The 44th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met from June 20-23, 2016. Responses to its actions ranged from trivial humor to full approval to serious concern.
A new denominational logo, which depicts a cross and an open Bible, occasioned social media remarks noting a resemblance to the helmet of Boba Fett, a Star Wars character. Even the Washington Times picked up the story, running a brief online article that cited tweets and featured a photoshopped image posted by the Facebook group, “Presbyterian Memes.”
The social media spate about the logo quickly faded, but some responses to other actions continued. The GA’s more significant actions dealt with racial reconciliation and the role of women. It also received noteworthy information regarding sexual brokenness and a department name change at Covenant Theological Seminary.
Racial Reconciliation was discussed at length on the final evening of the 2015 GA and came before the 2016 Assembly in the form of 43 overtures. Many of them echoed sentiments found in others, and the Overtures Committee incorporated elements from several into one, which commissioners approved.
The document, “Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advance of the Gospel,” stated six resolutions. The first two recognized, confessed, condemned, and repented of “corporate and historical sins” in the past and “continuing” racial sins as well as “failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures” and “lovingly confront brothers and sisters” concerning racial sins. The third reaffirmed the GA’s commitment to racial reconciliation for God’s glory and the gospel’s furtherance. The fourth urged congregations and presbyteries to inform members about the resolution in order that they may “prayerfully confess their own racial sins” and strive toward reconciliation for the gospel advancement, the love of Christ, and the glory of God. The fifth brought attention to a pastoral letter (contained in Overture 55) as an example of how to provide leadership toward reconciliation. The final resolution reminded churches and presbyteries of sections in the Book of Church Order (BCO) that provide means for dealing with persons who continue to sin in these areas.
Some commissioners objected to the listing of continuing sins as inaccurate reflections of current practice. Others seemed to protest the practice of confessing past sins as a denomination. Rev. Reed DePace, pastor of First Presbyterian, the Church at Chantilly (Pike Road, AL) addressed this aspect in a guest post at Lane Keister’s “Greenbaggins” blog.
He wrote, “Regarding the issue of our denomination’s repentance for sins in the Civil Rights era, this is the most common objection raised by those who sincerely disagree with actions taken at the PCA 2016 General Assembly.” He believed it’s not that they fail to recognize the need for repentance, but rather “they do not agree with what we might call corporate-historic repentance.” He made a case, based on biblical models, why such a practice is “biblically valid” and applies to this matter.
Commissioners additionally approved the formation of a study committee to recommend specific steps toward racial reconciliation and the advance of the gospel. The GA also voted to create a PCA Unity Fund, administered by Mission to North America (MNA), to “raise up” future church leaders from minority groups.
Role of Women
Against advice and over many objections, a study committee was established to examine the role of women in the PCA.
The proposal for a study committee came from the PCA’s Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC). The Committee of Commissioners (CoC), which functions in an advisory capacity for the GA, recommended against a study committee for two reasons: 1) the matter had been clearly decided in 2009, and 2) this issue had not come before the GA in a proper manner. The 37th GA in 2009 had stated that “the question of the role of women in the church is not a new or unstudied issue” and a study committee would be “unlikely to break new ground or shed new insights.” Both the 36th and the 37th GAs declared the “appropriate ways to bring” such issues before the GA are “through presbytery overtures” to amend the BCO and “the preferred method” of calling for “study committees should be through the Presbyteries.”
Many commissioners agreed with the CoC, 26 of them filing a formal protest. According to a June 28 report by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at ChristianityToday.com, protesters included Dominic Aquila, President of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs, CO, Andrew Barnes, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, MO, and Dr. Joseph Pipa, Jr, President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Stated Clerk L. Roy Taylor reported that the GA approved a response to the protest, which called it a “grave mischaracterization of the action.” On July 7, GPTS online published an extensive report about President Pipa’s protest, relating the GA’s response to it. Dr. Pipa left the hall shortly before midnight, during the closing session. After his departure, those favoring the study objected to the protest (that had already been received) on grounds it included ‘”intemperate language” (which may not appear in protests).
The GPTS report continued: “The objectors, led by World magazine founder and former G.A. moderator Joel Belz of Asheville, N.C., charged that Dr. Pipa’s claim that the study committee was being created ‘with no apparent respect to Scriptural or Confessional parameters’ was intemperate. The Assembly overwhelmingly accepted the objection, while still registering the Pipa protest, the result being that both the protest and the objection to it were accepted by the Assembly.”
The GPTS report fleshed out points of the protest as well as GPTS policy, which allows women to obtain degrees that do not lead to ordination. It concluded with moderate remarks from Dr. Richard Phillips, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, in Greenville, SC: “Given the way that gender roles have served as a battering ram against the walls of biblical authority in so many Protestant denominations, progressives should not be surprised that conservatives feel threatened by this initiative. Moreover, conservatives were alarmed that this motion originated not from a presbytery but from the denominational headquarters and were distressed when the moderator overruled a procedural objection against the action. Actual events should relieve much of this anxiety, however, as our well-respected moderator appointed a study committee that is amply stocked with complementarian stalwarts.”
According to By Faith’s online article, the study committee was to be composed of men and women, representing “the diversity of opinions” within the PCA, and would explore issues of: 1) the biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination; 2) the biblical nature and function of the office of deacon; 3) clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses; and 4) should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, to propose such changes for the GA to consider. The committee is to propose a pastoral letter that could be sent to the churches, encouraging them to promote the practice of women in ministry, appoint women to serve alongside elders and deacons in the pastoral work of the church, and hire women on church staff in appropriate ministries. A $15,000 budget was recommended for the committee.
The 44th GA received a report from the subcommittee on Sexual Brokenness in a Fallen World, which addressed the issue from a pastoral perspective and listed resources. Many commissioners attended and appreciated a seminar on the matter of human sexuality.
Covenant Theological Seminary
The PCA’s seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, has changed the name of its Systematic Theology department to Missional Theology.
Rev. Terry L. Johnson, pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, expressed his concern about this and other GA matters in a post on the “reformation21” blog. “Missional is a fashionable term of recent coinage. This, of itself, is enough to raise suspicions,” he writes. “I heard the discussion while present on the floor of the Assembly and was alarmed, not comforted.” Although he has been assured the curriculum was not reduced, he remains concerned that incorporating “missional themes” may occupy “time and energy otherwise devoted to traditional” systematics curriculum, with a possible result of diluting “commitment to core dogmatics.”
Stated Clerk Taylor described three evening worship services as highlights of the GA. Dr. Tim Keller, Dr. Thurman Williams, and retiring moderator Jim Wert (a ruling elder) spoke at the services. Keith and Kristy Getty presented music one evening.
The 44th GA took place in Mobile, AL. The 45th PCA GA is slated for June 12-16, 2017, in Greensboro, NC.
The above is an edited version of an article that appeared on pages 9-11 of the August 24, 2016, issue of Christian Renewal.