The Lasting Benefits of Overture 2: Part 2: History — How Do We Recognize Abuse?

Guest author of this blog is Glenn Jerrell, retired OPC pastor. Recently he posted on The Aquila Report “The Lasting Benefits of Overture 2: Part 1: The Overture Itself.” Here is the second part of his reflections.

A story is told about Dr. Edmund P. Clowney in a faculty discussion at Westminster Theological Seminary. They were weighing the pros and cons of establishing a seminary on the west coast. Dr. Clowney presented reasons to go forward with a new seminary. No one presented reasons why they shouldn’t. As a faithful presbyterian he wanted to hear the other side, but there was silence. What did he do? He summarized the reasons why they should not begin a new seminary. In giving the “other side” he convinced them, at that point in time, not to propose a new faculty on the west coast.

Dr. Clowney’s urge for both sides to be heard is so typical of the OPC. Concerns raised about Overture 2 at the recent OPC General Assembly were heard and were instructive. Brothers in the faith were genuinely divided over issues that bring into focus pastoral care on all levels of the church. If the OPC is anything, it is about Christ’s undershepherds serving Christ and his people by being willing to bring even painful issues to the assemblies of the church. To put it casually we are willing to “hash it out, while listening and hearing each other.” That hashing it out can range from painful, to tedious, all the way to gracious and edifying. So, when substantive concerns are raised, we take them seriously, we engage with each other, we don’t bury the subject/issue no matter where our opinions fall in the spectrum of things. We help each other in discussions.

Iron sharpens iron, is a truth more easily talked about than put into practice. Iron sharpens iron demands a consonant commitment to deliberation. While some might view the OPC as litigious and picky, wide experience over decades of ministry shows a denomination, however imperfect, seeking to work out our principles together, speaking the truth in love (hopefully). Our  unity in the life of the church may at times reveal stress fractures and this is another one of those times. The “peace, purity, and unity of the church” includes a profound commitment to hearing the pros and cons. Maintaining this triad in the life of the church is an imperative. One without the other(s) will show itself to be a horrible problem, a church without a healthy equilibrium, without a balanced view of upholding God’s Word and living it out, and without the triad (peace, purity, and unity), we are in deep trouble!

The deliberative process in the OPC has a character that those unfamiliar with it might miss. Some view our debates and consider them inefficient and even a waste of time, as, at times, they are prolonged, painful, and somewhat chaotic. But, as we submit to the Lord and his Word, we learn to be “quick to listen, and slow to speak.” The respectful and heartfelt pro and con articles of the old Guardian, a publication which once served the OPC, would not have much of a reception in a media world where obsolescence of news occurs in minutes and hours. In sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies the process demands a submission to one another as we serve the Lord and his people. How do we serve God’s people with love and understanding? How do we bring the Word with humility, boldness, and gentleness? The deliberative process in assemblies is not an end itself. As iron sharpens iron, we are not following self-interest but are ardently striving to assist the saints, building up the church.

Now to return to the specific purpose of Part 2. Mr. Myers’ articles make a historical reference to a motion made on the floor of last year’s General Assembly that asked the Assembly to make use of an organization (from outside the OPC) to do an evaluation of the OPC on abuse. That single historical reference is significant, because it reveals the tip of the iceberg. The wider discussion in the OPC, and, I suspect, in other fellowships as well, needs to deal with issues beyond the mandate of our newly appointed committee. Following are a select sample of “for instance” issues/situations that have arisen in the past and should not be forgotten.

Issue/Situation — Committees of Presbyteries

How should a presbytery respond to concerns about a visitation committee’s work when the visitation committee’s work is considered by some to be seriously defective. It goes deeper when it is carried on to the General Assembly and is affirmed by the Assembly’s advisory committee. What does a presbytery do when the Assembly sustains a judicial appeal against the guilty verdict of the presbytery? What should the presbytery do when the GA’s information included the following evaluations:  

  1. Committee has approached the matter of the accused with significant prejudice;
  2. From the very outset the Committee began to adopt a negative, indeed, dismissive attitude to the appellant.  It is, I believe, a rather lamentable piece of pastoral prejudice;
  3. The Committee is, in the judgment of the appellant, characterized by a bullying spirit and tendency; and
  4. “He is sensing that the Commission is not grasping the gravity of the psychological trauma experienced by [name deleted] in connection with [church name deleted].”

