Mercy in Church Courts

by Zachary Groff | April 7, 2022

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

At the heart of the Beatitudes, our Lord sets forth mercy as a – if not the – central mark of Christian discipleship, Kingdom living, and human flourishing in the church. Such being the case, what does mercy look like in church courts and deliberation? In what follows, I unpack the biblical dynamics of mercy in the ‘business’ of the church by setting forth the need, aim, implementation, and effect of this core mark of the church’s character.

The Need for Mercy in Church Courts

What words come to mind when you begin preparing for an upcoming session, presbytery, or General Assembly meeting? Debate, discussion, and deliberation probably top the list. In a healthy group, the words fellowship, mission, prayer, and worship should occupy your mind. In times of difficulty or dissension, perhaps stress, inconvenience, conflict and expense bubble up to the surface. Whatever conditions you face, the word mercy should come into play in relation to any meeting or interaction between Christians.

Consider mercy as Christ uses it in Matthew 5:7. Mercy here refers to demonstrable compassion for those around us. Both by teaching and by example, Jesus put mercy-as-compassion before us as His program of engagement for all our interactions. We are told again and again in Matthew’s Gospel that He showed mercy to the infirm and demon-possessed (9:27ff; 17:14ff; 20:30ff), and that He felt compassion for the crowds of people which thronged to Him (9:36; 14:14; 15:32). From the same Gospel account, we know that Christ taught many lessons and parables dealing with mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness (5:43-48; 6:1-4; 7:12; 10:42; 18:5, 15-18, 21-35; 23:1-12; 25:31-46). Certainly, if we expand our purview to include the rest of Scripture, mercy and compassion figure heavily in both the auricular teaching of Christ and the Spirit-inspired material that provides the canonical context of our Lord’s earthly ministry. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 is certainly a mandate to extend Christ’s teaching on mercy and compassion to the ends of the earth and to “all the nations.”

All men feel a need for mercy, compassion, and help in distress. Indeed, those who have been awakened to the terrors of sin shall find the tender mercies of God in Christ to be irresistibly attractive. There is little that needs to be said to demonstrate that we need mercy from God, but Christ has set forth mercy as normative for how we ourselves interact with one another on all occasions. Biblical theologian Jonathan T. Pennington observes that in the Beatitudes, Jesus declares “with authority what is the true way of being that will result in happiness and human flourishing.”[1] The fifth Beatitude conveys to us something crucially important for our work for the church in the courts of the church. We need mercy if we and our courts are going to flourish in service to God.

As arenas of debate and deliberation, church courts can become contentious. While it is not frequently the case that church business meetings devolve into shouting matches or some such spectacle, deliberative assemblies are characterized by intense pressures. There is the pressure to prevail, the pressure to get done, the pressure to say the right thing, the pressure to vote the right way, and so on. Frequently the stakes are high, such as when considering budgets, personnel issues, or the public witness of the Church. In high stakes deliberative environments characterized by various intense pressures, we must cultivate mercy and compassion for one another, keeping in mind Christ’s authoritative declaration on Kingdom living, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The Aim of Mercy in Church Courts

Having established the need for mercy in church courts, we can move on to consider the aim of such mercy. What do we hope to accomplish by extending mercy and demonstrating compassion to one another in the courts of the church?

The aim of exercising mercy in church courts is to promote the common good of the people of God as experienced in a particular expression of His church. Conscientious presbyters may be able to give the appearance of competence, run efficient meetings, win every vote, and prevail all day long, but all is vain in the absence of mercy for the brethren.

Call to mind Paul’s words, “[If] I do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Adapt this to our business in church courts. If we do not have love, we are nothing.

When we come together in session at the local, regional, or national level, we are coming together to promote the common good of the church of Jesus Christ. As elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we are tasked with safeguarding and promoting the common good of our fair Church. Therefore, our aim in exercising mercy in church courts, of loving the brethren, is to promote the common good of the PCA, to the glory of God. What does such mercy look like?

