Lessons from "the Jonesboro Decision"
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 One)
Editorial Note: What follows will be controversial and disturbing. 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.
They wanted to see a gospel centered PCA congregation planted in their town, Jonesboro, Arkansas. It was harder than they thought it would be. In this instance, it was especially hard.
Tucked within the thousands of pages of the 2023 General Assembly Handbook is an innocuous sounding decision from the PCA Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), Harrell, et al. v. Covenant Presbytery.
As I reviewed the SJC Decision, I was frightened, I was angry. I was concerned that what happened to the men whom I have come to call “The Jonesboro 7” could happen to anyone in the PCA.
The SJC even stated this about what the Temporary Session, comprised of Teaching and Ruling Elders from the Independent Presbyterian Church of Memphis, did:
the failure of the Indictments to include the specificity so obviously available is unjustifiable under BCO 32-5, and we find that the broad Indictments were abused to the prejudice of the Accused who were not adequately informed of the charges against them.1
You read correctly; the PCA General Assembly used the verb abused in reference to the actions of a Session.
The “Jonesboro 7” were subjected to treatment that the General Assembly declared was “unfair” and a violation of “the basic principles of due process as required by our Standards.”2 Note well: it was not some ephemeral, complicated, or arcane procedure that was violated by the Session, but basic principles.3
In the next weeks, I will be publishing analysis of the case, but I want to begin with several lessons I have learned that I believe others will find beneficial. It is important to consider the lessons of the case first, lest the articles analyzing the actions, testimony, trials, and travails of the case be found too discouraging or disturbing. I am also aware I may not be able to hold all my reader’s attention to the end of the series; a man has to know his limitations.
The lessons, I believe, are what matters most now. I believe the whole of the PCA can learn at least seven things from the tribulations of the “Jonesboro 7.”
1. The Judges on the SJC are Men of Great Integrity
We all have SJC decisions with which we disagree. But even as we disagree at times with some of their decisions or with the way they reviewed (or didn’t!) a lower court’s actions, I believe we should nonetheless admire the commitment and faithfulness of the SJC judges.
The Harrell decision demonstrates the profound integrity of the 22 judges who reviewed this case and their dedication to uphold the PCA Constitution. They are clearly men who take their vows seriously and who are willing to feed Christ’s lambs. The judges on the SJC showed a clear devotion to the cause of Christ and the welfare of His people as they unambiguously repudiated the actions of the Session.
The judges on the SJC did not hesitate to point out a Session had “abused” or done what was “unfair” as shown by the record of the case. When a Session falsely charges seven of Christ’s sheep under its care for daring to disagree whether a man should be “offered to the congregation as a candidate to serve as its pastor,” the SJC will uphold justice and vindicate Christ’s lambs against their accusers.4
One SJC judge, RE Jim Eggert, went so far as to say of this Session: “Session had no lawful authority to insist that the Accused stop resisting the Session’s attempts to ‘recommend’ the minister to the congregation”5
It would have been very easy for the SJC to side with the Elders from wealthy, tall-steepled IPC Memphis and deny the appeal of seven “dirt kickers” from a small city in Arkansas. But instead, and like their King, they took up the cause of the poor and helpless simply because it was right. We should be encouraged the Judges on the SJC love to do justice.
We should be thankful to be in the PCA and we should praise God he has granted judges who serve in this way, judges for whom words and vows mean something, and judges who have pastoral hearts.
2. Process Takes a Long Time
The ordeal for the “Jonesboro 7” began in August of 2020 and did not end until March of 2023 when the SJC decision vindicating them was officially released. During that time they were suspended from the Lord’s Table and deprived of the right to vote or speak in any potential congregational meeting. Even though ordinarily an appeal has the effect of suspending a censure, their Session took the step of leaving the censure in place while the men appealed.
Many times the “Jonesboro 7” could have simply walked away from Christ Redeemer Church and the PCA because of the treatment they endured at the hands of the Session of Elders from Memphis. But these men were committed to the Church and committed to the PCA. So they stayed the course and pursued justice through the process.
It was a painful season.
But because of the pain these men were willing to endure, because these men loved the Church enough to persevere through that pain, perhaps others will learn from their experience and learn from the SJC decision and future Sessions will refrain from the actions similar to what the PCA General Assembly declared to be “unjustifiable.”
The length of time it took for the men to receive justice might discourage similar victims from seeking it at all. But the integrity demonstrated by the judges on the SJC should encourage anyone who suffers similarly to come forward and plead with the courts of Christ’s Church to hear their case. In our SJC, we have judges who - like their Master - are willing to hear the cries of the needy.
For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. (Ps. 72:12)
3. An Elder Who is Witness May Also Sit as Judge
In a curiosity of our polity, currently an elder on a Session who sits as a judge may also serve as a witness against an Accused. This is an opportunity for further perfection of our polity. The SJC is obliged to uphold our polity and not to legislate. As such, the SJC did not reverse the Session’s decision to permit two men to serve as witnesses and sit as judges in the same trial.
Perhaps men wiser than I will come up with language to change our Book of Church Order to provide procedures for how to handle cases in which a witness is also an elder. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is simply require Elders from a Session to recuse themselves if they are called as witnesses, but that brings with it other concerns and troubles and could increase the number of Session cases referred to Presbytery especially in small churches.
Such a change would have to be carefully nuanced so as not to be abused by the litigious, but also uphold the principles of justice so vital to our King.
4. No Complaints Are Possible Against Procedural Rulings
In the civil court system, if a party receives a ruling on procedure he believes is in error, he may appeal that ruling to a higher court. This is especially relevant if the party contends, for example, process has not been followed or the Constitution violated.
