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.