Covenant Presbytery Denies Appeal of Jonesboro 7 Finding No Errors in Session Trial
A group of Christians in Jonesboro wanted to have a PCA Church in their town. But organizing a church was more difficult than expected, yet God proved abundantly sufficient and able. (Part Four)
Editorial Note: What follows will be controversial and disturbing as it deals with abuse. Reader discretion is advised. In preparing this series, official documents and public comments have been extensively used to compose the narrative. No attempt is made to assign motives to any of the parties in this case. Reference will be made to inferences drawn by the judges on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission as they carefully reviewed the case and noted the process was “abused” and offenses “imagined” by a Temporary Session of Elders against the Jonesboro 7. Any objection to the use of the term “abused” should be directed to the SJC Judges rather than the author of this series who simply reports the judgment of the PCA General Assembly regarding the actions of the Temporary Session in this case.
The men wanted to see a Reformed and Presbyterian Church planted in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Covenant Presbytery had established a mission congregation, Christ Redeemer, in that city under organizing pastor TE Jeff Wreyford.
However, the Jonesboro 7 had not perceived TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry to be heavily focused on Reformed distinctives. They had perceived some “progressive” tendencies.1 As such they conveyed their concerns to the elders serving on the temporary Session and stated their belief that other men should be considered as candidates for pastor when the time came for the congregation to elect one.
The Session, however, responded by charging the men with violations of their membership vows and sins against the Fifth and Ninth Commandments. The men, from a church plant of about 45 people, were summoned for a trial on July 12, 2021 at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Memphis, which in 2021 reported its average morning attendance to be 478; more than ten times that of the fledgling church plant.
The Session of Christ Redeemer consisted of - with the exception of TE Wreyford - pastors or ruling elders from IPC Memphis. That same Session would sit in judgment on the men.
Numerous witnesses were called by prosecutor TE Mike Malone, but none of them could give any specific testimony as to what the Jonesboro 7 had done to violate their membership vows and God’s Law. Undeterred by the lack of evidence, the Session found the Jonesboro 7 guilty and censured them with suspension from the Lord’s Table until they would show sufficient evidence of repentance.
Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life, therefore you shall no more see false visions nor practice divination. I will deliver my people out of your hand. And you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 13:22–23)
But since neither the indictments nor the trial established what the men had specifically done that was sinful, giving “satisfactory evidence of repentance” would be difficult.
An Attempt to Participate
Ordinarily in the PCA, notice of appeal “shall have the effect of suspending the judgment” against an Accused.
Despite the men called by Presbytery to serve as pastor and to shepherd them in Christ’s Name having declined to show them where they had specifically sinned, the men still wanted to participate in the church, to be part of the PCA, and to partake in Christ’s body and blood by faith with the rest of His people at His table. So they appealed to Covenant Presbytery.
But the Session of Elders took the additional step of barring them from approaching the Lord’s Table even while their appeal was ongoing. SJC judges would later note that this would also have the effect of preventing the men from voting in a congregational meeting to elect a pastor, should a vote take place.
To explain their decision to take the extra step of keeping the censure in place even during an appeal, the Session simply asserted, “The judgement shared with you on 21 July 2021 contained sufficient reasons as to why you were being suspended from the Lord’s table.”2
A short time later the Session sent a correspondence to Covenant Presbytery alleging the Jonesboro 7 had “violated BCO 32-19 in the authorship” of their complaint and pleadings by an outside elder.3 The Session wrote,
New evidence has been presented that many of court documents dating back to the earliest correspondence between the appellants and the session bear the name “Dominic Aquila” as author…
We believe this to be potentially against BCO 42-2 and 42-4 which prevents circularizing court documents, as well as 32-19, which prevents the use of “professional counsel.”4
It is a curious interpretation of BCO 42, which places no prohibition on “court documents,” but rather prohibits “circularizing the court,” i.e. attempting to persuade the judges on the court to a certain opinion.
It is further curious the Session interpreted “circularizing” in the way it did, considering that on March 30, 2021 TE Robert Browning, the Covenant Presbytery clerk, had written to the Session about another matter and explained how “circularize the court” is to be understood: “This means there is to be no effort to influence or ‘whip’ the vote before Presbytery.”5
It remains unclear what evidence the Session had to indicate the Jonesboro 7 had retained professional (i.e. paid) counsel.
