What We Believe
i

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Preface

Alan D. Strange

Ordained Servant: August 2022

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The Deluge of Data

Preface

The Form of Government (FG), one might say, deals with the day-to-day operations of the church. It does so in agreement with the principles of God’s Word. It describes what the church is, the qualifications and duties of its special officers (all members of the church holding the general office of believer), and how they enter their offices and carry out their tasks, in sum, all that pertains to the ordinary, daily administration and governance of the church. The FG, in other words, gives the broad principles of church government, while the Book of Discipline (BD), in relation to the FG, the subject upon which this commentary now proceeds, takes up a particular part of church government—church discipline—and explains its proper principles and application, in agreement with God’s Word and the doctrinal standards of the church.

One place in the FG that especially highlights the distinction between it and the BD is seen in FG 26.2, which directs anyone looking to divest an officer for an offense in doctrine or life to the Book of Discipline, away from the ordinary administrative divestiture described in FG 26 to the more detailed protections of full due process afforded by the Book of Discipline. The FG, to put it another way, describes the life of the church in its ordinary contours, as it carries out its great spiritual task of gathering and perfecting the saints, as set forth in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20).

The BD, on the other hand, deals not with the ordinary governmental affairs of the church but specifically with alleged offenses, trials and censures for such, restoration, complaints, etc. Certain biblical passages, like Matthew 18:15–20, 1 Timothy 5:19–21, etc., that have clear implications for church discipline are a primary focus of the BD. While a distinction is rightly made in the BD itself between judicial discipline (that which involves alleged offenses on the part of individuals) and administrative discipline (that which involves alleged delinquencies or errors on the part of judicatories), all church discipline is dealing with specific sins or errors, seeking that such be properly addressed.

The bodies that govern the church at all levels (session, presbytery, and general assembly) are referred to as judicatories. These judicatories are duly defined and their relative powers described, in the FG. A special subset of the ordinary judicatory manifests itself when the session or presbytery determines to enter the judicial process of trying charges and considering ecclesiastical censures: the judicatory is constituted in such circumstances as a distinctly judicial body and becomes known as the “trial judicatory.” While everything in the FG derives from God’s Word, either directly or by implication, the Word of God comes into view in a more marked way when a judicatory is acting as a trial judicatory, as seen in the announcement and exhortation made by the moderator in the beginning and at each subsequent session of a judicial trial (BD 4.A.1.a.). This sort of emphasis on God’s Word and other due process concerns manifests itself as the special focus of the BD.

The BD sets forth a due process for dealing with charges, complaints, and the like. It is important that such process be held to as closely as possible, so that justice and equity can be achieved, as much as possible. Short-circuiting due process not only exposes judicatories’ flawed procedures/tactics to appellate judicatories (as when appeal is taken from a session to the presbytery or the presbytery to the GA) but also fails to do justice to the concerns of accusers and accused. Judicatories should always treat both accusers and accused with all the patience, kindness, and firmness that make for equitable procedures, remembering in every case to observe the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The BD, as does the FG in the area of ongoing ecclesiastical government, as noted above, seeks to give expression to administrative and judicial discipline in a way that is consonant with God’s Word, in a way that maximizes fairness for all the involved parties.

Before proceeding to address the way that church discipline developed in the Reformed and Presbyterian sphere, it might be helpful to recall a few things that I have set forth previously in this publication about church discipline more broadly.[1] The purposes of church discipline, for instance, are classically cited as three: the glory of Christ, the purity of the church, and the reclamation of the offender. Others have put in a fourth, something like justice for accusers and accused. (cf. WCF 30.2, which also cites “vindicating . . . the holy profession of the gospel” and “preventing the wrath of God.”)

Additionally, we often note that biblical church discipline comes to be considered among the Reformed and Presbyterian a third mark of the church after the first two marks, the pure preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments. The marks of the church function to identify the true church in the new context of the Reformation. Historically the attributes of the church (unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity) had served to do so; once Reformation occurred, Reformed churches recognized the necessity not only of confessions and catechisms that reflected Reformed insights but also clear marks (distinguishing characteristics) that further qualified the attributes for the proper identification of the true church in the new circumstance of the rise of denominations in the West.

