By now word has spread far and wide about my having been removed from ordained office by the Permanent Judicial Commission of Grace Presbytery acting in behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I was found guilty on eight charges with respect to my leadership as Moderator of the Session and congregational meetings during the time Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas conducted its own independent discernment process and eventually voted by an 89% margin to disaffiliate with the PCUSA. I was found not guilty on three other counts having to do with facilitating the dismissal of an Associate Pastor who wanted to stay in the denomination and thusly needed to find a new call.
In preparation for my trial I made a request of the PJC for a larger venue, knowing many, many friends had committed to stand with me. I was told the room for the trial would accommodate twenty-five observers, while I anticipated scores, if not hundreds of well wishers to attend – people who not only loved and supported my family and me, but also understood the significance of a pastor being defrocked solely on the basis of supporting a church in its process that circumvented the Presbytery’s policies and their understanding of certain provisions of the Book of Order.
The PJC denied my request. When I complained to the Stated Clerk, he replied, “Joe, this is just about you,” implying my trial was simply an internal matter for Grace Presbytery and of no importance to the larger church!
That statement to me was simply another indication of how out of touch many of the leaders have become regarding the state of the PCUSA and the unrest that resides in many congregations who have left the denomination or are considering the same. It is as if the Lord is saying once again, “Leave them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.” Nothing is more sacred to many denominational leaders than fidelity to the institution. And nothing could be further from the truth in terms of importance. My trial illustrates the increasing dilemma for pastors who serve with the conviction of being under the ultimate authority of Christ as revealed by the Spirit in the Word of God, while many church leaders operate as if the ultimate authority is the Book of Order.
I am greatly encouraged by the number of people from whom I have heard who are seeking His voice. Increasing numbers are understanding the spiritual warfare raging within the PCUSA. They are listening for the voice of the Master, seeking discernment as to the proper course of action in response to Christ, the true Head of the Church, particularly in light of increasing measures by the bureaucracy to invoke law rather than Spirit in the PCUSA. They are asking what happened at HPPC? And why did Joe Rightmyer, whose forty-two years of ordained ministry was marked by a position of advocating renewal from within, consent to lead a congregation out?
I know of these questions because I have heard from you! I have been overwhelmed by letters and email written to me, articles about me, and questions of me. This is not because the trial was “just about me,” but rather due to the valiant attempts by many to faithfully fulfill their ordination vows and understand the implications if such obedience puts them at odds with the denominational bureaucrats. The question of the cost of discipleship is being asked again and again. And the questions deserve answers.
But before I share details of my personal discernment process, let me offer thanks to God for His faithfulness throughout the entire process and to you, the many who have reached out to my family and me. Your prayers and your timely words of encouragement were indeed like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” And now your cards and letters, calls and comments almost daily bring new tears of joy. I have felt God’s pleasure as your prayers were answered.
I am especially grateful to the congregation of Highland Park Presbyterian Church for the privilege afforded me as their pastor during this chapter in their corporate life. However, when all is said and done, work is evaluated by its fruitfulness. The hard decisions were made by others. The Session led the charge following a very prayerful and honest retreat that resulted in a unanimous vote to call a congregational meeting for consideration of disaffiliation. The Elders went into the retreat with broadly variant opinions and no lack of passion. So when the vote was taken and the result was unanimous, there first was a stunned silence that soon gave way to a deep sense of awe in the presence of God! It was an experience I hope I never forget, and that I wish could be shared by all Sessions throughout the PCUSA. It gave the Session great courage and brought great joy.
And now HPPC is united, strong, led by an incredibly gifted new and young pastor, and flourishing. The hallways are filled these days with joy and laughter. It has been a long time coming, but well worth the effort and the financial cost. And I know beyond the shadow of doubt that had Grace Presbytery led the process, the church would be splintered and its mission greatly diminished. But the Lord’s name be praised, 1991 was not revisited! Presbytery was kept out of the process and great unity was attained. God provided everything necessary for the success of His mission and the protection of His people.
To Serve as HPPC’s Interim Senior Pastor . . . or Not?
