the elder encourages, instructs, prays for and with the people, looks out for signs of spiritual decay, etc. However, elders are also judges, with the obligation to render a judgment of innocence or guilt. In the first role, compassion and sympathy are among the primary skills for an effective elder. The elder must identify with the people, in all their trials and struggles, in order to shepherd them well. In the second role, however, the elder must establish a certain amount of distance between himself and others, in order to maintain that impartiality which is essential to justice. For most elders, this is profoundly difficult to do; it is counter-intuitive, running contrary to all that is normally done in the shepherding role. Nonetheless, it is critical to effective judgment.
God, who is the only perfect Judge, is "no respecter of persons." When the wealthy are wicked, God judges them to be so; when the poor are wicked, he judges them similarly. When the "friends" of God sin, God recognizes them to have sinned, and when the "enemies" of God do right, he recognizes this as well. Because he is holy, God is preeminently concerned with what is righteous and what is not; he is not blinded by issues of personal friendship or loyalty, nor by concerns about who will like him or not if he rules one way or another. Interestingly, God is a perfect Shepherd and a perfect Judge; in the perfection of his character, these two roles do not compete at all, but exist in perfect harmony. For us sinful creatures, however, this symmetry is a good deal harder to achieve.
I candidly admit that I enjoy wearing the shepherd's hat more than I enjoy wearing the judge's hat. I would rather sit by a hospital bed, holding the hand of a dying saint (or loved-one of a saint) than I would sit in the seat of judgment. I would rather teach and preach about how we ought to follow the law of God than sit in judgment when an allegation has been made that someone has broken the law of God. I suspect most officers in the Church are similar to me in this regard. Nonetheless, although most of us prefer to wear the one hat over the other, our ordination vows require us to be willing to wear both, and we must fulfill our vows by wearing either as occasion requires, and by wearing either of them well, and in a God-honoring fashion.

Judges, Not Jurors
Every civil lawyer knows that if you have a strong case, you wish to have it heard by a judge, and if you have a weak case, you wish to have it heard by a jury. Why is this so? Because judges know the law and know it well, and they are not likely to be tricked by emotional appeals or special pleading. By contrast, most people who sit on juries do not know the law, and are thus more likely to render a judgment based on subjective reasons. In the American system of justice, jurists play a significant, though, in my judgment, largely unproductive, role. The purpose of a system of justice is to penalize the wicked and exonerate the righteous; biblically, the judge is supposed to be a "terror" to wicked conduct. Built into the American system of justice, however, is a softening of this terror, by the intrusion of jurists, unknowledgeable in law, but profoundly susceptible to human feelings of sympathy. We say that we would rather let a hundred guilty people go free than punish a single innocent person, and we have therefore designed a system of justice which functions in such a fashion. God, by contrast, will "by no means clear the guilty," and his system of justice has a different set of priorities than the American civil system of justice (e.g., Prov. 17:15 -- "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord").
My purpose here is not to condemn the American system of justice (though aspects of it ought to be condemned; it is, biblically speaking, a very imperfect system); rather, my purpose is to use it as an illustration of what often perverts ecclesiastical justice. Should elders who sit in judgment be judges or jurists? Of course, the answer is plain: "When the trial is about to begin, it shall be the duty of the moderator solemnly . . . to enjoin on the members to recollect and regard their high character as judges of a court of Jesus Christ, and the solemn duty in which they are about to engage" (BCO 32-12). A judge is someone who knows the law, and how it applies to particular circumstances. That is, even as God is no "respecter of persons" as the ideal Judge, so also we should be when sitting in judicial proceedings. We should be absolutely impervious to personal appeals, and only moved by arguments and evidence that relate to the law of the Church, and potential breaches thereof. We should exercise great diligence not to be influenced by matters of style or personality ("he seems like such a nice person"). We should similarly resist the temptation to judge motives, since only God "knows the heart" and since it is not a person's (or court's) motives which are on trial, but some actual behavior or action.

The Mandate
The shepherding responsibility of elders is routinely acknowledged, and widely embraced by elders, who know that they must watch over the flock as those who must give an account (Heb. 13:17). Fewer elders seem aware that they have a biblical responsibility to serve as judges.

