As many of you likely know, I am an ordained elder within the Presbyterian Church (USA). Perhaps what is more surprising (for anyone who is familiar with the PCUSA) is that I reside in the Baltimore Presbytery, one of the most liberal Presbyteries within an increasingly liberal denomination. Yet as anyone can tell by reading the information on our site, Ten Minas Ministries is still pretty conservative in its theology.
So I am definitely in the minority in my locale. I have seen the Presbytery disagree over whether or not Christ was divine. I have seen effort after effort made to affirm ordination of practicing homosexuals and endorse homosexual marriage. However, despite being de-sensitized to liberalism by these repeated attacks on the authority of the Bible, even I have been in shock at the actions recently taken by the Heartland Presbytery (another Presbytery within the PCUSA).
For anyone who does not know, the PCUSA is governed in somewhat of a bottom-up fashion. All the churches in the country belong to a “Presbytery”, which is composed of the pastors and some elders from all the churches within a particular geographic region. Those Presbyteries are divided up into “Synods”, and the highest body is called the “General Assembly.”
I have mentioned previously on this blog the decision by the PCUSA’s General Assembly to allow candidates for ordination to express a “scruple” to some component of the ordination vows. The specific context in which this arose is for candidates for the ministry who were practicing homosexuals. They could not promise to live within the covenant of marriage or else in chastity when the PCUSA did not recognize same-sex marriages. This new “authoritative interpretation” allows these candidates to express a “scruple” to this requirement. It then becomes the ordaining body’s responsibility to decide whether the scruple involves something that is foundational to reformed theology. If not, then the candidate may be ordained even in light of the disagreement with some part of the constitutional ordination requirements.
The reaction to this rule throughout the PCUSA has been profound, including many churches deciding to leave the denomination. I do not mean to suggest that these churches came to this decision based solely on this authoritative interpretation. It would be more accurate to state that this was the “straw that broke the camels back,” after a long history of increasing liberalism within the denomination.
The constitution of the PCUSA allows any congregations who wish to leave the denomination to make a request to their presbytery that they be allowed to leave the denomination with their property in order to join another reformed denomination. The property issue stems from a PCUSA rule that states that all churches hold their property in trust for the benefit of the presbytery, so that while the church makes all decisions about how to use that property, ownership of everything (from the church building itself all the way down to the money in the bank accounts) actually belongs to the presbytery.
First Presbyterian Church in Paola, Kansas was one of the many churches that were disgruntled with the way the PCUSA has been spiraling away from Biblical authority. On June 24, 2007, the members of First Presbyterian Church voted 229-83 (200-81 if you discount member under 18 who are allowed to vote on dismissal from the PCUSA, but are not allowed to vote on property issues) to be dismissed from the PCUSA with its property in order to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a growing (and more conservative) Presbyterian denomination.
Keep in mind that this action taken by First Presbyterian Church was completely permissible under the PCUSA constitution. The response from the Presbytery was to remove First Presbyterian’s session from office, stating that they were “unwilling or unable to manage wisely the affairs” of the church and replaced them with a new session who would govern the church in the manner the Presbytery saw fit. The session was notified of these actions via e-mail on November 13, 2007.
The next day, November 14, 2007, a letter was e-mailed to Rev. Kirk Johnston, First Presbyterian’s pastor, from Heartland Presbytery’s Administrative Commission, informing him that he was being placed on administrative leave effective that day. That letter also told him that he was “no longer to perform any pastoral and ministerial functions … among the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Paola or in any worshipping community within the bounds of Heartland Presbytery.”
Apparently, after receiving this notification, Rev. Johnston stopped performing all duties for First Presbyterian Church. However, he did serve as a guest preacher on three occasions at the newly formed “Lighthouse Presbyterian Church” in Paola. Lighthouse Presbyterian Church is not part of the PCUSA, and in fact is not affiliated with any particular denomination.
Upon finding out that Rev. Johnston had been so bold as to preach the gospel in a church that has nothing to do with the PCUSA, Diane Quaintance, Clerk of the Administrative Commission, wrote him a November 29, 2007 letter informing him that “the Administrative Commission believes that you are persisting in work not approved by Heartland Presbytery, and that by such actions you have renounced jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” Specifically, by preaching at Lighthouse Presbyterian Church, a non-PCUSA entity, the Administrative Commission felt that Rev. Johnston violated the requirement that he not perform any ministerial duties “within the bounds of Heartland Presbytery.”
