I am a realist. Our doctrine of sin says sin happens. One glorious meeting of Synod is not a cure-all. It is only a beginning. We expect hard days ahead. We expect failures and sins. But we also expect grace-days when “the Lord shows up and shows out.” Indeed, when leaders of our institutions transparently acknowledge failures and sins, when they ask for forgiveness, it is a grace-day. Grace-days are the foundation on which we can build renewal.
This year’s meeting of the General Synod of the Associate Presbyterian Church (ARP) was simply “remarkable!” For the first time in my life, I left Bonclarken with tears of joy in my eyes, with a sense of awe, and with a merry heart of thanksgiving. I witnessed things at General Synod which I have never seen — things which took my breath away. Neek Smif in a Facebook post gives the best and most appropriate summary of this year’s meeting of Synod: “The Lord showed up and showed out!”
I hate church meetings. The chairs are uncomfortable, and I am easily bored. So, when I heard what Moderator Lee Shelnutt was planning, I groaned in anticipation of boredom and pain. I called Shelnutt, and I said, “Lee, we don’t have that much business. Why are you dragging the meeting into Thursday? If you push it, we can go home Wednesday evening. Why are you making us suffer through so many sermons?”
I Was wrong!!! Our General Synod felt like an ol’ time camp meeting. All the preachers preached well. The Holy Spirit warmed my cold heart.
One sermon, however, needs to be spotlighted. Using the language of my Baptist and Pentecostal youth, Dr. Mike Milton’s sermon was “Holy Ghost inspired.”
I saw a first: the delegates of General Synod applauded a sermon. Sour-faced, business-minded, academically-oriented preachers and elders applauded a sermon! In 44 years of attending Synod, I never experienced such a thing. The applause was not for a great performance; rather, “the Lord showed up and showed out” in His servant Mike Milton. As Miss Lula Mae would have said, “I heard the sound of the Spirit’s feathers.”
Moderator Shelnutt, thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for not listening to me and some others I know who complained, asking, “Why all the preaching?”
I am now thinking something new: I wish every meeting of General Synod was like this one! The Holy Spirit warmed my heart.
The New Moderator
The new Moderator is Philip Malphrus, who was elected by acclamation. Mr. Malphrus is an elder in the Devenger Road Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and is Patrick Malphrus’ father. Patrick Malphrus is the Pastor of the Devenger Road Presbyterian Church and the immediate past Vice Moderator of General Synod. The nomination of Philip Malphrus by his son was a touching moment. Rarely does one see such a thing. It was a first for me, and I think it was a first for Synod.
Rev. Jamie Hunt was supposed to give the seconding speech for Mr. Malphrus. However, he was providentially prevented from being in Bonclarken by the birth of a grandson. Hunt sent Rev. Mark Miller in his place. Miller was tasked with reading Hunt’s seconding speech. No one was prepared for what took place.
The performance by Mark Miller was magnificent. I do not think many of the delegates were aware of his ability to mimic voices. As one person said to me, “Mark does Jamie better than Jamie does Jamie!”
Miller’s performance was a much-appreciated and enjoyed moment of humor. It was also a first. I do not think anyone has ever dared to do such a thing. I have never seen a seconding speech for Moderator applauded. I hope Miller’s performance was videoed; Jamie Hunt needs to be given the opportunity to enjoy seeing and hearing his protégé at work.
The Moment of Sadness
The presentation of the report of the Ecclesiastical Commission on Judiciary Affairs was a moment of sadness. A long-standing, knotty, and painful conflict in First Presbytery was finally dealt with by Synod and, hopefully, resolved. This was the second time the issue was before us. The verdict on the matter was a foregone conclusion; at question was the process. Clearly, we do not deal well with judicial matters. We do well when we function legislatively, but we usually get confused when a judicial matter is before us. On a judicial matter, we can get lost on a one way street in Due West.
The Pleasant Surprise
Moderator Shelnutt asked and scheduled Erskine President Rob Gustafson to preach. I cannot speak for others, but I was not expecting much out of a professional academic. More than pleasantly surprised, I was wonderfully surprised. The man knows how to preach! I hope Moderator-elect Malphrus schedules him to preach next year.
The Moment of Gladness
When the Erskine Report was given, “the Lord showed up and showed out.” I felt like I was living Psalm 126.1-2:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
Speaking on behalf of the Erskine Board, Chairman Sam James began by telling how he was recruited to Erskine. He told how a “bait and switch” tactic was used on him. He was sold on Erskine as a distinctively Christian college. When he arrived in Due West, he discovered he had been mislead. He said this was not right. He said Erskine must become the distinctively Christian college she purports to be. He acknowledged the board’s failures. On behalf of the Erskine Board, he apologized to General Synod and asked for forgiveness.
On behalf of Erskine Seminary, Provost Leslie Holmes acknowledged how Erskine Seminary had gone its own way and ignored Synod’s desires for the seminary. He made it clear Erskine’s waywardness has ended. He made it clear Erskine Seminary is the seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He made it clear that during his watch as Provost the theological direction of General Synod will be the seminary’s theological direction. The words he used before the board in May were repeated to Synod regarding future hires: “If you’re not Reformed in your theological perspective, if you’re not an inerrantist in your understanding of the Bible, and if you’re not pro-ARP Church, then you are not on the faculty of Erskine Seminary.” Then he asked for Synod’s forgiveness for the seminary’s failures and for the seminary to be received back as the Father received the prodigal son in Luke 15.11-32.
By the time President Gustafson spoke, I was in shock and fighting back tears. He made it clear Erskine is the educational Agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He also apologized for Erskine’s past failures, asked for forgiveness, and asked for restoration. The response from General Synod was overwhelmingly gracious.
There was another first: the delegates of General Synod gave the Erskine delegation a standing ovation. The apology was accepted, forgiveness was extended, and restoration was granted.
I think I have surprised the readers of ARPTalk. My report is short and not exhaustive. I have not written a Jeremiad; instead, I write not dismay but hope.
I see a small cloud in the distance and hear the faint rumble of thunder. Does it forecast revival-rain? I hope so — revival for both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine.
Nevertheless, I am a realist. Our doctrine of sin says sin happens. One glorious meeting of Synod is not a cure-all. It is only a beginning. We expect hard days ahead. We expect failures and sins. But we also expect grace-days when “the Lord shows up and shows out.” Indeed, when leaders of our institutions transparently acknowledge failures and sins, when they ask for forgiveness, it is a grace-day. Grace-days are the foundation on which we can build renewal.
I hope to see many more grace-days for Erskine. I hope to see many more grace-days for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
I have a novel idea. For just one year, why not turn General Synod into an ol’ time camp meeting for a whole week where we do the business of Synod but we also hear good preaching, and pray and beg God to send down the Pentecostal fire of revival on us? You know, it might work. The Bible says we do not have because we do not ask (James 4.2-3). Say, is it proper for Associate Reformed Presbyterians to ask God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival? Would it not be wonderful and God-honoring for General Synod to be a spiritual retreat? Now, that would be another first, and we could go home, saying, “the Lord showed up and showed out!”
Charles W. Wilson is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.