At the 41st General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) commissioners may have felt a sense of déjà vu as they dealt with many issues that have been considered at previous assemblies.
The PCA GA met from June 18-21, 2013, in Greenville, SC. Online reports gave the Assembly mixed reviews. Some aspects pleased while others appalled bloggers. Benjamin Shaw, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary posted his June 22 assessment under the title, “Post-Mortem on the 41st General Assembly of the PCA” at his “gptsrabbi” blog. “After a couple of days to reflect on it, and to seek to explain it to friends who weren’t there,” he wrote, “I have concluded that the event was not as bad as it seemed at first.”
Commissioners consisted of 319 Ruling Elders (elders) and 1,008 Teaching Elders (ministers) from over 700 churches. A report on the Insider Movement generated prolonged debate. Other concerns included paedocommunion, Federal Vision, and child abuse. Commissioners discussed nominations, made changes to the Book of Church Order, and formed a new presbytery.
A study committee presented the second part of a report on the Insider Movement (Part 1 had been presented last year). Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, a member of the study committee, submitted a minority report. One sentence especially of that report generated extensive debate. That sentence appeared to equate the God of Christianity with the Allah of Islam. Eventually commissioners voted to recommit the entire report for clarification of language and concepts.
This issue generated many online responses. “Andrew C,” who works in a sensitive country and therefore is not fully identified, called the GA’s action “Mutually Assured Destruction” in his June 26, 2013, article on the Aquila Report’s website.
He defines the Insider Movement as a “missiological creation” teaching that people “come to Jesus most effectively when they do not leave their families, communities, and (here is the rub) their birth religions. Translation for those who do not know ‘anthropology-speak’: Rather than going to Jesus outside the camp (Hebrews 13:13) in faith, and leaving behind their former way of life, including their religious practices, converts are urged to remain inside their former religious affiliations.”
Having read the majority and minority reports, Andrew believes the minority report promotes the idea “that being a nominal Muslim was better than being a strict one…that one kind of Muslim was further away from God than another. Two questions came to mind: Is there any such thing as a Muslim not fundamentally shaped by religion? And is there any such thing as an Islam closer to God than some other form of the same religion?”
He noted how tensions rose during debate concerning the Arabic word for God: Allah. The emotional discussion “tangled up two ideas: (1) That ‘Allah’ is an Arabic word and (2) that the God of Muslims is or is not the same God worshiped by Christians.” He adds, “Jabbour and other’s use of Allah is not wrong because it is an Arabic word. It is wrong when it obscures the fact that a religion of light cannot also be a religion of darkness.”
Rev. Mark Bates, Village Seven PCA in Colorado Springs, CO, responded with a June 29, 2013, article on the Aquila Report. “In reading the critics of the Minority Report,” he wrote, “one is left with the impression that the Minority Report is saying that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God and therefore essentially the same faith. The Minority Report says no such thing. That is a misreading of the clear intent of the author. If that were the case, there would be no need to evangelize Muslims. The Minority Report (and those who supported it) would clearly affirm that salvation is only found in Jesus and one cannot worship the true God without coming through Jesus. Furthermore, the Minority Report states that Muslims recognize the true God ‘when the veil is lifted from their eyes and Muslims see Him as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (p. 2329, line 26). That is, they cannot come to know God apart from Jesus.”
In a June 22 post on his “Green Baggins” blog, Rev. Lane Keister, Pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, SC, argues against the implication that the Trinity is not central to Christianity. “Folks, are we really willing to say that about the Trinity? That it is optional?”
He believes the “Allah” argument commits the word-concept fallacy. “In this case, the argument states that because we both use the same word for God in Arabic, that therefore we both pour the same meaning into the word.” But he adds, “Muslims and Christians mean something very different by the name ‘God.’ I have no problem at all with Arabic translations using the name ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ We do not argue about words, but about the meaning of those words.”
“I would argue that this very difference is an evangelistic tool. Why tell a Muslim something that we are just going to have to retract later on? It is far better to tell them of the love of Jesus Christ, and to keep on directing them there. The love of God and the grace that Christianity offers in the Gospel is a far more effective evangelism tool.”
Previous GAs had not been satisfied with the Pacific Northwest Presbytery’s rationale for granting “an exception of substance” to a minister regarding his views on paedocommunion, but this Assembly accepted the Presbytery’s response. A minority report urging its rejection failed. A similar matter from another presbytery came before commissioners for the first time, and the Assembly asked Central Florida Presbytery to explain what may be an unconstitutional exception of substance it had permitted a candidate on this issue.
