Reflections on the ‘Jonesboro 7’ and A Case for Church Discipline

Reflections on the ‘Jonesboro 7’ and A Case for Church Discipline

Ryan Biese has already chronicled this case (Harrell v Covenant Presbytery) quite extensively, complete with a list of lessons to be learned, and his account is well worth reading. I would, however, like to add my own reflections as one who has seen discipline done correctly, seen discipline done wrongly, and has also watched this case from the beginning.

The Church is filled with sinners. Thanks be to God, they are sinners who have been justified, that act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons their sins and accepts them as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received by faith alone.[1] And, thanks be to God, they are sinners who have been adopted, that act of God’s free grace whereby they are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.[2] And, thanks be to God, they are sinners who are being sanctified, that work of God’s free grace whereby they are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled, more and more, to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.[3] But make no mistake, the church is still filled with sinners, and it will be filled with sinners until Christ returns.

In fact, there are some in the church now who will one day fall away. This is a sad reality, but it’s true. They will depart from us, for they are not truly of us. We are not able to always know who such people are. We simply examine the profession of faith, instruct them to bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and trust God to sort out the wheat and the tares when Christ comes again. And yet, for the glory of God, for the good of the sheep, and for the peace and purity of the church, sometimes the church must step in and bring discipline on those who may not be allegedly walking consistently with their profession, or those who deny the gospel itself. We pray that God would use the discipline of his church in order to reprove these sheep as a loving father corrects his children.

Discipline always is, and always should be, difficult. It should cause us great grief and anguish because it is a result of the fact that the church is filled with sinners. We should all long for the day when church discipline is no longer necessary because Christ has returned and finally rid the world of the very presence of sin. Until that day comes, though, we should always remember what the BCO says regarding discipline in the church:

The power Christ has given the Church is for building up, and not for destruction. It is to be exercised as under a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath. As in the preaching of the Word the wicked are doctrinally separated from the good, so by discipline the Church authoritatively separates between the holy and the profane. In this it acts the part of a tender mother, correcting her children for their good, that every one of them may be presented faultless in the day of the Lord Jesus.[4]

As a child of the church, raised in conservative, Bible-believing Baptist churches, I got to see many times when discipline was exercised in this way. I got to see members caught in sin called to repentance by the church, and I got to see (in some cases) eventual restoration. I also, however, witnessed cases where discipline was (at least in my view) absolutely exercised as under a dispensation of wrath. The point was not reconciliation or to win back offenders, but rather it appeared to be punitive vengeance. You see, one of the major difficulties with church discipline is the fact that everyone involved are sinners. So even the officers of the church must always take heed lest they fall, lest they would do exactly what Christ said not to do: lord their authority over those in their charge.

At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that discipline is for the good of the sheep. We should all be mindful of the fact that we live under authority. We are all commanded by God to preserve the honor, and perform the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals.[5] We are likewise all forbidden from neglecting of, or doing anything against, the honor and duty which belongs to everyone in their several places and relations.[6] Both “sides” of church discipline must remember the honor and duties that they owe to one another.

Harrell et al. v. Covenant Presbytery

The case of Harrell et al. v. Covenant Presbytery came to my attention probably in late 2020, early 2021 at the latest. One of the defendants, Zach Lott, is my best friend’s brother. He and I do not know each other very well, but we have met. In fact, when my whole family got COVID during Christmas of 2020, the Lott family graciously received us into their home and allowed me and my wife to spend the holiday with them. I learned about the case in a very personal way, and therefore I had very personal feelings about it. When I saw the decision in last year’s SJC report,[7] I was pleased that the appeal was sustained and the judgment of the lower courts reversed.[8]

As I stated to Ryan Biese, I got to see the impact of the censure these men endured firsthand. It’s difficult to describe the hurt you can see on two brothers’ faces when one has to deny the other access to the table. I will never forget hearing Alex console his brother, telling him that he did the right thing. In my view, this was an example of the private ministry of the Word. Even in such a painful (and, make no mistake, it was painful) situation, Alex was a good pastor and instructed his brother in the fifth commandment. After all, Zach still owed the men on that Session, “All due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsel; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.”[9]

What I still, to this day, find most admirable is the fact that no one would have known if Zach had come to the table. No one in the congregation at Starmount Church knew of the censure. No one from Covenant Presbytery would have ever found out, and no one from First Presbytery in the ARP was present or even aware of the censure, either. Yet Christ’s words were still true that we will all, one day give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36). So I believe the actions of the Lott brothers on that December 24th honored Christ and his Word.

