Thinking Out Loud

April 26, 2018

Angry Calvinists? There are Angry Wesleyans as Well

Yesterday for over an hour I spent time with someone who was a victim of people who all have in common their origins in The Free Methodist Church of Canada, a denomination in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition. It was a story that resonated with me on so many levels, and I had absolutely no problem believing her story, a great part of its plausibility resting in our own family experience.

These are people who enjoy the respect of their church community. I know this because I’ve had the conversation with their pastor with respect to one of their number, and the group in general. The pastor in question simply cannot accept my perspective on this.

It also rings true to an account shared with me by a missionary no longer living, whose call to missions, if you want to call it that, was the complete rejection of him and his family by a FMCC congregation. Finding no place to minister in his church community, he and said family boarded a plane to do ministry in what I would consider the least desirable African situations.

Their belief system is marked by (a) protection of people within their closed circle, and (b) a culture of shaming, practiced under the name church discipline. Sin must be called out publicly and this public shame is seen as absolutely necessary. The youth are initiated into this system, and the mindset continues even when the parties have settled into other types of churches.

Chapter 9 of the denomination’s governing principles — a document titled The Manual — devotes 18 pages to the practice of church discipline. Some of this is prescribed in the case of discipline of ministers, while other sections refer to the laity. Example:

Public Reproof

In cases where the member is repentant and responsive to private admonition and counsel, but when the conduct has or will likely cause reproach to Christ and the church, the membership care committee will make such recommendation to the official board as it considers appropriate in the circumstances and in accordance with the purposes and goals of the disciplinary process. Possible recommendations could include actions to:

  • Implement a remedial plan of restoration containing provisions such as:
    • removal from offices and responsibilities in the church
    • public confession
    • apology and restitution to the offended parties
    • submission to a spiritual director
    • ongoing accountability
  • Suspend membership privileges for a specified period of time, not to exceed one year
  • In response to a written request, grant a voluntary withdrawal from membership.

When the member is repentant and when the conduct causes public reproach but is not serious enough to require termination of membership, the member may be required to meet with the official board where the member will make confession, request forgiveness, receive reproof and forgiveness and submit to whatever discipline and remedial counsel the official board considers appropriate.

The section on public confession begs some further clarification, but I am bound by confidentiality in the case  — nothing to do with today’s discussion — I would mention. There then follows a detailed procedure to be followed if an accusation needs to go to a church trial. Remember, this is not referring to something that would be tried by civil authorities, this is referencing an in-house trial by the church itself:

Rules of Procedure for a Trial

  • Presiding Officer – The Board of Administration will appoint a presiding officer who will ensure that the trial proceeds in an orderly manner. The presiding officer is to act impartially. The presiding officer may request the presence of legal counsel who may provide advice to the presiding officer only in matters related to the trial proceedings. The presiding officer has authority to impose limits on the number of pages of written material submitted to the trial and on the length of time used for presentations and cross examinations. Objections may not be raised during presentations. The presiding officer may allow the trial committee to ask questions after each presentation by either the prosecution or the accused. An Order for Conducting Trials is found in Appendix 1.
  • Grounds for Challenge –Thirty days prior to the beginning of the trial, both the prosecutor and the accused will receive a list of the trial committee members. Up to 21 days prior to the trial, each shall have the right to challenge, for cause, the selection of any member of the trial committee. The presiding officer will rule on the validity of the challenge.
  • Evidence – The presiding officer of the trial will rule on the admissibility of witnesses and evidence. Rules of Admissibility of Witnesses and Evidence are found in Appendix 3.
  • Testimony – No one will be barred as a witness on the grounds that they are not a member of a local society or the Canadian General Conference. If circumstances make it impossible for a witness to appear, a proper affidavit from the individual may be presented, provided that both the accused and the prosecutor have had an opportunity to review the affidavit and to question the person signing the affidavit about its contents, with witnesses listening.
  • Charges – It is not required that the charges be written in any particular legal form, but it is recommended they be written in the standard form as provided in Robert’s Rules of Order.
  • Counsel –The Official Board will appoint a prosecutor who is responsible to prepare the charges in final form, to present them at the proper time and place to the trial and to represent the church during the trial. Both the accused and the prosecutor have the right to receive advice or guidance from lay members or ministers of The Free Methodist Church in Canada and to have up to a total of two such persons serve as their assistants in the trial.   Neither the accused nor the prosecutor is entitled to, and in fact are precluded from, retaining professional legal counsel to participate in the trial.
  • Participants – Only those who are members of a local society or of the Canadian General Conference will be allowed to participate in the trial, with the exception of witnesses. Only those participating in the trial and the spouse of the accused are permitted to attend the trial.
  • Confidentiality – All deliberations of the trial will be considered confidential. All those participating in the trial will not discuss the case with anyone not participating in the trial, before, during or following the trial.
  • Withdrawal – If during the trial, the accused submits a letter requesting to withdraw from membership in the church, the request will be granted and the trial will end.
  • Records – The presiding officer will appoint a secretary, not a member of the trial committee, who will be responsible to keep complete and accurate records of all proceedings, testimony, evidence, documents admitted, together with charges, specifications, notices, citations and findings of the trial committee. When advisable, the services of a professional court reporter may be engaged. The presiding officer will be the custodian of such records until the case is finished and then will deliver the records to the secretary of the Board of Administration for permanent filing.
  • Judgment – The trial committee will deliver a decision within 30 days of the conclusion of the trial. The trial committee, by a majority vote, may affirm, modify or reverse the findings of the official board in whole or in part.

If one is left with the impression that perhaps these trials occur with regularity or frequency, that’s because this is indeed the mindset of this denomination. And I would contend, albeit subjectively, that this same mindset permeates or is the lens through which all relationships with other believers is viewed. A person in such an orientation is constantly looking under every rock for a situation needing exposure and punishment because this is what they have been taught to do.

Even people who are not members of the church can be hauled into a disciplinary hearing:

The conduct of persons who are regular participants in the life of the church affects the integrity of the Christian witness of the individual and the church. As such, these persons, although they have taken no formal vows of commitment or made formal covenant, must also be held accountable for their conduct insofar as it affects the integrity of the Christian witness of the individual and the church.

I’m not saying that denominations should not have a disciplinary procedure on the books. I’m saying that these things should be implemented sparingly. They should be the exception, not the rule. From everything I’ve seen that’s not the case here. I’ve heard more stories — and I have traveled widely in Christian circles — of Free Methodist disciplinary action than I have with all other denominations combined.

Sorry, it’s not a brand of Christianity I want to be a part of. A woman was brought to Jesus with the clearest possible evidence exposing the worst possible behavior: Adultery. I like his response. I’ll take that over this any day.   

The person in my story — who did not commit anything requiring a trial, but was simply guilty of not being part of this tribe — is coping well, blessed by the benefit of a caring Christian friend and yesterday a stranger with a sympathetic ear. Others, faced with a similar situation, have simply walked away from the faith altogether.

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