An Appeal Denied
The seven church members did not believe their elders had showed them where and how specifically they had sinned either through pastoral shepherding or by means of the process of a trial. At such a point, the Jonesboro 7 might understandably shake the dust off their feet and find a gospel centered, Christ exalting, God glorifying faith communion where they could be nurtured and shepherded somewhere else in Jonesboro. That was, after all, what RE Olson seemed to anticipate they needed to do in his testimony.
But these men were committed to the Reformed Faith and were committed to being Presbyterian. As such, they appealed their case to Covenant Presbytery, which had oversight of all the PCA churches in that area. Covenant Presbytery was also the body who had appointed the Elders of the church plant’s temporary Session.
It is likely the men were optimistic about their appeal. After all, the Presbytery had sustained the portion of their complaint months earlier that dealt with largely the same matters.
But if there was any hope of being vindicated at Presbytery, it was short-lived; the Presbytery assigned their case to a commission to review. That commission met on February 4, 2022, and “a motion was made by RE Josh Sanford, seconded by TE Dan Anderson and passed to deny the appeal in the whole. The vote was 7-0-0 in favor.”6 All seven men on the Presbytery’s judicial commission voted to deny their appeal, which would have to be ratified by Presbytery, which it did on May 17, 2022.
The Jonesboro 7 made several arguments pleading for relief from Covenant Presbytery.
They claimed the indictment itself was unconstitutional, since it gave no specifications regarding the sin as required by BCO 32-5; Covenant Presbytery, however, disagreed. The Presbytery reasoned: “the phrase ‘if possible’ gives broad discretion to a court” in what it includes in the indictment. Covenant Presbytery reasoned that the assertion “in the days leading up to and following August 3, 2020…” was sufficiently specific: at some point in the month of August the Jonesboro 7 did something that violated their membership vows and Commandments Five and Nine.7
In their appeal the Jonesboro 7 also claimed that improper, poor, and inadequate evidence was presented at trial to prove their guilt. In other words, the Jonesboro 7 claimed the evidence and testimony did not establish their guilt. But this argument also was rejected by Covenant Presbytery. Covenant Presbytery reasoned “BCO 42-3 does not state ‘poor’ evidence, as the allegation states, as grounds for an Appeal.” The Presbytery also accepted the assertions of the prosecutor, TE Mike Malone, in his closing argument to show “sufficient proof” of the guilt of the Jonesboro 7. This, despite, the fact no testimony was offered as to their specific guilt. Although RE Caldwell did testify as to his feeling the Ninth Commandment was broken.
Consider the result of Covenant Presbytery’s reasoning here: it is irrelevant if a Session fails to specify how a church member sinned; it is irrelevant if evidence against a church member is poor or even insufficient. So long as a prosecutor summarizes what he intended to prove, a Court of the Lord Jesus Christ may find Christ’s lambs guilty of sin. According to Covenant Presbytery here, lack of evidence or poor evidence is not grounds for appeal since the BCO does not include those words in BCO 42-3.
The Presbytery reasoned, in denying the appeal, that since the accused church members failed to prove the Session committed “any important delinquency or grossly unconstitutional proceeding[s]” in the trial, that there was no reason to overturn the judgment of the Session.
This is a curious reasoning; the Presbytery seemed to believe that since procedure was (allegedly) properly followed, there was no ground for Presbytery to overturn the action of the Session. The SJC ruling would later show both that the Presbytery made an error in its standard of review in the appeal and that indeed the PCA Constitution was not followed by the Session of Elders overseeing the church plant.
Members of churches within the bounds of Covenant Presbytery should tremble that what happened to the Jonesboro 7 might happen to them. If Presbytery continues to hold this judicial philosophy undergirding its denial of the appeal of the Jonesboro 7, the Presbytery would not quickly overturn such a broad and vague indictment in the future on the grounds of its obvious injustice. The SJC called this, “unfair.”8 But “unfair” does not appear in BCO 42-3 as grounds for appeal either. One would think fairness is axiomatic in the Courts of Christ.
