Trial at IPC Memphis for the "Jonesboro 7"
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 Three)
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.
Seven men from a small church plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas desired to see a distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian church planted in their city. Covenant Presbytery had called a church planter, TE Jeff Wreyford, to organize the work there. But the seven men, the Jonesboro 7, had a different ministerial philosophy than TE Wreyford and they had not perceived the cultivation of a distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian church to be a priority for him.
The seven men went to the Session of elders overseeing the work and stated that when the time came to consider extending a call to a permanent pastor, that they desired to consider other candidates rather than TE Wreyford. You can read more of that in part two.
The Session, of which TE Wreyford was moderator, eventually responded by indicting the Jonesboro 7. The Session wrote them claiming it was “fair to assume,” the Jonesboro 7 had broken the ninth commandment in arriving at their conclusions about TE Wreyford. It remains unclear why the Session believed that was a fair assumption.
These “dirt kickers” from Jonesboro, who attended a fledgling church plant of about 45 people, were summoned for a trial on July 12, 2021, however the wife of one of the Accused was pregnant and her due date was that same day. But despite the request of the Jonesboro 7 for the trial to be moved to the city where they worshiped and where the offenses were alleged to have taken place, the Session of Elders insisted it would be held at IPC Memphis, where most of them were on staff or already ruling elders.
We can only speculate as to how the added stress of allegations from Christ’s under-shepherds and ultimately an indictment would have impacted the young family as they awaited the arrival of their child.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11)
The Session graciously accommodated the soon-to-be father by offering him a choice: choose to be absent from his own trial and represented by counsel or, if the delivery “providentially hindered” him, they would schedule a new hearing date for him. Mr Hurston ultimately chose to be near his wife on that date and was represented by one of the other Accused.1
A Curious Trial
The trial was held at IPC Memphis about 70 miles from the men’s homes and from the church where they were members. It was quite a contrast; IPC Memphis is an historic, wealthy, and influential congregation, which reported an average morning attendance of 952 in 2020 when the Jonesboro 7’s troubles began. Christ Redeemer PCA in Jonesboro, had about 45 people attending the church plant in 2020.
The men had little reason to be optimistic about their impending trial; at the end of May, the Session sent each of the Jonesboro 7 a letter asserting: “Scripture reminds us that if we fail to confess our sins, we cannot expect the Lord’s blessing…you are on a pathway that leads to Sheol and death. Return to your first love, Jesus Christ….”2
Readers may recall that earlier the Session had declined to tell the men how they had sinned. And when the men begged to know what their specific sin(s) were, these under-shepherds of Christ accused the men of being “disingenuous.”
As such, it is curious TE Ed Norton would sign a letter urging the men to “Confess [their] sins,” but continue to refuse to tell the men what their particular sins were (Cf. WCF 15:5). The SJC would call this more than curious; it was “unfair.”3
Nonetheless, the men were committed to the PCA and submitted to a trial, still not knowing what the Session believed they had done in violation of Christ’s Law.
TE Mike Malone, at the time also a pastor at IPC Memphis, served as the prosecutor in the case. It was his job to prove the Jonesboro 7 had broken the Fifth and Ninth Commandments.
At trial, TE Malone alleged the men were in sin to oppose TE Wreyford being offered as candidate for pastor; TE Malone asserted:
The session has continued to voice its support of [TE Wreyford] and believes without hesitation that he should be offered to the congregation as a candidate to serve as its pastor. That’s our job. That’s our responsibility as a provisional session.
The PCA Standing Judicial Commission quotes other arguments from TE Malone’s prosecution in which he alleged the Jonesboro 7 had sinned against the authority the Session “presumed” to have:
“The persistent insistence that [TE Wreyford’s] name be removed as a candidate to be pastor of this church reflects a fundamental unwillingness to fulfill membership vow number five, and is disruptive of the peace of the church.”4
Numerous witnesses were summoned against the accused. But none of them offered any evidence of the guilt of the accused, as the SJC would later point out (see the forthcoming Part Five).
One of the witnesses was TE Clint Wilcke who serves as the “Coordinator/Catalyst for the Mid-South Church Planting Network.” TE Wilcke’s testimony featured some memorable exchanges.
