A Dispute About How to Resolve Disputes

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Synod 2019 (the general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church) clarified the rules governing Judicial Code hearings—hearings held in disputes that cannot be resolved in any other way—and put in place procedures to increase the diversity of the Judicial Code Committee. The changes were approved without comment by a voice vote. But behind these relatively small changes is a larger story.

It’s a story about a dispute. Actually, about two disputes. The first one was a messy appeal that came to Synod 2018. In the words of the Judicial Code Committee, the group responsible for processing really messy disputes, this dispute “involved a CRC [Christian Reformed] pastor (who had been a denominational employee), multiple complainants, a CRC classis [a regional body of churches], the council of a CRC congregation, the CRC’s Safe Church Ministry, and persons assigned by Safe Church to an advisory panel.” Messy.

The court of last resort for disputes of this sort is synod, and so, in 2018, synod spent hours in executive session—doors closed with participants committed to keeping the proceedings secret. Apparently, it did not go well.

After the behind-closed-doors proceedings had concluded, synod issued a request to the executive director of the denomination to clarify the Judicial Code (the rules governing such hearings) in two areas. One had to do with requests from the disputants to directly address synod: how should such requests be decided and handled? The second had to do with the relationship between the Judicial Code process and a separate and quite different procedure in abuse cases called the “Advisory Panel Process.” Synod 2018 also wanted greater diversity on the Judicial Code Committee.

The executive director met with an expert on church polity, Kathy Smith of Calvin Theological Seminary, and the JCC itself. On the basis of their discussions, he formulated language to clarify the areas that synod had pointed out as difficult and procedures to increase the diversity of the JCC. That was when the second dispute erupted.

The JCC were not satisfied with the changes proposed by the executive director. And they were underwhelmed by the synod’s demonstrated ability to conduct a Judicial Code hearing in a complex case given the time constraints of the synod calendar and number of participants. They  “observed a significant ‘mismatch’ between the inherent complexity of the JCC matter taken up by Synod 2018 and inherent capabilities (or lack thereof) of that body to adequately process the matter.” They wanted Synod 2019 to create a task force to make larger changes to the Judicial Code. They even gave a formula for the kind of task force they wanted.

The report from the executive director was approved by the Council of Delegates (the central governing committee for the denomination) and sent it on to synod. The request from the JCC for a task force also appeared in the printed agenda for Synod 2019, but the Council noted that it did not endorse it.

When synod voted, the JCC requests did not appear. Synod voted on the changes to the Judicial Code proposed by the executive director. They passed on a perfunctory voice vote. Case closed.

But synod did not ignore the concerns of the JCC. They added an instruction that the Judicial Code be reviewed every five years.

Synod 2019 is meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 14-20. For continuous coverage from our award-winning news team, download the Banner app on your mobile device or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook or @crcbanner on Twitter. You can find more tweeting by following hashtag #crcsynod. News stories will be posted on The Banner’s dedicated Synod web page several times daily. Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are by Karen Huttenga.

About the Author

Clay Libolt is a retired CRC pastor. He currently blogs at www.peripataticpastor.com