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Few people in the Christian Reformed Church have ever heard of the denomination’s Judicial Code Committee (JCC) and even fewer know what the committee does. That’s because its work is generally done behind closed doors and the results are usually discussed in executive session at synod, which means everyone except delegates must leave and those who remain must honor confidentiality of the information discussed.

But how that committee works will get more attention at Synod 2019 (the annual general meeting of the CRC). Synod 2018 instructed the CRC’s executive director to work with the committee to improve the clarity of the Judicial Code, but the committee itself is asking for a broader review.

The JCC hears appeals about a decision made by a council, a classis, or an agency of the Christian Reformed Church if it is alleged that an action violates the Church Order or the agency’s mandate. The procedures followed by the Judicial Code Committee are found in Church Order Supplement, Article 30-c. The committee’s members from both Canada and the United States include clergy, non-clergy and people with legal expertise (Agenda for Synod 2019, p. 33).

The CRC’s Judicial Code was adopted by Synod 1977 “to insure just treatment of those who are involved in the judgments and decisions of the church.” It is intended as a dispute resolution mechanism of last resort. Rev. Henry DeMoor wrote in his Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary that “its use must never displace prior attempts to resolve issues amicably nor eliminate the use of trained facilitators or mediators to reach agreement before the ‘last resort’ kicks in” (p. 174).

Council of Delegates Proposes Clarifications

A recent case heard by the JCC showed a need for more clarity in cases involving charges of abuse, since those are also dealt with through the Safe Church advisory panel process created and approved by synod to deal with those charges.

However, as the Acts of Synod2018 point out, the guidelines of the advisory panel process are noted as suggestions, and can be deviated from when necessary. One clarification Synod 2018 asked for was when such deviation is permissible, and what conduct falls within the advisory panel process. Synod 2018 also recommended clarifying who may address synod in a Judicial Code case.

CRC executive director Steven Timmermans met with the Judicial Code Committee and Rev. Kathy Smith, polity professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, in response to synod’s request.

In February, the Council of Delegates recommended that Synod 2019 change the Rules for Synodical Procedure as proposed by the executive director. One recommendation is that the officers of synod may release a report of the judicial code committee to synod delegates up to two days before it is on the synod schedule, depending on the degree of confidentiality needed. This would allow delegates more time to read the materials. Current practice is that delegates receive the confidential materials at the beginning of the session in which the matter will be dealt with. 

It is also recommending adding more specific procedures for when and how both a complainant and the respondent may address synod directly.

The Council also recommended adding a note to the advisory panel process guidelines indicating that deviation from the process be allowed to provide protection for the alleged victims or alleged perpetrators and that the church retain legal counsel that could assist in deciding if such a deviation is justified.

Judicial Code Committee Wants Broad Review

The JCC presented its own report independent of the executive director’s proposal.

The committee is asking for a much broader review. It noted that in 2017 and 2018, the 12-member committee processed a dispute that involved a pastor who was a denominational employee, multiple complainants, a CRC classis (regional group of churches), a local church council, the CRC’s Safe Church Ministry, and persons assigned to an advisory panel. “The facts and procedural issues involved were many, complicated, nuanced, and not always apparent,” the committee wrote in its report.

As a result, the committee is asking Synod 2019 to appoint a task force for a much broader review of the Judicial Code and related practices. It wrote that it had concerns following its processing of the aforementioned matter, and additional concerns after observing how synod processed the matter.

It agrees with the need for clarification about which parties can address synod, timelines for when reports can be released, and which advisory panel rules are required and which are regarded as suggestive, including under what circumstances or for what reasons

Some Cases Too Complicated for Synod

JCC wants a task force to consider those issues and many more, including whether the role of synod, or the status of the Judicial Code Committee in its relationship to synod, need to be changed.

“Eyebrows may raise at this suggestion,” the committee wrote. “Notwithstanding, the JCC recommends this be within the scope of the proposed task force because the JCC observed a significant ‘mismatch’ between the inherent complexity of the JCC matter taken up by Synod 2018 and the inherent capabilities (or lack thereof) of that body to adequately process the matter, given its sizeable composition and the very limited time it had available to it.”

The JCC, in its report, said that Synod 2018 did not follow certain rules that were quite clear and should have been followed in processing the JCC matter. However, it wrote, even if those rules had been followed, it would remain the observation of some or all JCC members that a body the size of synod, having the time inherent in an annual meeting of synod, with executive session rules now followed, simply cannot adequately (fairly, justly) process a matter of the kind that came before Synod 2018.

The JCC noted that cases that come before synod vary in complexity. “Even if some matters are matters that annual synods could competently decide upon, others might not be.” It wants a task force to consider proposing changes that would create a more just process for matters coming under the provisions of the judicial code.

The Council decided to send to Synod 2019 both its recommendations and the JCC’s proposal for a task force. However, it noted its “non-endorsement of the [JCC] proposal.”

Synod 2019 is meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 14-20. For continuous coverage, download the Banner app on your mobile device or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook or @crcbanner on Twitter.

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