That being said, let me explain some of the rationale behind my decision making process and share what God “told me in the darkness and whispered in my ears” (Matthew 10:27). I can honestly say that almost daily throughout this entire time frame the Lord awoke me before dawn and I sought Him in prayer. And, amazingly, I did “hear the Lord” on several specific occasions throughout the process. I want to share my story not because I seek anything for myself, but with the hope that others going through similar challenges may be encouraged to “hear the Lord” and experience the joy and peace that Christ provides.
On a very deep and personal level I wrestled with God over the matter of whether or not to respond affirmatively when asked if I would postpone my retirement and serve as the Interim Senior Pastor. I was questioning my leadership abilities, having served as the Executive Director of Presbyterians for Renewal for nine years, yet watching my denomination become anything but renewed. I truly felt like a failure. And if that were the case, I certainly did not want to harm the good people of HPPC by proclaiming a message and providing leadership that was seemingly ineffective.
So I took the matter to God in prayer. And here is what God “told me in the darkness and whispered in my ear.” God said, “Joe, you are looking at your experience all wrong. You were not a failure. You, along with many others in the PCUSA, took a strong stance on the authority of My Word and in 1996 the PCUSA stood with Me when it adopted its ordination standards of ‘fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman, and chastity in singleness.’ The church honored My Word in taking that stand, and I honored the PCUSA by keeping My restraining hand upon her. I have been protecting her in light of that action. But now the PCUSA has said it does not believe that anymore. She has rejected My Word. So I am removing my restraining hand from the denomination and giving it over to what it wants. Therefore, get my sheep in HPPC to safe pasture. Take them out and don’t look back.”
I was speechless before the Lord! It was such a clear word, yet so different from His instructions to me in prior years. As I mulled over what I had heard, renewed thoughts about marriage began to flood my mind. The Apostle Paul’s teaching about the “mystery of marriage” as it represents Christ and His Church suddenly loomed so large! The message in the Spirit transformed the conversation among God’s people from human sexuality and same sex unions to the very gospel itself! It dawned on me that to vary from a four thousand year understanding about marriage within God’s covenant people was to offer a false gospel, the epitome of which is seen in homosexuality – offering a form of “life” without the possibility of reproducing true life! There is but one source of true life and that is Jesus Christ. His seed, implanted by the Holy Spirit in the womb of His bride, the Church, is a message well worth preserving!
To offer anything other to the world is a false gospel. I realized why Christ would instruct me to get his sheep to safe pasture – especially for the sake of the children and grandchildren who would be subjected to contrary teaching if the Presbytery controlled the property (i.e. controlled the pulpit!). The leadership in Grace Presbytery had already made it clear that they would only support a new pastor at HPPC who subscribed to their “big tent” philosophy; that is, “tolerant” of a broad view of theological perspectives and sexual conduct. But “big tents” are the centerpiece of a circus, not the church. The way of Christ is still narrow and the gate is small that leads to eternal life.
Forming a Statement of Values
Once God’s Spirit confirmed in my spirit that I had heard His voice, I said yes to the role and responsibility of serving as Interim Senior Pastor. But I realized I needed a clear set of values that could easily be communicated as the rationale behind any leadership decisions I would make. The internal discernment process that soon followed was not the recurrence of that “voice,” but rather convictions that grew stronger and stronger in my heart and mind. Three things emerged, as follow:
Work for the greatest unity of HPPC. Those familiar with the history of HPPC are aware that in 1991 the church, with a membership of over 8,000, experienced a horrendous split. The pain of those days was still being felt by many within the congregation, and as conversations about a potential vote on disaffiliation grew, so did the fear of another division within the house. This was the concern I heard above all others. Everyone knew the church could not sustain a revisitation of the rancor and ugliness that filled those days of over twenty years ago.
As I listened to the fears and the pain, my role as pastor solidified. I felt above all other values, the unity of the congregation should be paramount. The unity of this particular church soared way above denominational affiliation in my mind. I committed to work for the greatest unity, and voiced my commitment to the same by offering to support either staying or leaving on this basis. It did not take long following personal visits with every active elder currently on the Session, meetings with many of the inactive elders, and listening to many congregants to realize that leaving the PCUSA was by far the dominant view and held the greatest promise for unity.