Currently the PCA Constitution, however, states that in the Church courts, “no complaint is allowable in a judicial case in which an appeal is pending” (BCO 43-1).
There is no mechanism for an Accused person whose challenge to the competence of a elder to serve as both witness and judge is denied to have the Court’s decision reviewed by Presbytery or General Assembly before the trial continues. Likewise, when the Temporary Session voted to bar the men from speaking at any potential congregational meetings and approaching the Lord’s Table, the men had no recourse except to follow through with the lengthy appeal process.
This aspect of our polity is understandable; Elders are expected to act in good faith and in keeping with their vows to the PCA Constitution. But in this case, the SJC unambiguously declared the Session of Elders from Memphis did not act “as required by our Constitution.”6 It took nearly two years before the SJC could vindicate the “Jonesboro 7” of the charges against them. The ability to complain may have prevented the Indictments from being “abused” by the Session.
Here again, language for a change to our polity would be difficult to craft. The ability to complain against procedural rulings could likewise be abused. For example, a litigious Accused could very easily frustrate any attempt to bring him or her to justice by filing spurious procedural motions and then complaining against every single judgment.
I simply note an opportunity to further perfect our polity. I do not propose a solution.
5. Members of a Court Cannot Be Liable for the Actions of the Court
As I talked with the survivors in the case as well as others who are familiar with it, one question came up very often, “what will happen to the Elders who did this?” The short answer is nothing. Because no individual elder did anything. A Court of Christ’s Church was found to have erred.
Individual Elders exercising Church power “jointly” (BCO 3-2) cannot be individually accountable for the actions of the Court. This is reasonable; it is not the men who have taken action but the Court. Actions of a Church Court are subject to review and control generally (BCO 40-2) and in special cases (BCO 40-5).
It should not be assumed the men were disciplined so they will not be able to vote or speak at any upcoming meetings related to the selection of a pastor. It should be presumed Elders are acting in good faith even if they misapplied the Larger Catechism and misunderstood the Book of Church Order.
But sometimes even Elders acting in good faith can act in a way that is improper and perhaps even wrong and “unfair,” as the SJC noted multiple times as it reviewed this case. Our polity provides no mechanism of accountability even in a situation in which men are charged, convicted, and censured for alleged violations of the Fifth and Ninth Commandments only to have the General Assembly declare unambiguously:
The Session Erred in Finding the Accused Guilty.7
There Were No Transgressions of the Fifth Commandment.8
There Were No Transgressions of the Ninth Commandment.9
Preliminary Principle Number 8 is relevant here:
Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church.
Although what was done is now in the public eye, we should not assume the Elders from IPC Memphis who served on the Temporary Session were acting in anything other than good faith, even if there was a misunderstanding of “the basic principles of due process.”
In Church discipline, the Court is acting in the Name of Christ, which should give us a great and holy fear relative to all we undertake as members of the Court. Moreover, all Church discipline is ultimately done before the face of Christ the King and Head of the Church.
He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke? He who teaches man knowledge— the LORD—knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath. (Psalm 94:9–11)
6. The Actions of a Church Court Have Consequences
The actions against the “Jonesboro 7” are still being felt. All of the seven continue to worship faithfully; five of them still at Christ Redeemer. However what the “Jonesboro 7” endured at the hands of the Temporary Session comprised of Elders from IPC Memphis, has impacted the little congregation and community of Jonesboro, Arkansas 70 miles away. A number of the families who were once part of Christ Redeemer PCA have left the visible Church because of what they witnessed happen to the “Jonesboro 7.”
This should fill us with fear and drive us to careful circumspection whenever we believe we are forced to engage in the discipline process. Should we fail to act in the way we have agreed is the Biblical way (BCO 29-1) and set forth in our PCA Constitution, there may be dreadful and lamentable effects on others.
Even when we do the right thing in the right way, sometimes people are nonetheless hurt. This should encourage us to be especially cautious and careful.
7. God is Faithful
What God did in the midst of great suffering was remarkable. God used this situation to knit together a church family, to teach them to wait upon Him, and to show them His goodness even in the midst of great loss and strain.
As I talked with one of the “Jonesboro 7” he testified to how God vindicated His word that those who suffer for the sake of righteousness are indeed blessed. The men and their families learned of the sufficiency and kindness of God even in affliction.
The church plant continues; they have begun meeting both on Lord’s Day mornings and evenings. Although they suffered significant losses in the wake of the old Session’s actions, their numbers are now back to where they were before this trial.
TE Bill Berry, the current pastor of Christ Redeemer PCA, noted recently about the church plant, which is beginning to thrive again,
The main focus now is to heal and be strengthened as a healthy, Christ-centered confessional PCA church in Jonesboro that will, Lord willing, be a part of planting more churches in Arkansas.
What a beautiful, gospel centered outlook from their new pastor.
God preserves His Church and in the weakness of the church plant, in the weakness of the “Jonesboro 7,” our God has proven strong.
As I release articles assessing the Jonesboro case and the Harrell decision, we should remember the lessons of this case. We should remember how the Lord brought good out of it. Rather than be angry, pray for reconciliation in all things. And remember the Lord does all things well.
When we take a gospel centered approach to analyzing this case, we can see God’s goodness and faithfulness even in the midst of great hurt. That is why this article is first in the series.
GA50 Handbook, p. 2066; emphasis added.
op. cit., p. 2065
Before accusing the author of slander, the reader would do well to remember this is not the author’s opinion; this the judgment of the PCA General Assembly regarding the action of the Session.
op. cit., p. 2077
op. cit., p. 2064.
op. cit., p. 2068 (emphasis original).
ibid (emphasis original).
op. cit., p. 2070 (emphasis original).