The “Iron Law” at Midway Presbyterian Church

When there is tension between officers at the church, understanding the roles may be instructive….

An attitude has emerged on the Session of Midway Presbyterian Church that disagreement is to be minimized, and the zeal for discrediting and purging the dissenters from the leadership team seems to preoccupy David Hall and his Session. Some might argue that this exclusionary approach to submission was instituted at Midway upon the arrival Senior Pastor David Hall, who many may recall split the church once before. Regardless of the cause, it is unhealthy and contrary to the Bible’s teaching to suppress reformation against error. Christ says “Behold I making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and calls us to put on a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) as we are “transformed” by the “renewing” of our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The Scriptures are replete with the theme of Christ’s sheep and His church being continually renewed. But how can this renewal take place if the men positioned and elected by the church to lead on the Session are disciplined by the majority for exercising their constitutional right to correct error in the church as has repeatedly occurred at Midway in the last 24 months?

The American polymath Jerry Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy” may be instructive here to understand why David Hall and his Session oppose constitutional inquiries and reports of misbehavior in the church leadership. The Iron Law states that “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.” A sobering truth when one realizes that the Session is a bureaucracy that seemingly exists to protect the interests of the pastoral staff at all costs – even at the cost of most holy fellowship (Psalm 133).

The Iron Law is a secular construct, but the tension it describes can be found represented in scholarly Presbyterian literature. In the Journal of Presbyterian History, the article titled “Presbyterian Republicanism: Miller and the Eldership as an Answer to Lay-Clerical Tensions” speaks to this reality. In it, Samuel Miller’s (a professor of church history and government at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1800’s) thoughts are shared:

To his ears came pleas for greater lay involvement as well as calls for an increase in clerical status. He carefully weighed the charges of clerical encroachment against counter-charges of usurpation on the part of laymen. And in 1831 he published his celebrated Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church. In this work he focused on a neglected aspect of Presbyterian polity as his own solution to the tensions troubling clergy and laity. In his thinking, the ‘ruling eldership’ provided a scheme of checks and balances restraining, on the one hand, a rude democracy threatening to undermine the clergy, and resisting, on the other hand, a church aristocracy lording over the laity. This balance of power achieved by means of the ruling elder’s office he described as “Presbyterian Republicanism.”

Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 56, No. 4 (WINTER 1978), pp. 312-313

Interestingly, David Hall recommended the work quoted above in his “Bibliographic Essay on Church Government” in 1995. This may have been before he joined the ruling aristocracy of a church like Midway. While Miller was addressing a Presbyterian church from a different era, his point is no less valid as he argued for “carefully regulated representatives” embodied in Ruling Elders that would “function as a two edged sword, cutting across the ambitions of both clergy and laity.” In particular, he was fearful of abuse of “clerical privilege.” The submit or else, like or leave it, approach to leadership at Midway today is counter to Presbyterian polity. Midway as a PCA church is neither Congregationalist or Papist, even though the current leadership seems to behave in a manner typical of the latter when it comes to expectations of submission. When operating properly, the PCA church should elect its Ruling Elders, and select and elect their Teaching Elders as a result of a pulpit committee.

Maybe David Hall forgot he recommended a work that advocated for such balance, but Midway has strayed far from this proper and Biblical disposition in its church government since his arrival. Pray that David Hall and his Session may repent of their divisive behavior at the church, the attempts to ostracize their brother elders, and return the church to the Biblical fellowship and unity that is only found in Christ as opposed to rule by the “Iron Law.”