The GA’s advisory committee also reported to the Assembly with regard to the presbytery’s charge of violating the Fifth Commandment that the presbytery: “erred in that she did not present one factual piece of evidence from its witnesses (formal records or an incident) that [the appellant] hindered the Session of [church name deleted] from exercising ‘pastoral oversight and spiritual care over his family.’”

Is it even conceivable that such could happen? Do presbyteries err? Do pastors sin? Do ruling elders transgress? Are members of committees so sanctified that we don’t have to question whether or not they got it right? How does a presbytery oversee the work of its committees? Should the presbytery take seriously the kinds of concerns raised above? If true, would these statements be viewed as abuse? If a person were bullied in a committee meeting is it safe among the brothers to bring it up? Can a person be traumatized by pastoral mistreatment? If so, how would trauma be dealt with by the presbytery? What follow-up ministry would be given to a traumatized person? Will the presbytery be able to identify the problem? What safety measures would be in place for the traumatized? 

The sins of abuse and the resulting trauma can happen wherever sin is present. It has a history in the OPC as well as in other churches. Might a reformed perfectionism suggest sins of abuse don’t even exist? Does this approach grow out of an affinity to Doug Wilson or to patriarchy? Does opposing a wider study on abuse and trauma as proposed to the 88th GA 2022 in Overture 2 appear to be a healthy sign?

Issue/Situation — The Spangler Trial and Abuse

The Presbytery involved was right in charging Mr. Spangler and in finding him guilty on both charges.

Charge #1 was a single sentence containing 99 words;  the words sin, transgression, and offense do not appear in the charge. The complexity of the charge as written might have been appealable and at the same time reduces the ability to call a guilty person to repentance.

Charge #1: The Presbytery of the Southeast of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church charges Mr. Michael Spangler with sowing discord in the church by publicly disparaging the governance of the Presbytery that has jurisdiction over both himself and the congregation, which seriously disturbs the peace, purity, and unity of the church and is contrary to the teaching of Scripture regarding the duties required by the Fifth Commandment to honor those who, by God’s ordinance, are over us, and in violation of the vow he took upon his ordination to the sacred office when he promised subjection to his brethren in the Lord.

On Charge #1, the censure determined was definite suspension from the ministry for two years for offenses largely directed against the presbytery. On the last day of the “definite” suspension Mr. Spangler will be restored as a minister in good standing. If a different outcome is desired, a new trial would be necessary. Definite suspension is like a jail sentence, serve your time and then move on as a minister in good standing. It is a very different censure than indefinite suspension in which the body works with a person to confess particular sins, particularly (WCF 15.5).

On the second charge, the censure was admonition for reviling and detracting language used in attacking two women, both named in the charge. Admonition is the lightest censure in the OPC’s Book of Discipline. Is sin against church officers more serious than sin against two women? The more serious, but somewhat inadequate censure on Charge 1, compared to the even lighter censure on Charge 2, seems to suggest such. Reviling and detracting are forms of spiritual abuse. They caused trauma. The hurt still exists. The pain from the injury inflicted will continue for years. The fallout continues. Several presbyters said Mr. Spangler was right in his criticisms but should not have used the strong language in doing so. Are there shades of patriarchy in this? There is no comfort, no sense of resolution in the censure of admonition pronounced by the PSE because it was barely a teaspoon of justice for egregious offenses.

Further aspects of handling of that judicial case illustrate the need for the church to continue to grow in recognizing abusive behavior and to improve its response. In response to complaints brought to two successive General Assemblies, when the presbytery involved failed to deal adequately with this matter, the Assembly itself finally sought to provide the needed pastoral care.

A crucial aspect of  Overture 2 was that it identified areas of sin that were excluded from consideration in the amendment that passed. Although those amending the overture seemed to be concerned about a separation of abuse from sin, the unintended result seems to look at abuse more lightly than Scripture does. Abuse, when it takes place, is sin. To put it in a blunt question, does Dr. Diane Langberg have a stronger understanding of sin and its effects in real situations than do some officers in the church? 

