Thursday, November 24, 2005

Contumacy Is The New Black

by: L' Enfant Terrible, reposted with permission.

When you hear of someone being excommunicated, what crimes come to mind as likely causes for this most severe of sentences? Unless you've been immersed in the culture of high-church Presbyterian splinter groups, you'd probably not guess the most likely sin - contumacy. Basically, contumacy is rebelling against your elders, and thus is a sort of catch-all category for an assortment of behaviors that might earn the ire of an authoritarian elder.

Of course we would all agree the rebellion against authority is a dreadful thing. But the problem is when those in positions of authority have themselves rebelled by overstepping their authority and becoming tyrants. Yes, this sometimes happens in what appear to be good churches. It's happening right now in a fairly notable one - St. Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia, home of R.C. Sproul, Jr. and his Highlands Study Center. Its a story that ought to distress you, and since the offended party has began to tell their story on the internet, I thought I would bring attention to it so as to warn others.

Before we get into this situation, though, I want to talk about another church that provides a good example of tyranny in the church. That example is found in the article Tyranny in Tyler, which concerns an excommunication for contumacy. Yes, this is the infamous "Tyler Church" where several prominent Reconstructionists (including Gary North, Ray Sutton, James Jordan, and David Chilton) showed that they had no earthly idea how to actually apply God's law in the context of the Church. What's interesting in this tale is that two of the church officers (one of which was David Chilton, who in my opinion was the most respectable and genuine men of the bunch) that made the ruling later repented publicly and stated that they had been wrong. The denomination then ruled that the ruling was nullified. The man that had been excommunicated became an officer at another church, First Presbyterian Church in Rowlett, Texas. This church later wrote reviews of James Jordan's books on worship, which Jordan apparently disliked, for he wrote in his response that:

"The Blue Banner," a name taken for Scottish and Scottish Presbyterian history, is published by the First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett, Texas, . . . . The session of this church is listed on page 16 of the magazine, and includes a man excommunicated from Christ's church in the early 1980s, who has never repented and been restored. This page of the magazine also lists as publisher a man also excommunicated who has never repented and been restored. It seems that the First Presbyterian 'Church' of Rowlett is actually a renegade assembly of persons condemned by sound Presbyterian churches, a 'synagogue of Satan,' perhaps."

That quote gives you a taste of the ugliness of the affair, and the story continues in another article for those interested in learning more about it.

David Chilton had quite a bit to say about the climate of fear that existed in the Tyler church. Some more of his comments can be found in an article called Ecclesiastical Megalomania. John Robbins reports on this for obvious reasons - he has an axe to grind against anyone and everyone associated with theonomy and Christian Reconstruction (or should I just say anyone and everyone - period?). Some of Chilton's remarks concerning the Tyler church that I want to bring your attention to are as follows (perhaps they might remind you of other notable churches, such as St. Peter Presbyterian Church):

"One of the things that was going on with this in the [Tyler] church was that we found that the elders of this church were very class conscious.... This church was not primarily built up from the community. That's how local churches usually are developed. The Gospel takes root in a society and the church is built up from the local constituency. But that's not what went on in this church. People moved to come to this church. This was a Reconstructionist haven and so they moved to come there. People at great cost to themselves--people gave up good jobs to get lesser paying jobs and so on...

The sermons became increasingly mystical.... I would sit in church Sunday after Sunday and think, I have read Rushdoony, I've read Van Til.... You know, I may not be genius level but I've got an intellect. And I'm sitting here, I'm rather well-read, probably more well-read than most members of the congregation, and I can't make head or tail of what this man is saying. I have no idea what he is talking about in the pulpit. And if I can't figure this out, how are these other people doing?

Well, one way the other people were coping with it was that they assumed that this has to be really hot stuff. This is profound because I can't understand it. I'm sitting here in awe and wonder at all these things that are being said from the pulpit, I don't understand it, but it must be true and it must be very important. And this is life-changing, culture-transforming stuff. I'm right here on the Inner Circle. Nobody knew what he [the pastor] was talking about. Bizarre, I mean bizarre interpretations were coming forth from the pulpit....