Work for the greatest blessing for Grace Presbytery. At the same time, the paradoxical teaching of Jesus could not be avoided. For many years I had shared that our Lord’s teaching in Luke 6:27-28 was for me the hardest of all. And now His words were being put to the test per these instructions: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I knew that if HPPC were to take a “righteous” stand regarding its property and its pulpit, it must also be obedient to the righteousness of Christ regarding attitudes and actions toward those who would oppose her decisions.
One of the worst snares for HPPC would be the temptation to believe that severing relationships with the PCUSA would make the church more righteous than Grace Presbytery or the denomination. Such self-righteousness would do as much or more damage to the gospel as redefining marriage. The only true righteousness at our disposal is our union with Christ Jesus by grace through faith. We have no righteousness apart from Him. And to refuse to love, do good, bless, and pray for the pastors and members remaining in the Presbytery and denomination would be to condemn the good work and the good people serving at the bidding of Christ. If HPPC were to secure disaffiliation but fail to love those with whom they formerly served and even disagreed, they might win the battle but lose the war.
Work for the greatest freedom to fulfill God’s mission. As part of the search process for a new Senior Pastor, HPPC had completed a very comprehensive Mission Study Report. One of the eight opportunities presented in that paper was to resolve the question of denominational affiliation, driven not only by long-standing and growing theological differences with the PCUSA, but also by pragmatic and personal reasons involving several members of the church staff. HPPC has a wonderful tradition of using its resources for the training of future leaders who have gone on to serve in places far and wide around the world. Many come on staff from various denominational affiliations, but with great spiritual qualifications and leadership potential. Many pursue theological training in seminaries in the greater Dallas area, of which none is PCUSA.
In recent years the Committee on Ministry of Grace Presbytery adopted more stringent requirements for candidates, effectively eliminating those for consideration based not on what they currently believe, but where they have chosen to study. These limitations worked greater and greater hardship upon faithful men and women who serve in non-ordained positions at HPPC but want to seek ordination. This illustrates one of the most significant restraints for God’s mission in the minds and hearts of the leadership at HPPC.
These three values – the greatest unity, the greatest blessing, and the greatest freedom became the values by which I made my decisions. But were they consistent with our historic Presbyterian understanding of ordination vows?
Guilty! Of What?
The background material and the ordination vows of the PCUSA in the Book of Order clearly state that the ultimate authority in the Church is Jesus Christ, that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s Word, that we are to be instructed and led by the essential tenets in the Confessions, and that we are to fulfill our ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and guided by our confessions. Furthermore, we vow to be governed by our church’s polity . . .abide by its discipline . . . be a friend among our colleagues, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit.
Being on trial for violations of one’s ordination vows seemed very surreal, but nothing like hearing the words “We find you guilty” eight times over! For what? For living under the authority of Jesus? No. For trusting the Scriptures and being led by essential tenets? No. For being governed by our church’s polity, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit? No.
There were but two issues behind all eight charges – agreeing with the HPPC Trustees that there was a civil liberty being violated by Grace Presbytery under a recent ruling in the Texas Supreme Court, and agreeing with the HPPC Session that there was a moral liberty being violated by Grace Presbytery in creating a policy that made it effectively impossible for the church to leave the denomination. The Presbytery argued that my role as Moderator of the relative Session and congregational meetings was a most grievous action. This was their justification for bringing me to trial. HPPC had circumvented their process, held a congregational meeting for a purpose not recognized by the Book of Order, and blocked Grace Presbytery through court order from participation. In their eyes it was an all out rebellion and I was the leader. From an institutional perspective the case was cut and dried. I would be tried for my words. In their opinion I was guilty of offenses that required the most severe censure available – removal from office.
The stated reasons for the charges were linked primarily to our ordination vows. I would laugh at the whole scenario if it were not so sad. Eight times over I was told that I had acted so inappropriately that I was not worthy of being a teaching elder in the PCUSA, all because of not following their process. It is enlightening to note what they were not saying in regard to my ordination vows. They did not say I was unfaithful to Christ and the Scriptures. They did not say I preached heresy. They did not say I failed to discern the voice of the Spirit of God. They did not say I failed as a pastor. They did not say I was guilty of sexual misconduct, malfeasance, child abuse, or homophobia. They did not even say I was guilty of being governed by our church’s polity . . . subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit! No, in their eyes I was guilty of not being governed by the church’s polity . . . subject to rules that had changed in the Book of Order and a hotly contested policy that had been adopted by Grace Presbytery.
