This has not been a wonderful week in American Presbyterianism. Earlier this week Aimee Byrd published the letter she received from the Southeast Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and then she announced that she is leaving her OPC congregation and the denomination. At its last General Assembly, the OPC instructed the SE Presbytery to “acknowledge its error in allowing Mr. Spangler to use reviling language in his trial, damaging the good names of Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, record this in its minutes, communicate this to Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, and offer to both, in writing and in person, if possible, whatever expression of regret it deems appropriate.” The Presbytery did not say, “we gave too much latitude to Mr Spangler” nor did they say, “we deeply regret that we permitted Mr Spangler to defame you and damage your good name.” The word sin does not occur in the GA instructions nor in the presbytery’s apology, such as it was. Instead, Presbytery averred that they had, “in the judgment of the General Assembly” granted too much latitude to Mr Spanger in his defense. Is that not now their judgment too? Are they, by this clause, distancing themselves from the judgment of their fathers and brothers? Further, they added, “it did not seem to the majority of the presbytery that Rev. Spangler’s language was beyond the pale.” Now, in light of GA’s instructions they have a “clearer standard on how to consider our past proceeding…”. In light of GA’s instructions do they not now see that his language was beyond the pale? The Presbytery “regret[s] the distress our conduct of this trial has brought you.” Yes, they charged and convicted Mr Spangler, a member of the notorious, secret Facebook Group “The Genevan Commons,” for what he published on his blog, but it would seem this is no ground for a merit badge since it was their duty to do so. The Westminster Larger Catechism, one of the doctrinal standards of the OPC, explains the duties of the ninth commandment thus:
The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.
The Presbytery’s own committee report acknowledged transgressions of the ninth commandment.1
One need not agree with everything (I do not ) or anything that Aimee has published to be chastened and to obey from the heart the instructions from the “brothers and fathers” of General Assembly. According to WLC 144 the Presbytery was meant to be “sorrowing for and covering of” her “infirmities” and “freely acknowledging of” her “gifts and graces, defending [her] innocency” and more interested in a “good report” and unwilling to “admit of an evil report.” So, in light of WLC 144, what is at issue in this matter is not whether one agrees with her. After all, were the ministers and elders of the Presbytery (at that time including Messrs Spangler and Anderson) genuinely concerned about what Aimee had published, they had ample opportunity to test her writing in the courts of the church. They chose not to do so. Thus, in the absence of any judicial action against her, at that point, the only matter before the men was their treatment of one of the sheep.
Also this week the Standing Judicial Commission (a body of teaching and ruling elders granted authority by the church to act on their behalf) ruled that the Missouri Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) acted properly regarding Teaching Elder Greg Johnson, pastor of Memorial PCA in St Louis. Johnson has been active in the Revoice movement and has publicly identified himself as Gay and a Christian. See the resources below for more on this phenomenon. Another TE in his presbytery complained against the way the Presbytery handled the matter as did other presbyteries. Thus, the case came to the SJC. They conclude, “Based on the Record, there was no reversible error in the decisions reached by Missouri Presbytery regarding the four allegations. It was not unreasonable for Presbytery to judge that TE Johnson’s ‘explanations’ on the four allegations were ‘satisfactory.’ (BCO31-2).” What was before the SJC was not the substance of what Rev. Johnson has said but the procedure of the Presbytery. Nevertheless, this ruling will not sit well with many in the PCA. The Presbycast, the de facto podcast of the loyal opposition within the PCA, last night released an episode with Dominic Aquila, proprietor of the Aquila Report and longtime PCA TE, discussing the issues and the future of the PCA. I found it both measured and sobering.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a split within the PCA (see the resources below) has been looming for a while and this decision will not help hold the PCA together. Two overtures passed at the recent GA, which would revise the Book of Church Order (BCO) regarding how the church relates to the so-called “Side B” or Gay Christian movement. These revisions are now before the several presbyteries of the PCA. Informal reports are that one of them is passing and the future of the other is in question.
The future of the PCA concerns all of us who swim in the NAPARC pool. When the PCA jumps from the high dive, we all feel the splash.
Dear Reader, it might be tempting to become discouraged about the prospects for presbyterial polity. I hope you will not give up. It is true that every session, consistory, presbytery, classis, general assembly, and synod is composed of nothing but sinners. It is also true that every bishop, patriarch, or pope is also nothing but a sinner. In a presbyterial polity there are checks and balances. In episcopacy, not so much. The question is what sort of polity (organization) has the Lord instituted? Most Episcopalians will concede that the New Testament teaches some sort of presbyterial polity. I clearly recall the vicar of St Ebbes virtually making the case for presbyterial polity one Lord’s Day evening only to conclude that was then and this is now. In the Scriptures and in the earliest Christian fathers, however, I see reference to three offices: pastors, elders, and deacons. These offices were instituted by Christ for the care of the church that Christ bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). There is no evidence in the Scriptures that these offices were organized hierarchically. There is precious little evidence for a hierarchical polity in the second century (e.g., an ambiguous hierachical passage or two in Ignatius that must be balanced by other more collegial passages). We do not see the episkopos assuming the role of a regional manager until the mid-third century and it will be centuries after that the office of episkopos is considered the way it is now.
It is also worth noting that social media creates false impressions. That is one of its major functions. It is easy for a small number of people to create the impression that there is a profound problem inherent among the P&R churches when, in fact, sessions, consistories, presbyteries, classes, synods, and general assemblies meet regularly, serve the Lord and love their people quietly, graciously, and humbly. People do not generally tweet or post on Facebook about how patient, kind, gracious, and caring their pastors and elders are and when they do such posts do not get a lot of attention. No one sees the pastor on his knees in his study begging the Lord for mercy for his flock. Social media exists to draw attention to the car chases and car wrecks in the world. As a consequence it is easy to forget the reality, that all over North America (and the globe), faithful P&R pastors are making emergency hospital and nursing home visits, finishing their sermons, returning phone calls, sitting with the grieving, and otherwise loving and shepherding the flock entrusted to their care.
I am grateful for the pastors and elders who have looked after me and my family, who catechized my children, and who have stood in the pulpit and behind the Lord’s Table to announce to us sinners the grace of Christ and the salvation he offers freely to all. Reader, pray for your church, her assemblies, and her well being. Let us say with David,
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good (Ps 122:6–9; ESV).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- Resources On LGBTQ And Revoice
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- P&R Polity Is Not Perfect But It Is Preferable To The Others
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- Re-Thinking Social Media
1. The essay has been updated to reflect the correct ground Presbytery’s original discipline of Mr Spangler. It is also worth noting, as a correspondent reminds me, the SE Presbytery has said nothing to or by way of apology to Rachel Green Miller.
Thanks to HB reader George Whitten Sr for his editorial help with this essay.