The Right to Complain in Presbyterian Polity

Discussion in 'Church Order' started by Grafted In, May 28, 2019.

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  1. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman


    I know that this is not the most scintillating topic, but I am hoping to gain some insight from my Puritan Board brethren on the questions I pose below. And your thoughtful response just might help promote the peace, purity, and unity in a small and humble portion of Christ's church.

    Presbyterian Book of Disciplines (BD) differ from body to body as to whom they grant the right to file a formal complaint against a judicatory (session or presbytery). For example, see the following from the OPC, PCA, and RPCNA.
    • OPC--"It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject, by one session against another session, by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, or by one presbytery against another presbytery" (BD IX.1).
    • PCA--"It is the right of any communing member of the Church in good standing to make complaint against any action of a court to whose jurisdiction he is subject..." (BCO 43-1).
    • RPCNA--"It may be made by the parties concerned, by members of the court, or by any interested persons*" (BD E-15).
    You can see how the right to complain varies from church to church. In the PCA, the right to complain is restricted, so that one can only complain against a court to which the complainant is subject (church member against session, presbyter against presbytery). In the RPCNA, it would seem, the right to complain is extended very broadly to include "any interested party" (I could not determine how precisely the book defines 'interested party' from the cross-reference noted with the asterisk, though I am certain it is not just anybody.). In the OPC, the right to complain appears to be more broad than the PCA but less broad than the RPCNA.

    My main question is, who should have the right to complain against a court of the church? What biblical and/or logical principle(s) limit it? Should I be able to complain against a session of a church I am not a member or against a presbytery of which I am not a presbyter?

    Thanks, in advance, for your time.
  2. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    You cannot formally complain against a church--say, the congregation down the road from the one your membership is lodged--if you are not under their jurisdiction. For the same reason that said church cannot act in judgment toward you, if you are not their responsibility (part of that flock). If something happened to YOU while you were within their walls, that might provide you a basis from which to complain to them about your treatment; likewise, them toward you, if you "acted up" and they didn't like it.

    Analogy: You cannot complain or object against a resident of the State next to the one you reside in, for his actions in that State, by taking the matter to your local court. If you have a complaint, you may be able to file it in his State of residency based on the laws of that State, and the permissions of that State with respect to non-residents. What rights does that State accord all passers-through, or does the visitor have to be a citizen of the Federated Nation to which both States belong? These are questions that arise regularly in secular situations, and they are comparable to situations in our churches.​

    Generally, you do not have "standing" to complain about any action that is not in your general "line of authority." That is, complaints have to do with actions that come down toward you by those who have some jurisdiction that affects you, personally. Outside that track, you may not like what someone does, or how you feel it impacts you, but there are other avenues than legal-complaints to which you have recourse. Again, you also do not have to suffer the direct complaints or actions they might want to direct at you for the same reason.

    You can complain about others who are "peers" at the same level, under the same authority. So, you can complain about someone in your congregation, because both of you are under one government; one Presbytery should be able to complain about another Presbytery to their GA, if it can be demonstrated that the actions of one have (or potentially may) harm the other(s) who share their collective identity and concerns. The limits on what one may do to complain, if one church or congregation does something a sister body dislikes, are the result of finitude and of sin. But they are also a limit on the abuse of power.

    Analogy: If you are a child, you do not want some other parent deciding you need a spanking for something they saw you doing in your backyard, and going and tanning your hide, right? As a child, you go to your parents about your brother's misconduct; not to the neighbors. If you don't like what's happening in the neighbor's backyard, you either go to the neighbor and complain (or more likely, you get your parent to go complain). And if that doesn't fix the problem (that is, what you perceive to be a problem), you may decide to go to the police or the town council.​

    The "problem" (not really) with Presbyterianism, is that we lack that nifty "bishop" fellow, who takes immediate action, and doesn't have to consider things like "limited scope," etc. Interest in such efficiencies, and power to enforce conformity across many lines, has ever been attractive to the church. And we have to resist the urge to centralization, for the sake of the future church. It eventually falls into the hands of those who shouldn't have it, and the tools of "righteous authority" are wielded by abusers of dominion.
  3. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman


    I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I have been helped by your answer, with which I am in complete agreement.

    I hope you don't mind me asking you a follow-up question more specific to our (OPC) Book of Discipline. BD IX.1 states that a complaint can be made "by one session against another session." In your understanding, does this allow for a session in one presbytery to complain against a session of another presbytery?
  4. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    After reading the para. several times, and considering hypothetical cases, I have to say: I don't know.

