Elders at the Gates: Ecclesiastical Problem-Solving in the Internet Age - Dr. Nelson D. Kloosterman

Copied with permission from Christian Renewal March 6, 2000

image I subscribe to an internet discussion group called "CO-URC." Membership in this group is approved by its moderator (a dedicated volunteer!) and can include anyone interested in the United Reformed Churches. The moderator of CO-URC explains to all new subscribers that

CO-URC is one of several e-mail conferences maintained by The Christian Observer magazine. CO-URC is an attempt to provide timely communication, sharing of common tasks, and increasing the effectiveness of the United Reformed Churches in North America throughout the Lord's kingdom.

This particular listserve (another term for computer discussion group) has been going for a few years already. One need not be a member of a URC to subscribe to this conference, and this conference has no official connection to any URC.

An offer of ecclesiastical

On November 15, 1999, all subscribers to CO-URC received an invitation to join three new e-groups or internet conferences, sponsored by The Christian Observer magazine but unrelated to CO-URC. These new conferences were designed "to provide a place where a person could ask any question connected with the church and the Christian life without revealing their identity to the world and receive a biblical answer from Reformed/Presbyterian elders." Anyone in the world may post a question with the assurance that only one person in covenant with the sender and God will ever know the source of the question. That person is the moderator who issued the invitation.

Both the question (stripped of all identifying details) and "the answer" from the panel of Reformed/Presbyterian elders will be posted for access on the internet. The archives (collection of previous questions and answers) are accessible to anyone without membership.

Three internet conferences, all designed to provide counsel regarding any question connected with the church and the Christian life. In the words of the moderator who was starting them, these conferences

will provide an "unofficial" answer to time sensitive questions whereby an individual or church can receive the combined wisdom of many elders in the application of the Bible to the daily life of the church and her people. It also is our prayer that by having an outside, and unbiased opinion available, further process through due courts of the various churches may be avoided and harmony (may) prevail among God's children.

Quite an offer, wouldn't you say? At first glance, this looks like an innovative use of modern technology in service to God's people.

Personal e-requests denied

As I pondered this offer of ecclesiastical cyber-counseling more deeply, the invitation began to produce serious misgivings about this use of internet technology.

To quiet my concerns, I asked the moderator for the names of these "Reformed/Presbyterian elders." Doesn't the Bible teach us that elders must possess certain qualities in order to serve Christ's church? I wished to determine whether these men do (I'm assuming they're men, though we're never told). "Please tell me," I asked, "who these counselors are." The moderator denied my request.

The moderator defended his refusal by insisting on protecting, as he put it, "the confidentiality of all concerned as if it were a consistory speaking together concerning an issue." (Mark this spot, here's e-problem #1; we'll come back to it below.)

I responded by pointing out that he was confusing anonymity with confidentiality. His analogy of a consistory illustrates his confusion: no church is governed by an anonymous Consistory, though a Consistory's discussions may well be confidential. My request, therefore, did not infringe upon the panel's confidentiality, but sought only to lift the lid on its anonymity. To this the moderator replied, "I don't think I have confused anything, just the pragmatics of the internet world. It is a lid I control and don't want lifted at the moment. I think it will stifle input and not in the best interest of the service I envision, and how it will work." (Again, mark this spot, because now we've located e-problem #2, version 1.)

Because these new internet conferences would be: providing advice on church matters, I also asked the moderator what church orders or book(s) of polity would be used to advise those seeking counsel. Here, again, anonymity rules. Protecting the identity of those seeking advice requires these "Reformed/Presbyterian elders" to avoid reference to specific polity rules, and thus to disregard any ecclesiastically sanctioned " procedures which have been designed specifically for resolving problems in the church. (Here's e-problem #2, version 2.)

The "pudding" of ecclesiastical cyber-counseling

"The proof of the pudding," they say, "is in the eating thereof." So as I prepared this article, I decided to visit the website where, at this date, two requests for advice and their corresponding replies have been publicly posted in full, under the conference title "Reformed answers."