Matthew 18:15-20
In this well-known passage, disputes about sin among Jesus's disciples are to be resolved, whenever possible, privately ("when the two of you are alone," v. 15). If such a private meeting fails to produce reconciliation, two or three witnesses should be taken, and if this fails, we are exhorted to "tell it to the Church" (v. 17).
The word translated "Church" here and elsewhere means "assembly," and could either be a reference to the assembly of the entire covenant community or to the assembly of its rulers. OT examples of its use to describe the assembly of the governors would include 1 Chron. 13:1-2 and 2 Chron. 1:2-3, where the term is used as the description of the "commanders of thousands and of hundreds, with every leader." In secular Greek, the term was used similarly, in Plato's Republic, Bk. 3, ch. 11: "For the assembly has government of all such things." This usage is also observed in Acts 19:32, 39: "Now some cried one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. . . the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly." [39]
Thus, it is the assembly of the governors of the covenant community that is referred to, not the congregation itself, in verse 17. [40] This governing assembly has the responsibility to "bind and loose," to determine whether the individual in question is to be treated as "a Gentile and a tax collector." Those elected to govern God's people are responsible to settle questions of allegations of sin.

1 Corinthians 5-6
In this passage, Paul expresses his dismay that the Corinthians have tolerated a profound immorality to exist among the saints, even such an immorality as would shame the pagans (5:1). He places upon them the responsibility of removing the individual from their assembly, reminding them that it is their responsibility to judge those "who are inside." In chapter six, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for finding it necessary to take their grievances before the unbelievers: "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? . . . Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one brother and another?"
While Paul does not expressly refer the responsibility of judgment here to the ruling elders, his comments are germane anyway. If it is deplorable for the saints in general to be unable to settle such disputes, how much more deplorable is it for those who govern the saints to be unable to settle them? How can elders be an example to the flock, if they are unable to settle such matters? What is undisputed in this passage is that Paul considers it to be an ecclesiastical responsibility to settle matters of morals and disputes in the Church. If the elders have final responsibility for all matters in the life of the Church, then they certainly are responsible for this as well.

The Skills Necessary

Ability to Discern Facts
Often, a matter for judges to deal with involves disputed or confused facts. Before the law of the Church can be applied to such situations, the facts must be uncovered, as best as one is able. In a case involving a moral or heresy charge, it is the duty of the prosecutor to present to the court sufficient evidence (and, for our purposes, testimony is part of such evidence) of the facts for the court to render a decision that the alleged offender is guilty. Similarly, it is the duty of the accused (or his counsel) to present to the court evidence demonstrating the contrary. In complaints against Church courts, the duty of the complainant is to present evidence of the facts (ordinarily, from the minutes of the meeting at which the alleged error occurs). The presumption of the court should be that the court complained against has acted correctly, and that complainant is obliged to prove the contrary, by providing evidence of delinquency.
The duty of the court, then, is to evaluate the evidence presented, part of which evaluation consists of asking questions of the parties for clarification. Ordinarily, no question should be asked of one party without asking the same question of the other party. Knowing that the parties disagree, it is inadequate to attempt to establish a fact by asking only one party to the dispute. It is wise, then, for those sitting on courts to write down the questions they wish to ask, to be sure they remember to direct such questions to both parties.
This duty of evaluating the evidence presented, however, is not to be misunderstood. The court is under no obligation to be Sherlock Holmes, nor is it (by any means) obliged to be Sigmund Freud. It is under no duty to attempt to uncover new evidence which the parties to the case have not presented, nor is it under a duty to attempt to scrutinize the motivations of the parties, since such motivations are only known truly by God, and since such motivations are not on trial. If evidence is not present in the record of the case, it should not be considered (because the parties have developed their arguments in terms of such). Similarly, testimony or argumentation should ordinarily be found in the briefs presented by the parties. [41]

Knowledge of the Constitution
The one preeminent ability which qualifies a man to rule well in God's house is his ability to apply the law of that house impartially. It should be self-evident, then, that knowledge of that law is indispensable to fulfilling the judicial responsibility. Imagine what we would think of a judge in a civil court who had no functional knowledge of the law. How could a person without functional knowledge of the law possibly judge whether another had kept or broken the law? So also in ecclesiastical courts, the judge is not to judge what he thinks of the parties involved, but what the law of the Church thinks of the parties involved. The issue is not whether the parties have conformed to the judge's wishes; but whether they have conformed to the wishes of the Church, expressed in the Church's law.

