A Report on PCA General Assembly 2017
During the week of June 12, 2017 the Presbyterian Church in America held its annual General Assembly in Greensboro, NC. The following is my attempt to summarize my thoughts from the week.
1. I continue to be grateful to the Lord for the PCA. I am grateful that the founders of our denomination had the courage and conviction to break fellowship with those who no longer held to the Scriptures and orthodox confessional standards. For one raised in broad evangelicalism, being part of a denomination which holds to the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order is a great blessing. The PCA still holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. The Mainline denominations are dying precisely because they abandoned the Scriptures. And while modest, the PCA continues to grow.
2. As always I greatly enjoyed my time with brothers. The Lord has given the PCA many faithful pastors. I was encouraged, as I always am, by my time with these men.
3. Every pastor and member of a PCA church ought to be thankful for Presbyterian polity. To the uninitiated, Presbyterian church government may seem rather archaic and inflexible. Indeed it is and thankfully so. This rather complex and slow-moving process helps to ensure that men do not highjack the church. It helps protect the church from unruly pastors and sessions. It helps protect pastors from unruly congregations. Presbyterianism is not perfect. But it works remarkably well when actually practiced.
4. The moderator for GA has a tough job. It requires a complex of particular skills and knowledge that few possess. It is important that each year the Assembly elect as moderator a man who has those particular skills. I was impressed that this year’s moderator handed over the gavel to a more experienced man to lead the Assembly through a particularly complex debate.
5. The Overtures
This year the Assembly considered 25 overtures. I won’t go through the entire list. There were however several overtures that I considered to be of particular significance.
a) Overture #2
This overture would have granted Book of Church Order (BCO) chapter 59 constitutional authority. Chapter 59 of the BCO deals with the solemnization of marriage and makes clear that marriage is exclusively to be between a man and a woman. So far so good. The problem is that chapter 59 belongs to that portion of the BCO which does not have constitutional authority. That is, it is part of the BCO which churches are not required to practice. Overture 2 seeks to give constitutional authority to chapter 59 thus giving it binding authority. You may be wondering how that could be controversial. Unfortunately, it was.
It was clear from the start that Overture 2 faced strong opposition. It made it through the Overtures Committee by a very narrow margin. From the assembly floor it was recommitted for consideration next year. I understand that there were some conservatives who, though agreeing with the spirit of Overture 2, nevertheless believed that the wording needed perfecting. Others were opposed to Overture 2 for reasons of which I can only speculate.
The new sexual revolution is yielding a terrible harvest in the land. Many churches and denominations have wandered from the truth and embraced all manner of sexual immorality. It is important in times such as these that the church give public witness to the truth. Overture 2 is an opportunity to do that. It is also a means by which we remind the laity in PCA churches that we must not capitulate to the spirit of the age. Also, by adopting Overture 2 we will provide further legal protection for PCA pastors and chaplains who will be increasingly pressured to perform same-sex weddings. By making BCO 59 constitutional we can do these things.
I am mystified by any principled opposition to Overture 2. Perfect the wording? Fine. But oppose the Overture outright? For what purpose? Are we embarrassed by our position on homosexuality and marriage? Are we afraid to confront the civil authorities when they bless what God calls an abomination? Will such a move make us less winsome? If the only sins we are willing to condemn are the same ones condemned by popular culture then what has happened to us?
Pray that Overture 2 will be approved next year.
b) Overture #7
“Remove Long Range Planning from CMC by deleting RAO 7-3 c”
As amended, Overture 7 changes Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) 7-3 so that long-range planning for the PCA come to the Assembly through overtures from the lower courts not the Cooperative Ministries Committee.
The passage of Overture 7 was a very good thing for our denomination. The PCA was designed to be a grassroots denomination. That is, it is not supposed to be ruled by committees but through the lower courts – sessions and presbyteries. Committees, therefore, exist to execute policy not to propose policy. This helps to protect the denomination from special concerns who may “fill” committees with “our people.” The liberal drift of the Mainline denominations was often times aided by the empowering of committees thus eliminating the proper oversight of the lower courts.
c) Overture #18
“Amend RAO 9 so that ad interim committees may only be formed in response to presbytery overtures.”
So, paragraph 9.2 in RAO now reads: “Recommendations for the appointment of ad-interim or study committees shall arise only by way of overtures from Presbyteries, which shall be exclusively submitted to the Overtures Committee for recommendations to the General Assembly.”
Like Overture 7 the passage of 18 was a very good thing for the future of our denomination. It helps to ensure that the lower courts propose overtures rather than specially appointed committees. Further, this will ensure that overtures submitted to the Assembly will go through proper debate in the Overtures Committee.
6. Very, very (I mean VERY) few men look good in a tank top.
7. More Ruling Elders need to attend General Assembly. The numbers aren’t even close. If I’m not mistaken, there were about 220 Ruling Elders in Greensboro in a denomination with about 330,000 members. The problem of course is expense. It’s almost an entire week and it ain’t cheap. Churches ought to do their best to budget toward enabling their maximum allotted number of commissioners to General Assembly each year.
