Nathan Eshelmann

A Summary Report of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Synod 2023

Following the preaching, eleven first time delegates were introduced to the court, six of whom serve as pastors and the remaining 5 as ruling elders. Nominations were then open for moderator. Much to his surprise, Rev. Dr. Pete Smith of Covenant Fellowship RP Church was elected. He was an excellent moderator.

The Psalmist says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 128:5-6).
The 191st Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) commenced on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Following several years of ongoing discipline matters and formal complaints, the Lord gave us a year of both weeping and rejoicing. The meeting opened with a devotional message from the retiring moderator, Rev. Harry Metzger. He preached from I Corinthians 15, and three others preaching through the week would bring sermons from the same text: Revs. Ma and Blocki from North Hills (Pittsburgh, PA) and Rev. Dr. Ben Glaser from Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). Following the preaching, eleven first time delegates were introduced to the court, six of whom serve as pastors and the remaining 5 as ruling elders. Nominations were then open for moderator. Much to his surprise, Rev. Dr. Pete Smith of Covenant Fellowship RP Church was elected. He was an excellent moderator.
Most of Tuesday was spent working through a Business of Synod report that made recommendations on how various papers, communications, and complaints ought to be handled. Eleven communications needed to be processed by the court. Most of the complaints were returned to their authors with the court choosing not to speak to them. One complaint, which argued against the Pacific Coast Presbytery sustaining a pastoral examination following the complainant being dissatisfied with the answers of an examinee. This complaint resulted in a study committee which will seek to give counsel to pastors and elders who find themselves in worship contexts where the Psalms are not being sung exclusively.
The one complaint that was heard (and did not result in a study committee) was from Rev. Adam Keuhner against the Great Lakes Gulf Presbytery (GLG). Keuhner argued that when presbytery rebuked two elders for administering the sacrament to a disciplined minister, it was not a sufficient censure. After hearing both sides of this complaint, the synod sustained the complaint 50-40 against the GLG (GLG delegates were not allowed to vote in this matter).
Three other communications resulted in actions from the synod: A paper that came through the Midwest Presbytery (MWP) sought to change the language of our current Testimony regarding abortion. As it reads currently abortion is murder “except possibly” in the case where a mother’s life is at risk. The proposal is seeking to bring equal dignity to the life of the mother and the child. This was sent to a study committee to report back next year.
The Orlando Session petitioned the synod to admonish the Reformed Presbyterian Women’s Association (RPWA) for suing a retired minister who lived at the RP Home. The petition sought to urge the RPWA to seek forgiveness from the minister and to take actions to seek a session’s aid in matters that would otherwise go to court (I Cor. 6). The Synod upheld the petition, admonishing the RPWA and urging them to facilitate change in their practice.
The Presbytery of the Alleghenies (POA) submitted a paper on the RPCNA’s practice of women serving in the diaconate. (The RPCNA has had women serving as deacons since 1888.) A five-man study committee was established to study the biblical practice of women serving in the diaconate as well as the nature and purpose of ordination. They will report their findings at next year’s Synod.
Several study committees as well as judicial commissions also reported. Over the last year, two commissions have been working with the former leadership of a congregation that was, sadly, caught in the middle of a minor-on-minor sexual abuse scandal. The pastor was deposed and suspended from communion, and the elders were suspended from office in 2022. These commissions have been working to the end of repentance and reconciliation. The former ruling elders told their commission that they were no longer able to work with them, violating the agreement reached when they pled guilty in 2022. Synod elevated their discipline and deposed them from office by an 88-32 vote. The former pastor, who rejected the authority and discipline of the RPCNA, was excommunicated by a 99-24 vote. The former moderator called him on the phone to inform him and then the pronouncement of excommunication was read.
It was a sober and dreadful experience and you could feel the heaviness of the room and see the tears streaming down men’s faces.
