About a month ago, more than 2,000 representatives gathered in Memphis, Tennessee, for the 50th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In an historical quirk due to covid, 2023 also marked the 50th year of our denomination’s existence. In December 1973, at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the PCA was born. Its existence stems largely from initiatives undertaken by Ruling Elders to address theological drift in the Southern Presbyterian church. It is, therefore, a good exercise to mark 50 years since a number of churches and concerned Presbyterians gathered to remain faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.
Now that a handful of weeks have passed since General Assembly, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the business of the Assembly. Much of the work of the Assembly can appear irrelevant, or even obtuse, to the broader church, but that work is really an outworking of our convictions that the church is important. Because the church is important, we think that how the church operates and regulates itself is also important. When debate goes long on seemingly irrelevant wordsmithing over a proposed change to our Book of Church Order (BCO), it is helpful to remember that theological and philosophical convictions and commitments provide at least part of the explanation. I will attempt to draw these commitments to the surface as I reflect on the events of the 50th General Assembly.
Perhaps the most important philosophical commitment at play at the Assembly this past year was our commitment to a connectional ecclesiastical government. The PCA is not a hierarchical denomination, nor is it congregational. Our polity provides a certain amount of freedom for individual congregations while also submitting congregations to the oversight of regional and national bodies. The Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR), of which I am a member, is an important part of that work of oversight. At this year’s Assembly, RPR performed its standard work of reviewing the minutes of every Presbytery for the past year and noting instances when a Presbytery had strayed from our constitution. Additionally, RPR recommended that two Presbyteries be referred to our Standing Judicial Commission for follow-up on potentially significant breaches of our constitution. The GA concurred, and now those Presbyteries must address these areas of concern. Reviewing Presbytery minutes might not seem all that important, but these minutes are legal documents, and it is essential that we commit to operating according to our constitution. One way we maintain unity as a denomination is that we are able to keep one another accountable.
At the same time, the regional (Presbyteries) and national (General Assembly) bodies themselves are accountable to the collection of local congregations that they represent. More than one of our denominational committees was held accountable for acting beyond its designated authority, for example making a material policy change without submitting it to the GA for approval. This, too, is vital for maintaining unity and preserving our connectional government. Our denominational committees serve the local congregations in important ways, and they need accountability to ensure that they continue to serve in line with their mandate.
Beyond providing accountability throughout the levels of our denomination, the GA also takes up business to advance the work of the church. In the area of the church’s engagement with the world, in “cases extraordinary” the church can address significant matters “by way of humble petition” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 31.5). This year, the GA voted to “empower the Moderator to appoint a commission to draft a ‘humble petition’ for the PCA Stated Clerk to send to specified federal government officials, condemning the practice of surgical and medical gender reassignment for minors.” In my opinion, the church can be tempted to comment on every new flavor of assault on the truth as a knee-jerk reaction, but this action addresses a serious contemporary matter, an extraordinary case, worth taking up.
In addition to engagement with the world, the GA also seeks to refine our own commitments. Two of the three proposed changes to our BCO address who may properly be called a pastor/elder, or deacon as well as how pastors/elders, and deacons must be committed to chastity and purity in convictions, character, and conduct. These two proposed changes are helpful in that they give attention to the gravity of church office, which can only help to improve the leadership of the church.
To be sure, much more work was done at the Assembly, but these reflections, I hope, give you a taste for the work of the church. In my opinion, the PCA is healthy, and I look forward to ministering in this denomination for many more years, Lord willing.