The congregation was given to understand that everything that was being said from the pulpit, that here we are at the central point of the Reconstruction of this country, of indeed the world, and the things that are coming forth from this pulpit you won't hear anywhere else....

[T]he statement was made that we are to submit to every whim of the church leadership. Even to disagree in our thoughts is an excommunicable offense.... So we have to discipline our thoughts and bring them into line with what the elders said.... And the deacon gave a very concrete, you might say rubber meets the road example. He talked about white-wall tires. And he said if you have white-wall tires and an officer of the church comes over to your house and commands you to change them to black-walls, you are required to do so, and any disobedience to that command is rebellion against authority, rebellion against God himself. And you can be excommunicated for that....

I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that I was going to be excommunicated for what I was thinking....

At that point there was this real uneasy relationship between me and them. I was not on the staff of the church at all but I was, after all, David Chilton. And I wasn't the most famous member of the church, but people did come to the church to find David Chilton, and I was one of the advertising gimmicks of that church. And here I am going through these intense, gut wrenching struggles over the issue of whether I'm going to be excommunicated simply because of disagreeing over a subject like white-wall tires....

But it got worse. There were people who disagreed with school policy.... it had to do with fund raising. We were going to let children go out into the neighborhood and collect money.... Well, there were some people in the church and school who didn't like that. They said, I tell you what, you come to me and you ask me. If the school needs money, tell me how much you want me to give and I'll write you a check. But don't ask me to send my children around to the neighborhood collecting donations from heathens to build up this school....

Now they did not start a revolution.... They stayed out of it. They didn't send their children around the neighborhood and on the appointed day, they did not show up. Now I was one of the ones that showed up. I didn't like it. I didn't feel comfortable about it, but we went along with it....

The result of that was they [those who disagreed] began being brought in and interrogated by the elders of the church--interrogating husbands and wives separately, and refusing to allow these proceedings to be tape recorded.... Sometime before this I'd gone out to a bookstore and bought two books that I had read in high school and now was beginning to see the importance of. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984....

By 1985 I was sending out resumes very discreetly and quietly, begging and pleading with anybody to accept me anywhere. I was willing to do anything. Just get me out of here. There was a real climate of fear.... A family in our church who had moved about 20 miles away-our church was very much into liturgy...--these people moved away and there was an Episcopal Church nearby.... They decided that they would like to go there to church. So they applied for a transfer and got it.... You can't imagine the shock waves that went through the church at that point. I had people coming up to me...saying, I didn't know you could get out....

At this point there was something over 60 families in the church. And that one family moved out. And when people discovered that you could move out, people did so.... When that began to happen, that original couple was denounced from the pulpit in the most extreme terms, that they had left the faith, they weren't Christian anymore, and going to Hell....

Perhaps the leading American Theonomist, if I can distinguish that from Reconstruction, but the leading, the most important, the most erudite American Theonomist was very strongly critical of the church there [in Tyler] and yet in his [California] church he routinely excommunicated people for disagreeing with him, excommunicated people for leaving, excommunicated people for transferring to another church in the same denomination. Think about that. You're in a church and you transfer to another church in the same denomination and the pastor excommunicates you for that.... There were members of our church there who, in escaping from this [Reconstructionist] church, fled to the relative freedom of the Roman Catholic Church. Think about that....

That definitely is something to think about! Now with that background laid, let's move on to the situation at hand.

Like the Tyler church, St. Peter Presbyterian Church has become somewhat of a hot place to move to. Those that want to "get serious" about reformed living often toy the idea of moving to St. Peter. Its apparently become some kind of fad for middle-aged, reformed, home-schooling, agrarian-leaning Christians that are in search of the Holy Grail of churches.

Also like the Tyler church, St. Peter Presbyterian Church has an elder, R.C. Sproul Jr., whose sermons and articles are often "over the head" of the audience. I imagine that the typical blog post by Jr. is quickly devoured by desperate housewives (or as he calls them "Prairie Muffins") and passed on to their husbands, who can't make heads or tails of it but don't want to look stupid in the eyes of their wives so they nod and say -"Yeah, that's really brilliant!" I mean, most of us Reformed guys just really can't relate to being Junior High Girls, for example. Nor do we get into Jr.'s novella Ligonier Tales, which is the Reformed equivalent of the trashy romance novel - shorter, less plot, and the pretense of carrying some ingenious moral message, which no one can put their finger on, but everyone is sure its there.