In one exchange, TE Clint Wilcke corrected a defendant for addressing him as “Mr Wilcke,” and instead insisted he be addressed as Reverend Wilcke.
Stephen Leiniger asked:
“Mr Wilcke. Before we begin the questions, I would like…to ask you how well you know the defendants? Can you point to them individually and tell us their names?”
To which TE Wilcke curiously replied:
“Okay. And if you would, if it please the court, if you still address me as Reverend Wilcke?”5
In answer to Mr Leiniger’s question, TE Wilcke went on to refer to several of the defendants by their Christian names without any honorific title:
Um, I know you’re Stephen. I know that’s Paul. I know that’s Tyrus. I don't know who... I think it’s Zach. I don’t know the two gentlemen on the end.6
TE Wilcke, while he could not name the seven men, nonetheless testified he “remembered ‘the man in the blue shirt.’ being asked to ‘sit down by your group.’”7
TE Wilcke, despite being called as a witness against the seven men who were charged with seven identical indictments not only testified that he could not recall “what every single person said or did,” but also that he could give no specifics regarding how the men had sinned.8 TE Wilcke stated, however, that he had heard of things that suggested there may have been slander committed by someone:
Yeah. I- I have no, uh, recollection of when or how, just seems to be that what I’ve heard, uh, outside of that meeting on the 30th, well, lots of people have been saying lots of things.9
The prosecution had placed TE Wilcke in an awkward position; he was called as witness against the seven men with seven identical indictments. So when Mr Leiniger asked TE Wilcke to testify regarding specifics as to what he had witnessed the seven men do that was a violation of God’s Law, he responded, “Yeah…I’m not able to do that.”10
TE Wilcke had answered honestly and with great integrity; one wonders why he was even summoned by the prosecution, since he had no testimony of any specific violation of God’s Law.
Another curious aspect of the trial was the testimony of RE Matt Olson a member of the temporary Session for Christ Redeemer as well as on the Session of IPC Memphis. RE Olson expressed displeasure at how much time the work of serving as an elder required. He stated he thought it would be “10 hours, and that’ll be the end of it. And we spent hundreds of hours on this.”
RE Olson would go on describe actions of the Jonesboro 7 as “childish” and “a waste of time” because “you guys don’t want to go and start a church down the street.”11
But the Jonesboro 7 could not just go down the street and start a different church; they were principled men committed to being Presbyterians and working within the constitution of the PCA. That does not seem “childish.”12
Another prosecution witness, Mr Joshua Morrison, when asked for specifics responded, “Can I provide specifics? Um... no.” Under oath, Mr Morrison acknowledged he could testify to no specifics of sin on the part of the Jonesboro 7.13 So why was he summoned there?
Continuing in that vein, the prosecution called the young RUF Campus Minister from Arkansas State University (also located in Jonesboro), TE Austin Braasch, to testify against the Accused.
Yet when TE Braasch was asked, “what specifics can you give, or can you provide specifics for each of the seven defendants here being charged with breaking the Fifth and Ninth Commandment?” by Stephen Leiniger, TE Braasch boldly responded,
With my testimony, no. I don’t, I don’t have a…group witness, I guess. I haven’t had interactions with the whole group in that regard…I have had hardly any interactions with Lance, Paul, or Jason, besides cordial conversations at the church.14
TE Braasch was placed in a difficult position; the Session charging the men with sin and sitting in judgment on the case - with the exception of TE Wreyford - were either on staff or elders at IPC Memphis, the largest and most influential congregation in Covenant Presbytery.
In the PCA, RUF Campus ministers are largely dependent on donations from churches like IPC Memphis to operate. Yet TE Braasch, without a thought of how this might potentially impact his future ministry, nonetheless told the truth and held to his integrity: he had no first hand, eyewitness testimony to give that would substantiate the Session’s charges against the Jonesboro 7. It is obvious, financial concerns were not on his mind; the oath he had taken to tell the truth was his concern.
TE Braasch would later apologize to some of the Jonesboro 7 that he had played any part at all in their prosecution.
