/ Nathan Eshelman

What Happened at RPCNA Synod (2024)?

The 192nd synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church met on the beautiful campus of Geneva College from Tuesday, June 11 in the morning until Friday June 15th in the afternoon. Often we meet in IN, but it was nice to be home at Geneva. About 150 delegates from around the nation (and Japan) attended and, as church courts are public meetings, several interested Reformed Presbyterians from Beaver Falls and elsewhere sat in on the week’s meeting. 

Ruling elder Tom Fisher (Cambridge, MA) was elected as moderator. Elder Fisher is the third ruling elder to ever serve as moderator of the synod. He is also the second African-American to serve as moderator. Tom’s wisdom and grace as well as high practical knowledge of the RPCNA Constitution and rules for ordering a meeting made him an excellent choice as moderator. 

Each morning began with worship and the court sat under preaching, prayer, and the singing of Psalms. Our theme for the week was related to God’s desire for mercy, not sacrifice. The first sermon was the “retiring moderator’s address” by Dr. Pete Smith (Wilkinsburg, PA). Dr. Smith preached a riveting message from the Sermon on Mount, even giving cases of conscience in his sermon that “named names” from previous actions of synod describing how to apply mercy to areas of disagreement. Other sermons included a message from Dr. CJ Williams (RPTS); Rev. Iain Wright of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; and Rev. Ed Blackwood (Colorado Springs, CO). The singing of Psalms was also an important part of our worship each morning.

First time delegates and new members of the court were introduced. There were twelve new ruling elders at synod and six new pastors. The new pastors included Revs. Ryan Alsheimer (Walton, NY); Hunter Jackson (elect in Broomall, PA); Jon Sturm (Lafayette, IN); Yusuke Hirata (Japan); Keith Dewell (Washington, IA) and David Witmer (Seattle, WA). Fraternal delegates were also introduced and they were heard from later in the meeting. We were brought greetings from delegates from various denominations with whom we have fraternal relationships. The most significant of these was Rev. Matt Dyck from the newly formed Reformed Presbyterian Church of Canada. They have been a denomination for one year and described their first year experience in terms of a young man moving out of his parents home: “Food is expensive and rent is expensive.” We are grateful for them being our brothers to the North. 

Each presbytery was able to present a report of their work in the past year. It is noteworthy that three pulpits are open in the Pacific Coast Presbytery and they could use our prayers and help. The Midwest Presbytery has planted a Mandarin speaking congregation in Little Rock, AR. The Great Lakes-Gulf saw a year of healing and working towards greater unity. Atlantic, in the Northeast, reports good news from our most heavily populated region of the country. Japan gives thanks for Yuske Hirata finishing his PhD from Queens University in Belfast and look forward to seeing how God will use him at Kobe Theological Hall and in Japan. St. Lawrence is laboring with less congregations this year as their Canadian churches are now part of the new Canadian denomination. The RPCNA currently has 93 congregations. In those 93 congregations there were 183 baptisms and 165 professions of faith last year. 

The boards and agencies each gave reports as well. We heard from Dr. Calvin Troup of Geneva College and he spoke about the various ways that Geneva is a distinctively Reformed Presbyterian college. It was reported that there was a major college-adjacent land gift that will expand the size of the college. Plans are underway for new buildings on that land. The college also has seen a very high increase in enrollment for the coming school year. Dr. Barry York spoke about the work of the seminary. There have been a couple of difficulties this year due in part to Dr. Keith Evans’s sudden departure from the faculty (he is now a professor at RTS Charlotte) as well as the death of Dr. Jeff Stivason’s wife, Tabitha. The seminary reported on a major remodel of their main building, Rutherford Hall. Rutherford Hall was build in 1898 as the home of Durbin Horne called “The Gables.” Seriously, give money to this remodel of our 126 year-old building. 

The RP Home also reported and there were two communications connected to the RP Home. One was a request to divest the home because it came to the court’s attention that the Roman Catholic Mass is being publicly served at the Home. After a long discussion, a committee was formed to investigate the relationship between the RP Home and the denomination. There was also a motion passed for them to begin revising their practices to preclude Roman Catholic and non-Christian “spiritual care.” It was also noted on the floor that the RP Home currently only has two RPCNA employees. A speaker urged pastors and elders to encourage their young people going into health care to consider working at the RP Home. 

