Report on the PCA's Jubilee Assembly
The 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America was a mighty demonstration of God's grace and faithfulness to His Church.
The Presbyterian Church in America at 50 is stronger, more committed to her Westminster heritage, more beautiful, more healthy, more orthodox, and more united than ever before. The PCA at 50 shows every sign of being a living, growing, vibrant Church. The PCA is worth fighting for because the PCA is worth having!
The PCA General Assembly convened in Memphis, Tenn. Tuesday, June 12. This year’s Assembly was exceptional as it combined the regular business of the Church with numerous times of reflection, prayer, and thanksgiving in light of the 50th Anniversary of the PCA’s Founding in 1973. God was exceedingly kind, faithful, and generous to the PCA at this year’s Assembly.
I. Opening Worship & Election of the Moderator
At last report, 2290 elders (1559 TEs and 691 REs) gathered for the meeting of the General Assembly, which opened with a service of worship. The retiring Moderator, RE John Bise, chose the preacher for the evening, his former pastor TE Randy Thompson of FPC Tuscumbia, Ala. TE Thompson’s preaching matched the excellence of RE Bise’s work as Moderator last year.
Two men were put forward to serve as moderator. TE David Strain of FPC Jackson, Miss. offered TE Fred Greco. In his speech TE Strain emphasized the diligent service TE Greco has given to the church to help presbyters understand our polity as well as TE Greco’s qualifications to serve as Moderator of such a large gathering.
TE Charles McGowan of the McGowan Global Institute nominated TE Randy Pope. In his speech, TE McGowan emphasized TE Pope’s connection to PCA founding fathers TEs Jim Baird and Frank Barker; he concluded by asserting that if they were alive and could vote, they would vote for TE Pope as Moderator.
TE Fred Greco was elected by a wide margin (1077-739) to serve as Moderator. TE Greco serves on the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) and is pastor of Christ Church in Katy, Tex.
It is customary for the new Moderator to make a speech as he accepts the gavel; in this first speech, TE Greco paid tribute to his wife’s vital and generous support of his ministry, which he credited as enabling him to serve in the way he does.
II. Review of Presbytery Records (RPR)
The RPR Committee consists of representatives from the 88 presbyteries of the PCA. Over several days, these elders review all the minutes of every PCA presbytery to ensure, among other things, their conformity to the Constitution of the PCA (the Book of Church Order and Westminster Standards).
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this committee’s report. Although the report is sometimes tedious or difficult to follow as it ventures into the finer points of polity and theology, the work of this committee is essential to our peace, unity, and faithfulness as a communion. This committee makes recommendations to the Assembly to hold the presbyteries accountable to Scripture, Presbyterianism, and Westminster/Reformed Theology.
One issue in their report was especially contentious.1 The Committee not only recommended citing Metro New York Presbytery (MNY) with an exception of substance (i.e., require it to respond to the Assembly next year), but also referring that matter to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) of the PCA for possible censure. The issue concerned the presbytery’s investigation of a congregation that allowed a woman to give a “Bible Study” in lieu of a sermon during a worship service prior to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Additionally, the presbytery’s investigation uncovered that the Session had frequently failed to ensure that preaching would take place in every worship service. In light of these facts, the RPR Committee recommended MNY be cited to appear before the SJC because - in the view of the committee - MNY failed to adequately remedy the matter through its own investigation.
Members of MNY and their supporters pled with the Assembly for more time to redress this matter. As the events in question occurred in 2021, the Assembly believed the presbytery already had adequate time to set things in order on its own, and so the Assembly wisely referred the matter to the SJC.
III. Nominating Committee (NC)
Along with Overtures and RPR committees, the NC does some of the most important and helpful work for the General Assembly. Like RPR, it is comprised of a representative from each presbytery in the PCA. The NC evaluates the men nominated by their presbyteries to serve on the Permanent Committees and the SJC of the General Assembly and presents a slate to the Assembly. Men may also be nominated from the floor of the Assembly.
This year’s NC presented the strongest slate of men to the Assembly in recent memory: men who are committed to biblical fidelity and confessional integrity, who share a vision for a warm and winsome PCA that is committed wholeheartedly to the Westminster Standards.
While there were a number of good, faithful men nominated from the floor as well this year, the Assembly voted entirely with the NC slate. I am profoundly encouraged about the PCA and grateful for the fine work of the NC.
