Reflections on Erasures

As I noted in my article regarding Tullian’s Current Membership Status, I will be offering some reflections. Many would look at a simple act of declaring a person to be no longer a member of a local church to be something of a non-issue, that could not be further from the truth.

I’ll again here quote from the PCA‘s Book of Church Order for reference:

When a member of a particular church has willfully neglected the church for a period of one year, or has made it known that he has no intention of fulfilling the church vows, then the Session, continuing to exercise pastoral discipline (BCO 27-1a and 27-4) in the spirit of Galatians 6:1, shall remind the member, if possible both in person and in writing, of the declarations and promises by which he entered into a solemn covenant with God and His Church (BCO 57-5, nos. 3-5), and warn him that, if he persists, his name shall be erased from the roll.

If after diligently pursuing such pastoral discipline, and after further inquiry and due delay, the Session is of the judgment that the member will not fulfill his membership obligations in this or any other branch of the Visible Church (cf. BCO 2-2), then the Session shall erase his name from the roll. This erasure is an act of pastoral discipline (BCO 27-1a) without process. The Session shall notify the person, if possible, whose name has been removed.

Notwithstanding the above, if a member thus warned makes a written request for process (i.e., BCO Chapters 31-33, 35-36), the Session shall grant such a request. Further, if the Session determines that any offense of such a member is of the nature that process is necessary, the Session may institute such process.

A quick excursus. Many of my readers have noted that some of these terms are confusing. I think that is because there is a general lack of awareness of Presbyterian Polity, even among the Young, Reformed, Restless / New Calvinism crowd. Presbyterianism functions generally by the presence of a regional Church called a Presbytery. This Presbytery is composed in its membership of the ordained teaching elders of the local congregations in the region. The teaching elders, along with ruling elders (usually lay persons who are ordained by the Session which they are being elected or appointed to), of each congregation make up what is called the Session. This session is comparable to an elder board in Baptist and Evangelical churches.

The first thing to recognize in reference to this action taken by the Session of which Tullian was a member is that this is not a neutral action. It is formal church discipline. Neglecting to attend the Lord’s Day service, especially on a repeated basis, is a sin. The action which the Session takes to “remind the member […] of the declarations and promises by which he entered a solemn covenant” is essentially the equivalent of step one or two of the Matthew 18 process. The Session is attempting to confront this member with their sin and call them to repentance and returned participation and fellowship with the Church.

Once the Session has made these attempts, they make a judgement. They are not required to make this judgement, but if they do make the judgement that the member is neglecting his vows to faithfully attend to the Lord’s Day, “in this or any other branch of the Visible Church” then the session erases the member’s name from the membership rolls.

This is significant for two reasons. First, Tullian’s session made the determination that Tullian was not attending worship in any local congregation on a regular basis. This may not be true, but since Tullian refused contact with the Session they were forced to come to this conclusion. Had they been made aware of a difference set of circumstances (Either by Tullian, by a direct acquaintance of Tullian’s, or by word of mouth) they would not have taken this action. There are provisions in the BCO to transfer membership without this kind of erasure. Second, this is essentially a form of excommunication. Tullian, by severing himself from the Visible Church has excommunicated himself. The Session’s judgement and action here is a confirmation of that self-imposed excommunication. Dr. Rev. Glen Clary, Teaching Elder at Providence Presbyterian Church (OPC) says this:

Even though erasure is not exactly the same as excommunication, the effect is the same as if it were. The man was removed from the membership of the church of Christ. Unless he has obtained membership in another visible church, he is to be regarded as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). I.e. he should not be regarded as a “brother in Christ.”

I called for Tullian’s excommunication recently and a little over a year ago, although this is a sad result and I would have much preferred that Tullian repent and be restored… excommuncation, or in this case erasure confirming a self-imposed excommunication, exists both for the good of the wayward individual, but also to protect the peace and purity of God’s Church. At this point, as Dr. Clary notes, we are not to regard Tullian as a Christian. The Session which was responsible for his soul (Heb 13:17) has assessed Tullian’s fruit, and based on his refusal to submit to church discipline and willful abandonment of the responsibilities to his local church —which he solemnly vowed to uphold— has determined that he is not a Christian. This spiritual reality which the Church has recognized (not determined, Tullian did that) is made visible by removing him from membership in the Visible Church.

