The Jonesboro 7 had suffered long and hard; they had been falsely accused, falsely convicted, barred from the Lord’s Table, but finally the Lord had vindicated His lambs, and He vindicated them through the ordinary Presbyterian process. It just took a while. But God did more than vindicate His lambs.
Editorial Note: What follows relies on official court filings and recollections by observers of a hearing before the PCA General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission.
This is Part Five in a series. You can read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. I have also written about this matter on PCA Polity. I have also collaborated with Zach Lott and TE Jonathan Brooks here to highlight the faithful submission of the men to the edicts of the Session.
You may listen to the Westminster Standard episode with Paul Harrell and Dominic Aquila here as Mr Harrell discusses his experiences and God’s faithfulness in trial.
A growing church plant in Jonesboro, Ark. was nearing the point of becoming a particular congregation of the PCA. A meeting for October 2020 had been scheduled to petition Covenant Presbytery for particularization and to elect officers. Seven men from the congregation, however, had concerns about TE Jeff Wreyford, the man called by Covenant Presbytery as church planter; they perceived him as too progressive, insufficiently focused on cultivating a distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian congregation, too quick to give up the pulpit, and overbearing.1
They took their concerns to both TE Wreyford as well as the Temporary Session overseeing the work; they indicated they would like to consider other candidates for pastor rather than TE Wreyford, whom the Session preferred to offer to the congregation.
The Session responded to the concerns of these men by investigating, indicting, convicting, and censuring the men. After the men appealed Session’s judgment, TE Jeff Wreyford resigned along with the rest of the Session, who were all on staff or elders at IPC Memphis.
TE Ed Norton travelled down from Memphis to Jonesboro to be part of a meeting to announce the Session’s resignation to the congregation and to inform them of their options going forward, since the Session was recommending closing the church due to the trouble the Session perceived in the congregation.
The meeting, audio of which was provided, was tense. Numerous questions were asked at the meeting. Members objected to not being consulted regarding the severance paid to TE Wreyford. Others wanted the Session to wait until the discipline case ran its course rather than give up on the little church mid-stream.
One man wondered what would happen if the Jonesboro 7 were exonerated on appeal. TE Norton explained he was unable to go into details of the case, but promised,
“Let’s say the commission comes back and they find for the Jonesboro…individuals … for me personally, I’d come back and apologize, because that’s what Christians do. We openly and readily confess…that’s part of the process…We are repentant…that’s part of the process…there’s never health in any body of believers unless there is confession and repentance, so you would find me coming back.”
The Presbytery Judicial Commission denied the appeal of the Jonesboro 7. So the men took their case to the General Assembly and prayed that God would grant them impartial judges, judges who were concerned for evidence, elders for whom words would have meaning, and elders who would be faithful to their vows to uphold the Scripture and the PCA Constitution.
A Lengthy Season of Waiting
Readers will recall Presbytery declined to give up on the church plant and instead appointed a new Session to oversee the work there.
Despite a new Session, the judgment of the old Session still hung over them; the men were still prohibited from partaking, by faith, in Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. The men were still excluded from voting in any congregational meeting because of the judgment against them by the old Session. As such, it was necessary to appeal the case to the General Assembly.
An appeal to General Assembly takes time; it is worthy to remember the trouble began August 31, 2020 when the “Jonesboro 7” raised concerns with the Session regarding the Session’s preferred candidate for pastor. The Session sent a “Letter of Admonishment” with demands on September 9, 2020; Covenant Presbytery later ruled the letter imposed unlawful injunctions upon the men on May 18, 2021.
But just before Presbytery’s ruling against the Session, the men were indicted on May 5, 2021 by their Session for violations of the Fifth and Ninth Commandments. The Session tried, found them guilty, and barred them from the Lord’s Table in July 2021, which they appealed to Covenant Presbytery; Presbytery denied the appeal May 17, 2022. On May 23, 2022 the “Jonesboro 7” finally appealed to the PCA General Assembly. Their hearing before a panel of the Assembly’s Judicial Commission (SJC) was October 31, 2022.
I note these dates because it is important to recognize how long the process sometimes takes in order for justice to be rightly done and rightly received. In such times, it is vital to wait on the Lord, to remember those who suffer for the sake of Righteousness are blessed, and that God will vindicate His Name and His cause in His own time.
The Jonesboro 7 were represented at the hearing before the SJC by TE Dominic Aquila, a former SJC judge and past Moderator of the General Assembly.
Defending Presbytery’s Judgment
The hearing before a panel of the SJC was conducted virtually on October 31, 2022. It had many memorable exchanges, some of which will be conveyed in what follows.
