Racism and the 2022 OPC General Assembly

Racism and the 2022 OPC General Assembly

The game should be familiar by now, but evidently it isn’t. So let’s review the rules. There are no rules. This is how the game is played. An allegation is made. It does not have to be credible; the alleged offense simply has to be egregious. Social virtue requires the allegation be accepted at face value. Not taken seriously and investigated, but accepted as self-attesting.

I did not attend the 2022 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which met at Eastern University on June 8-14, 2022. I was honored and grateful to be chosen by our presbytery as a commissioner, but the sudden onset of severe illness landed me in the Emergency Room less than 24 hours before my scheduled departure, and I remained sick and weak beyond the conclusion of the Assembly. It was a hard providence, more so because this year’s GA was accompanied by controversy which will continue to be the subject of conversation for months, and perhaps years, to come.

Many reports have been made about the allegations of racism and the Assembly’s subsequent statements which were published online. You can read summaries of the incident in the OPC Daily Report, by a commissioner HERE, by a non-commissioned minister HERE, and in an article from Christianity Today HERE. Ministers in the OPC were also informed of the events in a letter from the denomination’s Stated Clerk on June 17th. Students and staff at Eastern University alleged four incidents of racial disparagement by commissioners of the OPC. These were reported to the Assembly on Thursday, June 9th. The GA was also informed such behavior could be grounds for canceling their contract and disbanding the Assembly. The next day, Friday, June 10th, the Assembly was presented with a “statement of regret and sorrow.” According to multiple reports, which have not been disputed to my knowledge, the Assembly was asked not to debate the motion which was then adopted without dissent.

“The 88th (2022) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church hereby expresses to the faculty, staff, and students of Eastern University its grief, sorrow, and disgust regarding four recent incidents of racial disparagement reported being made by some present at our Assembly. There is no place in the church for such conduct.

“The church seeks to magnify and honor Christ as the Creator of every human being, each one reflecting dignity and value as the image of God. Therefore, in accordance with God’s Word and the two great laws of love, we repudiate and condemn all sins of racism, hatred, and prejudice, as transgressions against our Holy God, who calls us to love and honor all people. In keeping with the law of God and the right order of the church for Christ’s honor, we resolve to deal directly and biblically with any such sins of hatred committed by members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In keeping with the gospel, we resolve to offer our assistance to Eastern University to confront offender(s) and seek reconciliation.”

The statement was delivered to the University which accepted it and considered the matter closed. It was also published immediately online via the OPC’s social media accounts, a decision which had not been discussed or disclosed to the Assembly when the statement was presented on the floor.

There has been a firestorm of criticism and controversy online since the allegations were made and the Assembly’s statement of regret was published. Critics of the OPC have seen this as further evidence that the denomination is racist and compromised. Others take the way in which the controversy played out as evidence of a different sort of compromise in the OPC, the sort of compromise that operates from the fear of man and hopes to placate angry mobs with winsome words and assurance that they really do hate the same things.

On the last day of the Assembly, Tuesday, June 14th, the moderator updated commissioners on the earlier allegations. As reported by the OPC on her website and social media outlets:

  1. Regarding the four incidents of reported racism on campus, I am thankful to report that the individual responsible for the first two incidents surrounding remarks about the 13th Amendment has been identified. He was ashamed to come forward on his own, as his statements were a misunderstood attempt at humor. They were not intended as a racist remark. He desires and is seeking to apologize to those offended. Please pray for those hurt by his careless words and for this brother’s heart in all of this.
  2. The one responsible for the third and most egregious statement has not been seen on campus since the incident. That means we know it’s not a commissioner. We frankly have no idea who it is.
  3. Regarding the fourth incident, we were able to better understand what transpired in the cafeteria. It was not words spoken, but was an action that we now understand as confusion over how the cafeteria is organized, whether it was self-service or whether we would be served by the staff. We are seeking to work this out with those who were offended.

Four allegations of racially disparaging remarks were made. The alleged offenders were not identified. No corroborating evidence was presented. The allegations were unsubstantiated and uninvestigated. But the GA approved and published a statement of regret and sorrow. Some have said such a statement is always appropriate, that no specific apology was offered and no admission of guilt was made. The sincerity of those defending the statement is not in question. Some of them are personal friends, and I hold them in love and esteem. But one does become concerned that if they spin any faster they are bound to get dizzy and fall down.