8. The Committee on Review of Presbytery Records
This year there was a controversy over the application of the 2nd Commandment.
A six page minority report from 8 members of the Committee was adopted by the Assembly. The substitute for recommendation 52 was adopted: “Exception: January 30, 2016 (Ex. 20:4; WLC 109) – Presbytery distributed to worshipers in the Worship Guide the cover of which included an apparent representation of the second person of the Trinity, thereby introducing that representation into worship.” A copy of the cover was included in the report.
Allow me to translate. Each year the minutes from presbytery meetings are reviewed by the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). This committee exists to help ensure that presbyteries are following proper procedure. During the review process this year it was noticed that a particular presbytery distributed a worship guide which included a picture of Jesus. An objection was raised but a majority of the RPR concluded that such an image was not problematic. In response a minority report was composed.
Our confessional standards are quite clear regarding the use of images in worship – they are prohibited. I understand that some men who affirm our standards differ when it comes to the use of images of Jesus for pedagogical purposes (Sunday School, Children’s Bibles, etc.). But I am troubled that the PCA seems divided over the use of images of God in services of worship. Some of the comments from the floor opposing the adoption of the minority report reflected the Nestorian error that the picture was only of the human nature of the Son. Other comments treated those wanting to hold to our doctrinal standards as weaker brothers, as though such a commitment to our standards is reflective of spiritual immaturity.
Thankfully, the minority report was approved by the Assembly.
9. The Report of the Ad Interim Study Committee on Women in Ministry
Not surprisingly the debate dedicated to this report took a lot of time and seemed to get bogged down in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure. The report of the Study Committee can be found HERE.
I was not in favor of the formation of the Study Committee. I believed last year and still believe that it did not come to the assembly in a proper way. I also believe the breadth of the committee’s mission was far too wide.
That said, the committee was served by honorable men and women who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I commend them for what must have been a difficult task considering the disagreements on the committee. There are some very good things about the report. For instance, the section on ordination is quite good. It clearly upholds the fact that ordination is authoritative. In other words, when elders and deacons are ordained there is a certain level of authority being conferred upon them. This matters because it helps explain why most of us oppose ordaining women to the office of deacon. Ordination inherently confers authority and the responsibilities given to deacons in the BCO involve the exercise of authority.
The report is also clear that God has given the task of spiritual leadership to men. The report, though acknowledging differences in ordaining women to the office of deacon, was uniform in holding to male-only ordination to the office of elder. Any pastors in the PCA who hope for a pathway to see women ordained to the office of elder will find no support in this document or the words of the committee members.
During the committee report Kathy Keller, a committee member, stated emphatically that she in no way supports women holding positions of authority over men in the church. She went so far as to say that if anyone in the PCA does support women in positions of authority then they are in the wrong denomination. That clarity was helpful.
It is a good thing to have conversations about the God-designed role of women in the life and ministry of the church. Those discussions ought to go far beyond merely asserting those things women may not do. So, the report is helpful insofar as it helps churches that may need assistance in clarifying in a positive way the contributions the church needs from women.
The Assembly adopted the eight recommendations from the Study Committee. For many of us, the recommendations, at least most of them, were the real problem with the report.
The recommendations are as follows:
1. “That Overture 3 from Westminster Presbytery, to ‘Declare that the 44th General Assembly erred in the formation of an Ad Interim Committee on the role of women as not being properly before the court, and dismiss the Ad Interim Committee with apology,’ be answered in the negative.”
There was an attempt from the floor to dismiss the committee with thanks but to not receive the report due to procedural irregularities. The motion failed. Next Dr. Joey Pipa moved that the report be received and sent on to presbyteries without comment. That motion failed.
2. “That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.”
3. “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.”
The key phrase here is “appropriate committees and agencies.” This is too vague in my opinion. There are committees and agencies that involve responsibilities open only to those in spiritual authority. The PCA must maintain clear boundaries around those committees which exercise authority and spiritual oversight lest we violate biblical principles.
4. As finally amended reads, “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.”
The recommendation, as originally proposed, read, “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. Though The Book of Church Order does not specifically prohibit the practice of going without ordained deacons, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.”
During the debate the proposed recommendation was amended to read: “That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. The practice of going without ordained deacons is poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.” This amendment improved upon the original by making it clear that the practice of not ordaining deacons does not merely “seem” to be but indeed “is poorly aligned with the spirit of the two church offices outlined in the Book of Church Order.”
Sadly, this improved wording was stripped from the recommendation. To make matters worse the original wording was almost entirely demolished. I would have been able to support the recommendation as worded originally and especially after the improvement of the first amendment. As it stands the recommendation means virtually nothing.
