The 186th Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) convened Wednesday morning, June 28, on the beautiful campus of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. Synod convened with Psalm 77 sung from the Book of Psalms for Worship. Approximately 215 people were in attendance.
Pastor J. Bruce Martin (Ridgefield Park, N.J.), moderator of the 2016 Synod, led in worship and delivered the retiring moderator’s address entitled “Ponder the Works and Wonders of God.” Pastor Martin’s text was Psalm 77, a psalm about seeking God in the day—and night—of trouble. He pointed to the necessity of focusing on the might of God, including the fact that by His power He has made us brothers in Christ.
Following this service, over 20 delegates at Synod were introduced for the first time.
Synod elected retired RP minister Jerry Milroy (Tri-Lakes RPC in Monument, Colo.) to serve as this year’s moderator. Synod reelected John McFarland as clerk and Charles Brown as assistant clerk. Following elections there was a brief service honoring elders of the church who had died in the past year including teaching elders, ruling elders, and pastors’ wives. Written memorials for teaching elders included Roger Adams, Milton L. Harrington, Peter E. Howe, Bruce C. Stewart, and Richard B. Weir.
The Business of Synod Committee presented several new “communications” to the court that had been transferred from lower courts:
Communication 2017-1a—The collection of tithes and offerings is typically done in worship, but is it a required element of weekly congregational worship? This communication that comes from Presbytery of the Alleghenies (as a result of its study committee) takes the position that Scripture allows but does not require the collection during the worship service, and therefore the Directory for Worship should be written to allow for both. One Synod delegate pointed out that this would also require a change in the RP Testimony. This communication was referred to a study committee of the Synod to report back next year.
Communication 2017-1b–This communication came from a different study committee of Presbytery of the Alleghenies and suggested clarification for determining the number of ruling elders necessary for a quorum in a meeting of presbytery or Synod. A version of the paper was adopted.
Communication 2017-2–Atlantic Presbytery submitted this communication to ask for an interpretation of the RP Testimony with regard to the definition of desertion as an allowance for divorce. Synod passed the recommendation to form a five-man study committee to report to Synod 2018.
Communication 2017-3 deals with the financial situation of a congregation in the St. Lawrence Presbytery. The communication was returned to that presbytery for further consideration and action.
Communication 2017-4—In past years there have been efforts to have session rather than congregational officers oversee regular congregational meetings—efforts that narrowly failed. This communication seeks to strike a balance by allowing for such meetings to be overseen either by congregational officers or by sessions. In the former case, the election of the congregational officers would occur under the oversight of the session but the meetings would be conducted by the elected officers. This paper was approved, and the changes to the Directory for Church Government will be sent down in overture to the congregations.
Next on the docket was the report of a committee for the Judicial Review of Communication 2016-2. This complaint against Pacific Coast Presbytery originated with some members of the Las Vegas RP Fellowship regarding how the Lord’s supper was administered, particularly in regard to the contents of the communion cup and the shepherding of those who have convictions about the use of grape juice or wine. The committee reported, and one of the complainants was also allowed the floor to speak.
The following points in the report sought to summarize Synod’s previous work:
- Synod has ruled that the contents of the cup may be either non-alcoholic or alcoholic in nature, and even that a split-cup is permissible.
- Synod has ruled that the responsibility and authority for specifying the contents of the cup in each congregation lies primarily with the session of that congregation.
- When making that decision, the session should seek the unity and full participation of the people as being of the utmost importance, even when the singularity of the cup must be sacrificed.
- However, Synod does not require a session to utilize an alternative in order to satisfy the conscience of a member. It may, for pastoral reasons unique to the congregation, choose to do otherwise.
The committee underscored that “it is against the law and order of the RPCNA to teach that the denomination requires any particular contents of the cup.” Later, the committee introduced a special resolution that all parties had agreed on: “All members of the RPCNA maintain liberty of conscience, whatever fruit of the vine is administered by local sessions.” The moderator was then notified that, in light of the passage of the special resolution, the complainants had withdrawn their complaint. With this issue thus graciously resolved, the committee was dismissed with thanks.
Judicial Committee to Review 2016-4 – This committee was formed in 2016 for extended consideration by Synod of an appeal by retired pastor Bruce Hemphill of his convictions on two charges by Presbytery of the Alleghenies following his submission of a paper to the church courts. Dr. Hemphill’s paper had requested a Synod study committee to consider changing the RPCNA position of men only in the eldership.
Delegates finished the evening—as they did every session of the day—with a prayer time. This year the Pacific Coast Presbytery is overseeing the prayer times.