This is no hypothetical danger to the members of the congregations in Covenant Presbytery; this is precisely what happened to the Jonesboro 7. However because, in the view of the Covenant Presbytery Judicial Commission, the Session of the Church Plant followed the PCA Constitution, there was no reason to sustain their appeal. Even though, at the SJC hearing, a representative of Covenant Presbytery would concede that the prosecution failed to present much evidence and what evidence was presented was, “generic.”
One SJC judge, as we will see, questioned whether there was even a “modicum” of evidence of the guilt of the Accused. We will discuss this further in Part Five.
Thankfully, the SJC would later correct this serious error by reminding Covenant Presbytery that the phrase “if possible” does not give discretion to a prosecutor, but rather establishes an “obligation on the court and prosecutor to include the prescribed information in the indictment to the extent it is reasonably available to the court.”9 However, it should be concerning to the members under the care of Covenant Presbytery that its Judicial Commission did not immediately see the fatal and clear defects in the indictments drawn by the Session.
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” (Jer. 9:23–24)
But in the meantime, however, no one had shown the Jonesboro 7 where they had sinned. But the seven men were barred from the Lord’s Table, censured as disturbers of the peace and purity of the Church, and so on and so forth. Within one hour of Presbytery’s decision, the men appealed to the SJC.
One of Presbytery’s respondents at the SJC hearing would later make the memorable allegation that the speedy appeal to SJC was part of a “gamification” of the Church constitution by the Jonesboro 7. That was one of a series of additional allegations Presbytery’s representatives would add against the men at the SJC as they attempted to characterize the men as lacking in humility, disregarding spiritual concerns and instead concerned for process. It is remarkable the Presbytery’s respondent knew the motives of the Jonesboro 7. Before the SJC, he would even accuse the men of not reflecting or praying about their decision to appeal. It is a curious line of reasoning for an elder in Christ’s Church to allege that making a timely appeal in accordance with the PCA Constitution is evidence of guilt.
But more on that in Part Five.
Attempting to Close the Church Plant
In the wake of the men filing their appeal, the members of the Presbytery-appointed Session resigned after paying out severances to the staff and recommended the Presbytery shutter the church plant, describing it as “toxic.”
Not only were the Jonesboro 7 excluded from the Lord’s Table, now the whole congregation had no pastor, no Elders, and - if Presbytery heeded the recommendation of its MNA Committee and the Session - there would be no PCA church in their city for them to attend. Who would continue to exercise pastoral oversight over these men whom the Session had declared were on a path to “Sheol and death?”
Presbytery took up the recommendation of the MNA Committee to close the church plant: “TE Dean presented a motion from the MNA Committee to approve the Christ Redeemer Session Commission’s recommendation that Presbytery begin the process of dissolving Christ Redeemer Mission due to toxic culture and lack of viability.” But a “substitute motion was made to dissolve the Christ Redeemer Session with thanks, to appoint a new temporary session in accordance with BCO 15-1, and to pursue a new church planter for the work.”10
The debate on whether to close Christ Redeemer Church plant began in the morning and continued after the lunch recess into the afternoon. According to those who were there, the debate in the morning session seemed to favor shuttering the plant. However after lunch a little known Teaching Elder took the floor; his name was Don Erwin. TE Erwin has been honorably retired and came to Presbytery on the mistaken assumption this was the meeting at which BCO Changes would be considered. He had initially planned to leave after lunch.
However, TE Erwin happened to hear the travails of the little church plant. And having served as a church planter in Arkansas himself some years prior, his heart was moved not only to stay for the afternoon session, but to take the floor and make a speech.
TE Erwin reasoned from 2 Corinthians 12:15,
I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?
Yes, the work of church planting was difficult; yes, the little church plant had difficulties, but the work was worth it. Christ and the souls of the people in Jonesboro were worth the cost. The Presbytery must not close down the church plant; the Presbytery must not give up on Christ’s lambs in Jonesboro.
Following the speech of TE Erwin, the tenor of debate changed. And the Presbytery determined, by a small margin, to keep the little church plant going and to appoint a new Session.
To hear Paul Harrell tell it, “it was like going from death to life.” In the morning it seemed like they were about to lose the church: the old Session had called the church culture “toxic;” the MNA Committee affirmed that assertion. All seemed lost.
