In his latest Times comment piece, Danny Finkelstein points to the case of OJ Simpson and applies the matter to a specific court case involving the government. I don’t want to look at that case at all, but do want to highlight what Finkelstein says about the role of courts because I think there is some application here for the church.
In his book Reasonable Doubts, the US attorney Alan Dershowitz argues that much of the debate about whether OJ “did it” isn’t so much providing the wrong answers as asking the wrong question. Dershowitz was Simpson’s appeal lawyer, preparing the case that in the event wasn’t needed. And he makes the compelling argument that courts aren’t really competent to establish the truth, nor is it their job to do so. They are there to administer the law.
To support this contention, he provides the example of a forced confession. Even if such a confession helped establish the guilt of a defendant it would still be excluded from consideration. Finding the truth is not the court’s only job.
Dershowitz argued that the Simpson case involved classic police underhand behaviour, racism and lying, of the sort that many African-American defendants experience but can’t challenge. In the OJ case, officers faced an African-American who could afford expensive lawyers and their shenanigans were exposed. Whether or not OJ did it, Dershowitz argued, the court was right to find him not guilty. Because the message that police must follow rules of evidence and not fit up their suspects was a vital one for justice in America.
It is not necessary to agree with this argument on OJ completely (I don’t) in order to understand its force and to see its application to British public policy. Courts exist to ensure society is governed by the rule of law and that its officials and institutions abide by it. They aren’t there just to determine who is right and who is wrong in a given case, but to ensure rules are followed and standards maintained.
He goes on later in his article, in relation to the government case, to say this:
Preparing paper trails and ensuring you abide by the law, however bureaucratically inconvenient, is not a waste of time.
The issue the courts correctly ruled on is not whether the government was biased and chose wrongly but whether it could have been, both in this instance and in future instances like it. This does add to the costs of government and it does make it less bold and dynamic. It does mean it has to (as one critic complained) constantly look over its shoulder. But government has a lot of power. It should be constantly looking over its shoulder. And the costs of that are worth paying.
What on earth does this have to do with the church? Very often, we value the efficient. I have known many pastors and planters do away with membership, with elderships, with meaningful church structures with any teeth because it is all inefficient. How many times have you heard people denounce ‘voting on the colour of the carpet’ as a reason to dispense with members’ meetings or organise your church such that they either don’t really happen at all or have no real ability to do anything? It all feels inefficient, slow, not very dynamic and particularly unexciting. It is costly in time and energy. Who in their right mind would think that a good idea?
Well, the Lord, for one. The early church gathered everyone together to make decisions. They didn’t do that because it was the efficient thing to do. They were as aware as we are, and seemingly as the government are, that red tape and committee meetings are not the friend of dynamism. But they also recognised that the church structures do not exist for that reason. They are there – just as was the case for the government – not because those who eschew these things have necessarily made the wrong decision, or acted sinfully, in a particular instance. Rather, that they could be in this or any instance like it.
The church structures are there as scaffolding for the church. The membership, the eldership, the existence of church discipline are all there to ensure that God’s procedures are followed. And these things might be slower and less convenient than many of us would like. They might hem us in sometimes in ways that we find annoying. But, at the end of the day, they are a vital part of church life for the protection of both the church members and those in leadership.
Those who eschew biblical church polity place themselves and their churches in very dangerous positions indeed. Not because every decision they make is sinful, but because any decision they make could be and proper structures are there to help avoid that happening this time or in future. If the structures aren’t there, just as if the courts weren’t there, though the government might be fine today, there is no guarantee they will still be fine tomorrow and no mechanism for dealing with it when they are not. This is a problem from which the church in not immune.
Some of us might bemoan inefficient meetings and what feels like red tape, but in the end, the Lord has set these things in place to ensure that his church can thrive. We abandon them at our peril. Proper procedure matters and the reality of sin in our own hearts tells us, if nothing else, that following proper procedures matters far more than many of us seem to realise.