THE CONTROVERSY AT BLUE BELL OPC
Prologue: 1976 - January 1983
B. The Protestant Reformed Debate: January - August,1983
C. The Interim Session, Phase One: September -April, 1984
D. The Interim Session, Phase Two: May - August, 1984
E. The Committee of Presbytery: August 10, October 7, 1984
II The Theological Issues
The Doctrine of the Covenant
B. Confessional Membership
C. Restricted Communion
D. The Invisible Church Idea
E. The Autonomy of the Local Church
III. The Question of Schism
On October 7, 1984, the congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Blue Bell, PA voted to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. This action was not one which the congregation wished to take; it was, however, one which the congregation felt compelled to take in light of the actions of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Obviously, any time a congregation takes such action, it is a matter of interest and concern to the churches as a whole. This is especially the case when doctrinal issues are involved.
In our case the doctrinal issues involved are of fundamental importance, for they address the question: what is the nature of a confessing church? The issue at Blue Bell is not primarily the fate of a small congregation. It is, rather, the issue of what sort of church the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination wishes to be. Two paths are laid out clearly in the course of the controversy at Blue Bell. The one sees the Reformed faith as a subset of the more general category of Evangelical. At best, the Reformed faith is seen as more precise, more clear than general Evangelicalism. But, on this view, the Reformed faith is not essentially different from broad Evangelicalism. The other sees the Reformed faith as nothing more and nothing less than the Gospel. That which is not Reformed is essentially deficient. Therefore, to confess something other than the full-orbed Reformed faith is to confess something other than the Gospel. The former is the position of the Presbytery of Philadelphia; the latter, of the congregation in Blue Bell.To clearly understand the situation which developed at Blue Bell, it is necessary to delay the discussion of the doctrinal issues and procede to a brief history of the events at Blue Bell.
Dr. James Payton was installed as pastor of the Blue Bell congregation in late 1976. in the course of the next six years, he, along with elders Tony Van Brakel and Jack Sawyer, effected many changes within the congregation in Blue Bell. The liturgy was revised along the lines of Martin Bucer's Strassburg liturgy. The Book of Psalms for Singing (published by the RPCNA) was introduced into the worship service to supplement the Trinity Hymnal. In short, a return to Reformed principles of worship was the goal of the session. In addition to these more general liturgical reforms, the session, in January 1982, introduced the practice of preaching from the Heidelberg Catechism in the evening service. (The word 'from' is used advisedly here. The sermons use the Catechism as a faithful guide to Scripture. Thus, catechetical sermons are as fully biblical as so- called 'exegetical' sermons.) Since the late nineteenth century, American Presbyterianism has used the Heidelberg Catechism as a tertiary standard. The session did not believe that what was taught in the Heidelberg Catechism in any way contradicted or contravened the system of doctrine of the Westminster standards.
These 'outward' changes in the practice of the church were motivated by deep doctrinal concerns. Foremost among these concerns was the doctrine of the covenant. Dr. Payton and Mr. Sawyer taught that the covenant was completely unilateral in its foundation, but was bilateral in its administration. That is, God establishes the covenant out of and for His own grace and good pleasure. There is no hint of merit. Yet, this covenant, thus established, places conditions on man. The conditions are not a priori, but, rather, emphatically a posteriori. The fulfillment of these conditions is never to be thought of as gaining salvation. instead, the fulfillment of these conditions represents the proper life of gratitude which is to mark those who are brought into covenant with God. But failure to keep the conditions of the covenant is nothing other than apostacy and results in the cutting off of the unbelieving and unfaithful one. All of this teaching is familiar to those who are acquainted with the covenantal teachings of Calvin, Murray, Schilder, Shepherd and others.
Clearly, this sort of covenantal view has great implication for all aspects of church life. What became of particular importance were the conclusions drawn with regard to the doctrine of the Church. The session believed that the doctrine of the Church outlined in Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession represented the proper application of their Reformed principles to ecclesiology. Moreover, the necessity of obeying the conditions of the covenant was seen to extend to the confession of the believer and of the Church; the believer could not confess other than what the Church confessed and be considered to be faithful. Thus, the session required a "knowledge of and commitment to" the Reformed faith as the terms of membership. In practice this meant an understanding and acceptance of: (1) the Reformed soteriology, (2) the Reformed doctrine of the covenant, (3) the Reformed doctrine of the signs and seals of the covenant, i.e., infant baptism and the real presence, and (4) the Reformed view of the nature and authority of the Church and her offices. Further, the session concluded from its ecclesiology and from its view of the terms of communion that the Lord's Table was to be restricted to those who were members in good and regular standing in true (that is, Reformed) churches.
With the departure of Dr. Payton, a deep cleavage between Messers. Van Brakel and Sawyer, the two remaining elders, rapidly developed. Both men were discontent with some of the trends within American Presbyterianism and both were uneasy about the proposed PCA/OPC joining and receiving. After careful study of the matter, Mr. Sawyer concluded that the congregation did not have grounds for withdrawing from the OPC and affiliating elsewhere. Mr. Van Brakel, however, was convinced that the congregation ought to move into the Protestant Reformed Churches. Immediately upon Dr. Payton's departure, Mr. Van Brakel began to use the pulpit to teach Protestant Reformed distinctives such as the completely unconditional covenant, the denial of the promise of baptism to each baptized child, the denial of common grace, and the denial of the free offer of the Gospel.Mr. Van Brakel's teaching raised considerable opposition within the congregation--especially his denial of the promise to each baptized child. As this opposition within the congregation became more public and vocal throughout the early spring, the relations between the two elders steadily worsened. The situation finally reached the point of public accusations being made by Mr. Van Brakel against Mr. Sawyer. In early May, Mr. Sawyer entered a public defense at a special congregational meeting; his defense was accepted.
By the end of May, the session, which had been augmented by Rev. P. Lillback as ministerial advisor, had ceased to function and the congregation drifted, for it was impossible to break the deadlock by either electing. more elders, or calling a pastor.
At this point, roughly late July 1983, several men of the congregation sought to have Mr. Van Brakel divested of office. They, however, were told by representatives of Presbytery that it was not possible to divest an elder for teaching Protestant Reformed distinctives--even though the Murray-Stonehouse paper on the free offer had been accepted by a General Assembly. Instead, the session and the representatives of Presbytery arrived at a peculiar arrangement. Mr. Van Brakel was to resign his office and would leave the church to start a Protestant Reformed work. Mr. Sawyer would become inactive as an elder (although he, did not resign the office). Moreover, Mr. Sawyer had to promise not to be the next pastor at Blue Bell. In the place of the duly elected session, Rev. J. Mitchell and Mr. Wm. Haden, the representatives of Presbytery, would become, along with Rev. Lillback, the interim session of the congregation in Blue Bell.
Exactly the nature and provisions of this agreement remain shrouded in mystery. Nothing written--save a brief handout--was ever shown to the congregation and each party to the agreement has a different account of what verbal assurances were actually given. Mr. Sawyer, for example, believed that the representatives of Presbytery had agreed not to change those practices of the Blue Bell congregation with which they did not agree. In particular, he thought that there would be no attempt to alter the terms of church membership and Table fellowship. Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Haden, however, contend that they never gave such assurances. Indeed, they believe that they had been misled as to the actual practices and beliefs of the congregation. That is, they walked into a different situation from the one into which they thought they were walking.