One election was particularly historic this year. TE Rhett Dodson of THE Ohio Presbytery (TOP) was elected to the Standing Judicial Commission. TOP is one of our newer presbyteries, and TE Dodson is the first member of TOP to sit on the SJC. TE Dodson’s election is a crucial marker of health for the PCA as it represents the geographical broadening of the denomination and the inclusion of previously “under utilized” elders from previously “under served” regions of the country. TE Dodson also gave one of the excellent speeches of the General Assembly last year, which helped the PCA depart the National Association of Evangelicals.
IV. Permanent Committee Reports
The Assembly annually receives reports and requests for action from its Permanent Committees, which oversee the day-to-day functions of the PCA (e.g., Covenant College, Mission to the World, Mission to North America, RidgeHaven Camp, etc.) and the Atlanta staffs of PCA Agencies and Committees. Here are a few selected highlights.
Reformed University Fellowship (RUF)
One of the items of particular debate was the new “Affiliation Agreement” the RUF National Committee in Atlanta desired to impose on all PCA Presbyteries who have RUF Campus ministries. The RUF National/Permanent Committee and Atlanta staff argued the imposition of a new, standardized affiliation agreement upon the presbyteries was not a “material change,” but merely a Human Resources (HR) matter. Representatives of RUF National/the Permanent Committee asserted that presbyteries who refused to sign the new Affiliation Agreement would lose the right to participate in RUF.
The RUF Committee of Commissioners (CofC; i.e., those elders appointed directly by their presbyteries to review and assess the work of the Permanent Committees and Atlanta staff) strongly disagreed. The RUF CofC noted the hiring and firing authority according to the new Affiliation Agreement would no longer rest with the presbytery, but with Atlanta.
The Assembly agreed this was a material change and refused to approve the minutes of the RUF Permanent Committee and instead required the RUF to submit its (now) proposed Affiliation Agreement to the Assembly next year for review. The Assembly also agreed any presbytery who declined to sign the new Affiliation Agreement would not be disaffiliated from RUF until the General Assembly acts to approve it.
TE Zach Byrd of the Presbytery of the Missippi Valley (PMV) gave a faithful summary of the objections the Assembly had to the actions of the Atlanta RUF staff and the Permanent Committee in this regard.
Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS)
The official seminary of the PCA presented its report to the Assembly. While there were no major actions related to the Seminary this year, there continue to be questions regarding the Seminary’s place in the denomination. In the coming year, CTS will host the Reverend Professor Carl R. Trueman to speak on the campus, which came as welcome news to the Assembly.
Elders at the Committee of Commissioners (CofC) meeting for CTS asked the administration for specifics regarding the number of men currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree for pastoral ministry in the PCA at CTS. According to members of the CofC Committee, these numbers were not readily available at the meeting.
Questions regarding CTS enrollment are becoming increasingly pressing as rumors abound that the Seminary’s enrollment has been sharply declining for several years. CTS claims to be the “largest supplier of pastors into the PCA,” but a recent study of the PCA Grey Book indicates Reformed Theological Seminary provided the training for the largest number of PCA pastors.
The role of CTS in the PCA continues to be unclear. Since involvement by members of their faculty in Revoice, many have questioned the faithfulness of the Seminary’s commitment to the Westminster Standards. Others have pointed out the influence of Critical Theory on the campus. We should pray CTS will become a source of unity for the PCA in the next half-century.
The PCA Foundation (PCAF)
One of the unexpected debates of 2023 involved the Risk Management Policy (RMP) of the PCAF. These concerns stemmed from the PCAF receiving a gift of $200M in CryptoCurrency.
An elder who also works for the Federal Government as a bank examiner authored an overture to require the PCAF to handle such gifts differently. The Atlanta staff of PCAF as well as the Permanent Committee strongly opposed the requirements of the overture as they insisted their current RMP was sufficient. While most of the debate went over my head, it seemed the intent of the overture was to require the PCAF to have the same sort of RMP as a bank would have rather than that which is sufficiently prudential for a charitable foundation.
The Assembly sided with the Atlanta staff/Permanent Committee of PCAF against the proposed overture. Issues such as this remind us why the PCA must have qualified, competent personnel to administer the day to day operations of our Assembly’s agencies. RE Tim Townsend is to be commended for his calm and careful management of our PCAF.
V. Selected Overtures Adopted by the Fiftieth Assembly
Overture 7: Accountability for the Atlanta Staff & Permanent Committees
Throughout her history, there has been a tension in the PCA between being a “grassroots” denomination and a centralized denomination. In our early days, the PCA founding fathers would not even permit the central offices of the various agencies of the PCA to be located in the same city in order to further diffuse the influence of those agencies. After receiving the RPCES, the offices of the PCA Committees and Agencies were centralized in Atlanta.