Covenant Presbytery was represented before the SJC by TE Robert Browning, the Clerk of Covenant Presbytery and also on staff at IPC Memphis as well as RE Josh Sanford an employment lawyer from Little Rock, Ark. TE Tim Reed, who served on the Presbytery’s Judicial Commission assisted on the Presbytery’s Respondent team also.
Prior to the hearing, each side submitted Briefs framing the case. Presbytery’s Brief was curious in that it spent three of its eight pages summarizing the facts of the case rather than making a defense of the Presbytery’s findings. When the Presbytery’s Brief finally does begin to make its case, it draws from facts not related to the original charges or trial and seems somewhat to fixate on the fact the Jonesboro 7 had a former SJC judge, TE Dominic Aquila, helping them prepare their defense. All of which are irrelevant to a finding of guilt on the matters for which the Jonesboro 7 were indicted.
Improper Evidence? Or any Evidence?
Presbytery’s Respondents asserted in their Brief that the trial audio and transcript did not reveal any admission of improper evidence nor a denial of proper evidence. The Presbytery attempted to establish sufficient evidence of guilt by means of Prosecutor TE Mike Malone’s closing assertions:
“the transcript and audio recording of the trial summarized by the Prosecutor showed sufficient proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the Appellants were guilty of the offenses for which they were charged.”2
This is an important point; the SJC judges would later query not whether there was improper evidence of guilt admitted, but whether there was any guilt established. One Presbytery Respondent would concede before the SJC panel there was not much evidence put on at trial. Much of the hearing would center on questions from SJC judges asking not whether there was “much” evidence, but whether there was even a modicum of evidence.
Why Didn’t They Complain?
Covenant Presbytery’s Respondents would try to argue the claim of the Jonesboro 7 regarding the indictments being unconstitutionally vague was invalid because they did not complain (BCO 43) against the action of Session in drawing the indictments the way Session did. The Respondents attempted to portray the Jonesboro 7 as guilty rogues for not complaining against such indictments.
Covenant Presbytery tried to use the lack of a complaint against the unconstitutional indictments to show the Jonesboro 7 had a “disregard for those who were exercising proper spiritual oversight.”3
But what Covenant Presbytery’s Respondents failed to consider is that the PCA Constitution does not permit intermittent appeals, i.e. to complain in the midst of judicial process (BCO 43-1). A member of the SJC panel would later point this out to the Presbytery’s Respondents.
The only option open to the Jonesboro 7 was to see the process through and suffer under a process the SJC would later describe as having been abused. But as we’ll discuss later, the men’s use of process would later be proffered as evidence of guilt by Covenant Presbytery’s respondents.
As noted in Part One, this is perhaps an opportunity to further perfect the PCA Constitution.
The Indictments Were Valid…
Throughout the process, the Jonesboro 7 pressed their claim that the indictments against them were unconstitutionally vague. Presbytery’s Respondents countered that since the “Appendix G” to the BCO is simply advisory, the Session did not have to provide the specifics to how the men had sinned “in the days leading up to and following August 3, 2020…” in violation of the Fifth and Ninth Commandments. The Presbytery’s Brief did not interact at length with BCO 32-5, which states,
In drawing the indictment, the times, places and circumstances should, if possible, be particularly stated, that the accused may have an opportunity to make his defense. (emphasis added)
In denying the appeal, Covenant Presbytery asserted the phrase if possible provides “discretion to a court in specifying the particulars of ‘the times, places and circumstances’ in drawing up an indictment.”4 Covenant Presbytery’s interpretation of BCO 32-5 in the Harrell case is outrageous and does violence to the fundamentals of justice.
The SJC would later correct Covenant Presbytery’s fallacious reasoning and remind them the phrase, “if possible,” establishes a burden on the prosecutor and does not grant discretion to the Court. The PCA General Assembly would later describe the Temporary Session’s failure to include specifics in an indictment as, “unfair to an accused and violates basic principles of due process as required by our standards.”5
It is impossible to overstate the weight of Covenant Presbytery’s error on this point. The members of Covenant Presbytery would do well to adopt something enshrining the basic principles of due process in their Standing Rules, since a number of influential members of their Presbytery apparently failed to grasp basic principles of fairness and due process in this case (and continued to do so even in the Supplemental Brief; see below).
Until corrective action is taken in Covenant Presbytery, what happened to the Jonesboro 7 by a Session of Elders largely from IPC Memphis could happen again to anyone under that Presbytery’s jurisdiction.