    This statement falls within a paragraph which previously refers to the principle of jurisdiction (" which he is subject"), and which later speaks in the same manner ("...which has jurisdiction over it"). The peer-to-peer relation of presbyteries is assumed in the final clause, being subject to a common court (GA). One conclusion could be, that the reference to sessions (one complaining to their common Presbytery judicatory for the actions of another) is allowable only within that judicatory. However, it does seem possible that a session in California could potentially have a complaint-worthy issue with a session in Maine. The absence of language restricting session vs. session complaints to action within a Presbytery (one to which both are subject) should not be overlooked.

    A complaint would then be made to the offending session, with amends sought specified. A potential problem seems to exist at the point of appeal. How does a session outside of a Presbytery have "standing" in another judicatory to bring a complaint there? But, perhaps the simple fact that one session represents a sister OPC congregation (operating under one set of rules) is sufficient. The complaining session cannot make their complaint immediately to the GA level, and bypass the lower Presbytery judicatory. Therefore, assuming a hearing (BD.IX.4) was scheduled in the defending Presbytery jurisdiction, the complaining and defending sessions would air their cases. Then, perhaps on to the GA?

    An alternative procedure for registering dissatisfaction with the action of a session in another jurisdiction, is communication directly with that session, in an effort to have a brotherly conversation. Individuals and groups of people do disagree and have fights with other individuals and groups, and they don't always have a common (convenient) authority to mediate or adjudicate them.

    I know of one congregation that, after considerable effort in private, across denominational lines, finally made a public statement which they broadcast to the extent they were able, to all parties they believed had an interest in their actions, the nature of actions they had taken, the reasons, and the specific responses of another church body to their efforts--response which they explained did not comport with general principles of justice in the church of Jesus.

    In other words, absent a common judicatory, absent any power to appeal to their own Presbytery to act toward an adjacent Presbytery, they then warned the church-at-large (starting with their Presbytery) of the "lawless" acts of this other church body. Within a denomination, there should be additional avenues of communication, even if there is not direct or common lines of jurisdiction. Strong effort should be made to keep matters "in house" as much as possible, avoiding the airing of dirty laundry. But, if the issue is of sufficient merit, the purpose for a denominational framework is to allow for appeals and (hopefully) the consistent application of agreed-upon standards.

    Probably, Dr. Strange is a better person to weigh in on the question.
  5. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    Jeff, for a hypothetical scenario comparison between the PCA and RPCNA, since I used to be in the PCA and now am in the RPCNA:

    In the PCA, a member of a church can bring a complaint against an action of their own Session. But if that Session denies their complaint, the member cannot take that to the next higher court (Presbytery), only a member of that Session could.

    In the same scenario in the RPCNA, a member can take a complaint to the next highest court (Presbytery) and then the highest court (Synod) if they so desired. Synod of course is the final decision. It was interesting the first time seeing this in the RPCNA, while still in the RPCNA. A lady took her complaint all the way to Synod.

    Can't speak to the OPC though.
  6. Kinghezy

    Kinghezy Puritan Board Sophomore

    It seems like 43-3 below describes that the "complainant" (aka person bringing the complaint) can bring the complaint to the next higher court if denied. So it seems like me (as a member of a church) could bring a complaint to the presbytery if a complaint to my session was denied. Am I missing something?

    43-3. If, after considering a complaint, the court alleged to be delinquent or
    in error is of the opinion that it has not erred, and denies the complaint, the
    complainant may take that complaint to the next higher court. If the lower
    court fails to consider the complaint against it by or at its next stated meeting,
    the complainant may take that complaint to the next higher court.
  7. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    I may be mistaken, my apologies. But once at the Presbytery level I’m not sure they can complain to next highest court... Maybe someone will clarify...
  8. fredtgreco

    fredtgreco Vanilla Westminsterian Staff Member

    A person can always bring a complaint that was denied to the next level (an "appellate" complaint). He just cannot originate a complaint at a court whose jurisdiction he is not under (e.g. a church member cannot complain against an action of Presbytery).
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  9. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    ^In the PCA (for clarity). Thanks Fred.
  10. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman


    Again, thank you for the helpful reply. I have been struggling the same as you to reconcile the principle of lines of jurisdiction with the clause in BD IX.1 that appears to allow sessions to complain against sessions across presbytery lines.

    Where I'm at right now, I believe that interpreted in the context of BD II and FG XII.2 ["Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisidiction over all matters belonging to it..." (emphasis added)], the BD IX.1 does not allow a session of one presbytery to complain against a session of another. A session outside of my presbytery is not a part of the judicatory that exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over "the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region" (FG XII.2).

    Do you think that is a valid conclusion? Am I missing something?

