Historian Stephen R. Haynes wrote an account of the effect of the civil rights movement on churches in the Memphis area for Oxford Books. One particular chapter has special relevance for the PCA, and that is chapter 12: “A Season of Prayer and Corporate Repentance”: Wrestling with the Past at Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC). Those in the PCA may recognize that Independent Presbyterian in Memphis is a church in the PCA. Below is my reflective review of that chapter.
A Summary of the Chapter:
Independent Presbyterian Church (which given Presbyterianism's connectional nature seems an oxymoron) began in schism over the move towards integration by way of rotational session membership (to get the resistance elders out presumably) by Second Presbyterian Church. 340 persons gathered for worship in the Plaza Theater in East Memphis in 1965. In other words, Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC), began its existence in a sinful resistance to the doctrine of the image of God in all persons, and the unity not only in Adam's blood, but Christ's blood.
By the 1980s, the new members knew little of the founding principles of IPC. A pastor named Sartelle seemed to be aware of the past of the church, but largely ignored it, often working at odds with its spirit in mission projects in Memphis across racial lines.
When John Wilfong in the 1980s began bringing in African Americans in outreach opportunities, the past began to come into focus. As IPC became more involved in the community, the reputation and history of the church, known in the community, became a sore point of shame. During the Sartelle tenure, the segregation policy was quietly rescended, but nothing publicly stated. IPC joined the PCA in 2000, and Sartelle retired in 2005.
When a new pastor named John Hardie took over, he mentioned parenthetically that the Bible does not ban interracial marriage. When conversations arose from that comment, Hardie called for repentance for those who held views against interracial marriage in the church. Eventually after a controversy and tension arose, Hardie resigned, and the session adopted rotating elder terms at IPC, like SPC had done years ago. Eventually with a new session and new pastor, IPC called for corporate repentance in regards to its past policies in 2012.
To each of my readings, I hope to give some reflections to how this might be relevant to the current question before the PCA in regards to a denominational repentance. My numbered reflections on this text's relevance for the current discussion on race in the PCA:
FIRST: It is significant that IPC's racial sins preceded their membership in the PCA by 35 years. Also worth noting was that one pastor in practice reversed course by his actions, but without a public statement and acknowledgment by the church in words. Thus the next pastor tripped on landmines he didn't know existed.
SECOND: Even if actions of a body have changed, the reputation of a church can be hurt by past actions and sins of the corporate body, especially if those were public actions. Thus, public actions cannot be merely reversed by private and secret actions.
THIRDLY: The acts that were repented of originated in the body that committed them. IPC repented for their actions as a church, just as individuals were called on to repent of their actions as individuals. Absent from this process was confessing the sins of other courts (presbytery or general assembly). The session confessed and turned from their policies that their body had done. Individuals turned from their actions. A lesson to be learned: Confession and repentance should be located at the level in the body that the offense occurred.