And most significantly like the Tyler church, thought crimes by members of St. Peter Presbyterian Church are an offense that can result in excommunication. This brings us to the story of the John Austin family, who tell their story in a series of articles:

The Journey Out
(alternate link)

I think you'll see that the similarities between this situation and the one described by David Chilton to be very real, and somewhat frightening. The ironic thing is that I disagree with just about all of the doctrinal conclusions arrived at by the Austins during this period of time, yet I am far more disturbed by the behavior of the St. Peter session than I am the theological convictions taken up by the Austins. Basically, the crimes of a) changing one's position on baptism, and b) deciding you'd like to attend a church that reflects that shift, are excommunicable offenses, worthy of being put out of the body of Christ and shunned.

The Austin's haven't been formally excommunicated yet. In St. Peter's denomination, the RPCGA, doesn't allow local churches to officially excommunicate anyone. However, their Book of Church Order allows for local churches to "suspend" members indefinitely, with no formal charges required! This suspension can include barring the offending members from the sacraments and instructing the rest of the body to shun the offending members. This is a dangerous tool. The difference between suspension and excommunication appears to be mere semantics.

Hopefully, if this is raised to the presbytery level, the other elders in the RPCGA will have the common sense to discipline the renegade session of St. Peter, and not the Austin family. If not, this should serve as a strong warning to anyone considering joining themselves to St. Peter or any other congregation of the RPCGA. I wonder how many of the members of St. Peter got a blessing from their home church before relocating to St. Peter? Does R.C. Jr. also consider it a crime for a member of a Baptist church to decide that paedobaptism is scriptural, and decide to leave his Baptist church and find a Presbyterian one?

I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts on how confessional churches can adhere to biblical ecclesiology without succumbing to sessional tyranny. Tiny denominations such as the RPCGA don't seem to offer much of the so-called "court of appeal" which is supposed to be the hallmark of the presbyterian form of government. A denomination that consists of a few egotistical personalities and their hand-picked friends can offer no true court of appeal.

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At 3:44 PM, Anonymous John Austin said...

Dear Sir,

I was directed by a friend to your blog. I cannot find another way of contacting you, so I have no other option but to use your comments section.

The articles on my wife's web site make no mention of our church by name, nor our pastors. We're at a loss to understand how you would know such things, but now that the cat's out of the bag I feel it important to respond to some of your comments, as some correction is in order.

We have indeed had some serious problems with the Session at St. Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Virginia, and particularly with the head pastor, R.C. Sproul, Jr. We have been censured and shunned by the Session, who has also ordered the entire assembly to shun us, as well as our five small children. We are unaware of any church anywhere that shuns entire families, including innocent children. However, shunning has been taken to a whole new level by R.C. Sproul, Jr.

St. Peter Presbyterian Church is referred to by many as a "family-integrated church." We never knew that "family-integrated" meant that if one family member was "disciplined" the entire family would receive the identical treatment, including the children.

My "sin" is that I notified the Session that we were departing to seek another church because of my disagreements with them over practice and doctrine. I did everything possible to depart peaceably. Instead, I was charged with "vow-breaking." R.C. equates church membership vows with marital vows (until death do us part?). Not unlike the Hotel California, "You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave."

My concern with your blog posting is not so much over your criticism of the St. Peter Session, but your guilt-by-association mischaracterization of the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly. The RPCGA is adamantly opposed to what has been taking place at St. Peter, and they are taking action to put a stop to it. The RPCGA has a fine church constitution (BCO) which they take very seriously, and they are none too pleased to have any of their member pastors trampling upon it.

The Westminster Presbytery of the RPCGA has given me their full support. I only regret that, due to my own ignorance of Presbyterian polity, I didn't go to the Presbytery much sooner to file a protest. Now that I have done so, I have found their responsiveness to be most impressive. Such men in no way warrant your criticisms, but only praise.