    I wish this was all hypothetical. More conversations with Dr. Strange will probably be necessary. But I know he probably gets more of these kinds of calls than he can reasonably handle.
  11. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman


    Thank you for your comparison. Would you say that in both the PCA and RPCNA the right to complain belongs only to those who are a member of or under the authority of a given judicatory? Who are the "any interested persons" noted in the RPCNA's BD E-15?

    Thanks, again!
  12. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    Yes to your first question, as far as I understand.

    Second question, there is an astericks at the end of that statement containing "any interested persons" that defines it on DCG 8.11 (D-40),

    "11. A member has the right to petition any court of the church to whose jurisdiction
    he is subject in relation to any matter of reasonable importance. All
    communication from subordinate courts, or from individuals not members of
    the court, to be brought to the attention of Synod, such as papers, petitions,
    proposed overtures, appeals and complaints, must bear endorsement showing
    that they have been regularly transferred by the lower courts. A petition
    addressed to a presbytery or Synod shall first be submitted to a session, and
    by it transferred to the presbytery or through the presbytery to the Synod. The
    action of the lower court shall be recorded on the document and signed by
    the moderator and clerk. Such transference shall be made upon request, and
    does not carry approval of the petition. If the session or presbytery refuses to
    transmit the petition, the petitioner may protest and appeal to the next higher
    court. The higher court may in exceptional cases admit a petition directly from
    a person who is not a member of the court."
  13. Kinghezy

    Kinghezy Puritan Board Sophomore

    That makes sense, because it would logically make sense that you would want work with your session (as a church member), if you had something you were concerned with on the presbytery level. It would be odd to be able to jump right over the session.
  14. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks, Andrew! That is helpful.
  15. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    @Grafted In


    Jeff has previously sought my input on this question. Now he's seeking the right answer! ;)

  16. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman


    I was and still am persuaded that your reading of these things is correct. Yet, I'm curious to see if anyone can put forth a sound argument for the other view point I am encountering on this question. I've heard nothing compelling, so far.

    I'm sure some will seek to bend your ear on these things at GA.

  17. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    The wink just meant that I was giving you a hard time! I could see that you are adhering to the strait and narrow!

    Never happen! ;)

  18. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    "Original jurisdiction" refers not to allowance of procedure, but to the court where process begins. It is related to the principle of "subsidiarity" (, dictating that the lowest applicable level is where process should begin.

    The issue (as I see it) is "standing," as it refers to law ( see 4th definition). Does one session in one Presbytery possess the right to present a formal complaint to another session in another Presbytery, and from there to that session's Presbytery, and finally to the GA? What are the allowances and limits of our wider association?

    What pertinent implication has the fact that the actions of any judicatory of the church, at any level, stand for the act of the church as a whole, FG.XII.2; that because of mutual relation, "every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body?" We do not say the same with respect to the general office of the believer, though we admit that the actions of one of us (good or bad) have real ripple-effect through the whole Body. We distinguish between the formal (collective) exercises of church power, and the actions of members.

    DPW.IV.C describes the reception of a member of another OPC church on the basis of a letter of transfer, which is effective from the moment the session acts to receive that person. This form of transfer is not uncommon across presbytery lines, and it exhibits the OPC's affirmation of the unity of the church in the strongest terms; going beyond the unity that is expressed when we receive as a member a person previously a member of a "church of like faith and practice," DPW.IV.D, effective upon a fresh public profession. Here is evidence that some act of another OPC session, in a different Presbytery, may go in the opposite direction of a complaint. In some sense, the first session's actions are ratified, as they are reckoned by the second to have been without error, without delinquency.

    I am not assuming the implication of approval in one kind means the right to formal complaint as the natural correspondent. Perhaps, the true correspondent is simply to ignore the acts of the first session. I am suggesting the plausibility is raised, when the BCO teaches us respect unto the lawful acts of any other OPC session.

    Suppose one session in one OPC Presbytery ignored the ongoing judicial actions of another OPC session in another OPC Presbytery, and received into membership someone who was evading discipline (at least, in the eyes of the the prosecuting session). They did this, and "concluded the case" (BD.II.A.3) peremptorily. Is there no way for the prosecuting session to formally complain that they see this as a violation of the BCO? Must the "original jurisdiction" Presbytery be moved by the prosecuting session to call the other Presbytery (to which the receiving session is subject) to account for their constituency, or take the matter to the GA?

    Perhaps the price we pay for maintaining decentralization (which value should never be discounted) is that we must limit the scope for filing our formal complaints. I would love to have my own thinking sharpened by the wits of one who has weighed more of the variables and precedents.
  19. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman

    That is the way I interpreted the wink. I just wanted to be on record, affirming the quality of your advice.;)
  20. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior

    Now I may have to question your judgment, Br. Scott!:D

    Will miss seeing you at the Assembly.

