The "Jonesboro 7" indicted for "imagined" sin
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 Two)
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.
This is part two of four; you may read part one here.
The church plant needed to be dissolved; its culture was “toxic,” the members of Covenant Presbytery were told. The Christ Redeemer church plant had already been the source of one complaint (BCO 43) adjudicated by Presbytery and now seven men from the congregation had been investigated (BCO 31-2), indicted (BCO 32-5), found guilty, and censured with “indefinite” suspension from the Sacraments (BCO 30-2). And now they were appealing their case to the Presbytery.
The members of the temporary Session (BCO 5-3) had resigned, the church planter and staff had been paid out severances. All that remained was to close up shop; the church was “toxic” after all.
Given the summary of facts above it would be easy to conclude the members - or at least a significant portion of them - were “toxic.” Investigations, indictments, trials, censures, appeals, complaints, and all this before the congregation was even particularized? Surely the best thing for Covenant Presbytery and the PCA to do was shut it down, wash their hands of it, and get out of Jonesboro.
But all was not as it seemed.
Tucked away in the 2023 Commissioner Handbook with all the other decisions from the PCA General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission is Harrell, et al. v. Covenant Presbytery. As I read it recently, however, I was shaken, I was grieved, I was genuinely frightened and scandalized by what happened to the Jonesboro 7.
But as I read I was also profoundly encouraged and grateful for the integrity of the judges who sit on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission. They observed a case in which the process had been “abused” such that seven of Christ’s lambs were falsely convicted, censured, and - after a timely appeal of the verdict - their elders all resigned and recommended the church plant be dissolved.
A Question of Fit
In 2015, Christ Redeemer PCA began meeting as a church plant of Covenant Presbytery. TE Jeff Wreyford was called by Presbytery to be the “organizing pastor” to begin the work in Jonesboro (BCO 5-5a) and a Session of Ruling and Teaching Elders from IPC Memphis was appointed by Presbytery to serve alongside him (BCO 15-1). Importantly, TE Wreyford was not the pastor called by the church; he was called by Presbytery as the church planter/organizing pastor.
The work was going well; the congregation, according to Mr Paul Harrell, was gathering about 45 people each Lord’s Day by 2020 and it seemed to Harrell and others that the church plant was getting close to becoming a “particular church” (i.e. no longer a church plant with a Session of elders from other churches, but a congregation that has called its own pastor and elected its own elders and deacons).
The Lord was doing great works in Jonesboro at the church plant, yet several men in the church had reservations about the philosophy of ministry they perceived in TE Wreyford. The SJC notes Stephen Leiniger and Wesley Hurston met with TE Wreyford to share “a set of concerns” they and others had about his ministry.1 To be clear, they did not accuse TE Wreyford of anything unethical or immoral; it was simply that they did not think he was a good fit or supported by a significant portion of the congregation to be elected the permanent pastor (BCO 5-9f).
Later on August 30, 2020 seven men from seven different households in the church plant met with the “entire Session” to again share their concern that TE Wreyford was not suited to be the pastor of the congregation once it was organized into a particular church.2 Mr Stephen Leininger summarized the position of the Jonesboro 7 saying simply, “In our opinion…Jeff is not the one to be the pastor of Christ Redeemer as it particularizes and moves to its next level of ministry. We recommend that Jeff remove his name from consideration as pastor.”3
In a meeting with the Jonesboro 7, TEs Ed Norton and Clint Wilcke responded to their concerns of the church members about TE Wreyford by highlighting the credentials and qualifications possessed by TE Wreyford and the fact that MNA assessment had given him the “green light.”