The second day of Synod began with a devotional service led by Pastor Keith Evans (Lafayette, Ind.). His address was entitled “But Now in Christ We Are Gloriously Righteous” as part of the week’s theme, “The Magnificence of God.” Pastor Evans was a nominee for RPTS seminary professor, and was elected later in the week. His text was Romans 3:21-26, which shows that the magnificence of Christ is manifest as we see our own sinfulness and sinful condition and we understand His work on our behalf.
Pastor Evans pointed out that we should take care not to elevate our morality as elders and imply that we have less need for Christ’s magnificent work. Because of Jesus Christ and Him alone, all believers are magnificently glorious, saints of God, and we should regard each other in that way.
Synod then took up the report of the Judicial Committee to Review 2016-4, a report that had taken up much of Wednesday’s sessions. This concerned an appeal by retired pastor Bruce Hemphill of his convictions on two charges by Presbytery of the Alleghenies following his submission of a paper to the church courts. Dr. Hemphill’s paper had requested a Synod study committee to consider changing the RPCNA position of men only in the eldership.
Discussion followed regarding the advisability of continuing with the committee report in some fashion versus delaying to give the matter to a commission or to Synod next year for judgment, given that it was highly unlikely that there would be time remaining at this Synod to follow all the legal steps. A motion passed that the appeal be forwarded to the full Synod of 2018 to be adjudicated next year. A committee was created to outline the process and articulate the steps needed for Synod to try the appeal as a whole. The judicial committee was dismissed, with thanks, then Synod passed a motion to ask forgiveness of the parties involved for not doing its work in a timely way, with this apology going to Bruce Hemphill, Presbytery of the Alleghenies, and the Judicial Committee.
Rev. Bill Pihl delivered the report of the Representatives to the Presbyterian & Reformed Commission on Chaplains. The PRCC sponsors 198 military and 82 civilian chaplains, including RP chaplains Colonel Kelly Moore (Army), Captain Patrick Stefan (Army Reserve), and First Lieutenant Derek Moore (Army National Guard). A committee of the PRCC recently was formed to keep denominations informed about significant issues arising with respect to men and women in military service, including the potential for women in combat units. A change is being considered in the Policy and Guidance Handbook that would aid chaplains with regard to issues surrounding homosexuality.
Elder Steve McMahan presented the report of the Board of Corporators of Geneva College. The college is rejoicing in the work of its new president, Dr. Calvin Troup, who is almost a year into his tenure. In his address to Synod, Dr. Troup said, “I like to think of Geneva as one of the major mission stations of the RPCNA.” This is the 50th anniversary of Geneva’s Foundational Concepts of Christian Education. Dr. Troup mentioned that the college now gives a Bible to every first-year student, a practice that has been enthusiastically received.
Two years ago Synod appointed the Special Committee on Vocalized Prayer in Public Worship” to articulate the biblical doctrine and practice of prayer in public worship as it pertains to [the Directory of Public Worship] 2.11 especially with respect to who should vocalize prayer, and to recommend changes to the Directory of Public Worship if needed.” The RPCNA Directory for Worship says about public prayer: “Although led by an elder, it becomes the prayer of the whole assembly as the Lord’s people participate by giving earnest attention to the content of the prayer and adding, by an audible or inaudible ‘Amen,’ their enthusiastic concurrence with its petitions” (2.11).
The committee considered “a vast array of biblical and historical material, some of which is appended to their report. In the committee, “all agree that the elders are called to lead in public prayer, in one form or another. All agree that every member of the congregation may vocalize prayer in worship.” But the committee could not agree on more detailed applications of these principles. The committee believes that “it would be unwise at this time to seek to agree on one particular position and impose a uniform practice on all of the congregations.”
Concluding its study, the committee recommended “that the church continue to recognize the Directory for Public Worship as a guide for public worship and that local sessions be faithful to visibly lead prayer in worship while arranging for the vocalization of prayer that is most fitting for their congregation in accordance with Scripture.” With little discussion, the recommendation passed overwhelmingly.
The Board of Trustees of the Reformed PresbyterianTheological Seminary is nominating Pastor Keith Evans (Lafayette, Ind.) to be its first full Professor of Biblical Counseling. Synod interviewed him for about an hour and had the opportunity to hear him teach a sample class. Pastor Evans was elected to pursue training to serve as the head of the seminary’s Biblical Counseling Institute.
Board chairman Michael LeFebvre reported that the seminary’s distance learning program has increased significantly to include 27 of last year’s 95 students. Thirteen RPs graduated in 2017, with 8 M.Div. and 5 MTS degrees being conferred.
Seminary president Jerry O’Neill plans to retire next year and will be succeeded by Prof. Barry York, but Dr. O’Neill will continue to work part-time in development and academic administration. Prof. C.J. Williams recently published a commentary on Job, and Prof. Rick Gamble recently finished the second of three volumes of his work, The Whole Counsel of God.