Though the Scots (connected to Calvin and the continent by John Knox and other Marian exiles), in establishing the Church of Scotland as a Presbyterian Church, adopted the First (1560) and Second (1578) Book of Discipline, rules of church discipline, as is this case with our BD, were not their concern; rather, the First and Second Book of Discipline dealt with the basic rules of church government, such as we have in our FG. Rules dealing specifically with what we think of as church discipline (the conduct of trials, degrees of censure, etc.) emerged in the Reformed Churches somewhat slowly and cautiously, especially after the church had experienced the overly scrupulous and highly developed canon law of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The particular concern of the Reformed churches was to make sure that disciplinary procedure was biblical, not merely a set of complicated rules requiring canon lawyers, especially so that proper Christian liberty would be maintained, i.e., that what the church was asked to submit to was not simply man-made rules but the commandments of God, drawn either directly or by implication from the Bible.

After the heavy ecclesiastical yoke of Rome was thrown off, many were concerned lest it be resumed in the Protestant churches, with some reluctant that church discipline should be in the hands of church governors at all (since many clerics, the pope especially, had used church discipline as a tool of personal vindictiveness and settling political scores), preferring that the civil magistrate exercise external ecclesiastical discipline, especially excommunication. Erastianism, this view of the magistrate over the church in whose hands discipline often resided, it should be noted, was hated by many continental and British Reformers, whether occurring in Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, or elsewhere. This is why, at least in part, as noted above, for many Reformers biblical church discipline became a third mark of the true church after all the perceived Roman abuse of discipline. For Calvin and those who followed in his train, not only on the continent but also in Scotland, America, and elsewhere, it was critical that the exercise of church discipline remained solely in the hands of church governors (ministers and elders), not coming under the control of the civil magistrate.

Given that forms of government tended to develop first among the newly Reformed and Presbyterian churches, when did the equivalent of rules or books of discipline emerge that would serve as precedent for our BD in the OPC? As might be expected, it was in the line of Presbyterianism reflected in the Church of Scotland (and later the Free Church of Scotland) that rules of discipline emerged and influenced the Presbyterian Church in the USA (the body out of which the OPC came). As Stuart Jones, long-time teacher on the BD in the OPC, notes: “Two major Scottish influences on the American disciplinary process tradition . . . were the Church of Scotland’s 1707 Form of Process and Pardovan’s Collections and Observations (1709) which referred to the Form of Process, had the recognition of the Scottish General Assembly, and referenced acts and traditions germane to process.”[2]

The latter refers to Walter Steuart of Pardovan, a major influence on American Colonial Presbyterians, who adopted the first BD of sorts in 1788/9: a short two-chapter Forms of Process that grew over many years in the PCUSA to a full-fledged Book of Discipline. The PCUSA (the Northern church), after several revisions of the BD through the years that followed 1788, adopted a revision of the BD in 1934 that became the basis (in an amended form, of course) for the first OPC BD[3], which itself received a major revision in 1983 (as noted in the “Preface” to this edition of the Book of Church Order). Thus our present BD, upon which extensive comment will be made hereafter.

One other especially helpful observation that Jones makes that I here note (his commentary is, in fact, full of insight) is the different approaches to church law between those of the continental Reformed traditions and those of the Scottish/American Presbyterian traditions. In the former, the pastoral, transformative nature of discipline is particularly in view, and the legal recedes into the background. In the latter, while concerned with the pastoral and restorative aspects of discipline, process came to have greater play, especially determining guilt when one denies that he has sinned.[4] Different as these emphases may be between the Reformed and Presbyterian approaches, neither are concerned merely with process, as is sometimes alleged by friends and foes alike of the Presbyterian approach, but with getting at the truth.

This concern for getting at the truth, while protecting the rights of the accused and placing a premium on due process, suggests the influence of an inquisitorial approach on our church legal system as reflected in our current BD. To be sure, aspects of the adversarial legal system, which is the approach embodied in American jurisprudence (and other common law judicial systems, like those in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere), may be found in our church law, but the system of our ecclesiastical law favors the inquisitorial method.

Because the BD concerns itself with due process, trials, censures, and the like, some have assumed that it is to be approached and understood in the same way that the American system of jurisprudence is. Some seem tacitly to assume, or sometimes explicitly assert, that if one understands civil law, one understands church law. This is not quite the case, however. That church law differs in marked ways from the American legal system is a matter that warrants further attention. While there are many similarities with American civil law (and by civil here I do not mean in distinction from criminal, or common, but in distinction from ecclesiastical), church law is rather different. Historically, especially as it developed from the Middle Ages, church law developed from inquisitorial, not adversarial, roots, unlike American law, which, as noted above, is clearly adversarial.[5]

