Presbyterial Problems

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.



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.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Amen, Dr. Clark. It seemed to me as I read your comments that there is a culture-wide allergy to facing matters squarely and identifying core issues. To press the metaphor, one symptom of the allergy is the proliferation of weasel words and the creation of foggy obfuscation. So we have “in the judgment of the GA,” too much latitude was granted, instead of citing the clear language of the Westminster Larger Catechism on the 9th Commandment. The result, in my view, is the shirking of personal, real Confession and repentance.
    There is another matter from last week that is really you should pardon the expression bugging me. Twice last week and from unconnected sources, I saw columns identifying Doug Wilson as conservative Reformed. Both articles name reference to Particular Baptists. It appears that Wilson is a considered a resource on Reformed belief and practice. I am troubled first, that anyone looks to Wilson for wisdom on Reformed theology OR conservatism. Second, and more worrisome to me, is that Wilson is not confined to Moscow, but is rather busy out in the wide world.
    My question is has Doug Wilson changed? Has he become a Particular Baptist? Or is this, instead, a matter of poor discernment or pragmatic use of a buzzworthy name? In any case, I am persuaded that none of these problems are innocuous or insignificant.
    Again. Dr. Clark, I thank you for being a watchman on the ramparts and for your clarity in muddles.

    • No, he has not become a Baptist but a number of them have thrown their lot in with him. The CREC contains both infant baptizers and Baptists. The latter seem attracted to him because he is a Trumpian character who offers to defend them against the bad guys out there in the culture and because he accepts them as Reformed.

    • Submit where possible. Appeal formally or complain formally against the substance and procedure of an action when necessary and, when no other avenues are left, depart soberly and somberly to another orthodox communion.

  2. Very timely, Dr. Clark! Thank you!

    IIRC, this is the second major case in the last decade or so where SJC has ruled on procedure -rather than the substance – of a case. In both instances, confessional Christians are left disappointed. In your opinion, do they need to prosecute these differently?

    • Brian,

      I’ve read the BCO but I’m not expert. Might the SJC have addressed the substance of the issue? I don’t know. It can be a challenge to get to the theological meat of an issue rather than addressing only procedure. As courts of appeal, GAs frequently only address procedure so, in a sense, this isn’t unexpected but it is disappointing.

      In general, in P&R polity, much of what happens comes down to how the original complaint is formed.

    • Bob,

      It is sad when any church officer veers off course, but that is one of the reasons for out Presbyterian polity. It is meant to be system of accountable leaders. As sinners there is always a risk of wolves in sheep’s clothing, or just misguided church officers. That is not going to change until the return of our Lord. Presbyterian polity provides a biblical safeguard. Still, even a biblical system can fail when executed by sinners.

    • Benjamin: You make it sound like the system of presbyterian polity exists to deal with the occasional bad apple. I’m afraid the problem is much larger than that. Just look at what Dr. Clark posted about two cases in the OPC and the PCA. Do those examples seem like unfortunate isolated failings? If they do, I can quote you chapter and verse about many more. These failings have become the rule, not the exception. Those who preside in the church courts of the PCA do so to observe every jot and tittle of church law, rules, and procedures like their forefathers the scribes and the Pharisees. What they omit is a righteous justice. What Dr. Clark’s post was about was a lament and a cry for justice from those in authority over us. I join him in those sentiments.

      • Bob,

        I agree with Benjamin. I understand that you are frustrated with the PCA but my experience is that the vast majority of pastors and ruling elders are serving faithfully and that there is no reason to indict all NAPARC churches. Take a look at the NAPARC website. There are many presbyteries, classes, sessions, and consistories represented there. They deserve the protections afforded by the ninth commandment.

  3. I have been in the PCA since January 1974. My church, Westminster PCA, Roanoke,VA, and its pastor, Charles McNutt, were among the original group that formed the PCA. It was my understanding that ruling elders were expected to take more of a role in presbytery and GA governance than had been the case in the PCUS, and at least in the early years my pastor and one of the ruling elders always attended GA. I now live in Alabama, and was very disappointed that my pastor attended this summer’s GA alone, even though we have some elders who are retired. This was such an important meeting but none seemed to take the initiative to attend. I do believe that the lopsided ratio of TE to RE is a serious cause for concern, although I don’t know what one can do to increase RE participation. Guilt trip, perhaps?

    • There have been numerous overtures to decrease the registration fees for Ruling Elders and other overtures to make it easier for them to attend but the Teaching Elder majority always votes these overtures down. If anybody should be guilt tripped, it is the Teaching Elders. The greater problem seems to be the permanent bureaucracy of the PCA which has way too much power and rogue presbyteries which insulate themselves from any outside oversight. In the case of the Missouri Presbytery, they do it with the tacit approval of the PCA’s highest court, the Standing Judicial Commission. So the General Assembly can pass any necessary reforms it wants but individual presbyteries have effectively become laws unto themselves and can ignore those reforms without any apparent repercussions.

