Report on the 49th General Assembly
While not clearly a watershed Assembly, great strides were made to strengthen confessional integrity and biblical fidelity.
This year the Presbyterian Church in America met for her 49th General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. Overall this Assembly was productive and we accomplished many of the items on my “wishlist” for the PCA. Here are a few of the highlights.
I. Worship & Election of the Moderator
Each year the Assembly begins with a service of worship in which the retiring moderator (i.e. last year’s moderator) customarily preaches a sermon. This year TE Roy Taylor delivered his address based on Matt. 16:5-12, (“The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”) in which he gave a lengthy history of the Pharisee and Sadducee movements. He warned against the extremes represented by each of those historic factions: we must neither withdraw from the culture nor acquiesce to the culture; we must neither subtract from the Word of God nor add to it. He urged the PCA not to become a rigid, ingrown, in-fighting, ineffectual denomination.
Following the close of the service, the Assembly reconvened for the purpose of electing a moderator. Two faithful men who were both excellent candidates were put forward: Ruling Elders John Bise and Melton Duncan. Both of the nominating speeches were a blessing to hear and especially TE Reeder’s speech in which he gave a glorious, yet brief summary of God’s saving work in the gospel. John Bise was elected by the Assembly to be our moderator this year, and he helped us navigate the business very well.
II. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)
After vigorous debate, the Assembly voted by 60% to withdraw from the NAE. Some estimates suggest this will save the PCA in excess of $50,000 annually.
A. Arguments in Favor of Remaining in the NAE
The PCA was a long-time member of the NAE. Those arguing in favor of remaining insisted membership in the NAE gives us a national voice yet costs only as much as a part time assistant pastor, allows us to follow the biblical examples of Joseph and Esther who worked inside pagan governments, enables us to cooperate with other Christians, and allegedly gives the PCA credibility because the NAE logo is the “gold standard” among evangelical organizations.
B. Arguments in Favor of Withdrawing from the NAE
Those advocating departure had three main reasons. First, the PCA General Assembly is competent to speak for herself; she does not need a parachurch to do her bidding. Second, membership in the NAE is expensive and therefore not wise stewardship. Third, because the NAE presumes to speak for her member organizations, the PCA’s membership violates our convictions regarding Christian liberty by forcing PCA members, congregations, and presbyteries to be associated with the NAE and its pronouncements on gun control, abortion, sexuality, economics, etc.
III. Elections for Permanent Committees
This year’s Nominating Committee (NC) worked diligently to present a slate of men who would guide the PCA Agencies well for the next term (until 2026). The Assembly seemed to give its strong endorsement to the work of the NC this year as the vast majority of those put forward by the NC were elected.
One vote was especially close. In the election for Covenant College (CC) Board of Trustees, TE Omari Hill prevailed over TE W. Gregory Marshall by a mere four votes (717-713). It is also noteworthy that three of the men who sided with Missouri Presbytery (MoP) in “Speck 2” (i.e. MoP’s investigation of TE Greg Johnson) were not re-elected to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC).
IV. Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB)
The minutes (proceedings) of the SJC must be reviewed by the CCB each year to ensure the SJC proceedings are conducted properly. This year two of the eight elders on the committee asserted the SJC had violated its own operating procedures when it took the unprecedented step to re-open and add to the “record of the case” related to MoP’s investigation of TE Greg Johnson. Normally in such cases the SJC simply assesses the procedures and actions of a lower court.
These two elders attempted to submit a “minority report” to give the Assembly the opportunity to determine whether the actions of the SJC in this case were in error. The Moderator, however, ruled that unlike other committees of the General Assembly, a minority on the CCB has no right to submit a report for the Assembly’s consideration. The CCB apparently is the only committee in the PCA able to “deliberate upon and conclude the business” assigned to it.
The moderator’s ruling (sustained by a vote of 53-47%) was disappointing as I believe the SJC erred in the way it conducted that particular case.
V. Selected Overtures
A. Overture 8: Simplifying Oversight & Original Jurisdiction
There are currently two instances (summarized here) in which a group of presbyteries have requested the SJC take over a case from a lower court. The current language in the Book of Church Order (BCO) permits two or more presbyteries to request the SJC to assume original jurisdiction over a case if the lower court “refuses to act” (note: there is parallel language for cases involving Sessions within a Presbytery). But it is difficult to determine what “refuses to act” means. Does it mean “fails to investigate” or “fails to investigate thoroughly” or “fails to indict” or something different entirely?
The new language increases the number of courts (Presbyteries or Sessions) that must make a request for it to be valid, but gives less discretion to the higher court regarding whether to take the case: if the lower court has failed to bring charges in a matter of doctrine or public scandal and the required number of lower courts request it to do so, the higher court must take up the matter itself.