  21. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman

    I think what you said here has brought a needed correction to the way I have been thinking about jurisdiction.

    In the civil courts, the question of standing, as I understand it, would decide the matter. But our BD doesn't appear to ground the right to complain on that principle. Some would and are saying that if the BD says that a session can complain against another session without apparent qualification, then the question of standing is irrelevant. Every session automatically has standing to complain against any other session without limitation.

    Does our BD really render the principle of standing irrelevant? Are not the limitations placed on the first and third right to complain ("by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject" and "by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it") stated in the BD IX.1 related to the issue of standing, since the actions or inactions of those bodies directly affects and possibly harms those who are subject to them?
    Last edited: May 31, 2019
  22. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I certainly don't think the BD makes the issue of standing irrelevant.

    Perhaps, what needs to be argued as a kind of "preliminary," is whether a certain issue creates such standing. Has a specific action of a session in one Presbytery had a definite, judicially relevant effect upon a session in another Presbytery. If I don't like something another session has done, even if it is demonstrably wrong "by the book," the fact that such action does not compel a reaction on the second session's part--but may only be "offensive," or be thought to have down-the-line possible effects, or the like--means that the second session lacks a true (if theoretical) basis for a formal complaint.

    Above, I proposed a hypothetical situation, wherein one session's action basically "short-circuited" the ongoing judicial process of another session. One action created a specific reaction. That, it seems to me, is a serious matter. One path to a solution in that case is getting the one session's Presbytery to get the other Presbytery involved for the purpose of fixing an obstruction of justice; and if unsatisfied with the response, then taking the matter to GA. Then, there is no issue of determining that the first session has gained the standing ordinarily lacking in the other jurisdiction. Such is probably the "most Presbyterian" way of handling that case; but maybe the more direct way is open for this hypothetical or some other case.

    But assuming there is no way whatsoever to establish such standing--no demonstration, in other words, that can show direct harmful action has given standing--sessions are confined within a Presbytery to formally complain, it seems to me. We need limits for complaints.

    Ought a parent adhere to a general rule whereby any neighbor's kid had the right--as if he was a child in another house--to ask justice from the other parent against his offspring, on any pretext? It would be the exercise of the same rights as one of my own children appealing for a fair application of our house-rules against a sibling breaker of the rules. Or, is it better that, if my child has been offended by the neighbor's kid, he wants me to have a word with the other parent? "Your child did harm to mine, and I think you should do something about it."

    Maybe I can't file a complaint against a Canadian, in Canada, if I am not also a Canadian. Do I have to persuade a Canadian to swear out that complaint, thus making it his? There's a situation with no common national constitution. Legal permissions and remedies may be provided for by laws and treaties, but for sure there's no one-size arrangement the world over. In the USA, a common constitution makes discovering standing in another state simpler, but it still needs some path to establishing if I (the resident and taxpayer in one state) have standing to complain in the courts of another over alleged wrongdoing by one of its citizens. And, there's the difference between a private person's complaint, and a complaint attempted from a county in one US state vs. a county in another. It isn't obvious to me that the outside county can compel the other's home state court to hear its complaint. But, maybe a certain kind of issue may be used to establish that standing.
  23. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman

    I am in complete agreement with your line of reasoning.

    I have been tasked with responding to brothers who are convinced that there are few if any limits for complaints, at least as the BD allows session against session. Your comments have been helpful to that end. Please let me know if you think of anything else in this regard.
  24. CovenantWord

    CovenantWord Puritan Board Freshman

    The rights and access to justice of the complainant are essential, of course; but so are those of the defendants, including judicial bodies (sessions and presbyteries). Moses provides for the strict condign punishment of false accusation (Deu. 19:16-21), so that the complainant is subject to the same discipline as the accused, by the same judicatory. This principle would argue against awarding standing to an individual before any judicatory other than his own immediate oversight body (session or presbytery). It would also argue against awarding standing to a session before a session subject to a different presbytery. Such individual or session complainant would need to press the case through his oversight body. Both Israel and Benjamin suffered grievously when they short-circuited this principle, Israel by arraying against Gibeah before consulting Benjamin (Jud. 20:11-12) and Benjamin by refusing to adjudicate with the other tribes at all (Jud. 20:13). One of the implications of "tell[ing] it to the church" (Matt. 18:17 NKJ) is that she will adjudicate between the disputants, not just for or against the defendant. I suggest the practical wisdom here is protection against false and frivolous accusations (which can be very damaging), while preserving access to redress.
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  25. Grafted In

    Grafted In Puritan Board Freshman

    This is an excellent point! Thank you for your post!
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