I think many of us expected it to be only a matter of time before these two worlds collided and while blogging has been increasing in religious circles it appears we now have, to my knowledge at least, the first case in Presbyterian circles of possible ecclesiastical discipline for statements made while blogging. More on that in a moment, but first a little perspective…
Public airing of theological discussions goes back at least as far as a crazy German monk who annoyed Pope Leo X by nailing 95 Theses to a chapel door in Wittenberg. It may seem strange to us today but in that time and place it was Martin’s equivalent of blogging back in 1517.
But as Presbyterians our system has some interesting features that help inform our understanding of discussion and church governance. Going back to the “Radical Principles of Presbyterianism” that statement includes:
[T]hat a larger part of the Church, or a representation of it, should govern a smaller, or determine matters of controversy which arise therein; that, in like manner, a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part, and to all the parts united: that is, that a majority shall govern;
This has been understood to include the necessity of meeting together, or as the PC(USA) Book of Order puts it [G-4.0301e]
e. Decisions shall be reached in governing bodies by vote, following opportunity for discussion, and a majority shall govern;
So within the Presbyterian system there are two principles I want to highlight at this juncture: 1) The system is representative, having Elders, Teaching and Ruling, chosen by God through the voice of the people that are responsible for most of the decision making. 2) That these representatives come together for conducting business, to join together in discerning the will of God at prescribed times and places.
In the long run point number one above may be the more interesting and complicated of the two. For today, let me side-step this point by observing that the vast majority of those on the internet discussing the fine points of Presbyterian polity are Teaching and Ruling Elders or candidates working to be ordained as Teaching Elders. But as much as Presbyterianism is a step away from an episcopal system towards democratization of the ecclesiastical structure, it will be important to think through the implications of the internet when everyone in the denomination can contribute to doctrinal, polity and theological discussions in near real time. What does it look like when you scale up the congregational structure from the level of a particular church to the level of national discussion. (For some very interesting thinking about that you can start reading TE Landon Whitsitt’s chapter drafts for The Open Source Church.)
Let me focus instead on the second point above — that discussions related to governing body decisions are intended to occur in the face-to-face environment of the judicatory meeting, and what happens when they happen outside that circle.
I want to start out by noting that taking issues out of the judicatory and into public forum is noting new. As I mentioned above, in a sense Dr. Martin Luther did that in 1517, and it has happened on a regular basis ever since. Many individuals who had either reputation or means of communication have taken advantage of them.
Let me give two contrasting examples from the Presbyterian Church in Canada during the church union movement early in the twentieth century. I take these from N. Keith Clifford’s book The Resistance To Church Union In Canada 1904-1939.
The first individual is Robert Campbell, senior clerk of the General Assembly. He was the first major opponent of church union and beginning in 1904 he argued against it based on a number of different issues. As only us Presbyterian polity wonks could appreciate, while much of his theological argument did not get significant traction, he had a certain level of agreement from some prominent proponents of union regarding specific polity arguments he made, especially concerning the process of sending the union question down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. Leave it to the Presbyterians to rally around process. As Clifford says [pg. 26]
There were indeed others who had doubts about union, but it was Campbell who defined the issues, exposed the irregularity of the unionists’ procedure, and proposed the alternative around which the first resistance organization crystallized. Once the resistance became organized outside the structures of the church however, Campbell’s position as senior clerk of the assembly prevented him from assuming leadership of the movement, and he gradually slipped into the background.
His “slipping into the background” did not prevent him from taking his stand and voicing his opinion in public and he published a couple of pamphlets and one book ably making the case against union and generally forcing the unionists to address, and even agree with, his objections. However, Clifford later speaks of his leadership [pg. 41] when new alliances were forming against union:
The problem in this instance was not Campbell’s background but his position as senior clerk. He had been appointed to this permanent position in 1892, more than a decade before the church union question appeared on the assembly’s agenda. Consequently, he saw himself as a leader of the whole church and not just a part of it. When the dissidents organized in 1910, therefore, he would not accept a leadership position, even though the purpose of the group was to support his alternative of federation. Thus, when the resistance movement began to take on a life of its own, shaped by those who assumed leadership, Campbell gradually faded into the background of the controversy to the point where later opponents of union failed to appreciate that except for his efforts the unionists might very well have accomplished their purpose in 1912.
Furthermore, after 1912, no one who was opposed to union was elected moderator or appointed to any major committee responsibility in the church. As a result, from 1913 until his death in March 1921, [ed. note: Union was accomplished in 1925] Campbell served an assembly dominated by unionists. His role tended to deflect attention even further from his importance as an early opponent of union. The ironic twist in all this was that the unionists recognized the significance of Campbell’s refusal to accept an office in any of the resistance organizations, and when he died, they were the only one who publicly eulogized him for his service to the church during his twenty-nine years as clerk of the General Assembly.
