The PCA’s 2024 General Assembly

An Overview and an Invitation

The Presbyterian Church in America holds its annual General Assembly meeting next week. In many ways, this year’s meeting appears less controversial than those of previous years. For example, over the last few years the PCA has voted on whether to remain in the National Association of Evangelicals, how to deal with issues related to Revoice and Side-B, among other controversial topics.

There are a few overtures that have been sent to the General Assembly this year that are probably of more significance than they might seem on the surface. For example, several items are driven by concerns about how to handle abuse in the church. One, that was particularly debated at last year’s GA (47% against/53% for), is an overture that would allow atheist testimony in church court cases. Presbyterians have historically opposed allowing this to happen, as did America’s secular courts for quite some time. Seven states still have laws on the books banning atheists from testifying in court, though these laws are no longer enforced. The reason is simple, and in my view completely valid: atheists have no compelling reason to tell the truth because they do not believe they will ever be held to account for lying. This is not, of course, to say that atheists never tell the truth. Some may be very truthful people, but this is in spite of their atheism. There is no solid basis for a church court (or a secular court for that matter, but that’s another issue) trusting the testimony of an atheist. Some abuse advocates have argued that it is necessary for certain experts (who may not be theists) to testify in cases of abuse (doctors, policemen, etc.). But a fundamental confusion about what a church court even is stands behind this argument. Church courts are not the same as secular courts. Their purpose is to determine whether sin and repentance has occurred, not to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as in secular courts. The work of church courts is spiritual work that has been assigned to the elders of the church. While I understand why some would think elders are not capable of handling certain difficult cases (such as abuse), this would, in the end, be the same thing as saying that what God has ordained for his church is insufficient and unworkable simply because it is difficult (and there is no denying that cases of abuse are extremely difficult). God knew the issues his church would face when he determined that the elders of the church would be tasked with addressing them, and ruling on them.

Last year GA passed an overture that states that the “titles of pastorelder, and deacon may be used to refer only to men ordained by a church court to those offices.” This—as all overtures do—must go before GA again this year and pass by a simple majority. It is hard to understand why this would be controversial, though the majority of debate is on the title of deacon. In my view, this would have been better worded if it had disallowed the title deaconess to be applied at all, for the same reason that no one not ordained to the office of deacon (man or woman) should be so called. There is already a category of deacon’s assistant in our polity that allows unordained men and women to serve alongside the ordained deacons when special help is needed (perhaps even help that is sex-specific). Though in a fallen world this will not always be the case, service in the church should be done for the Lord, not to appear impressive in the eyes of the world. I fear that much of the angst about women being called deaconesses arises out of discontentment at service that is not publicly recognized. The same is true of men and the office of elder: faithful service in the church is for all, and should be done for the approval of the Lord, not man. We must guard our hearts against seeking titles to massage our egos, or as a way to have power and control over others. Instead, we must see offices in the church as a call to selfless service.

A proposed overture that is somewhat controversial is to make a section of the PCA’s non-binding Directory of Worship binding. This section would specify that only “qualified men” may preach in our churches. Some have objected to this addition, noting that our Book of Church order already requires this. While true, I find this a strange objection. What could possibly be the problem with additional clarity on this matter? At the worst, we will simply reaffirm something we already believe. There appears to be more involved in opposition to this overture than simply the fact that it is redundant. The questions of whether women may be officers in the church or preach are some of the most contentious and disputed questions of our day. The questions of previous ages were different: the Trinity, the natures of Christ, the Bible’s teaching on salvation. Extra clarity and careful specification was required to address those topics. The same is true today with regard to the role of women in the church. A little repetition, on such an important (and disputed) point, cannot but be beneficial.

There are many, much more detailed, evaluations of overtures and issues that will be dealt with at this year’s GA (see here for one, with links to several others in the opening). I’ve only commented on the ones that seem to me to have wider implications for the denomination.

American Reformer at GA

This year I will be attending GA as a (TE) commissioner, but also as a representative of American Reformer. American Reformer publishes a wide variety of perspectives on the pressing cultural issues of the day (even a diversity of views on the vexed question of Christian Nationalism!) as we seek to rediscover the rich tradition of protestant political and social thought. I’d love to talk with anyone interested in the work we do, so please say hello if you are so inclined. I will be at GA with my colleague Jesse Rine of the Center for Academic Faithfulness and Flourishing, who is doing vital work in the realm of Christian Higher Education. There may still be space for our social event with Grimké Seminary on Wednesday night (from 8-10pm), though you’ll probably want to sign up soon, since space is limited (sign up here). Come say hi to Jesse, myself, and our friends at Grimké. And stay tuned for more coverage of GA over the next week.

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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.

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