Issue/Situation — Patriarchy

Mr. Myers’ two articles on Overture 2 suggest the need to define abuse. Because recent abuse issues seem to have arisen within the context of patriarchy, it is also worth at least trying to define patriarchy.  Are they inherently bound together? Without probing this question in detail here, a first attempt to define patriarchy (suggested by a friend) may prove useful:

By “patriarchy” is meant all actions, speech, or attitudes flowing from the belief that women are ontologically inferior to men, or by virtue of creation, are placed in a subordinate relationship to male authority in all spheres of life (beyond the biblically prescribed requirements for married spouses and church officers), and are thus forbidden from asserting or exercising any authority or teaching ministry toward men in any sphere or setting of life.

Issue/Situation — Egalitarianism

In the writings of some who have an affinity to patriarchalism as well as those who claim the title, an underlying theme is that the OPC is in danger of going down the road to egalitarianism. How does partriarchy understand egalitarianism? It is doubtful that meaningful discussion can move forward without considering this. Among the orthodox, discussion of egalitarianism would commonly go to “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 ESV) Why? Because liberals re-interpret the verse to wipe out all distinctions between male and female, while the orthodox understand the verse as referring to those justified by faith, that all who are in Christ are all saved by a special grace common to all the justified.

It seems that the concern that the OPC is becoming egalitarian does not correspond to theological, liberal egalitarianism. Then what is being talked about? The Fifth Commandment comes into play here. Patriarchy’s use of “superiors, inferiors, and equals” is language from our Shorter Catechism 63–66 and Larger Catechism 123–133. But what does patriarchy do with this? It seems to absolutize superiors, inferiors, and equals in terms of authority. The Fifth Commandment as found in Exodus 20:5, doesn’t correspond well with patriarchy’s categories of authority. The commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It is not egalitarian to assert that the children in the home show the same kind of honor to both parents. Mom and Dad are equals in the Fifth commandment. In some situations, the Fifth Commandment seems to be treated as the default commandment in dealing with most judicial cases in the church.

Issue/Situation — Outside the Reformed Corral

My plain and simple reason for being willing to receive help from outside the OPC is I know we reformed sometimes box ourselves in. Several theological reasons were enumerated in Part 1. Here I want to make a practical appeal for all the help we can get. Many of our churches have had the police in to help them on security issues. The Federalist just ran an issue on an OPC congregation that asked an outside organization to do an evaluation for them and it was extremely helpful. The story goes on. Take a look at the services every OPC congregation receives from outside the reformed corral: building insurance, liability insurance, police protection, water and sewer (unless you have outhouses), electric, streetlights, security services, social security, military chaplaincy, even FEMA, the products we buy over the counter, car repair services, Wycliffe translation, and Missionary Aviation Fellowship. The list could be longer. Do we have a corner on the knowledge of how abuse shows itself and the damage it does? Quite honestly there are sources outside NAPARC circles that offer incredibly good understanding. At points some non-Christians understand abuse and its ravages more than we do. Common grace surprises us at times and we learn from people made in the image of God, yet fallen in sin.

Issue/Situation — Abuse

The devastation, the grief, the pain, broken relationships are a reality whether we acknowledge it or not. As pastors and ruling elders these things should weigh heavily on our hearts. Consider the abused wife with her bruises, as she comes to the church for help and she is encouraged to submit and obey her husband’s authority. What about a 5 year old who loves his mother and fears his abusive father and is given to his father in a custody decision? A decade later after years of disrespect from his father, stepmother, and her daughter, the news breaks that the abused son shot his father, stepmother, and stepsister. The father’s abusive authority had horrible results.

Recently I received a note regarding two cases where verbal abuse of a wife by a pastor led to his being deposed in the OPC within the last few years (in one case, the wife ended up taking her life). What about the churches that have had child abusers in their midst and didn’t realize until lives were damaged. Brothers, we may debate, deliberate, pick each others’ arguments apart, no matter what seminary we attended, no matter how well we write, but our piety is deeply impaired if we don’t recognize and even take steps to prevent the many forms of abuse. And, if we are to stand with those among us who have been abused, we must embrace them with warmth and the safety of Christ’s compassion! To ignore abuse in its many forms is indirectly to give credibility to the abuser. We have experienced abuse among us and we gave it credibility.

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