Clifford goes on to quote some of the eulogies. One said that while they might have differed with him in opinion, “yet we never ceased to admire the lucidity of his argument, his confidence that he was right, and the courtesy with which he treated an opponent.” Another spoke of him as a “keen debater” who could take as well as give but “he was without bitterness and never allowed public differences to interfere with private friendships.”
On the other hand, where there have been repeated tensions about what is printed and how it is written has been in official publications of Presbyterian branches. The Canadian union debate was no different. Following the 1910 General Assembly meeting Dr. Ephraim Scott, editor of the official publication the Presbyterian Record became a main target. Dr. Scott had recorded a dissent to the Assembly action to send the union proposals to the presbyteries and that and later public criticism of the unionists actions made him a target. There were calls for him to resign if he could not support the official position of the Assembly and in the following year various charges and rebuttals were publicly aired. At the 1911 Assembly the outgoing Moderator said that the Record was “not worthy of the church and needed shaking up.” [Clifford, pg. 30] An amendment to a committee report was proposed that would require faithful representation of the Assembly action or strict neutrality. Clifford reports that the amendment failed because one prominent unionist argued the reporting was not sufficiently biased to remove the editor and another respected commissioner, at that time neutral on union, argued that the church press should be free and the editor could express his own views. It also helped that presbytery voting on the 1910 proposal was showing weaker support for union than the proponents expected and they realized that there was a longer road ahead than they had reckoned. But it should be noted that, as Clifford tells it, few – if any – specific charges were brought against Scott and none were validated. As the editor he was a convenient and high-profile target.
As I said a moment ago, the use of an official publication by the editor to advocate a particular position is still a major issue and in the last couple of years we have seen criticism in the Free Church of Scotland for advocating the flexibility to have worship music beyond unaccompanied psalm singing, in the Church of Scotland in advance of the 2009 Assembly where the editor advocated her stance on the ordination standards issue, and recent criticism of the PC(USA)’s Presbyterians Today for taking a position that seemed to presume adoption of the Belhar Confession.
Related to the situation I’ll mention in a moment, Sean Gerety comments about another historical case, the Clark-Van Til debate in 1944, where the Presbyterian Guardian provided information on, and editorialized for, the Van Til side of the debate but information on the Clark side had to be obtained privately.
So can Presbyterians take their debates outside the meetings? Clearly I think that they can, to some degree, since my own blogging sometimes crosses the line from news to commentary. And I appreciate Dr. Richard Mouw’s historical perspective, comments, and opinion on why the Belhar Confession should not be adopted by the PC(USA). There are numerous examples of other bloggers who contribute in this way. There appears to be real value in the Web distributing information and opinion to a wider audience than could be reached using earlier techniques, like a chapel door or the party line in an official publication.
But having said that some branches have decided that wider and public debate at certain times and on certain topics is not appropriate. For the 219th General Assembly the PC(USA) put out a document on Using Social Media At General Assembly. The short answer in the document is “don’t during meetings,” except they phrased it like this “The guiding principle for using social media at a General Assembly is to be attentive and present to the community gathered immediately around us and to the mysterious and wondrous movement of the Spirit of Christ in this place.” This addresses the use of social media only during the meeting. At the 2009 Church of Scotland General Assembly they decided that the topic of ordination standards was such a hot topic that the Assembly approved a ban on discussing the topic in public, including the web, while a special commission does its work. As far as I have seen, the silence on the topic has held very well. (Update: Please see the comments for some more on the PC(USA) policy and clarification of implementation and intent.)
So with that as perspective let’s look at the current specific case. On the one hand it revolves around a larger issue in the PCA right now, the controversy over the Federal Vision Theology. But on the other hand this case is dealing with it at the local level, specifically in the Siouxlands Presbytery, that I have written about before.
But the issue at the moment is not the Federal Vision argument itself but how the argument has been conducted. A complaint has been filed with the presbytery by Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Minnetonka, MN, complaining that TE Brian Carpenter “caused great offense and harm to us as a church, as well as harm to the good name of our pastor…” They go on to note the action filed with the presbytery and say:
However, in the context of the Presbytery alone, we were content for the matter to be heard and disposed of in the proper courts, being the called meeting of October 20, 2009, with Dr. Moon’s testimony of what we know to be his true beliefs.
