I know that I could never hope to give a full, exhaustive, and comprehensive account of the PCA General Assembly. Quite simply too much happened, with too many nuances during the debates, and too many back-stories would be required for me to explain every detail adequately. At the same time, it’s important for me to give an update because the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America is your church. As Presbyterians, we believe that the (visible) church has a local expression, a regional expression, and a national expression. So, GA isn’t something that’s just for pastors, GA is the church meeting together, once a year, to address issues that affect the entire church. Of course, only elders may participate in the deliberations and votes, but make no mistake, GA is your church.
This year marked the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. Much of the week was spent in reflection and praise to God for preserving his church, for multiplying his church, and for equipping his church with faithful elders and deacons to do the work of the ministry. The worship services were, as they always are, fantastic. In particular, TE Randy Thompson brought a wonderful message on Tuesday evening from Lamentations chapter 3, and I encourage everyone to go listen to it. His text contained these verses, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” What a wonderful reminder of our great, covenant keeping God.
Every year, the first order of business at the General Assembly is to elect a moderator. A moderator isn’t “the boss.” He doesn’t “control” the Assembly. It is simply his job to ensure that the rules of debate are followed, and that the Assembly accomplishes its business in a timely manner. This year, our moderator was head and shoulders above the rest that I’ve seen. To give you some context, two years ago I attended the 48th General Assembly in St. Louis. That Assembly adjourned at around 1:00 AM on what was then technically Friday morning. Last year, a TE (teaching elder) named Fred Greco brought recommendations on how to make more efficient use of our time, and the 49th General Assembly in Birmingham adjourned around dinner time on Thursday. This year we elected TE Greco as the moderator, and we adjourned around 3:30 on Thursday. The moderator was fair. He showed no favoritism at any point during the debates. And we used our time wisely and efficiently. At the end of business, just before we adjourned, someone made a motion that we appoint TE Greco as moderator for life. The motion was out of order, but I think it may have passed anyway, had the moderator allowed it.
2022 BCO Amendments
Each year, presbyteries (and sometimes sessions) will send overtures to the General Assembly that ask the Assembly to amend the constitution of the PCA, usually the Book of Church Order. Amending the BCO isn’t easy. First, a majority of the General Assembly has to vote in favor of a proposed amendment. Then, that amendment is sent down to the 88 presbyteries of the PCA for ratification. If two thirds of the presbyteries do not vote in favor of an amendment, it does not go into effect. If they do, then the amendment is sent back up to GA for one final vote, requiring a simple majority to pass. It is very common for amendments to pass GA, but not the presbyteries. I’ve never once seen an amendment pass the presbyteries and be voted down at the next GA, but theoretically it could happen.
All the amendments that passed the presbyteries were approved by the GA on Tuesday evening. While there was some debate on the floor, none of the votes were particularly close. One such overture gives protections to victims in cases of abuse. If someone is on trial in an abuse case, the victim is not required to testify in the presence of the accused. Another set of overtures gave rights to church officers under discipline who believe they have been censured unjustly. In the old BCO, the accused only had the right of complaint (a process that can take months and sometimes over a year), but now the accused has the right of appeal (a process that takes much less time). I think that these overtures strike a good balance in our discipline process. On the one hand, we are committed to protecting victims. On the other, the accused have rights, including the right to appeal.
Overture 7, RUF, CoC’s, and Other Things That Make the PCA Great
Occasionally overtures are sent up to the General Assembly asking for an amendment to the Rules of Assembly Operations (RAO). RAO amendments are both easier and more difficult than BCO amendments, since they require a supermajority at the Assembly in order to pass. Theoretically, a BCO amendment could pass with 51% of the vote at GA, then those in favor of the overture could campaign very effectively in the presbyteries to get it to the two thirds requirement. That being said, a BCO amendment could pass overwhelmingly at GA, but then elders might change their minds before it came up for a vote at presbytery. RAO amendments, on the other hand, go into effect immediately. We had one such amendment this year.
Overture 7, sent up by Southern New England Presbytery, proposed amending the RAO to require GA permanent committee minutes to include, “A recording of information sufficient to demonstrate the Committee’s or Board’s implementation of instructions received from General Assembly and of material policies and material policy changes adopted by the Committee or Board in that year.” In other words, a permanent committee or board must tell the Assembly, in their meeting minutes, (1) how they are following the Assembly’s instructions, (2) the policies they have in place (and presumably how these accomplish the Assembly’s instructions), and (3) any changes to those policies so that the Assembly can decide whether to approve or reject those policies.
