The fact that they don’t have a foundation for it has not prevented philosophers from trying to come up with improvements on the Golden Rule that Jesus gave us. And without granting that they are in fact improvements, we might still benefit from looking at the ancient problem of selfishness from new angles. Kant’s form of it was the categorical imperative — behave in such a way that you would be willing for your conduct to become a universal rule. The legal philosopher Rawls put it this way: design the ideal society in your mind without knowing where in that society you will be born. This is the same approach taken by a wise mother who tells her son to cut up the pie for all the kids — and he will take the last piece.
When it comes to matters of justice in the church, trials, witnesses, and presbyterial huffy-fits, I would like to adapt Rawls’ exhortation. Design in your mind the ideal system for adjudicating troubles in the church. Do this without Rawls’ democratic egalitarianism making a hash of it, and just sit down with an open Bible. Find out what the Bible teaches on this subject, and the one thing you do not know as you design this system is whether or not you will be the judge or defendant, witness or accuser. You just plain do not know.
What this does is remove the very carnal (and very easy) tendency toward partisanship. What do I mean by partisanship? Say that your church is troubled by some of the standard afflictions of Zion, and you have two roaring factions in your congregation. One of them wants the carpet in the foyer to be red, and the other wants it to be blue. Feelings are running pretty high, and many on both sides are starting to question the spiritual maturity of the boneheads on the other side of this issue. Now, in the middle of all this, suppose that one of the most vocal members of the blue faction is arrested by the cops for his extensive collection of child porn stashed in his basement. He was, before this, a respected member of the church and nobody knew about it.
There are two ways this could go. The easy way is the partisan way. In other words, the members of the red faction, after the initial shock, start giving way to feelings of quiet but increasing confidence. “This deals a deadly blow to the forces of blue.” While no one goes so far as to make a direct link (as in, “support for blue carpet leads to child porn”), the disaster is still used politically. Of course, what ought to happen is the second way. A tragedy like this ought to put everything suddenly into perspective. “Whatever our differences in the past, we all agree that this is horrible, that it must dealt with, and so on.” This is far more edifying and honoring to God, but not nearly as useful politically. So that illustrates what I mean by partisanship. Partisanship looks at whatever mechanisms for justice are there, and asks how these mechanisms can be manipulated to achieve the ends that are desired. In this view, courts are simply a tool of partisan politics. If it suits us, we demand that it be used this way, and the next time we might be insisting on the exact opposite. In other words, suppose the next week the chairman of red carpet party got caught embezzling from the offering. All of a sudden, the vocal advocates of swift-and-certain justice with regard to child porn are arguing, when it comes to embezzlement, that the quality of mercy is not strained, but falleth as a gentle rain from heaven. All this shows is that people who behave this way are not interested in justice at all (or love, or mercy, or integrity) but rather in getting what they want.
Now, back to our ideal justice system. In a situation like this, I am setting up the mechanism of settling disputes in the church without knowing at all whether the Lord will plonk me into the red faction, blue faction, or as the pastor of the church across the street that will inherit all the disgruntled blue party after the first church blows up.
What should the rights of the accused be? And answer the question without knowing whether you will be the accused or accuser. What should the responsibilities of the elders be? And tell me without knowing if you will be one of them or not. What should the liability be for one who bears false witness and slanders another? But you give the answer without knowing if you are the slanderer or slandered. And so on. This addresses a principle I have noted several times before in this discussion. We all know the principles of justice, and have them down cold when our interests are on the line. But we tend to forget or minimize them when someone else is being railroaded, especially if we have a partisan interest in that railroading being successful.
We live in a fallen world, and the fall has affected the administration of justice. We live in a fallen world, and the Church is by no means immune from those distortions of justice. More than one presbytery has frogmarched a man of eminent holiness to the door. “And stay out!” More than one liar has borne false witness in a church trial, and gotten away with it. More than one anonymous slanderer has haranged the public with arguments so convoluted that they could be used for deck screws. More than one rogue pastor has established a mini-papal state, and run it like Leo X on a toot. More than one pietistic soul has torn apart a church with all her damn prayer requests. All this is granted, and then some. All this is laid on the table, and raise you ten. Injustice can and does flow in any direction. This is not to say that injustice flows everywhere all at once, with all parties equally guilty all the time. Rather, I am arguing that, at any given time, we do not know a priori who is in the right and who is not.
Paul says that Timothy was prohibited from receiving a charge against an elder without two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). This was not because they were “in authority” but rather because they were “accused.” In the biblical world, the accused always gets the benefit of the doubt, always gets the presumption of innocence. So this was not because of any assumption on Paul’s part that elders couldn’t sin. No, because he goes on to say that if the conditions were met, and the elder was convicted (on the word of two or three witnesses), he was to be rebuked in the presence of all so that the others would stand in fear. Peter tells us what some of those sins of elders might be. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5: 2-3). Two sins mentioned here are greed for money, and lust for power. Peter also refers to false teachers who are looking for a little action (2 Pet. 2:14). So there you have it, the three g’s of ministerial abuse — glory, greed, and girls. Because this is the way it is in our messy world, then it is quite possible that men in authority have abused their position for power, for money, or for the sake of their lusts. But for exactly the same reason, it is just as easy to falsely accuse someone of falling when they have not. To accuse a minister of greed may well be false, but it is not absurd. And so we have to establish protections, protections for everyone. And we should go so far as to let just about anybody do the exegesis, just so long as they have their ignorance of what role they will have in the upcoming trial held in front of them the entire time.
As many of you know, these matters are not hypothetical for me. I have been maligned and misrepresented more times than Carter’s got pills. But I also have friends around the country who have been in judicial meltdowns of various kinds, and I have had friends occupying different places in those meltdowns. I know conscientious pastors who have been slandered by parishioners. I know conscientious parishioners who have been slandered by elders. And I have heard of a fracas (from time to time) that doesn’t concern me, and I do not want to take a passing dog by the ears.
But here are a few rules of thumb, to be kept in mind by everyone. You designed the system, and now God has placed you into a highly charged situation, and we are now test-driving your sense of justice. It turns out that in our scenario you are one who is falsely accused of child molestation. What is the Golden Rule and how did you apply it to the process? Did you write laws that allow for anonymous accusations to be made against you? Is there no accountability for the accuser if the charges are shown to be false, and full accountability for you if they are shown to be true? Did the one bringing charges read only a selection of the primary documents? Before the indictment, were both sides heard completely? Did anyone settle on your guilt before they even heard your account? If so, Scripture says it is a shame and folly for them. But if such people are allowed to hear your case, in the courtroom you designed, it is a shame and folly at the design level.