A few study committees will continue into another year, either not reporting or needing to rework some of the ideas presented: Kingship of Christ (did not report); Recusals (sent back to committee); and Vows and Queries (did not report). A study paper seeking to define the previous acts of synod (191 years’ worth) encouraged the synod to maintain the written understanding of previous synodical acts: they are the “law and order of the church” rather than merely suggestive or informative. This committee’s work began in 2018 or 2019 and came to synod through the GLG. The synod voted overwhelmingly in favor of previous acts remaining as law and order.
A major work that was sent back to the committee was a paper seeking to set up a task force to response to claims of abuse. The paper sought a standing committee of thirteen made up of pastors, elders and professionals in various fields (medical, social work, police, etc.) that would serve a resource for those with questions as to whether certain cases in the church would qualify as abuse. The synod debated this extensively before returning the paper that it may be improved.
We sowed in tears. We also reaped in joy. Several boards and agencies of the church reported on their work in the past year. Crown and Covenant reported on their book sales and some of the things in the works (including posthumously published works by Rev. Gordon Keddie). Geneva College reported, and we heard from president, Dr. Troup. Dr. Troup presented a brief presentation on how Geneva instructs from biblical literacy and confessional fidelity. We also heard from Dr. Barry York on the ministry of the RP Seminary, which seeks to be biblical, confessional, pastoral, and devotional.
The RPWA’s representative spoke on the RP Home and disability ministries. Reformation Translation Fellowship is expanding beyond the Chinese language for the first time since the 1940s and the Chinese Education Fund seeks to help Chinese families who do not want their children in state-run (Communist) public schools.
The court also heard fraternal greetings from three denominations with whom we have relationships: Dr. Ben Glaser of the ARP was already mentioned and we also heard Rev. Ian Wright of the OPC and Rev. Bartel Elshout from the Heritage Reformed Churches. Each presbytery of the RPCNA also reported on the highlights of their ministries in the past year.
Various missionary arms of the church shared exciting news. Global Missions reported on their several fields and some of the challenges that their teams face. From South Sudan to unpublishable locations, the RP Church is laboring faithfully in fields ripe for harvest. RP Global also presented a revised set of bylaws that were returned to them failing to be approved by the synod. We heard from two commissions that plant churches and train pastors in nations I am not allowed to write about. The Central and South America (CASA) committee reported on their labors in seeking to facilitate relationships with existing congregations in CASA. A commission of Global Missions was set up to ordain men and plant churches in CASA. Another missionary commission reported on the number of worshipers in three presbyteries in yet another nation I cannot publicly mention: 16,400 Reformed Presbyterian worshipers meet from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day in this unmentioned nation. The numbers of amazing!
Some of the other numbers and dates-discussions were of interest. We have grown slightly in membership and attendance although last year we closed five congregations. Besides these five congregations, a dozen Canadian congregations departed this year to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Canada. This is a good thing! The Synod is also very interested in boards reporting salaries of employees in the name of greater transparency. Following several motions, these salaries will now be published in the Minutes of Synod. The salary of every pastor is already published annually. Other number discussions include an increase in ruling elders in the denomination and the fact that we have almost twice as many pastors on our rolls as we have congregations (many are not active, not serving, or retired). Giving has increased in our church and the denominational arm for giving (RPM&M) has increased significantly—of course there are more boards, committees, and agencies that are seeking financial assistance as well. June 11-14, 2024 is our next synod. RP International is June 25-July 1, 2024.
After several long days of difficulty, joy, fellowship, suffering, and labor—we adjourned on Friday just before noon. Many prayers were prayed. Many Psalms were sung. Many tears were shed. As brothers we looked to Jesus together to establish the work of our hands and to bring forth sheaves with rejoicing. In the words of the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, “grace teaches us how to make a mixture of sorrow and a mixture of joy together.”
Nathan Eshelman is a Minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and Pastor of the Orlando RPCNA in Orlando, Fla.
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What Happened at the RPCNA Synod 2022?

