Westminster Presbytery Votes to Divide

Overture to GA Cites Doctrinal Differences as Reason for Creating New Presbytery

Westminster Presbytery, which historically was known as the most conservative in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), has been wracked by internal doctrinal conflict over the past several years. And now, in an attempt to alleviate the tension, the court has voted to divide, ostensibly geographically, but in reality along theological lines. The vote to overture the General Assembly for the division was approved at the January 8, 2000, stated meeting, 28-15-1.

Located in upper east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, Westminster Presbytery was the fourth presbytery of the Continuing Presbyterian Church movement, which became the PCA. The first formal meeting of the court occurred on April 24, 1973. The first members of the presbytery reflected the bi-state nature of the court: there were three churches in Virginia, and two ministers in Tennessee. From those humble beginnings, Westminster has grown until she now has 26 organized churches, 2 mission works, and about 35 ministers.

In the early days, many of the pastors were relatively young, and very Reformed in their theology. Many of them had trained at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, under Dr. Morton H. Smith. Their vision was that of promulgating Old School Southern Presbyterianism in the rolling hills in their section of Appalachia.

For many years, the presbytery could be counted on as maintaining a "strict subscriptionist" view toward the doctrinal standards. It also often distanced itself from the denominational bureaucracy.

Over the past two to three years, however, the "progressive" wing of the presbytery has become emboldened to take on the more conservative elements. The resulting infighting has produced headaches and heartaches on both sides.

In December 1998, without informing Westminster Presbytery, a goodly number of the "progressives" scheduled a meeting with representatives of Tennessee Valley Presbytery, to inquire as to the possibility of their joining that presbytery. A month later, at the stated meeting of Westminster Presbytery, the issue of joining Tennessee Valley seemed moot as the "progressives" staged a coup by overturning several of the key nominations set forth by the Nominating Committee. Particularly targeted was the home missions committee, at the time still called by the presbytery its Mission to the United States Committee. In a symbolic victory for the progressives, the presbytery renamed it the Mission to North America Committee. But more significantly than that symbolic gesture was the change in philosophy signaled when the presbytery adopted the perspective of the denominational MNA Committee: for the first time in its history, Westminster Presbytery voted to require that church planters sent out under its auspices attend the denominational Assessment Center (or at least have had previous church planting experience).

At that same meeting (January 1999), Westminster Presbytery erected a Committee on Conflict Resolution, with equal members from each of the two theological parties. That ad hoc committee has met over the past year, in an effort to bring about reconciliation.

But the conflicts have continued. They have ranged from a controversy concerning a home missions work in Wytheville, Virginia, to doctrinal complaints, to the approval of men for licensure, to whether a protest should be recorded on the minutes. And the acrimony has increased.

At the January 2000 stated meeting, the Presbytery had before it an overture from half of its churches and several of its ministers, which called for a division of the Presbytery. Prior to the meeting, some of the conservatives objected to certain phraseology in the overture-especially because they believed that the proposal was essentially dishonest, in that it pretended to be prompted by geographical rather than philosophical considerations. The three members of the Minority who brought this recommendation were.

A minority on the Committee on Conflict Resolution-the Rev. Dr. D. Steven Meyerhoff, newly-elected Stated Clerk of the Presbytery; the Rev. Ben Konopa, member of the denominational Standing Judicial Commission; and Ruling Elder Charles Newland-brought in a substitute proposal, which sought to recognize the objections. In a prefatory statement, these three members of the Committee stated:

The Committee has adopted a Majority Report that asks for more time and more discussion of our differences. We, the Minority, do not believe that there would be any substantial change in views or in votes within Presbytery should such lengthy discussion take place. On the contrary, we believe that a strategic moment has been placed before us at the present time. Our differences have only sharpened during recent debates. Complaints against Presbytery have increased in spite of our plea that we show more forbearance toward one another. If matters continue on their present course, we foresee only more acrimony, rancor and sharp division among us in the future. Delay, we believe, will bring forth more division, not less.

