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LN Feature: The Supreme Court as Reformed Synod?

ARPA lawyer John Sikkema appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada last week, making arguments as an intervener in the so-called “Wall” case. That’s the one where the Supreme Court has been asked whether secular courts have authority to intervene in matters of ecclesiastical discipline. The arguments are being heard in the context of the “disfellowshipping” of a member of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Calgary.

ARPA had been accepted as an intervener in the case, and filed written arguments earlier this fall.

The issue was highlighted during the annual ARPA fall tour, and on the feature this week, we’ll hear an edited version of a presentation from John Sikkema on the background to the case. Much of the information in that presentation is very similar to the arguments he made before the Supreme Court.

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JS: We’re all aware that if a person is disciplined – excommunicated – it’s very serious. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “They (the excluded, the excommunicated person) are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ.”

Now, Jehovah’s Witness congregations – although not recognizing the divinity of Christ – purport to practice a form of excommunication that’s called “disfellowshipping”. Jehovah’s Witnesses also practice something associated with that that’s referred to as “shunning”, in kind of a fairly extreme form. And Jehovah’s Witnesses are not to speak to, or associate with disfellowshipped members. In this case, in April 2014, a man by the name of Randy Wall was disfellowshipped from the Highwood Congregation in Calgary for being in their view “insufficiently repentant” for instances of drunkenness and verbal abuse of his wife. And Mr. Wall was a Real Estate agent.

So what happens is, Mr. Wall is not sufficiently repentant; he goes through a church process and then a higher church process of several congregations, and then once he’s excommunicated – once he’s disfellowshipped – the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are his clients say “We don’t want you to be our Real Estate agent anymore. In fact, we’re not supposed to use you as a Real Estate agent anymore as per the teaching of our church.”

So Mr. Wall loses a lot of business. And perhaps because of that – certainly he used that as one of the reasons – he takes his congregation to court. He wants a judge to decide that the elders’ decision to disfellowship him was made unfairly; was made in error.

Now before the court could look at that, the congregation raised a preliminary question that the court had to answer. And that question is this: “Does a secular court even have jurisdiction or authority to decide this case?” And the lower court judge held that he did have jurisdiction to review the elders’ decision to disfellowship Mr. Wall. The congregation appealed to the Alberta Court of Appeal – the highest court in Alberta – and that court had a panel of three judges. And two of the three judges there agreed with the lower court judge. The remaining judge of the three disagreed, and with that split court, the congregation appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada.

So this case, then, is about the state’s authority to over-ride a church’s decision on internal matters. And not just any internal matter. There’s something quite core.  One of the keys of the Kingdom. Church discipline.

Depending on what happens at the Supreme Court, the matter will either stop there; if the court says “Look, outside of some kind of legal interest, just an issue of church membership, spiritual authority; we don’t have authority to decide this”, then the case will end there and that will be in many ways a very good precedent. Or, the Supreme Court will say “Yup, this is something courts get to decide,” and then they tell the lower court judge (to) go back and look at all the evidence and decide what actually happened here. So this is just kind of a beginning question that made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court.

You can probably see by now that this case has implications for others besides Jehovah’s Witnesses. Reformed churches, as I mentioned, recognize and teach explicitly in our Catechisms that Christ gives the authority to exercise church disciplines to the church and not to civil magistrates. It’s the Belgic Confession that says “we are to obey the state in everything that is in accordance with God’s Word.” So it sets kind of a limit there on our obedience.

And we have a few key Biblical texts that go to how church discipline is to be done. That’s another thing that the other side isn’t arguing is that “maybe we don’t need to tell the church what to believe, but certainly we’re experts on what’s fair.” And we all know churches can treat people unfairly, and people have lots of stories of being treated unfairly by the church, and I would agree that churches should have fair processes in place to do something as serious as church discipline, but what they’ve been saying is “Let’s let the court deal with fairness.” They’re not going to tell your church “what to believe”, they’re just gonna see “is your church treating people fairly.” But how we do church discipline, of course, involves interpreting Scripture, which we believe the Spirit equips the church to do.

So we’re going to look at a couple of Bible passages briefly here. One is this, where Christ gives the keys of the Kingdom to Peter. “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Another passage going to how this is to be done is found in Matthew 18, “If your brother sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won them over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he still refuses to listen, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Now it’s a very serious thing; I think it’s worth reflecting on as Christians and as church members, as to how we do this, and that we do it carefully. But where this perhaps isn’t done carefully or even where it is, the question is “Who gets to decide who is charged by God to make sure that it’s done properly?” And we are arguing in our intervention that that is the church’s job. And in this case we have the potential that a civil judge – who knows if he’s a Christian, atheist, or Buddhist, in any case, whatever his belief, it’s not his role – can decide whether the Biblical texts we looked at have been appropriately interpreted and applied.

So if you just imagine that someone in your church is unrepentant for some sin, and is being disciplined, and takes your church to court for that, and the court demands that your consistory explain whether they properly interpreted what Jesus said in Matthew 16 and 18, and whether the sin in question is actually so bad, and whether repentance might look different from what the consistory thinks — and what happens if the court overturns the church’s decision? Who are we then to obey? What’s the church to do?

And at this stage, obviously, what we’re doing is trying to make the (Supreme) Court understand and respect that there is something called ecclesiastical jurisdiction; there is a sphere of authority in the church that we do have some history of recognizing and respecting, and we’re bringing that to the Court’s attention, and reminding it of that.

We know that if the Supreme Court gets the answer wrong, we’re gonna have further struggles on this down the road.

Church, Freedom of Religion, Wall Email Us 

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