At the 19th General Assembly (1991) in Birmingham, TE O. Palmer Robertson as Chairman of the Administrative Committee CofC, successfully repulsed an attempt by the Permanent Committees and their Atlanta staffs to wrest more control from the Assembly regarding policy and trajectory. At this the 50th Assembly, changes were instituted into the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO) to codify that the Permanent Committees and the Atlanta staffs are indeed accountable to the Assembly.
While Overture 7 (O7) did not initially garner a great deal of attention, some members of the PCA Atlanta staff reportedly indicated their reservations regarding this amendment at the Administrative Committee CofC meeting. After O7 became controversial, TE Zack Groff wrote a helpful summary of the issues. Overture 7 adds one sentence to the RAO requiring the Permanent Committees and Agency Boards to give account to the Assembly annually as to how they are fulfilling Assembly directives and/or any new policies adopted by the Permanent Committee or Agency Board.
By Tuesday, the Overtures Committee had wrested control of O7 from the various Permanent Committees and presented it to the Assembly for adoption with slight amendment. The overture passed overwhelmingly and went into effect immediately on Tuesday night around 10:00 p.m. What a kindness of our faithful God to transform an overture that was briefly controversial into a point of unity to help us begin the business of the Assembly.
This was one of the most important actions of the 50th General Assembly. As RE Melton Duncan noted on the largest and most influential podcast in the PCA, this overture reflected the “Spirit of 1973” as the Assembly moved to enable more closer review of every one of its agencies and committees. The adoption of this amendment is a step in the right direction of the Assembly reasserting control over its own Permanent Committees and Agencies and their Atlanta staffs.
Overture 13: Atheists in Church Courts
The longest debate at the Assembly concerned whether to admit atheists as witnesses in the church courts. The PCA Constitution currently permits only people who acknowledge belief in God as well as rewards and punishments after death to give testimony in PCA courts. The Constitution does not prohibit unbelievers, non-believers, or spiritualists from giving testimony in the Church courts; it only disqualifies atheists.
The Overtures Committee (OC) recommended against changing the PCA Constitution in this way. The OC reasoned such a change was unnecessary, since material evidence (e.g., police or medical reports) is always admissible. Others argued against adoption because of other unintended consequences. TE James Bruce of Hills & Plains Presbytery gave a superbly clarifying speech summarizing concerns regarding allowing those who deny the existence of God to bear witness in church courts.
A Minority Report on this matter was also presented to the Assembly given by TE Tim LeCroy. TE LeCroy’s report to the Assembly dwelt largely on hypothetical situations and seemed to be characterized by fear and suspicion regarding what the news media might say about the PCA. RE Steve Dowling, chairman of the OC, in his response called out TE LeCroy’s speech for some of its logical fallacies including mere appeals to emotion. RE Dowling also urged us not to fear men or the media, but to fear God in heaven.
RE Howie Donahoe gave a well-reasoned speech in favor of the minority report as he urged the Assembly to adopt the amendment proposed by O13.
The Overture was rejected by the Assembly in the most narrow margin of the week: 871-999 (53% against).
While I was nearly persuaded by RE Donahoe’s well-reasoned speech, I continue to believe the current witness eligibility standards are right and good. Church courts are fundamentally different from civil/criminal court. I believe this amendment was seeking to anticipate matters better left primarily to the magistrates to investigate and adjudicate (e.g., cases of abuse). The Church courts rightly must defer to the magistrate on such matters, since the magistrate is God’s deacon in his own sphere.
Overture 23: Chastity for Church Officers
Since 2018, the PCA Assemblies have met with the cloud of Revoice hanging over them. The 50th General Assembly overwhelmingly passed an amendment to clarify the chastity and sexual purity required of officers (elders and deacons) in the PCA:
…He should conform to the biblical requirement of chastity and sexual purity in his descriptions of himself, his convictions, character, and conduct.
There was little debate on this matter as 69% of the Assembly voted to close debate after hearing only one speech (that of TE Stephen Tipton of Gulf Coast Presbytery).2 There was apparently little need to debate the issue further. Overture 23 passed by a vote of 1673-223 (88.2% in favor).
If this amendment is ratified by the PCA Presbyteries, it should make the PCA entirely inhospitable to the Saint Louis Theology/Side-B/ “gay-but-celibate”/Revoice Movement. This amendment requires not merely celibacy, but chastity from church officers. It seems many of those who had long-opposed attempts to tighten and clarify our standards on sexual purity have now reached the point where they recognize the urgency and propriety of doing so. This is a matter for thanksgiving!