The matter was referred to the Committee on Ministry, moderated by Brian D. Ellison, which on December 6, 2007 voted to recommend to Presbytery that it find that Rev. Johnston has persisted in a “disapproved work”, has “accepted membership of any character in another denomination” and that he be defrocked, thereby losing his ordination. The “disapproved work” was his participation with Lighthouse Presbyterian Church, which the Committee on Ministry, for the first time, referred to as within the GEOGRAPHIC bounds of Heartland Presbytery, a word that had been conspicuously absent from all previous communications.
Rev. Johnston had something of a history with Brian Ellison. In 2003, First Presbyterian Church (under Rev. Johnston’s care at the time) decided not to send a payment (called “per capita”) to the Presbytery out of frustration with the increasingly liberal slant the Presbytery was taking. The Presbytery found this to be a violation of the denomination’s polity. However, on appeal, during which Ellison represented the Presbytery, First Presbyterian’s decision was vindicated. All per capita contributions are voluntary and cannot be required by a presbytery.
As a result of the recommendation of the Committee on Ministry to defrock Rev. Johnston, a special called meeting of the Presbytery was held on December 18, 2007. At this meeting, the Heartland Presbytery voted 131 to 35 that Rev. Johnston has persisted in a disapproved work and defrocked him. They also voted 148 to 10 that he had aligned himself with another denomination and should be removed from the PCUSA roll. Finally, they voted 108 to 39 that Rev. Johnston’s actions with the Lighthouse Presbytery were “disapproved.” The only saving grace for the Heartland Presbytery was that Rev. Johnston had previously been threatened that all his benefits, including housing, salary, medical and pension benefits would be revoked RETROACTIVELY effective November 19, 2007 (this notice was sent to Rev. Johnston on November 29). The Presbytery voted 143 to 0 to change the effective date of his termination to the date of the meeting, December 18, 2007, and any reference to a loss of his benefits appears to be absent from the final motion (so it appears he may still be entitled to the pension he has earned over the past 15 years of service).
The example that has been set by the Heartland Presbytery certainly resembles totalitarianism. The message to any churches within that Presbytery is, “You’d better not disagree with us, because if you do, we will remove your session from office, assume control of your church, and defrock your pastor.” Keep in mind that the initial action of First Presbyterian Church to request dismissal was completely appropriate under the PCUSA Constitution. Say what you will about Rev. Johnston’s actions, the only thing the session did to warrant removal was ask to be dismissed from the denomination according to the rules of that denomination. The Presbytery had refused their request, and the session stated that they would explore other actions, but no decision as to those actions had yet been made at the time the Presbytery stepped in and took over the church (leading approximately 70% of First Presbyterian’s membership to leave the PCUSA).
As to the order against Rev. Johnston not to preach the gospel within the bounds of the Heartland Presbytery, the first obvious hint that the defrocking was a foregone conclusion, regardless of what Rev. Johnston did, was the suspicious addition of the word “geographic” after Rev. Johnston had preached at Lighthouse Presbyterian, a church clearly not within the “bounds” of Heartland Presbytery as it is not even a member of the PCUSA, let alone the Heartland Presbytery. At a minimum, the definition of the term “bounds” was ambiguous, and defrocking a pastor without even giving consideration to the fact that perhaps the Administrative Commission could have been more clear is absolutely appalling. Do you think that perhaps the Committee on Ministry could have considered that under the original language, Rev. Johnston could reasonably have concluded that he was allowed to preach in non-PCUSA churches, and perhaps simply clarify the matter for him instead of jumping to the draconian resolution of revoking his ordination?
Perhaps even more atrocious is that the Order was ever entered in the first place. Essentially what this Commission told Rev. Johnston is that he was no longer to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. How is that possibly in accordance with the Great Commission that Christ Himself gave us?
Throughout this entire saddening escapade, the Heartland Presbytery has repeatedly demonstrated that they are in no way motivated out of the love Christ has asked us to exemplify, but instead has set out on a vendetta to remove someone who defeated them in their quest to mandate per capita and who disagrees with their liberal desire to ignore scripture as the final speaking authority of God. Let us all pray that this type of vengeful behavior ceases, especially when it is done in the name of Christ.