I believe it is absolutely necessary to live under authority. God works through authority structures. I have vowed submission to the same. My ordination vows linked me to the same Book of Order that require I subject my leadership to the ultimate authority of Christ and the examination of all my decisions and actions as ordered by God’s Word and Spirit. Having done so, I found myself in disagreement with lesser authorities. I did not teach disobedience in those instances, but rather obedience to the higher authority. In my defense I pointed out that this is precisely what the Book of Order demands that I do! And when I tested the demands of Grace Presbytery over against the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit, I found their demands woefully short of the Spirit and gospel of Christ whom I am called to serve. In concert with the apostles when brought before the magistrates, I obediently opted to serve God rather than man.
Grace Presbytery could not bind my conscience, so they removed me from office and stated that their action was not only to punish me, but to serve as a warning to any other pastors who might consider similar leadership.
I would say to my fellow pastors, fear God rather than man!
Will I Appeal Their Decision?
No. I understand the strong desire on the part of many for me to take this injustice to the Synod PJC and ultimately to the General Assembly if needed. It is that serious and the reasons are sound.
But those reasons are not what God has put on my heart. To do so would keep the focus on the legislative process and delay the attention needed on the far more important spiritual issues within the PCUSA. I believe that my trial is truly “not about me,” but rather is God’s instrument for shining light on what really has gone wrong in our formerly great denomination. It is no secret that our larger church is half the size of its former self, that it is in dire straights financially and morally, and that our global mission is but a fraction of what it once was. It is dying, and attention needs to be shifted from the technical and legal aspects of the Book of Order to the life-giving message in the Scriptures the Holy Spirit is offering to the PCUSA if she will but pay attention. If the PCUSA neglects that message, an appeal of my case in higher courts might prevail but in the meantime the denomination will continue her fatal downward spiral. There is a systemic sickness unto death that has gone either undetected or the diagnosis has been rejected. Either way, the PCUSA is in such a perilous position that unless God restores His restraining hand, the denomination will continue its descent into insignificance as God’s wrath is displayed by giving her over to what she so strongly desires.
The real tragedy in the meantime is the number of sheep in God’s fold that will be devoured by the wolves. I applaud the number of pastors who are obediently fulfilling their calling in the place of God’s choosing for the sake of the sheep. I was one of them until being removed from office. I did not leave the denomination with HPPC. I was called to stay in for the sake of the sheep who remain. But now, while I currently cannot administer the sacraments or officiate a wedding as an ordained officer in the PCUSA, I have an even greater liberty to communicate with the saints. So let me share what I believe my trial was really about. I believe it was God’s utility for yet another message about His concerns for this once great and gifted denomination.
As I stood before the PJC during my trial, I said that if I were in their shoes I would be more concerned about why Presbyterians in large numbers are fleeing the denomination. While the list of reasons is quite extensive, I wondered myself what Christ might say to the PCUSA if He were speaking similarly as He did to the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. What would be His commendation? What would be His warning? And then in answer to my own questions and during the heart of the trial I preached my last sermon as a teaching elder in the PCUSA.
The three main points of that message (the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, the sin of Balaam, and the tolerance of Jezebel) are expanded in a separate document titled, “My Last Sermon as a PCUSA Pastor.” In my heart of hearts it is the far more important word for the church than this letter. Please give serious consideration to its content.
Now I look forward to “hearing His voice” regarding my future. In the meantime and throughout the entire ordeal, “He has made me glad.” I wish the same for you. I trust you are listening to Him with regard to your own journey, for it truly is not “just about me!” We are in this together, hopefully “doing all things to the glory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” May His name be praised!
Your brother in Christ
Read Joe Rightmyer’s “Last Sermon as a Teaching Elder in the PCUSA” (pdf file)
First delivered by Joe Rightmyer before the PJC of Grace Presbytery on January 6, 2015, in a more abbreviated form. This expanded version is dated February, 2015, following requests for the content of his message.