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Church Employment, Termination, and Reporting

Truth in Love 297

How should leaders respond to legal issues within their churches?

Feb 8, 2021

Dale Johnson: I’m really excited to introduce you to our guest, and I’m so thankful that you all are not expecting me to address this topic. This one would be way in over my head, but today I have with me George Crawford. George is an elder at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He’s been a member there since 1978. He’s been married to his wife, Ann, for 38 years. He has two sons, Steve and Mike, with four grandchildren. He has served in the California legal system for 37 years as a prosecuting attorney, also 14 years as an administrative law judge. He teaches, and has taught for quite some time, at The Master’s University on legal issues as well. 

I am grateful, George, that you are here with us to give us wisdom. There are a myriad of questions to talk about as we discuss church employment, termination, and reporting. We think about it with all the issues going on in today’s society with the abuse scandals that are happening and there are many, many other issues that raise questions particularly for the church. We want to be wise on this. We want the church to be free and responsible to be who the church is called to be, to be obedient to the Lord, but we also know we have a responsibility to obey the appointed government that God has given to us.

Let’s start with a basic question. I know for those of you who are out there listening, you’re elders in your church or maybe you’re a part of a church leadership or something like that, and some sort of issue comes up with one of your employees or a question comes up about what you should do. Maybe one of them is acting immorally or something like that—you begin to have questions. When you hear that, immediately what sets in is panic and fear, and you become scared, almost paralyzed, in what to do. We know we have to address a situation that’s very difficult, but we also find ourselves panicking not knowing if we’re being responsible according to the law. George, help us to understand a little bit that when we have that panic we tend to act in compulsion out of our fear. How do we understand that wisely from a biblical perspective? 

George Crawford: Let me just take you back to one of the things you said about me. I was with the state of California for just under 37 years total, 23 years as a prosecuting attorney, and just under 14 years as an administrative law judge. I’ve retired nearly five years ago. Nothing that I say at this point should be attributed to the state of California. Nonetheless, with that clarification, first thing that I think really needs to be realized is that we need to fight the deer in the headlights reaction. We need to fight the compulsion to panic.

No less than Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depression makes the statement that, “Faith is a refusal to panic.” He points out something that we never could lose sight of. In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul writes, “God gave us a spirit not of fear [and in the original the term actually means cowardice] but of power and love and self-control.” I think that is balanced by Proverbs 22:3 which states in essence that the prudent see the danger and take precaution, while the naive receive and pay the penalty. There is all the difference in the world between being prudent and being fearful. We’re called to be the former. We are definitely not given the luxury of being the latter. 

Now one of the things that is a real blessing for the church at this time is that Western law is still sufficiently shaped by biblical norms to the point that the more biblical you are in your procedure as a general rule, the less likely it will be that you’re going to find yourself on the wrong end of a legal controversy. What do I mean by that? Truth is still a paramount virtue in the legal institution, in the legal system. Perjury, falsehood stated under oath, is a crime, and its penalty can increase depending on the seriousness of the environment. We look to see if allegations can be confirmed. The Lord told us in Matthew 18, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word should be made to stand.” We’re looking for corroboration before we make any kind of definitive statement. The Scripture tells us that we need to follow certain specified procedures. We also need to make sure that our communication is appropriate. All too often in institutions, solid institutions, biblical and theological training, we ignore the fact that there are biblical principles of communication, and we do so at our peril. 

Finally, the issue that should always be remembered is the issue of practicality. If you make a misstatement, is it going to be practically possible to correct it? The first and most important thing is to consider, what is a solid, biblical practice? What is a solid biblical procedure? Don’t be afraid to ask the question, just how practical is this going to be? 

Dale Johnson: Those are so helpful because I’m imagining so many pastors out there, and when you use the the deer in the headlights metaphor, that’s the way most of them respond when situations like this arise. It is a difficult thing. I think that certainly helps us not to respond in compulsion, but to help ground ourselves biblically where we don’t get swept away by the fears that of a legal system that’s trying to impose things upon us. This helps us to be able to settle down and respond biblically, communicate biblically. I think that’s critical. 

Now, onto the next stage in this. We’ve gotten ourselves over the initial fear, the initial rush of panic, and now we have to respond appropriately. We have to engage in the issues that are coming. Help us to understand, what are some of the pertinent legal issues or principles that are at stake when we’re talking about church employment, termination, and reporting?

George Crawford: After the proper biblical procedure has been pursued, a complaint has been received, a thorough, non-prejudiced, non-biased, impartial investigation has taken place, and it has confirmed that there is conduct that is taking place that is incompatible with Scriptural requirements for pastor, elder, overseer—all three describing the same function—something has to be done, a change will have to be made. It is communicated properly both the procedure and the communication being in compliance with pertinent Scripture. You may well be considering possible legal questions. Can this individual’s employment be terminated? What should be communicated about that termination? To how broad of an audience should that communication be made? Basic legal questions will need to be considered at this point. 

It would be very desirable, if at all possible, to bring in the assistance of a capable, like-minded lawyer or attorney. God willing, there will be one in your church or not too far distant who will be able to provide some assistance, guidance, and counsel. Depending on what the case may be, that individual will perhaps be able to help you with understanding the difference between a true statement from the pulpit and something that would be considered as slanderous. That individual may be able to help you understand when the counselor has a duty to inform concerning something that has surfaced in the course of the ongoing counseling relationship. He may also be able to help you understand if there is some conduct that has been discussed that may expose your organization to potential liability and would require you to take immediate and prompt action. At that particular point, you do need to instill or to provide yourself with the legal counsel of someone who treasures the authority of Scripture, and yet, who is knowledgeable in the practice of law. It should be knowledgeable of the practice of law in your specific jurisdiction.