Knowledge of the Constitution as important (for judges) as knowledge of the Bible
I mentioned earlier that most of us are more comfortable with the shepherd's hat than the judge's hat. This is one of the clearest places where that reality is manifested. No elder resents studying the Bible or learning about the Bible, but many elders resent being told that they must learn the Constitution (The Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order). In our shepherding role, the Bible is always more authoritative than the Constitution (though sometimes the answers to the catechism questions are profoundly helpful to us in our shepherding duties). In our judicial role, however, functional knowledge of the Constitution is an absolutely indispensable prerequisite, for the following three reasons.

The Constitution is our Church's Interpretation of the Bible
First, there are many interpretations of the Bible. Arminians, for instance, do not believe that God is sovereign in his calling people effectually to salvation. However, if a minister is on trial for allegedly teaching heresy in the Presbyterian Church in America, then it is the PCA's interpretation which is to govern the proceedings, not the interpretation of the Free-Will Baptists. When conducting a new members' class once, I was asked by a very perceptive individual what we meant by "to live as becometh the followers of Christ"? Did this mean that one would be potentially disciplined for everything that anyone in the Church did not like or approve? Of course not; the Larger Catechism's exposition of the Ten Commandments is our Church's interpretation of what it means to live "as becometh the followers of Christ."
If we officers have exceptions with the standards (I do), we must function as though we did not have them when we are sitting as judges. When people vow to submit to our Church courts, they have every right to assume that those who sit on those courts were telling the truth when they assumed their own ordination vows.
Imagine, as an illustration, someone driving on a clear day on dry pavement at 55 mph, to be pulled over by a police officer for speeding. The motorist explains that the conditions are excellent, and the posted speed limit is 55. Would it be just for the officer to say, "I know that, but I've always thought the speed limit on this road should be 35, so I'm fining you for going twenty mph too fast." The police officer has every right, as a citizen, to petition the county to change the posted speed limit. Until they change the posted limit, however, it is his duty, as an officer of the court, to enforce the existing law, whatever his personal opinions of that law may be. Similarly, in the ecclesiastical arena, elders are called to enforce a law with which they may not entirely agree. I, for instance, disagree with our BCO 25-12 (which permits congregations to withdraw from the PCA at any time, unilaterally, for any reason they deem sufficient). It is unique in the history of Presbyterianism, and, in my estimation, inconsistent with the Presbyterian principle of connectionalism. Nevertheless, it is my duty, whenever that provision of our Constitution is germane to a given circumstance, to enforce that particular law of our Church, even though I personally believe it is an erroneous law.
The Constitution, then, while not inspired, is the Church's interpretation of the Bible. When sitting as judges, then, representing the Church, it is the duty of elders to rule consistently with the Constitution of the Church, even if they respectfully disagree with it. The Constitution is the law which governs the Church in all its relations one to another, and it is the public standard which establishes our rightful expectations of one another. A judge has no right to ask an individual to defend the law; his duty is limited to asking the individual to defend his behavior as consistent with the law. [42]

The Constitution Speaks in Areas where the Bible is Silent
A second reason why it is so essential to have a functional knowledge of the Constitution of the Church is that the Constitution often speaks where the Bible is silent. For instance, the various procedural rules of the Book of Church Order, while "conformable" to Biblical polity, are not expressly stated in the Bible itself. For example, the BCO permits 30 days for an individual to file a complaint (43-1). The Bible does not address this matter at all. Fairness dictates that any party be granted the same amount of time, but only the Constitution informs the parties of how much time they may expect.

The Constitution is the Standard by which civil courts will judge us if called to do so

Functional knowledge of the Constitution is an indispensable prerequisite in our judicial role for a third reason. In our increasingly-litigious society, it becomes increasingly likely that Churches will have their proceedings reviewed by civil courts. The civil courts view the Constitution of a Church as a contract, and they view Church membership as an agreement to function within the bounds of that contract. Thus, when the Church's courts function within the bounds of the Constitution, they can reasonably expect to be exonerated by the civil courts, if called upon to give a defense. By contrast, if a Church court violates its own constitution, it can be assured that it will be found guilty in a civil court.