Mr. Carpenter, however, was unwilling to allow the issue to remain within the confines of Presbytery and the appropriate courts. Instead, in actions that worked to prejudice Dr. Moon’s good name and reputation in the larger PCA and Reformed world, Mr. Carpenter wrote an inaccurate and unfair representation of Dr. Moon’s views on the Aquila Report, a public blog. Mr. Carpenter has every right to disagree with Presbytery, to think it wrong, and even (perhaps) to report the actions taken by our Presbytery. But his actions went beyond these to the point of ensuring Dr. Moon’s good name and reputation, as well as the name of our church, were damaged publicly, and in some ways irretrievably.
In another complaint Christ Church Mankato complained against TE Wes White
We, the Session of Christ Church, write to bring to your attention a matter of utmost concern to us.
On February 7, 2010 TE White began posting information on his blog that we believe to be injurious to TE Lawrence, Christ Church, and the Siouxlands Presbytery. On February 18, we contacted TE White privately and informed him of his fault (Matthew 18:15ff), requesting that he remove the posts, acknowledge his fault, and ask forgiveness of those he had wronged. TE White replied to us that his conscience was clear in the matter, and has not removed the posts nor sought forgiveness.
The blog posts we object to are as follows…
In the matter of the first complaint the investigating committee found a strong presumption of guilt but the presbytery chose instead to refer it back to the committee to provide specific instances with analysis of the error(s). That blog post provides TE Carpenter’s response to the committee and defense of his position which includes issues of how his case was handled. May help explain the alternate motion the presbytery adopted. On his own blog he has a new post analyzing the requirements of the Book of Church Order and advocating for an open process in judicial proceedings.
Regarding his own case TE White tells us “The Administrative Committee of the Presbytery of the Siouxlands reviewed these materials and was unsure as to what the Session of Christ Church was asking.” It sounds something like a judicial case on which no remedy can be applied. The Administrative Committee recommended the presbytery refer it to decide what options are available. The presbytery, again, chose a different course and passed a substitute motion to appoint a committee to conduct a BCO 31-2 investigation. (The investigation to decide if charges can be filed and if so, what charges.)
So at this point we have two individuals for which specific charges are being considered related specifically to their blogging activities. Christ Church closes their second letter with this request:
Since this is not the first time disputes have arisen over what someone has said about someone else or the Presbytery on the internet, we request that the Presbytery make its expectations clearly known.
This is what the PC(USA) and the Church of Scotland did with their actions. You may not agree with the total ban in each case but at least they were clear.
Where does this leave us? You may have your own thoughts on all this but here are a few that occur to me.
First, in these specific instances we will have to see where the judicial process leads. There are specific charges to be brought, a presbytery level trial if the strong presumption of guilt is present and charges made. And then there is the possibility of appeal. Buckle up for the ride.
Second, it is tempting to make the distinction that you can blog about doctrine but not about people. However, a bit of reflection and you realize that when the problem, perceived or real, is that another individual holds a view in error it is our responsibility to inform that person of their error. What is more important here is how that happens.
Third, the larger problem here is that the problem, in the opinion of some people, was that the presbytery had erred. Remember, we hold in tension the polity principle mentioned above “that a majority shall govern,” with the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXXI.iv) “All synods or councils… may err, and many have.” How do we balance majority rule with the possibility of corporate error? As Presbyterians we look to the review of higher governing bodies. As the problem goes wider does that now make blogging to the wider audience acceptable?
Fourth, for good or ill the Internet and blogging are powerful tools for disseminating information and expressing opinions to a wide audience. And it is not going away. These cases show that the lines of what are and are not acceptable are not well defined and so we will need to find ways to live with it and behave in a Christian manner on it. We could take the “no blogging” approach, the “blog but no names” rule or “keep it abstract not concrete” to limit what could be construed as personal attacks.
As corollaries to all this let me suggest that we bloggers should be slow to compose and do it prayerfully. When I began my first field mapping class the professor suggested to us that we should be as free with the eraser as the pencil. And continuing with this theme, we need to be aware that with our fallen nature we will make mistakes and if we are at this long enough offend someone. The facts may be in our favor but can we present them in such a way that, as they said of Robert Campbell, “he was without bitterness and never allowed public differences to interfere with private friendships.”
Let me conclude by saying that I am not passing judgment in these particular cases or even weighing in on the actions of anyone involved. I have not been following it closely enough to have a well-formed opinion and I will rely on the full judicial process to investigate and adjudicate that.
So where are the lines? Can we correct error in such a way as to preserve truth and make ecclesiastical discipline restorative, even on the web? This issue will not go away so I look forward to others weighing in and governing bodies discerning where they wish to draw the lines. Let us see what develops.