To use a turn of phrase often thrown around by the young people (at 31 years old, I think I have to start saying that now), this overture is “so PCA.” You might even say that it was the most PCA overture of this Assembly. Allow me to explain. Between the ‘40s and ‘70s, the permanent committees and agencies of the PCUS led the denomination in a theologically liberal direction, and there was practically nothing that the conservatives in the denomination could do to stop it. The official seminaries of the denomination are teaching that we do not need, nor do we have, an infallible Bible? There’s nothing you can do. The Christian Education Committee is producing discipleship material that denies a biblical sexual ethic (specifically regarding pre-marital sex)? That’s out of your jurisdiction. That’s the situation in which the founding fathers of the PCA found themselves in the final years before the formation of the PCA.
In order to keep that from happening in the new denomination, the PCA established what are called “Committees of Commissioners,” or CoC’s. These CoC’s are filled with delegates from each of the presbyteries, and it is their job to review the recommendations by the permanent committees and, if necessary, bring substitute recommendations. So, there is a permanent committee for Reformed University Fellowship. Its members are elected by the General Assembly and serve terms lasting several years. But each year the minutes of that permanent committee are reviewed by a Committee of Commissioners in order to provide review, control, and accountability. It’s the PCA’s way of reminding the permanent committees that they work for the Assembly, not the other way around.
This year, the CoC for Reformed University Fellowship found that the permanent committee had put in place a new affiliation agreement without the consent of the General Assembly. Because Overture 7 was in effect when this report came to the Assembly, we were able to stop the implementation of this new policy until such a time as the Assembly is able to review, debate, and vote on whether to accept it. Does this make the work of RUF a bit more difficult? I suspect it does. Does it make it more presbyterian, and, dare I say, more PCA? Indeed it does.
Review of Presbytery Records
You may have noticed by now that “review and control” is a very important task for the Assembly each year. BCO 11-4, states, “Although each court exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters especially belonging to it, the lower courts are subject to the review and control of the higher courts, in regular gradation. These courts are not separate and independent tribunals, but they have a mutual relation, and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole Church performed by it through the appropriate organ.” As I said earlier, we believe in one church. That church is expressed at the local level in the particular congregation, at the regional level in the presbytery, and at the national (plus Canada) level in the General Assembly. So, things that individual sessions do are important to the presbytery, and things that presbyteries do are important to the General Assembly because all of these courts have a mutual relation. They’re all different parts of the same church. At the General Assembly, the Review of Presbytery Records committee is tasked with…you guessed it…reviewing the minutes of each of the PCA’s 88 presbyteries. Having been drafted into a review of session records committee years ago, I can tell you that this is tedious work. At the same time, though, it’s important work.
This year, the RPR brought recommendations that two presbyteries, Northwest Georgia and Metro New York, be cited to appear before the Standing Judicial Commission. The Standing Judicial Commission, or SJC, is sometimes called “the Supreme Court of the PCA,” but that’s not exactly right. Basically, in our 88 presbyteries, judicial matters will arise, and some of those will be taken to the General Assembly. Perhaps the person under discipline thinks that the lower court erred in its verdict. Perhaps someone believes that his presbytery erred in taking (or not taking) a particular action. Perhaps something is so controversial that the lower court thinks themselves unfit to try the case. All of these circumstances could bring a church discipline case to the General Assembly. The problem, though, is that the Assembly this year had 2,290 commissioners. That’s a very large group to be hearing a case, especially a case important enough to be taken all the way to the General Assembly. To solve this, the Assembly appoints a commission (a group empowered to act on behalf of the Assembly) to hear all judicial cases.
Getting back to RPR, the committee recommended that these two presbyteries be cited to appear before the SJC due to unconstitutional proceedings in their minutes. In Metro New York, a woman stood in the pulpit during a Lord’s Day service to give what the session insisted was a Bible study, not a sermon. However, the Lord’s Supper was then administered, creating several problems. First, we do not believe that the sacraments can be separated from the preaching of God’s Word. Let’s imagine a different scenario to illustrate why this is important. Imagine that a young couple in the church calls me and says that the baby they’ve been expecting has just been born, but the doctors are telling them the child is dying. They want the child baptized, but they need me to come to the hospital right away. In order for me to honor the request, I would need an elder to come with me, we would call a worship service, I would preach a baptism sermon, and then I could baptize the child. Anything less than that would be contrary to what we teach about the sacraments. So, in the case of Metro New York, one of two things took place in this church. Either the sacraments were administered apart from the preaching of the Word, or the word was preached by someone the Scriptures (and our constitution) would forbid from doing so.
Now, in Northwest Georgia the case is a bit less clear. From what I can gather, there was a congregational meeting to call three men as associate pastors. In the minutes of the meeting, no record was made of how many people abstained from voting. This was important because, at the time, a majority of the voters present was required to call a pastor. Without knowing how many people were there, you can’t know if the votes constituted a majority. Though this may seem pedantic, it’s worth the Assembly obtaining an explanation. As Presbyterians, we believe that it is the right of the local congregation to choose its officers. As such, it is important to ensure that all things are done decently and in order when a congregation calls men to be their officers. Associate pastors are voting members of the session, so it is a good thing that the Assembly is seeking to ensure that they were called and installed in a way that was in good order.
