It is a most remarkable providence; if one reads the protest 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.
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.
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.