PCA General Assembly Recap

Encouraging News and Some Surprises

The Presbyterian Church in America met this week for its annual General Assembly (GA), where the entire denomination gathers to deliberate important, denomination-wide matters. Ruling Elder Steve Dowling was an excellent and fair moderator and business progressed in a timely fashion. One might even dare to hope that the trend of ending mid-afternoon on Thursday, as occurred both this year and last year, will continue indefinitely. This year there were fewer outwardly controversial matters debated, though some of the items up for votes were related to bigger issues (the role of women in the church, abuse, etc.).

I attended this year as a voting commissioner and was pleased with how things went. One of the items receiving extra attention is that of who may use the titles of elder or deacon. This one is important because it addresses the fact that women in some PCA churches have been called deacons, though the polity of the PCA requires that this ordained office be only filled by men. Of all the GA debates, I was most surprised by the reasoning of those who opposed the overture that would explicitly forbid the title of elder or deacon being applied to anyone not ordained to that office. One minister presented the commonly used argument that the biblical word “deacon” is applied to women (Phoebe in Rom 12:1, for example). There is a confusion in this argument between the way in which the word “deacon” is used in a more generic sense in scripture simply to mean someone who is serving others in some capacity and the specific office of deacon described in 1 Timothy 3, but what was most striking to me was that this speaker was using this argument very straightforwardly to state that the PCA’s binding polity is simply wrong about women deacons. Even if the PCA’s polity is wrong on this (I don’t believe it is), for the time being that polity is binding on all officers. The overture requiring the titles of elder and deacon to be restricted only to men who serve in that ordained office passed, but even if it had failed it would still remain impermissible to ordain women to the office of deacon, which is what this minister was arguing for. Others arguing against restricting the titles of elder and deacon to ordained men insisted that their specific cultural heritage, namely respect for older members in the church, demanded that they use biblical titles of office for those not ordained to that office. Still others simply stated that they have used these titles for non-ordained women for decades, and that it would be very unpleasant to change course now. I don’t recall hearing a single argument on this side for the permissibility of calling unordained women deacons within the rules of our currently existing polity. This, to me, only goes to show that the real issue has been a lack of enforcement of our polity in the past, not ambiguity about that polity.

One thing that surprised me this year was the failure of an overture that would make binding an amended section of our non-binding Directory of Worship. The section, as newly amended, would mandate that only qualified men can preach. The main argument against this overture was that our binding Book of Church Order (BCO) already mandates that only qualified men can preach. This is true (BCO 12-5.e), though I don’t understand why added clarity on this matter is problematic. What is more important, however, is that the reasoning used to defeat this overture proves that what was desired in the overture is already true. It is already contrary to the PCA’s polity to allow anyone other than a qualified man to preach. I suppose that if saying it once in our BCO is not sufficient to prevent women from preaching (which has happened a few times in the PCA), saying it twice probably won’t change that situation much. This, as with the issue of titles for office, shows that officially binding documents are insufficient, worthless perhaps even, without the will to enforce them. This reminds me of recent debates about the U.S. Constitution. In one sense, the Constitution is just a piece of paper. I think the Constitution provides excellent, binding parameters for America’s political life, but without the will to enforce it, it has no power at all. Officers have to hold the PCA accountable to live according to its doctrine and polity. This, to my mind, is much more difficult (and important) than endlessly tweaking and clarifying the wording of polity documents.

The biggest surprise to me, however, was that an overture from Teaching Elder Ben Inman petitioning the General Assembly to erect a study committee to examine the book Jesus Calling and whether the PCA has been in any way neglectful regarding the dissemination of this book (the author was a longtime member of a PCA church). I think there is widespread agreement that Jesus Calling is a theologically troubling book (it is a devotional written as if in Christ’s own words to the reader). The surprise of myself and many others was not that GA members would have problems with the book, but rather that an overture from a single individual not only made it to the floor for a vote, but even more, that it passed. It is very rare, perhaps unprecedented, for an overture from a single individual to make it that far, especially one that his own presbytery declined to adopt.

An overture to allow atheist testimony in church courts failed this year, though by a smaller margin than last year’s similar attempt. In one sense, I was surprised by this, but in another I was not surprised at all. The issue itself seems perfectly simple: atheists, because of what they (don’t) believe about God and his final judgment, have no compelling reason to tell the truth. In another sense, the smaller margin is not surprising, however, because this issue has been connected with attempts to deal with abuse in the church. The argument is that atheist testimony is necessary because doctors, psychiatrists, and so on, are sometimes needed to ensure that victims of abuse get justice. One speaker against this overture gave the best response: this is a confusion of the purpose of secular courts and church courts. Church courts, as strange as it may sound, do not exist to “get justice” for perpetrators of crimes. That is the God-ordained purpose of the civil magistrate, who has been given the power of the sword. The purposes of church discipline, according to the PCA’s BCO are: “the glory of God, the purity of His Church,” and “the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” The civil magistrate and the courts of the church are both good and necessary institutions ordained by God, but their purposes are different (though wholly complementary).

American Reformer was represented at General Assembly this year. Jesse Rine (executive director of the Center for Academic Faithfulness and Flourishing or CAFF) and I interviewed a number of GA attendees about issues currently facing the PCA and spoke to many more about the work of CAFF and American Reformer. We will be releasing these interviews over the next week or so through the American Reformer podcast. We also had a very well attended and enjoyable social event on Wednesday night with friends from Grimké Seminary at their Richmond headquarters.

I am very encouraged by the direction of the PCA. There will always be new challenges, and the necessity to remain vigilant in faithfully serving the Lord and shepherding his people never ends. But I believe we continue to move in a good direction on many important issues. Our actual practice as a denomination appears to be conforming more and more to our stated polity. The General Assemblies of the last few years have been pivotal in that movement. May the Lord continue to bless the PCA.

Image Credit: PCA General Assembly Administrative Committee

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

5 thoughts on “PCA General Assembly Recap

    1. They have a presbytery standing committee for which their by-laws state that minorities MUST be in the majority on the committee, while white/anglos MUST be in the minority.

      Unfortunately the speaker on the floor misrepresented the committee. He merely said that the by-laws called for minority representation (which may or may not be appropriate, but is clearly not all that the by-laws required).

  1. > The overture requiring the titles of elder and deacon to be restricted only to men who serve in that ordained office passed
    which overture is this?
    I can’t find the reference to this online

      1. Correct. The Overture was passed by GA last year, was approved by a supermajority of presbyteries after that, and then reaffirmed by GA this year. That’s the procedure required for enacting changes to the BCO.

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