But God used a man who had gotten the dates and dockets mixed up, who planned to leave after lunch, to give the speech that many credit with saving the church plant. And because TE Erwin stayed and spoke, the Lord used him to carry the debate.
Despite the powerful forces in Covenant Presbytery arrayed against the little church plant, despite the unconstitutional actions of the Session toward a plurality of the heads of households, it was nonetheless the apparent will of God that the church remain open so that Christ Redeemer might develop into the thriving, healthy, ordinary means of grace, gospel centered congregation it is today.
It is a most remarkable providence; if one reads the protest (see below) against Presbytery’s action to preserve the church plant, the signers represent the elders from Covenant Presbytery’s wealthiest and most influential churches and committees. Yet the speech of a largely unknown, retired former Arkansas church planter was powerfully used by God to change the course of the debate, save the little church plant from dissolution, and preserve a witness for Himself in Jonesboro.
TE Erwin would later write to another elder to explain what transpired in this:
As I listened to the discussion before lunch, I was divided in my thinking about the proposal by the MNA Committee. I felt something wasn’t right but knew that committee reports are almost always approved. So, I decided to take my early absence and leave for Russellville at lunch. As I drove out of the parking lot and headed toward Russellville, I came under a deep conviction that I should go back and say something when the meeting resumed. I thought about all that the Lord had taught me through all the trials, struggles, and victories in being the organizing pastor/Evangelist at Russellville PCA. I fought back the tears as I turned around to head back to the church. I entered the building and found it empty. I sat down to reflect on what I should say. It was a deeply emotional time. I was especially moved of the talk of “toxic” people in the church plant in Jonesboro. I recalled my struggles with difficult people in our church in Russellville. I remembered how the Lord has never given up on me…
I thought about 2 Corinthians. Paul ripped his chest open and poured out his heart to the Corinthians. I knew what I had to say. Then a man came into the area outside the sanctuary where I was seated. He came over to introduce himself as one of the men from the Jonesboro church. I shared what was on my heart. He confirmed my conviction that we should not give up on the men being accused in the church.
I have been a member of Presbytery since 2001. I have only made the briefest of statements in the meetings. As the meeting resumed, I waited on the Lord to providentially direct me. There seemed to be a pause in the proceedings. I knew it was my time to speak. I had not planned to walk up to the microphone. But, when I stood, I was carried forward. I only went forward with the ideas the Spirit had impressed upon me. I was filled with the conviction and resolve to simply speak the truth from the Scriptures and from what the Lord has taught me.11
TE Erwin went on to describe how he prays daily for the men of Christ Redeemer Church in Jonesboro, the MNA Committee, and the outgoing Session as well as the new Session of elders taking responsibility to shepherd the flock of God in Jonesboro.
A New Session of Elders & a Protest
The Session of Covenant PCA in Cleveland, Miss. agreed to take responsibility for the church plant, to pastor the members, and to assume financial support for the church plant whose financial resources had been used by the previous Session to fund a sabbatical for TE Wreyford, pay severances, and engage in a lawsuit against a business in Jonesboro.
It would be a costly challenge for the Session of Covenant PCA in Cleveland to exercise oversight of these poor saints in Jonesboro, but it was a cost they were willing to bear for the cause of Christ.
A number of elders, however, led by TE Sean Lucas, signed a “protest” against Presbytery keeping the church plant open in which they expressed significant concern that the new Session would permit the Jonesboro 7 to return to the Lord’s Table.
TE Sean Lucas is the Pastor of IPC Memphis and also a judge on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission, however he was absent when the SJC considered this appeal. TE Lucas has denied involvement in the case.
In Part Five, we look at the review of the case by the Standing Judicial Commission and the complete vindication of the Jonesboro 7 by the General Assembly.
SJC 2022-07, RPC, p. 81.
op. cit., p. 382.
op. cit., p. 395.
op. cit., p. 383.
op. cit., p. 149.
SJC 2022-07 ROC, p. 419.
SJC 2022-07 ROC, p. 424.
GA Handbook, p. 2066.
op. cit., p. 2065.
Minutes of Covenant Presbytery, February 1, 2022, 154:9.
Shared by kind permission of TE Erwin.