    • What is the logic of the conventional wisdom that if you have more RE representation at the GA that they will somehow move the PCA in a more orthodox direction? I’m not sure that is true now if it ever was. With the permanent non-confessional bureaucracy in place, I’m not sure that anything could move the PCA in a more confessional direction. If you read PCA history, I don’t think it has ever been very confessional beyond lip service. I think it may once have been more culturally conservative but that’s not the same thing.

    • Bob,
      Historically it seems that the clergy in a denomination tend to veer off course, and become theologically liberal before the more involved laity do (i.e. ruling elders among Presbyterians).

    • Benjamin: What a sad indictment it is to say that the lay leadership needs to lead the trained clergy toward orthodoxy!

  4. Regarding the OPC case, it certainly looks like the presbytery did not follow the exact “letter” of the general assembly’s instructions. However, I’m unclear to what extent they are actually bound to do so.

    The OPC FoG XV.8 states (in part):

    “The general assembly is not invested with power, by virtue of its own authority, to make pronouncements which bind the conscience of the members of the church. Yet the deliverances of the general assembly, if declarative of the Word of God, are to be received with deference and submission not only because of their fidelity to the Word of God but also because of the nature of the general assembly as the supreme judicatory of the church…”

    In other words, if the general assembly issues a deliverance that is “declarative of the Word of God”, then all members are bound to receive and submit to it. And I might add, Amen! But what if the general assembly issues a deliverance that is not explicitly “declarative of the Word of God”, which appears to be the case with the wording of the instructions in question. If these instructions are not “declarative”, would they be considered pious advice, and therefore not binding in quite the same manner as, say, a deliverance that dealt with a particular doctrinal matter.

    WCF 31.3 seems relevant here. All synods and councils (i.e. general assemblies) have and do err. As such, it seems to me that their pronouncements cannot be made the rule of faith and practice unless they are declarative of the Word of God.

    • Ben,

      My concern is less with the authority of GA and more with the spirit and intent of the instruction and what the P&R churches confess regarding the ninth commandment. One would think that it wouldn’t require detailed instruction from GA to make a heartfelt apology.

  5. “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…”

    So true. That is the hardest issue (and one which my wife has difficulty understanding) about my broken relationship with mainline Presbyterianism and how it has affected my relationship with our local pastors, who have excelled at doing what pastors shoukd do. If the issues were limited to simply socio-political matters, that would be one thing, despite the anti-Trumpian, Trumpian tenor. (While generally conservative, I am opposed to the former President.) But, when on essential things, the denominational leadership basically uses historic freedom/diversity of thought provisions as cover to not enforce orthodoxy on essential matters contrary to how sucb polity has been understood to apply, then they and I clearly do not believe the same things. Add in the socio-political, as most want to see them, then I just say the J. Machen Gresham would say the samthing about this child of liberal Christianity (the progressive vatiety) as he did of the parent….a different religion. Sadly, it is the faithful pastors, elders, and deacons who are hurt by a leadership that rejects the Traditions own biblical standards.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    If a member of presbytery isn’t permitted on the floor of presbytery to express his opinion that someone is a false teacher, then where is he permitted to express that opinion?

    • David,

      As I noted in the essay, the members of presbytery had ample opportunity to test Mrs Byrd’s arguments in the courts of the church. They chose not to do that. In the absence of charges, in that setting, it was improper to rehearse allegations when neither she nor Mrs Miller had opportunity to defend their good names.

  7. I think it is a terrible mistake on the part of the OPC to do nothing with respect to Amy Byrd’s case. Mr. Byrd ought to be commended for showing incredible restraint. If Amy’s last name were Jackson and her husband’s first name were Andrew, the OPC would not have had to act at all. Further, those who behaved badly would have quickly realized the error of their ways and made amends.

    Lastly, it is interesting the OPC used the word “defamed” as in “defamation.” If she cared to, Mrs. Byrd could have her lawyer contact the OPC about this “defamation business” and change would occur before the obligatory 24 months of silence.

    Terrible look for the OPC and Presbyterian polity.

    • Paul,

      The OPC GA did instruct the Presbytery of the south east to express regret to Mrs. Bird and to Mrs. Miller. whether the PSE has responded to that instructions satisfactorily is the question raised by this essay but it would not be correct to say the OPC has done nothing.

  8. A question,

    If it is true, as it has been stated previously in this thread, that historically it seems that the clergy in a denomination tend to veer off course, and become theologically liberal before the more involved laity do,

    What is the cause of this phenomenon?
    Could it be that there is something fundamentally flawed with the current theological training system?

    • Theo,

      It’s a complex question the premise of which is in doubt. E.g., in the Netherlands, in the 17th century, it was often the laity who were latitudinarian versus the clergy, who were more faithful.

