Reflection on General Assembly
Last week the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) gathered for her 49th General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama. The PCA was founded in Birmingham 50 years ago, and this year should have been the denomination’s 50th assembly, but because the 2020 assembly was cancelled due to COVID this was technically only the 49th assembly. Next year in Memphis we will celebrate 50 years. Overall, the assembly was encouraging. I met many elders, young and old, who were godly, wise, pious, and had a zeal for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This was the PCA at its best – sound doctrine, solid arguments, respectful debate. The main actions of the assembly reflected three chief concerns: doctrinal fidelity, personal holiness, and open-handed generosity toward those who suffer.
Perhaps the most important assembly action was hearing and receiving a committee report on how to protect the church against the danger of abuse. This report offers an open hand to the abused and a firm statement to the world. The culmination of two years of research and study, the 220 page report advised the church on how to protect the flock against abuse of various kinds: domestic, sexual, child, and spiritual. It includes an appendix with signs of abuse, myths about abuse, sample protection policies, and more. The full report is available at pcaga.org. Sessions and presbyteries around the denomination will need to study this report over the next year and consider changes we need to make for the protection of Christ’s sheep. As an initial action related to the report, the assembly approved some changes to the discipline process that help prevent abuse victims from coming into contact with their abusers as they give their testimony at a trial (overture #2021-40). I encourage everyone, if you think you are being abused or suspect someone in the church is, please speak with the elders about it, no matter how hard it feels in the moment.
Another important set of actions were the passage of several overtures (essentially proposed amendments to our Book of Church Order) related to the qualifications for church officers. As many of you are aware, the PCA has been rocked by the question of whether or not it is ok for Christians to identify as gay. There is no debate about the key questions of sexual ethics – all in the PCA agree that sex is only for marriage and that marriage is only for one man and one woman. All agree that same-sex sexual desires are sinful. We are thankful to be in a denomination where those issues are not on the table. Because of this agreement, two overtures were passed (#29 and #31) which make very clear that all elders and deacons in the PCA must acknowledge the sinfulness of same-sex sexual desires and must acknowledge the hope and reality of ongoing sanctification with respect to them. If a man doesn’t hold to those things, then he cannot be an officer.
But, beyond that agreement, there is a large divide on what language is acceptable to use in describing our experience of fallen desires. Some ministers in the PCA appear to think it is ok to identify as gay, provided you think it is wrong to act on that identity. The idea is that calling yourself “gay” is simply a way to truthfully acknowledge one’s experience of sinful sexual desires. This, they think, is showing open-handed generosity to those who genuinely struggle. Our session appreciates the concern but does not agree with this approach. The assembly also disagreed. In a fairly close vote, the assembly held that any man who describes himself as a homosexual is not qualified for office (overture #15).
It is not easy to change the PCA’s Book of Church Order. The process now is that the overtures are sent out to all 88 presbyteries, 2/3 of which must approve, and then it must again be approved by next year’s assembly. We hope that it passes, but recognize there may be more work to be done going forward.
There were other, less significant, actions taken by the assembly. We voted to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that has essentially become a political lobbying group in Washington DC. We also voted on some small changes that improve the operation of our courts and presbyteries. For some video highlights, look for the post “Great Speeches of PCAGA49” on pcapolity.com. For those who would like to see more, full videos of the worship services and business meetings are available at pcaga.org/livestream.