Reflections on the 48th General Assembly

With the postponement of the PCA General Assembly (GA) for one year due to the pandemic, pastors and congregational representatives convened in St. Louis, Missouri, with a heavy load. David Talcott and I had the added pleasure of serving on the Overtures Committee, which has the task of processing most of the business before it reaches the whole Assembly for a final vote. Though neither David nor I spoke up much if at all throughout the debates, we were quite busy listening and representing you and our Presbytery through it all. On the whole, I returned thankful for the work of the Assembly and cautiously optimistic that the PCA will continue to remain faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the great commission for generations to come.

Among the matters considered, two broad issues dominated. First, the Assembly considered matters of identity. Multiple Presbyteries had requested that the GA approve changing our constitution to clarify that elders, deacons, and officer candidates in the PCA must have Christ as their primary identity. Qualifying our identity with remaining sinfulness is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. An officer or candidate who actively promotes himself as a gay Christian, for example, especially when he denies the work of the Holy Spirit in progressive sanctification, is not being faithful to the Scriptures and therefore is not qualified for office.

Technically, there were two related proposals that were up for a vote, but for the sake of brevity, I am only including the one related to officers in general:

Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” “homosexual Christian,” or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires (such as, but not limited to, same sex attraction), or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.

There was no little debate about this proposal, even though the Overtures Committee labored diligently to present something with overwhelming support within the committee. When this well-received proposal was debated by the whole Assembly, it was clear that a minority of the PCA remains opposed.

Please be in prayer for the PCA as this proposal is distributed for a vote by each Presbytery. In order to be officially included in our constitution, the proposed language must receive approval from two-thirds of the 88 Presbyteries this year as well as another simple majority vote at the 49th GA in Birmingham, Alabama, next summer.

The second broad issue was the balance of authority between individual congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and the various GA committees (Mission to the World, Covenant Seminary, etc.). How do we make sure each part of the church is being governed well without being improperly intrusive? In one matter, a Presbytery resisted attempts by a GA committee to interfere with how it examined men for ordained ministry. Past General Assemblies had been critical of the Presbytery, but this year the Assembly backed off and sided with the Presbytery. In another matter, a GA committee asserted its authority to determine its own policies over against the GA’s authority. In this case, the Assembly found the new policy to be problematic and affirmed its own authority to direct the activities of its committee.

While these may seem like totally different outcomes, they actually reflect a consistent position. Authority resides in the courts of the church. The Presbytery’s authority should not be usurped by a GA committee, and neither should the Assembly’s own authority be usurped by a GA committee. While this can make things cumbersome, the goal of our polity is not expediency.

The actions of the Assembly on this second issue were quite encouraging to me. They pointed to a renewed desire to take an active role in governance. There is a temptation to be passive, allowing a few to do all the work, but that often leads to a few individuals dominating matters. The fact that a record number of elders registered and attended this GA only reinforces this positive trend. Pray that the elders of the PCA would continue to remain active in their calling to shepherd the church at all levels of the PCA.

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