Lessons from “The Jonesboro Decision”

Lessons from “The Jonesboro Decision”

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.

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.”

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