Ryan Biese has already chronicled this case quite extensively, complete with a list of lessons to be learned, and his account is well worth reading. I would, however, like to add my own reflections as one who has seen discipline done correctly, seen discipline done wrongly, and has also watched this case from the beginning.

Lesson 1: Sometimes it’s better to simply vote your conscience

As you may know, the real “trouble” in this case began when “TE Wreyford and a church member met with Stephen Leininger and Wesley Hurston, two representatives of the Accused, who, ‘speaking for the group,’ communicated a set of concerns shared by the group.”[10] After this meeting, and at TE Wreyford’s insistence, as I understand it, “The Accused met with the entire Session. During the meeting, Stephen Leininger, as a representative of the Accused, read a statement recounting that the seven were ‘unanimous in their opinion that [TE Wreyford] is not the one to be pastor of [the mission church]’ and recommended that he ‘remove his name from consideration.’”[11]

Now, I believe the men accused have said that they did not wish for TE Wreyford to be embarrassed at the congregational meeting when opposition was raised to calling him as pastor. I have no reason to doubt their word on that. Further, I think it was wise for TE Wreyford to have these men bring their concerns to the Session as a whole, rather than to him personally. That being said, I believe that these meetings were a mistake. While it is true that, “whether the congregation of a mission church prefers to call its organizing minister as its pastor or to use a pulpit committee is left entirely to the discretion of the congregation,”[12] that is an entirely different question than whether it is a good idea to go to the organizing pastor in order to say that you don’t wish to call him as the pastor. Even if you preface that by saying, “Look, I think you’re a great guy, but…” I simply see no way to avoid being seen as provocative and antagonistic.

What I believe these men should have done is, first, determine, after much prayer and reflection, how they wished to vote in the congregational meeting. Second, distill their thoughts on the matter, much like they did when they went to TE Wreyford and the Session. Finally, utilize the privilege of the floor in the congregational meeting. That’s right, folks, sometimes even “lay people” can benefit from Robert’s Rules of Order. You see, while it is true that there were no violations of either the fifth or ninth commandments,[13] the whole process may have been much simpler, and discipline might have been avoided, if these men had utilized regular order and then submitted to the will of the congregation as a whole. I know it’s easy for me to say that with the benefit of hindsight, but I believe that we can use hindsight to do better in the future.

In cases where church members feel that they need to go to their elders privately, as the men in Jonesboro believed they did. I would urge you to remember Solomon’s advice in Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” In fact, I’d give that same advice to any elder who was on the other side of a situation like that. Soft answers, patience, forbearance, these are absolutely essential, especially when everyone involved is a sinner.[14]

At the end of the day, I wasn’t on the ground. I wasn’t confronted with these rapid-fire events. I wasn’t in the room for the initial meeting with TE Wreyford, and I wasn’t in the room when these men met with the Session. My advice here is not about how these men did something wrong, because they didn’t. Nor is my advice a full-proof way to avoid conflict, because one does not exist. And, really, this lesson applies equally to all involved in this situation. The Session should have let these men vote their consciences, rather than disciplining them for expressing their intention to do so. As was cited above, there were no violations of either the fifth or ninth commandments. Sometimes brothers can disagree in good faith.

Lesson 2: If the PCA is a “big tent,” that tent needs to include “ordinary means” churches

Labels are always inadequate in discussions like this. I can’t describe the difference as “liberal vs. conservative,” because there are no liberals in the PCA. I can’t say “confessional vs. non-confessional,” because everyone in the PCA has to subscribe to the Westminster Standards in good faith. I even hesitate to use the paradigm of “missional vs. ordinary means of grace,” because I think everyone in the PCA is passionate about evangelism and the means of grace. So, please, do bear with me in my insufficient nomenclature. When I speak of “ordinary means of grace” churches, I am speaking of those churches wherein the worship service is dedicated to making diligent use of “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption,” namely, “the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”[15]

Now, I know that definition doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and furthermore, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to categorize churches as being “ordinary means” or not, simply by looking at them. Take for example, a traditional, mainline church where the Apostles Creed is confessed, the Gloria Patri is sung, and everything looks much like my congregation on the Lord’s Day. But then take Starmount Church in Charlotte, NC, where they have a band instead of a pianist, a screen instead of hymnals, and so on. Yet Starmount is still an ordinary means church, and the mainline church may very well not be (though I do hear that there are still a few out there who are).

