Is there anything that can be done in an independent church when there is a toxic eldership?

I had a brief twitter conversation about polity and ecclesiology yesterday. Alison Brewis posed a fair question. She asked this:

Before I share my reply, I should say I have no interest in getting at Ali here. I have nothing but respect for her. I count her and her husband as friends. They have both served me and my family in ways that we, in truth, haven’t reciprocated to anything like the same degree. So, none of what follows is me getting at my friend. We disagree on polity, baptism and the value of our respective networks (though we do belong to a shared network too). That’s largely about it. The question was reasonable, valid and I am writing this purely because I think it deserves an answer. A better answer than a couple of short tweets.

Nonetheless, here is what I said to that question on twitter:

I think the question was a fair one. And there should be no pretending that the issues of bullying and abusive leadership are somehow unique to one tradition or form of church governance. The fact is abusers will find the weaknesses in any system – or even create specific systems – to enable their abusive behaviour. Unless you have the perfect polity that utterly guards against all forms of sin, we will all have weak spots in our churches that could be open to abuse.

The problem for so many of us, however, is that we often don’t implement the best form of the polity we claim to hold. It’s not necessarily that problems have arisen because of the weak spots in our governance (though that can certainly be the case), but because we haven’t even implemented properly the form of polity that we claim to hold.

I argued that in a healthy congregational polity, the members are there to hold the elders to account. That is, there are clear mechanisms built into the constitution that mean – should an elder (or team of elders) fall into sin – the members can address that problem themselves. Just as members of the church vote members and officers into the church, so they are also tasked with removing them too. An elder in sin should be removed by the members themselves.

John Stevens replied to me this way:

I would (in fact I did) reply that this is only when the mechanisms of a healthy congregational polity have not been enacted. A bullying, ‘big name’ pastor can only stop the membership voting him out if either (a) the mechanisms to do so were not actually implemented in the first place i.e. there simply isn’t a mechanism to do so; or, (b) the membership themselves are not convinced that bullying, abusive behaviour is at play and decide not to vote him out of office.

In the first scenario, that is not implementing proper congregational polity. It is putting oneself in a position where they cannot be removed and have no accountability from the members. Whilst it is not quite as egregious as the modified episcopal setup I outlined in the tweets above, it is to fail to implement a form of congregationalism that has any hope of actually doing what that polity is designed to do.

In scenario b, that is not so much a failure of polity as the considered position of the majority of the church. Now, you might say, the majority isn’t always right. That is certainly true. But it is fair to say that a godly group of believers, none of whom are themselves involved in the questionable behaviour itself, surely have a reasonable stab at discerning whether behaviour has been sinful or not? Indeed, when members of the congregation have themselves been caught up in the bullying and abuse, whilst these things often thrive in darkness, when they are brought out into the transparent light of being brought before the whole church (cf. Matthew 18:17), others who have faced the same will recognise the behaviour and vote to remove the one doing it.

I cannot see how an abusive pastor – if the relevant mechanisms are actually in force and the members of a church have been told (and can see) the sinful behaviour – how such a person can stay in post. If people vote to remove him from office, then he is removed from office. The only things standing in the way of that happening are either a failure to implement the necessary mechanisms or the considered position of the majority of the congregation.

The argument that a ‘big name’ pastor can bully the congregation into keeping him also cuts back. Can’t bullying pastors just as easily manipulate a presbytery or, easier still, a single bishop? Surely, the fewer people involved, the easier it is to push one’s agenda. Even more so if one is a ‘respected member’ of the external point of accountability. I don’t see how someone with a relationship with their bishop, or friends in the presbytery, couldn’t do exactly the same. The ‘big name’ happens to have a relational authority in whatever accountability setup you have and the fear of upsetting them can be as strong and relationally difficult regardless. I cannot see how any one form of polity particularly guards against this than the others. If there isn’t the will to remove somebody from post, for whatever reason, then our accountability structure has lost its value and doesn’t work.

If we want to see that in practical terms, there are those who have placed themselves under the authority of the Bishop of Maidstone who are now beginning to suggest that the influence of Jonathan Fletcher meant the ‘big name’ had influence over the point of accountability. Likewise, if presbytery are all friends and colleagues in ministry, the same (potential) dynamic may well be at play. This is equally true of congregationalism where the minister is known by the congregation itself. I don’t see that any one form of polity has the advantage over the other when the points of accountability simply do not want to take action (for whatever reason).

But (and of course, I would think this) when it is established with healthy and clear mechanisms for the appointment and removal of church leaders, I do believe congregational polity has two big advantages. Firstly, discipline remains in the hands of the congregation whom, in the face of abuse, are the very ones who have suffered. It gives the victims themselves real power. Secondly, the members’ meeting gives the people bringing accusations the right and authority to lay out their claims and persuade their brothers and sisters. Questions can be asked directly and addressed directly.

Of course, whatever polity we may employ, there comes a point where there is no more to be done. The bishop may simply not listen to our plea. The presbytery may reject our claims. The majority of the congregation may simply be unpersuaded. Though in the congregational model, one vote is not the be all and end all. We may seek to try and persuade our fellow members yet and, in time, may win them. But even then, there comes a point where we reach the end of the road. Our only choices then are to either determine that we were wrong, as a majority of our brethren seem to believe, or to vote with our feet and leave. In the end, whatever form of governance we employ, we are all able to do that.