Now, what of this talk of “process.” The PCA BCO uses the term “process” to speak of formal disciplinary action. Essentially, and in most cases, this takes the form of a trial. Erasure of this type is no less discipline, but it does not require any sort of public trial. The final clause of the final paragraph indicates that the Session could have taken this action through process if they so desired, and Tullian could have responded to the notification that his name was being erased by requesting process.

Now, I want to say this clearly: I have not been in contact with the leadership of the Session of which Tullian was subject. I do not know their reasoning for taking the approach they did, and I in no way want to question their judgement. Without knowing what their reasoning was, I simply am not in a position to speculate or assess it.

However, if I were on the Session making this decision, I would have advocated for this discipline to take place with process, and here is why:

First, Tullian is guilty of far more than just not being faithful to his membership vows. During his time under this Session’s jurisdiction —at least from what I can tell, it isn’t clear when he was removed from the membership rolls, but it probably was not prior to August of 2016— he lied publicly to the entire nation, he continued to teach —both in non-elder capacities at conferences and events, and at least once in an elder capacity on the Lord’s Day— he divorced his wife without biblical grounds, and he remarried. He did all of these things without any real indication of repentance at this point. The divorce and remarriage in itself is worthy of excommunication. Churches like Spring Hills would be less likely to have him teach (or offer him a job) if he had been excommunicated. Non-denominational church members have a tendency to move from church to church, and many non-denominational churches don’t do membership at all. Leaving a church is no big deal, getting kicked out of a church is. Furthermore, publishers like David C Cook would face more pressure not to publish Tullian or give him a platform to propagate his theological error. As it stands, they are currently publishing a book in which he makes the destruction that his lust, manipulation, lies, and arrogance wrought to be a good thing.

Second, as you can see from previous posts —which was operating on information from persons within the South Florida and Central Florida Presbyteries— it was unclear exactly where Tullian’s membership was. For nearly a year it was assumed that his membership was at Willow Creek, then for a brief time it was assumed it remained with the South Florida Presbytery. One of the hallmarks of Presbyterianism is its desire to do everything decently and in good order. I can understand why there might be a desire to not make this public, no congregation wants that kind of attention. However, a public action with process also comes with a kind of clarity and transparency that was lacking in this situation. Again, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the Session which made the decisions they did, I have no idea why they chose the course of action they did and they probably had good reasons that I am not privy to. However, where they to have pursued this with process, it would have been clear where his membership resided.

Finally, as we have seen in the past, Tullian is a master manipulator. He twists narratives to fit his needs. This often takes the form of bald faced lies, but also takes the form of subtle shifts in the story which paints him in a different light. I can imagine at least three ways he could do so as things went. Perhaps he didn’t know where his membership lay. Perhaps he did respond to them and tell them where he was going to church. Maybe he has actually been attending the church and the leadership is lying. At this point, he could say just about anything and there is no public counter narrative. However, discipline with process would involve evidence, public statements by the Session, witnesses, and ultimately a formal judgement by not just the Session involved, but likely the Presbytery as a whole. This would include the Session at Coral Ridge PCA which is constituted by men Tullian served with, as well as men whom Tullian was an Elder over.

Please also see a helpful article published in the Ordained Servant, which is a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While there are differences between the OPC and PCA, in my study the way they treat erasure and excommunication has not proven to be substantially different.

Peter II Stazen, “Unbiblical Erasures,” Ordained Servant 4, no. 3 (1995): 67–70.

For a thorough timeline of events regarding Tullian Tchividjian’s history, please see Resource Bibliography on System Issues Related to the Tullian Tchividjian SituationBy linking to this site I am not endorsing the site as a whole, nor testifying to the veracity of the information present. However, the timeline presented does appear to be accurate to the best of my knowledge and research.