Whether this situation resulted simply from miscommunication is something we might never know. This, however, does point to a real problem in the situation at Blue Bell. So much--especially early on--was done off the record and based upon ambiguous verbal agreements that it is virtually impossible to record accurately what happened. The congregation, for instance, widely assumed that Mr. Sawyer could be "re-activated" as an elder within a few months. This view the interim session seemed to encourage until a congregational meeting in October, when the congregation was told the Mr. Sawyer could not be "re- activated." At any rate, the agreement which brought in the interim session cannot be fully presented, for, apparently, no one knows exactly what that agreement was.Back To The Table of Contents
The agreement made among the members of the session went into effect after the September 13, 1983 meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The interim session was appointed for a period of one year. When some in the congregation expressed concern about the length of this appointment, they were assured that this was done only to avoid having to renew the appointment at every Presbytery meeting; the interim session, they were told, did not envision being at Blue Bell any longer than a few months. it is, however, with the appointment of this interim session that we find a glaring irregularity. Although the Form of Government requires that any interim session must have the consent of the congregation, the congregation at Blue Bell was never informed of its right and never had the opportunity either to accept or reject the interim session. The interim session, which was made up of men from outside of the Blue Bell congregation, was presented as a fact with which the congregation had to live. (Later on, the congregation was told that the FOG had been complied with, for the congregation had given tacit consent-meaning, one supposes that there was not an armed rebellion at the announcement of the new situation.)What this agreement which created the interim session meant was explained to the congregation in an "off-the-record" discussion after one of the morning worship services in September. Although a set of rough notes of that meeting exists, it is another example of the lack of documentation. Memories of what was said vary greatly, to say the least. Many believed that they were assured that Mr. Sawyer would soon be an elder again and that the interim session would be gone by the next Presbytery meeting. Others (notably Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Haden) deny that any such assurances were given.
Thus, at this point, the congregation at Blue Bell was being ruled by elders appointed by Presbytery, which elders the congregation had neither approved nor disapproved. And this body ruled on the basis of a murky mandate which meant different things to different people. The preaching was being done by Rev. Mitchell in the morning and Dr. R. Gamble of Westminster Seminary in the evening. Rev. Mitchell began with a series of sermons out of Genesis 17. His discussions of the meaning of baptism and of the nature of the covenant children sounded to many people to be the same doctrine which Mr. Van Brakel had been teaching. Several people questioned this teaching and, later, Mr. S. Bogedain, speaking for the Pulpit Committee elected by the congregation, would offer a strong critique of Rev. Mitchell's preaching. (Rev. Mitchell, however, seems to remember only one person talking to him about his preaching.) At any rate, there was growing dissatisfaction with the teaching ministry and with the apparent foot-dragging by the interim session in training elders from out of the congregation. This latter task was to be their primary one; yet, throughout the entire fall, the interim session took no action toward raising up elders from out of the congregation. Instead, it seemed as though the interim session sought to use this period to redirect the congregation aid to remove those practices which Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Haden found offensive.
This growing antagonism between the interim session and a large portion of the congregation flared up openly over a sermon preached by Mr. K. Kok on October 9, 1983. Mr. Kok had been asked to preach a sermon concerning the practice of catechetical preaching. He preached a sermon entitled "The Way of the Catechism" which rooted the practice of catechetical preaching in the so-called "strict conception" of the Church which Dr. Payton had taught. In the course of that sermon, Mr. Kok--following, he believed, R.B. Kuiper and Cornelius Van Til-- defined the Reformed faith as the Gospel; moreover, he averred that all other theologies were anathema. In this connection, too, he took issue with the idea of an invisible Church, basing his critique upon the prior work of John Murray and Klaas Schilder. Mr. Kok's sermon was, in essence, a compendium of the previous session's view of the Church.
Rev. Mitchell was greatly offended by this sermon which had been delivered in his absence. Had he been present, he later claimed, he would have stopped the service. The grounds for this violent reaction are not quite clear. First, Rev. Mitchell objected that the sermon was a topical sermon and not an exegetical sermon- -a charge with some validity, but hardly sufficient to provoke the stopping of a service. But, second, Rev. Mitchell accused Mr. Sawyer of hatching some sort of plot against the interim session. That is, Mr. Sawyer is supposed to have conspired with Mr. Kok to have Mr. Kok preach an inflammatory sermon in Rev. Mitchell's absence. Yet, Mr. Kok did not know that Rev. Mitchell would not be present until some twenty minutes before the service For his part, Mr. Sawyer had no idea of the contents of the sermon until he heard a tape of it five days after its initial delivery. Third, and most clearly, Rev. Mitchell objected to the theology of the sermon, which he called sectarian, among other things.
For all of his objections to Mr. Kok's sermon, however, Rev. Mitchell never spoke to Mr. Kok about it. Mitchell complained to Mr. Sawyer about the sermon. He attacked it in session meetings and in a meeting with the Pulpit Committee. And he bitterly reviled it among members of the congregation. Rev. Mitchell even made a transcript of the sermon, without Mr. Kok's knowledge or permission, and distributed it (although how wide a distribution is unknown). Mr. Kok only received a copy of the transcript through a third party. Yet, in all of this, Rev. Mitchell never spoke to Mr. Kok, but, rather, used this sermon as a point from which to attack the beliefs and practices of Blue Bell.
Indeed, Rev. Mitchell used his antipathy toward catechetical preaching, confessional membership, and restricted communion as his qualifications to be the next pastor at Blue Bell. In a letter dated October 16, 1983, Rev. Mitchell urged himself upon the Pulpit Committee as a candidate for the office of teaching elder. (Note: the Pulpit Committee consisted of five members of the congregation who had been elected at a congregational meeting in September 1983. It was their task to find and recommend a candidate for the office of teaching elder. They were elected and given their mandate under the oversight of the interim session. This committee, with the deacons, formed the only body within the congregation that represented the whole congregation.) In the course of the letter, Rev. Mitchell described the positions taken at Blue Bell as unbiblical and sectarian. For example, he writes, "There is no such thing as a Reformed church that limits itself to those who fully can accept all major doctrines of the Reformed faith; such a body is a sect, not a church." (This means, one gathers, that all churches based upon the Church Order of Dordt--the Christian Reformed, the Canadian, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, etc.-- are sects in Rev. Mitchell's eyes.) While Rev. Mitchell recognized that some might see a conflict of interests between his role on the interim session and his desire to be the pastor of Blue Bell, he decided to press his case as well as to declare his open hostility to the beliefs and practices of the church.
On November 5, 1983, the Pulpit
Committee responded to Rev. Mitchell's self- nomination. The Committee wrote,
" [I] t is precisely because of your opinions in opposition to confessional
membership, close communion, and topical preaching that an unanimous negative
vote must be tendered toward your becoming minister here." The rest of the letter
went on to briefly outline the biblical and confessional basis for the church's
At this same time, a more substantial paper had been prepared by Messers. Sawyer and Kok at the request of the Pulpit Committee. The intent of this paper was to summarize the church's position regarding catechetical preaching, confessional membership, and close communion. This paper was to be appended to other documents which the Committee sent out to prospective pastors. A copy of this paper was also sent to the members of the interim session. Although not intended as the basis for debate, Rev. Mitchell wrote a brief and hostile, reply to this paper. Part of the conclusion was:
- As I see it the options for Blue Bell are two: Either Blue Bell reconsiders the matter in the light of all the Scripture teaching, under the guidance of its present [interim] session, or it insists on going ahead as it has in the past. Even after reconsidering, it might still determine to continue as it has. If that determination is fixed, then the only right course for Blue Bell is to seek dismissal to another communion where its position is accepted. (Emphasis added.) Thus Rev. Mitchell, speaking for himself and, presumably, for Mr. Haden, left the congregation with the choice of either change or leave. This, then, is the position with which the majority of the interim session was approaching the problems in early November.
This highly charged atmosphere carried over into the session meeting which followed the meeting with the Pulpit Committee. Mr. Haden accused Mr. Sawyer of undermining the authority of the interim session; Rev. Mitchell renewed attacks upon Mr. Kok's sermon, although Rev. Lillback, acting as moderator, instructed Rev. Mitchell to speak to Mr. Kok before airing his criticism again. The result of these two meetings, beyond the obvious breakdown in relations between the Pulpit Committee and the interim session, was to remove Messers. Sawyer and Kok from any preaching, and significantly to limit the amount of preaching done by Rev. Mitchell.
Throughout the remainder of November and December, the situation continued to simmer. During this period, members of the Presbytery's Candidates and Credentials committee received copies of the paper written by Messers. Sawyer and Kok. This prompted some to call for the reexamination of Mr. Sawyer, who had been licensed by the Presbytery in September. Also during this time, the Pulpit Committee decided to issue a call to Dr. R. Gamble as associate pastor of the Blue Bell congregation. Dr. Gamble did not want to leave his teaching position at Westminster to engage in full-time pastoral work. Both he and the Pulpit Committee, however, were interested in his working part-time at the church.
