The following article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pp. 22-23 of the July 27, 2011, issue of Christian Renewal. Photos by “pcagal” linked from PCA GA website.
When the 39th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met from June 7-10, 2011, funding matters turned out to be a non-issue, while paedocommunion turned up as a surprise issue. This year’s GA also decided to study the “Insider Movement” and membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NEA).
James River Presbytery hosted the PCA GA at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia. Daniel Carrell, an attorney and a ruling elder from Stony Point Reformed Presbyterian Church of Richmond, VA, was elected as Moderator. In Presbyterian terminology, “ruling elder” differentiates function from that of a “teaching elder” (minister). Dr. Roy Taylor, who served for many years as a teaching elder and as a seminary professor, has served as Stated Clerk to the General Assembly since 1998.
“This year’s Assembly was without controversy. It was by far the most uneventful GA I have participated in during my seven or so years of attendance,” wrote Rev. Jason Helopoulos (Providence PCA Mission Church in East Lansing, MI) in a guest post on Kevin De Young’s “DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed” blog). He added, “It was a very good Assembly. …not flashy or glamorous, but the work of the Church was done.”
Even though a controversial funding plan approved by last year’s GA will not be implemented after failing to receive the necessary majority of Presbytery votes, the funding issue comprised a major portion of this year’s docket. Six overtures and four communications proposed alternative funding plans, some specifically asking the Administrative Committee (AC) to stop funding byFaith print and online magazines. Controversy arose because the plan mandated funding of the AC, while the PCA Book of Church Order states that all giving to superior courts is voluntary.
This year the AC recommended that all docket items related to AC funding be referred to a newly appointed subcommittee of the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC). An advisory committee agreed with that AC recommendation, which then came before the GA as a motion.
Rev. Wes White, pastor of New Covenant PCA in Spearfish, SD, writes, “The motion to refer all the funding plans to the CMC funding plan subcommittee was passed without any discussion and only a few votes against it.” [Wes White’s blog is Johannes Weslianus.]
Mr. Jerry Koerkenmeier, a ruling elder from Providence Presbyterian Church in Edwardsville, IL, served on the advisory committee dealing with AC recommendations. In February, he had written a letter to Dr. Harry Reeder, chairman of the subcommittee and Moderator of last year’s GA, suggesting that the newly formed subcommittee include members who have expressed concern about the plan approved last year.
“As far as I know, this has not been done,” says Mr. Koerkenmeier, “and so it appears that the subcommittee remains comprised only of men who approved of (or at least expressed no reservations about) the last plan.”
“Still,” he continues, “at this year’s GA Dr. Reeder proposed an outline for the approach of the new subcommittee which I thought was wise.”
According to the Stated Clerk’s GA summary on the PCA website, Dr. Reeder reported that the subcommittee had decided “to begin its work by (1) reviewing the mission and responsibilities of the AC, (2) seeking to discern what the indispensible responsibilities of the AC are, and (3) seeking to discern what the discretionary responsibilities of the AC are in order to come to informed and wise recommendations regarding AC Funding.”
“Based on Dr. Reeders’ outline,” Mr. Koerkenmeier says, “I am hopeful that the subcommittee will recommend a plan which provides adequate and consistent funding for the essential work of the AC without forcing churches to fund non-essential functions (such as byFaith magazine) against their will or undermining the ‘grass-roots’/voluntary giving ethos of the PCA. In other words, I think there is some reason to hope that the next funding plan will not be another proposed tax. If my hope is well-founded, the new plan should receive broad support at both the General Assembly and Presbytery levels. This would benefit the PCA in many ways.”
The issue of paedocommunion came up in a report from the Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). Presbyteries appoint representatives to serve three-year terms on the Committee, which normally meets and completes its work about a month prior to GA. The RPR reviews minutes of Presbytery meetings and submits a report to the GA.
Although Committee members do not always attend the GA as commissioners, this year Rev. Art Sartorius (Black Hills Community Church in Rapid City, SD) was both a member of the Committee and a commissioner at the GA.
