2016 PCA General Assembly: Moving Forward Together

Having read a number of assessments of the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), it occurs to me that one's perspective, as usual, has a shaping effect on one's view.  My own perspective arises largely from having had the privilege to serve on the Overtures Committee, which presents much of the important business to the floor of the Assembly.  This was my fourth tour on Overtures and it was by far the best experience I have had on the committee.

One reason why the Overtures Committee acted in such a collegial and gracious manner is that our primary business involved a matter on which we were highly united: deliberating the many overtures committing the PCA to racial reconciliation.  Differing opinions on Overtures came with their concerns and, to a high degree, an amended version (Overture 43 from Potomac Presbytery) was sent to the floor that addressed all these concerns.

I heartily agree with my friend Terry Johnson that the PCA's confessing and repenting of racial sins which existed during the time of our founding was long overdue. The most heart-warming moments of the Overtures Committee and the Assembly took place as many of our African American brothers expressed their grateful appreciation.  In my view, the goal of the assembly's statement was whole-heartedly to say to them, "We are so sorry, and we mean it."  Leon Brown's Assembly wrap-up is an example and it is, as Terry said, good for the soul both to confess and forgive. The soul of the PCA was blessed by the 44th General Assembly! Terry expresses concern, however, that the addition of the words "current sins" suggests that no substantial progress has been made. I will only say that this language was deemed necessary by the consensus of the Overtures Committee, due to lingering attitudes that many have experienced.  But this should not suggest a denial of seismic progress in the PCA. The very fact of the racial reconciliation overture, together with the vital leadership provided by African American commissioners to this assembly, shows exactly the opposite. I do not believe that the impression given by this Assembly was that of a retrenched racist denomination-quite the opposite!  All members of the PCA should feel grateful satisfaction both that our denomination made a manful and godly confession and that our aggrieved brothers have received it with such satisfaction.

The most contentious issue at the Assembly was the creation of a study committee to consider women's roles in ministry.  Given the way that gender roles have served as a battering ram against the walls of biblical authority in so many Protestant denominations, progressives should not be surprised that conservatives feel threatened by this initiative. Moreover, conservatives were alarmed that this motion originated not from a presbytery but from the denominational headquarters and were distressed when the moderator overruled a procedural objection against the action. Actual events should relieve much of this anxiety, however, as our well-respected moderator appointed a study committee that is amply stocked with complementarian stalwarts.

I am on record as opposing revisions to the PCA's polity when it comes to women in ordained office (e.g. see this post), and I voted against the study committee. I was also distressed to see a contentious matter like this come from the top in a denomination that has been committed to a bottom-up polity, and I signed the protest against the moderator's ruling. Yet, without wishing to prejudice the study committee's work, I will be astonished if it recommends the ordination of women to the office of deacon. This would be a truly divisive movement and I believe it is contrary to the majority view of our denomination. Moreover, the practice of some churches to install but not ordain women to diaconal service is already permitted by the language of our Book of Church Order (BCO) and churches have been practicing this in the PCA since its expansion in 1982.  In short, churches on the left that demand women's ordination to office and those on the right who cannot tolerate women's non-ordained service with diaconates will have voted with their feet long before now.  In my view, concerned PCA members should prayerfully support the work of this study committee, with what I think is a reasonable hope of a helpful and minimally provocative outcome.

So how do I assess the 2016 General Assembly of the PCA? I see our denomination consolidating around its current positions and compromises. As a conservative, I remain concerned by any number of trends and practices that I wish we would reform in a confessional and biblical direction. Prominent among them are a trend against Word-centered ministries in our missions endeavors, a continued need for more emphasis on grace-centered holiness, and what seems to me as a dangerous tendency towards cultural accommodation. But these concerns, together with the results of our recent Assembly, are not causes for confessional conservatives to check out of the PCA. Quite to the contrary, I see a great opportunity coming out of this assembly for more constructive and effective engagement by conservatives and progressives alike.  I was delighted to make a number of new friends at this year's GA, virtually all of them brothers with whom I have often disagreed.  Now is not the time to harden the party spirit of our differing sides, but the time for all of us constructively to engage with one another - seeking both to understand and be understood.  Thus, while I did not concur with all the actions of the assembly and found myself on the losing side of a good number of votes, I do not feel a general mood of conspiracy and contention.  I would thus urge all of our fathers and brothers to renew our desire and endeavor to move forward together. Yes, there are compromises and significant matters of dispute. But I departed from Mobile, Alabama with a renewed hope that these differences exist within a general consensus for biblical and Reformed fidelity that is growing stronger, not weaker.

In this, the patient, long-suffering and gracious attitude exhibited by our African American fathers and brothers set the example we all should follow.  For me, the highlight of this year's assembly took place in listening to one speech made during the Overtures Committee.  It was given by an African American pastor who I have counted as a friend from the year of my conversion twenty-five years ago.  He stated how frustrated he had been for so long about racial reconciliation in our denomination.  For years, he had tried to talk about the subject but finally gave up in frustration.  But he kept serving and praying.  He believed in the Reformed theology for which the PCA remains the brightest beacon in the evangelical world.  He wanted to express his thanksgiving to God and his astonished joy over the answer to his prayers and the progress he now has experienced.

Likewise, I departed from the PCA's General Assembly with concerns and frustrations, as usual.  But I am grateful to the Lord to serve in a denomination that continues to occupy its vital spiritual real estate at the crossroads of evangelicalism and Calvinism. I agreed with the fraternal delegate from the OPC, who commented that what America is to worldwide Christianity, the PCA is to the Reformed world. Thus I believe that the broader church needs a strong PCA. Moreover, an encroaching and even menacing secularism calls us to make every faithful effort to stay together and work out our remaining differences. Let us therefore commit anew to engagement, prayer, and reformation, seeking by God's grace to move forward together in the months and years to come.