/ Nathan Eshelman

Weary Toil: Synod 2021

Heads and beards were visibly more gray, and pages, who ordinarily serve the court with passing out papers, were stationed behind screens to monitor delegates over Zoom; unable to attend due to international travel restrictions. For some, tensions were high and for many, hearts were very heavy. The court was called to order and our former moderator led devotions from his home, over 10,000 miles away, in Australia. The world has changed dramatically between the 188th and 189/190th Synod meeting of the RPCNA.

Preaching on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, and patience from the hearts of Revs. Andy McCracken, Noah Bailey, John Edgar, and Daniel Howe were needed admonishments each morning as we did our work. Papers and complaints came in from various parts of the church. Synods, according to the Westminster Confession 31.3, are “to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same.” This year brought several complaints which the court divided into three judicial committees to review and bring back recommendations.

The first set of complaints concerned Dr. Michael Lefebvre’s departure from the RPCNA following his teaching against the standards of the church regarding human origins. The second set of complaints involved pastoral and procedural steps in an active judicial case concerning sexual abuse between minors in the church. This case is seeking to bring charges against a session which allegedly failed in shepherding and protecting minors in the church.  A third judicial committee was set up to counsel the Pacific Coast Presbytery that requested help with a trial of a minister, who has since left the RPCNA.

This year many of the highlights and highpoint of church work were not emphasized due to two years work put into one. The church has seen churches planted, students raised up, and men and women discipled, but sadly we did not focus on those things this year.

The Global Mission Board made recommendations for changes in their bylaws, and through a discussion with the Japan Presbytery (a mission presbytery of the RPCNA), those changes were sent back to the Global Mission Board for further study. The seminary board then reported, with President, Dr. Barry York taking the floor to speak on on the need for preachers in the church: “the fields are ripe for harvest” he reminded us in the words of the Lord Jesus. The court also rose in applause and thanksgiving for retired president Jerry O’Neill who is suffering with Primary Progressive Aphasia, seriously effecting his ability to communicate. The court also rose to pray for Dr. O’Neill.

A synod discussion that goes back a few years concerning prison inmate church membership was taken up with a majority report and a minority report. Elder Bob Bibby represented the majority and Rev. Tim McCracken represented the minority. Eventually the court came to an agreement that allows for inmates to have membership in local churches, which will require great oversight of sessions.

Dr. Andrew Quigley from Ottawa, brought a petition to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Canada. The Canadian churches who desire to join would form their own denomination, distinct from the RPCNA, complete with their own constitution. This request passed and a committee to assist the Canadian RP churches was formed to aid them in becoming their own indigenous RP denomination, joining the RP Global community as a distinct church from the USA’s synod. This may take a few years to birth this idea. Give thanks with our Canadian brethren and pray for their distinct labors north of the border.

A considerable amount of time was spent on the Atlantic Presbytery’s paper on biblical divorce because of desertion. A 75 page paper seeking to define the word desertion as used in I Corinthians 7 and Westminster Confession of Faith 24.6 was heard. The paper sought to be biblical, exegetical, historical, and pastoral. Eventually the Synod declared that we understood desertion as a “willful, irremediable, physical  departure by one spouse from the other or irremediably caused by one spouse or the other.” This hearty discussion and debate ought to inform our counseling and shepherding of those struggling through or seeking divorce.

Related to Dr. Lefebvre’s departure from the RPCNA and the struggles of his presbytery concerning a trial and judicial process, a  two-part “special resolution” passed after some debate: “This court hereby declares that belief in the literal parentage of Adam and Eve as our first parents is an essential point of the Christian system of doctrine.” And, that “Reformed Presbyterian Testimony 4.3 & 4.4 are essential to the Christian system of doctrine and that Synod declare that Testimony 4.3’s definition of the theory of evolution includes theistic evolution.” The two paragraphs referenced in the Testimony say, “The theory of evolution which assumes that chance happenings are an explanation of the origin and development of matter and living things is unscriptural. God created various kinds of living forms with tremendous potential for variation. The increase of varieties which has occurred is within genetic limitations provided at creation (4.3).” And, “We deny that man evolved from any lower form of life (4.4).” Some argued that this was a tightening of our church’s position, others argued that it was a timely and necessary reaffirming of our church’s teaching on human origins.

Complaints related to Dr. Lefebvre’s departure were heard through a judicial committee. Members of the Great Lakes Gulf Presbytery (GLG) were not allowed to vote on these complaints because they are categorically “matters of injustice.” Two complaints concerning witnesses in the trial and the actions of the GLG Ad Interim Commission were not sustained and returned to the complainant. Another complaint, written by several members of the GLG, argued that the church was in error for giving to Dr. Lefebvre his credentials in the midst of a trial. [Addendum: "in the midst of a trial" is understood as "a trial was pending."] This complaint was sustained.

The synod then moved to the three complaints concerning the active case concerning sexual abuse. These complaints were not acted on by Synod, but the jurisdiction of the case was removed from the jurisdiction of the presbytery and a seven man judicial commission of the synod was appointed that would hear the case and serve as the jury in the case. The sense of the synod was that the judicial process must continue.

The synod is setting up a committee to study the appropriateness of trials conducted over Zoom (or other e-platforms). It was reported by the Pacific Coast Presbytery, with tears, that they had deposed Mr. Bob Hackett, no longer a minister of the gospel. The presbytery has communicated that to him.

Clearly some very heavy matters were discussed this week, and between heaviness of hearts was robust singing of psalms, fervent prayers, and men seeking the will of God for his church. Many happy things were announced and decided upon as well. Professor Keith Evans’s position as biblical counseling professor at RPTS was renewed for seven more years. Students in various presbyteries were examined and made eligible to receive calls to Gospel ministry, including Mark Brown and Jerry Foltz. Denominational finances are very good and giving was up from years’ past. Churches are growing as attendance in other denominations’ have dropped significantly since Covid-19. As a denomination, we have had a year of troubles and there are difficult matters that lie ahead, but we reminded of the words of our Lord, who said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but I give you my peace (John 16:33).” We rest in that peace as we, together, seek to build the kingdom of God on earth.

"Though sowing seeds is weary toil,
And he who scatters weeps,
He'll come again and shout for joy
With sheaves of grain he reaps." -Psalm 126:6

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

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