PCA GA: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

I am finally starting to feel like myself again (on Saturday evening) after returning from Dallas, Texas for the 36th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (the denomination I serve). Should you desire you can watch the archived webcast of any part of the assembly. Here is my take on this past week.

The Good:

  • General Assembly affords an incredible opportunity for renewing old friendships and making new ones. I enjoyed being able to see several seminary classmates and spend some time with old friends. This usually includes good conversation over a shared meal – just think of how much of Christ’s ministry took place over a meal.
  • Seminars: a few years ago seminars on a large variety of topics and issues were added to the schedule and I find this to be one of the best parts of the assembly. Every now and then I hear someone say that they don’t like the seminars because it is not the purpose of this gathering (i.e. to do the business of the denomination), but these do not have to be mutual exclusive and the seminars provide a unique opportunity to benefit from the vast gifts of teachers, pastors, and ministry leaders throughout our denomination.
  • Another one of my favorite parts of GA is hearing about what the Lord is doing through the various ministries/agencies of the PCA, usually through informational reports. In some ways, this is the best part, because we get to celebrate the Kingdom of God advancing around the world through our denomination (for sure we are just a part of that and maybe even a small part, but this is still a most encouraging time during GA

  • All three worship services were excellent and good food for the soul. My favorite service based on my preferences was Wednesday’s service, which included worship music led by the Getty’s (composers/writers of my favorite newly written hymn – “In Christ Alone”) and Dr. Phil Ryken from historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia preaching. That said, all the services and particularly the preaching of God’s Word was excellent.
  • There were no difficulties while traveling – we made it everywhere we needed to be safely and on time. I am very thankful to the Lord for this grace, especially given all of the things that often go wrong.
  • The arrangements at the Hyatt Regency was very nice and worked well for us.
  • Several good times spent with my partner and friend in ministry at Calvary.
  • I got a few books, including Running Scared – this may be the next book of the quarter at church and next “blogging the book” selection. I started reading William Still’s The Work of the Pastor on the flight home. I did show remarkable restraint, I think, not buying too many books. It helped that I didn’t have a lot of room in my bags.
  • The overall tone and tenor of the assembly was good. Though there was tension and disagreement over one particular issue, there was very little said that was divisive or belied animosity.

The Bad:

  • The travel arrangements (which I made!) left something to be desired. Both on Tuesday and Friday, we had to be awake by about 4:30am to make it to the airport for early morning flights. This made for a 20 hour day on Tuesday. Wednesday was also about an 18 hour day when all was said and done. So, by Thursday night I was dragging.

The Ugly:

  • In the assembly hall and elsewhere, there were large triangular-like banners of some sort. The problem is that they look liked the Star Trek communicators that the crew where on their chest. On Tuesday, three of these things were randomly arranged behind the main platform and later they were pulled together and they looked like a crown. I can only hope they belong to the hotel and not to the PCA.
  • Hopefully I wasn’t too ugly in the early morning hours on Tuesday and Friday

As this doesn’t necessarily fit into the categories (good, bad, ugly) that I am using: -I will speak on the main issue of debate at GA this year here: whether to erect a study committee on deaconesses as overtured in some form or fashion by four presbyteries (three for it and one against). The recommendation of the Overtures Committee (OC) was to answer overture nine in the negative (Within the committee itself, the vote was somewhat close – 44-31-2). Overture nine, from the Philadelphia Presbytery, was the first to raise this issue and the others were answered in reference to this one. A minority report was also produced and helped to shape the debate. First, the OC chairman made the arguments or grounds of the majority: (enumerated as I wrote them down, not necessarily as presented)

  1. This is not a new issue and has been previously settled
  2. This does not match up with how study committees have been used previously
  3. The Book of Church Order, which is based on Scripture, is clear. BCO uses the language “according to Scripture”
  4. Study committee would only lead to 2 reports and result in further division
  5. There are other avenues to raise this issue, particularly through presbytery overtures to amend the BCO (BCO 41). In this regard, we trust our presbyteries.
  6. Not the time to raise another controversy, as we are healing from more recent controversies (not sure if any in particular were named, but certainly the subscription debate is in mind

The chairman’s argument was clear and well-reasoned. It also did not bring up some of the more vitriolic arguments that have been made with regard to this issue (e.g. this will result in the PCA becoming like the PCUSA). The presenter of the minority report, Bryan Chapell – the president of Covenant Seminary, was also gracious and helped set the tone for the floor debate. Here was the rationale he used for the assembly to accept the minority report to erect a study committee (again enumerated myself):

  1. Not all in the minority report are in favor of “change”. This is opportunity to study the issue and possibly further cement the PCA’s current stance.
  2. A balanced committee is recommended (with learned men known to be on both sides of the issue) and would help strengthen our understanding.
  3. There is a limited intent of the study. There is no desire by anyone to study or allow ordination of women to the office of elder.
  4. Desire by all to be bound by Scripture
  5. Committee is not charged with producing resolutions – instead that would and should come through presbyteries in light of the study.
  6. It could demoralize part of our body to say that you can’t even talk about this issue.
  7. Need to listen to each other now, for future overtures will come.

In both cases, I thought there were good arguments, but was ultimately persuaded to vote for the minority report. I voted this way, because I do believe we need to begin the discussion now as it will come back again in future years. Additionally, we do not have a very good vehicle for having theological and theoretical discussions. Despite statements that Scripture or the BCO is clear, there are good men and good churches that feel otherwise and that the study committee is needed to help us understand both Scripture and appropriate practices based on that study.  Ultimately, however, the minority report was voted down and overture nine was answered in the negative.  Though I voted for the minority report,  I personally do not have a strong exegetical stance on the topic of deaconesses and do think that it is important for churches to honor their commitment to our denominations constitution (which includes the BCO). This vote does provide an opportunity for many “studies” to take place in our presbyteries, but we should not expect all to take this up and there may be men who might be scared to try to do so.

In some ways, this is growing pains. The PCA is no longer a southern church only or even predominantly southern church (geographically speaking). Also, we have more and more churches present in urban settings (instead of just rural or suburban). Finally, we have many younger ministers and leaders who respect the fight for and formation of our denomination in the last century, but did not participate in that and cannot have the same depth of feeling.

I was disappointed by the vote, but not distraught. The tone of the whole debate was very important for how I and others felt afterwards. I do hope that churches, that feel like they were just denied a seat at the table, will stick with the denomination and not jump ship (so to speak). I do not think this issue rises to the level of that kind of reaction, though some would probably disagree with me. Others would even say that they should leave. Instead, I hope these churches and even presbyteries will help us work through this issue in the future in ways that are God-honoring, Scripture-bound, and Church-edifying.

Other places to read about GA (especially the deaconesses issue):

One response to this post.

  1. Adam,

    This is a good summary. There was more “good” than can be enumerated or easily explained, at least for me. This included several opportunities to pray with some fellow pastors who are facing transitions and trials.

    Regarding the debate over the study committee. Your summary is good. If anyone feels they must leave the denomination because the vote didn’t go their way (it didn’t go mine either, I preferred the minority report), I would see this as woefully short-sighted. That sounds strong… but hopefully that opinion isn’t really held by anyone in seriousness. And if it is, either they or I need a serious change of perspective.

    Ultimately I see this as generational, which you also mentioned. So we who are in the (slightly) younger generation, who would like to see these matters addressed in a fresh way, can honor our elders and not – as a mentor used to say – “take our ball and go home.”



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