The condemnation of Grace Presbytery’s defrocking of Joe Rightmyer on Jan. 7 has been virtually uniform. Even those, like Jeff Gissing, who seem to “defend” the decision of the presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission, acknowledge that it is “another instance of placing procedural fidelity before theological fidelity.”
The board of directors of the Presbyterian Lay Committee unanimously condemns the action of Grace Presbytery and calls on the Synod of the Sun PJC to reverse the ruling and restore Rightmyer’s credentials as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Matthew A. Johnson, chairman of the board, says, “Not only is this a clear abuse of the discretion afforded to Grace Presbytery in this matter, it’s just downright mean. Not only does it wrongly punish our brother Joe Rightmyer, but it establishes a precedent for intimidation of all who might question the higher courts of the denomination. The PLC calls on fellow Christians to condemn the actions of Grace Presbytery and to pray that action will be taken to overturn this ruling and restore Joe Rightmyer to the office of teaching elder.”
Among the comments posted on The Layman Online article, one minister writes, “This is ironic when the presbytery involved has a segment in their policy ‘Commitment and Dialogue without threat of Punishment.’ Grace Presbytery has a horrific reputation in their treatment of congregations, teaching elders and ministry candidates and they allegedly have a ‘black list’ of teaching elders who will never be allowed to serve within their bounds. This action is a warning shot across the bow of any who would dare to event hint discussion of dismissal. … New Covenant Presbytery has a gracious process but due to recent congregational departures there are many seeking to harshen the policy amending it with less gracious language and repercussions. The COM has twice now sought to adopt policy effecting teaching elders and their ability to engage even in conversation with church members about dismissal issues. The first attempt was to stop temporary teaching elders such as interims. This was fought and eventually recanted. The second and more recent was to have the same effect upon all teaching elders. That action has been postponed until the next meeting in March. A case such as this will further give ammunition to the fear mongering individuals who promote the idea that such policies are necessary and legitimized under polity. It will be a sad day if they succeed.”
Another pastor comments that “The PCUSA Constitution permits churches to be dismissed to other denomination, and pastors to be transferred in good standing, if they so request. Joe has been a loyalist to the denomination all his long career, even when many others of us debated with him on the virtues of departure. In this his last call at HPPC, he acted in what he believed to be the best interests of the congregation and the cause of Christ. When the new senior pastor was called, Joe decided to retire honorably. What a shame that his terminal presbytery was not willing to honor all his years of service, but in a fit of resentment decided to rip his honorably retired status from him and strip him of ordination. For this spiteful and petty action, they have earned a new prefix for the name of the presbytery: Dis-Grace.”
1927 all over again?
Many drew parallels to J. Gresham Machen’s defrocking and explusion from the United Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary and the subsequent formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary. One commenter noted the particular relevance of Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” for those in the PCUSA today.
One writer quipped on ReddIt.com, “Huh. I wasn’t aware the PCUSA defrocked anyone anymore (as a matter of practice, not of rule).”
As if responding (albeit in a string on another website), another wrote, “This does answer the question, does the PCUSA still have heresy trials? Of course they do. Heresy or apostasy in the PCUSA is now defined as lack or failure of institutional or corporate loyalty, and or actions, speech against the institution. Where in times past matters of heresy or apostasy was adjudicated over matters of theology or confession, now it is dumbed-down to matters of corporate governance. In the contemporary PCUSA one can easily say on the floor of any Presbytery Jesus and Paul were in essence gay, and Jesus had a biological child with Mary. I doubt anybody would bat an eye. Threaten the institution on either a fiscal or financial level, power, money, control, one is cast into the outer darkness.”
It’s all personal
For me it’s personal. Joe is a friend and has been a colleague in renewal ministry for decades. As others have attested, Joe is gracious and irenic. He has reached across and around the table when others have walked away.
The irony is so obvious as to seem silly to point out. With Rightmyer the PCUSA has defrocked a pastor who actually believes, upholds and advocates the historically recognizable Christian faith and Reformed theology. This is the same denomination that has repeatedly failed to meaningfully censure pastors who openly defied the mutually agreed upon constitutional standards by which they agreed to be governed. Those pastors clearly broke the “peace, unity and purity” vow that Rightmyer was found guilty of transgressing.
Harper Brady writes, “I’ve known Joe Rightmyer since my college days in the ’70s when he pastored a nearby church and led Bible studies on our campus. We saw each other many times in the years since then. I’ve always had the utmost respect for Joe, and know him to be a humble godly man. His work with PFR speaks volumes about his loyalty to the PCUSA and working for renewal within the denomination. This is a travesty, especially in light of so many other teaching elders who have blatantly violated the constitution through the years with impunity, and even when there was punitive action taken and upheld by the GAPJC nothing was done to enforce that (Jane Spahr and Redwoods Presbytery).”
Brady is referencing the failure the PCUSA, at all levels, to uphold its own polity even when a clear breach of the constitution is acknowledged. There continues to be a growing chasm between the denomination’s espoused theology – in the case the theology that all discipline is designed to be restorative and not punitive – and its theology in practice which pulverizes those who question the institution and continues to promote those whose theology is often not recognizable as “Christian.” One case in point: As it defrocks Rightmyer, the PCUSA has seen John Shuck move to a larger congregation and a new presbytery in Oregon. Shuck, who openly denies the divinity of Jesus, the veracity of the Bible and the existence of heaven. But for the PCUSA it’s all “up” for those like Shuck and “down” with those like Rightmyer.
Related article: My response to The Layman, by Jeff Gissing