Knowledge of the Constitution need only be functional knowledge
Lest anyone be overwhelmed by the responsibility of knowing the Constitution, or lest any elder believe he is not up to the task, I would remind him that officers need have only a functional knowledge of the Constitution. That is, they need to know how to find what the Constitution says; they do not necessarily need to know it "backwards and forwards." Elders need not know the history of Presbyterian law in America; they need not be familiar with the various debates which led to the formation of the present Constitution; they need not be familiar with the commentaries on earlier Presbyterian Constitutions (e.g., Ramsay, Leslie, J. Aspinwall Hodge), nor even with the commentaries on our own constitution (such as the one published by Dr. Morton H. Smith). They need to know how to find the Book of Discipline within the Book of Church Order, and they need to know how to read the index. It might also be useful to the courts if there were a few individuals who knew how to use the indices to the Minutes of General Assembly, in order to research whether the General Assembly has ever rendered an opinion on any given matter of constitutional interpretation. A functional knowledge of the Constitution merely requires an ability to use an index.
Further, lest any elder think he must be a "lawyer" in order to be a sound elder, it should be recognized that the fundamental ability to interpret the Constitution well is the same ability necessary to interpret the Bible well. One must be able to read, and to make defensible contextual interpretations. If an elder cannot make a reasonable interpretation of the Book of Church Order, written in his own language and in his own generation (portions of it were indeed written several generations earlier), how can he be expected to make a reasonable interpretation of the Bible, written in foreign languages in ancient cultures? That is, when elders say they don't mind interpreting the Bible, but they don't feel "qualified" to interpret the BCO, we should respectfully remind them that the BCO is much easier to interpret than the Bible. The index is to the BCO what the concordance is to the Bible. Any man with the ability to use one should have the ability to use the other. Judges must interpret laws, and they must apply those laws to particular cases.

The Importance of Procedural Justice
One of the most commonly-heard complaints elders register when functioning as judges is the objection that some people seem so insistent on following all of the "jots and tittles" of the Book of Church Order (or of Robert's Rules, for that matter). All of us sympathize with this complaint, to a degree. It is often frustrating to find that our progress toward a decision is slowed down by being sure that we have satisfied all of the demands of the Constitution. However, justice demands that we do this. The Constitution of the Church is a body of laws which the Church has adopted to govern itself. Submission to the Church (vowed at ordination) requires a practical willingness to govern ourselves by the Church's expressed law. Further, fairness requires that these rules be followed, even when we do not see the wisdom of particular rules in question. To illustrate this, suppose someone challenged the wisdom of getting $200 for passing "Go" when playing Monopoly. A case could probably be made for getting $100 or $300, but it would not be fair for that rule-change to be made in the middle of the game, when an individual was about to pass "Go". Fairness requires that everyone play by the same rules, even if the game might be more entertaining if played by different rules. Whether you do or do not purchase "Boardwalk" is contingent on your assumption about how much money you are going to receive when you pass "Go." If you make that decision on the basis of the rules, and if the rules are then changed, you have been penalized and placed at a disadvantage. People have a right to expect that the rules will be followed until the end of the game.
The Presbyterian Church in America has procedures in place which permit us to alter our Constitution, if we deem it wise (BCO 26-2 and 26-3). However, these procedures do not include altering the Constitution "on the fly," as it were, in the middle of a judicial case. A case which begins under a particular set of rules should continue under those rules until the case is concluded. It is entirely irrelevant and improper to debate the merits of the Constitution in the midst of a trial. No party to a case should be required to defend or justify the Constitution; a party merely has the responsibility of demonstrating that his or her behavior has complied with the Constitution.

