Rejecting Due Process

On Abuse, Discipline and Justice 

The years since George Floyd’s death have seen an acceleration of many troubling trends in evangelical churches. Few to my mind are more disturbing than the way in which certain basic principles of justice have been abandoned without so much as even an attempt to justify their abandonment, and this even among ostensibly “conservative” pastors, elders, and seminary professors.

One of the most important principles of justice is the notion that guilt must be proved, not assumed. Due process, or the presumption of innocence, which has a long history in English common law, is central to America’s judicial system (at least formally so, even if this principle is being eroded in practice). It is also at the heart of the Bible’s teaching on justice. We see this in a variety of places.

In Deuteronomy 25:1–2 there is a basic statement of what judges and courts are for, namely, to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty, then to punish the one who is guilty. In order to ensure that all parties receive a fair trial it is required that there be at least two witnesses (Deut 17:6). It is indispensable to true justice that a “single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed” (Deut 19:15). Although the Bible frames things in terms of the necessity of multiple witnesses, this is meant to accomplish exactly what the presumption of innocence does in our nation’s courts: you cannot condemn a man unless you have proven him guilty. A single witness can easily lie. With multiple witnesses, it is possible to cross-examine them and compare their individual testimonies with each other to more accurately determine the truth.

This Old Testament judicial principle is reaffirmed in Hebrews 10:28, though the New Testament focuses on the necessity of multiple witnesses in discipline cases within the church. No one may be disciplined merely on the basis of one witness (Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). This means that guilt must be proven in church courts, just as in secular courts. At stake is the possibility of wrongly condemning the innocent and the very existence of justice itself.

The presumption of innocence, however, is in peril in the evangelical world. In fact, there are many who believe that a presumption of innocence is the very opposite of justice.

A recent church court case in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) provides a shocking example. Pastor Ryan Biese, in a multi-part series, has documented this case in extensive detail. Here are the basic facts. In 2020 a PCA church plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas had a temporary ruling body (called a temporary session). They also had a church planter who had been appointed by the regional body of the PCA (Covenant Presbytery). Members of the church were concerned that the church-planting pastor was too progressive, farmed preaching out to others too often, and was overbearing in his leadership. Seven men in the church, following the teaching of our savior (Matt 18:15–20), presented their concerns to the temporary planting pastor and to the temporary session, and explained that they would like to consider pastoral candidates other than the planting pastor. As a still-organizing church plant, they would not yet have issued a call to a man to be their permanent pastor. In response, the temporary session brought church discipline charges against all seven men, eventually barring them from the Lord’s Supper.

The seven men appealed their discipline to Covenant Presbytery, which ruled against them as well. Then they appealed to the highest court of the PCA, the General Assembly. The General Assembly, through its Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), ruled in favor of the seven men, overturning the rulings against them by the lower courts, although not until March 2023.

As I said, the details can be found in Pastor Biese’s series of articles. What I want to focus on is the reasoning that was used by the lower courts to discipline these seven men. The courts claimed that the men had violated the fifth commandment in expressing their desire for a different pastor eventually to become their permanent pastor, and the ninth commandment in speaking critically of the pastor and their temporary elders. They indeed spoke critically of them, but they did so to those men, not behind their backs. How, in keeping with Matthew 18, would it be possible to express such concerns if not precisely by bringing them to the parties themselves?

What is extremely concerning in this case is that the basic principle of due process seems to have been treated as a hindrance to justice, rather than the heart of justice. To say this does not require one to determine motives or to speculate. This was the ruling of the PCA’s SJC itself. The discipline imposed on the “Jonesboro 7” was “unfair to an accused and violates basic principles of due process as required by our standards” (The ruling of the SJC as recorded in GA50 Handbook, p. 2065, cited by Biese). The SJC also wrote that there “Were No Transgressions of the Fifth Commandment” and “There Were No Transgressions of the Ninth Commandment” (GA50 Handbook, pp. 2068, 2070, cited by Biese) by the seven men.

Covenant Presbytery was also determined to have introduced new evidence in trial that had not been part of the original indictment:

A court may not consider matters outside an indictment at a trial on that indictment. Conduct and events that occurred after May 5, 2021, the date of the Indictments here, were outside of the scope of the proceedings fairly at issue. Any finding of guilt or censure related to or arising out of such alleged conduct or events is void for lack of the due process our Constitution requires. (GA50 Handbook, pp. 2067-2068, cited by Biese)

In the end, justice prevailed, precisely because due process was adhered to. Guilt must be proved, and the Presbytery could not do so. This is as it should be, but the very lack of due process throughout much of this ordeal is extremely worrying.

A second example comes from a growing movement within evangelical churches regarding how to deal with abuse. It is now commonplace to hear that churches must “believe all women” when they claim abuse has occurred. It is sad that one has to even say this, but of course, there is horrific abuse in the church, and it must be dealt with appropriately (legally and spiritually). However, this cannot be done by denying a fundamental principle of biblical justice, that guilt must be established, not presumed.

