York, Alabama, is a sad little Southern town. Though it is small, it lacks the typical charm of the South. Not much happens there, but what does happen happens in the typically Southern way. The wheels of justice grind not with something as tacky as money, but with the more genteel means of connections: It’s not how much you have, but whom you know. But a man of the cloth has entered the fiefdom of York, and entered with all the bluster and tact of Martin Luther. His name is Martin Murphy, so far still the pastor of tiny little York Presbyterian Church. York Presbyterian is not a part of that old yet hip monolith that is the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., they of the yearly debates on the merits of repealing the Seventh Commandment. York is a part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a denomination much like the town of York. It is old, Southern, lacking in any particular distinctiveness, and tends to be run by those with the greatest pedigree.

Martin, with his faithful preaching of the Gospel and with the fruit thereof (outsiders actually came in and joined the church), has upset the balance of power. Like the other Martin, he proved unintimidated by the existing powers. Two church elders (elders in Presbyterian churches are like the board of directors) demanded his resignation. Martin refused, as the majority of the elders and of the church (by a two-to-one margin) asked him to stay.

Presbyterians are an orderly bunch. We have rules and procedures, a Form of Government that tells us how we deal with disputes. And we have courts of appeal. The Tennessee and Alabama presbytery of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is just such a court. It is composed of pastors and elders of the churches in that region. The complainant made a motion to that court that Mr. Murphy be removed from his pulpit. The court said no, and the complainant announced his refusal to be reconciled with the pastor. (Being reconciled is church-ese for making up and trying to get along.) Charges were brought against the complainant for his failure to be reconciled, and the court adjourned. Church courts, of course, do not issue fines, nor require incarceration or community service. Instead, those found guilty are judged to be outside Christ’s kingdom. They are stripped of their church membership and not permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Any good lawyer (pardon the oxymoron) knows that when you can’t get what you want in one court, you go to another. And so the complainant did. He went to a local judge in the state court system and asked both that the elders of York Presbyterian Church be temporarily restrained from exercising church discipline and that the presbytery be required to remove Pastor Murphy from the pulpit. The papers filed were filled with information on the pastor’s involvement in the League of the South, including the great crime of having Michael Hill, the president of the League, as a member of the church. (Though the League is probably a part of the complaint, no one has been able to discover anything in our Form of Government, nor in the Bible, which would forbid such involvement.) The judge granted the first request; he has not yet decided on the second.

We have a jurisdiction problem. The state court, like us Presbyterians, is supposed to be orderly. They have a form of government they answer to, the state constitution and, by loose and liberal understandings of the 14th Amendment, the federal Constitution. Both formally recognize that the state is not to interfere with the church’s business. If state courts overrule church courts, then the state courts have become the church courts. We have an established religion, with lawyers and judges serving as priests. The judge’s action is akin to the supreme court of Singapore telling my local justice of the peace how my property-line dispute with my neighbor should be decided. (Or perhaps like the president of these United States telling a foreign government how to manage its civil war.)

The judge’s jurisdictional error, however, is not as bad as that of the complainant. The ultimate authority for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is the Holy Scriptures. And therein the Apostle Paul says, to litigious members of the church at Corinth:

If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life? Therefore if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame vou. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers! [I Corinthians 6: 1-6].

For a man that is often accused by his critics of being obtuse, Paul is pretty clear here. And so when court reconvened—that is, the court of the Tennessee and Alabama presbytery—did they convict the complainant for his aggravated jurisdiction hopping? No, they dropped all charges against him. When Caesar said “Heel,” the dogs obeyed. Like the state courts confronted with the federal bullies, the church courts have obediently handed over their lunch money without so much as a whimper.

None of us are fans of judicial activism. All of us are aware that too many courts are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the limitations on their authority. Whether they are telling the local schools in Rockford, Illinois, how to conduct their affairs, or telling states whether or not they can protect unborn children from doctors of death, courts overstep their jurisdiction every day. This time, however, they have crossed an even more dangerous line. It is one thing to intrude on the authority of some other judge; it is another thing altogether not only to ignore the First Amendment, but to invade the clear jurisdiction of nature and nature’s God in so doing. His law says this of the Chief Justice of the truly Supreme Court:

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One. “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then He rebukes them in their anger and terrifies them in His wrath saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, My holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become Your Father. Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance, the ends of the earth Your possession. You shall rule them with an iron scepter; You shall dash them to pieces like pottery.” [Psalm 2: 1-9]

Everything seems quiet in York today. Neither the ACLU nor its Christian counterpart, Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, has descended upon this judge to set him right. Nor are there busloads ofYankee freedom riders marching in defense of Martin Murphy. There are no U.S. marshals escorting him to his pulpit. It seems as though the First Amendment will go not with a bang, but a whimper. But Martin keeps fighting—not for the First Amendment, but for the complainant’s soul. Church discipline exists first for the protection of the charged, that they might be brought to repentance. And for that crime Mr. Murphy may soon find himself in jail. If so, he will be comforted in this. First, he will not be the first nor the last servant of the King to serve time under pretenders to His throne. And his sentence will of necessity be a short one. For the Gospel that he so faithfully preaches is the same Gospel that sets men free. Second, Martin believes that there will come a day when men will not be judged by the content of their rolodex, but by the content of their character. When that day comes, both the judge and the complainant, unless they repent, will be nothing but broken pottery.

Like Bethlehem before it, York is not the center of the universe. But such is the kind of place to which God brings His visitation. And when He comes He always comes both with judgment and with peace. Those who confess that His Son is indeed Lord, enthroned on high, get the peace. Those who arrogate honor and authority for themselves just become pieces. And Martin will cry out, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”