Therefore, we, the Minority, submit the following Report as our humble attempt before the Lord to bring about a situation whereby those holding each perspective may serve in a Presbytery where brethren are more nearly of one mind, and still remain in the Presbyterian Church in America. We pray the Lord will enable us to find agreement in these things.

The overture proposed by the Minority, which would divide the Presbytery at the Tennessee-Virginia border, claims that "there is a lack of regional cohesiveness in the Presbytery due to its spanning two states and historical precedence for a geographical division along these lines." However, the thrust of the overture is that division is necessary since the theological differences "are too fundamental for reconciliation."

While providing for a geographical division, the proposal would also allow for ministers and churches to affiliate with either of the two resulting presbyteries. And, in point of fact, if the Assembly approves the overture, many observers expect that it will have essentially created what historically have been known as "elective affinity" presbyteries, in which theological differences, rather than geographical boundaries, determine the memberships of the presbyteries.

For instance, while the continuing Westminster Presbytery would be located in Virginia, several of the more conservative churches are in Tennessee. The expectation therefore is that churches such as Westminster and Bridwell Heights in Kingsport; Grace Reformed Presbyterian in Greeneville; Providence Presbyterian in Limestone; and Midway Presbyterian of Jonesborough, would continue with Westminster Presbytery, despite being within the geographical bounds of the new district.

Most of the churches in the Old Dominion would also probably stay with Westminster Presbytery. Two which would definitely not would be Draper Valley Presbyterian and Pulaski (Va.) Presbyterian, which would be transferred, along with two counties, to New River Presbytery.

Without the conservative churches from Tennessee joining with their Virginia brethren, there would be at most nine organized churches and one mission in the continuing Westminster Presbytery, with a total membership of about 676. The minimal recommended guidelines for erecting a new presbytery specify at least ten churches, at least three of which have membership of 125 or more, and a total membership of 1000. Only one of these churches has more than 125 members.

If the expected crossovers occurred, the continuing Westminster Presbytery would have about fifteen churches and about 1067 total members. However, according to the latest available denominational statistics, there would be only two churches with 125 members or more.

If the conservative churches from Tennessee would decide to participate with Westminster Presbytery, the new presbytery in upper east Tennessee would have ten churches and one mission work, with a total of approximately 1800 members. Three of the Tennessee churches have several hundred members each, and another has close to two hundred.

The proposal now goes to the denominational Mission to North America Committee for consideration and recommendation to the General Assembly. Whether such a blatant admission of theological conflict as the primary impetus for the division will pass muster, remains to be seen. At the meeting of the Presbytery Stated Clerks in December 1999, the consensus was that creating elective affinity presbyteries was not a good thing, and that brethren need to be encouraged to work through their differences in love.

A Plea Not to Divide

The Rev. Larry Ball, Pastor of Bridwell Heights Presbyterian Church, Kingsport, Tennessee, served as Stated Clerk of Westminster Presbytery from 1976 to October 1999. He was one of the presbytery's first ministers. Below is his speech given at the January 2000 stated meeting of the presbytery, in which he pleaded with the brethren not to vote to divide. He persuaded the "Truly Reformed" brethren, but not those of a less strict theological understanding.

Fathers and Brethren of Westminster Presbytery,

I stand before you today to inform you that I am greatly disheartened about the proposals before us to divide Westminster Presbytery.

Unlike most of you, I was not ordained in the PCA. I was ordained in the old Southern Presbyterian Church. I served a pastorate in the PCUS before the PCA was even formed. I have been a member of Westminster Presbytery since her beginnings in 1973 (over 26 years ago).

I left the PCUS because it was apostate, a position Westminster Presbytery declared many years ago, although the General Assembly would not make such a declaration. When I was ordained in the PCUS there were sitting in the Court of the Church, women ordained to preach (all of whom voted against me, I might add). The authority of the Bible had been destroyed by neo-orthodoxoy, and there were some in the denomination that denied the deity of Christ and the resurrection of the body. When I compare where I was, to where I am today, there is no comparison. Many of you have no idea what it was like in those days. Even with all her errors and heresies, I was still a part of that Church until the PCA was formed. I guess I know what it is to live in much worse circumstances than we face today. My number of my years in the ministry, beginning with the PCUS, influences greatly my perspective and makes me feel all alone among you.