But the Jonesboro 7 insisted, despite the endorsements TE Wreyford had received and his credentials and degrees, the issue was many in the congregation simply disagreed with TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry. The “Jonesboro 7” explained they were more traditional in their subscription to the Reformed Faith than the philosophy of ministry they had observed in TE Wreyford.4
No amount of endorsements from MNA or church planting networks could overcome the reservations the men had with TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry. They wanted a PCA church in Jonesboro that was distinctively, historically Reformed in character. They perceived TE Wreyford, a graduate of Metro Atlanta Seminary, had a different vision for the church than what a significant portion of the congregation desired to see established in Jonesboro.
As such the SJC noted the men merely “recommended that he ‘remove his name from consideration.’”5 The seven men represented about 40% of the congregation’s households.
According to Harrell, the seven men believed what they were doing was honorable and loving. They had no animus toward TE Wreyford; they wanted to spare him having to go through the lengthy process of “candidating” to be the pastor of the church and only then learn he lacked the overwhelming support of the congregation to be pastor.
Rather than see the objection as based in a difference of ministry philosophy, however, the Session chose to accuse the Jonesboro 7 of violating the ninth commandment. The Session wanted to set one of their own before the congregation as pastor; he was credentialed, he was assessed by MNA, and he passed.
But the Jonesboro 7 did not merely want a man to whom MNA had given the “green light,” they wanted a man in whom they had confidence. They wanted a pastor who would lead the congregation in the old paths of the Reformed Faith.
As Mr Lance Schackleford put it: “We wanted a reformed Presbyterian church here, PCA church.”6 And the Jonesboro 7 were not confident TE Wreyford would do that. They were concerned about the “progressive” influence they had perceived.7 Mr Zach Lott put it plainly, “I love Jeff as a brother, but I, I do not think that the sheep that have been attracted to this church have been well-served by his ministerial philosophy.”8
They disagreed with TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry, and they wanted to be able to exercise their rights according to the PCA Constitution to consider other candidates for pastor when the church plant particularized. But this was not acceptable to the pastors and elders from IPC Memphis who comprised the majority of the Christ Redeemer Session. Despite the concerns of a large portion of the actual members of the congregation, the Session - none of whom were members of the Church plant - voted “unanimously” to continue their support of TE Wreyford. And to accuse the Jonesboro 7 of sin, based on things the Session believed were “fair to assume” about the Jonesboro 7.9
On September 9, 2020, the Session of Elders sent letters to the seven men accusing them of violating the Ninth Commandment and issuing a “demand”10 requiring the men to renew their membership vows and respond in writing by 7 a.m. September 21.
The missive, which the Session characterized as a “Letter of Review and Admonition” instructed the Jonesboro 7 to “prayerfully reflect and consider how you have sinned against Christ, TE Wreyford, or others inside or outside His church by what you have done or left undone.”11 And if the men failed to respond in writing they could have been subject to removal from the church roll without process, since the Session would interpret this as the men no longer being willing “to submit to your membership vows” (cf. BCO 38-4).
After some back and forth, the seven men made an official complaint to Covenant Presbytery, the body of elders overseeing the Session of Christ Redeemer church plant, about their treatment and the demands of the Session.
The Presbytery, while not agreeing with the whole of the complaint, did sustain significant portions and agreed the Session had acted improperly to administer discipline “without properly initiating and continuing judicial process as required by the BCO.” In effect, the Presbytery stated the Session had denied the men the rights and protection of process and instead proceeded directly to administer “restricted discipline.”12
SJC Judge TE Sean Michael Lucas and pastor of the Memphis Independent Presbyterian Church filed a dissent with Covenant Presbytery arguing against the parts of the complaint the Presbytery had sustained.
TE Lucas was the senior pastor of the church where many of the elders assigned to oversee the Jonesboro Church plant were also serving on staff or on Session as well. TE Lucas was absent from the SJC when it rendered judgment finally in the case and would have had to recuse himself, since the case originated in the Presbytery of which he is a member.
An Incomplete Indictment
On April 21, 2021 the Session opened a formal investigation (BCO 31-2) of the Jonesboro 7, and on May 4, 2021 the Session voted to indict the seven men with violations of their membership vows and sins against the Fifth and Ninth Commandments. Each of the Jonesboro 7 received identical indictments.