      It is true that, after the onset of the Enlightenment movements in the universities in the 18th and 19th centuries, ministers who went through that system were affected. It’s one of the reasons that the conservative and confessional seminaries are no longer attached to the universities. They’ve been exiled, as it were.

      There is or can be a reciprocal relation between what ministers do/say and what the congregation desires. Congregations too often ask for and ministers too often give them Christless moralism. The narrative that says, “It’s always the ministers who go bad first” omits too many factors to explain the problem well.

      Confessional fidelity is everyone’s responsibility. We all must decide whether we value fidelity more than acceptance by the broader culture. This has always been a struggle and particularly after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine early in the 4th century and the institution of Christianity, under Theodosius I near the end of the 4th century. The problem of theologically liberalizing pastors is really the problem of Christ and culture. Liberalizing ministers is just a presenting symptom, as the physicians say.

      Part of the problem is the role of confessions in the life of the church. In the case of the PCA, I’ve been warning for years that the decision to adopt “Good Faith” subscription will not help them maintain confessional orthodoxy. Neither did the Strategic Plan. REs went along with those things or didn’t oppose them sufficiently.

      On the other end of the spectrum, one sees people on the right marginalizing the confessions for their own cultural-social agenda. In Recovering the Reformed Confession I wrote about the QIRC, the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty. The marginalizing of the confession in favor of social-right cultural politics does something analogous to the QIRC.

      In any event what we need is better educated ministers not less well educated ministers. That was Machen’s argument and it’s still sound. The better the biblical exegesis, the better the systematics, history, practica etc the less likely ministers are to go bad, if you will. The theological liberals don’t always do very good exegesis. Ditto in re systematics, history etc.

  9. Dr. Clark:

    Very good answer to Theo’s question.

    I think the last paragraph is especially true. I would add that it would also help if more members of the laity were also formerly trained in theology and biblical studies. Both you and WSC have maintained in the past that a WSC education, for the purpose of becoming an elder, is a worthwhile endeavor. I wholeheartedly agree.

  10. Regarding PCA “Good Faith” subscription, I’m about the 1000th person to say it, but there’s a fatal flaw in one of the vows for ordination in the Book of Church Order 21-5:

    “2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”

    A denomination truly committed to confessional fidelity would have written something like “if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the statements, propositions, or teachings of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms . . . ” That, at least, is more of an objective standard. As written now, it’s merely a self-regulating, subjective promise. Given our remaining sin, all of us are capable of convincing ourselves that our differences are NOT “out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine.” I’m a past master at justifying my own beliefs and actions; I hardly need the church to encourage me.

    Unfortunately (and tragically, in my opinion), that vow in BCO 21-5 sums up the current ethos of the PCA in a nutshell. To quote the title of Carl Trueman’s book, it’s “the rise and triumph of the modern self” indeed.

    • And, it hardly needs to be said, the current vow empowers each man to determine his own list of “the fundamentals of this system of doctrine.” This is a world away from the conviction that the entirety of the Confession and Catechisms are the fundamentals of “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”

  11. It saddens me that these events end up giving Reformed Theology a bad name. Whether it is the OPC or PCA decisions, or the confusion and muddy waters circling about Doug Wilson, these things cause many who left Evangelicalism for Reformed Theology to have hearts full of grief. It’s hard enough to traverse through the confusion of the Evangelical Wasteland — but it’s even harder, once having found your “place of rest,” to have it tainted with like-minded Evangelical Wasteland issues. Our place of refuge has been attacked and it doesn’t feel good at all.

    Whether you agree with Aimee or not, she was treated horribly. Whether we like it or not, many in our world are being drawn into Doug Wilson’s errors and unkind, worldly language. Whether we like it or not, the PCA should have stood up on this topic, choosing to shine in a true biblical sense instead of allowing the world to compromise worship and honor due to God.

    I get it, we live in a sin-cursed world — but I’m grieved to the bone that those things I left behind after I found Reformed Theology are creeping into my place of refuge from that sin-cursed world. It’s a sad day all around.

    I do thank those who continue to be faithful within NAPARC circles. As our current church is seeking a new pastor (because our last one left the ministry completely), I pray that we can find one of those faithful pastors who understands the difficulties of being a pastor in this kind of culture. What kind of witness are we to the world if we become like the thousands of other failed denoms and non-denoms? Sso many splits and personal opinions must grieve the heart of God. The historicity of the Reformed Faith should be a strong foundation for our culture today, and I pray that those who try to push buttons against this hope will recognize their error and repent — so that they don’t continue to hurt the many others who have found refuge in Reformed Theology and conservative NAPARC churches. They should leave and go to a church that will accommodate their sin rather than hurting the rest of us who love the world of historic Reformed Theology and the churches who love it also.

    No wonder so many Christians feel so alone in the world today.

Comments are closed.