The Pulpit Committee believed that with Dr. Gamble as a part of the session, the congregation would be able to remove quickly from itself the yoke of the interim session. The Committee, however, had reservations of presenting Dr. Gamble to the congregation for the call, because Dr. Gamble differed with the congregation and the Committee on the issue of restricting the Table. Dr. Gamble, for his part, claimed to be in "95% agreement" with the congregation and promised to "uphold" the congregations's position before Presbytery. (Later, Dr. Gamble would claim that although he had promised to uphold the position, he never said that he would defend the position, a distinction which scholars will have to puzzle out.) With these assurances, the Pulpit Committee placed Dr. Gamble before the congregation add, in late January, he received the call to be associate pastor.
Toward the end of December 1983, Mr. Sawyer received a call from the Reformed Churches in New Zealand. There was considerable debate as to whether or not the Candidates and Credentials Committee would approve the call and then whether or not the Presbytery would recommend Mr. Sawyer. After a lengthy debate, the call was approved. Mr. Sawyer's views, however obnoxious to the Presbytery, were deemed to be the same as the Reformed Churches in New Zealand. Therefore, although most of Presbytery believed Mr. Sawyer to be unsuitable to be a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, they were willing to recommend him to a sister church.
It was also in late December--four months after they were imposed upon the congregation--that the interim session finally began to take nominations for the office of ruling elder. Finally the first step had been taken in what the congregation had been told was the primary function or the interim session, i.e. the training of elders. This nominating process dragged on into the new year. By the middle of January, seven men had been nominated and it appeared that some progress on training elders and regularizing the congregation's life had been made.
The teaching within the congregation had been regularized. After the first of the year, Messers. Sawyer and Kok were once more allowed to preach. Dr. Gamble continued the catechetical preaching. Messers. Sawyer and Kok divided between them the rest of the teaching ministry of the church. To be sure, there was still widespread dissatisfaction with the interim session, but matters were not as bad as they had been in the dying days of 1983.
Thus, when, at this time, Mr. B. Davis discovered the provisions in the Form of Government concerning congregational approval of an interim session, it was decided not to file a complaint. Since the congregation had been assured that they would have elders from within the congregation by February, at the latest, to file a complaint would have been useless. For the interim session would have ceased to exist by the time that the complaint reached Presbytery at its May meeting. Pragmatics won out over principle- wily complain when we will get what we want in a little while? As events turned out, the complaint should have been filed immediately.
The training of the nominees dragged on. Training which was to have been completed by the end of January had hardly been begun in February. This training consisted of three meetings between the nominees and Rev. Mitchell. (Rev. Lillback and Mr. Haden were not involved in the training.) The first meeting was acursory look at the biblical qualifications for the eldership. The second meeting (held several weeks later) consisted of another superficial consideration of the biblical data and a very brief discussion of some of the controverted points. At the end of this meeting, Rev. Mitchell said that he was encouraged and believed that Blue Bell would have her own elders soon.
Such optimism dissolved at the third meeting when one of the nominees, Mr. D. Burkett, argued that Blue Bell needed to be stricter on the terms of membership and communion. This led to a discussion of some three house concerning the controverted points. It ended with the seven nominees in general agreement that those who did not profess the Reformed faith could not be considered by elders as having a credible profession of saving faith. Rev. Mitchell, not surprisingly, said that he would oppose all who held such a view. As the second month of 1984 ended, Blue Bell was no nearer a solution than it had been six months earlier.
(The mutability of the original agreement that brought about this interim session was further demonstrated in these classes. Mr. Sawyer, you will recall, was an inactive elder. In October the interim session said that the agreement worked out with Mr. Van Brakel prohibited Mr. Sawyer being reactivated. By the end of January, Mr. Sawyer was told that he could be reactivated, but only if he attended Rev. Mitchell's classes.)
The examination of the elder nominees was to take place during the first week in March. On the Sunday prior to the examination, the seven nominees met at the home of D. Adcock, one of the nominees. A brief discussion was held as to what sort of strategy the men ought to adopt as they were interviewed by the interim session. This meeting marked the first public break between Dr. Gamble and the majority of the congregation. Dr. Gamble was invited to attend this meeting and to advise the men. He, however, ascused the men of "caucusing" and refused to attend. Further, he said that he believed that Mr. Kok, who had called the meeting, was confusing his own desires with what was good for the congregation. The nominees were informed of Dr. Gamble's feelings, but decided to have the meeting any way.
.This meeting was also significant because of the position expressed by one of the nominees. Mr. D. Burkett stated that the was not sure that he would even be interviewed by the interim session, because he did not think that he could give an affirmative answer to the question as to whether he could submit to the government of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. Moreover, Mr. Burkett said that he did not desire to raise his children in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. Indeed, Mr. Burkett bluntly told the other nominees that he did not intend to be a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination "within ten years." The other nominees found Mr. Burkett's position to be too extreme. They convinced him to go ahead with the interview. And the seven men ended in the agreement that they could answer the question regarding the government of the church in the affirmative, even though they had some differences with that government.
Most of the preparation, unfortunately, was wasted; for the seven nominees gathered at the home of Rev. Mitchell to be interviewed, but by the end of a nearly four hour meeting only two men had been interviewed and the interim session was unwilling to give any decision concerning elders until all seven men had been examined. The nominees asked for a special meeting to complete the interviews. The interim session refused and the decision concerning elders was put off for yet another month.
During the month of March, unknown to most of the congregation, one of the nominees was undergoing a drastic change in his views. Mr. D. Burkett had long been considered one of the "radicals" among the nominees. And shortly after the first round of interviews by the interim session, Mr. Burkett heard Rev. P. Kingma of the American Reformed Churches speak on the doctrine of the Church. Mr. Burkett said that he had learned more in that one night than he had in the past two years. tie expressed his complete agreement with the theology of the Dr. Payton and Mr. Sawyer. Yet one day after hearing Rev. Kingma, Mr. Burkett spoke with his brother-in-law who disagreed with the position that Mr. Burkett had taken. As a result of that conversation, Mr. Burkett found that he had to "rethink" his whole position. Still, before his interview with the interim session, Mr. Burkett assured Mr. Kok that he was in basic agreement with the rest of the nominees and that the only differences were ones of emphasis.
At any rate, the congregation stumbled through March with the prospect of having its own elders dangled before it as a carrot before a horse. Finally the time to interview the remaining nominees came. This time the interim session had no difficulty examining all five of the remaining nominees in the course of one meeting. The next day Rev. Lillback informed the men that two of the nominees, Mr. D. Burkett and Mr. D. Adcock, had been approved to stand for election. The other nominees were told that it was their view of the Church and of fencing the Table that kept them from being approved. This situation was somewhat puzzling, for, as far as the five rejected nominees knew, there were no significant differences between Messers. Adcock and Burkett, and the rest of them. Still, all in all, this was very good news: After seven months, the congregation would soon be rid of the interim session.
