Last week, elders, members and friends of the Presbyterian Church in America gathered at the Koury Convention Center at the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons in Greensboro, NC, to participate in the 45th meeting of the PCA’s General Assembly. Ken Haynes and I represented Pear Orchard as elder commissioners, while John and Martie Kwasny and Rod and Jeanne Russ were there for One Story Ministries in the exhibition hall. Tammie Haynes was also with Ken to take part in the activities of the week.
You may be unfamiliar with what happens at a General Assembly. It is part trade show, part family reunion, part training seminars, and (most importantly) part meeting of the highest court of our church. The GA is an opportunity for denominational agencies and committees, as well as organizations and ministries like One Story that are connected to the PCA, to display their offerings and services so that we might learn ways we can increase our fruitfulness and participation in the kingdom of God around the world. It’s also a time to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. It was a rich blessing to get together with friends from seminary and those I’ve met since being ordained in 2003, as well as building new relationships with elders from around the country and world. One highlight was getting dinner with Kenny Foster and Jonathan Seda from Grace Dover, the church that has been such an encouragement to us as we seek to become a more multi-ethnic congregation. On Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning, and Thursday morning, seminars covering a wide array of topics are offered. We purchased recordings of all these seminars if you are interested in hearing them (visit http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Seminar-Listing.pdf to see the list of seminars offered this year).
The most important part of the week is the gathering of teaching and ruling elders to deliberate matters pertaining to the life and work of our denomination as a whole. From Tuesday evening through Thursday evening, commissioners debate overtures and motions that come from Presbyteries and permanent committees and agencies. Here are a few observations from this year’s assembly:
1. Dr. Alexander Jun was elected Moderator of this year’s assembly. Though the PCA has had Korean members for some time, this was the first time a Korean elder was elected Moderator. He is a ruling elder of New Life Mission Church in Fullerton, CA, and teaches at Azusa Pacific University in California. The growing diversity of the PCA was beautifully on display this year, particularly when Dr. Irwyn Ince, an African American teaching elder, gave a report on the committee he chaired. The sight of these two men standing before the Assembly was an encouragement for the PCA to continue seeking to reach the whole of our country with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. There was a disappointingly low number of ruling elders this year (1094 teaching elders compared to 292 ruling elders). The PCA affirms that ruling elders share an equal place in the government and oversight of the church at all levels, yet when few ruling elders attend the assembly, the denomination is prevented from enjoying their individual and collective wisdom. Perhaps it was too costly to fly to Greensboro, or too costly to take time off of work – whatever the reasons, the history of the PCA’s formation shows the importance of ruling elders to keep our church from drifting away from faithfulness to the Scriptures and our confessional standards. So it’s never a good thing when ruling elders don’t attend GA.
3. The biggest issue discussed at this year’s General Assembly was the report of a study committee on women in ministry. Based on its understanding of the Bible, the PCA allows only men to be ordained to the office of elder and deacon, and women minister to the church and to the lost in many ways. Yet there has been a minority, more vocal in the past decade or so, that has challenged our belief and practice regarding the office of deacon in particular. There has been an increasing polarization between those who believe women’s gifts are not being used by the church in appropriate ways, and those who believe churches are overstepping the biblical boundaries of what are appropriate ways for women to be involved in the ministry of the church. A study committee was appointed at last year’s GA to study this issue further, and to write a report and come with recommendations to this year’s GA. Through much debate and many close votes, we passed the following recommendations:
· That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.
· That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.
· That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.
· That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church…”
· That sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women and men of the congregation to assist the ordained diaconate.
· That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.
· That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly consider how they can affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.
These recommendations are the advice of one General Assembly to the churches, affirming what we have always held, that ordination to office is open to men only, and challenging both those who try to circumvent this belief by not ordaining any diaconate at all, and those who would keep women from using their gifts in the church in ways that are faithful to the Scriptures. As advice and recommendations (note the use of the language of “consider”), in and of themselves they change nothing about the ways that we believe or practice. For that to happen, Presbyteries would ultimately have to send overtures to future General Assemblies requesting that the Book of Church Order be changed. If and when these overtures come, and depending on what they request, I foresee even more disagreement and polarization than we currently see in the PCA. We in central Mississippi do not experience much of this polarization, since for the most part we are all on the same page in both belief and practice. But as you look at the PCA across the country, different camps and views exists. This issue of women in ministry has the possibility of being a divisive one, though I believe the report of this study committee and the recommendations that were passed will continue to hold the various positions together.
I love the meeting of the General Assembly. I’m so thankful for our denomination. God has been good to sustain us and keep us walking with Him since 1973. My prayer is that through the coming years the Lord would keep us faithful to His word, united in the truth, and committed to fostering all the gifts and graces of every member of the body in ways that are pleasing to Him and edifying to the body.