The missions arms of our denomination are divided between Home and Global Missions. Home Missions (HMB) reported on several church plant endeavors. A question from the floor squashed a rumor that the HMB sought to investigate congregations that choose to use older Bible versions or Psalters. The HMB president affirmed this was not true. Global Missions has been working on revising their bylaws. After a six year discussion on this with the synod, bylaw revisions were approved. We also heard good reports from several of our mission fields, many of which are in security-sensitive nations and are not written about publicly. Pray for these places and faces bringing the gospel in difficult soil. 

The RP Trustees discussed two congregations that have left the RPCNA: the former West Lafayette congregation that left following a minor-on-minor sex-abuse scandal where the pastor and elders were disciplined. Our Dallas, TX congregation left the RPCNA for the Free Church (continuing). It was reported that Immanuel paid the Trustees around $300,000 in a settlement. (In the RPCNA, when a congregation dissolves its assets belong to the Trustees). The Trustees are currently working with Dallas on a settlement. Related to this, a committee was established to craft a policy on how a congregation can leave the RPCNA. A paper from the Bloomington session seeking “lessons learned” from the Immanuel sex-abuse case was returned to the session. A two year moratorium on the paper was put in place because the matter is “too raw” and “too soon” as mentioned. We may see that paper in 2026.

A committee to consider the biblical and theological appropriateness of our current practice of female deacons will report in 2025. A few questions from the floor about the nature of the committee’s work were asked. Another committee concerning recusals in appeals was heard. Some changes on who can speak and vote during recusals were made and the decisions were sent down in overture.

Much of our time was taken up in appeal and complaint and debating reports related to controversies. This is not a negative as the higher court is a court of appeals and established to hear complaints (See WCF  31.3). Several of these related to our practice of exclusive Psalmody, but can be divided into two: the first was a case of conscience instructing RP pastors and elders on how to participate in worship where exclusive psalmody is not practiced. The second related to a ruling elder-elect who took exception to our current practice (although he did believe that only songs from the Bible ought to be sung). For several reasons neither of these were sustained, but the Synod did re-affirm its commitment to a cappella psalmody via special resolution. Later in the meeting we heard that the elder-elect had come to affirm our position fully. 

Two complaints led to reconciliation. A two year conflict between the Orlando session and the RP Home led to the beginning of reconciliation. The RP Home sued a former pastor of Orlando who was living at the home resulting in the synod admonishing the home for their sin against this minister. The RP Home has now repented of that and are making steps to make this right with the former resident and his family. The second was a complaint from the former minister and ruling elder of Phoenix against the Pacific Coast Presbytery. Their complaint was that the presbytery did not make a pronouncement of innocence after investigating an alleged relationship between a 17 year-old young man and an adult female. Part of that complaint resulted in the presbytery repenting of this as they did not find evidence of scandalous sin and another part included forming a commission to investigate this matter further. It is a very complicated and sensitive case, as you can imagine. 

Rev. Jeff Yelton appealed a decision of the Midwest Presbytery to suspend his credentials for being insubordinate following counsel to take down or amend a website that promotes wine-only in communion. The issue was not so much about wine, but about the manner in which he wrote about those who promote the use of grape juice in the sacrament. Both contents of the cup are permitted for use in the RPCNA.  Mr. Yelton’s complaint was not sustained and he remains under suspension.

We also heard a complaint and appeal from Mr. Ben Manring, a member of the Southside Indianapolis congregation, who was rebuked for an email concerning a ruling elder-candidate and why Mr. Manring believed this ruling elder-candidate was disqualified from office. The appeal and complaint was against the Great Lakes Gulf Presbytery for upholding the discipline after he appealed to the presbytery. The court sided with Mr. Manring concerning “irregularities in the proceedings” (upheld 77-20). Four other matters related to the appeal were not upheld. The Book of Discipline requires some action on the part of synod in overturning the discipline. A three man commission of former synod moderators will determine how that will occur.

Several other reports were given and some without oral presentations. This synod was a case study in the value of longer synods. There was little time for fellowship as it was a very busy week of labor for the kingship of Christ and the building up of his bride. 

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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