A PCUSA congregation in Georgia has gone to court over its property. Now, the presbytery is looking to investigate its pastor, according to the Layman Online:

The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta today will consider a recommendation to appoint an administrative commission for a congregation that has gone to court over its property rights and to investigate whether the pastor has been “upholding his ordination vows” – including whether he has attended any New Wineskins Association of Churches “events or conferences.”

The recommendation targets Timberridge Presbyterian Church in McDonough, Ga., and its pastor, the Rev. Matt Allison.

On Oct. 3, according to the commissioners’ handbook posted on the presbytery’s Web site, the Superior Court of Henry County granted a temporary restraining order to Timberridge Presbyterian Church “essentially enjoining the presbytery from taking any action to place a cloud on the title to the property, to claim ownership or control of the church property, to change the locks to the property, or otherwise violating the church’s property rights.”

In its background report, the committee on ministry stated that the presbytery was notified Sept. 7 that it was being sued by the congregation “over the denomination’s property trust clause.” The committee on ministry stated that, prior to the notification, “the church had made no attempt to discuss their concerns with the presbytery.”

In response to a request from Timberridge Presbyterian Church for dialogue which, according to the committee on ministry’s background report, “came at the time that the suit was filed,” the committee on ministry “appointed a three-member review team to engage in dialogue” with the church.

The background report states that, “after the team made contact with the pastor of Timberridge Church to pursue dialogue, the team was rebuffed and was told that discussion would happen through its lawyer.”

The report doesn’t give any information about what might have transpired before the suit was filed, and the church’s Web site doesn’t give any information that I could find about the dispute. This sounds like a pre-emptive strike to me–going to court to get a ruling before the presbytery has a chance to mobilize its resources. It’s not a tactic I like–I think it violates Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 6, for one thing, and sins against charity by assuming bad intent on the part of a presbytery (which is not to say that the church doesn’t have reason to believe it does; they may or may not, but in either case should give the presbytery the opportunity to show its hand first). But again, the presbytery’s report isn’t likely to have all the details one would need to make a reasonable assessment of the situation.

The committee on ministry’s background report stated that the presbytery’s executive presbyter, Ed Albright, “upon returning from sabbatical, contacted the pastor of Timberridge Church, Matt Allison, for discussion, dialogue and information as to how he was upholding his ordination vows in light of the lawsuit.”

Albright met with Allison on Oct. 24, the committee on ministry’s background report stated, and, in Albright’s “opinion, Matt could not point to any ways in which he upheld his ordination vows in this matter.”

Based on those events, according to the background report, the committee on ministry is recommending that the presbytery form an administrative commission “in order to investigate the role of the ordained leadership in living out their ordination vows and their role in working with the church to prevent/promote schism.”

Here’s what the presbytery handbook for its November 27 meeting says about the commission that would investigate Pastor Allison and other leaders at Timberridge:

The Committee on Ministry recommends to the Presbytery, based on the above events, that an Administrative Commission be formed for the Timberridge Presbyterian Church in order to investigate the role of the ordained leadership in living out their ordination vows and their role in working with the Church to prevent/promote schism. This commission would have the following powers:

· Obtain and review the minutes of session, the trustees as well as the minutes of congregational meetings.
· Obtain and review any correspondence from the session, the trustees, and the pastor to the congregation.
· Obtain and review any correspondence between any of the above mentioned bodies.
· Investigate any contact by the pastor or church with the movement called “New Wine Skins.” This would include investigating any attendance at New Wine Skins events or conferences.
· Obtain an accurate record of the membership rolls of the church.
· The power to remove the pastor and any other ordained leadership, if deemed appropriate, with special attention to following the guidelines as outlined in G-9.0505 (b).
· Communicate with members of the congregation in whatever fashion that the commission deems appropriate. Examples are: hearings, focus groups, subcommittee meetings.
· Grant the authority to call for congregational meetings and session meetings.

It’s the part about investigating contact with the New Wineskins Association that’s really interesting. If this passes, it would be the presbytery’s way of saying that any “contact” with New Wineskins would be considered potentially actionable against a pastor. Keep in mind that lots of NWA churches have not sought to leave PCUSA, and that lots probably won’t in the future, but are instead working to bring the denomination back to its biblical and Reformed roots. But to the Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, NWA is apparently a subversive organization that must be shunned under all circumstances. Do they really think that this kind of ham-handed approach is going to stop churches from working for reform, or from seeking to leave if that’s what they believe they are called to? Or is it not more likely to send the message that they want to come down hard on anyone stepping out of line, thus increasing the likelihood that evangelical congregations are going to feel that there is no place left for them in PCUSA?

UPDATE: An elder at Timberridge sent a letter to the Layman Online that was published today. In part, it reads:

I don’t believe Timberridge wants to be a forerunner for some of the other 109 churches under Atlanta Presbytery that are sitting back watching and waiting to see how it all turns out. When we voted this past Sunday to disaffiliate from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, we all knew the consequences. We knew we could lose everything we’ve built and invested in. We would have never voted to leave had we not been forced into a corner by the actions and attitude of the Atlanta Presbytery.

The 200-plus members who voted together are Timberridge Church, whether we’re in that same building or not. We don’t know where we’ll meet if the court decision goes against us, but we’ll meet somewhere. God will provide that for us if need be.

(Hat tip: Jim from PCUSAlist.)

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