Why Do We Have a Judicial Code?


Soon after his promotion from lecturer to professor of Old Testament studies at our Theological School in 1914, Ralph Janssen was to face growing suspicions of "liberalism." Four of his colleagues eventually demanded an investigation--of the Curatorium [now the Board of Trustees] and then of the Synod of 1920. 

Janssen claimed to stand in the tradition of conservative Reformed scholars in the Netherlands, but his colleagues weren't so sure. The Curatorium engaged in "trial preparations" that eventually produced little more than notes students had taken in class. 

Janssen himself refused to submit his own lecture notes because, he explained, the whole procedure against him was a "travesty of justice." This refusal became the formal ground upon which Janssen was deposed from office by the Synod of 1922. The Christian Reformed denomination was utterly clear and acted resolutely: in its passion for orthodoxy, it would have none of the so-called "higher criticism" of Scripture and the "modernism" that accompanied it. 

The trouble is, of course, that this battle was fought over the back of one person. Questions have always remained whether the synodical "trial" was fair. Some say it was: he had every opportunity--indeed--an obligation to defend himself. Others, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, said it had been a "heresy hunt," a case of "misrepresentation, demagoguery, and kangaroo courts." 

Chief among them was Harry R. Boer who expressed those sentiments in the Reformed Journal, November, 1973. Many shared Boer's views and cited other instances of "ecclesiastical injustice." And that set people a-thinking in those volatile 1970's--about the "Hoeksema case," the "Dekker case" and, more locally, about sexual abuse and cover-ups and sweeping dirt under the carpet. Yes, even within the church.

The assemblies of the church (council, classis, synod) are there primarily to encourage and enhance congregational, regional, and denominational ministries. Their governance is a matter of equipping God's people for ministry in the world. 

But assemblies are necessarily more than this. They must also adjudicate appeals or charges brought against persons or agencies or minor assemblies. And folks who listened carefully to Boer and others lamented the fact that our denomination--in contrast to others, especially the Presbyterians--had a pitiful dearth of material that could protect people from unfairness and injustice. 

In that climate, the Synod of 1977 adopted a "Judicial Code of Rights and Procedures." As a Supplement to our Church Order, Article 30-c, it has remained largely intact after minor amendments. Then, in 2012, the Board of Trustees asked a task force to conduct an extensive review of the code and integrate its provisions with other realities of our church life, especially safe church procedures and restorative justice practices. The Board approved the resulting draft and is now presenting it for adoption at Synod 2014.

In view of recent developments in our denomination, all members should know that this Judicial Code "is intended to be a dispute-resolution mechanism of last resort" (Preamble).  Resolution is never easy, appropriate adjudication is fraught with fallibility and reconciliation of parties--though always the desired outcome--often does not occur. Yet the assemblies must do their very best to adjudicate matters with demonstrable fairness so that parties can move on, put dark--even grim--chapters in our pilgrimage behind us, and lead us onward in our service of Christ. The Judicial Code spells out people's rights and appropriate procedures that, if carefully followed, will at least make it more likely that true justice is done in our midst.

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ok, I've hesitated to respond to this as I'm not an attorney, a pastor or a church polity expert and have minimal experience with this...  but have a significant interest for other reasons...

so I've read through the changes, and have a number of concerns...  I will address them one per post, as otherwise it might get lengthy, and I might not post them all at once, but over the next several weeks as I have time...

1) timeliness...

justice delayed is justice denied....

justice includes dealing with things in a timely manner. As I understand, when we make the judicial code the last resort in the church order (CO) process, considerable time has most likely elapsed at this point.  As evidence of that, it took one year for resolution in the recent classis Toronto decision (see post under Network safe church and recent banner article) and that wasn't even to the judicial code point yet (?), so it is quite likely that 1-4+ years have elapsed since the original incident by the time it gets to judicial code...  because of this length of time, the person bringing the charge/issue/concern runs into considerable pressure by others, including those in leadership and involved in the process, telling them to move on, let it go, and that they should drop the charges/issue since it’s been so long at that point.  Leadership involved needs to understand that the church order process can be the cause for it to take so long when it's the last resort, and the lack of timeliness of dealing with the situation is often not the fault of the person brining the charges, but is a result of the church order process.  The lack of timeliness of the process needs to be recognized and understood, not blamed on the person bringing the concern.



2) Words and phrases that need to have a very clear definition and understanding of the following terms or reconsider using these terms:

a. restorative justice

Restorative justice is a very broad term and needs clarity... Please include a clear, specific reference to a document, or include an appendix to what is meant by this term.  Looking back at Synod 2005, I could not find the definition in the acts of synod and needed to look in the 2005 agenda to find some idea of what we mean by this here, it was not a quick and easy search to find out what this means.  I read the 2005 overture related to this concept which states many of the same concerns I have about this concept.  Have those concerns been addressed anywhere?  If so, how, when and where?,  So, not seeing any definition in the proposed changes is concerning.

If the perpetrator is a master manipulator, the victim might be the one who ends up repenting and apologizing to the abuser.    Unbelievable?  Not unheard of, unfortunately.  I’m sure that’s not the intention, but I've heard about the victims where their spiritual leaders use their authority and tell them they are the ones in the wrong for a variety of reasons and that they are the ones that should be repenting and apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  (see above comment on timeliness and how some assume the person bringing the charge is at fault for making it drag on as one example).  I would like to see a clear, concise definition, understanding that can be quickly accessed either referenced or included here.

I agree that restorative justice is often not appropriate for charges regarding ungodly sexual conduct and any kind of abuse.  The Holy Spirit is the only One Who can ever restore the damage to the trust and innocence and other “intangibles” that have been damaged because of the situation.  I would love to see the prophetic and inner healing recognized as part of the process.  It seems that is recognized minimally in this process.

