Does presbyterianism innoculate against abuse? I’m not convinced

Yesterday, I saw this somewhat bizarre comment on Twitter:

Now, it bears saying, if any leader puts themselves in a position where they are beyond criticism or accountability, that is a problem. Abuse continues when there is no mechanism for dealing with such situations. All leaders should be held to account.

What I found bizarre about these comments were the suggestions that independency, of itself, makes abuse far more likely than other more hierarchical structures and, simultaneously, that Presbyterianism was somehow immune specifically because of its structures.

The latter suggestion is demonstrably false. The idea that the Presbyterian churches haven’t been rocked by abuse scandals is manifestly not true. Presbyterians are, sadly, just as likely to engage in abuse as others. No structure provides an inherent inoculation against this sort of sin. I am afraid that those inclined to abuse their authority will find ways and means to do so wherever we place them. There do, of course, need to be formalised means of dealing with these things when they arise. Nonetheless, all forms of polity have found abusers in their ranks and all stripes of church can point at examples of where such sin has been dealt with appropriately and where is, sadly, has been handled extremely badly indeed.

The former claim is also similarly strange. The churches that appear to have faced the biggest problems regarding abuse are the Catholic and Anglican communions. If hierarchy and structure innoculate against abuse, and independency allows it to thrive, why are we seeing the majority of these cases coming from the most hierarchical churches within Christendom? If the suggestion were true, we would expect to see far higher instances of such things among the independent churches. That just isn’t borne out in reality.

The point, of course, was to suggest that Presbyterian polity is superior on this front. But, structurally, I struggle to see how. The congregation, against whom most incidents of abuse occur when it involves a pastor or elder, have absolutely no power whatsoever in Presbyterian polity. They may go to the presbytery – made up of men sent from other churches – to raise their issues. We then expect some men from outside the church, who have a fraternal relationship with the minister, to potentially take the word of a congregant over and above their mate. Whilst it is possible they might do that, it is obvious how the odds might be stacked against a finding in favour of the unknown church member.

It strikes me that congregational polity has an advantage over others here. In a congregational system, the elders are accountable to the membership – who vote them in and out of office – while the church submits to the authority of the eldership. Each member, therefore, has the authority to raise concerns with the church. Moreover, when the church comes to consider such matters, it does so as those who are friends and family with the one raising the concern as well as with the elder in question. There is no sense at which they are trying to judge matters between their mate in ministry and some unknown quantity to them. What is more, the church has every right – and usually specific mechanisms built in – to remove an errant leader. The power to act against those who abuse their authority is in the hands of those who have been wronged and the church – who know all the individuals involved intimately – are better placed to judge the truth of such matters.

Congregationalism – unlike other forms of polity that remove all power from the congregation – means that a whole church of members is holding its leaders to account. This offers more opportunities for accountability as each individual member has the authority to call their leaders to account. This has real advantages over the Presbyterian system that expects a handful of men, from outside the specific congregation, to hold each minister to account. All the power in Presbyterianism resides in a handful of hands of those who know the (potentially) errant leader less well than his own congregation. Congregationalism, by contrast, allows dozens of members to hold their leaders to account and does so on the grounds of knowing both the leadership and the membership well (certainly far better than a handful of guys elected from other churches).

The fact is, all churches have suffered from the problem of abuse. Sinful people have a habit of finding outlets for their sinful behaviour. There may be systems that make it harder for them to sin than others. I struggle to see how having folk from outside the church, periodically looking in, provides better accountability than those inside being constantly present having that same power.

The other question is, if and when that sin occurs, whether certain systems are better placed to provide a credible response. Again, those inside the church who know both the leader and communicant personally are going to be better placed to judge between them than guys from outside periodically looking in, trying to make sense of the situation after the fact. But it is fair to say, all systems can respond well or badly to the issues after the fact.

The only system I have ever heard about that does raise inherent problems on this front is one I heard described as a ‘modified presbyterianism’. The modification, so far as I could tell, meant no accountability to a local presbytery. This effectively meant that neither the congregation had any authority (as in a congregational polity) nor was there an external presbytery to do anything either (as in Presbyterianism). Unfortunately, there were no bishops either, making it less effectual on this front than the Episcopal system. It had the advantage of stuff getting done in a remarkably quick and streamlined way – there really wasn’t anybody or any mechanism to do otherwise. But if things (God forbid) took a downward turn and an elder fell into serious sin, it is beyond me how it could ever be addressed. There was certainly no mechanism to remove anyone from post. It was not a system that seemed all that robust to me.