A brief survey of the origin and rise of inquisitorial law might be helpful so that we can better understand how our BD really works. It is the case that most of the law of the state in the Middle Ages was more or less adversarial, requiring accusers to come forward to charge someone, state authorities taking almost no part until accusers were willing to press charges. The penalties for bringing charges, if they proved not justiciable, or those accused were found not guilty, were such that many witnesses/accusers were loath to make charges. The judicial system proved unworkable and consequently suffered a breakdown: many charges were resolved not by witnesses and evidence but in trial by ordeal or combat, the latter approaches bespeaking superstition and irrationality, not the clear rational procedures that accompany any system dedicated to simple justice. The papacy wanted to secure a better legal system and developed an approach to law that came to be known as inquisitorial. This was viewed as a superior approach to the previous legal systems and came to prevail not only in ecclesiastical law but in civil law in many European countries, which still have inquisitorial law to this day.[6]

One may witness the differences between an inquisitorial system and an accusatorial system in civil law. If we identify those different features of such systems in the context of the state, it may help us better understand the differences in terms of the church. France, for instance, enjoys an inquisitorial judicial system (as do many other countries in continental Europe and elsewhere), in which particular judges actively involve themselves in preliminary investigations and a different set of judges commonly work at the trial level, depending on the nature and importance of the case. The judges are in charge of the preliminary investigation, as they typically style it, and determine whether a case will be brought and against whom. The judges are more active, and the prosecuting and defense attorneys more passive, making sure that the judges garner the evidence that is needed from their striving-to-be-objective perspectives.

This inquisitorial approach, which places a premium on getting at and getting to the truth, contrasts at several points with the adversarial approach, in which latter system the judge strives to be neutral and to rule only on points of law, taking no active part in investigating the case. The adversarial system, in common law constituencies like the UK or the US, features a passive judge, who has before him two highly active defense and prosecution lawyers, who present their partisan cases. The judge acts as a referee, especially for the sake of the jury. Not so in the inquisitorial system in which the courts (in this case our sessions and presbyteries) take a much more active role, akin to what we see in our ecclesiastical judicatories.

While the details of this will be discussed in the BD commentary that follows at all the appropriate places, especially chapters 3 and 4, perhaps it will suffice here to note that in our system of ecclesiastical law the session or presbytery typically serves as the investigator of charges, whether brought by the judicatory itself or private parties, the examiner in hearing the charges, the judge in ruling on all objections, as well as the determiner of facts and appliers of the law (the typical role of the jury). In other words, our ecclesiastical trial judicatories are not simply umpiring a match in which combatants (prosecution and defense) do battle before the court. All of this is to say that we will much better approach and understand the BD if we do not come with the “conflict of interest” view and strict separation of roles view (of prosecutor, defense, judge, and jury) that obtain in American jurisprudence. Rather, our ecclesiastical judicial system, operating inquisitorially not adversarially, yet committed to full due process (including the protection of the rights of all parties), ultimately seeks to get at the truth, for the good of all parties involved, in any given case, and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Soli Deo gloria!

Endnotes

[1] Alan D. Strange, “Conflict Resolution in the Church,” Ordained Servant 28 (2019): 49–59; Ordained Servant Online (Nov. and Dec. 2019), https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=778 and https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=786.

[2] Stuart R. Jones, “Commentary on The Orthodox Presbyterian Book of Discipline” (unpublished manuscript, 2020), 3.

[3] Jones, 3–4.

[4] Jones, 3.

[5] This brief online definition helps highlight that our BD leans chiefly in the inquisitorial direction: “An inquisitorial system is a legal system in which the court, or a part of the court, is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case. This is distinct from an adversarial system, in which the role of the court is primarily that of an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defense.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisitorial_system). In the BD, both in the preliminary investigation and the trial, the judicatory and the trial judicatory take an active role, whether in bringing the charges or receiving charges from private parties and appointing an examiner to lead in questioning on behalf of the trial judicatory. This will be seen particularly in the commentary on BD 3 and 4.

[6] “Inquisition” in the Catholic Encyclopedia (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08026a.htm) gives a good overview from a decidedly Roman Catholic perspective. For both the development of canon law and relationship of civil law and church law, see the many masterful works of Berman and Tierney, especially Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 199–224; and Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050–1300 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice -Hall, 1964), 97 ff.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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Ordained Servant: August 2022

The Plague of Loneliness

Also in this issue

Connecting Some Dots on Disconnection

11 Passages to Read When You Feel Lonely

The Loneliness Epidemic by Susan Mettes

Global Pillage: Stealing Our Data, Our Intelligence, and Our Souls: A Review Article

First Things in Acts and Paul: A Review Article

Dumb and Dangerous: A Review Article

The Deluge of Data

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