In my wife's latest web site article, "Forgiveness and Love," we are seeking healing and reconciliation with those St. Peter families that have shunned and turned against us. We pray that many will read it, take it to heart, and act accordingly.

John Austin

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Steve Scott said...

I'm not a presbyterian, but one thing does strike me as strange about their government. This hit me only after thinking about your post. It always seems as if they put the fox in charge of the hen house. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't most sessions and presbyteries consist of ordained elders? A true division of labor within the checks and balances would seem the best if the inherent conflict of interest were done away with so that sessions and presbyteries could NOT include ordained elders, or at least were lay heavy.

Paul's mention of law courts in 1 Cor 6 says nothing about appointed elders, and if you re-read Matthew 18 carefully you'll find that elders are nowhere mentioned. When Jesus says "tell it to the church" most pastors wrongly interpret that as "tell it to the elders, who will then only after personal interpretation decide whether to tell it to the church." This is even written into many church by-laws. And if a sin is committed by an elder or even the entire elder board, how will it ever be told to the church? Even if completely unintentional, ecclesiocrats have given themselves immunity from biblical "church" discipline. And when they write the doctrinal statement and require that congregants hold to it, they're simply holding to the Roman doctrine of ex cathedra that they "protest" against as Protestants. And when "elder rule" is misinterpreted as "elder dictator", they're just localized papists holding to localized central government.

I think the solution is for stronger individuals and stronger communities of individuals who understand biblical delegation of authority to stand up against these tyrants. They need to be reminded that they are to shepherd the flock "among them" and NOT to lord it over them, including which doctrines the members of the flock belive in. Most Reformed and Presbyterian pew sitters are very strong in doctrinal knowledge, but are brow-beaten wimps when it comes to applying that to anybody "holding authority." Jesus said it well when He said that whoever would be the greatest shall be the servant of all. If they're not, forget about them.

I think it would do churches well to know what biblical ecclesiology is before they adhere to whatever their pastors spoon feed them.

At 6:05 PM, Anonymous L' Enfant Terrible said...

Thanks for the update Mr. Austin.

I must say I'm very impressed with your report about the RPCGA. This definitely warrants praise, I agree.

I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the RPCGA's BCO as far as it allows local churches to suspend members indefinitely with no written charges. But if the suspended member can petition the presbytery and get redress, then this is a significant mitigating factor and definitely changes my opinion of the RPCGA.

At 8:52 AM, Blogger RC 2.0 said...

Steve Scott said, "I think the solution is for stronger individuals and stronger communities of individuals who understand biblical delegation of authority to stand up against these tyrants." We couldn't agree more with your assessment. Presbyterian church polity, in our view, is the most biblical form of church government, and it is also the only form that guarantees protections against abuses of power. The same is the case of our Constitutional Republican form of civil government in America.

Neither form of government, however, is worth much of anything when the people being governed are ignorant of their rights. Tyrants love ignorant people, for without them they'd have no one to lord it over. It is only because of ignorant Americans who don't know their Constitution that America has been reduced to such a sad state, and it is only because of ignorant church members that so many churches have been reduced much the same.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Ex- St. Pete Member said...

"The Austin's haven't been formally excommunicated yet." Yes and no. What R.C. told us at the time was that the session did excommunicate them. R.C. did use the word "contumacy" and it was over something about the Austins violating their membership vows. R.C. also ordered us to "avoid all contact with the Austin family." IOW we were told to shun them. "If you run into the Austins in the store or the post office you're not allowed to say anything to them other than, 'I can't talk to you. You need to speak with the Elders'." Only later did we figure out that R.C. didn't have any authority to excommunicate anyone or issue a shun order. He knew it but he did it anyway and then he lied to us. If he wanted someone to be excommunicated he had to refer the issue to the Presbytery. When he got called out for it, and was even got defrocked because of it (and a bunch of other even worse stuff) he kept lying to us about the Austins supposedly being excommunicated. Over time as people started figuring out how he'd abused his authority some more families left. Care to guess how he responded? Yup, he excommunicated them too! By then no one took him seriously. How can you take it seriously when some defrocked guy says, "You're excommunicated"?


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