Toward the end of April, 1984, another significant event occurred. Mr. K. Kok went before the Candidates and Credentials Committee of the Presbytery for approval to procede to licensure. He had satisfactorily completed all of his preliminary exams, but, not surprisingly, the Committee was already aware of his "distinctive" views and had read some of the documents produced at Blue Bell. Thus, Mr. Kok's oral examination by the Committee consisted, in the main, of questions about his view of the Church. Finally, Mr. Haden, who was a member of the Committee as well as of the interim session, asked Mr. Kok if he believed a directed study under one of the members of the committee would alter his views regarding membership and fencing the Table. Mr. Kok said that he did not believe so, for the problem wag not that he was confused regarding the typical Orthodox Presbyterian practice, but that he thought that practice to be wrong. The Committee voted to put Mr. Kok before the Presbytery, but not to recommend him. Rev. Wm. Krispin also told Mr. Kok that the only reason he had not been turned down was that the Committee intended to use him as a test case. Depending on his fate before the Presbytery, the Committee would know what to do with those who held similar distinctives.April ended with a blast from the pulpit against the congregation. On April 29, Rev. Mitchell preached a sermon ostensibly based on Revelation 2:1-7. In the course of that sermon, Rev. Mitchell made it clear that, to his mind, the church in Blue Bell was like the church in Ephesus. The congregation had lost its love for Christ and was following a path of loveless hyper-orthodoxy. This marked the first time that an entire sermon had been given over to a denunciation of the congregation and its views (although there had been snide asides before.) This sermon set the tone for the next four months as the congregation and the interim session moved toward open warfare.Back To The Table of Contents
On May 5, 1984, Mr. Kok went before the Presbytery of Philadelphia to be examined for licensure. The Candidates and Credentials Committee made it clear that they did not recommend Mr. Kok. Rather, they contended that Mr. Kok would be more at home in a Reformed, instead of Presbyterian, denomination. From such a basis, nearly the entirety of his hour and a half examination was given over to questions concerning his view of Church membership and of fencing the Lord's Table. The questions were marked by extreme hostility on the part of some of the elders and pastors. Some observers even found the mood of the Presbytery to approximate that of the Inquisition. In the discussion following the arresting of the exam, several ministers expressed themselves in harsh ways. Rev. S. Miller found Mr. Kok's beliefs to be sectarian and to warp the biblical doctrine of salvation. (It was also Rev. Miller who continually tried to get Mr. Kok to say that those outside of the true Church are "in danger of hellfire." Mr. Kok refused such wording as a caricature of his position. Nevertheless, to this day, Rev. Miller's version of what Mr. Kok said is the standard version.) Rev. B. Stonehouse averred that Mr. Kok's views give offense to "Christ's little ones." Rev. Wm. Krispin was less sharp than the others, but asked that the Candidates and Credentials Committee advise Mr. Kok to seek ordination in a Reformed denomination. On the other hand, Rev. Lillback made a spirited defense of Mr. Kok. He demonstrated that Mr. Kok's views were those of the framers of the Westminster standards. Indeed, even such harsh critics of confessional membership as Charles Hodge would not have excluded those who held such views from the ministry. Rev. Lillback was told by Revs. Miller and R. Craven that the historical argument was irrelevant.
The entire discussion had an unreal ring to it. Several members of the Presbytery commented on Mr. Kok's "obvious" gifts and "excellent" grasp of the Reformed faith. Moreover, many wanted to wish him well--if only he would seek ordination elsewhere. One again finds the same peculiar view of truth operating which operated in the case of Mr. Sawyer: What is unacceptable, even borderline heresy in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, is deemed as acceptable, even right, in another group. Instead of saying, Mr. Kok is teaching what is wrong and ought to be disciplined until he confesses the truth, Presbytery said to Mr. Kok, "We don't like what you say, but our sister Church down the road might; try there." This is nothing but the rankest sort of denominationalism. Each Church is an attempt to arrive at the proper form, but no Church arrives at that form. Thus, there is no "true" Church. Various denominations arise with varying degrees of purity, but in essence, all these denominations are one true Church of Christ. Relativism seemed to rule the day. In the end, however, Presbytery did act definitively. Mr. Kok was turned down by a vote of 19 to 2.
After the vote, Dr. Gamble told Mr. Kok that, on the basis of this vote, he doubted whether he could get ordained in the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Moreover, Dr. Gamble stated that the actions of Presbytery that day had been it sin." He also reiterated that, despite his differences with Mr. Kok, he was in "95% agreement" with him. And Mr. Burkett, when he was informed that evening of the vote, stated that he still desired to have Mr. Kok as pastor of the Blue Bell congregation.
Toward the end of the Presbytery meeting, Rev. Lillback gave the interim session's report. In it, the interim session asked to have its mandate ended upon the ordination of Messers. Adcock and Burkett. Much to Rev. Lillback's surprise, Mr. Haden attacked this report in a vociferous manner. The interim session's work, Mr. Haden claimed, was not completed, for the 'distinctive' views still had sway. The interim session would not have finished work so long as those views were dominate. To this Rev. Miller added a continued attach upon Mr. Kok. The interim session, he argued, should be directed to remove Mr. Kok from all teaching within the church. (Mr. Kok was preaching periodically and leading the Women's Bible study.) The Presbytery was swayed by Mr. Haden's arguments and did not end the interim session's man date. Instead of directing Mr. Kok's removal, however, Presbytery merely requested the session to reconsider Mr. Kok's teaching position.
The very next day, Sunday May 6, the congregation voted on the two candidates for ruling elder. Not surprisingly the vote in favor of each man was overwhelming. In the course of the meeting, however, Mr. D. Adcock stated that one of his goals as an elder would be to carry on the ministry of Dr. Payton. (This statement was initially misunderstood by Mr. Wm. Haden who thought Mr. Adcock had pledged to continue the ministry of Mr. Kok.) Both Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Haden were shocked by Mr. Adcock's statement. Yet, Mr. Adcock had not changed either his views or his articulation of them since being examined by the interim session. This, then, was the situation Blue Bell found itself in during the first part of May: Presbytery had refused to license a man because he held to Blue Bell's distinctives, but the congregation had elected two men to the office of ruling elder who, so far as the majority knew, held to those distinctives. Further, Dr. Gamble had received the call to be associate pastor. Although Dr. Gamble did not completely agree with the 'distinctives', the congregation believed that he was willing to accept them and work with them. (Indeed, on January 15, 1984, Dr. Gamble had preached a sermon based on Lord's Day 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In the course of the sermon, Dr. Gamble distinguished his position from the position of the previous session, but also stated that that position had a long tradition in Reformed thought and ought not to be considered unbiblical.)
Again, however, the congregation found tunnel at the end of the light.
On May 8, there was a meeting between Dr. Gamble and the two elders elect. Dr. Gamble sought to encourage the two men to adopt his position concerning fencing the Table. Further, he argued that, as a result of the actions of Presbytery, they ought to consider, at least temporarily, removing Mr. Kok from teaching within the congregation (and this from some one who, three days earlier, thought Presbytery's actions had been "sin."). Messers. Burkett and Adcock were not inclined to follow the latter course, but Mr. Burkett, though not Mr. Adcock, did consider the former.
The situation became critical when the interim session met again on May.15. At that meeting it was decided to ordain Mr. Burkett on May 27, but, because of Mr. Adcock's support for Dr. Payton's ministry, the interim session would set no date for his ordination. In effect the interim session refused to follow through with the ordination of a man whom they had certified for election and whom the congregation had elected. In this way the interim session would continue, for there would only be one elder from the congregation, a number insufficient for a working session.
At this meeting, the interim session also voted to remove Mr. Kok from the preaching rotation. Further, Mr. Kok was to be allowed to continue teaching the Women's Bible study and the Adult Sunday School only if he would promise not to teach his "distinctive views on the nature of a true church'' That is, Mr. Kok would have to promise in advance not to teach that which he believed Scripture to teach. All of this was done in response to the Presbytery's request that the interim session reconsider Mr. Kok's status as a teacher within the congregation. When Rev. Mitchell informed Mr. Kok of the interim session's decision on May 22 (Mr. Kok had been out of town when the action was taken), Rev. Mitchell said that he found the condition to one which he would expect Mr. Kok to find "intolerable" and that he did not see how Mr. Kok in good conscience could agree to it. Mr. Kok did not agree to it and explained his decision to the congregation in a letter dated May 23. Mr. Kok was quite clear in this letter that lie did not believe that he had willingly resigned from his position, but that the interim session had removed him by the imposition of an intolerable condition.
This turn of events fairly shocked the majority of the congregation. Once more they were being denied elders and told that the rule from the outside would continue. Moreover, Presbytery had made it clear on May 5 that it would not approve for pastor any man holding the distinctive views of the congregation at Blue Bell. No one quite knew what to do. Some had thought of filing a complaint against Presbytery for its refusal to license Mr. Kok. Rev. Mitchell, however, told these members that such a complaint would be useless, for Presbytery gave no reason why it rejected Mr. Kok. If these men were serious about bringing the issues before the church courts, he said, then the complaints would have to be against the interim session.
