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NEWS STORY: Church trial expected for Rhem on sexual misconduct charges

c. 1997 Religion News Service SPRING LAKE, Mich. _ The Muskegon Classis of the Reformed Church in America has taken a new tack in the allegations of sexual misconduct surrounding the Rev. Richard Rhem, the controversial pastor whose views on salvation and homosexuality have won him censure: near total silence. After a June 24 meeting […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

SPRING LAKE, Mich. _ The Muskegon Classis of the Reformed Church in America has taken a new tack in the allegations of sexual misconduct surrounding the Rev. Richard Rhem, the controversial pastor whose views on salvation and homosexuality have won him censure: near total silence.

After a June 24 meeting in which the classis, or local governing body, had been expected to vote to try Rhem on charges of sexual misconduct, classis leaders refused to say anything about what they did or what their next step might be.

The Rev. Mark Nieuwsma, classis president, would only call the investigation “strictly an ecclesiastical matter that rests with classis.” He spoke briefly following a two-hour meeting at Westwood Reformed Church in Muskegon, Mich.

A source close to the investigation, however, said the classis voted to try Rhem on charges brought by Janet Timmer, a former church organist who alleges Rhem had an extramarital affair with her in the 1980s.

The trial, in which classis delegates would act as a jury, could lead to Rhem being disciplined, deposed or even excommunicated.

Rhem came to national attention after coming under fire for preaching that he no longer believes faith in Jesus is the sole way to salvation, and that Jews, Muslims and others may be as likely as Christians to enter heaven.

He was censured by the Muskegon Classis for maintaining that view, precipitating the congregation’s decision to leave the denomination.

Officials at Rhem’s congregation, the 1,000-member Christ Community Church, maintain the classis has no authority over Rhem or the church. The congregation declared its independence from the RCA in July 1996.

“We’re no longer a member of the Reformed Church, and Dick is no longer a Reformed Church minister,” said Don Van Ostenberg, chairman of Christ Community’s board of trustees. “We feel whatever they do has no bearing on us.”

Van Ostenberg called the apparently forthcoming trial “generally a witch hunt and an attempt to discredit Rev. Rhem.”

Classis leaders see it differently. They say they still have jurisdiction over Rhem and his church and want to ensure justice.

Speaking before the meeting about the possibility of a trial, the Rev. Sherwin Weener, synod minister of the RCA’s Regional Synod of the Great Lakes of which the Muskegon Classis is a part, said it is “not anything that anyone relishes.””But we have a respected Reformed Church pastor, and we have allegations, and we have an alleged victim,” said Weener. “We have no choice but to seek out the truth and to do justice.”

Even though Rhem has resigned from the RCA clergy, he remains accountable to the RCA, Weener said.

“You just can’t have a situation where churches or pastors can unilaterally say, `I hereby secede, and I’m no longer part of you,’ any more than the United States can have the republic of Texas say `I’m not a part of you,'”Weener said.

Rhem did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment. Timmer, too, was unavailable.

The classis will probably next meet to hear testimony from Timmer, said a source who requested anonymity. A trial could take months to complete, he said.

Van Ostenberg said Rhem most likely will not appear at a trial, but it will proceed even if he refuses.

Even though Rhem originally was investigated by the classis for his views on salvation and the authority of Scripture, he will be tried not for heresy but for gross sexual misconduct.

Timmer, who no longer attends Christ Community, alleges Rhem used his position to seduce her into an affair. She further charges church leadership did nothing when she complained about Rhem’s actions in the early 1980s.

Van Ostenberg said the church’s personnel committee looked into an appearance of impropriety raised by another church staffer and settled the matter by talking with Rhem.

MJP END HONEY