Another thing I have learned over the years is he who controls the language controls the people. What we are doing here today has been referred to as "adding" another Presbytery, or simply "dividing" into two PCA presbyteries. I think those who watch us have enough sense to perceive the reality of what we do, and would better describe it with such words as "splitting", and "schism". Call it what you want, the action we take today to divide will be viewed by those outside of this body, as minimally a split, if not a schism. They will see, whether we do or not, that the Emperor has no clothes.

This bothers me for one major reason, because in John 17, Jesus says that the world will know that the Father had sent Him because of the unity they see in the Church. By our very actions today, I believe we grieve our great God. It seems ironic to me that we are often reminded that we do not quote from the Bible enough, but when it comes to such a major step as splitting the Church, the use of Scriptures appears strangely absent in our discussions. Oh, how quickly we become theological pragmatists. The only passage quoted as supporting division of this Presbytery is the separation of Paul and Barnabas. What I hear as to the application of this text is, to say the least, dubious. From two missionaries with a disagreement, to the division of a Church Court, is a big hermenutical step, to say the least. I think John 17 is much more applicable to what we do here today. To use the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas as justification to divide and to further the Kingdom of Christ, is highly suspect as a proper use of Scripture. It may be a modern baptistic methodology for Church growth, but surely it must not be ours, even if God has overruled sins of the past and blessed us in his providence.

Our view of the Church greatly affects what we do here today. If we view the Church as a voluntary association, then what we do here today is really not important. I would suggest that a better model for describing the Church is the model of a covenant marriage. Volunteerism smacks of Americanism, not historic Christianity or biblical ecclesiology. The models of the Bible most often used in describing the Church is the model of marriage. If the Church is a covenant marriage, it does not mean that the relationship cannot be severed, but it does mean we cannot sever that relationship on the grounds of incompatibility or irreconcilable differences. If we as elders of the Church split over the issues before us, then what hope can I give to a young couple facing a divorce because they have decided they don't like each other? If I am consistent with our practices here today, then my response would be, just split up, remarry, and call it adding to the Kingdom.

Another thing which greatly disheartens me is the language I here from both sides of our Presbytery. I, theologically find myself most often on one side, but I have not always voted with my side. Sometimes I have voted with the other side. I have friends on both sides and hold no bitterness, rancor, or animosity toward anyone in this Presbytery (as Paul would say, God is my witness). What I hear from some on both sides, the language and representations of their own brothers in the faith, greatly bothers me. To divide the Presbytery with such a spirit in our hearts is to deny that gospel, which we proclaim is so powerful that it can reconcile the enmity of the world to Christ. If we cannot even talk civilly to each other or about each other, then what gospel do we have to offer to an irreconciled people living in a sinful world? To divide without an attempt at reconciliation, without an attempt to see if there are not some parameters with which we can live, I believe is sin against God. As Jesus said, "first be reconciled with your brother". The way of reconciliation will be hard. I know many of you suffer from fatigue, but fatigue should never be an excuse for doing what is right. Having lived with Crohns Disease for many years, I can testify to that, and know what it means by experience.

I am disheartened about the more vocal voices, and sometimes the less vocal voices with quiet anger in the heart, controlling the direction of this Presbytery. I greatly disagree with many actions we have taken. I go home and weep and lose sleep, but the thought of division never enters my mind.

Having read Augustine and Calvin on the Church, I perceive a great divide between modern churchmen and our great fathers in the faith. Calvin said in the Institutes, "Holy Scripture bids us correct our brother's vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace. This principle they prostitute to the sacrilege of schism and the occasion for cutting off the brethren from the fellowship". In administering the Lord's Supper, he said, "Therefore . . . in the name and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, I excommunicate . . . all heretics and those who create private sects in order to break the unity of the Church . . . I warn them to abstain from this Holy Table, lest they defile and contaminate the holy food which our Lord Jesus Christ gives to none except they who belong to His household of faith." Augustine said, speaking about the Church, that Christians are "mercifully to correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff."