Overture 26: Ordination, Titles, and Clarity
Another proposed amendment that received significant debate involved whether unordained people may be referred to as pastor, elder, or deacon. Our Book of Church Order (BCO) clearly indicates all pastors, elders, and deacons are ordained. There are many congregations within the PCA who do not follow our BCO, but instead withhold ordination from those whom they call “deacons.” Other churches address unordained staff as “pastor.” This creates confusion as well as gives a false impression of who we are as a denomination and deprives the congregation of the blessing of more ordained leadership.
The proposed amendment would add one sentence to our BCO:
Furthermore, unordained people shall not be referred to as, or given the titles of, the ordained offices of pastor/elder or deacon.3
The Bible uses words like elder (old man), deacon (servant), and pastor (shepherd) in both a technical, titular sense and a generic sense (I have given the generic sense in parentheses). The Apostle Paul references pastors as gifts to the church and gives qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Tim. 3, and Titus; this is the technical, titular sense of those words as it refers to the ordained officers of the Church.
But he also uses some of those words in a general sense (e.g., Rom. 13:4 in reference to Caesar as God’s servant/deacon).
This amendment would require churches to abide by what our BCO already requires and refrain from using generic words in a way that makes them sound “official.” This amendment is narrowly focused on the offices of pastor/elder and deacon. It does not address churches who have ordained deacons and unordained deaconesses, shepherdesses, or any other titles not connected to ordained office as those are matters of lawful latitude for the congregations of the PCA.
The Assembly approved Overture 26 by 74%. This is a good and narrow change to help us work toward greater unity within the PCA. It also represents a winsome attempt to show our brothers what their vows to the PCA Constitution require, which will hopefully help avoid sending requests for investigation of delinquent Sessions and officers (see BCO 40-5, 31-2).
Since 2019, the trajectory of the General Assembly has decisively shifted in a more Old School or “Confessionalist” direction. As I saw the votes coming in on various issues, especially the NC Report, I was stunned as to how (almost?) every vote was going “my” way (this never happens to me!). While I presume this Assembly was disappointing to many on “the other side” of the PCA from me, those from that “camp” within the PCA who spoke to me were quite gracious and showed no signs of anger, frustration, or even irritation in light of the way the Assembly was going.
This Assembly continued to solidify that the PCA will not be a nebulous “big tent” with great ambiguity regarding what is “Reformed” and broadly evangelical commitment, but instead will be a communion committed to the historic expression of the Reformed Faith set forth in the Westminster Standards.
We must continue to be involved in the courts of the Church to steward the ministry of the PCA for years to come so that, by God’s faithful grace, she may continue on this trajectory of faithfulness and integrity. This Assembly was the PCA at her best. Let us continue to “show up” and show the PCA at her best!
While in seminary, a group of us expressed our concerns and sorrows regarding the apparent trajectory of the PCA to the senior pastor of the church where we were on staff at the time. This man, a son of one of the PCA founding fathers and himself a former Moderator of the General Assembly, leaned back in his chair and he said to us, “be patient,” and then he went on to explain why the future of the PCA is one of confessional fidelity and biblical integrity and not theological broadness. He urged us to continue the course and to be committed to the PCA.
I was skeptical at the time. But to my great delight: he was right, and I was wrong. And his brother will hopefully be Moderator of the General Assembly next year in Richmond.
Another presbytery, Northwest Georgia Presbytery (NGP), was also referred to the Standing Judicial Commission, but that matter provoked neither the same level of debate on the floor nor a subsequent protest. Additionally, the issue in NGP seems to revolve around very arcane matters (e.g., the failure of a congregation to record abstentions in a congregational meeting) compared to that in MNP.
It was I who moved the previous question in order to limit debate. After the vote was taken some members of the Assembly graciously and humbly enquired why I did so and they conveyed they wanted to have the opportunity to speak in favor of the proposed amendment. I believed the Assembly’s mind was not going to be changed by further debate (after 3-4 years of extensive debate) and so we should proceed to a vote. Nearly 70% of the Assembly agreed. I encourage those who desired, but did not have the opportunity to make speeches in favor of the proposed amendment to publish the speeches they wrote for this debate at the Assembly on their personal blogs or other news outlets. If you do not have a personal blog, I would be happy to publish your speech on my Substack. Please feel free to contact me.
Editorial Note: an earlier version of this report contained an incorrect version of this proposed amendment based on an error the Overtures Committee Report. The version passed by the Assembly is now reflected in the article, courtesy of ByFaith.