R. C. Sproul Jr. and the elders of St. Peter...
The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)
This shows that one tale is good till another is told.
He that speaks first will be sure to tell a straight story, and relate that only which makes for him, and put the best colour he can upon it, so that his cause shall appear good, whether it really be so or no.
The plaintiff having done his evidence, it is fit that the defendant should be heard, should have leave to confront the witnesses and cross-examine them, and show the falsehood and fallacy of what has been alleged, which perhaps may make the matter appear quite otherwise than it did. We must therefore remember that we have two ears, to hear both sides before we give judgment.
-Matthew Henry's comments on Proverbs 18:17
Note from Tim Bayly: One of our readers posted the following questions in the comment section of one of my posts and we're placing my response here, on the main page, since this information may be helpful to a broader group than is keeping up with those comments:This came to my attention today and I was wondering if anyone can validate the truth of this:"The CREC is taking oversight now over the congregation of Saint Peter (SP), while the session is still under the RPCGA. So no one from SP has to meet with the RPCGA representatives while they are here because the RPCGA does not have jurisdiction, due to the session never entering the congregation in the denomination according to the BOC of the RPCGA."...What I am curious about is this....In the Presbyterian form of government, the ecclestical authority structure is not to be questioned, rulings up the chain of command are to be accepted. Why then is anyone questioning the presbytery in this matter? I was under the impression that those who hold to these views of church authority believe that it is mandatory to accept the rulings of other reformed bodies. What am I missing?
For the record, I have seen faithful pastors suffer for Christ. I have also seen faithful laymen suffer at the hands of unfaithful pastors and elders. Even Ken Sande and Peacemakers recognize this truth and are now offering teachings and workshops on spiritual abuse.
David and I are trying to think this matter through carefully. So far, only one side has been heard from and it's a basic rule of Scripture that in conflict, both sides must be heard before judgments are made. The side making the accusations and claiming they've arrived at a judgment seems quite official, especially given the vocabulary they've used for announcing their judgment and that the judgment was to defrock four men, all supposedly on the basis of those four men's self-accusations.
So we might be tempted to exclaim, "Well, that's it! What more is there to say?"...
Well again, both sides haven't been heard and that's why the right of appeal is always protected.
But anticipating the quandary the men of St. Peter church find themselves in, we wonder what the court of appeal could possibly be given that the men of Westminster Presbytery who claimed to defrock the men of St. Peter make up such a substantial part of the national denomination. In this sort of situation where the numbers are so tiny, one naturally questions the ability of an appeal to be heard and judged objectively on the national level. But leaving that to the side, for now...
Let's all pray that this matter will be resolved in peace and love.
PS: David and I remind our good readers that neither of us have, to this point, ever had any contact with R. C. Sproul Jr., whether E-mail, phone, or in person. So there's no prior commitment here on our parts, other than to fairness in process, truth in judgment, and love covering all.
* * *
Although I don't know how the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly (RPCGA) differs from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), my own denomination, it's generally true in presbyterian polity that judicial (disciplinary) actions may be submitted to, appealed, or the jurisdiction of the church, presbytery, synod, or general assembly may be renounced. Often those who renounce jurisdiction have no defense for doing so and are broadly viewed as contumacious, as having gone out from us because "they were not of us" (1John 2:19). But there are times when the renunciation of jurisdiction is to confess the True Faith. Think, for instance, of Martin Luther of "Here I stand" fame. Or J. Gresham Machen and his brothers-in-arms who were defrocked by the Presbyterian Church in 1935. Or the 2,000 Puritan pastors who were expelled from their churches in the Great Ejection of 1662.
In the case of R. C. Jr., it's best for us to be silent as the different courts do their work. To some, it may look like an open and shut case because of the way Westminster Presbytery has worded the judgment it released to the public. But there's more to the issue than their statement, hence the provision for appeal that is central to presbyterian polity. (To this point I have had no personal contact with anyone related to this case, nor have I been privy to any documents other than those put out by the presbytery.)
It would be perfectly proper and would not reflect negatively on the men defrocked by Westminster Presbytery for them to appeal the defrocking to the RPCGA national level. Keep in mind that the judgment of Westminster Presbytery, though self-proclaimed as "unanimous" and called for by a "super-majority," was the judgment of a very small presbytery of a very small denomination. Westminster Presbytery only has four churches, one of which is St. Peter whose elders were defrocked. So if you add in the two mission churches within Westminster Presbytery's bounds, we may be talking about a unanimous, super-majority of what, six or eight men? Not to disdain small things--we've been a part of many of them through the years--but this is a very small group to try to handle an appeal objectively.
Keep in mind that Westminster Presbytery has mentioned the unanimity of its decision quite prominently in disseminating its judgments.
There's yet another matter to consider in this controversy. It may be perfectly proper for these men to complete a process of transferring their credentials into another denomination had that process begun prior to the initiation of disciplinary action by Westminster Presbytery. Disciplinary action ought not to be used as a method of keeping members, officers, or churches in a fellowship--as if the very act of leaving that fellowship is an indication of rebellion against the Lord. It may be; it may not be.
As for why people might question a presbytery (or any other judicatory, for that matter), it is basic presbyterian doctrine that, as the RPCGA's own Westminster Confession puts it:
Chapter XXXI, Section IV: "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both."
Notice also this statement from the Westminster Confession, giving particular attention to the part between asterisks:
Chapter XXXI, Section III: "It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, ***if consonant to the Word of God***, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word. [Emphasis added.]
Individuals, churches, and councils err; and individuals, churches, and councils must be judged by the Word of God.
You mention that there is some discussion whether St. Peter church is under the jurisdiction of Westminster Presbytery. Given the official two-office view of the RPCGA (elders and deacons, not pastors, elders, and deacons), it may be that the four elders were members of the RPCGA while the congregation they served was not. This is called "laboring outside of ecclesiastical bounds" and it's quite common within reformed denominations. For instance, my own congregation is confessional, with all officers subscribing to the Westminster Standards, but it is not affiliated with a denomination. On the other hand, I hold my own credentials within the Presbyterian Church in America. Time will tell what exactly is the status of St. Peter church (beyond St. Peter church's elders).
Turning to your final point, yes of course there are pastors whose own sin is the cause of their discipline. Such pastors justly suffer, and through faith God is disciplining them for their own, and their congregation's, sanctification. Matter of fact, this happens all the time. There's no pastor who is no longer a sinner--not only in his private life but also in his performance of the duties attendant to his calling. So it is no cause for comment when Ken Sande and his Peacemakers ministry, Ron Enroth, or anyone else acknowledges this. Could anyone who has ever been under any authority, whether husband, father, professor, drill sergeant, judge, pastor, elder, president, or shop steward ever deny the sinfulness of the human heart and the dangers of power and authority?
And yet a critical question remains: today, is the greater danger that pastors are dictatorial, imperious, arrogant, manipulative, abusive, and authoritarian? Or that they're soft and effeminate, milking (not guarding) their sheep, crying "'Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace"? Elton Trueblood once wrote that it's the mark of wisdom that a man fights the battles of today rather than the battles of yesterday.
There may be some among our readers who would differ with me on this, but there's no doubt in my mind that the greater danger in the church today is shepherds who refuse to warn and correct and discipline their sheep, men called by God to preach who never blow the trumpet in warning--not even an indistinct note.
Finally, none of the above should be read as anything other than reasons to reserve judgment in this controversy. I am neither an acquaintance or friend of R. C. Jr. or Ken Talbot. I have no dog in the race. Let's pray that the Lord will be honored through this work, and that the truth will come out in such a way as not to cause scandal to the Name of Christ.