Dale Johnson: Good. Those types of wisdom, I think are very helpful for us to consider, and not just to consider, but to prepare ourselves, because we know the evil one schemes. Sometimes he uses these types of things to confuse the church, but these things don’t have to confuse us. Now as we consider some of these legal issues, and these types of issues are paramount issues, and what they carry with it—reputations of the individual, reputations of churches—we want to be wise in how we approach this. I can imagine that we’re still feeling some tension relative to our responsibility. We think about how our legal liability is certainly there. We don’t want to be foolish. We don’t want to open ourself up unnecessarily to some sort of litigation that could possibly happen, but we also recognize we are biblically responsible as a church to obey God as the Sovereign above all. Provide us, George, if you can, with some wisdom on where our focus should remain when we think about legal liability and biblical responsibility. 

There is a greater standard to pursue than necessarily the absence of legal fault, and that is the standard that we see raised in Scripture.  Click To Tweet

George Crawford: That’s a great question, Dale. I think that the most important thing for those given the responsibility of church leadership to remember is that, as it is raised in the Gospel of John, the indictment comes down that certain individuals who love the approval of men more than the approval of God. That is a challenge that we who have had the privilege of leadership within the church must never lose sight of. If we can, we need to act in a manner as stewards of our Lord that would not expose us to unnecessary legal conflict or legal liability. The operative word is unnecessary. However, more important than the absence of legal conflict is the approval of our Lord God. Always, always keep in mind that there is a greater danger to avoid than legal liability, and that is the danger of the disapproval or the chastening of our heavenly Father. There is a greater standard to pursue than necessarily the absence of legal fault, and that is the standard that we see raised in Scripture. 

I think of two Old Testament illustrations that really illustrate and demonstrate the problem. In 1st Samuel we read the account of two men. Both of them were sons of the high priest, Eli—Hophni and Phineas. The Scripture indicates that very likely while they were serving as priests, they were misappropriating assets that have been donated by the people. The text also, when you compare it with the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus, indicates very likely that they may have been engaged in what we would today refer to as possibly rape and very likely sexual harassment. The Scripture indicates that God took a very dim view of that. He was well aware of that. The account in 1 Samuel indicates that the privilege of being engaged in ministry was removed from Eli and his line. The intimate presence of God, at least for a time, was deprived or was taken from the people of Israel. When the Ark of the Covenant was captured, a very insightful name was given by one of Eli’s daughters-in-law when she heard of the passing of her husband. The son’s name was Ichabod, “the glory of the Lord has departed,” and as I’ve indicated or intended to get to, both of Eli’s sons died in battle on the same day. 

We need to continually seek to honor God, to act in a manner that promotes and depicts and is consistent with the holiness of God.  Click To Tweet

The other illustration, of course, would be the account of Nadab and Abihu that we read in Leviticus 10. We don’t know all of the specific details, we do know enough. Most likely under the influence of some kind of alcoholic beverage they engaged in a practice of worship that did not honor God, and He struck them down. When He was explaining what He had done to Moses, who had the responsibility of explaining it to his brother, the high priest Aaron, God makes the statement that, “By those who come before me, by those who come near me, I will be regarded as holy.” Later on in the same chapter He gives the priestly representative the responsibility of being able to communicate both by word and by deed the holiness of God. They’re to teach people the difference between that which is holy and that which is profane. Put another way, that which is worldly. We need to continually seek to honor God, to act in a manner that promotes and depicts and is consistent with the holiness of God. 

You’ve heard the statement, “Inquiring minds want to know.” You don’t necessarily need to know. One of the most important things that I think the leadership needs to realize is that communication needs to be very careful. It needs to be precise without too much detail. I want to come back to Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome or corrupt thing proceed out of your mouth.” In our modern culture, “Let it not go forward out of your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet”—written or oral form. “But only what is edifying”—and I’ll move to the third thing that Paul gives—”that will give grace to those who hear.” At the center of it is the admonition that we need to always remember, is it necessary? Is it necessary to be disclosed? Is it necessary to be known if you have to end the employment of the service of a particular pastor? It is not going to be necessary for everyone in your congregation to know all of the specific details as to what occurred. It may not even be necessary for all those in your leadership to know all the specific details. So keep that in mind. We always have to remember that.

The downside of what occurs if that is ignored comes in Ephesians 4:30 which says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit by which you were sealed until the day of redemption.” I think we disregard that far too frequently in the contemporary church, and we do so to our peril. 

Dale Johnson: George, this has been so helpful and I can think, as I’m sure many of our listeners are, of a thousand more questions, but what you have done for us is you’ve given us a place to start. You’ve given us a place where we can begin to ask some of those questions. You’ve given us a grid by which to think through. You’ve given us a level of confidence even in this Word, that God has given us, that He’s given us answers on how to deal with disputes, how to deal with these difficulties in a way that’s pleasing first to Him. That ought to remain our posture. So, George, thank you so much for bringing clarity. I’m so excited that you would offer your wisdom and help. I’m so thankful for men and women like you who utilize your gifts that God has given you, and you’ve served the Lord so faithfully for so many years. Now you’re wanting to make sure that the church is taken care of and honored and the Lord is honored in all that we do. Brother, thank you for being here with us, and thank you for sharing your wisdom. 

George Crawford​: You’re very welcome.