Several men of the congregation held a meeting on May 18 to discuss what ought to be done. Neither Dr. Gamble, nor Mr. Burkett, were invited to this meeting, for they had expressed their support of the interim session's actions of May 15. Dr. Gamble, however, came anyway. After a brief, and somewhat bitter, discussion, the men decided to allow Dr. Gamble to remain at the meeting to present his position. Much of Dr. Gamble's presentation was given over to criticism of Mr. D. Adcock and his refusal to go along with the compromise position represented by Dr. Gamble and Mr. Burkett. Dr. Gamble also told the men that if they were to complain against the interim session, they would have to charge the interim session with sin.
Before Dr. Gamble left, he distributed a letter dated May 16 to some, but not all, of the men present. This letter was a letter from Dr. Gamble to Mr. Burkett. In it, Dr. Gamble engages in a bit of comparative symbolics to prove that the opponents of the interim session were "absolutizing one aspect of the teaching of a part of the Reformed Church." He contended that the Belgia Confession's teaching regarding the doctrine of the Church was "primitive" and superceded by the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second Helvetic Confession, which Dr. Gamble identified as the "last, and by some, the greatest of the Reformed Creeds." Although the letter is too long to summarize here, it may be fairly said that the letter was a sustained attempt to present as ludicrous the position held by a number within the congregation.
After Dr. Gamble's departure, the meeting resumed. It was determined that some sort of complaint had to be presented to the interim session, for the situation, now nearly ten months old, was intolerable. Further, Dr. Gamble's advice would be heeded: The men decided that any complaint would also have to be a charge of sin. Thus, the majority of the congregation now began a course of confrontation with the interim session.
During that next week, Mr. J. Fluck asked Mr. Kok if he would write a response to Dr. Gamble's letter. For it seemed to Mr. Fluck, and to others, that if what Dr. Gamble said was correct, then the course which the congregation had laid out for itself was wrong. Mr. Kok, who had not received a copy of the letter from Dr. Gamble, was given a copy of it by Mr. Fluck. After studying the letter, Mr. Kok wrote a lengthy paper in which he pointed out what he believed to be some of the historical and theological errors in Dr. Gamble's letter. For example, the Second Helvetic Confession, which Dr. Gamble cited as representing the last flowering of Reformed orthodoxy in the seventeenth century, was not written in 1675 as Dr. Gamble had stated, but in 1560, which is the same year as the Belgic Confession. Moreover, Dr. Gamble had misinterpreted both the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith at key points.
Mr. Kok gave this paper to Mr. Fluck and showed a copy of it to two close friends. Both of his friends encouraged him to show the paper to Dr. Gamble before making it public. Their desire was to allow Dr. Gamble to back out of his earlier position gracefully, for they believed that Mr. Kok's paper would embarass Dr. Gamble and, perhaps, hurt his reputation. Mr. Kok was reluctant to do so, but, after repeated urgings, he did not release the paper; instead, he gave Dr. Gamble a copy of the letter on May. 27.
On May 28, Dr. Gamble called Mr. Kok and said that he was going to withdraw the letter. Mr. Kok asked him to publicly admit that the letter was in error and did not properly present either the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Dr. Gamble seemed willing to disavow the letter. When, however, his disavowal became public in a letter dated June 1, it became apparent that Dr. Gamble did not mean the same thing by "disavowal" that Mr. Kok did. Dr. Gamble would only say that the letter was not "a full or adequate presentation of my views concerning the doctrine of the church or any other matter." He did not acknowledge any error, or misinterpretation. Rather, he castigated those who had received the letter for making it public since he had "no intention of using that letter as a public presentation of my opinions." (Which raises the interesting question of why it was given to any one, if it was not a presentation of Dr. Gamble's opinions?) When Mr. Kok told Dr. Gamble that this statement was inadequate, Dr. Gamble responded that this was all that he would say and if Mr. Kok released his paper, he would file charges against him. Since, by the time Dr. Gamble's "disavowal" was made public, it was apparent that the letter had influenced no one (save Mr. Burkett), Mr. Kok did-not make his letter public.
The second result of the May 18 meeting of the men of the congregation was the composition of the now infamous May 27 letter which complained against the interim session. Following the advice of Rev. Mitchell, the men did not complain against the May 5 decision of Presbytery concerning Mr. Kok. Instead, they complained against the actions which the interim session took as a result of the decision. Following the advice of Dr. Gamble, the letter contained strong charges of sin against the interim session. The eleven men who signed this letter did not know that there was a prescribed form for complaints. Nor did they know that it was possible to complain without leveling charges of sin. These men merely sought to follow Matthew 18 as beat they could.
The letter, however, indulged in overly hostile, even disrespectful language. In this regard, the letter probably was more of a catharsis than anything else; the utter frustration of the past nine months took voice. The letter also suffered from a problem endemic to the Blue Bell situation: lack of proper documentation. Statements were made which the men believed to be true, but which they could not prove to be true. As a wise man once said, "Oral agreements aren't worth the paper they're printed on." This letter, which was signed by eleven heads of household, was a poor and improper- vehicle for bringing forth the concerns of the congregation.
Thus, two of the men who signed it withdrew their signatures in the week following May 27. It should be noted that neither of the men repudiated the contents of the letter. One felt that the tone was too harsh and another had second thoughts about signing it for unspecified reasons. Yet, nine of the men believed, regardless of the flaws of the letter, that it was a means of presenting their concerns to the interim session. When Rev. Mitchell wrote to them that "You are asking for judicial process," the remaining nine men had little inclination to withdraw the letter.
On June 12, the interim session met and part of their agenda was the consideration of the May 27 letter. The interim session had no desire to deal with the issues raised in the letter; rather, they proceeded immediately to filing charges. The men who signed the letter were charged with violating the fifth and the ninth commandments. Moreover, Mr. Sawyer's name was added to those who had actually signed the letter. Mr. Sawyer had not been consulted prior to the writing of the letter and had not even seen the letter until after it was in the hands of the interim session. Yet on two separate occasions, Mr. Sawyer expressed to Dr. Gamble and to Mr. Burkett general (although not specific) agreement with the letter. In neither case had Mr. Sawyer volunteered that opinion, but, rather, in both cases it was given in response to direct questions. Yet, Dr. Gamble and Mr. Burkett insisted that Mr. Sawyer's name be added, because of his "support" of the letter. Thus, the transfer of Mr. Sawyer's membership to the Reformed Chruches of New Zealand was stalled. After the charges were read, Mr. D. Bratcher, who had not had opportunity to sign the letter, asked that his name be added to the charges.
The men, however, upon trying to frame their defense, found that the letter was, in fact, improperly framed and did use intemperate and disrespectful language. This was not, they decided, the way in which they wanted the issues to come to the courts of the church. Thus, on June 14, all the men-including Mr. Bratcher--sent a letter of apology to the interim session. In it they repented both of the disrespectful language and of the imprecisions in thought and fact. They concluded: "For all these things we are truly sorry and repent of having signed the letter." (Mr. Sawyer wrote a separate letter in which he distanced himself from the letter.)
At this point, matters become a bit bizzare. Remember that two men were not charged, for they had removed their names from the letter prior to June 12. Neither had repudiated the basic contents of signing it, and asked for the interim session's forgiveness. But on June 26, the interim session proceded with the trial. The letter of June 14 was not taken as an expression of repentance, but as a guilty plea in the trial. Then each man was asked to plead guilty or not guilty. The men, however, were also told that a plea of guilty did not mean that they were pleading guilty to all the specifications in the charges. in other words, they could be pleading to a great deal, or to very little.
