As Session saw it, the Jonesboro 7 were in rebellion against the will of Christ. But had not told them how they were in rebellion against Christ. At the hearing the SJC Judges would later question how the men would be able to show proper evidence of repentance given the lack of specificity; one SJC judge asked whether proper repentance might seem to include having to vote for TE Wreyford. As the SJC would later point out, however, “Session had neither the responsibility nor authority to determine or direct who, if anyone, would stand for election as the pastor of the mission church upon its organization as a particular church.” Session had gravely transcended its authority.
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.
Seven men from a small church plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas desired to see a distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian church planted in their city. Covenant Presbytery had called a church planter, TE Jeff Wreyford, to organize the work there. But the seven men, the Jonesboro 7, had a different ministerial philosophy than TE Wreyford and they had not perceived the cultivation of a distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian church to be a priority for him.
The seven men went to the Session of elders overseeing the work and stated that when the time came to consider extending a call to a permanent pastor, that they desired to consider other candidates rather than TE Wreyford. You can read more of that in part two.
The Session, of which TE Wreyford was moderator, eventually responded by indicting the Jonesboro 7. The Session wrote them claiming it was “fair to assume,” the Jonesboro 7 had broken the ninth commandment in arriving at their conclusions about TE Wreyford. It remains unclear why the Session believed that was a fair assumption.
These “dirt kickers” from Jonesboro, who attended a fledgling church plant of about 45 people, were summoned for a trial on July 12, 2021, however the wife of one of the Accused was pregnant and her due date was that same day. But despite the request of the Jonesboro 7 for the trial to be moved to the city where they worshiped and where the offenses were alleged to have taken place, the Session of Elders insisted it would be held at IPC Memphis, where most of them were on staff or already ruling elders.
We can only speculate as to how the added stress of allegations from Christ’s under-shepherds and ultimately an indictment would have impacted the young family as they awaited the arrival of their child.
The Session graciously accommodated the soon-to-be father by offering him a choice: choose to be absent from his own trial and represented by counsel or, if the delivery “providentially hindered” him, they would schedule a new hearing date for him. Mr Hurston ultimately chose to be near his wife on that date and was represented by one of the other Accused.1
A Curious Trial
The trial was held at IPC Memphis about 70 miles from the men’s homes and from the church where they were members. It was quite a contrast; IPC Memphis is an historic, wealthy, and influential congregation, which reported an average morning attendance of 952 in 2020 when the Jonesboro 7’s troubles began. Christ Redeemer PCA in Jonesboro, had about 45 people attending the church plant in 2020.
The men had little reason to be optimistic about their impending trial; at the end of May, the Session sent each of the Jonesboro 7 a letter asserting: “Scripture reminds us that if we fail to confess our sins, we cannot expect the Lord’s blessing…you are on a pathway that leads to Sheol and death. Return to your first love, Jesus Christ….”2
Readers may recall that earlier the Session had declined to tell the men how they had sinned. And when the men begged to know what their specific sin(s) were, these under-shepherds of Christ accused the men of being “disingenuous.”
As such, it is curious TE Ed Norton would sign a letter urging the men to “Confess [their] sins,” but continue to refuse to tell the men what their particular sins were (Cf. WCF 15:5). The SJC would call this more than curious; it was “unfair.”3
Nonetheless, the men were committed to the PCA and submitted to a trial, still not knowing what the Session believed they had done in violation of Christ’s Law.
TE Mike Malone, at the time also a pastor at IPC Memphis, served as the prosecutor in the case. It was his job to prove the Jonesboro 7 had broken the Fifth and Ninth Commandments.
At trial, TE Malone alleged the men were in sin to oppose TE Wreyford being offered as candidate for pastor; TE Malone asserted:
The session has continued to voice its support of [TE Wreyford] and believes without hesitation that he should be offered to the congregation as a candidate to serve as its pastor. That’s our job. That’s our responsibility as a provisional session.
The PCA Standing Judicial Commission quotes other arguments from TE Malone’s prosecution in which he alleged the Jonesboro 7 had sinned against the authority the Session “presumed” to have:
“The persistent insistence that [TE Wreyford’s] name be removed as a candidate to be pastor of this church reflects a fundamental unwillingness to fulfill membership vow number five, and is disruptive of the peace of the church.”4
Numerous witnesses were summoned against the accused. But none of them offered any evidence of the guilt of the accused, as the SJC would later point out (see the forthcoming Part Five).
One of the witnesses was TE Clint Wilcke who serves as the “Coordinator/Catalyst for the Mid-South Church Planting Network.” TE Wilcke’s testimony featured some memorable exchanges.
In one exchange, TE Clint Wilcke corrected a defendant for addressing him as “Mr Wilcke,” and instead insisted he be addressed as Reverend Wilcke.