/ Nathan Eshelman

What Happened at Synod 2022?

The 190th annual synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America met on the campus of IWU in Marion, Indiana. Rev. Bruce Parnell (Stillwater, OK) began with preaching on “taking up the cross,” encouraging the court to not trivialize the message, but to make self-denial the mark of your Christian life. Each morning began with excellent preaching from Romesh Prakashpalan (Dallas), Kyle Sims (ARP fraternal delegate from SC) and Matt Kingswood (Russell, ON). 

The court then was introduced to first time delegates; seventeen ruling elders and eight pastors were introduced. Bill Edgar was able to introduce his son, Alex, and Russ Pulliam was able to introduce his son David. This highlights the covenantal nature of Christ’s church. Following introductions, the court elected this year’s officers: Harry Metzger: moderator; John McFarland and Andrew Barnes would serve as clerk and assistant clerk.

Several items were accomplished at synod right away. One congregation transferred presbyteries (Durham, NC). A letter was received from the Great Lakes Gulf concerning an “injustice and wrong” of giving credentials to a former minister while a trial was impending. A committee was formed to study a proper response to abuse in the church with the view of an oversight board.

Several of our church’s boards and agencies were heard from: Home Mission, Global Mission, and church planting committees in other parts of the world (South America, East Asia, etc). The Global Mission board recommended several changes to their by-laws and this was sent back to them for further consultation. The court also heard from Geneva College, RP Seminary, The RP Home, and other committees and agencies. Geneva College reported that a cappella Psalm singing and preaching highlight their weekly chapel services as well as the college seeking to promote Sabbath keeping on their campus. President Troup also highlighted the fact that the whole curriculum is “driven by” the mediatorial kingship of Christ.

Much of this year’s time dealt with complaints. Although some may consider it a “waste of synod’s time,” this is a real part of the work of a higher court: “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same…” (Westminster Confession, 31.3). The complaints dealt primarily with two categories this year. The first category had to do with responses to Covid regulations and freedoms. The second set of complaints dealt with the Synod Judicial Commission (SJC) that was set up to investigate the pastoral response to a sexual abuse case in one of our Indiana congregations. It is important to note that this SJC was NOT investigating the sexual abuse, but investigating the pastoral/shepherding response to the sexual abuse.

The first Covid-related complaint was against the Atlantic Presbytery for not allowing their ministers to write religious exemption letters exempting members from Covid vaccinations. This complaint came from the Hazelton congregation. Although the presbytery had removed this requirement against exemption letters, the synod voted against the Atlantic Presbytery saying that it is within the right of ministers to write religious exemption letters and “The actions of Atlantic Presbytery were in opposition to the Westminster Confession 20.2-4 and Reformed Presbyterian Testimony 4.8, 20.4-5, and 26.5,8.” Essentially, this action was against applications of Christian liberty. The second Covid-related complaint was against the State College session and the Presbytery of the Alleghenies (POA). This complaint was because State College was not requiring masking during the height of state-imposed Covid restrictions. The synod voted in favor of State College Church and the POA. Although not all agreed with the way these votes went, the synod did uphold Christian liberty, an essential teaching of Presbyterianism. 

The second set of complaints were related to the Synod Judicial Commission (SJC) and their judicial actions against the former pastor of the Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian Church. Between Synod 2021 and 2022, the SJC spent over 10,000 man hours investigating the shepherding and pastoral responses to the sexual abuse (again, they were never tasked with investigating the abuse itself).

Several complainants against the SJC were concerned with various issues from the investigation and trial, including the accusation that the SJC proceeded unjustly, that the trial of Mr. Olivetti was “publicly” live-streamed, the investigators were biased, that a professional investigation ought to have occurred, a request to “annul” the results of the trial, and even against the fact that Mr. Olivetti is currently suspended from privileges of the Lord’s Table. Each complainant was able to present their case, the SJC would respond, and then there was a time of debate and questions and answers. The hearing and answering complaints was approximately  1/3 of our time in session. The votes on the complaints related to the SJC and Immanuel Church were: Olivetti complaint 1 was not sustained 109 to 14. Olivetti complaint 2 was not sustained 117 to 9. The Faris complaint was not sustained 120 to 13. The Bloomington session complaint was not sustained 114 to 16. The Riepe complaint was not sustained 125 to 1. The Dillon complaint was not sustained 89 to 40. The Dillon complaint (asking for Mr. Olivetti’s Table privileges to restored) was clearly most persuasive, but failed to persuade a majority of the synod. Although the church heard of much division over this matter, the synod was clear and united in supporting the work of the SJC. Several men dissented from the actions, registering their names (and some their reasons) for being against the actions of the synod. These were difficult deliberations, but the Spirit of God gave us one voice and it was very, very clear that the synod loves these men from Immanuel Church, the victims and their families, and seeks to see them restored. Several restoration commissions were established to help shepherd this hurting congregation following a very difficult season in the life of their church. May Christ speak comfort clearly to them and restore, renew, and revive them following this dark season.  The Prophet Isaiah said, “A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth.”

A discussion on prison inmate church membership resulted in allowing church membership for inmates as long as they may be baptized (unless already) and sessions can provide oversight. A well-written paper on the nature of the covenant of communicant membership was returned to the authors. This paper sought to identify whether our membership queries were oaths or vows. Many who spoke did not appreciate rooting the queries in the inter-Trinitarian relationship. That paper will come back next year. A discussion about Zoom trials, which allows for some videoconferencing in trials when “not reasonably feasible.” This decision will have to go down in overture, requiring the sessions to agree with this decision. Vital Churches spoke of pastoral “burn out” and the need for pastors to take their vacations and an occasional sabbatical. One person rightly noted that sabbaticals are historically for academic work (such as writing). Speaking of writing, Crown and Covenant reported on the difficulties of procuring materials for publishing. Several new books are coming out this year, and it seems that Daniel Howe’s (Providence, RI) book on the Lord’s Day is quite spectacular.

The Reformed Presbytery of Canada was formed and a commissioning service sent them forth to preach the Gospel in the Dominion of Canada. The moderator was emotional as several congregations and mission churches were set apart to form their own national church. The moderators of presbyteries as well as the presidents of boards and institutions gave them the right hand of fellowship and then Psalm 72 (the national motto of Canada) was sung as the men went forward.

Other highlights are too many to write. The times of prayer and singing were rich and powerful. The fraternal delegates. The good finances and sacrificial giving of the churches. The unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace were quite evident. Difficult things have been done and will be done—but the glory of Christ remains central to all that we have sought to do. Hopefully this year will provide some healing from our struggles and we can look back on this synod being reminded that God is ever gracious to us and his love is evident among the brethren.

With much love and humility, 

Nathan Eshelman 

Orlando, FL

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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