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Orthodox Presbyterian Church says allegations of 'racist speech' were misunderstandings, misguided humor

Orthodox Presbyterian Church
People bow their heads in prayer during a Sunday evening service at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 17, 2016. |

Multiple allegations of "racial disparagement" at an annual gathering of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) that nearly saw the meeting booted from its site on a Christian college campus may not have been racially charged after all, according to church officials.

Last Friday, the 88th General Assembly of the OPC announced that officials with Eastern University (EU) in Philadelphia, which hosted the assembly, informed committee members of four separate incidents of "egregiously offensive behavior by more than one person."

In response to the allegations, the OPC passed a statement of "regret and sorrow."

The statement said the allegations occurred last Thursday and included "egregiously offensive behavior" as "episodes of racist speech" were reported. If found true, the infractions would have violated EU's "zero-tolerance policy on racism" and resulted in the assembly's expulsion from campus.

"The 88th (2022) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church hereby expresses to the faculty, staff, and students of Eastern University its grief, sorrow, and disgust regarding four recent incidents of racial disparagement reported by some present at our Assembly. 

"There is no place in the church for such conduct," the statement added.

According to the statement, the denomination "seeks to magnify and honor Christ as the Creator of every human being, each one reflecting dignity and value in the image of God." 

"Therefore, in accordance with God's Word and the two great laws of love, we repudiate and condemn all sins of racism, hatred and prejudice, as transgressions against our Holy God, who calls us to love and honor all people," the statement reads. 

After issuing the statement, EU officials told OPC that the school considered the matter closed. 

A spokesperson for the university declined to comment when contacted by The Christian Post. 

On Thursday, however, the OPC released an update on its investigation and said "new information had come to light" regarding the allegations.

Three of the four reported incidents, according to the OPC, were the result of a "clumsy and misguided attempt at friendly humor by one commissioner" and a "confusing interaction that was misunderstood by those present."

"The first two incidents were confirmed to be a clumsy and misguided attempt at friendly humor by one commissioner, who has since acknowledged his poor choice of words and desires to pursue reconciliation with the offended parties," the update reads. 

The fourth incident — described as the "most egregious" of the allegations — was determined to not involve an OPC General Assembly commissioner "since, according to EU, the one reported to have used such offensive language had not been seen on campus since the incident."

"We give thanks that, in God's good providence and timing, the matter as a whole had been resolved by the close of the Assembly," the statement concluded.

Hank L. Belfield, the stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, told The Christian Post that the denomination is in the process of mailing the update on the situation to "all the ministers and churches of the OPC to be sure they are aware of its contents,:

"We consider this matter settled with the Eastern University community and are humbled and grateful for their gracious response to our expression of sorrow and regret," Belfield wrote in an email. 

During its 1974 assembly, the OPC formally condemned "every form of racial discrimination and racism" and called for "an end to white paternalism and black bitterness through mutual admonition and rebuke in love."

The document recommended that "Christians should be urged to acknowledge their common involvement in guilt with a world torn by sinful divisions and attitudes."

"They should be called upon to repent of their sin in this respect and to make restitution by following Christ in the way of love," the 1974 document reads. "In this way alone they can fulfill their divine charge to bring the gospel to unbelievers of all races, recognizing them as fellow sinners."

Founded in the 1930s by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the OPC denomination is based primarily in the northern U.S. It has about 300 churches with more than 30,000 members nationally.

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