The Assembly was in a difficult position. What is a man supposed to say when he is asked, “Are you still beating your wife?” The OPC chose to answer: “We express our grief, sorrow, and disgust regarding recent incidents of wife beating reported being done by some members of our Assembly.” No specific admission of guilt, only a general expression of hatred for what we all agree is a grievous sin. Surely that will convince everyone that we really are good people, right? Christianity Today moved quickly to report: “The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) apologized Friday for four racist incidents at its annual gathering” (source). “But we didn’t really apologize. After all, an apology is kind of an admission that we did something wrong.” As it turns out, the Assembly did do something wrong, it tried to placate angry people before it understood the game that was being played.

The GA’s statement of regret and sorrow satisfied Eastern University which allowed them to continue their work and remain to the end of their contract. But it only inflamed those committed to denouncing the OPC as racist and compromised. The careful wording of the statement was denounced by critics as not really an apology for anything at all, while others like Christianity Today characterized it as tantamount to an admission of guilt. The OPC was trapped, but the power brokers within the denomination did not seem to know it. “Are you still beating your wife?” It doesn’t matter what you say next. The allegation itself is the evidence which is accepted as sufficient for a conviction.

No one that I am aware of has said publicly what the “third and most egregious statement” alleged was, and that is because it involved naughty words that are not to be publicly uttered, even if the poor DA is only reading a persecuted actor’s own text messages aloud. The GA is not to be faulted for being in a difficult position. No one can control the kinds of allegations that are made, especially in our current climate. Anyone can allege anything. But the Assembly was at fault for failing to recognize the game being played, and that one allegation should have clearly indicated it, even if they didn’t recognize it from the others.

If a commissioner at GA violated God’s law—if he spoke or acted unjustly, demeaned or slandered someone, or was malicious and hateful—then he should be confronted, charged, and publicly disciplined. But to issue a public statement of regret in response to unsubstantiated, uninvestigated, and ultimately unfounded allegations of wrongdoing is unwise to the point of absurdity. It may have been well-meant, but it was an error, one that is now too late to correct. In today’s climate a person can claim to be offended by almost anything. Some of the same people most opposed to making public statements as an Assembly on the priority of public worship and the evil of statist tyranny in the aftermath of COVID lockdowns were the most willing to issue a public statement of regret because someone claimed to be offended. Now we discover their wounded feelings might not have been truly wounded after all.

The GA did not err in expressing abhorrence of racism. They erred in giving credibility to allegations of offense without exercising due diligence in understanding what was going on. This was contrary to the duties of the ninth commandment which requires “the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor… unwillingness to admit of an evil report… discouraging talebearers… and slanderers; [and] love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth” (WLC 144). The GA failed to be “wise as serpents,” and by admitting an evil report, encouraging slander, and failing to love and care for the OPC’s good name, they likewise failed to be “harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Issuing a public statement of regret before knowing the facts or investigating the allegations inadvertently but shamefully prejudiced “the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own” (WLC 145). The GA’s actions were also contrary to the OPC’s Book of Discipline which requires a specific charge to be stated, specifications supporting the charge, credible corroboration of the charge, and a preliminary investigation to determine the substance of the allegation (BD III). Both Scripture and the Book of Discipline require that no charge “be admitted against an elder, unless it is brought by two or more persons” (BD III.1; 1Tim. 5:19).

The game should be familiar by now, but evidently it isn’t. So let’s review the rules. There are no rules. This is how the game is played. An allegation is made. It does not have to be credible; the alleged offense simply has to be egregious. Social virtue requires the allegation be accepted at face value. Not taken seriously and investigated, but accepted as self-attesting. Believe all women, except the women who say such a standard is unjust and absurd. In this case, believe all victims of racism, even if there is no evidence they are victims of racism. If they say they are, if they feel they are, if they identify as such, you are obligated to believe them. If you don’t believe them, if you withhold judgment until you can investigate the claim, then you are a racist. If you accept their claim without evidence and express your regret and sorrow, you are admitting that you are a racist. Whether you respond with regret or reserve comment, you are a racist, because they said you are. That’s not fair, you may say. But that is the game.

The Devil once challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. What could be wrong with doing so? He multiplied bread on other occasions so that his disciples might eat. Skilled theologians will point out that such a miracle is inconsistent with Jesus’s mission and the Father’s authority. It is not the proper way to exercise the Spirit’s power and thus is a temptation to depart from the work the Father gave the Son to do. All of this is true, but there is also a more basic answer. It is always wrong to do something the Devil asks you to do.

The OPC does not need greater sensitivity to the grievances of professional victims, she needs a greater measure of the wisdom and discernment of Nehemiah.

Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. In it was written: It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, “There is a king in Judah!” Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together. Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart.” For they all were trying to make us afraid, saying, “Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.” Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (Neh. 6:5-9)

Joel Ellis is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Resurrection OPC in Apache Junction, AZ. This article is used with permission.

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