The following material was originally posted on my personal blog. It has been slightly revised to fit veritas praebita:
I will, d.v., follow this post with a less specific one on the Consequences of Doing Nothing; for now, it will suffice to say that in the ongoing saga that is Church A., one theme keeps rising to the surface: it’s a council matter, and they have to keep everything confidential, therefore I shouldn’t ask for an explanation or proof of what happened. This is what I will call ‘Playing the Confidentiality Card’.
What the leadership does at A. is, in theory, dictated by the church order of her denomination. There is in fact mention made of the council members’ responsibility to hold at least something[s] ‘in confidence’. Let’s look at this subordinate clause in its context and see whether the excuse printed on the Confidentiality Card can walk or not, much less hold water. The excerpts below are from the forms cited as they appear in the text available online, at the denominational website.
1. The clause in the ordination form is vague–defining it may be difficult. It runs thus:
‘They must provide true preaching and teaching, regular celebration of the sacraments, and faithful counsel and discipline while keeping in confidence those matters entrusted to them.’
The immediate context would seem to indicate that confidential matters are linked to the duties of counseling and church discipline. In the case of A., a confidential counseling matter might be, for example, a parishioner coming to an elder with an issue. We know that last year some people came to at least one elder with complaints against the pastor. That should have been kept in confidence unless the parishioner chose otherwise. Yet the elder had an obligation to ‘counsel’ as well. If the complaint was, let’s say, about the pastor’s preaching, the elder’s primary responsibility would be to advise the parishioner to go to the pastor with his issues, as stipulated in, among other passages, Matthew 18, and the pastor should hear him. In addition, it would be incumbent on the elder to point out, if it is the case, that the pastor’s preaching was biblical, and that therefore, for example, there were no grounds for making demands that the pastor change based on the parishioner’s complaint. However, the first point stands: regardless if the nature of the complaint, the elder should counsel the person to go to the pastor and discuss the issue with him face-to-face. The pastor would then also be obligated to keep such a discussion confidential.
In the case of discipline, there were a few instances in the past few years where people probably ought to have been disciplined, but weren’t—it’s hard to know, at least in A., what confidentiality looks like, practically, in such situations. Discipline just doesn’t happen there.
But in looking at the specific case of the termination of Pastor Templar, the List and the meeting at which Pastor T. read his response to it were not treated as confidential by the council itself. The congregation heard about the List after it was given to the pastor, and after the meeting, the council gave its own summary of the response and their reaction to it after the morning service on 1 November; furthermore, arguably defamatory excerpts from the Article 17 were read aloud to the congregation at the congregational meeting. By the council’s own precedent, the event and the text of the List and Pastor T’s response are not confidential; rather, they have been trotted out, in written bits or verbal representations, as justification for the termination, but no one in the congregation has had access to the documents for context, and to verify whether they conform to the verbal claims made about them.
2. Even if the clause were interpreted as applying to a wide range of issues and situations, it could be argued that it wouldn’t apply to an event or document that precipitated the [unbiblical] firing of a minister. On the one hand, if wrongdoing by the council were suspected, the documentation ought to be published, to dispel or confirm the suspicion, and either clear the pastor or the council of wrongdoing, because a congregation can’t really move forward in faith if it is isn’t certain that its leadership has acted in accordance with the Law of God and in a manner worthy of the name of Christ. As it has been alleged, by more parties than simply the pastor in question, that this was WRONG, there should be an investigation, and the alleged cause for his dismissal (the List, and his reply to it) should be examined, and likely the background to the List as well (what precipitated it, why it is in the order it is, why it includes such a variety of issues, why it wasn’t written up in advance, what were the biblical justifications for certain items, whether it was from the beginning a ‘package deal’, whether it was made clear to the Pastor that his job was dependent on him accepting the List wholesale with no discussion, etc.). On the other hand, if he were being fired for a serious moral lapse or gross sin, like sexual harassment or embezzling, it could be argued that it is incumbent on the council to make the reason public, even calling upon the civil authorities to press charges.