Since each of the men had already apologized for the letter, they each pleaded guilty. Now the interim session, instead of forgiving these brothers who had acknowledged their error, set about to determine the punishment. Rev. Mitchell, who was acting as the prosecutor, asked that the men be suspended from membership for a period of an half hour, at which time they would be restored to full membership. This was, he said, to show them just how serious their sin had been. (Cynics among those found guilty found the proposal to be seeking the pound of blood to go with the pound of flesh.) Although Mr. Haden supported Rev. Mitchell in this, Rev. Lillback and Mr. Burkett did not. Instead of suspension, the interim session voted to rebuke the men.
The farcical nature of this whole proceeding was underlined when Mr. B. Davis asked if the interim session wanted to know to what he had pled guilty, For Mr. Davis had culled three statements out of the three pages of charges and specification for which he believed repentance was necessary. Rev. Mitchell responded, "if you don't volunteer it, we won't ask for it." In other words, the interim session had no desire to seek restoration rather, their goal was to punish. Further, one of the men charged, Mr. J. Gibson, was not present when the charges were brought on June 12, nor was he present for the 'trial' on June 26. The question arose: What to do with some one who did not show up for the trial? The answer that the interim session arrived at was ingenius, if nothing else. Since Mr. Gibson had not been present when the charges were brought, had not been officially notified of the charges, and had signed the June 14 letter of repentance, the interim session decided to drop all charges against Mr. Gibson. The tern "kangaroo court" does not seem too strong for this whole farce.
. In order to complete the picture, it is necessary to return once more to the week prior to May 27. Mr. Burkett was awaiting his ordination, but more and more he seemed to distance himself from the other men who had been nominated by the congregation for the office of ruling elder. Instead, Mr. Burkett increasingly became a defender of the decisions of the interim session. Thus, some in the congregation began to raise questions about Mr. Burkett's views.
One of these members was Mr. W. Chase. Mr. Chase asked to have a meeting with Mr. Burkett on May 23. Mr. Burkett agreed and asked Mr. Chase to invite Mr. Kok to be present. In the course of that meeting, Mr. Burkett defended the interim session's refusal to ordain a duly elected elder and their decision to remove Mr. Kok from teaching. Indeed, when Mr. Kok asked if Mr. Burkett would allow him to teach if the interim session were not present, Mr. Burkett responded that he did not know, but he doubted it. Further, Mr. Burkett's views on membership and fencing the Table, so far from his affirmations in early March, were actually more mild than those of Dr. Gamble. Mr. Chase and Mr. Kok told Mr. Burkett that if Mr. Burkett proceded with ordination neither of them could raise their hands when the congregation is asked to show support for the new elder. Indeed, when Messers. Chase and Kok reported on this conversation to the other men who had been turned down for the office of ruling elder, they all felt that they could not support Mr. Burkett. Thus, on Sunday May 27, when the congregation was asked to show their support for the new elder, a large portion of the congregation did not raise their hands. At this point, then, Mr. Burkett and Dr. Gamble, both of whom had once been considered allies of the majority of the congregation, had alligned themselves with the views and practices of the interim session. (In fact, on his own initiative, Mr. Burkett removed Mr. Sawyer from teaching the Thursday night study on Colossians; Mr. Burkett believed that Mr. Sawyer's view of Colossians 2:11, 12 and the necessity of infant baptism were too controversial.)
With this background, one needs to leap ahead once more to the June 26 session meeting. After having withdrawn the May 27 letter, those men of the congregation who had been charged (and Mr. J. Reardon) brought four perfected complaints to the interim session. The first complaint argued that the interim session was illegitimately constituted. The provision of the Form of Government XII.10 had not been followed and the right of a congregation to elect its own elders had been ignored. At a more fundamental level the complaint attacked the very notion of an interim session--elders from outside of a congregation--ruling in a congregation. An interim session, along with the idea of higher courts, instead of broader assemblies, was assailed as hierarchical imposition. Thus, the complaint argued for the autonomy, although not independence, of the local congregation.
The other three complaints addressed the issues of confessional membership and restricted communion. one took up the issues in regard I to the interim session's refusal to certify for ruling elder five men because of their views on these issues; another addressed the interim session's refusal to ordain Mr. Adcock; and the last complained against the removal of Mr. Kok from his teaching position. The theological substance of these complaints were the same. First, no one can confess other than what the Church confesses, for to confess otherwise is to embrace what is false. This confession is an organic whole and cannot be reduced to some sort of fundamentalist confession. One must confess the Gospel, i.e. the Reformed faith. Second, since access to the Table is a right of membership, it must be restricted those who confess the true Reformed religion, are members of true (Reformed) churches, and whose confession is made credible in a godly life.
To no one's great surprise, the. interim session rejected each of the complaints. What was surprising was the perfunctory manner in which it was done. There was no discussion of the complaints. The complainants had no opportunity to defend their position. In five minutes, not counting the time it took Mr. Kok to present a-summary of the complaints, the interim session dismissed the complaints. The interim session did not offer any reason or refutation at this time. The complainants expressed their intention to appeal to Presbytery.
On the very next Sunday, July 1, 1984, Rev. Mitchell again used the pulpit to air his feelings about the majority of the congregation. This time his starting point was Matthew 25:31ff. No longer was the congregation like the church in Ephesus which had forsaken its first love; instead the Blue Bell congregation was now compared with the Pharisees who had not done kindness the least of Christ's brothers. (These brothers were the Arminians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, etc. whom the majority of the congregation would not admit to membership and the Table.) Therefore, like the Pharisees, the Blue Bell congregation faced the condemnation of Christ unless it repented.
After the service, Messers. Bogedain and Kok went to talk to Rev. Mitchell. Rev. Mitchell stood fast by his sermon. it is better, he argued, to open the doors of the Church too wide, than to risk turning away one person who, irrespective of his confession, is united to Christ. He would not even turn away an Arian, for such a person might merely be confused and, thus, might truly believe in Christ. Mr. Kok asked on what basis one could determine, apart from confession, whether an Arian, or Arminian, was confused as opposed to heretical. Rev. Mitchell had no answer beyond appealing to intuition and to their sincerity in trusting Jesus. Mr. Bogedain asked how this trust in Jesus could be distinguished from their confession of unbiblical views. Again Rev. Mitchell appealed to intuition. He then said that the views of the majority at Blue Bell were sectarian and that their view of the church was not Reformed, but independent. Rev. Mitchell also repeated what had been his position since November: Blue Bell had either to change or to leave.
The teaching ministry of the congregation was squarely in the hands of those who expressed unrelieved hostility to the beliefs of the majority of the congregation. Moreover, the interim session had no intention of leaving Blue Bell until the majority beliefs had either changed or those who held those beliefs had left. Thus, the congregation did not know exactly what to do, but clearly, the situation continued in its current state. The worship had become depressing battle zones and more and more families were becoming disaffected. Obviously, something had to be done.
The complainants decided upon a two-pronged approach. First, they requested a congregational meeting on July 25 to take the first vote needed in the process of withdrawing as a congregation from the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination (Form of Government XVI.6). Second, they requested, and were given a special Presbytery meeting to consider the complaints. Both actions were taken, because the majority believed, on the basis of the- May 5 Presbytery meeting, the 1966 General Assembly decision regarding membership and the 1983 General Assembly decision regarding Rev. B. Hofford, that Presbytery would not sustain the complaints. In that case, the majority believed that the congregation had to leave. There was still recourse to the General Assembly, but to wait another year under the rule of the interim session would mean the slow, sure. death of the congregation. Further, since General Assembly decisions are "pious advice," the majority still would have no assurance that the congregation could have a pastor and session who believed as they believed. By this point, the congregation had so little trust in the courts that the first step seemed necessary.
Since all the teaching in the congregation now came from those who opposed the majority of the congregation, some of the heads of household were concerned to see that their families were properly instructed. One of these men, Mr. B. Davis, asked Mr. Kok to instruct his family out of the Heidelberg Catechism on Sunday afternoons. Mr. Davis also asked other members of the congregation, who he believed would be interested, to attend. These meetings were not designed as worship services. It was made clear each Sunday afternoon that the meeting was not a substitute service, that it was not officially sanctioned by the interim session, and that neither Mr. Davis, nor Mr. Kok, were encouraging people not to attend the evening worship service. (All of these meetings ended in plenty of time for those who wished to attend the evening service.) Rather, the meeting was a time of prayer, the singing of Psalms and study. The first meeting was held on July 15.