We must be sure that we differentiate between what we mourn over as being error, and what justifies a division of the Church. Those are two separate issues. I can live with error that I perceive in my brother's views to a degree that many here cannot. My toleration level is different. I am reminded of Luther and Machen. Their view of the Church was much different than modern America. They did not believe the answer was in dividing the Church, but fighting against error until they were chased out of the Church. If only we had men of such caliber today. Only when they were driven out, did they leave the Church, with great despair in their own souls. The reformation view of the Church was lost when democracy became the religion of America, and might I add the religion of the American Church. Sadly, as one who never had any intention of seeing this Presbytery divide, I am being forced to make decisions that I would never have made if some of our other leaders had taken more leadership. I, now, because of your actions, may have to repair in the Church where I am an overseer, a divided session and a divided congregation. I only pray that the devil does not use your decisions to further split the local bodies of Christ. We need great leaders today who can give us direction and correction, but I fear we do not have any. I think the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. Because of a lack of leadership, we are unable to get a proper perspective on who we really are in light of a much longer history than our own generation.

I believe that there may exist parameters that we can set whereby we can live together as a Presbytery. For example, demanding that all our children attend Christian schools or be home schooled may be something with which I sympathize, but it is "extra-confessional." We cannot bind the consciences of our brethren to any extent more than the statements of the Confession. The Confession does not demand this. It may be a clear implication to some, but not to all. We must tolerate our brethren who disagree with us here. It is a decision that belongs to the head of the family and not to the Church.

The tongues issue we have already spoken to as a Presbytery. I disagree with the view that non-revelatory tongues continue today. We have declared such a view as an exception to the Confession, but ordained those who in good conscience hold such view. I may weep over this decision, but it is not grounds to divide the Church.

We have spoken to the 6-day creation issue. I rejoice over this decision of our Presbytery. The court has spoken, and I would encourage submission to the Presbytery. The PCA was founded on the basis that local courts can draw its own theological parameters, as long as we do not drift into the boundary of heresy. We are only being good members of the PCA as this principle has been demonstrated through adjudication time and again in the PCA. The freemasonry issue was settled at the General Assembly level on the basis of the right of a local Presbytery to determine its own theological parameters without going into the boundary of heresy.

Theonomy should not be an issue among us. I find few today who really understand what theonomy is. I have studied it for 20 years, and am not always sure myself what it is. We must be careful of prejudgment on this issue. We have never really dealt with a theonomy issue in this Presbytery. We have never had to.

The place of women in the Church is something we must deal with. I think, this is an issue that should not cause us to split. I think we are all closer on this issue than we think.

Westminster Presbytery is different than the PCA as a whole. The stated goal of some of you is to make us more mainline. I think the goal of us all should be to make us more "biblical" regardless of the mainline PCA. From what I hear about the PCA, most of you will not want to be mainline. We now have a woman "preaching" in at least one of our pulpits. We have a seminary professor that believes the civil magistrate has no right to legislate anti-sodomy laws. We have our denominational college choir participating in a worship service of the Roman Catholic Church during the administration the "mass". We have a large proportion of our ministers who can't accept the fact that God created the world in six 24 hours days. We have a man who has gone on record denying the existence of Hell, preaching in the seminaries that train our ministers. Brethren, I think you need to reconsider becoming more mainline PCA. Think about what is happening, and our responsibility to protect the flock from these things. Think about the opportunity we have as being a witness not only in the PCA, but also to the PCA.

Some say the seeds of apostasy have been sown, and the die has been cast. The PCA will be apostate in a few years. That may be, but I think we should wait until we see more evidence of the harvest of apostasy before we divide the Church. The existence of seeds, however distasteful, is no basis for division. If it were, none of us would probably be here today.

I would also encourage all the brethren to be men of integrity. The original proposal for dividing Presbytery was not honest in my opinion. It was a facade to evade the real issues. The least we can do is be honest, up front, and adherents to the Book of Church Order. Let's not play the world's postmodern game and use language, which evades the issues. The world is watching and the world reads well behind the words we write.

