In April of 1748, Samuel Davies and John Rodgers, two New Side Presbyterian ministers, appeared before the General Court of the colony of Virginia for the purpose of applying for a license for Rodgers. Davies had been licensed the previous year according to the requirements of the onerous law in the colony of Virginia which applied only to non-Anglican ministers. The two youthful ministers were joined by Rev. Patrick Henry, Sr., the uncle of the great statesman by the same name, who was the rector of the St. Paul’s Parish in Hanover County, Virginia—which was the very county where Davies would begin his ministry. Henry was a foe—not a friend. He came to Williamsburg to urge Governor William Gooch and the General Council to deny this application by Rodgers and to report that Rodgers had preached in Hanover County without a license. Technically, it seemed that Henry had a good point—if the freedom of religion is also denied. Governor Gooch saw through the hypocrisy of Henry and sternly rebuked him as follows:
Mr.____________., I am surprised at you! You profess to be a minister of Jesus Christ, and you come to me to complain of a man, and wish me to punish him, for preaching the Gospel! For shame, Sir! Go home and mind your own duty! For such a piece of conduct, you deserve to have your gown stript over your shoulders
Patrick Henry, Sr. would have been on the side of the Jewish Sanhedrin who had previously imprisoned the apostles, but later found them standing in the Temple preaching the gospel. The high priest rebuked them: “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name (i.e., the name of Jesus—DR)” (Acts 5:28). Peter spoke on behalf of all the apostles when he answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Virginia law requiring non-Anglican ministers to become licensed was contrary to the Act of Toleration of 1689 and was eventually proven to be illegal through Davies’ efforts.
I thought of the words of Peter last week on two occasions. First, I received an email from a young, reformed believer in Germany last week who wrote to tell me about the situation in her country. 50 German pastors signed a statement that said it is the responsibility of Christians to obey the government in all things, including not having church services. Part of their statement rebuked John McArthur for having services at his congregation. As a result of that statement, this lady’s pastors wrote a biblical statement as an answer. Their main points are as follows:
1. It is the sacred duty of the church to name the wrongs in the state, expose the sins of those in power and call them to repentance from their evil deeds.
2. Certain state-imposed Corona requirements, for churches, violate God’s commandments and offend the consciences of many Christians, in that the state improperly interferes with Christ’s dominion over the Church.
3. All Christians are therefore called to obey God more than men and to resist injustice in a godly manner, even if this may result in state persecution.
The rest of their document gives supporting reasons as proofs of their positions. Quite frankly, this is fundamental and should be known by all Christians. Regrettably, it seems that even many reformed ministers need to be educated on these points. I feel somewhat the way Jesus must have felt when Nicodemus came to Him by night. Jesus said, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Are those who are supposed to be preaching the gospel that ignorant on these things? Double wow!
Second, there has been the ongoing drama related to the Canadian government and the persecution of at least two ministers there. There also have been various states in the US that have done the same. One of the Canadian ministers who has been under great duress from both church and state is Steve Richardson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Tilsonburg, Ontario, Canada. Steve has committed the “heinous” crime of conducting worship services with more than 10 people in attendance. I say “heinous” because it has landed him in trouble with the Canadian government. He has a court date to answer the charges against him. The maximum penalty, if he is found guilty, is $10,000 (Canadian) and one year in prison. All for preaching the gospel. Meanwhile, many businesses in Canada routinely have more than 10 people in their stores and some of them are immoral businesses.
It gets worse. Steve was reported to the civil authorities by a fellow minister in his presbytery. Let that sink in for a moment. Whenever I have told friends and church members about a minister reporting another minister to the government for conducting worship services, the response has been, “That is a Judas-like sin.” Only a “professional” minister could think that ministers, Christians, and churches are “to obey men rather than God,” thus reversing Peter’s bold statement.
It gets worse. Steve is now being threatened with discipline by his presbytery for the “crime” of preaching the gospel. Gov. William Gooch of Virginia had more spiritual conviction than those ministers in Canada who are persecuting a gospel minister. As Gooch said to Henry, I feel about such ministers—they need their own gown stripped over their shoulders.
