Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Thursday, December 14, 2023
Guilt must be proven in church courts, just as in secular courts. At stake is the possibility of wrongly condemning the innocent and the very existence of justice itself. The presumption of innocence, however, is in peril in the evangelical world. In fact, there are many who believe that a presumption of innocence is the very opposite of justice.
The years since George Floyd’s death have seen an acceleration of many troubling trends in evangelical churches. Few to my mind are more disturbing than the way in which certain basic principles of justice have been abandoned without so much as even an attempt to justify their abandonment, and this even among ostensibly “conservative” pastors, elders, and seminary professors.
One of the most important principles of justice is the notion that guilt must be proved, not assumed. Due process, or the presumption of innocence, which has a long history in English common law, is central to America’s judicial system (at least formally so, even if this principle is being eroded in practice). It is also at the heart of the Bible’s teaching on justice. We see this in a variety of places.
In Deuteronomy 25:1–2 there is a basic statement of what judges and courts are for, namely, to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty, then to punish the one who is guilty. In order to ensure that all parties receive a fair trial it is required that there be at least two witnesses (Deut 17:6). It is indispensable to true justice that a “single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed” (Deut 19:15). Although the Bible frames things in terms of the necessity of multiple witnesses, this is meant to accomplish exactly what the presumption of innocence does in our nation’s courts: you cannot condemn a man unless you have proven him guilty. A single witness can easily lie. With multiple witnesses, it is possible to cross-examine them and compare their individual testimonies with each other to more accurately determine the truth.
This Old Testament judicial principle is reaffirmed in Hebrews 10:28, though the New Testament focuses on the necessity of multiple witnesses in discipline cases within the church. No one may be disciplined merely on the basis of one witness (Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). This means that guilt must be proven in church courts, just as in secular courts. At stake is the possibility of wrongly condemning the innocent and the very existence of justice itself.
The presumption of innocence, however, is in peril in the evangelical world. In fact, there are many who believe that a presumption of innocence is the very opposite of justice.
A recent church court case in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) provides a shocking example. Pastor Ryan Biese, in a multi-part series, has documented this case in extensive detail. Here are the basic facts. In 2020 a PCA church plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas had a temporary ruling body (called a temporary session). They also had a church planter who had been appointed by the regional body of the PCA (Covenant Presbytery). Members of the church were concerned that the church-planting pastor was too progressive, farmed preaching out to others too often, and was overbearing in his leadership. Seven men in the church, following the teaching of our savior (Matt 18:15–20), presented their concerns to the temporary planting pastor and to the temporary session, and explained that they would like to consider pastoral candidates other than the planting pastor. As a still-organizing church plant, they would not yet have issued a call to a man to be their permanent pastor. In response, the temporary session brought church discipline charges against all seven men, eventually barring them from the Lord’s Supper.