I would encourage us to follow the Book of Church Order as we have agreed to in the past as being the procedures we will use in the future. I would remind the brethren that if you get to the point where you cannot in good conscience remain in the PCA or Westminster Presbytery (on either side of the isle), then I would encourage you to leave, using the provisions of the Book of Church Order of which we covenanted together to abide by.

One of my greatest fears is that I am afraid that Presbyterian history will repeat itself with any new Presbytery. If we divide now, I think within two years, division will face many of us again. I expect this to happen, even though I am no prophet or son of a prophet. Then many of us will sit in disillusionment, just as we sit here today. I have already been through one Church division 26 years ago, now I am going through another, and I expect to see one more before I die (and I am just 52 years old). When I look at most of my brethren outside the PCA who I respect greatly theologically, I usually see men in unknown denominations with names we cannot remember, unknown presbyteries with two or three churches, who cannot live together. As much as I respect these men, I have no desire to be apart of that.

Theological precision is not always the highest virtue, and seeking the peace of the Church is no vice. With men of wisdom and maturity, I believe peace and purity can live together in the same house.

If Presbytery divides I will be in subjection to the brethren, but honestly, brethren, it will affect my ministry, it will dissipate my zeal for Christ that has borne me up over the years. It will make me much less effective as a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ. I will mourn, I will hurt, I will be disillusioned, but I will go on as God gives me grace.

In His Service,

Larry E. Ball


The Overture Which Proposes the Division

WHEREAS, Westminster has grown to include 26 churches; and

WHEREAS, there are significant doctrinal differences among the brethren within Westminster Presbytery; and

WHEREAS, these doctrinal differences produce significant differences in philosophy and practice of ministry; and

WHEREAS, we have sought for years to reconcile our differences, but have come to the conclusion that the differences between us are too fundamental for reconciliation; and

WHEREAS, these differences have so divided us that we are no longer able to work together effectively as a court of the church; and

WHEREAS, such present theological division prevents us from promoting the Kingdom of God in all respects, including church planting, evangelism, Christian education; and

WHEREAS, at the present time, we are able to separate ourselves in a respectful manner without bitterness or rancor; and

WHEREAS, there is a lack of regional cohesiveness in the Presbytery due to its spanning two states and historical precedence for a geographical division along these lines; and

WHEREAS, present boundaries do not promote shared ministries due to distance and travel time required; and

WHEREAS, these differences in our Presbytery generally exist between churches that are separated along geographical boundaries; and

WHEREAS, for the common good of the churches within Westminster Presbytery;

NOW THEREFORE, be it resolved, that Westminster Presbytery hereby overtures the 28th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America to make a geographical division of Westminster Presbytery, effective September 1, 2000, as follows:

-the churches and ministers in the Tennessee counties of Hancock, Hawkins, Greene, Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson will comprise one new Presbytery;

-the churches and ministers in the Virginia counties of Buchanan, Tazewell, Scott, Bland, Dickinson, Wythe, Grayson, Lee, Smyth, Wise and Washington will comprise Westminster Presbytery;

-the churches and ministers in the Virginia counties of Pulaski and Carroll will be transferred to New River Presbytery;

-churches, ministers, candidates and licentiates bearing unique ties to either Presbytery shall choose the particular Presbytery with which they shall affiliate by September 1, 2000.

Not sent to the General Assembly in the overture, but adopted as part of the package, were the following two paragraphs:

It is also understood that all Walthall-Wood Scholarship Fund assets would be transferred to New River Presbytery with the Draper Valley PCA congregation's move, effective September 1, 2000, and that Westminster Presbytery assets would be divided as of that date, with each Presbytery receiving a share in proportion to the number of churches that affiliate with it.

We recommend that the Conflict Resolution Committee be charged with the duty of proposing a Covenant for Sessions that would touch such matters as ongoing missions support, the name of the new Presbytery, church planting parameters and other concerns brought to its attention by members of Presbytery.