It gets worse. A former PCA minister, Andy Webb, learned of Richardson’s troubles and posted a prayer request on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Facebook page for him. The Canadian Presbytery contacted Webb’s presbytery and insisted that the prayer request should be withdrawn because Richardson was refusing to be submissive to presbytery. That request was withdrawn.
In previous emails, I have warned about the dangers of any hierarchical type of church government. This is where theory meets practice and the error can be clearly seen. Several months ago, I wrote an article which can be read on the Vanguard website, “The Problem with Presbyterianism is Presbytery.” My thesis was that presbyteries all too often operate by fiat authority with no accountability to anyone for their decisions. Such a view is simply contrary to Scripture. If anyone still thinks that hierarchy is or can be a good thing, think soberly about what that Canadian presbytery is doing to a brother in the Lord. On what basis does any church court EVER have the authority to discipline a minister for conducting church services? The answer is they never have any such authority. Neither does the civil magistrate have authority to tell churches they cannot meet for worship. This battle is not new. It is as old as time itself.
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s own Book of Discipline contradicts the unconstitutional threats made by the Canadian presbytery against Steve Richardson. Chapter 2, section 1 of that Book of Discipline defines what an offense is:
“An offense is anything in the principles or practice of a church member or court which is contrary to the Holy Scriptures, the Constitution of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.”
So, what are the Scriptures that make gathering for worship an offense? None. What part of the ARP Constitution makes gathering for worship an offense? No part. Where does the Westminster Confession make gathering for worship an offense? Nowhere. Without an offense, where is the basis for discipline? Nowhere.
I am sure the presbytery would argue that they counseled Steve Richardson to not conduct worship services while the health ban by the Canadian government was in place. Presbytery has the right to give counsel as long as it is recognized as non-binding pious advice. What they do not have is the power to command anything that is not in the Scripture. Thus, Steve Richardson still has the right to receive or ignore their advice without any threats of punishment from them. Ministers, elders, and all church members take a vow to submit to the brethren in love and/or to submit to the government and discipline of the church. That submission is not submission to things that are beyond the authority of the court or submission to every opinion of the court. That is not submission. That is tyranny.
If the Canadian presbytery’s view is correct about submission, then that means the Church is ruled by might—not by Christ. That would mean that might makes right. But it is not correct. Of course, someone might ask what all this has to do with Vanguard? Great question. It is relevant to Vanguard Presbytery because it illustrates how wrong church courts and civil governments can become when they try to exercise authority where Christ alone reigns. If the counsel of the ARP presbytery had been followed, the apostles would have quit preaching Christ; the Protestant Reformation would have never happened; indeed, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church herself would have never been formed. It is not enough for presbytery to say that they counseled Richardson and he has refused to submit. The real question is this: Did the presbytery first submit to God’s Word before they gave advice? I think the answer is plain.
We live in perilous times in this world, in North America, and in the United States of America. The church will not survive by bowing the knee to Caesar. The fundamental principle for all Christians is this: “We must obey God rather than men.” That is why I am in Vanguard Presbytery today. My conscience no longer permitted me to compromise Scripture on matters of such great importance. So, I ask you to pray for Pastor Steve Richardson. He is on the forefront of the battle for truth against the tyranny of both church and state.
Vanguard Presbytery is very happy to report that Eastern Heights Presbyterian Church in Bristol, TN voted on March 14, 2021 to affiliate with us. Vanguard had received Rev. Dr. Rick Light, Easter Heights’ pastor, at the last presbytery meeting on January 26, pending the vote of his congregation. In the same motion, presbytery voted to receive the congregation pending the vote and the signing of the vows by the officers. Rick texted me after the vote that it was “one of the happiest days of my ecclesiastical life.” That is a sentiment that is expressed so frequently by people joining Vanguard. Rick is also Executive Director of Reformed Evangelistic Fellowship (formerly PEF—one of the leading groups in forming the PCA) and the son-in-law of Ben Wilkinson (now in glory). His son, Rev. Joshua Light, transferred into Vanguard last April and has helped us greatly with receiving ministers and churches. Also, Vanguard Presbytery grew out of discussions among me, Al Baker, and Rick Light going back to 2017. So, I think I can safely say that Al and I both are very happy to have the third party in those discussions join us now in Vanguard.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery.
P. S. Please mail any donations to Vanguard to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.