I recently heard a presentation on abuse by one who claimed that officers in the church must always take a posture of belief toward the victim. There were some things in the presentation that were helpful, but this specific claim (which is also becoming increasingly common) simply cannot withstand scrutiny. This certainly does not mean that we can be careless in protecting victims from their abusers. It also doesn’t mean that officers of the church should instantly indicate that they don’t believe the one claiming to have been abused. Due process requires proof, not a hostile or dismissive stance toward someone claiming to have suffered great evil. What worries me most is that the danger presented by the charge to take a posture of belief toward victims is so subtle. Since is it usually presented in the midst of some true information about how to protect the innocent from abuse, and how to ensure that victims of abuse receive justice (in court and in the church), it will be easy not to notice how radically opposed to true justice the claim actually is.

Godly men and women in the church want victims to receive justice and perpetrators to be legally punished, as well as disciplined by the church. If it is claimed, or implied, that insisting on due process will prevent justice, how many will be able to withstand the resultant pressure to give up the principle of due process? “So you’re on the side of abusers?” or “Don’t you want justice for victims?” or “You’re an abuse apologist.” You can guess how many will be willing to stand firm in the face of that kind of emotional blackmail. It is a different form of “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” It is impossible to insist on due process and appear to be on the side of justice when the claim is that there can be no justice unless the church always takes a posture of belief toward one claiming abuse. The very framing of the issue won’t allow it.

And yet biblical justice demands that we never abandon the principle that guilt must be proven rather than assumed, that all men and women are rightfully subject to the protections of due process.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

14 thoughts on “Rejecting Due Process

  1. Sadly enough, it seems likely that none of the elders who persecuted the Jonesboro 7 will face any kind of consequences for their actions. Biese actually went out of his way to point that out as a good thing! It’s certainly the correct procedural result, to be sure. But it seems to me that any elder that can so badly distort and abuse the disciplinary processes in the way the Jonesboro 7 suffered and remains unrepentant has proven himself unfit for office.
    There does not even appear to be any movement to call them to repentance in the first place. Not that I’ve heard of, anyway.
    That the SJC eventually got this particular case right is great and all, but we’re still faced with the problem that the men so lacking in judgment that this ruling was even necessary are still in positions of authority.

    1. Perhaps their local congregation could prove to be a mercy to these elders by inquiring of their errors, repentance, and reconciliation? Surely they will want to be sure of this resolution to continue to submit themselves to their authority.

    2. Perfectly stated. Thanks for sharing this. Former member of Christ Redeemer PCA in Jonesboro here. My family and I removed our membership from that church in large part because of spillover effects from that case and how the toxic leadership was not only abusive in its treatment toward those 7 men but pretty much the rest of the congregation as well. That there hasn’t been the slightest recognition of error on their part, any sort of accountability, or move toward reconciliation or repentance since the SJC decision was rendered earlier this year is beyond appalling.

      1. My wife and I were at ground zero for much of what happened at Christ Redeemer, and I must say that what transpired at the church is actually quite a bit worse (for PCA leadership) than what you might glean from reading through the case record in the GA Handbook or in Pastor Biese’s series of articles on the subject.

  2. I am confused by the references to the Fifth Commandment and the Ninth Commandment. Are these references to some PCA document? In Exodus, the Fifth Commandment is to honor your father and mother. Not sure how that is relevant to this case.

    1. Most Christian traditions have long believed that the Fifth Commandment is about respecting all those in authority over us, not just our parents as such.

    2. See the Shorter Catechism for a good explanation for the [proper] Presbyterian use of the 5th Commandment
      Q. 63. Which is the fifth commandment?
      A. The fifth commandment is, Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long
      upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
      Q. 64. What is required in the fifth commandment?
      A. The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties,
      belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or
      Q. 65. What is forbidden in the fifth commandment?
      A. The fifth commandment forbiddeth the neglecting of, or doing anything against, the honor
      and duty which belongeth to everyone in their several places and relations.

  3. Like many in the PCA this whole story is a horror show, a repudiation of what we Presbyterians have long prided ourselves on: a just Biblical court system. The horror is not just that smart men acted as school yard bullies, but that they acted as ecclesial bullies, and so did the court overseeing them. And to have justice come from a delegated committee of the General Assembly, and not the GA itself is even more egregious. Find for me in Scripture where such as body as the SJC comes from? It is but another ecclesial creation, a college of cardinals; better than bringing in an outside consultant like for 10th Pres, I suppose. I congratulate the churchmen on the SJC for doing the right thing, but I don’t congratulate the PCA for having an impaired court system where the SJC becomes a final court. And for a such a ‘court’ to offer no penalties, or call for repentance from the many men who acted shamefully, is unjust to the church and unloving to these now-shamed men. These churchmen on Session and Presbytery desperately need to confess and repent of what they did, seek and receive forgiveness, and thus be healed. They sinned, make no mistake, and judicial statements cannot change the heart, only confession and repentance. I would think a learned clergy would see this. This is a dismal repeat of the sin of the National Partnership – exposed, but no repentance. Most unloving to the flock of Christ and to its erring shepherds.

