Those who read the report of the Second Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, published in this paper last October, will remember that the spirit of that report was very critical. At that time, there were strong doubts whether the PCA would amount to anything even remotely resembling a Reformed and Presbyterian Church. Happily, there is cause for guarded optimism in the wake of this year’s Assembly. Certainly, it is not yet time to be at ease in Zion, but the outlook is generally brighter than some of us would have dared to predict a year ago.
The atmosphere of this Assembly was much more relaxed than at the last. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was the fact that we were not confronted with another name change, an issue which took much time and generated much heat which spilled over into other areas. The other calming factor was the leadership of the Moderator, Leon F. Hendrick, Judge of the Hinds County, Mississippi Circuit Court, and an elder at First Church, Jackson, Mississippi. His gentlemanly manner, in the finest Southern tradition, easy humor, and ability aided greatly in expediting matters.
A major part of the time of the Assembly was taken with issues pertaining to our constitutional documents. There were a number of minor changes in the Form of Government and Rules of Discipline. The only change which caused much debate was the addition to the section governing Assembly operations which limits the tenure of members on Permanent Assembly Committees to one full term or two years of a partial term. This was done to prevent any one man, or group of men, from establishing a private power base. Anyone who has served the allotted time will have to step down for at least a year before he is eligible to serve on the same committee again. These committees, the major ones dealing with Administration, Christian Education, Home Missions, and World Missions, are charged with implementing the programs of the Assembly. They have only delegated, not discretionary powers.
Work was also completed on the Directory for Worship, though there are still some issues to be cleared up with regard to the relation of our secondary standards to our primary standards and how binding each of these are upon the conscience of those who must take ordination vows.
In connection with the debate on the Directory, there was an attempt to get official approval for the “invitation system.” This was defeated. That it was brought up, however, is indicative of one of the problems in the PCA. There are those whose methodology is inconsistent with their professed theology. The invitation system is based on an erroneous interpretation of some passages of Scripture and a faulty understanding of man’s depravity. Particularly distressing was the fact that one of the men who spoke in favor of it compared the office of the Minister of the Word to the job of a salesman, and our Lord Jesus Christ to the product the salesman tries to get people to buy. That approaches, if it is not indeed, blasphemy.
Another high-priority item was the report of the Ad-interim Committee on the Number of Offices in the Church. Southern Presbyterianism, in the tradition of J.H. Thornwell, has historically held the two-office (elder and deacon) view, recognizing the distinction in the two types of elders (teaching and ruling), but insisting that insofar as the courts of the church are concerned, all elders sit in parity as rulers, and that no court can legally be constituted unless there are both ruling and teaching elders present. The report of the committee was a bit more radical than this. Had their report been approved, a ruling elder who later was trained, examined, and approved as a teaching elder would not have to be re-ordained. There was also a proposal that ruling elders be allowed to administer the sacraments in extraordinary circumstances, by special dispensation of the Presbytery.
As it turned out, there was a good deal of sentiment for a three-office view. And even among those who hold the two-office position, there was feeling that this report did not so much elevate the office of ruling elder as it demeaned the status of those elders who both teach and rule. There were also conflicts in the report with the Confession and Catechisms. Thus, the whole issue was re-committed to a new committee for further study, general feeling being that this was far too important an issue to be decided in haste.
The World Mission report, a center of lively, and at times bitter debate last year was also of extreme importance. The passage, by the Second Assembly, of a program of cooperation with interdenominational independent mission boards led many commissioners to that Assembly to register their negative votes.
During the past year, a manual for world missions has been compiled, which, though not perfect, is much closer to the historic Thornwellian position which many of us hold. This manual has now been sent to the churches for study and comment before final approval. Meanwhile, the Committee on Missions to the World is to follow the guidelines established in it. The Assembly adopted a program directing that emphasis be placed on church-planting ministries (which, of course, is the only function of missions, Biblically) while allowing for cooperation with independent boards in areas of service or support, such as building schools, providing medical care, etc. (which are not properly the domain of the church as institute anyway). Obviously, this is not all it could be. But most of us felt we could at least support this program, with some reservations, whereas we could not have supported a continuation of the flagrantly un-Presbyterian policies of the last Assembly. We cannot rest with this, however. The goal is a church which unashamedly confronts the task committed to her by our Lord: to preach the gospel to all those to whom He sends us. In doing this, we must maintain a program consistent with THE Biblical form of church government which is Presbyterianism. As Thornwell put it: “These officers and these courts are treated in our constitution as abundantly adequate to meet all exigencies of the Church, and to do all that God requires her to do in her ecclesiastical capacity. We profess to trace this system to the Scriptures . . . we cannot question its sufficiency without bringing a serious and blasphemous reproach upon the Spirit of inspiration.” (Collected Writings, Vol. 4, p. 149)
In other matters before the Assembly, approval was given to the concept of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). However, the Assembly also served notice that it was in no mood for moving too close to other bodies, by resoundingly defeating a proposal that the 1977 Assembly meet at a place outside of the South and in conjunction with other churches (somewhat along the lines of the OPC-RPCES-RPCNA meetings this year). Approval was also given to the joint venture with Great Commission Press for the development of a comprehensive Sunday School Curriculum, this over the objections of some who would prefer the continued use of non-denominational, largely Arminian literature from several religious publishing houses. The concept of extension seminaries, approved last year, was rejected due to cost and the fact that there is no pressing need for more ministers. Those of strongly Reformed convictions were glad to see the defeat of this because such schools, it was feared, would be low in quality and not sufficiently Reformed. Mission to the United States reported several new churches being started and the formation of two new Presbyteries: Louisiana and Ascension (the latter being in the Pennsylvania-Ohio area). An overall budget of $2.5 million was adopted for the church, nearly three-quarters of a million more than the present year, a budget which has yet to be fully subscribed.
Certainly, the PCA has not reached perfection. The optimism among Reformed men is guarded. Protestant Reformed readers will no doubt find some of the things mentioned less than thrilling (i.e. NAPARC and the joint venture in Christian Education). Being of similar views, this writer is not completely happy. There are a couple of things that should be kept in mind, however. Some of us who were not sure after the Second Assembly whether we could long remain in the PCA now feel we can stay. The advances the Reformed party made at this Assembly were as significant as that. Pray God that we may continue this trend. Also, remember that those of us who hold views similar to your own are allowed to propagate those views unmolested. The situation is not the same as 1924. Maybe this optimism will be dashed in future months and years. For now, the task is to build upon what we have, by God’s grace, been able to attain and trust Him to preserve His glorious truth.