The indictments quoted or alluded extensively to the Westminster Larger Catechism and cited numerous scriptures. The Session indictment asserted the men’s actions were offenses “against the peace, unity and purity of the Church, and the honor and majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ, as the King and Head thereof.”13
The indictments appear impressive and extensive. They had numerous witnesses listed against the seven men, they referenced records and investigation documents. In total there were about 130 pages of attachments that the Session could use to prove the men’s guilt.14
The indictments, however, lacked any specific information about how the men had, in particular, sinned. Numerous times the men objected to the indictments, since the charges lacked specifications as required by the PCA Constitution (BCO 32-5; cf. Appendix G).
The men asked for a meeting to reconcile and seek to “mend their relationship and find a way forward,” but the Session was unrelenting and insisted “its Indictments had been properly drawn” and summoned the men to meet with them on May 25, 2021 to enter a plea.15
With no knowledge of what their specific offenses were, the men were unable to prepare a defense, so they did not appear at the initial pleading date. The Session was required to set a new hearing date, which they did for June 3, 2021.
In the meantime, the accused continued to beg their elders for specifics as to how they sinned particularly. The Session continued to affirm the seven identical indictments sent to seven different men were sufficient; in other words: the Session alleged the Jonesboro 7 all sinned in identical ways.
The men made written pleas “under protest” of “not guilty.”
The seven church members requested the trial be moved from Memphis to Jonesboro since that was where “the charges are alleged to have taken place” and where their church was located. And the seven church members continued to ask their elders to be specific about how they had sinned, but their elders continued to insist the indictments were adequate and proper.
The men made other objections including that some men listed as witnesses were also to sit as judges including TE Wreyford in the case. The men asked that the case be referred to Presbytery (BCO 41) instead of being handled by the Session comprised largely of elders from IPC Memphis.
But the Session rejected all these concerns and requests for accommodations too and pressed on with the case. Still without informing the accused of what they had specifically done in violation of God’s Law.
Waiting for Trial…
Despite these seven of Christ’s lambs asking the under-shepherds of Christ for specifics as to how they had sinned, the Session refused to provide specifics. In fact the Session, of which TE Jeff Wreyford was Moderator, emailed the men:
it seems disingenuous for you to continue to insist that you do not know what you are being charged with. If, after prayerful searching of your heart and mind, you do not believe that you have sinned in how you handled your concerns about Jeff, then come and plead not guilty. A trial may well bear you out. But if, after prayerful searching of heart and mind, you believe that you have in fact sinned in how you came to share your concerns with others, then plead guilty. At which point we could begin to move towards healing and reconciliation.16
And so the Jonesboro 7 were left without specifics as to their offenses. Accordingly, the men entered written pleas of “not guilty,” and a trial was set for July 12, 2021 in Memphis to be held at the Independent Presbyterian Church, 70 miles from their homes, in another state, and before elders whom many of the accused had only met once or twice, and who would not even tell them the specifics of what they were accused.
In part 3, I will consider the trial of the Jonesboro 7 available next week.
And check out this piece on PresbyterianPolity available Wednesday, October 11, 2023 addressing some of the constitutional issues in this case raised by SJC Judge Jim Eggert in his concurrence in the Harrell decision.
GA50 Handbook, p. 2059.
SJC 2022-07 Harrell, et al. v. CP ROC, p. 77
op. cit., pp. 78-81.
op. cit., p. 87.
op. cit., p. 88.
op. cit., p. 90.
op. cit., pp. 42-43
GA50 Handbook, 2079.
op. cit., 2059.
op. cit., 2061.
op. cit., 2060-2061. This is the standard form of indictment in the PCA.
op. cit., 2066
op. cit., 2061.
SJC 2022-07 Harrell et al. v. CP ROC, p. 240.