Much of this year’s time dealt with complaints…The complaints dealt primarily with two categories this year. The first category had to do with responses to Covid regulations and freedoms. The second set of complaints dealt with the Synod Judicial Commission (SJC) that was set up to investigate the pastoral response to a sexual abuse case in one of our Indiana congregations. It is important to note that this SJC was NOT investigating the sexual abuse, but investigating the pastoral/shepherding response to the sexual abuse.

The 190th annual synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) met on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) in Marion, Indiana. Rev. Bruce Parnell (Stillwater, OK) began with preaching on “taking up the cross,” encouraging the court to not trivialize the message, but to make self-denial the mark of your Christian life. Each morning began with excellent preaching from Romesh Prakashpalan (Dallas), Kyle Sims (ARP fraternal delegate from SC) and Matt Kingswood (Russell, ON). The court then was introduced to first time delegates; seventeen ruling elders and eight pastors were introduced. Bill Edgar was able to introduce his son, Alex, and Russ Pulliam was able to introduce his son David. This highlights the covenantal nature of Christ’s church. Following introductions, the court elected this year’s officers: Harry Metzger: moderator; John McFarland and Andrew Barnes would serve as clerk and assistant clerk.
Several items were accomplished at synod right away. One congregation transferred presbyteries (Durham, NC). A letter was received from the Great Lakes Gulf concerning an “injustice and wrong” of giving credentials to a former minister while a trial was impending. A committee was formed to study a proper response to abuse in the church with the view of an oversight board.
Several of our church’s boards and agencies were heard from: Home Mission, Global Mission, and church planting committees in other parts of the world (South America, East Asia, etc). The Global Mission board recommended several changes to their by-laws and these were sent back to them for further consultation. The court also heard from Geneva College, RP Seminary, The RP Home, and other committees and agencies. Geneva College reported that a cappella Psalm singing and preaching highlight their weekly chapel services as well as the college seeking to promote Sabbath keeping on their campus. President Troup also highlighted the fact that the whole curriculum is “driven by” the mediatorial kingship of Christ.
Much of this year’s time dealt with complaints. Although some may consider it a “waste of synod’s time,” this is a real part of the work of a higher court: “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same…” (Westminster Confession, 31.3). The complaints dealt primarily with two categories this year. The first category had to do with responses to Covid regulations and freedoms. The second set of complaints dealt with the Synod Judicial Commission (SJC) that was set up to investigate the pastoral response to a sexual abuse case in one of our Indiana congregations. It is important to note that this SJC was NOT investigating the sexual abuse, but investigating the pastoral/shepherding response to the sexual abuse.
The first Covid-related complaint was against the Atlantic Presbytery for not allowing their ministers to write religious exemption letters exempting members from Covid vaccinations. This complaint came from the Hazelton congregation. Although the presbytery had removed this requirement against exemption letters, the synod voted against the Atlantic Presbytery saying that it is within the right of ministers to write religious exemption letters and “The actions of Atlantic Presbytery were in opposition to the Westminster Confession 20.2-4 and Reformed Presbyterian Testimony 4.8, 20.4-5, and 26.5,8.” Essentially, this action was against applications of Christian liberty. The second Covid-related complaint was against the State College session and the Presbytery of the Alleghenies (POA). This complaint was because State College was not requiring masking during the height of state-imposed Covid restrictions. The synod voted in favor of State College Church and the POA. Although not all agreed with the way these votes went, the synod did uphold Christian liberty, an essential teaching of Presbyterianism. The second set of complaints were related to the Synod Judicial Commission (SJC) and their judicial actions against the former pastor of the Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian Church. Between Synod 2021 and 2022, the SJC spent over 10,000 man hours investigating the shepherding and pastoral responses to the sexual abuse (again, they were never tasked with investigating the abuse itself).
Several complainants against the SJC were concerned with various issues from the investigation and trial, including the accusation that the SJC proceeded unjustly, that the trial of Mr. Olivetti was “publicly” live-streamed, the investigators were biased, that a professional investigation ought to have occurred, a request to “annul” the results of the trial, and even against the fact that Mr. Olivetti is currently suspended from privileges of the Lord’s Table. Each complainant was able to present their case, the SJC would respond, and then there was a time of debate and questions and answers. The hearing and answering complaints was approximately 1/3 of our time in session. The votes on the complaints related to the SJC and Immanuel Church were: Olivetti complaint 1 was not sustained 109 to 14. Olivetti complaint 2 was not sustained 117 to 9. The Faris complaint was not sustained 120 to 13. The Bloomington session complaint was not sustained 114 to 16. The Riepe complaint was not sustained 125 to 1. The Dillon complaint was not sustained 89 to 40. The Dillon complaint (asking for Mr. Olivetti’s Table privileges to restored) was clearly most persuasive, but failed to persuade a majority of the synod. Although the church heard of much division over this matter, the synod was clear and united in supporting the work of the SJC. Several men dissented from the actions, registering their names (and some their reasons) for being against the actions of the synod. These were difficult deliberations, but the Spirit of God gave us one voice and it was very, very clear that the synod loves these men from Immanuel Church, the victims and their families, and seeks to see them restored. Several restoration commissions were established to help shepherd this hurting congregation following a very difficult season in the life of their church. May Christ speak comfort clearly to them and restore, renew, and revive them following this dark season.  The Prophet Isaiah said, “A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth.”
A discussion on prison inmate church membership resulted in allowing church membership for inmates as long as they may be baptized (unless already) and sessions can provide oversight. A well-written paper on the nature of the covenant of communicant membership was returned to the authors. This paper sought to identify whether our membership queries were oaths or vows. Many who spoke did not appreciate rooting the queries in the inter-Trinitarian relationship. That paper will come back next year. A discussion about Zoom trials, which allows for some videoconferencing in trials when “not reasonably feasible.” This decision will have to go down in overture, requiring the sessions to agree with this decision. Vital Churches spoke of pastoral “burn out” and the need for pastors to take their vacations and an occasional sabbatical. One person rightly noted that sabbaticals are historically for academic work (such as writing). Speaking of writing, Crown and Covenant reported on the difficulties of procuring materials for publishing. Several new books are coming out this year, and it seems that Daniel Howe’s (Providence, RI) book on the Lord’s Day is quite spectacular.
The Reformed Presbytery of Canada was formed and a commissioning service sent them forth to preach the Gospel in the Dominion of Canada. The moderator was emotional as several congregations and mission churches were set apart to form their own national church. The moderators of presbyteries as well as the presidents of boards and institutions gave them the right hand of fellowship and then Psalm 72 (the national motto of Canada) was sung as the men went forward.
Other highlights are too many to write. The times of prayer and singing were rich and powerful. The fraternal delegates. The good finances and sacrificial giving of the churches. The unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace were quite evident. Difficult things have been done and will be done—but the glory of Christ remains central to all that we have sought to do. Hopefully this year will provide some healing from our struggles and we can look back on this synod being reminded that God is ever gracious to us and his love is evident among the brethren.
Nathan Eshelman is a Minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America and serves as Pastor of the RPC in Orlando, Fla.  Source

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