Procedural impartiality
Does this mean that the procedures of the Constitution can never be waived, under any circumstance? Not necessarily. If both parties to a case are willing to waive a particular procedural requirement, each agreeing that the waiver does not affect them in any prejudicial way, then this waiver can be entered into the record, and the case can proceed. On the other hand, if either party is unwilling to waive the procedure, then the procedure cannot be waived. Further, no party should be required to give a reason for why the waiver is refused. Each party is entitled to proceed under the direction of the Constitution, and no party should be required to offer any ground for insisting on their right to a Constitutional process.
Similarly, if a matter comes up which is not addressed by the Constitution at all (one of the parties makes a request not addressed anywhere in the Constitution), then again, fairness dictates that the other party be asked whether they will accede to the request. If the second party accedes, then both parties have indicated their willingness to proceed in this fashion. Otherwise, the request may not properly be granted. Nor may the second party be asked to give a reason for why he refuses to accede; each party has a right to assume that the case will proceed constitutionally. Each party's approach to preparation for the trial is based on this assumption, and therefore any violation or alteration of the procedure may prejudge the outcome in some unforeseen way. For this reason, the court must follow the Constitution in every way, unless both parties accede to waiving a requirement.

Relation of the Courts
BCO 11-3 says: "All Church courts are one in nature, constituted of the same elements, possessed inherently of the same kinds of rights and powers, and differing only as the Constitution may provide. When, however, according to Scriptural example, and needful to the purity and harmony of the whole Church, disputed matters of doctrine and order arising in the lower courts are referred to the higher courts for decision, such referral shall not be so exercised as to impinge upon the authority of the lower court." Note that there are not different powers given to different courts. Their powers are the same. Even the language of "higher" and "lower" courts is less than ideal, since it conveys to some people the idea that the respective powers of the courts is higher or lower. In fact, the courts are geographically broader and narrower, and their powers are the same. Thus, the "higher" (geographically broader) courts are not to act in a way that impinges upon the authority or power of the "lower" (geographically narrower) courts.
"Lower" courts are not to be perceived as bureaucracies or functionaries of the "higher" courts. They are courts themselves, with power to "resolve" matters brought before them (BCO 11-4). Something settled in the lower court is settled. It is regarded as settled and should be thought of as settled until and unless it is reversed by the "higher" court. [43] When a matter arises from a lower court to a higher court, then, the presumption is always in favor of the lower court. The burden of proof rests upon the individual complaining or appealing the action of the lower court.

Review, not retry
Closely related to this, then, is the recognition that the "higher" courts may very well review the actions of "lower" courts, but they do not ordinarily "retry" the same matters themselves. When a matter resolved at the Sessional level comes before Presbytery (or GA) by complaint or appeal, for instance, Presbytery does not simply re-hear the case from scratch, as though it had never been heard. Rather, Presbytery reviews the actions of the lower court to see if there is any manifest injustice therein. It must never assume that it is more competent than the lower court to decide the issue, since the members of the lower court are much more familiar with the events and persons involved than the members of the higher court could ever hope to be.
To illustrate this, suppose a Church-member has been found guilty of "lewd and lascivious" dancing by the Session of First Presbyterian Church. Presumably, the elders of that Church either witnessed the event, or were informed by witnesses thereof; presumably they knew well the moral character of those witnesses; presumably they knew the establishment wherein the alleged offense took place, and the reputation of what occurred there. None of these things could be known by Presbytery. Presbytery's review, therefore, should be fairly cautious and restricted, and should be limited to evidence of a serious breach of justice. If such serious breach of justice cannot be proven, Presbytery is obliged to sustain the judgment of the Session.
The burden of proof is thus always upon the individual who complains against or appeals the actions of a court of the Church. The higher court must assume, prima facie, that the members of the lower court, being officers of the Church, are men reputed for their wisdom, pastoral compassion, and good judgment. After all, they have been elected by their Churches, and this itself indicates that the people of God attest to their character and capacity. It is not enough for a complainant or appellant to say, "I don't like their decision;" it is necessary for a complainant or appellant to provide clear, convincing evidence of injustice on the part of the court. It is not the lower court which is on trial in such circumstances; it is the claim of the complainant or appellant that the lower court erred which is on trial. The point being made is not that the members of the lower court are to be presumed infallible, but that they are to be presumed to be better acquainted with the facts, circumstances, and personalities involved than the members of the higher court possibly can be; and they are to be presumed to be of high character and good judgment, since the Churches they serve have elected them to office. Thus, unless a complainant or appellant can produce compelling evidence of an injustice, it is the duty of the higher court to approve the actions of a lower court.
Sadly, those who sit on the "higher" courts often become confused about their role, and misperceive their responsibility as though it consisted of re-trying the case from scratch. Nor is this sad misunderstanding new. Thomas E. Peck noticed the same tendency more than a century ago, and warned of its danger, which we believe is real in our day as well:

They are the real enemies of the Assembly's authority who would make its power absolute. If the Assembly assumes the powers of the sessions, then one of two things will almost certainly occur: either the sessions will rebel, in defence of their constitutional powers; or, they will consent to become ciphers, and their work will not be done at all. It is as certain as anything can be that the Assembly cannot discharge the judicial functions of the session. Why, then, attempt them? [44]

The Issue is the Law, not the Parties
I suppose it should be evident to the reader that judges are responsible to rule and decide in terms of the law of the Church, not in terms of their perception of who are the "good guys" and/or the "bad guys." Sadly, experience teaches that again, shepherds are fairly astute at identifying the deceitfulness of the human heart, but they are less astute at judging matters of law. Regrettably, those who sit in judgment often expect or even encourage arguments related to the moral character of the parties in question. Such comments are almost never proper or germane (and a judicious moderator of a trial will rule them out of order, and not permit them).
If the issue involved is an individual's moral character, then, of course, some comments about moral character are germane. But even here, they are only germane in a relatively narrow arena. If an elder is on trial for adultery, it is irrelevant to ask whether he pays his taxes, gives money to the Church, etc. He is not on trial for these other matters; he is on trial for adultery. Similarly, if an individual complains against an action of one of the courts, the moral character of the complainant or of the court in question is irrelevant. The only relevant question is whether the court erred in the specific way that it has been alleged to have erred. Neither party should be obliged to prove its moral standing in any complaint. Since no one is permitted to complain who is not a member in good standing of the Church (BCO 43-1), it must be assumed that the person filing the complaint is already deemed by the court to be in good standing. And, since the court itself is constituted by those who have been deemed wise and exemplary, its moral character similarly is not at issue. If good people break some specific law of the Church, the Church's courts must render a judgment of guilt, if bad people keep some specific law of the Church, the Church's courts must render a judgment of innocence.
This is what the Bible teaches when God is spoken of as no "respecter of persons" (a wonderful translation of the more-contemporary "is not partial"). The point in these passages is that God's justice cannot be perverted by personal considerations. God is, in this sense, not a juror, but a judge. The issue for him is always whether his own inflexible, faultless standard has been violated or not; the issue is never whether other personal considerations can cause the demands of justice to be perverted. "For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing" (Deut. 10:17-18). Thus, when we exercise justice impartially, we are imitating God. "You shall not render an unjust judgment, you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor" (Lev. 19:15). "You must not be partial in judging; hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's." (Deut. 1:17). Biblically, justice is administered only when there is an entire disregard for the persons involved; whether they be small or great, rich or poor, strangers or friends.
Ironically, then, what is often the shepherd's greatest strength (an ability to "size people up" in terms of their moral or spiritual condition) is the judge's greatest weakness. To be genuinely useful as an elder, one must wear two hats, and develop two sets of skills. To be a good shepherd of souls, one must develop good instincts, and one must cultivate empathy and sympathy; in short, one must be a "people person." To be an administrator of justice, one must develop a capacity to put personal considerations aside, for the purposes of administering law impartially. Although this challenge may appear beyond the capacity of mere mortals, we must remember that though we are indeed mere creatures, we are creatures made in the image of our God, Who is Himself both a compassionate Shepherd and an impartial Judge.