He explains that when the RPR finds an irregularity in Presbytery minutes, it reports that irregularity as an “exception,” which may be an exception as to form (a violation of guidelines or rules of order) or as to substance (apparent violations of Scripture or serious departures from the PCA Constitution, GA decisions, or “matters of impropriety and important delinquencies”).
The word “exception” is used in a couple of different senses when a man is being examined for ordination within a Presbytery. According to the PCA Book of Church Order, the Presbytery may grant an exception to a candidate’s differing doctrinal position only if it judges that his declared difference “is not out of accord with…[the PCA] system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21-4). Therefore, Presbytery can grant an “exception” to a man who takes “exception” to a particular doctrine.
At this year’s GA, the RPR noted an “exception of substance” to an action recorded in the minutes of Pacific Northwest Presbytery. That Presbytery had granted an “exception” to an ordination candidate who, with regard to the administration of the Lord’s Supper, took “exception” to the phrase “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (Westminster Larger Catechism, 177).
While Presbytery found the man’s exception “to be more than semantic,” it was not deemed “out of accord with any fundamental” of the PCA system of doctrine and he was given “full liberty to preach and teach” his paedocommunion views.
In its report, the RPR stated that the “Presbytery granted an exception which is out of accord ‘that is, hostile to the system [of doctrine] or striking at the vitals of religion.’” The RPR recommended that the GA oppose Pacific Northwest Presbytery’s ordination of the man, and the GA adopted that recommendation by a large majority.
“The recommendations of the RPR report, once acted upon by the GA, become the action of the GA,” explains Rev. Sartorius. “I believe the acceptance of paedocommunion in the PCA is not nearly as widespread as some might have thought. Personally, I think that those who hold this view are in error. Therefore, my prayer is that men who might hold this view will study further, rethink their positions, and conform to what this Church has long held since the time of the Reformation. If they cannot conform their views, I have trouble seeing how they, in good conscience, can remain in the PCA, and I trust they will reach that conclusion as well, and peaceably depart.”
Rev. Helopoulos wrote, “Frankly, I was a little surprised and overjoyed to see the overwhelming vote on Paedocommunion. This issue came ‘out of nowhere’ this year…. It’s my guess that 98% of the Assembly approved Review of Presbytery Record’s action.”
In a related issue that also came from the RPR, the GA approved a rule change requiring that Presbytery minutes noting exceptions should be recorded in the words of the men being ordained as Teaching Elders (ministers). It is hoped that this will facilitate proper review at the GA.
The “Insider Movement” advocates non-offensive translations of biblical concepts in certain mission contexts. For example, references to Jesus as “Son” are often translated as “Messiah” and references to God as “Father” are replaced with terms like “Guardian” or “Lord” in an effort to make the gospel more acceptable to Muslims. An overture from Potomac Presbytery reiterated the position of Mission to the World (MTW) that any translation altering the doctrines of the Trinity or the person and work of Christ are unfaithful to God’s Word. The overture additionally called for the formation of a committee to study and report on the Insider Movement.
The MTW Permanent Committee did not view a study committee as necessary since MTW’s current position is consistent with Scripture and PCA doctrinal standards. The advisory committee dealing with the issue, however, felt differently.
“The Committee of Commissioners recommended a study committee in accordance with the request of Overture 9,” writes Rev. White on his blog (www.weswhite.net). “That recommendation passed by over 100 votes.”
One overture before the GA asked the PCA to withdraw its membership from National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) at the soonest possible date. The Interchurch Relations Committee (IRC) will study the issue after receiving written comments from Sessions and Presbyteries and report to the 40th GA.
Additionally, the GA affirmed PCA policy not to conduct same-sex marriages, rejected a practice of designating specific Sundays for special causes, and found Metro Atlanta’s explanation of its deaconess policy unsatisfactory.
Plans are being made for the PCA’s 40th GA to be held in Louisville, KY, beginning on June 19, 2012.