When the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church met last summer, how did it deal with three items on its agenda that involved how Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller had been treated in some church circles? (The General Assembly is the broadest body in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.) A friend of mine recently asked if anyone had written a summary of the actions the assembly took regarding those items. I was not aware of such a summary, so I tried to help him by providing the following.
A complaint, as the term is used in the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), is not simply a gripe or objection, but rather, a written document “charging a judicatory with delinquency or error.” (Book of Discipline IX.1) A complaint is first brought to the body that the one complaining believes has erred, giving it the opportunity to make a satisfactory correction. If the complainant is not satisfied, the complaint may be appealed to the next higher judicatory.
The Rev. Glenn D. Jerrell authored three complaints against the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE), of which he is a member. All three dealt with actions, or failures to act, as the presbytery dealt with officers who had made sweeping, public attacks against several members of the OPC. When the presbytery denied his complaints, he appealed them to the 87th General Assembly (GA), where they were numbered Complaints 7, 8, and 9 (because the Assembly did not meet in 2020 due to the pandemic, an unusually large number of complaints were before the body).
At its meeting in October 2020, the PSE had before it charges filed against two of its ministers (separate charges had been presented to a session against a ruling elder), Michael Spangler and Bennie Castle. Mr. Spangler had published on the web strong attacks against several members of the OPC. Mr. Castle in a Facebook post had endorsed those attacks. The PSE declined to pursue the charges against Mr. Castle. Complaint 7 argued that the PSE erred in that, because it judged that while charges against Mr. Spangler were serious enough for a trial, it refused to even begin judicial process against Mr. Castle.
At the Assembly, an advisory committee that considered the complaint recommended to the GA that it be denied because “The presbytery was right in declining to admit charges that did not clearly set forth a specific, recognizable offense, but the approbation of a large document without identifying any specific ideas or words.” The GA agreed with the committee and did not sustain the complaint.
Complaints 8 and 9 dealt with the way in which the PSE had handled its trial of Mr. Spangler. The PSE revised and reformulated charges against him, and then conducted a trial in January 2021. The PSE had condensed the original charges to “publicly reviling and detracting” two named members of the OPC. Mr. Spangler pled not guilty and defended himself in the trial before his presbytery. Complaint 8 argued that the presbytery allowed Mr. Spangler in the course of the trial to make further serious accusations against the two women named, despite repeated objections from the floor.
The advisory committee recommended that the GA sustain the complaint, and gave the following as the grounds for its recommendation:
1. It is not right to allow a presbyter to use reviling language in any meeting of presbytery, including a trial.
2. Reviling language dishonors Jesus Christ, the Lord and King of the church, is forbidden in the ninth commandment, damages the good names of people, and is corrupt communication rather than what is good for necessary edification that it may impart grace to the hearers.
3. In obedience to Christ, presbytery should not allow evil speaking, but only courteous and respectful speech.
The General Assembly agreed with its committee, sustained Complaint 8, and adopted the following:
That the Presbytery of the Southeast acknowledge its error in allowing Mr. Spangler to use reviling language in his trial, damaging the good names of Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, record this in its minutes, communicate this to Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller, and offer to both, in writing and in person, if possible, whatever expression of regret it deems appropriate.
The GA minutes note that the motion was adopted without dissent.
Presumably the Presbytery of the Southeast will consider its response to the action of the General Assembly when it meets in October. It will have the opportunity to formulate an appropriate expression of regret.
Complaint 9 focused on the level of censure that the PSE decided on when it found Mr. Spangler guilty of publicly reviling and detracting two women. In a separate charge, Mr. Spangler had pled guilty to “sowing discord in the church by publicly disparaging the governance of the Presbytery that has jurisdiction over himself and the congregation,” a matter that had arisen in a church in which Mr. Spangler had served on the session. The action of the PSE in that case was to suspend him from the ministry for two years. However, when he was found guilty of reviling and detracting the two women (in presenting his defense he argued that his language was justified), he was simply admonished, the lowest level of censure available in the Book of Discipline. Complaint 9, at its heart, argued that:
By proposing a censure of deﬁnite suspension from the privileges of oﬃce for the period of two years for the sin of “sowing discord in the church by publicly disparaging the governance of the Presbytery”, but then proposing only the censure of admonition for the sin of “publicly reviling and detracting from the good names of the Mrs. Aimee Byrd and Mrs. Rachel Miller,” the presbytery is liable to being perceived as communicating to Mr. Spangler, the church, the world, and to the Mmes. Byrd and Miller that it is more concerned about sins committed against itself or one of its own than it is about sins committed against others, speciﬁcally against women in the church, as if it has not weighed its responsibility to be obedient to the clear command of Christ that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves or as if, in judicial process, it all depends on whose ox has been gored.
The General Assembly sustained this complaint as well. It determined that “the Presbytery of the Southeast acknowledge its error in proposing the censure of admonition, which was too lenient, and communicate this to Michael Spangler, and to Aimee Byrd and Rachel Miller.” Again, the PSE presumably will take up this matter at its stated meeting this October.