What does this have to do with the Jonesboro case? Well, the accused stated over and over that all they wanted was a more “ordinary means of grace” approach. They didn’t even say that TE Wreyford was disqualified from ministry because his approach was different than they wanted.[16] Yet when the accused brought the matter to their Session, TE Clint Wilke, who was not on the Session, but was there representing the Midsouth Church Planting Network, stated, “Maybe there’s another church planter you need to call in the future or you need to be part of another denomination. Maybe the PCA isn’t it from what I’m hearing.”[17]

Look, I’m a curmudgeon. There’s no use denying it, so I don’t. I could be happy ministering in a denomination that required acapella Psalm singing. I don’t believe Scripture requires that, but neither would I protest against it if the courts of the church mandated it. Yet I don’t believe that TE’s Wreyford and Wilke have no place in the PCA. On the contrary, I praise God that, by their work, Christ is preached. If Paul could rejoice that the gospel was proclaimed by those who literally preached Christ out of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition, men who sought to “afflict” Paul in his imprisonment, then I can rejoice that Christ is preached by those who may think that my stodgy, traditionalist approach isn’t the way to go.

Here’s the thing, though, that has to go both ways. From the beginning (or almost the beginning) the PCA was a place where both Morton Smith and D. James Kennedy were welcome. Today, it needs to be a place where both Ryan Biese and Jeff Wreyford are welcome. Otherwise, I fear this may happen again. As the SJC pointed out, “The Accused’s’ remaining ‘concerns,’ namely his philosophy of ministry and whether he was called to be their pastor, were not capable of adjudication by the Session or any other court since they describe matters of opinion that did nothing more than give voice to the reasons why the Accused found TE Wreyford to be unsuitable to become their pastor on particularization.”[18]

Lesson 3: The PCA would benefit from a Directory of Worship with Constitutional authority

This final lesson is closely related to Lesson #2. I believe our “big tent” in the PCA needs to have firm stakes in the ground. The placement of these stakes needs to be readily visible for anyone who looks. And we need to all be able to agree on where those stakes should be placed. Now, I know I’m laboring the tent analogy a bit here, but hopefully you understand my point. Just like the Standards make room for Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Historic Premillennialism,[19] a good directory of worship would make room for different approaches while keeping the proverbial Dispensationalists firmly on the outside.

Standards are not bad. Standards should not be seen as confining us, but rather they give us the freedom and confidence to know that we all play by the same rules. Good standards allow for both unity and diversity. Good standards make room for both Hodge and Thornwell, both Bahnsen and Kline, both Smith and Kennedy.[20] I think it’s time for those wiser than me to give the PCA a Directory of Worship with Constitutional Authority.


“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:12 should ring in our ears every time we hear of, or witness first-hand, the discipline of the church. As my grandmother so often says, “We all walk with feet of clay.” Therefore, let us all pray that we do not fall into temptation, whether that temptation is to resent our brothers and sisters we are called by Christ to love, or (as elders) to lord our authority over the flock, or (as sheep) to rebel against our elders, or any other temptation that might befall us. Let us always remember that our adversary the devil, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” and yet “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Let us bear with one another in love as we await his return. Amen.

Jonathan Brooks is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Pastor of Trinity PCA in Maryville, Tenn.

[1] WSC 33

[2] WSC 34

[3] WSC 35

[4] BCO 27-4. Italics mine.

[5] WSC 64

[6] WSC 65

[7] GA50 Handbook, 2058-2080. This includes the Concurring Opinion by RE Jim Eggert, which is very much worth the read.

[8] Ibid. 2058

[9] WLC 127. Italics mine.

[10] GA50 Handbook, 2059.

[11] Ibid. 2059.

[12] Ibid. 2077.

[13] Ibid. 2068-2072.

[14] I would like to add one last time that I do not believe the Accused in this case did anything wrong. In fact, I believe they did try to go about everything with all due respect and all appropriate humility. This is friendly advice from a sympathetic observer. That’s all.

[15] WSC 88.

[16] GA50 Handbook, 2071.

[17] Accessed November 8, 2023. Italics mine.

[18] GA50 Handbook, 2071. Italics mine.

[19] I put those in order from best to worst…

[20] I am endorsing exactly zero people on that list without reservation (some of them not at all). I simply point out that every pair were both members in good standing of the same denomination.

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