The seminary’s accreditation process was recently completed with the granting of a 10-year renewal of accreditation.
Interchurch matters were the focus of much of the evening session. The ARP Church earlier this month accepted the invitation of the RPCNA for a concurrent Synod in 2019. In 2015 the two synods met concurrently at Bonclarken Conference Center in North Carolina. This time the proposed location is Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., so ARP delegates could have the opportunity to see the RPCNA college and seminary. A pre-Synod conference on worship is planned for that week.
The Interchurch Committee also noted an increased focus within the North American Presbyterian & Reformed Council (NAPARC) on the singing of psalms as well as joint efforts in publishing psalters and psalter-hymnals. Six fraternal delegates from other denominations addressed the court. Andrew Quigley, of the RPCNA’s sister denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, reported the continuing renewal of the RPCS with four congregations and one church plant. Kyle Sims, from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, rejoiced in the upcoming concurrent Synod with the RPCNA, saying, “We are coming to Geneva in 2019!” He reported on a much improved and much stronger relationship between the ARP and its institutions Erskine College and Erskine Seminary.
Other fraternal delegates addressing the Synod were Iain Wright (Orthodox Presbyterian Church); William Boekestein (United Reformed Churches of North America); Bruce Kwekel (Heritage Reformed Congregations), and Marc Jagt (Canadian Reformed Churches).
Synod finished the evening with a time of prayer, including prayer regarding requests from the congregations that came in during the day.
Fraternal delegate Dr. Kyle Sims (First ARP Church, Lancaster, S.C.) opened the final day of the 186th RPCNA Synod with a devotional message from Matthew 17:1-8: “Preach the Glorious, Majestic, Comforting God.” He emphasized the priority of God’s majesty in our faith and understanding, and the danger of focusing our Christianity on pragmatism. “Let us not rush by the glory of Christ to get to dos and don’ts.”
Synod again took up the report of the Special Committee on Ruling Elder Participation in Synod. This is the final report of a committee convened in 2013 to address concerns about the relatively low rate of participation of ruling elders in the Synod. Most of the recommendations of the committee did not pass, including one that a Synod quorum be comprised of at least 35% ruling elders rather than the current 25%. However, the concern of Synod to have better ruling elder participation was mentioned during nearly every session this week, including in discussions about how long synods should be. One recommendation that passed was to establish a fund to grant up to 10 stipends each year to ruling elders for whom Synod participation would create a significant negative economic impact.
The 2016 Synod formed a committee to study transgenderism. The resulting paper “seeks to break down the language, philosophy, and scientific theories undergirding transgenderism and to provide a biblical response and pastoral guidance in ministering to those entangled in this mindset.” Says the paper, “We will argue that gender is a calling the individual receives in his or her anatomical constitution; gender should not be viewed as an identity rooted on one’s psyche (or brain).” The paper was adopted, without dissent, as an official position paper of the RPCNA. It will be published by Crown & Covenant and also distributed for information to other denominations in NAPARC.
The Board of Home Missions (HMB) is giving aid to five mission works/churches, and presbyteries and others are providing aid for other works as well. Three men are also receiving home mission support in their ministries. HMB and RP Global Missions are discussing the creation of a hybrid global-home advisory committee in recognition of the 21st Century reality of the blurring of lines between domestic and global missions. The two full boards will meet jointly this fall.
As previously announced, the Board of Pension Trustees terminated its management of the denominational pension plan in October 2016 for principial reasons. The denomination still commends a plan to congregations and employers and recommends amounts to be contributed for pastors and other church employees. The board is also considering a group disability plan.
The Finance Committee, which seeks to discern the will of Synod in the allocation of available funds from RPM&M, etc., to the various missions and ministries of the RPCNA, gave thanks to God for His provision to the denomination. In 2016, giving to RPM&M by congregations ($402K) was close to the goal of $415K, and one-time gifts helped surpass the goal significantly. With the expansion of RP mission and ministry around the globe, the need of funds is greater. The goal for giving in 2018 will be $440K.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of South Sudan is located in a relatively stable region within an extremely unstable country. The RPCNA’s Cush4Christ team includes several long-term missionaries and missionary families, along with some medium-term missionaries. Continued biblical training is needed as converts face the pressures of their cultural and economic realities.
The board also reported on encouraging progress in two new missions in central Asia, including efforts to establish a “Reformed network” in one of the countries. RP Missions (short-term missions) has grown to 80 domestic and international participants this year, and seeks prayer for members of 15 teams going out this summer. Recently more efforts have been made to establish some medium-term mission trips.
