10 June 2008

PCA general assembly

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is meeting today through Friday in Dallas, Texas. The General Assembly receives reports from various ministries of the denomination and makes decisions about various issues, ranging from re-drawing Presbytery boundaries to taking positions in areas of doctrine and practice.

The way in which these issues are introduced is ordinarily through Overtures being sent to the Assembly from various local Presbyteries. This year there are 19 such Overtures. Of those, six request amendments to our Book of Church Order (BCO), five ask to redefine Presbytery boundaries, four involve issues surrounding the role of women, two raise questions about the Rules of Assembly Operation (including setting up a committee to revise such rules), one is a tribute, and one asks for a greater degree of ministry to the US military community here and abroad.

Among these various Overtures, my guess is that the ones concerning the role of women are likely to be the most contentious. Two of those Overtures are requesting that the PCA General Assembly form a balanced study committee to look into the specific issue of women and the diaconate.

While the PCA, in accordance with its BCO, does not ordain women to the diaconate, many churches in the PCA enjoy the ministry of commissioned deaconesses who serve alongside ordained male deacons. In addition, some churches have a diaconate (or mercy ministry team or similar committee) composed of both men and women who minister equally, who may be commissioned (as often are Sunday School teachers or short term missionaries), but not ordained.

Furthermore, there has always been a significant minority in the PCA who have favored the ordination of women to the diaconate, especially since 1982 when the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined and was received into the PCA. The RPCES had long permitted non-ordained, but commissioned deaconesses. Also, in 1976, the General Synod of the RPCES had received a majority report that urged permitting the ordination of women to the diaconate. While the recommendations of that report failed to pass, a significant minority of the RPCES (including the majority of a couple of Presbyteries) had voted in favor. In light of the 1982 merger with the PCA, a number of these pastors and elders who favored the ordination of women to the diaconate in the RPCES came into the PCA.

This variety of views and practices has caused some tension in several Presbyteries. Until recently, it had never been an issue in the Philadelphia Presbytery - descended from a former RPCES Presbytery - from which the first Overture on the issue originated, requesting clarity through the mechanism of a balanced study committee. This Overture was followed by one from Western Canada Presbytery asking for the same action.

This, in turn, was followed by an Overture from Rocky Mountain Presbytery asking that the scope of any such committee be expanded and to also address issues such as "where women may and may not serve in the life of the church" and "establishing parameters or guidelines as to the breadth and boundary Scripture deems legitimate for women to teach men and be a part of leading in various parts of public worship."

In response to these various Overtures, the Central Georgia Presbytery sent an Overture requesting that the General Assembly decline to form such a committee, because, in their estimation, "there is no legitimate theological dispute" and, furthermore, because "there is no biblical warrant for establishing a process of 'commissioning' people to perform the duties of an ordained deacon," a practice they see as a means to "side step the plain limits the scripture."

Evidently, then, there is a spectrum of opinion on these matters within the PCA. There is also a spectrum of opinion with regard to the formation of a study committee. Among those who would like to see such a study committee, some favor it simply to bring clarity, some would like to see it draw the boundaries more tightly, and some no doubt would like to see it open up and lead to an official endorsement of more expansive practices. Among those who would not like to see such a study committee, some oppose it because the present ambiguities are favorable to their practices within the context of their own Presbyteries, some don't see any legitimate issue to be discussed, and some are worried that the PCA isn't ready for a change in polity and such a committee might set back any process of gradual change and acceptance for the place of women in the diaconate.

In light of these differences, I cannot possibly predict the outcome of these Overtures, though the discussion is bound to be interesting. As someone who doesn't have a problem with permitting the ordination of women to the diaconate, I'm still not sure what outcome I would like to see. Of course, I'd be happy for such permission to be officially granted, but I'm not sure how likely that outcome is and worry that a study committee could, in the end, actually curtail the current variety of opinions and practices.

Amid the other Overtures, one did catch my eye. That is the Overture from Blue Ridge Presbytery asking that "profession of faith declarations" be made mandatory. The current wording of the Book of Church Order makes the declarations asked of new members something optional. These declarations are asked both of new members coming into the PCA on profession of faith as well as of baptized youth coming to first communion and communicant membership. Thus, for the sake of consistency across the PCA, the Overture asks that the language of the BCO be changed from "the minister may address those making a profession..." to "the minister shall address those making a profession..."

I am actually pretty firmly opposed to this change, largely on historical grounds and with regard to the theology that this embodies for baptized youth coming to their first communion, as well as how the change would fit into the larger contours of the BCO.

For one thing, I'm not sure what the Overture is supposed to accomplish. According to BCO 57-4, a rite of public profession of faith is itself entirely optional, even if the BCO commends it as fitting and edifying. Thus, even if the PCA were to impose some sort of consistency of practice when a rite of public profession is practiced, it still would not require that it be practiced.

Regarding the Overture in general, I think it's unpresbyterian insofar as it applies to baptized children in the church. Children are admitted to the Table by the Session and their first communion is itself their public profession of faith, without the addition of any further ceremony.

The Presbyterian churches had a discussion over this already in the 19th century. At that time the discussion arose in the context of whether or not baptized non-communicants were subject to church discipline. Traditionally, they were seen as objects of discipline, especially the positive discipline of godly admonition and Christian nurture, though subject to being put out of the church and excluded from the Table should they grow up to publicly renounce their baptismal obligations.

The older Presbyterian practice was that when baptized children "come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord's body, they ought to be informed, it is their duty and their privilege to come to the Lord's Supper" (Directory for Worship 9.1).

The, then novel, practice of public profession of faith for baptized children was carried into Presbyterianism from the practice of the New England Congregationalists and became a growing practice among Presbyterians during the middle of the 19th century. It met with significant resistance as without precedent and unpresbyterian.

As something officially sanctioned, public profession for covenant children first shows up in 1865 in a revision by the New School General Assembly, though even there it was offered as something optional and left up to the discretion of local Sessions as to precisely how it would be carried out. This optional status and local character is preserved by our current PCA BCO and I see no reason to change it, unless to make its optional character even more clear.

After the New School reunited with the Old School, the General Assembly of 1872 added the caveat that if a public profession of faith for covenant children was practiced, it should be carried out in a way that distinguishes the rite from the one used with adult converts, since baptized children, unlike converts, are already members of the church and are only coming to the exercise of a right they already enjoyed as baptized persons - that is, sharing in the Lord's Table.

At any rate, that's the history. Given the history I would be opposed to any change in the PCA BCO that seeks to regularize and impose a practice that is questionable to begin with.

Moreover, since this change would also apply to the baptism of adult converts, I think in such cases churches should have the freedom to use more historic rites of baptism that, for instance, make use of renunciation of the world, flesh, and devil and profession of the Apostles Creed.

Whatever the case, these are the main issues facing the PCA General Assembly this year in Dallas. We should be in prayer for the commissioners as they seek the good of the wider association of churches, as they move forward in the effective ministry of the gospel to our broken world, and as they wrestle with issues that are potentially contentious.

From the Scottish Book of Common Order:
Almighty God,
your Son promised his disciples
that he would be with them always.
Hear the prayer we offer for your servants
now met in General Assembly.
May your Holy Spirit rest on them:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Grant them vision and courage;
unite them in love and peace;
teach them to be trustworthy stewards
of your truth.
And so guide them in all their doings
that your kingdom may be advanced,
your people confirmed in their most holy faith,
and your unfailing love
declared to all the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.