I have no idea how either of these cases will be decided. There could be more information in the case of Metro New York to which I’m not privy. Same thing with Northwest Georgia. This is, once again, very presbyterian. I trust the men appointed by the Assembly to the SJC to be fair, impartial, and wise in deciding these cases. May God guide their proceedings and bring them to decisions that bring him glory.
Finally, presbyteries, as they do every year, sent overtures to the Assembly, asking the Assembly to take certain actions. There can be overtures asking the Assembly to do something, and there can be overtures asking the Assembly to say something. We’ve already looked at some overtures asking the Assembly to do something, but there were two important overtures asking for statements by the Assembly. One of these asked the Assembly to reaffirm the Message to All Churches from the 1st GA back in 1973, which has sometimes been called the PCA’s “Declaration of Independence.” This is a beautiful statement of our commitment to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission, and I was happy to see it pass.
The other overture asking the Assembly to say something was what I like to call the “humble petition” overture. This is a reference to The Westminster Confession of Faith 31-4, which states, “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” Evangel Presbytery sent up an overture asking the Assembly to send a humble petition to the government asking for an end to so-called “gender transition surgeries,” especially on minors. It’s not often that the PCA, or any other Reformed denomination will petition the government for any reason. In order for that to happen either the government must specifically ask us to do so, or the situation must be so extreme (or extraordinary, to use the confession’s language) that we feel we must speak to the matter. The Assembly decided that the current cultural climate around transgenderism constituted a “case extraordinary,” and the moderator was empowered to create a commission to draft the petition on behalf of the Assembly.
Some other BCO amendments were debated as well. Overture 23 proposed adding a statement to BCO 8-2, which addresses the qualifications of those ordained as elders. The proposed addition would read, “He should conform to the biblical requirement of chastity and sexual purity in his descriptions of himself, and in his convictions, character, and conduct.” This overture is (hopefully) the end of the now five year long attempt by the PCA to address the Revoice Conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church in 2018. I’m hopeful that this final statement will put the matter to rest and leave no doubt as to where the PCA stands on the topic of sexual purity. While the overture must now be sent down to the presbyteries, I’m hopeful that, given the fact that it passed the Assembly by a vote of 1673-223, it will pass the required two thirds of presbyteries.
Overture 26, which passed by a vote of 1427-481, proposes adding the following sentence to BCO 7-3, “Furthermore, unordained people shall not be referred to as, or given the titles of the ordained offices of pastor/elder, or deacon.” I believe this is a good amendment to the BCO, and I look forward to our discussion of it over the next year. Though it passed overwhelmingly at the Assembly, it remains to be seen if the presbyteries will see fit to vote in favor of it. Many times a proposed BCO amendment like this will go through many “incarnations” before going into effect, which allows us to get the best language possible for the BCO. In fact, there were many other proposed amendments that were simply sent back to the presbytery “without prejudice,” which is the Assembly’s way of saying, “We like this, but it needs work. Bring us back a better version next year.”
The longest debate over any of the overtures this year surrounded Overture 13, which proposed amending the BCO to allow atheists to testify in ecclesiastical trials. BCO 35-1 states, “All persons of proper age and intelligence are competent witnesses, except such as do not believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” Overture 13 sought to amend this statement in order to allow the possibility of testimony from atheists. This is, to say the least, a complicated issue. For one thing, witnesses in our trials are asked to swear an oath. An oath calls God as witness to the truth of the statement given. An atheist cannot do this. Also, as I understand it, this provision has never hindered a court of the church from conducting an investigation or trial in the PCA. I’m told it’s simply never been an issue. At the same time, I believe that the writers of this overture had good intentions, and I believe our brothers in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church have shown that it is possible to loosen witness requirements without losing biblical fidelity.
The debate over this overture was heated, but edifying. The overtures committee put forward a motion to answer in the negative (and therefore not amend the BCO), but a minority report was presented which recommended answering the overture in the affirmative. I would highly encourage church members and officers alike to go listen to the floor speeches by Jay Bruce, Howie Donahoe, and Jason Piland. Each of these men argued different, but, in my view, equally valid points. The minority report failed by a vote of 871 in favor, 999 against, and 30 abstaining. It was the closest vote of the Assembly. Overture 13 was ultimately answered in the negative, but my hope is that (1) we will all benefit from the debate that took place at the Assembly, and (2) that perhaps another overture will make its way to the Assembly next year.
The Father is watching over his church. Christ is building his church. The Holy Spirit has raised up godly men to shepherd his church. Our triune God has been faithful to the PCA for 50 years, and I do not believe he has any intention of stopping now. May we as elders be ever diligent in our study, bold in our preaching, caring in our shepherding, and unrestrained in our praise. May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip us all with everything good that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
 Let me state for the record, as one whose wife is pregnant, this hypothetical would be heartbreaking, and I pray it never happens.