By the time this report is printed, most of the readers will have heard something about the Second General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church. At the very least, they will most likely know that we are no longer the NPC, but have become the Presbyterian Church in America. Therefore, the purpose of this effort will be to consider some of the decisions made by the Assembly from a point of view that is very similar to that held by most of the readers of theStandard Bearer. This writer was a commissioner to the Second Assembly and had a first hand look at the proceedings.
The Assembly convened in the First Presbyterian Church at Macon, Georgia, which has a distinguished history, including the fact that it has hosted two other General Assemblies. One of the most interesting facts about the old church is that it was the site of a city-wide thanksgiving service ordered by the commander of the Union troops who captured the town during the War Between the States. The senior pastor of the church was so overcome by the mockery of being required to give thanks for the presence of enemy troops that he could not preside at the service. The task fell to the assistant, Rev. Goulding, who, in the face of the conqueror, boldly proclaimed the Word of God fromPsalm 137:3: “For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” I wondered, as I stood before that church, whether the courage displayed by that man would find a complement in the meeting of the Second Assembly.
I found that I was to be disappointed.
After the preliminaries, including an address by retiring moderator, W. Jack Williamson of Greenville, Ala., and the election of Rev. Erskine Jackson of Kosciusko, Mississippi, the Assembly was confronted with the problem of choosing a new name. This item was destined to occupy the attention of the Assembly for a good part of the next three days.
The problem was brought about by the threat of a lawsuit by the officers of the National Presbyterian Church and Center, Inc., of Washington, D.C. This group is a congregation of the apostate United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. They claimed that since their fund-raising efforts were directed beyond their own congregation and over thirty percent of their budget was received from across the nation, theirs was a ministry of a national character. The resolution asking the Assembly to change the name made a questionable reference to Matthew 5:40, 41, which really deals with our response to those winning a judgment against us in court. There was also reference to the court decision of the late 1930’s which ordered that the Presbyterian Church of America (now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) change its name because it was confusingly similar to the name of the group from which they had separated. All of this led the Assembly, after a few hours debate, to adopt the name National Reformed Presbyterian Church.
We thought the matter was settled. But, the next day, in response to much breast-beating by some of the brethren to the effect that we had not really complied with the spirit of our decision to change the name to avoid offending the Washington congregation, the Assembly reconsidered. After several more hours of debate, the name Presbyterian Church in America was adopted. I will mention only passingly that another objection to the name previously adopted had been the inclusion of the word “Reformed.” Some of the brethren were very uncomfortable with that word.
A third attempt to change the name was beaten back when the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to refuse to reconsider again. So, the National Presbyterian Church has officially become the Presbyterian Church in America.
The name problem did not occupy all of the time of the Assembly, though problems associated with that caused a rather gloomy spirit to settle over the meeting.
An item of business which many thought would stir extreme controversy was a report dealing with the question of the so-called “charismatic” gifts. There was surprisingly little debate about the matter. The pastoral letter which says very little except that these gifts, as related to new revelation, have ceased, was adopted as information. The Book of Church Order section which had brought on the controversy was changed from stating flatly that these extraordinary gifts had ceased, to read as follows:
Under the New Testament, our Lord at first collected his people out of different nations and united them to the household of faith by the ministry of extraordinary officers who received extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and who were agents by whom God completed His revelation to His church. Such officers and gifts related to new revelation have no successors since God completed His revelation at the conclusion of the Apostolic age.
As can be seen, there is nothing wrong with that statement, as far as it goes. However, it does not rule out the possibility that there are other extraordinary gifts, not related to new revelation, which have not ceased. This was obviously a compromise intended to keep neo-Pentecostals from leaving the church. I fear this compromise will bring nothing but trouble in the future and destroy what little purity there is in the church.
At the first General Assembly, last December, a committee had been appointed to study the question of whether ruling elders may perform the sacraments. The majority of this committee reported against such a proposal. But, there was a minority report which favored allowing ruling elders to function in this way, thereby eliminating the distinction between ruling and teaching elders. In keeping with the general attitude of the Assembly not to take a position on anything, the whole matter was committed to the Committee on Constitutional Documents for further study.
One area where Scriptural principles did win out was in the matter of the inactive roll. For those unfamiliar with this ecclesiastical queer duck, let me say that this is the roll on which are placed members of a church who have not participated in the program of the church for a long period of time. It is simply a device to escape the responsibility of discipline. The first General Assembly had eliminated this oddity. However, some who were afraid they might hurt someone’s feelings, or were afraid to exercise discipline, sought to have it reinstated. Finally acting in a decisive way, the Assembly rejected the proposal. We later adopted a specific set of steps to be taken with regard to members needing discipline.
The most explosive controversy of the Assembly centered around a proposal by the Committee on Mission to the World, and kept us in session until near one o’clock Friday morning.
The committee proposed to the Assembly that they be allowed to establish relationships with other evangelical mission agencies in order to be able to send missionaries out under their auspices. At the same time, these missionaries would maintain full relationship to the PCA and there would be a strong emphasis on allowing them to proclaim the Reformed Truth. It does not take long for one to see that this is impossible. Most “evangelical” mission agencies are Arminian to the core. Even if they will allow Reformed People to go out under their banner, it places us in a position of being tied to a group that denies truths we hold very dear. Since the missionaries going out under such a group would be governed by the rules of the group, the church gives up its proper oversight to a para-church organization.
Dr. Morton Smith, Stated Clerk of the denomination and a Professor at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Miss., rose to speak eloquently against the committee’s proposal. He pointed out that the first Assembly, in adopting “A Message to all Churches of Jesus Christ,” had taken a position directly opposite to the proposal of the committee. He cited a section of that “Message” which had been drawn from the “Address to all Churches” adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861:
The only thing that will be peculiar to us is the manner in which we shall attempt to discharge our duty. In almost every department of labor, except the pastoral care of congregations, it has been usual for the church to resort to societies more or less closely connected with itself, and yet logically and really distinct. It is our purpose to rely upon the regular organs of our government, and executive agencies directly and immediately responsible to them. We wish to make the church, not merely a superintendent, but an agent. We wish to develop the idea that the congregation of believers, as visibly organized is the very society or corporation which is divinely called to do the work of the Lord.
These are noble words. As Dr. Smith pointed out, receiving the committee’s recommendation would put us in the position of being hypocritical with regards to that statement. Later speakers emphasized the fact that Presbyterian polity was at stake; that we were deciding whether we were Presbyterians or Baptists in our view of the Church.
Spokesmen for the committee asserted that their proposal would get the message of Reformed truth into more parts of the World. They failed to note that, at the same time, they were denying and destroying Reformed methodology in missions.
The committee carried the day. Once again, the truth was sacrificed on the altar of expediency to the god of Pragmatism. Many of us, not wishing that we be partakers in this abomination, recorded our negative votes to the committee’s proposal.
I have tried to give a summary of the activity of the General Assembly with commentary. As can be plainly. seen, the Assembly took some very questionable, nay, wrong, positions. I fear that an observation made to me by the editor of this magazine is quite correct. There is “considerable strange fire upon the altar.”
Only time can tell what will happen to the PCA. The hopes for a reformed church are tied to Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and a flow of graduates from that seminary into the PCA. How ever, if plans for extension seminaries are adopted, that source may well be diluted by night-school Arminians.
You can mix ice cream into axle grease with little harm to the axle grease. But the least bit of axle grease in a bowl of ice cream ruins the whole dish. There appears to be the axle grease of error in the ice cream of truth in the Presbyterian Church in America.