The RPCNA’s CASA (Central & South America) Committee continues to communicate with believers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, and Venezuela. The receiving of Pastor Marcelo Sanchez from Chile by Presbytery of the Alleghenies means that an RP work there is underway—believed to be the first RP work ever in South America. There is a congregation of 15 meeting in his home in the Santiago area, with interest from other areas as well. RPGM also requests prayer for a licentiate from Argentina to be granted a visa so he too can be examined and received into the RPCNA. Edgar Ibarra and Drew McKelvy are regularly leading services in Spanish via Skype, hosted by Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, Md. CASA is overseeing the work of translating RP standards into Spanish.
The RP Global Alliance Advisory Committee said its primary focus in the past year has been on a new web site, rpglobalalliance.org, as well as a related Facebook page that highlight work being done in the various RP denominations.
HIGHLIGHTS OF REPORTS OF PRESBYTERIES
Alleghenies—Chilean pastor Marcelo Sanchez was received as ordained minister. Of the 15 congregations and 1 mission church, there is one vacant pulpit. There are 15 theological students under care of presbytery.
Atlantic—With Alex Tabaka being installed as pastor in Broomall, Pa., last August and Noah Bailey soon to be installed in Cambridge, Mass., the presbytery has just one pulpit vacancy, in Coldenham-Newburgh, N.Y. Services at Christ (East Providence, R.I.) RPC are translated each week into Swahili.
Great Lakes-Gulf—There are 20 congregations and 3 mission churches, with 2 vacant pulpits. One man was recently ordained as a church planter in South Asia. This presbytery’s CYPU has been helping youth for nearly a century.
Japan –There are four congregations and one mission church with 6 pastors in Kobe and Amagasaki in western Japan. Presbytery sent its first short-term mission team (to RPC of Eastern Australia). The presbytery held a joint conference with the OPC’s Japan mission. There are 12 students in Kobe Theological Hall (6 RPs). Preparation of a revised Japanese psalter with more selections is underway.
Midwest—The presbytery has 11 theological students under care. There are 25 congregations and mission churches; 3 vacant congregations. Bob Hemphill and Ron Graham both retired after 36 years in the pastorate. Both continue to serve, including Rev. Hemphill as the presbytery’s regional home missionary. One missionary pastor serves the RPCNA in South Asia. Washington, Iowa, RPC celebrated its 175th year.
Pacific Coast—The presbytery has 7 congregations; 5 students under care. A recent community barbecue at LA RPC brought over 100 visitors. Tim McCracken resigned Fresno RPC but was endorsed by presbytery to serve as regional director with Metanoia Prison Ministries. A Mandarin service has begun under the oversight of Brea RPC that may soon become a church plant.
St. Lawrence—Presbytery has 7 congregations in Canada and 8 in New York. It has 11 theological students under care. Presbytery closed the Calgary RP work last October. There are 2 vacant pulpits. Evangelical Presbyterian (Toronto, Ont.) RPC anticipates its new building will be completed this summer, and Russell, Ont., RPC seeks a plot of land on which to build.
Though some minor corrections may yet be made to the 2016 RPCNA statistics, the Stated Clerk reported the denomination grew by 41 members to 7,076; grew by one new congregation to 89; decreased by 2 fewer mission churches to 9. There are 13 vacant congregations and 10 men newly certified as eligible to receive a pastoral call. The average Sabbath worship attendance is about 6,000.
The Board of Trustees of Synod gave thanks that RPM&M giving surpassed the goal in 2016. The board pointed out that 20 congregations did not give anything to RPM&M in 2016, and those congregations were encouraged to at least provide an opportunity for a special collection once per year. Controller Vida Grace Brown is succeeding Trevor York, who resigned after three years in the position.
The RP International Conference Advisory Committee expressed gratitude to all the servant-leaders who made possible the “very successful” 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference. After a thorough check of alternate sites for the 2020 conference and a visit to one of those sites, the committee again decided on Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. This time, however, due to available dates, this will be a Wednesday–Tuesday schedule, July 29–Aug. 4, 2020. The keynote speaker has not been named.
Reformation Translation Fellowship has been translating and producing Reformed books for China for 68 years. They now typically do print runs of 20,000 copies of each title to meet demand, and also have 27 titles available for free download.
The Business of Synod Committee recommended that the 2018 Synod meet again at Indiana Wesleyan University, from June 26-29, 2018, and that the 2019 Synod meet June 11-14 that year at Geneva College, accommodating the ARP Synod that recently accepted the RP Synod’s invitation to meet concurrently.
Synod adopted a resolution of thanks, sang Psalm 133, and closed in prayer. Give thanks for the diligent work and important decisions of the Reformed Presbyterian Synod of 2017!
Submitted by Elders Drew Gordon and Brad Johnston