Ministerial Discipline Doesn't Work Either

The Death of Iain Campbell
Presbyterian Discipline*

The news I read this morning at The Aquila Report regarding the death of Iain Campbell and the scandalous accusations made by his wife following his death, raised a question for me. What if the accusations are true, had been made known to his Presbytery and denomination, and he had been dealt with by Presbyterian disciplinary process - what would have happened to him? I don't know, because I do not know the Free Church of Scotland that well.

But it also set me thinking again, as I often have, about the way discipline of ministers was handled in my former connection. And it impresses me that it was handled in the way a particular kind of father might deal with his son. The son took the family car out on a Friday night without permission. The father becomes aware of what the son did because (1) the son confessed it, (2) someone who witnessed the son with the family car told the father, or (3) the father himself discovered it. 

What does this particular type of father do? (1) He takes away the son's keys and intends to return them (a) never or (b) after observing his son's repentance for a long time. (2) He beats the hell out of the son. (3) He requires the son to confess his disobedience and avow his repentance at a council of the whole family.

Now the father may cry. He may even cry with the leaders of his church. He may pour out his heart to God about how he has gone wrong in the bringing up of his son. He may ask others to pray for him and his son. He may tell his son he loves him and that his heart is broken. Still, he takes the keys away forever or an indeterminate time. Still he beats the hell out of the kid. Still he requires the son to humiliate himself before his family.

I have seen this scenario play out too often in church settings for it to be hyperbolic. Rather it is parabolic. 

This system works very efficiently, and, often, very swiftly with regard to erring ministers. I have heard the bewailing, I have seen the tears, I have witnessed the protestations of love and mercy. But is it still the belt - in fact I have heard - and it angers me every time a think about it - a man say he would like a spank a younger man caught in a sin. It is surgery with an ax not a scalpel. It is addressed not like an infection to be treated but like a cancer to be cut out. It's goal is not healing but excision. It is not a pastoral system but a judicial system.

And it is very different from the way many churches in the same communion deal with members of the local churches. At the local church level discipline is too messy and too likely to cause embarrassment to congregations who don't want to be embarrassed.

Not too long ago I asked my Bishop how he would have dealt with a recent case that led immediately to suspension from the means of grace and divestiture from office. He told me he would have suspended the individual from ministerial functions for several months and then seen what happened. Pastoral not judicial. I presented a case in a congregation where it could be reasonably argued that the person should be cut off from the Sacrament. I asked for the counsel of the Bishop. And he confirmed what had been my instinct. Do not cut off from the grace of the Holy Supper. Pastoral not judicial. 

I say all this from the knowledge there was a time in years past when I might have joined in the clamor for the ax to be brought out. I was wrong.

*This Blog is based a number of cases I personally witnessed or was a part of in more than one regional judicatory of my former connection. In one case, because of the lack of mercy shown, I resigned my membership on a committee assigned to deal with a fellow minister's failure. This was well before the more egregious cases I have in mind. The system is designed to deal with behavior in a judicial (rigid) manner, but lacks the ability to be pastoral - to take into account personal, medical, and psychological issues. In cases of serious failure, it's goal is seldom restoration. Infrequently do members of these bodies relate to the fallen minister deal with him as colleague/friend after the body has carried out its discipline. 



  1. Of course, when the minister's main job is to read lines out of a book every week, you can afford looser standards. You can even hire women to do the job.

  2. Impressive smirk there. That, however, does not make the comment accurate, truthful, helpful, or responsive to the content of the Blog.

  3. My friend Darryl Hart ( responded to my last 3 Blog posts, asked a good question related to this post. I responded in the comments section of his post. Here is the question and my answer:

    Now what would I do in the case of a wife whose minister husband had been unfaithful to her or abused her? If I knew her personally, I would contact her, affirm my friendship, love, and sympathy, and offer to do anything I could then or in the future to help, support, and encourage her and her children. I would intend, but possibly fail, to follow through for the long term. (If I did not know her personally I would not use the occasion to insert myself into her personal life.)

    But I would do more. If her husband’s case were before the Presbytery, I would plead for two things: (1) That he be suspended from ministerial functions not divested of office. In other words, I would try to slow things down and avoid a rush to judgment. (2) That, if he express any sorrow for his conduct, he not be suspended from the Holy Supper. (It is a means of grace and the sinning and erring need grace received through its means. I oppose suspension from the sacrament as a response to serious sin.) I would have been defeated, and actually was on more than one occasion, when I made such pleas.

    I would also, assuming he had been suspended or divested from office and or suspended or excommunicated from the Supper, contact him by letter or phone or at the meeting if he were in attendance. I would not assume he were not a believer, and, even if I had substantial evidence he were not, I would not conclude from his excommunication that I could have no relation with him. I would try to remember that as the OT priest should be merciful to sinners, he himself being a sinner in need of sacrifice, so I, guilty of great sin, should be merciful to my fellow sinners. I would express my friendship and my desire to be helpful in any ways I could, then or in the long run. I would take him to lunch. I would intend, but perhaps fail, to be his friend into the future.

    What would you do?


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