The Implementation of Mercy in Church Courts

In Matthew 18:15-20, Christ sets forth a clear picture of the implementation of mercy in one of the most unpleasant situations Christians face in Kingdom living: church discipline. What begins as private admonishment in verse 15 escalates through stages to public judgment in verse 17 with dire spiritual significance detailed in verse 18. Where is mercy here?

Heartfelt mercy is detectable in the Christian’s right pursuit of a process otherwise so frequently fraught with the perils of misunderstanding, carelessness, and abuse. Paul writes in Galatians 6, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Note that Paul affirms the nobility of the process itself. Church discipline is an expression of mercy, even as it proceeds through various stages of judgment. However, we cannot leave it at that, for the process can be corrupted by carelessness and malice. Any formal or informal church business – and especially the sensitive business of church discipline – must be imbued with the “spirit of gentleness.” In our business together, we are to “bear one another’s burdens,” and not look out for our own interests at the expense of our brethren. In this is mercy.

This mandate for mercy is no license to be lax in the exercise of discipline. Sin, abuse, and the mistreatment of the flock must be handled decisively and with wisdom. After all, elders in Christ’s church are handling the very “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). So the proper question to ask is not “how can we get this brother out of his predicament?” or “how can we run through this meeting as quickly as possible?” Rather, we are to ask, “how can we best honor God as we work efficiently, compassionately, and biblically through these issues, in full dependence on the Holy Spirit of Christ?”

One of the purposes of Presbyterian Polity as a resource to the Church and its ordained leadership is to curate easily navigable resources on the nature, procedures, and history of the PCA’s polity. Central to the accomplishment of that purpose is to show through historical case studies and direct teaching what it means to be merciful in the courts of the church. Good starting places include RE Matt Fender’s piece, Trust Your Brother Elders and TE Jacob Gerber’s insightful article, The Biblical Foundations of Parliamentary Procedure.

The Effect of Mercy in Church Courts

Having set forth the need for mercy in church courts, defined the aim of mercy in church courts, and explored the implementation of mercy in church courts, we can now review (and imagine) the effect of mercy in church courts. What effects has Spirit-produced mercy and Christian compassion had in the courts of the church? What further effects might we expect to see as we seek the Spirit’s help in the exercise of mercy and cultivation of compassion for one another in the courts of the church?

By way of conclusion, I highlight three specific effects of mercy in matters pertaining to the courts of the church: one from my research into the minutes of previous meetings of the General Assembly of the PCA, one from my own personal experience, and one prospective effect we should anticipate.

An Historical Demonstration of Mercy in Church Courts

At the 44th General Assembly of the PCA in 2016, forty presbyteries presented overtures touching on no less a provocative subject as racial reconciliation. The Assembly’s Overtures Committee presented an amended version of one of those forty overtures for consideration by the Assembly as a whole. After some deliberation, the Assembly adopted the Overtures Committee’s recommendation by a vote of 861-123, with 23 abstentions. You can read more about this occasion in the life of the PCA here.

Debate and deliberation on such a sensitive topic as racial reconciliation in the church surely had the potential to result in sharp disagreement on the floor of the Assembly, but one presbyter demonstrated mercy even while registering his dissent. On the basis of BCO 45-2 regarding dissents, TE David Coffin “requested that his dissent with respect to Overture 43 be recorded in these words: With respect to the otherwise laudable resolutions adopted by the Assembly, I dissent from the use of the word ‘repent’ in the first two paragraphs. I do not believe one can repent of the sins of another.” Such gracious speech – even in expressing dissent or disagreement – is an admirable characteristic of Dr. Coffin’s gentlemanly deportment in the courts of the Church.

In recording his dissent, Dr. Coffin expressed mercy by noting both his disapprobation of certain language adopted by the Assembly and his appreciation for the work of the Assembly in this particular situation. Demonstrated mercy will have the effect of making our disagreements specific and our appreciation known.