B. Overture 13: Calling Public Officials to Repent of Abortion
The Assembly directed the Stated Clerk to send a letter to our national leaders containing the following language:
…We who love our nation, in the name of God who alone is sovereign, call upon you to renounce the sin of abortion, to repent of the complicity in the mass slaughter of innocent unborn children, who are persons in the sight of God, and to reverse the ruinous direction of both law and practice in this area…
This was adopted unanimously by our General Assembly one day before the SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade was announced. While we rejoice at the SCOTUS decision that will allow the several states to regulate the slaughter of unborn children, we must continue to pray for the complete abolition of “Abortion” in this Republic and throughout the world.
C. Overtures 15 & 29: Strengthening Character Requirements for Ordination
The Assembly voted by a wide margin to amend BCO Chapter 16 to clarifying that officers,
…must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions. (Overture 29)
There were a few arguments against this language; they were largely centered on what was not being said rather than what was stated (e.g. no affirmation that God loves gay people).
By a much more narrow margin, the Assembly voted to amend BCO Chapter 7 to include the following language:
Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America. (Overture 15)
There were a great many arguments against this language asserting it was too specific or that it was being inserted in the wrong place in our BCO.
I am grateful this language is here as it enables us to clarify our character requirements for ordained officers in a time of societal crisis on this matter. Because of confusion even in some church courts, I believe our BCO must instruct very clearly and with great specificity in this area to the courts conducting officer-candidate examinations.
The Church has been troubled by those who mistake and confuse celibacy versus chastity, worldliness versus winsomeness, and “take up your cross” versus “live your life.” So we must be clear we understand the standard of holiness the scripture teaches is manifested in those whom Christ calls to serve His bride.
Some of the arguments against the proposed language of Overture 15 asserted it would drive away those who struggle with unnatural affections. But we must remember this language defines officer qualifications and not membership requirements.
D. Overture 26: Rejecting Political Violence
A number of presbyteries requested the General Assembly speak to the apparent increase in political tension and even violence apparent in the culture.
A number of presbyters in favor of this overture cited members in their own congregation who had been slapped or otherwise intimidated in their own communities. Others cited instances such as the events of January 6, 2021 as indicating the need for such a statement.
Those opposed to this overture suggested it was overly broad (e.g. what sort of political violence?) and instead better suited to more particular cases on a Session and Presbytery level. Additionally if it only referred to unlawful political violence, then it is unnecessary; there are certainly instances in which political violence may be lawfully undertaken by Christians.
Ultimately the Assembly rejected this overture, but did pause to pray for the proliferation of peace within the commonwealth.
E. Overture 42: Rejecting Secret Organizations in the Church
The final overture dealt with the presence of secret organizations within the PCA which attempt to manipulate the Church courts. The language of the overture was not quite perfect when it came before the Assembly as a minority report, but I still believed it was a worthy overture.
Secret organizations have numerous precedents in the history of Presbyterian churches. In my speech, I referenced the Fellowship of Saint James, the Vision Caucus, and another faction whose activities have recently come to light. All of these organizations have worked to exclude - from the agencies of their respective denominations - men who held more conservative confessional commitments. I also referenced the confusion that followed recent revelations of key denominational employees as members of a secret organization. I also quoted at length from publicly available documents as I attempted to show why we do not need such organizations in the church courts.
During my speech there was an incident in which another presbyter made physical contact with me while I was at the mic and he was trying to make a point of order. We have spoken, and he has apologized; I have accepted his apology. I apologized for not noticing him there while I read my speech. While the overture was rejected by 60% of the Assembly, I am hopeful we can move forward with greater love and peace as a result of this episode.
VI. Concluding Remarks: tl;dr version
Over all this was a very good assembly. We removed ourselves from the NAE, which will save us money and enable us to speak more freely and clearly when it is necessary. While there was some theological diversity reflected in the men elected to board positions, the vast majority of the men elected are those who share deep commitment to the plain meaning of the Westminster Standards. And finally, we passed language that now goes to the presbyteries to further strengthen our commitment to the Scriptures and what it means for the officers to be “above reproach.” Although I do not think both amendments will pass the presbyteries, we will be able to start strong in making further revisions to our BCO binders next year.
While I do not believe this Assembly was quite the “watershed” I hoped for in my preview, I nevertheless believe the PCA enters the next year both healthier and stronger as well as more clearly committed to the Reformed faith, the Scriptures, and the Great Commission for which we should give God thanks and praise.
Note: only two of the elders were up for re-election. Three of the men who sided with MoP in “Speck 2” are now off the SJC. TE Chapell had resigned from the SJC, and his vacated slot was filled by TE David Garner. Thank you to former moderator RE Howie Donahoe for pointing this out. RE John Pickering and TE Guy P. Waters who likewise sided with MoP in the aforementioned case were indeed re-elected along with TE Fred Greco and RE John Bise both of whom dissented to side with the complainant against MoP.
Ryan, great article. And great job of advocating from the mic! (Watched it online.) You we’re being quite effective in your speech in favor of Overture 42, and the Moderator should not have hamstrung your efforts by preventing you from naming or alluding to the National Partnership. Mike K. was a little thin-skinned in objecting to your speech.
If I recall correctly, RE John Pickering was re-elected to the SJC.