Each year, our denomination convenes a General Assembly. The General Assembly is the gathering of all the pastors in our denomination, plus a delegation of ruling elders from each church. The assembly meets to do the business of the national church, but the weeklong event is more like a family reunion than a business meeting. Some people are frustrated by that and think that we need to do more work at these annual meetings, but I am grateful that our denomination doesn’t try to add unnecessary busy-work! I suspect that such an attitude would only get us into trouble.
I have been to eight general assemblies and this, by far, was the most encouraging one. Partly that was because I volunteered to serve on the overtures committee of this assembly, which is where most of the really interesting activity takes place. Our assembly—like the United States’ congress or senate—has to vote on “bills” each year (we call them “overtures”). These overtures can be as simple as requesting prayer for persecuted believers to as complex as adjusting the way that our church conducts heresy trials. Our presbyteries (the regional gathering of our churches) send these overtures to General Assembly. This year, there were 52 overtures. Those overtures then go to the overtures committee which debates each overture and suggests to the assembly how to take action on them. This is a wise middle-of-the-way approach that allows debate and discussion in a smaller group rather than asking more than 1,000 pastors to debate and discuss each issue facing the denomination.
As a member of the overtures committee I got to see first-hand how the pastors and elders in our denomination discuss the sometimes contentious issues that we are asked to vote upon. Even when I disagreed with the point of view someone was arguing for, I was generally pleased with the care and concern that the members of the committee had—for the church, for the world, and for the process that we were in engaged in. It was refreshing to hear biblical and pastoral arguments both for and against important issues. I wasn’t always on the winning side of those committee votes, but I was proud to have participated in the work and hope to do so again next year.
This year—despite there being a record number of overtures—was relatively quiet and uncontroversial. We approved of an overture that called on our churches and denomination to ensure that our children were safe from sexual abuse. We approved a study from a committee on foreign missions that identified dangerous ways in which some missionaries and missions agencies are downplaying the uniqueness of Christianity in predominantly Muslim societies. We approved of a call to prayer for Christians who have been persecuted for taking a biblically faithful stand in the protection of the unborn and the sanctity of marriage. We declined to reform the way we conduct heresy trials, but I suspect that there will be a better overture to that effect next year. We also declined to reiterate that we believe in the special creation of Adam and Eve—our doctrinal standards are quite clear on that matter and we didn’t feel we needed to say it again. We also declined to reiterate that we believe that only men can be ordained to the office of pastor and elder—as before, our doctrinal standards are quite clear on this matter.
Even though we are a small denomination (just 1,800 churches across the US), there is a lot of diversity in the PCA. Some of that was on display this last week as guys with earrings and tattoos from urban churches sat next to, sang with, and prayed with guys…like me! Sometimes people think that our diversity is a cause of alarm and some folks are worried that we’re always in danger of a church split. I’m glad to report back that I don’t think that way of thinking reflects reality. Instead, like any family, we have our differences. But the beliefs and practices that unite us are far, far more significant (and numerous) than the issues that divide us. I came home last week very happy to be part of this denomination and my prayer is that God continues to use our small church to accomplish great things for his kingdom.
[You can read about all of the actions taken at General Assembly here.]