The shore of Chesapeake Bay provided a scenic setting for the 83rd General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, when it met at Sandy Cove Conference Center in North East, MD, on June 8-14, 2016.
Throughout that time frame, this assembly celebrated the denomination’s 80th anniversary. Part of that recognition included displays and videos highlighting the contributions of six women in the OPC: Charlotte Kusche, Dora Duff, Mabel Danzeisen, Bobbi Olinger, Grace Hard, and Betty Andrews. The stories of these and other women will be featured in a book under production, Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
But one day during the OPC GA had particular significance: June 11.
Rev. Jack Sawyer said, “It was very moving to be in session on the exact anniversary date that J. Gresham Machen struck the gavel to convene the first General Assembly.” Because the General Assembly initially met more frequently than once a year, the number of Assemblies is three more than years of denominational existence.
The Bay’s glassy surface served as a metaphor for a smooth Assembly. Although commissioners sometimes became bogged down in debate, most issues generated little controversy. Issues regarding sexuality were explored in a pre-assembly conference, the Committee to Study Republication presented a unified report, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal received overwhelming support, a study committee will examine the concept of publishing a study version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in updated English, a new church school curriculum was introduced, and various committees reported positive progress.
Before the GA began, commissioners had opportunity to attend a pre-assembly conference on “Marriage, Sexuality, and Faithful Witness” at Glasgow PCA in Bear, DE. According to the daily report posted on the OPC website and written by Rev. David J. Harr (Immanuel OPC; Medford, NJ), the conference “was designed to uphold the biblical view of marriage and sexuality in light of the increasing antagonism from the surrounding society” and consisted of three plenary sessions and a panel discussion.
Speakers included Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Elder Randy Beck (PCA), the Justice Thomas O. Marshall Chair of Constitutional Law at the University of Georgia School of Law, and Rev. Tim Geiger, Executive Director of Harvest USA (a ministry for those struggling with sexual sin). Also participating in the panel was Ms. Jennifer Marshall, Vice President for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation of Washington, DC.
During a later GA session, Danny Olinger (General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education) reviewed the work of the Special Sub-committee on Marriage and Sexuality, which had organized the pre-assembly conference.
Two years ago, the OPC formed a Committee to Study Republication, the concept that the Mosaic covenant is in some way a republication of the Adamic covenant of works. This year, the Committee presented a unified report.
According to the website article by Rev. Harr, the reporter “explained that the confessions teach the covenant of grace ‘was administered differently in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel’ (WCF VII.5). There are not ‘two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations’ (WCF VII.6). So the Mosaic covenant must be viewed in substance as a part of the covenant of grace, though administered differently than the new covenant. This confessional language of substance and administration helps us to define which views of the Mosaic covenant are confessional and which are not.”
Although the report is not an official denominational statement and does not carry constitutional weight, it will be distributed to presbyteries and interested parties for study and possible guidance in examining ministerial candidates.
Trinity Psalter Hymnal
Dr. Alan Strange detailed the history behind the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, which the OPC began developing in 2006 and eventually became a cooperative effort with the URCNA. The fraternal representative from the URCNA was Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen, who served as chairman for that federation’s songbook committee. According to Rev. Harr’s report, “He praised God that this joint venture of the OPC and URCNA has provided a wonderful demonstration of the unity of the faith that these two bodies share.”
Commissioners approved three motions: the section of 428 hymns, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal as a whole, and communication of these decisions to Synod 2016 of the URCNA. It is anticipated that the new songbook will be available late in 2017.
The Committee on Christian Education introduced G2R, a revised curriculum for older elementary children that overviews the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Commissioners supported a recommendation (from Presbytery of Central Pennsylvania) that the Committee on Christian Education consider publishing a study version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in updated English. The aim would be to retain meaning while making language more easily understood, especially for those who speak English as a second language. Although commissioners held differing opinions, they agreed the project should be considered and a proposal presented to next year’s assembly.
For 2017, commissioners approve a $4.1 million budget for Worldwide Outreach, which consists of the OPC’s committees on Christian Education, Foreign Missions, Home Missions and Church Extension. Last year’s Thank Offering to support these endeavors was over a million dollars.
Four new mission works in 2015 brought total efforts to 38, according to the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE) report. Eleven new works are scheduled for 2016.
Mr. Mark Bube, General Secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions, reported on the many international fields where OPC missionaries are establishing churches. Rev. Calvin Cummings, Jr., who has retired after more than 40 years of missionary service, reviewed God’s work in Japan.
Rev. Jack Sawyer, Administrator of the Committee of Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR), introduced fraternal delegates from 11 federations: United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA), Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC), Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ), Reformed Churches of South Africa (GKSA), Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Evangelical Reformed Church Westminster Confession (ERKWB, a small federation in Austria & Switzerland), Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), and Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCAus).
“I’m very pleased with the way the GA handles the hosting of fraternal delegates,” Rev. Sawyer said. “As we space them out, they become a nice little break from the work and a highlight of God’s work in the church around the world.” He also appreciates that the OPC practices a “colloquium” style of face-to-face discussions rather than a “Facebook-type” of impersonal interchurch relations. This year’s GA approved moving to full Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA).
The OPC actively supports the work of chaplains and others in military service. This year’s GA thanked Elder Robert Coie, who is retiring after many years on the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel.
An appeal and a communication arose from a Presbytery that has been struggling with a difficult situation for several years.
The appeal came from a session after its complaint that another local session had failed to act biblically was ruled out of order by both the other session and presbytery. The appeal was eventually remanded to the presbytery to address the substance of the matter.
The communication contained three complaints, but was submitted after the deadline for appeals and complaints. Given the truncated time, commissioners decided the issues could not be dealt with adequately at this year’s assembly. The session will be permitted to bring the complaints to the 2017 GA.
A Special Committee that has been working for two years to resolve conflicts within the Presbytery of the Northwest reported positive progress. This included a resolution of repentance the Presbytery passed without dissent and its request for the Special Committee to continue working on a standby basis for another year. The GA granted that request and encouraged the Presbytery to continue moving forward in reconciliation.
A recommendation to increase the Committee of Appeals and Complaints from three members to five members was approved by this year’s Assembly and, because it involves an amendment to the Standing Rules, will need to be ratified by next year’s GA before it takes effect.
A Special Committee on Canadian Matters has been considering challenges of the OPC’s ministry in Canada, such as pastors’ pensions, tax matters, and mission donations. The Committee was able to present a preliminary report, but will continue its work for an additional year.
The GA approved changes in the OPC pension plan, which appear aimed at improving participation and performance. Commissioners also approved the formation of the Committee on Ministerial Care along with changes to the Standing Rules that will initiate the process.
Elder Paul Tavares (Covenant OPC; Grove City, PA) served this year’s GA as moderator. Rev. Ross Graham was elected Stated Clerk for another two-year term. Rev. John Mahaffy recorded the minutes as Assistant Clerk for the 18th consecutive year, and Mr. Luke Brown was elected OPC statistician for the 31st year.
The next General Assembly of the OPC is slated to convene on May 31, 2017, at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Il. The following GA is scheduled to run concurrent with the URCNA Synod in 2018.
The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-8 of the August 3, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.