[39] Those interested in historic Presbyterian arguments that ekklesia in Matthew 18 is such a judicial assembly will wish to consult Samuel Rutherford, Due Right of Presbyteries, London, 1644, 310-324; Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder, New York, 1832, 65-66; George Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming, London, 1646, 160-172; and Calvin's comments in his commentary on this passage of Matthew. The full range of interpretive options considered by commissioners to the Westminster Assembly is found in William M. Hetherington's History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, Edinburgh, 1843, rpt. 1991, pp. 200-249. [return to text]
[40] In Matthew 18:15-18, there are several lines of evidence which suggest that ekklesia is a reference to the governors of a judicial assembly.
A. "as a Gentile and tax collector" - This, from an OT perspective, is judicial language. A Gentile does not enjoy the legal protections and privileges in Israel which a Jew does.
B. Binding and loosing - This language of binding and loosing is judicial language. Note for instance, the same language in Mt. 16:19, where it is associated with the "keys of the kingdom."
C. "the mouth of two or three witnesses" - This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 19:15b, "only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained." The text is judicial; indeed two verses later we read, "then both parties are to appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently. . ."
D. "agree on earth about anything they ask . . ." The word translated "thing" in this text, "pragmatos", is often employed in legal/judicial contexts, to indicate a disputed matter, or even a lawsuit, as at 1 Cor. 6:1, "When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous. . . .?"
E. "gathered in my name. . . ." The almost identical expression, in 1 Cor. 5:4, is employed in a context which is evidently judicial, involving the handing of an individual over to Satan. [return to text]
[41] It is a curious and unfortunate reality in the PCA (as of Spring, 1993, anyway), that the Manual of the Standing Judicial Commission requires judges to have read the record of the case, but does not require them to have read the briefs of the parties. Both should be required. If a matter is complicated, or if it involves a subtle point of theology or ecclesiology, such a matter should be researched ahead of time, and this can only be done if the briefs of the parties are read with sufficient advance notice to alert the judges of the issues which they need to consider. [return to text]
[42] This reality is grounded in the foundational Presbyterian belief in the distinction between the "several" powers and "joint" powers of the officers of the Church. The first chapter of the Scottish Second Book of Discipline discussed this distinction, and the distinction (with updates for contemporary language) has been retained in Presbyterian constitutions since. It is found in the third chapter of the PCA Book of Church Order: "Ecclesiastical power, which is wholly spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction" (BCO 3-2, emphases mine). Sometimes officers in the church are "severed" from one another, acting individually; this is "several" power. On other occasions, they act jointly, together; this is the power of jurisdiction. Note that, in episcopal government, this distinction would be impossible, since that form of government permits governmental/jurisdictional authority to be exercised by single individuals. In our form of government, however, we distinguish between that power which can be exercised singly (preaching, visiting, praying, teaching, etc.) and that power which can only be exercised jointly (governing and exercising judgment). Thus, an individual, severed from others, is entitled to hold in his own conscience his own views. When acting jointly, however, he is acting on behalf of the Church, as its representative with others. In that joint role, his private judgment must be submitted to that of the Church. To illustrate, if a given elder believes that the consumption of beverage alcohol is sinful, he is entitled to both hold and promote that viewpoint when acting as an individual, provided that he do so in a peaceful and respectful manner. If, however, he is a member of a church which has issued a deliverance indicating that beverage alcohol may be lawfully consumed, what must such an elder do if called to sit in judgment on a case involving this very matter? The answer is plain. He must either absent himself from sitting as judge, or abstain from voting, or vote to exonerate an individual charged with sinning by consuming beverage alcohol. He may not lawfully find a person guilty of violating the church's law if the individual is not violating the church's law. He is entitled to express his opinion that both the individual and the church are wrong; he is not entitled, when sitting jointly as a judge of the church's law, to find a person guilty of violating the church's law if the person is not guilty of such. The time for the elder to change the law is during the discussion of constitutional amendments, or during the discussion of an Assembly position paper. Once the church has declared its law, however, the elder is required to enforce that law, even while attempting, in other appropriate settings, to alter the law. [return to text]
[43] The only exception to this rule is the provision regarding appeal of judicial decisions. If an individual is found guilty by a lower court, and if the individual appeals that ruling to a higher court, the lower court's decision is suspended (not over-ruled) until the hearing of the higher court: "Notice of appeal shall have the effect of suspending the judgment of the lower court until the case has been finally decided in the higher court" (BCO 42-6). [return to text]
[44] The Action of the Assembly of 1879 on Worldly Amusements, or the Powers of Our Several Church Courts," Southern Presbyterian Review, 1880, reprinted in The Miscellanies of Thomas E. Peck, ed. Thomas Cary Johnson, Richmond, 1895, vol. 2, pp. 331-60. [return to text]