Another prosecution witness, RE David Caldwell, however, objected to the need for witnesses to actually be firsthand, eyewitnesses of a specific sin. He simply asserted that he felt like the ninth commandment was violated:
I feel like the ninth commandment was also violated, uh, during that meeting. There are so, uh, I know we were real heavy on trying to say was anybody there for any time. As we talk with other people, I don’t agree that you necessarily have to be the first eyewitness person there. I think the testimony of several people can corroborate that. And so, regardless of whether I am there for each incidence. I’m not sure that that is, is the, the basis. Um... I’m going to choose to stop right there.15
RE Caldwell felt like the Ninth Commandment was violated, but he could not point to a specific way in which it was. Mercifully the PCA Constitution defines an offense not as a feeling, but only what is “contrary to the Word of God” (BCO 29-1).
Despite presenting no specific evidence at trial of the guilt of the Jonesboro 7, TE Malone, the prosecutor, nonetheless confidently closed his prosecution of the men by asserting:
I want to remind the court of what is at issue here is seven men who have resisted the leadership and authorities, and have disrupted the peace of the church, violating membership vow number five. What is not at issue is any member’s right to disagree with its elders, and/or as a matter of conscience, vote against a recommendation of the elders. What is at issue is the defendants’ persistent rejection of the elders’ support of Teaching Elder Wreyford’s ministry, and their collective continued accusation that …Teaching Elder Wreyford is not qualified to be presented to Christ Redeemer Presbyterian Church as a candidate to be its pastor.16
The SJC would note, contrary to what TE Malone asserted about the good names and reputations of the Accused, the Jonesboro 7 never asserted TE Wreyford was not qualified to be a pastor, but simply that they did not want him as their pastor:
The Prosecutor and the Session made much of the fact that there was no chargeable offense against TE Wreyford, one of the few points concerning which the Session and the Accused agreed, but which also serves to support the conclusion that the Accused did not slander him.17
A Verdict Rendered
Eventually the seven church members were dismissed from the room and their elders “entered into executive Session” and found all seven men guilty of the indictments despite the lack of specifics from the witnesses as to how the Jonesboro 7 had sinned.
On July 15, 2021, their elders suspended them from the Lord’s Table until they show proper evidence of repentance (BCO 36-5).
The Session placed the Jonesboro 7 in an untenable position; they had convicted and censured these lambs of Christ, but had still not told them how they had sinned; even at trial not a single witness could name any specific sinful action. Of what were they to repent?
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. (Acts 20:28–29)
The Session in its pastoral care and discipline over the Jonesboro 7 asserted, “Submission to the oversight of the Church Session is a mark of repentance and evidence of a willingness to be obedient to the will of Christ.” As Session saw it, the Jonesboro 7 were in rebellion against the will of Christ.18 But had not told them how they were in rebellion against Christ.
At the hearing the SJC Judges would later question how the men would be able to show proper evidence of repentance given the lack of specificity; one SJC judge asked whether proper repentance might seem to include having to vote for TE Wreyford.
As the SJC would later point out, however, “Session had neither the responsibility nor authority to determine or direct who, if anyone, would stand for election as the pastor of the mission church upon its organization as a particular church.”
Session had gravely transcended its authority. But for now, the Jonesboro 7 were forbidden from communing with Christ and His people in the bread and wine because they preferred to consider pastoral candidates other than the man preferred by the Session, who was also the Moderator of that Session, TE Jeff Wreyford.19
Tomorrow in “Part Four,” we will consider the appeal of the Jonesboro 7 to Covenant Presbytery as the men desperately sought a court in the PCA where words would have meaning, where the Constitution would be upheld, and in which evidence, justice, and truth would vindicate their good names and reputations (cf. WLC 144).
SJC 2022-07 ROC, pp. 285.
op. cit., pp. 235-236.
50 GA Handbook, p. 2065.
50 GA Handbook p., 2069.
SJC 2022-07 ROC pp. 302-303.
op. cit., 2067.
GA Handbook, p. 2067.
SJC 2022-07 ROC, p. 305.
op. cit., p. 308.
op. cit., p. 360.
Six of the Jonesboro 7 continue to be members in good standing of the PCA even after this ordeal.
op. cit., p. 316.
op. cit., p. 347.
op. cit., p. 352.
op. cit., p. 365-66.
GA Handbook, p. 2071.
SJC 2022-07 ROC, p. 379.
GA Handbook, p. 2069.