The Psalmist says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him (Ps. 128:5-6).”
The 191st Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) commenced on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Following several years of ongoing discipline matters and formal complaints, the Lord gave us a year of both weeping and rejoicing. The meeting opened with a devotional message from the retiring moderator, Rev. Harry Metzger. He preached from I Corinthians 15, and three others preaching through the week would bring sermons from the same text: Revs. Ma and Blocki from North Hills (Pittsburgh, PA) and Rev. Dr. Ben Glaser from Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP). Following the preaching, eleven first time delegates were introduced to the court, six of whom serve as pastors and the remaining 5 as ruling elders. Nominations were then open for moderator. Much to his surprise, Rev. Dr. Pete Smith of Covenant Fellowship RP Church was elected. He was an excellent moderator.
Most of Tuesday was spent working through a business of synod report that made recommendations on how various papers, communications, and complaints ought to be handled. Eleven communications needed to be processed by the court. Most of the complaints were returned to their authors with the court choosing to not speak to them. One complaint, which argued against the Pacific Coast Presbytery sustaining a pastoral examination following the complainant being dissatisfied with the answers of an examinee. This complaint resulted in a study committee which will seek to give counsel to pastors and elders who find themselves in worship contexts where the Psalms are not being sung exclusively.
The one complaint that was heard (and did not result in a study committee) was from Rev. Adam Kuehner against the Great Lakes Gulf Presbytery (GLG). Kuehner argued that when presbytery rebuked two elders for administering the sacrament to a disciplined minister, it was not a sufficient censure. After hearing both sides of this complaint, the synod sustained the complaint 50-40 against the GLG (GLG delegates were not allowed to vote in this matter).
Three other communications resulted in actions from the synod: A paper that came through the Midwest Presbytery (MWP) sought to change the language of our current Testimony regarding abortion. As it reads currently abortion is murder “except possibly” in the case where a mother’s life is at risk. The proposal is seeking to bring equal dignity to the life of the mother and the child. This was sent to a study committee to report back next year.
The Orlando Session petitioned the synod to admonish the Reformed Presbyterian Women’s Association (RPWA) for suing a retired minister who lived at the RP Home. The petition sought to urge the RPWA to seek forgiveness from the minister and to take actions to seek a session’s aid in matters that would otherwise go to court (I Cor. 6). The Synod upheld the petition, admonishing the RPWA and urging them to facilitate change in their practice.
The Presbytery of the Alleghenies (POA) submitted a paper on the RPCNA’s practice of women serving in the diaconate. (The RPCNA has had women serving as deacons since 1888.) A five-man study committee was established to study the biblical practice of women serving in the diaconate as well as the nature and purpose of ordination. They will report their findings at next year’s Synod.
Several study committees as well as judicial commissions also reported. Over the last year, two commissions have been working with the former leadership of a congregation that was, sadly, caught in the middle of a minor-on-minor sexual abuse scandal. The pastor was deposed and suspended from communion, and the elders were suspended from office in 2022. These commissions have been working to the end of repentance and reconciliation. The former ruling elders told their commission that they were no longer able to work with them, violating the agreement reached when they pled guilty in 2022. Synod elevated their discipline and deposed them from office by an 88-32 vote. The former pastor, who rejected the authority and discipline of the RPCNA, was excommunicated by a 99-24 vote. The former moderator called him on the phone to inform him and then the pronouncement of excommunication was read.
It was a sober and dreadful experience and you could feel the heaviness of the room and see the tears streaming down men’s faces.
A few study committees will continue into another year, either not reporting or needing to rework some of the ideas presented: Kingship of Christ (did not report); Recusals (sent back to committee); and Vows and Queries (did not report). A study paper seeking to define the previous acts of synod (191 years worth) encouraged the synod to maintain the written understanding of previous synodical acts: they are the “law and order of the church” rather than merely suggestive or informative. This committee’s work began in 2018 or 2019 and came to synod through the GLG. The synod voted overwhelmingly in favor of previous acts remaining as law and order.
A major work that was sent back to committee was a paper seeking to set up a task force to response to claims of abuse. The paper sought a standing committee of thirteen made up of pastors, elders and professionals in various fields (medical, social work, police, etc.) that would serve as a resource for those with questions as to whether certain cases in the church would qualify as abuse. The synod debated this extensively before returning the paper that it may be improved.
We sowed in tears. We also reaped in joy.
Several boards and agencies of the church reported on their work in the past year. Crown and Covenant reported on their book sales and some of the things in the works (including posthumously published works by Rev. Gordon Keddie). Geneva College reported and we heard from president, Dr. Troup. Dr. Troup presented a brief presentation on how Geneva instructs from biblical literacy and confessional fidelity. We also heard from Dr. Barry York on the ministry of the RP Seminary, which seeks to be biblical, confessional, pastoral, and devotional.
The RPWA’s representative spoke on the RP Home and disability ministries. Reformation Translation Fellowship is expanding beyond the Chinese language for the first time since the 1940s and the Chinese Education Fund seeks to help Chinese families who do not want their children in state-run (Communist) public schools.
The court also heard fraternal greetings from three denominations with whom we have relationships: Dr. Ben Glaser of the ARP was already mentioned and we also heard Rev. Ian Wright of the OPC and Rev. Bartel Elshout from the Heritage Reformed Churches. Each presbytery of the RPCNA also reported on the highlights of their ministries in the past year.
Various missionary arms of the church shared exciting news. Global Missions reported on their several fields and some of the challenges that their teams face. From South Sudan to unpublishable locations, the RP Church is laboring faithfully in fields ripe for harvest. RP Global also presented a revised set of bylaws that were returned to them failing to be approved by the synod. We heard from two commissions that plant churches and train pastors in nations I am not allowed to write about. The Central and South America (CASA) committee reported on their labors in seeking to facilitate relationships with existing congregations in CASA. A commission of Global Missions was set up to ordain men and plant churches in CASA. Another missionary commission reported on the number of worshipers in three presbyteries in yet another nation I cannot publicly mention: 16,400 Reformed Presbyterian worshipers meet from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day in this unmentioned nation. The numbers are amazing!
Some of the other numbers and dates-discussions were of interest. We have grown slightly in membership and attendance although last year we closed five congregations. Besides these five congregations, a dozen Canadian congregations departed this year to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Canada. This is a good thing! The Synod is also very interested in boards reporting salaries of employee in the name of greater transparency. Following several motions, these salaries will now be published in the Minutes of Synod. The salary of every pastor is already published annually. Other number discussions include an increase in ruling elders in the denomination and the fact that we have almost twice as many pastors on our rolls as we have congregations (many are not active, not serving, or retired). Giving has increased in our church and the denominational arm for giving (RPM&M) has increased significantly—of course there are more boards, committees, and agencies that are seeking financial assistance as well. June 11-14, 2024 is our next synod. RP International is June 25-July 1, 2024.
After several long days of difficulty, joy, fellowship, suffering, and labor—we adjourned on Friday just before noon. Many prayers were prayed. Many Psalms were sung. Many tears were shed. As brothers we looked to Jesus together to establish the work of our hands and to bring forth sheaves with rejoicing. In the words of the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, “grace teaches us how to make a mixture of sorrow and a mixture of joy together.”
Nathan Eshelman, Pastor in Orlando, FL
This article was originally written for the Gentle Reformation Blog. Check it out for more content from RPCNA Pastors and friends!