Benjamin Shaw sees some “encouraging developments” in the paedocommunion debate: Central Florida’s report next year will provide another opportunity to address the issue, Pacific Northwest Presbytery (PNWP) had to “temper language” and should no longer grant “full liberty” for preaching and teaching exceptions to the standards, PNWP also made it clear that “no one” in the Presbytery currently practices or will be allowed to practice paedocommunion. “If evidence comes forth that it is being practiced, that will provide sufficient rationale for charges to be brought.” Although he admits many hoped for adoption of a minority report, he writes: “But we cannot conclude that the PCA has decided that paedocommunion is an allowable exception (in the sense of men being allowed to practice it). Thus it behooves us to pray that the SJC would favorably regard the overtures sent to it for consideration.”
Peter Leithart and Jeffrey Meyers had been tried and acquitted of holding aberrant theological views by their respective presbyteries, but two overtures requested that these matters be revisited. At the advice of the Overtures Committee, the Moderator ruled both overtures out of order since the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) had already ruled on the presbyteries’ actions and the Commission’s rulings are final. Three other overtures requesting that the GA assume jurisdiction over Leithart and retry him were referred to the SJC, which will consider the matter at an October 2013 meeting.
During the General Assembly, the Overtures Committee substantially revised a resolution on appropriate responses to child abuse. Because changes included important elements regarding mandatory reporting to civil authorities, commissioners voted to recommit the resolution.
The order of voting on nominees for the Standing Judicial Committee caused debate. Eventually, commissioners followed the customary order, voting for the Teaching Elder portion of the ballot first. Fred Greco was re-elected (2017), Grover Gunn was elected to fill out a term, E.J. Nusbaum was elected (2017), and Dominic Aquila lost re-election to Ray Cannata (2017).
This year commissioners finalized several changes in the denomination’s Book of Church Order (BCO). Licentiates will now be required to state differences with doctrinal standards. Appeals must be filed within 30 days, complaints with court of original jurisdiction within 60 days, and complaints against a higher court within 30 days of notification.
Last year’s GA voted against the practice of intinction (dipping bread into wine during communion and partaking of the elements at the same time) and voted in favor of an addition to the BCO that required separate actions for eating the bread and drinking the wine. Presbyteries, however, did not approve that amendment to the BCO so the amendment did not come before this year’s GA.
Several overtures dealt with clarifying procedures in cases of ministers deposed for scandalous conduct. Commissioners initially approved a BCO amendment permitting restoration to office of an indefinitely suspended or deposed minister by a three-fourth’s majority vote of his presbytery. They also approved an amendment requiring the higher court to accept a judicial reference from a lower court when a complaint has been sustained for failure to indict.
These actions must be approved by two-thirds of the presbyteries prior to the next GA, which would then vote regarding final approval.
In October of 2013, part of the James River Presbytery will become the Tidewater Presbytery. This 81st presbytery will include churches and mission works in North Carolina and eastern Virginia.
Last year’s Assembly had asked the Interchurch Relations Committee to report regarding the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), but this year’s Assembly seemed disappointed with the result. It reiterated its mandate and asked the Committee to clarify its guidelines.
The GA approved a closer ecclesiastical relationship with the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico. It also approved the application of the Korean Presbyterian Church in America (Kosin) for membership in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).
Benjamin Shaw concludes his online report with an admonition to the more than 1,000 registered commissioners: “[O]n the occasions when counted votes were taken, the total ranged from around 750 to about 900. That means that [many] commissioners were out doing something other than attending to the business of the assembly. Those of you who registered and did not attend the business sessions, shame on you! Particularly, shame on you if you led your church to believe that you would be going to do the work of the assembly!”
Although a few online bloggers question remaining in the denomination, Shaw wrote: “Now is not the time to be looking to leave the PCA. Now is the time to be devoting ourselves to prayer for our denomination and the substantive issues that are facing us, and that will face us in the coming years. I wonder how many of us spend as much time praying for our church as we do complaining about our church.”
The 42ndPCAGA has been scheduled for June 17-20, 2014, in Houston, TX.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 14-16 of the July 31/August 21, 2013 issue of Christian Renewal.