(Some other families began a Thursday night study at the Adcock home.This study looked at the Belgic Confession and the Church Order of the Synod of Dordt. Mr. Kok also led this study.)
On July 22, three days before the scheduled congregational meeting, Rev. Mitchell made available a paper entitled "A Response to Complaints Against the Session of the O.P.C. in Blue Bell." This document was not an official statement from the interim session. Rev. Mitchell prepared it on his own, although he believed it "to show the basic thinking of other members of the session (sic)." There was not, of course, adequate time for the complainants to respond to this paper before the congregational meeting of July 25.
The paper, however, seemed to have little impact on any one's thinking. On July 25 the majority of the congregation voted to withdraw from the denomination. By this time, the arguments were familiar to all. One distressing note did arise. Rev. Mitchell hinted that since the majority did not have an elder, if they voted to withdraw from the denomination, they would leave as individuals and not as a congregation. Thus all properties would remain with the minority and the denomination.
The following Sunday, August 5, 1984, Dr. Gamble preached a sermon entitled "The True Religion." As the title implies, the bulk of the sermon- which supposedly exegeted Hebrews 4:1-3--was given over to blistering attack upon the complaintants. Their position was labelled as "absurd" and their arguments as "blustery." But instead of the more general attacks in which Rev. Mitchell engaged, Dr. Gamble had more individual targets in mind. Although never mentioned by name, it was clear that Dr. Gamble had singled Mr. Kok for special criticism. Indeed, Dr. Gamble made several specific to Mr. Kok's response to his May 16 letter. Since only a few in the congregation had read Mr. Kok's response, it is unclear why, apart from a personal attack, Dr. Gamble saw fit to use it from the pulpit.
In the week following the sermon, Mr. Kok, stung by the criticisms of his teacher, released his response to the congregation with a cover letter giving the history of its composition and responding to some of Dr. Gamble's direct attacks. The break between Dr. Gamble, who had been "95%" in agreement with the congregation and had considered the Presbytery's rejection of Mr. Kok "sin," and the majority of the congregation was now complete. The Pulpit Committee, in fact, was considering revoking the call to Dr. Gamble.
Following the morning service of August 5, Rev. Mitchell served Messers. Davis and Kok with a citation to appear before the interim session acting as a trial judicatory on August 10, after the special Presbytery meeting. They were charged with violating the fifth commandment by holding the meetings on Sunday afternoons. There are several interesting features about these charges. First, on July 22, Mr. Burkett had asked Messers. Davis and Kok about these meetings. After they had explained the nature of the meetings, Mr. Burkett said that he had no problem with them-provided that they did not conflict with any official meeting. By August 5, however, Mr. Burkett supported the charges. He said that he had changed his mind in the two weeks after July 22. Second, no member of the interim session expressed any concern about these meetings to Messers. Davis and Kok, They were never asked to stop them, nor did any member of the interim session attempt to follow Matthew 18. The first that Messers. Davis and Kok knew that there was a problem was when the charges were given to them.
Third, only Messers. Davis and Kok were singled out for charges; the sin of those who attended was "significantly less than that of Mr. Kok and Mr. Davis who have acted as leaders." Fourth, no charges were filed concerning the Thursday study, although precisely the same situation obtained.
Charges here would have involved Mr. Kok (but not Mr. Davis) and several other members. Fifth, Messers. Davis and Kok were given less than a week to prepare for the first meeting. It would not be unfair to see these charges as an heavy handed attempt to "get" the two men whom the interim session saw as the leaders of the opposition to them.
The August 10 meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia added both confusion and hope to the situation at Blue Bell. The meeting had been called to consider the complaints against the interim session. After Mr. Kok presented a summary of the complaints and Rev. Mitchell gave a digest of his response to the complaints (which still was not an official statement by the interim session), debate began in earnest. Almost the whole of the evening was given over to a discussion of the complaint concerning the formation of the interim session. The general feeling was that the Form of Government XIII.10 had not been followed. (Rev. S. Miller, however, argued that, upon the resignations of Messers. Van Brakel and Sawyer, the Blue Bell congregation had ceased being a church and had become a chapel under the oversight of Presbytery. And Rev. Mitchell again argued tacit consent.) Yet Presbytery was reluctant to say that the session was illegitimate, nor was it willing to consider the reasons for the complaint, i.e. the proper autonomy of the local church and the hierarchical nature of Presbytery. Indeed, the complaint was treated as something different and separate from its reasons. Presbytery, it seemed, was unwilling to make a theological decision.
After much debate the Presbytery gave a decision which was a model of ecclesiastical ambiguity. The complaint was not sustained and the interim session was recognized a legitimate. Presbytery, however, admitted that it had erred in not seeking and obtaining the formal consent of the congregation, and promised to try to prevent this from occuring in the future. Exactly what this decision meant is unclear. On the one hand, Presbytery acknowledged that the interim session had not been properly put into place, but, rather, governed without the consent of the congregation. On the other hand, Presbytery recognized this improperly constituted interim session as legitimate. To the complainants this action was self-contradictory. If the Form of Government was not followed, the interim session would be illegitimate; if the interim session was legitimate, then the Form of Government would have been followed. But one cannot have both the Form of Government ignored and the session be legitimate. Further, the theological issues involved were ignored.
By the time Presbytery got to the last three complaints, it was late on a Friday evening. As a result, the rest of Presbytery's deliberations was given over to a discussion of whether or not it could properly consider the complaints at this time. Both the members of the interim session and the complaintants asked Presbytery to decide that evening on the complaints. Eventually, however, it was moved to appoint a committee with wide ranging powers. This committee was to: (1) correct the error which Presbytery admitted regarding the first complaint; (2) seek to resolve the "substantive issues" raised in the other three complaints; and (3) meet with the congregation on the occasion of its second vote concerning withdrawing from the denomination.
Rev. Mitchell argued that such
a committee would undermine the interim session. The interim session, he said,
had in effect, already been a committee for Presbytery. Presbytery ought now
either accept or reject what the interim session had done. The complainants
urged that the, agony of the congregation not be prolonged. The Presbytery had
considered itself competant
to deny Mr. Kok liencsure on these issues. Had the situation altered that much,
the complaintants asked, since May 5?
The Presbytery was unmoved by either appeal and voted to erect the committee. At this point, Rev. Mitchell and Mr. Haden resigned from the interim session, for they believed that the vote indicated a lack of support for their work. Rev. B. Stonehouse, who was moderator of the meeting, appointed Rev. K. Hubenthal, Rev. J. Kineer, and Rev. A. Kuschke to the committee. And thus the Presbytery meeting ended.
On Sunday August 12, Mr. Burkett delivered a report from the interim session concerning the Presbytery meeting. He so emphasized the necessity of absolute submission to the interim session (in light of the rejection of the first complaint) that an elder visiting from another Orthodox Presbyterian congregation said that it sounded like tyranny. Yet, this harsh statement was softened somewhat in a question and answer period, Mr. Burkett said that the interim session had decided not to proceed with the charges against Messers. Davis and Kok; the charges, however, were not dropped, but were considered pending. Mr. Burkett also announced that there would be two open forums in which the committee of Presbytery would meet with the congregation.The first of these forums was held on August 22. The committee began by reading three statements which they believed to be "true statements of the very principles brought forward in the complaints":
- 1. Each session in the O.P.C. has its own responsibility to decide what knowledge and commitment it will require for church membership and for partaking in the Lord's Supper.
- 2. The Session cannot read the heart; and therefore it is all the more necessary for a session to inquire into each person's doctrinal knowledge and convictions.
3. The gospel, when truly understood from the Bible, is inseparable from the Biblical system of doctrine; and the Biblical system of doctrine is nothing else but the Reformed Faith. Therefore, to require a candidate for church membership to explain his confession of Christ as his Savior, is to ask him to declare the essence of the Reformed Faith.