Both requests involve cases of sexual misconduct, and both seek advice about how the Consistory in each case should respond. One of these cases involves a Consistory member who left his office because of his sin. The other question apparently comes from a Consistory, but there is no indication that these elders have consulted with church visitors or classical advisors, a procedure provided for in classic Reformed church polity.

Neither response given by these "Reformed/Presbyterian elders" counsels the questioner in terms of the biblical requirements codified in the church order of any Reformed church, which polity specifies duties and procedures governing the exercise of pastoral care and church discipline.

Neither the moderator's denial of my personal requests nor the posted advice surprised me. Both of them trouble me deeply enough to articulate my concerns in this article.

A judgement of charity

Christian charity compels us to allow for the possibility that those who have posted requests for advice about these sensitive cases may belong to independent congregations with no connection to any broader assembly, and thus no access to ecclesiastical advisors.

Moreover, I can imagine someone arguing that, since people's relationships and decisions today are so full of pressure and uncertainty, why shouldn't we seize the opportunity to have a Christian, possibly even Reformed, equivalent of "Dear Abby" or Dr. Laura - and in cyberspace too yet?

In the secular world, these poor souls write or call in their questions, exposing their problems for the entire world to see. After listening to Dr. Laura once or twice, we start to wonder why these callers don't talk to their minister or rabbi.

Far too often, the sad truth is that they don't have a minister to talk to. Even if they do have a minister, their crisis hits on his day off, or when he's on the golf course, or after 5 o'clock, when he doesn't "do counseling." Too many elders don't know how to handle such requests because they've never been shown or taught how.

So I really do understand the impulse behind starting cyber counseling groups for Christians.

Perhaps we're facing, once again, a situation of ecclesiastical default. At any rate, that's been the justification, for years, behind parachurch evangelism, parachurch discipleship, parachurch Bible distribution. And now parachurch counseling. As one of my college buddies put it years ago, "I like their way of doing it better than our way of not doing it."

But it's high time we quit being intimidated by the "default argument." Let's quit surrendering acre after acre of the church's overgrown, under-weeded, unproductive ground simply because we're unwilling to whack, weed, and water. Yes, our churches are weak in many respects. We (not "the other guys," but WE) need to fortify our obedience in areas of evangelism, discipleship, biblical discipline, and officebearer training. We need to be built up, trained, equipped by faithful Bible reading, Bible teaching, Bible preaching - all for Bible living. There's enough default to go around, that's for sure. But it's high time we quit letting abnormal realities direct our practice as believers and as churches at this point-and start following ,the norms God has given us for the church's pastoral care and discipline; the norms of God's Word faithfully summarized in our Confessions and pastorally codified in our Church Order.

E-PROBLEM #1: meet your cyber-cousistory

Did you catch the moderator's language as he defended the anonymity of his panel of "Reformed/Presbyterian elders"? He wants to protect their identity so his panel may function "as if it were a consistory speaking together concerning an issue." I guess the fact that these people (men or women, we don't know) are elders is supposed to encourage us.

Encourage us about what? Must we be encouraged because now we have a cyber-consistory providing cyber-counseling to cyber-parishioners?

Right here, my friend the norm has been violated. Minimally, the Bible teaches that elders and church members have a relationship, characterized by responsility, accountability, and pastoral service. Was the author of Hebrews writing about a virtual consistory when he penned "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep-watch over your souls as those who will give an account" (Heb. 13:17)? Over whose souls, pray tell, is this cyber-consistory keeping watch? To whom, pray. tell, is this "Internet consistory" accountable?

But let's suppose we knew the identity of our cyber-consistory. Even then the situation would remain ab-norm-al. Since the internet is a public forum, requests for advice about church matters must be stripped of all identifying details-and some details crucial to understanding the request will need to be changed "to protect the innocent." All that remains is a virtual, unreal, vague, cyber-problem. The moment you change the details and extract the problem from its real, i.e., ecclesiastical covenantal context, you've changed the problem. It's no longer the real problem. It has become a cyber-problem that exists only in cyber-space for a cyber-consistory to practice cyber-counseling. This gives a whole new meaning to kerk spelen; playing church.

