A young woman trembling, her pregnancy possibly already showing, standing up before a stone-faced congregation, confessing her sin. This is the image of “church discipline.” I’ve never witnessed such a thing. Perhaps a few readers out there have. From what I gather, it is not something you soon forget.
But what about a man — an established, respected man — who had to stand up and confess before his congregation several times, not for sexual wrongdoing, but financial malfeasance? This is such a story. It happened in the 1930s in the congregation I now pastor.
Meet Bert Baron
Bert Baron was middle-management at Security State Bank in Pella, Iowa in the 1920s and 30s. His title included “Vice President,” but he was one among many. Perhaps his most important attribute at the bank was that he married the bank president’s daughter.
In the 1920s, Baron entered into a deal with several local people, both depositors at the bank and others. He borrowed money privately from them at a higher rate of interest than the banks were paying, but less than he would have paid had he borrowed from a bank. It was a win-win.
With that money, the Barons built a stately house (See the photo above). Interestingly, that house later served for decades as the parsonage of the Third Reformed Church of Pella. It now hosts a bed and breakfast.
Then the Great Depression hit. In October, 1931, Security State Bank closed, never to reopen. Baron found some work as a private bookkeeper for a few local businesses, but his income dropped drastically. The house was sold but the proceeds were not enough to cover his debts.
What happened between 1931 and 1933, I don’t understand. There was some legal action taken against officers of Security State Bank. Baron was acquitted. The Elders of Second Reformed Church — the church I now pastor — began to investigate several bank employees who were members.
Not surprisingly, one bank officer and his family simply stopped attending Second Church. A few years later, their membership was transferred to a Presbyterian Church in a neighboring town. That’s a usual outcome of attempts at church discipline. Simply disappear. Move on. Today, even without looming discipline, people associated with public scandal often quietly drift away from their church.
Mr. Baron and his family remained committed to the church through the process. Mrs. Baron served as a sponsor of the “Girl’s League” for much of this time. To me, it looks like they demonstrated staying power, humility, and a willingness to submit to what would unfold over the coming years. For this, I respect them.
Apparently, the people Baron owed felt like he wasn’t doing enough to pay them back. They went to the Elders of Second Church. Early in 1934, the Barons met with the Elders of Second Church to discuss “his financial relations with several parties in and outside the church.”
Baron wasn’t a flashy high-flyer, the sort that might be resented or vilified. People describe him as a small, quiet, and unpretentious man with a wry sense of humor, a stamp collector, not someone who needed to be cut down to size. Most of the rest of his career was spent teaching accounting at Central College. About the whole situation he later reflected, “No one understood how far we fell, how much we lost. They didn’t understand that we simply didn’t have the money to pay the debts.”
In the fall of 1934, he stood before the congregation at morning worship to read a statement the Elders had drafted for him. “With deepest regret,” he stated that it was “impossible for me to meet my financial obligations, thus bringing hardship to others.” Baron went on to say he understood he had an obligation to his creditors and that he had no secret assets hidden away. Lastly, he agreed voluntarily to absent himself from communion, although he desired to participate again at the next opportunity.
That might seem like a nice end to the story. Within a week, however, his angry creditors were meeting with the Elders to say this confession was not enough. Another party stepped forward to accuse Baron of dishonest actions at the bank. Baron maintained his innocence, contending it was a misunderstanding, the actions of another bank employee.
By the end of 1934 the Elders concluded that he had not been honest with them and “more drastic measures” were called for. He was “placed under suspension from the privileges of membership for an indefinite period,” and ordered to refrain from the Lord’s Table.
Unnecessary Luxuries and Interest Rates
Many twists and turns remained. Baron stood before the congregation again, having “come to a full realization of my personal sin in certain financial dealings and in statements made to the Elders and others.”
It is unclear to me if he was caught being intentionally dishonest. If new information came to light, there are no specifics about what it was. Was he simply trying to be cooperative and compliant, to keep the process moving toward resolution? For fifteen months he remained suspended
Then Baron was restored — again, very briefly. Within two months the Elders rescinded his return to the Lord’s Table because the Barons were found to have “unnecessary luxuries which might give offense to some.” Wouldn’t it be fun to know what these luxuries were? In some way or another, they were viewed to be living too high for people with considerable debt.
For the next two and half years, Baron remained suspended. Minutes convey a sense that he wasn’t taking his debt seriously. He reported that he had tried to find a settlement with his creditors, and was even paying some interest to two widows who were among them.
Resolution was finally reached, nearly four years after the ordeal began. The Elders and Baron got down to specifics and interest rates with his creditors (a little higher interest to the widows). The record ends there. Who knows how long he continued to make interest payments? Was a settlement on the principle ever achieved?
Fifteen years later, in 1953, Bert Baron was elected an Elder in Second Reformed Church.
What to Make of It?
I share this story primarily because it is fascinating, even odd, at least to me. It’s intriguing that the disciplined party was a man and the sin was financial, not sexual. Warranted or not, I feel a little pride that “my church” understood discipline more broadly, as more than about sex.
Was Baron guilty of anything other than being unable to pay his debts? Who’s to say? Based only on minutes of Elders meetings and a conversations with a handful of people who still remember him, is there really any way to know? It might be worthwhile to conjecture some about scapegoating, a need to blame someone, during times of high anxiety like the Great Depression. Whatever Baron’s failings, did they merit this sort of action? The more I found out about him, the more my sympathies for him increased.
Nearly 90 years later, do we conclude that this discipline “worked”? Could it be considered fruitful or beneficial in any way? Baron submitted to a lengthy, demanding process and eventually was fully restored. He remained an active member of Second Church until his death in 1978.
In classical Reformed theology, church discipline is said to be one of the marks of the true church. Some people say discipline in today’s church has virtually disappeared. But few grieve the loss of this sort of discipline — the terror of being called into the Elder’s Room thick with cigar smoke, or a vulnerable young woman humiliated on a Sunday morning — and perhaps many who witnessed it themselves were traumatized. Still, if the aim of discipline is to form disciples, I’d contend today’s church still does that in all sorts of ways. They’re just not punitive. More carrot than stick.
I’m left with few conclusions, considerable curiosity, and feelings that are unsettled and incomplete. Certainly, my aim is not a call for a return to this very public sort of church discipline. There’s no model for the future of church discipline here, but it is an interesting asterisk in history.
Thanks to Rich and Mary Glendening for their research in the Elders’ minutes of Second Reformed Church, as well as sharing some anecdotes and impressions.