Why does this matter? It may surprise many reading this that some PCA churches do not ordain deacons. In at least some of these cases it is because, according to the BCO, only men are to be ordained as deacons. In response some churches have chosen to not ordain deacons at all – “If we can’t ordain women then we won’t ordain men either.” That is a clear violation of the spirit of the BCO and should be rebuked. It robs the church of an ordained diaconate. Recommendation four was stripped of any language acknowledging that this practice is contrary to the standards which elders in the PCA vow to uphold.
5. “That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in Chapter Two).”
One of the problems with this recommendation is the lack of clarity. To what extent may women and unordained men take an active role in leading the church in worship? It seems to me that the committee’s recommendation is too broad to be helpful.
There was an attempt to amend this statement to read, “That sessions, provided their consciences allow it, consider how to include…” Unfortunately that recommendation was not approved by the Assembly. That action suggest to some of us that TE’s who are convinced by their reading of Scripture that women and unordained men should not be taking an active role in leading the church in worship ought not to have a conscientious objection.
6. As amended, “That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.”
The recommendation, as proposed, read, “that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses.”
The problem here is that the BCO already provides for deacon assistants. So I am not sure why this was included in the list of recommendations. Perhaps because it gave members of the study committee an opportunity to recommend the office of deaconess.
7. “That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.”
This recommendation is deeply troubling for at least three reasons. First, it comes too close to establishing a third office of the church. There is simply nothing in Scripture that establishes the office of “Commissioned Church Worker.” Assurances were given that there was no possibility of confusion between ordination and commissioning. I remain skeptical of this claim for what I hope are obvious reasons.
Second, how important is a title? I am happy to serve alongside many men and women who have absolutely no interest in being given a title at church. Certainly we have elders and deacons for Scripture establishes those offices. But is the desire for a title so great that we would create a de-facto church office in order to provide it?
Third, this recommendation will ultimately lead to dishonesty. One of the justifications for this recommendation is that the title of Commissioned Church Worker will provide the holder with tax benefits reserved for ordained ministers. In other words, the IRS would recognize those who hold this title as “clergy” and thus eligible for tax benefits. Yet, the PCA would not consider them clergy nor would they be called ministers, elders, or pastors. Do you see the conflict? On the one hand we would tell the IRS that these commissioned church workers are clergy while denying to our churches that they are.
8. “That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.”
I believe that this recommendation was amended to include the words “and men.”
In summary, I believe the report itself was good for the most part. It is a document that would be rejected as barbaric in our culture. I point that out only to reassure you that the report clearly affirms the differing roles between men and women and protects the clear teaching of Scripture that leadership in the home and church is given to men. The recommendations however are largely unhelpful or worse. My hope is that our churches will dismiss most of those recommendations.
10. Ad Interim Study Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation
The Ad Interim Study Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation (TE Kevin Smith, chairman, TE Carl Ellis, RE Alexander Jun, TE Sean Lucas, TE Jonathan Seda, TE Richie Sessions, TE Alex Shipman, voting members; RE Sylvester Brown, RE Otis Pickett, TE Russ Whitfield, advisory members) offered the Assembly a brief initial report and the Committee’s recommendations were adopted.
1. That the Committee and its funding be continued for another year.
2. That a budget of $50,000 be approved to secure the services of Life Way Research to “Assess the current situation in the PCA concerning racial and ethnic reconciliation.”
3. That there be a follow-up study in three years to assess the growth and progress of the PCA in biblical racial reconciliation practice.
11. When will GA be held in Charleston (shrimp and grits) or Memphis (bar-b-que)?
I have appreciated much of my correspondence and conversations with some of my brothers on the other side of our denominational debates. Such conversations matter in part because it may help reduce the polarization we are presently experiencing. It may help break apart the “voting block” mentality and make way for brothers to vote according to consciences captive to God’s Word rather than party loyalty.
My mind is not changing about things like the 2nd Commandment and ordination. My mind is not changing about the need for pastoral piety, the ordinary means of grace, missional clarity, and confessional subscription. But I think I can hold to those things without vilifying my brothers. Don’t misunderstand. I will continue to oppose efforts to broaden the PCA into progressive evangelicalism. Such efforts, I believe, will prove deadly to our denomination. Indeed, that’s been the result of all such efforts in other denominations. I will continue to encourage those who want to change the PCA to seek out fellowship in one of the denominations which already affirm their views.
However, I believe this can be done between brothers in Christ without seeing one another as the enemy.
Were there things about GA 2017 that discouraged me? Of course. Any gathering of sinners like me will at times be discouraging. But by the end of the week I was, for the most part, encouraged. I understand that some brothers, believing the PCA has drifted too far left, are seeking a way to lead their churches to a more confessional Presbyterian denomination. I am certainly sympathetic to their perspective. However, I believe it is far too early to abandon the PCA. This is not 1936. We are not the PC(USA). Not even close. Has there been a troubling trend in recent years? I believe there has been. Do we have brothers who desire to significantly broaden the PCA to something less than robustly committed to the Westminster Standards and the BCO? It certainly seems that way. But I am convinced that the clear majority of the elders and laity of the PCA are not similarly committed to that project of reinvention.