    1. Another excellent comment. I’ll just add that there is definitely a solid (and growing) cohort of us now who, after dealing with what we did while attending Christ Redeemer in Jonesboro and looking back over our shoulders to see what transpired with that case in the aftermath of our departure, can’t help but view the PCA broadly as sympathetic to and protective of spiritual bullies and abusers, and that it is a toxic, unloving, and even unChristian denomination as a result of these failures…one where no “clear-thinking” Christian would even consider placing membership, no matter how Reformed they may be.

      We departed fellowship and membership at Christ Redeemer almost immediately after Covenant Presbytery upheld the decision by the lower court. There was considerable grace extended to the planting pastor and IPC Memphis-based Session that they were maybe (if not likely) misguided and overzealous in bringing charges and therefore inappropriately biased in rendering the initial decision, but that the error would be exposed as soon as the appeal went to the presbytery level and there would be at least an acknowledgement of error and some measure of repentance and, perhaps, an amicable reconciliation. However, with Covenant Presbytery denying the appeal and upholding the conviction, especially with rumors of a “stacked deck” regarding the committee appointed to review the case, the alarm bells sounded and red flags started waving. It implied the problem was not isolated but systemic. Some of us reasoned that even a favorable (and correct) decision by the GA/SJC toward the 7 accused men would not be enough for us to “unsee what we already saw.” It just meant the problem with abuse and corruption was much bigger than an isolated incident.

      1. I’ll just add that 2 members of the IPC Memphis Session came to Christ Redeemer just before the intended closure of the church. They had decided the church plant needed to close (evidently because the 7 men didn’t simply roll over in response to the lower court’s decision and had the temerity to appeal it, creating a “burden” for leadership), and the justification was that the local church culture was “toxic” and “unhealthy.” They used those exact words against us and made no qualification as to whether they thought that applied to the 7 men only or perhaps also to their spouses/families or even extended to the rest of us that did not have anyone in our household accused of anything. It felt like we were being smeared and slandered, and I might even go so far as to say it also felt like an informal and/or indirect “ex-communication.” Since they shunned their (prescribed in the BCO) duty of shepherding us into other, healthy ecclesiastical bodies, it can be reasonably deduced that they intended to drive us from their midst under whatever pretense was available. I will not make the mistake ever again of submitting myself to a PCA leadership (or the supposed spiritual authority of any church, denomination, or ecclesiastical body) that is so toxic, corrosive, abusive, and corrupt and unwilling to hold itself accountable at even a most basic level.

  4. This article starts out with a statement that, if true, should worry us all: There is a troubling trend in evangelical churches to abandon the basic principle presumption of innocence. But the author doesn’t really back this up with many examples.

    In the second example, he notes that at a recent presentation on abuse the speaker said that the church should always take a posture of belief toward the victim in cases of abuse. He sees this as a bad thing. I don’t necessary think it has to be. Could the presenter have been saying something to the effect of “Take the accusation seriously and investigate as if it were true?” Shouldn’t all investigators (as opposed to judges) do that? For too long, when accusations of abuse were made, they were often swept under the rug. The speaker could have been telling churches to move from a posture of disbelief to belief in terms of investigating the accusation (not administering judgement on the accused). Regardless, this does not substantiate the claim that “It is now commonplace to hear that churches must ‘believe all women’ when they claim abuse has occurred.” I don’t hear evangelical Christians saying this.

    And that brings us to the first example. I don’t know anything about it, so I will take it that this was an abuse of power and the seven men were wronged. But this is hardly evidence of a growing trend in evangelical churches. It’s one event.

  5. Some reflections:
    No one is “innocent until proven guilty.” The good news is that Christ died for our sins. Our judges ought to zealously seek out and apply God’s judicial procedures to avoid compounding bloodguiltiness as they bear up under “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Satan) and “you shall dying die” (God) and “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (God), and “judge with right judgement” (Jesus, who is coming again and will judge all our judgements, and does not need any witnesses beyond Himself, though He does hear witnesses).

    For a church judicial committee, discipline is to be for holiness’ sake, i.e. for the Lord’s name’s sake, since His bride has taken His name and must make herself ready for His coming, so “I would present you as a pure virgin” (Paul) and not, “find out who is so bad they must be excommunicated.”

    Sessions are responsible to establish true sanctification, and those in their care are responsible to accept the true and reject all counterfeit sanctification. We all need the Word of God for this, and the Holy Spirit to apply it.

    However I have come to the point where I think it is better to have bad discipline than none at all. Discipline will purify and strengthen the true people of God and expose wolves, even if the judgements are not right. And, those who follow Christ can and will suffer for His sake and endure, having greater assurance and greater reward.

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