The Jonesboro 7 did not merely want a man to whom MNA had given the “green light,” they wanted a man in whom they had confidence. They wanted a pastor who would lead the congregation in the old paths of the Reformed Faith. As Mr Lance Schackleford put it: “We wanted a reformed Presbyterian church here, PCA church.” And the Jonesboro 7 were not confident TE Wreyford would do that.
Editorial Note: What follows will be controversial and disturbing. Reader discretion is advised. In preparing this series, official documents and public comments have been extensively used to compose the narrative. No attempt is made to assign motives to any of the parties in this case. Reference will be made to inferences drawn by the judges on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission as they carefully reviewed the case and noted the process was “abused” and offenses “imagined” by a Temporary Session of Elders against the Jonesboro 7. Any objection to the use of the term “abused” should be directed to the SJC Judges rather than the author of this series who simply reports the judgment of the PCA General Assembly regarding the actions of the Temporary Session in this case.
This is part two of four; you may read part one here.
The church plant needed to be dissolved; its culture was “toxic,” the members of Covenant Presbytery were told. The Christ Redeemer church plant had already been the source of one complaint (BCO 43) adjudicated by Presbytery and now seven men from the congregation had been investigated (BCO 31-2), indicted (BCO 32-5), found guilty, and censured with “indefinite” suspension from the Sacraments (BCO 30-2). And now they were appealing their case to the Presbytery.
The members of the temporary Session (BCO 5-3) had resigned, the church planter and staff had been paid out severances. All that remained was to close up shop; the church was “toxic” after all.
Given the summary of facts above it would be easy to conclude the members – or at least a significant portion of them – were “toxic.” Investigations, indictments, trials, censures, appeals, complaints, and all this before the congregation was even particularized? Surely the best thing for Covenant Presbytery and the PCA to do was shut it down, wash their hands of it, and get out of Jonesboro.
But all was not as it seemed.
Tucked away in the 2023 Commissioner Handbook with all the other decisions from the PCA General Assembly’s Standing Judicial Commission is Harrell, et. al. v. Covenant Presbytery. As I read it recently, however, I was shaken, I was grieved, I was genuinely frightened and scandalized by what happened to the Jonesboro 7.
But as I read I was also profoundly encouraged and grateful for the integrity of the judges who sit on the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission. They observed a case in which the process had been “abused” such that seven of Christ’s lambs were falsely convicted, censured, and – after a timely appeal of the verdict – their elders all resigned and recommended the church plant be dissolved.
A Question of Fit
In 2015, Christ Redeemer PCA began meeting as a church plant of Covenant Presbytery. TE Jeff Wreyford was called by Presbytery to be the “organizing pastor” to begin the work in Jonesboro (BCO 5-5a) and a Session of Ruling and Teaching Elders from IPC Memphis was appointed by Presbytery to serve alongside him (BCO 15-1). Importantly, TE Wreyford was not the pastor called by the church; he was called by Presbytery as the church planter/organizing pastor.
The work was going well; the congregation, according to Mr Paul Harrell, was gathering about 45 people each Lord’s Day by 2020 and it seemed to Harrell and others that the church plant was getting close to becoming a “particular church” (i.e. no longer a church plant with a Session of elders from other churches, but a congregation that has called its own pastor and elected its own elders and deacons).
The Lord was doing great works in Jonesboro at the church plant, yet several men in the church had reservations about the philosophy of ministry they perceived in TE Wreyford. The SJC notes Stephen Leiniger and Wesley Hurston met with TE Wreyford to share “a set of concerns” they and others had about his ministry.
To be clear, they did not accuse TE Wreyford of anything unethical or immoral; it was simply that they did not think he was a good fit or supported by a significant portion of the congregation to be elected the permanent pastor (BCO 5-9f).
Later on August 30, 2020 seven men from seven different households in the church plant met with the “entire Session” to again share their concern that TE Wreyford was not suited to be the pastor of the congregation once it was organized into a particular church.
Mr Stephen Leininger summarized the position of the Jonesboro 7 saying simply, “In our opinion…Jeff is not the one to be the pastor of Christ Redeemer as it particularizes and moves to its next level of ministry. We recommend that Jeff remove his name from consideration as pastor.”
In a meeting with the Jonesboro 7, TEs Ed Norton and Clint Wilcke responded to their concerns of the church members about TE Wreyford by highlighting the credentials and qualifications possessed by TE Wreyford and the fact that MNA assessment had given him the “green light.”
But the Jonesboro 7 insisted, despite the endorsements TE Wreyford had received and his credentials and degrees, the issue was many in the congregation simply disagreed with TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry. The “Jonesboro 7” explained they were more traditional in their subscription to the Reformed Faith than the philosophy of ministry they had observed in TE Wreyford.
No amount of endorsements from MNA or church planting networks could overcome the reservations the men had with TE Wreyford’s philosophy of ministry. They wanted a PCA church in Jonesboro that was distinctively, historically Reformed in character.