We want to make the assumption that whoever is leading will do so in a righteous, holy and godly manner.  I want to believe that too, and did for most of my life.  However, in the last several years, I have witnessed and researched multiple situations where that was not the case when it came to sexual immorality in leadership.  I have studied the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse of children that was going on for decades and how multiple levels including the Vatican were involved in covering it up, and protecting the reputation of the leader and the Church at the cost of the victim.  The code of secrecy that contributed to decades long cover up and keeping it hidden, again at the expense of those who were and continued to be victimized by leaving the priests in leadership positions, where they could continue to do their evil “deeds”.   I have researched the Sovereign Grace lawsuit, again, where sexual abuse against children by leaders was covered up for many, many years with leaders aware of it and left the perpetrators in positions of leadership, where they could continue to abuse.  I have researched Bill Gothard, a key ministry leader in the patriarchal movement, how he for years took advantage of teen girls who volunteered in his ministry, to date there have been over 30 that have come forward.  And most recently we have Doug Phillips, also a key Christian leader in the patriarchal and home school movement, in a lawsuit for sexual abuse, to mention just a few situations that have been publicized.   Along with that, in the last several years several women that have been in the crc, have shared with me their stories of abuse by leaders in the church, and that in all of their situations, the leaders were left in leadership.  Also, I have heard from others involved in a number of other abuse stories within the crc that had the same result: NO JUSTICE, and leaders protected.   Restorative justice would be wonderful, but in too many situations, we aren’t even seeing any JUSTICE at this point, unless it goes public, forcing leadership to deal with it in a more transparent way.

(there will be more words that I would like to see defined or clarified in a subsequent comment)



significant clarification on:

b. "manifestly" and "obviously" used in Section 6.c regarding appeals

These are quite ambiguous terms and cause me to cringe more than I’m comfortable with.  What is obvious to one person, is not necessarily so for the next, that’s how come things get to the judicial code level.  The leaders of the proceedings are generally very smart, and if they think it’s necessary, they are smart enough to manipulate and cover things up for whatever reasons they feel it’s necessary, and so it will quite likely NOT be manifestly unfair or obvious that the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion, but it will be hidden, subtle, confusing and very, very difficult to prove, especially if it’s appealing something done in strict executive session.  Transparency does not seem to be a strong point in the CRC.

The charge of an unfair hearing will be met with much resistance from the leadership, and the leadership will spin everything they need to, to make them look good, and cover up.   Anyone who is good at manipulating will be able to make the hearing appear fair to the majority of people, but you have to dig to find how they are manipulating the process.  It will not be obvious or manifest, but will take peeling back layers of a tangled web, which most likely will include manipulation, deception, twisting, spinning, misunderstanding, etc..  That's one of the reasons the Catholic Church could cover things up for decades!!!  Things are not obvious and if they were, it would not have gotten to this point in the first place.  On top of that, often people are afraid to speak out, because they will be shunned, lose their friends/job, or worse…  and that is one of the tactics the enemy uses to keep evil from being exposed.

I see these terms as significant potential loopholes that can be used to manipulate the outcome, or give the perpetrator, or leadership, a way out.  Manipulators can twist the meaning of words to make it fit their situation, and use it to try to shut down a case based on some technicality.  As one example, per the church order article 84, “sexual misconduct” has a very narrow definition, basically “sexual abuse”.  However, sexual misconduct is generally understood with a much broader interpretation than how the CO defines it.  I would think that for most people, how the CO defines “ungodly conduct” is what most people consider “sexual misconduct” as well as “ungodly”.  It seems that sometimes something is decided on a technicality, instead of what is right and just.

I’m also very concerned about “manifestly” as that could shut the door on the prophetic.  When things are so hidden, secretive, covered up, God will use the prophetic to help expose it.  Often there will be manifest evidence as well, but it might not be obvious, and being a bit familiar with our traditional understanding of the prophetic, I have concerns that we might be shutting this door of the prophetic through using this type of word seems to me could technically exclude the prophetic.

Again, if something is at the point of judicial code/last resort, there are serious issues where someone isn’t taking responsibility, or being honest, or there is something fairly deep going on.  We cannot assume everyone is doing the righteous, Christ like response at this point, because then it would have been resolved long ago.

So would love to see these terms clarified or something as they are vague and seem to leave a large loophole for leaders to do whatever they want.

I found it interesting that the crc acknowledged our lack of justice through the following statement from Synod 2014:

BOQ: Synod 2010 issued a declaration confessing that the CRC has "not always justly and compassionately helped those who have been sexually abused" and has "not always justly or adequately disciplined church leaders who have been abusers" (Acts of Synod 2010, p. 867). EOQ

I'm thinking and finding that it's been more than an isolated incident here and there.



ok... just a break from sharing my thoughts to hearing from another perspective... here's a recent article (warning: it's long and a tough, heavy read, with possible triggers for those who've been abused, so read only when you are at a healthy emotional place/time) about Boz Tchividjian (Billy Graham's grandson) and the ministry of GRACE he's involved with...  and some of his thoughts on transparency in the church...


here's a quote from the end of the article:

 GRACE is challenging Christian institutions to live up to their teachings, to “expend themselves, even to the point of death, to demonstrate love for a very hurt soul,” as Tchividjian says.
“If you think about it in the Christian context,” he continues, “God did his most powerful work when Jesus, his son, was at his most transparent and vulnerable, on the cross. So why do we approach all these things differently? If I’m a Christian, why am I not driven by the fact that if we mess up as an institution, then when we’re most transparent and vulnerable, that’s when God can do his most powerful work? I’ve seen that in churches: When they do respond that way, it’s pretty powerful what results in the lives of survivors.”EOQ

so, CRC, something to ponder pretty seriously...