Rather than inviting people to bring their problems to a cyber-consistory we must instruct them to the Bible's teachings about reconciliation, rebuke, restitution, and the like, as these principles have been pastorally and eclesiastically codified in the polity and procedures of church discipline. Instead of taking the problem out of its real-life context, we should be bringing in church visitors or classis advisors who can meet face to face with real people, who can talk and cry and laugh and hurt with and be alongside these people. Giving effective biblical counsel requires apprehending the many nuances and facets of a problematic relationship or situation. And all of this takes far more time and effort than it takes to cut and paste a bunch of Bible verses exhorting reconciliation, punishment, or rebuke.

E-PROBLEM #2: the pragmatics of the Internet world versus church-sanctioned procedures

In defending his refusal to identify his panel of elders, a moderator appealed to "the pragmatics of the internet world" -- a revealing slip of the key . It illustrates how internet technology does far more than facilitate our communications - it also shapes and governs communication. (If you'd like to read more about this, start with Neil Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.)

However, the moderator's pragmatism is more deep-seated than a quirk about safeguarding anonymity. Read again his vision: "It also is our prayer that by having an outside, and unbiased opinion available, further due process through courts of the various churches may be avoided and harmony [may] prevail among God's children."

Now tell me something: What is so wrong with following discipline and appeal procedures involving a Consistory, classis, or synod, such that we need to pray to God that we may avoid them?! I thought these procedures were put in place among the churches precisely to offer assistance, to provide counsel, and to restore harmony? Why does the moderator pit due ecclesiastical process against harmony among God's children? Why does he assume ecclesiastical process is incompatible with ecclesiastical peace?

I fear that, though he may be well-intentioned, the chairman of this cyber-consistory is being guided by ab-norm-al realities. He seems to be resorting implicitly to the "default argument" once again. It goes like this: "Church courts/assemblies traumatize and intimidate people. So we'll create an alternative, so they need not endure such trauma." Translation: Forget trying to fix whatever may be wrong with ecclesiastical procedures; let's help people avoid these processes.

History has shown, of course, that ecclesiastical assemblies and processes have been aligned against biblical truth and practice. Leaders committed to unbiblical teaching saw to it that church members (and Consistories) had no recourse within these corrupted processes. Such ecclesiastical abuse has a long, long history.

But to the invitation that we avoid or abandon processes that are being implemented by people of integrity, processes which in themselves are not defective, we must reply: Abusus non tollit usum: Misuse does not nullify proper use. Past abuse, by a Consistory, classis, or synod, of procedures designed to facilitate reconciliation within the church does not justify abandoning these procedures in a new situation. This is especially true when the conduct of a local Consistory, whose members are men of integrity, lies near the heart of the issue-as is true in both cases currently posted on the cyber-counseling website entitled, ironically, "Reformed answers."

Before and beyond the Internet

This problem-abandoning ecclesiastically sanctioned procedures designed for pastoral prioblem solving and being implemented by men of integrity-is neither new nor restricted to internet technology. The medium of the internet is not at fault. It's just that the Internet affords a dazzling, powerful opportunity for running end runs around the church. Already cyber-churches are being founded, inviting people to enjoy listening to their favorite preacher via RealAudio as they sit in their pajamas munching Cheerios on Sunday morning. And why shouldn't they, if they're unhappy, underfed, and bored in their own real church? (Short answer: Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it.)

The Bible teaches that the marks of the true church are preaching the pure doctrine of the gospel, purely administering the sacraments, and exercising church discipline. In each case, it is the local church-specifically, the Consistory of the local church, the elders at the city gates-that is responsible for maintaining these marks.

It would be far better, I think, if the chairman of this cyber-consisory were to withdraw his invitation, dismantle his website, and await invitations from real Consistories to visit real sites where the real problems need solving. It is the men on these Consistories who are today's elders at the gates.