Rocky Mountain Declares Bruce Nickoley Not Guilty by Virtue of Lack of Jurisdiction

A multi-year controversy between Rocky Mountain Presbytery and Bruce Nickoley appears to be over. At a called meeting in April, Rocky Mountain determined that Mr. Nickoley had joined another group by virtue of his accepting the ordination of an independent church, and that he was therefore no longer under PCA jurisdiction.

The conflict began when Rocky Mountain denied efforts by TE Bruce Nickoley, organizing pastor of Evergreen (CO) Presbyterian Church, to ordain and install as a ruling elder a man holding to Reformed Baptist convictions. The Evergreen position has been that someone who is otherwise sound in the faith but who has not come to belief in infant baptism is still ordainable. The Session has maintained that regarding a ruling elder candidate with those views as a "weaker brother" is more Biblically consistent than making a distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental doctrines in the confessional standards.

Numerous complaints and overtures went up from the Evergreen Session over a period of a couple of years, mostly relating to redressing what Evergreen saw as an inconsistent PCA position, particularly as expressed in Judicial Case 90-8. In that case out of Eastern Carolina, the General Assembly held that there were certain fundamental doctrines of the church's Standards which must be embraced by every ordinand. Among the essential doctrines mentioned were the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) and infant baptism.

The Session had also brought charges against three teaching elders for heresy. (The Presbytery dismissed the charges.) The men had written a committee report, adopted by the Presbytery, which maintained that "there is of necessity a living voice of the church, which is the court system of Presbyterianism. It is called upon to make living judgments and to create precedents about which doctrine is fundamental in what sense, and what doctrine is not fundamental, even if it is logically and dogmatically involved (Acts 15)." The report also said that "in the stratosphere of [a] system, various parallel but contradictory propositions are generated. To use either proposition (even though they are mutually exclusive) does not disturb internal coherence of the rest of the system." According to Mr. Nickoley, the Presbytery ruled these charges out of order, in that the court as a whole had adopted these views and that therefore the whole Presbytery would have to be charged.

In September 1996, the Presbytery voted to dismiss Evergreen Presbyterian Church from the denomination. The court employed language that it had dissolved the ecclesiastical relationship with the congregation. [The Book of Church Order does not allow a presbytery unilaterally to dismiss a church from fellowship. An attempt to amend the BCO to allow this very action was defeated two years ago in the presbyteries. The essential difference between "dismiss" and "dissolve the ecclesiastical relationship with" is not immediately evident.-Ed.]

At that same meeting, the Presbytery pressed judicial charges against Mr. Nickoley; and a trial was scheduled for January 1997. The charges were that he "is out of accord with fundamentals of the system of doctrine taught by the Confession of Faith and adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America . . ."; that he "no longer approves of the form of government adopted by the Presbyterian Church in America . . ."; and that he "by his constant questioning of Presbytery decisions, by repeated filing of protests and overtures, and by refusing to abide by the decisions of the presbyters fails to submit to his brethren in the Lord." Thirteen specifications were given. It should be noted that the charges revolved around views more than actions: The Session at Evergreen did not install the Reformed Baptist as a ruling elder until after the church was, in essence, no longer in the denomination.

At that January meeting, the Presbytery went into executive session, but allowed Dr. Paul Gilchrist to remain. Members of the now-dismissed Evergreen Presbyterian Church, which Mr. Nickoley was pastoring, were excluded from the trial. Several of them thereupon picketed the church building where the trial was being held. When the host pastor objected to the picketing, the court asked Mr. Nickoley to ask that his congregants stop picketing. He did so. The next morning, the picketers returned. When the court ordered him to tell them to stop, he refused. Thereupon a motion was made to depose and excommunicate him immediately. The court removed the censure of excommunication before adopting the motion.

Mr. Nickoley's appeal was sustained by the Standing Judicial Commission, but on narrow grounds: namely, that the court should not have immediately censured someone without giving him opportunity for a defense. The SJC remanded the case to Rocky Mountain, to do one of two things: either proceed with a trial, or remove the deposition.

Meanwhile, the Presbytery, after deposing Mr. Nickoley, had voted to forbid him to exercise his ministerial functions. In doing so, the court had failed to give a reason for that extraordinary action, even though the Constitution requires the statement of reasons. Thereupon, the church which Mr. Nickoley pastors, now outside the PCA, ordained him and held his credentials.

When the Presbytery considered the matter of disobeying the order not to labor out of bounds in April, it concluded that since Mr. Nickoley had been ordained by another body, the Presbytery no longer had jurisdiction over him. The court therefore pronounced him "not guilty." Rocky Mountain Presbytery has scheduled a response to Judicial Case 97-2 (the remanding of Mr. Nickoley's appeal) at the September stated meeting.