3. Because the council is elected and confirmed by their congregation, the congregation is obligated to hold the leadership accountable in terms of both its teaching and actions against the standards provided by scripture and the tradition of the church (following the example of the Bereans). In the following passage from the Covenant for Office Bearers, the council is bound to give a thorough explanation to the church if it takes issue with any statements in the confessions:
‘Should we come to believe that a teaching in the confessional documents is not the teaching of God’s Word, we will communicate our views to the church, according to the procedures prescribed by the Church Order and its supplements. If the church asks, we will give a full explanation of our views. Further, we promise to submit to the church’s judgment and authority.’
The council is answerable to the church even in terms of its stance on doctrinal matters. As such, the congregation, on some issues, has a certain ‘right to know’ what goes on in the consistory room (e.g., the budget is published. Why?). The council is to be made up of the spiritual caretakers of the church; elders should be able faithfully to teach the Bible, and both elders and deacons should live lives characterized by exemplary Christian service and righteousness. If they have in fact sinned, especially as a group, in effect having brought reproach on Christ’s name and on their local body by abuse of their position, the circumstances should be made known to the congregation in order that they may judge whether discipline is necessary. It is also incumbent on the congregation itself to maintain its own purity and standing before God, and to honor Him and the Truth by diligently seeking it out.
4. The form for ordination includes many other binding or prescriptive clauses. It is difficult to grant credibility to the selective enforcement (or hiding behind, depending on point of view) of one clause when so many others have been ignored and/or broken. Some examples follow.
In the Form for Ordination, the office of elder is described thus (emphasis mine):
‘Elders are thus responsible for the spiritual well-being of God’s people. They must provide true preaching and teaching, regular celebration of the sacraments, and faithful counsel and disciplinewhile keeping in confidence those matters entrusted to them. Andthey must promote fellowship and hospitality among believers (I bolded this because on the List such duties were made the responsibility of the pastor alone [?!]), ensure good order in the church, and stimulate witness to all people.’
A little further down, the deacons are charged with, among other things, the securing of justice:
‘In Christ’s name the deacons relieve victims of injustice. By this they show that Christians live by the Spirit of the kingdom, fervently desiring to give life the shape of things to come.’
The following is in the charge to the elders:
‘Be a friend and Christlike example to children. Give clear and cheerful guidance to young people.’
‘Be wise counselors who support and strengthen the pastor.’
‘Be compassionate, yet firm and consistent in rebuke and discipline.’
‘Know the Scriptures, which are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).’
From the vows:
‘Do you subscribe to the doctrinal standards of this church, rejecting all teaching which contradicts them?’
‘Do you promise to do the work of your offices faithfully, in a way worthy of your calling and in submission to the government and discipline of the church?’
5. It was observed in the midst of the situation that confidentiality of emails between even pastors was not being respected; when pastors who were passing around emails were confronted on this issue, they either would not admit to doing so, or outright refused to maintain confidentiality. One party concluded that it never had been reasonable to expect matters to be kept confidential, given the attitudes of people involved. It is my belief that the confidentiality card being played at this stage serves only to protect the suspected guilty.
I can be cynical in this regard, since, per the termination agreement, Pastor Templar is bound by a gag order, which, if not obeyed, could cost him his severance. The council is also bound not to speak disparagingly of Pastor T., and of course it would be safer to say nothing about the situation at all, but as stories continue to circulate, proliferate and mutate, it can be reasonably assumed that certain council members do not feel themselves bound by discretion. One council member’s wife actually took it upon herself to read a letter addressed to the council only, and even to send me a reply. I will resist offering extensive comment on this.
Indeed, such lack of consideration for propriety is to be expected; the termination agreement also specified that any statement put out to the congregation was to be mutually constructed and agreed upon by both the council and Pastor Templar. One was written and posted to all the congregation, Templar excepted, without his even having been given notice that the council had been working on it. He may not have learned about it until long after, if a former member had not informed him, and had some of the letters not been returned to the church undelivered due to invalid addresses!
6. Finally and briefly, the ‘business’ of council meetings is ‘open,’ just as the church budget is published, just as the pastor’s salary is published. And, the written grounds for firing someone should be as accessible as the grounds for hiring them: the whole congregation can hear a candidate preach, meet him, discuss him, then deliberate and vote whether to call him in a congregational meeting called for the purpose. How can it be that to fire the same man, none of the process or the decision is ‘accessible’ to the church as a whole?