The differences in approach between the Committee and the complain became clear at the second meeting on August 29. Rev. Hubenthal presented a paper which he believed outlined the situation at Blue Bell. Although he did not wish to minimize the real differences between the two points of view, he argued that the views stood on a continuum. Thus, the situation could be resolved if each side considered the distinctive concerns of the other. Much of the problem resulted from arguing at cross purposes.
Messers. Bratcher, Davis, and Kok, however, presented a paper entitled "What Is at Stake?" They argued that the two views were mutually exclusive. Both sides had different views of the covenant, the Church, and soteriology they concluded: To practice what our opponents advocate as being faithful to God's Word, we claim would bring God's wrath upon the entire Congregation (WCF XXX.3). In a word: we believe that their view is not merely wrong, but is sin.
(It should be noted that Mr. G. Babcock, a prominent member of the minority position within the congregation, also believed that the two views were mutually excluseive. He, however, had different view as to which position was sin.)
Much of this second meeting was given over to an intensive questioning of Mr. Kok by Rev. Kineer. The Committee was not clear what the complainants meant by "confessional" membership. Did this mean, Rev. Kineer asked, "jot and tittle" subscription? Mr. Kok responded that those seeking membership need not use the wording of the standards, but must give the content of the standards. The standards are the rule by which a confession is judged and there can be no conscious, articulated difference from the standards. For the Church must be united in the confession of the truth. The Committee, however, still did not find this clear. Yet, when Rev. Lillback asked if any one wanted to distance themselves from Mr. Kok's views, no one did.
On September 12, the Committee brought its recommendations. They urged that all of the complaints be dropped, for there was now a new situation. The Committee had recommended that the five men whom the previous interim session had refused to certify be reexamined. Those men ought not be disqualified on the basis of their views of membership and Table fellowship. Moreover, Mr. Kok was asked to resume some of his teaching. Finally, the complaints, the committee believed, were poor vehicles with which to address the Church. Rather, the congregation ought to be patient and seek for informal study of the issues.
For its part, the interim session announced that it would reexamine the five men and, in all likelihood, certify them for election. And, indeed, Mr. Kok would resume teaching Adult Sunday School and the Women's Bible Study. Mr. Burkett assured the congregation that he and Rev. Lillback could withstand any criticism from Presbytery. (In fact, on August 29, Mr. Burkett expressed his "basis agreement" with the paper "What Is at Stake?").
Thus, the complainants, although not yet willing to drop the complaints, were willing to accept most of the recommendations or the Committee. This was believed by most to be a hopeful sign.
On September 16, the second vote to withdraw from the denomination was scheduled. In light of the new situation (it had been announced that morning that Messers. G. Drinnan and S. Bogedain had been certified to stand for election as ruling elders on September 30), the majority voted to delay the second vote until October 7. The majority was not willing to vote against leaving, because it was not clear what Presbytery would do on September 22, when it met. But the majority did wish to show its support for the practical recommendations of the Committee and the interim session.
At this time, also, two papers
were made available. Both, though appreciative of the work of the Committee,
took issue with the Committee's failure to address the substantive theological
issues. One of the papers, by Mr. Kok, took issue with the pluralism of the
Committee's approach. He argued that the Committee's principles were poorly
articulated and suggested this revision:
- 1. The session of each local congregation has the responsibility of applying to their situation the criteria which the Lord has set forth in His Word concerning the knowledge and commitment He requires for Church membership and for partaking in the Lord's Supper, i.e. profession of the one true Reformed religion, a godly life, and, in the latter case, membership in a true (i.e. Reformed) Church.
2. The session cannot read the heart; and therefore it is all the more necessary for the session to inquire into each person's obedience to God's covenant in doctrine and in life.
- 3. The Gospel, when truly understood from the Bible, is inseparable from the Biblical system of doctrine; and the Biblical system of doctrine is nothing else but the Reformed Faith. Therefore, a candidate for membership must confess his faith in agreement with the standards of the Church, holding them to be the true and complete doctrine unto salvation, and holding no conscious, thought-out position contrary to them.
The events of the Presbytery meeting are difficult to summarize. Rev. Hubenthal reported for the Committee. The three principles and the Committee's recommendations were given. Several ministers, especially Rev. S. Miller, took exception to these. Where, however, the complainants saw pluralism, Rev. Miller and others saw capitulation to the position of the complaints. Then this discussion was halted in order to allow Rev. Lillback to report for the interim session. Again, upon hearing that the interim session agreed to the Committee's recommendations, another storm of criticism was unleashed.
The entire discussion was then arrested to consider a complaint brought by Rev. Mitchell. He complained against the August 10 action of Presbytery which set up the Committee. Rev. Mitchell argued that by giving the Committee the mandate to resolve the substantive issues, Presbytery had wrongly abdicated its responsibility to adjudicate the matter. Instead of doing its duty, Presbytery created a committee with "plenary authority.' Thus, Rev. Mitchell urged Presbytery to dismiss the Committee and either to deny the complaints or postpone consideration of them.
Presbytery sustained this complaint and dismissed the Committee. Yet the very next motion called for the erection of a new committee. This committee was to have a two-fold task. First, it would study the complaints and report back to the January 19, 1985 meeting of Presbytery, at which time Presbytery would adjudicate the complaints. Second, the members of the committee would meet with the congregation on October 7 to seek to dissuade the congregation from leaving. Presbytery voted to erect this committee and, after several ballots, elected Revs. Hubenthal, Kineer, and Kuschke to be that committee.
The members of the congregation, not surprisingly, did not know what to make of this action. They took comfort in the fact that on September 30 they would elect two more elders. This, however, was not to be, for some had already begun to change this.
In the week between Presbytery's meeting and the scheduled congregational meeting, Rev. Mitchell sent a letter to Mr. Burkett, Rev. Lillback and the members of the committee. The letter, depending upon one's perspective, is either a warning about dire consequences of allowing men with Messers. Drinnan's and Bogedain's distinctive views to be elders, or a thinly veiled threat. In any event, Mr. Burkett, who had, a month earlier, said he could "withstand any criticism from Presbytery and was in basic agreement" with the complainants, changed his mind, once again, and said that he would not go through with the election. When Rev. Lillback could not dissuade him, Rev. Lillback resigned from the interim session.
The congregation was unaware of Mr. Burkett's shift and met on September 30 expecting to elect elders. A large majority of the congregation had even signed a petition asking that the October 7 vote to leave the congregation be indefinitely postponed. Mr. Burkett, however, announced that there would be no meeting. (Messers. Drinnan and Bogedain were only informed of this action shortly before the meeting.) He even went so far as to invite Rev. Mitchell,, whose presence, by this time, was unwelcome to the majority of the congregation, to sit in on the meeting.
Mr. Burkett's actions were patently illegitimate. once the meeting was called, it could only be stopped by a vote of the interim session. Since Rev. Lillback did not agree to stopping the election, Mr. Burkett had no authority to do so. Yet, in the utter confusion which attended his action, no one thought of this. Later, both Rev. Hubenthal and Rev. Kuschke said Mr. Burkett's action was wrong, but that amends could not be made until the January meeting of Presbytery. Mr. Burkett, however, was fair enough to return the petition asking for the postponement of the October 7 vote to withdraw.
Little needs to be said about
the October 7 meeting. The events of the last few weeks merely capped the process
which had begun on September 13, 1983. The majority was convinced that the Blue
Bell congregation could not have survived further efforts in the church courts.
As one Orthodox Presbyterian pastor put it, Blue Bell did not exhaust the church
courts, but the church courts had -exhausted Blue Bell. The committee of Presbytery
sought to dissuade Blue Bell by pointing out the possibility of schism. The
majority, however, no longer believed that there was a union of faith and practice
between itself and the Presbytery. By a vote of nearly two to one, the Blue
Bell congregation voted to withdraw from the denomination.
(NOTE: In October, the congregation renamed itself the "Reformation Church in Blue Bell". They retained the Westminster standards and the Orthodox Presbyterian Form of Government.)