A Personal Account of Mercy in Church Courts

At the 47th General Assembly in 2019, a controversial protest was lodged “against perceived intemperate language in a speech”[2] affirming the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality.[3] There was some confusion over the protest itself on the floor of the Assembly, heated discussion online and offline about the possible intents of those who signed it, and even talk of maintaining the list as some kind of “do not call” roll for search committees and presbyteries in weeks and months following the Assembly.

In response to the confusion and acrimony, I researched the protest and its surrounding context and produced a site which I hoped would both publicize the facts of the situation and encourage reflection on what is the proper way to consider a protest made on the floor of the General Assembly. That site generated considerable traffic through the course of a year, and I received several dozen emails expressing gratitude for the work I put into it. However, I think that I failed to convey my purpose in creating the site, and in the lead up to the 48th General Assembly in 2021, I received nine emails, two phone calls, and one face-to-face interaction condemning the site.

I am thankful for my brothers who expressed either appreciation or disapproval of the site, but my personal experience at the 48th General Assembly led me to take it down and rethink how best to accomplish my aim of making the public business of the Church more accessible to elders and laymen alike. Immediately after business concluded at this Assembly, one brother who signed the protest took me aside and articulated two thoughts on the site. In the first place, he expressed his disapproval for the site in general. He then shared the personal hurt he felt over having his name published not only in the Minutes (as was his intent in signing his name to the protest), but also on a website that could be construed as somehow “doxing” the signatories. He was earnest to confront me about the site and hear firsthand my rationale for creating it, and I listened intently as he shared his heart concerning the matter.

On the drive home from that General Assembly, I considered his words and what they revealed to me about his heart, his hurt, and an unintentional consequence of my work in reporting on a public – but sensitive – matter in the life of our Church. Within a day of arriving home, I deactivated the site, contacted that brother to express my thanks, and began thinking through how I could do better in service to the Church.

My brother – previously unknown to me – dealt mercifully with me in speaking about a difficult situation related to the formal business of the Church. My hope is that in considering his evident burden and deferring to him in love, I dealt mercifully with him in kind. Demonstrated mercy will have the effect of making our concerns known in love and respect, and in the appropriate (i.e., informal or formal) setting. Additionally, demonstrated mercy will have the effect of deferring to our brothers when at all possible, and especially when we are in some way called upon to handle the burdens of their hearts.

A Prospective Effect of Mercy in Church Courts

One podcaster recently remarked that we have entered “silly season” in the run-up to the 49th General Assembly of the PCA. If the proliferation of open letters and prognostications are any indicator, I think that commentator’s observation holds true. As we meditate on the need for mercy in church courts, as well as on the aim, implementation, and past effects of mercy in this familiar deliberative setting, what can we expect for this year’s important Assembly?

When we enter the work of church courts at any level (local, regional, or national) with biblical, Spirit-wrought mercy in heart and mind, we should expect openness, forthrightness, and integrity in our interactions one with another. There will be no secret caucusing and scheming. There will be no duplicitous speech on the floor or around the session table. There will be no pretense in what we aim to be and do as presbyters. Our courts will be courts of mercy as well as courts of earnest deliberation and just judgment.

One beautiful effect of mercy in the courts of the church will be our very speech and conduct as transparently biblical and confessional Presbyterians. There is only one Everlasting Father and Elder Brother who is perfect in mercy, compassion, and love for the “fathers and brothers” of the PCA, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. Where we have failed, let us repent and look away from ourselves and unto Him for spiritual instruction and the perfect model of heavenly Kingdom living. We surely shall receive mercy from Him as He dispenses upon us the treasuries of free grace which He has won for us by His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In preparing for this year’s schedule of session meetings, presbytery deliberations, and General Assembly gatherings, let us keep in mind, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Minutes of the 47th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 80ff.

[3] Full video and audio of the speech is available on YouTube, here.

Zachary Groff is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Antioch Presbyterian Church in Woodruff, SC.

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