Reflections on the 41st PCA General Assembly

Dear Church Family,

As I wrote about in my last email, last week was the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. It’s the highest court in our denomination which meets annually. This year there were about 1,200 delegates in attendance. There is some general information about what the General Assembly does and some links for further information in my last email; so, I refer you there if you would like to learn a little more general information. However, I thought that I would share with you this week some of my personal thoughts and reflections.

Fellowship

First of all, one of the highlights for me was the opportunity to connect with fellow ministers and ruling elders whom I have gotten to know in various places over the years. On the first night, during the opening worship service, I was surprised to find myself sitting next to a former classmate from seminary who I haven’t seen for 14-15 years. It was wonderful to catch up with him, other pastors, elders, missionaries, and chaplains throughout the week. It is encouraging to get a glimpse of what God is doing through these men, the churches where they serve, and the various ministries in which they are involved.

Seminars

Over the course of the week of General Assembly, there are many different sorts of activities. There are opportunities to attend seminars on various topics. I was able to attend some good seminars on preaching, insights into ministry to Muslims, and a special seminar on the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture presented by Ligon Duncan and Al Mohler, which was excellent. They presented a history of how this important doctrine has come under attack in the past, and the unique ways in which it is coming under attack today.

Worship Services

Each night of the Assembly (Tues, Wed, and Thurs), all of the delegates, visitors, and families in attendance gather together for a worship service. Each night, there is a different preacher (usually selected from the presbytery which is hosting the Assembly that year). The theme of the worship services and sermons this year was Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the Church, “makes all things new.”

Business

Here is a brief summary of the actions of this year’s General Assembly: http://theaquilareport.com/actions-of-the-41st-general-assembly-of-the-pca. The main purpose of the meeting of General Assembly (GA) is to conduct the business of the church. This takes many forms. The GA receives reports from the delegates of various other denominations in our nation and around the world with whom we have fraternal relations. We also receive reports from the permanent committees of our denomination and approve or disapprove their actions and requests. The PCA has nine permanent committees: Christian Education and Publication, Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary, PCA Retirement & Benefits, Inc., Mission to North America, Mission to the World, PCA Foundation, Ridge Haven Conference Center, Reformed University Ministries.

There are several other items of business, but one of the most important is discussion, debate, and voting on overtures which have come to the GA from individuals, sessions, or presbyteries. This year, there were 23 overtures (http://www.pcaac.org/general-assembly/commissioners/overtures/). With such a large group of people involved, parliamentary procedures are followed, and it can become a bit confusing as motions, substitute motions, amendments to motions, inquiries, and all sorts of things go one. If you’ve ever watched CSPAN and debates on the floor of the House of Representatives, you get the picture. If you’re not familiar with Roberts Rules of Order, it can all seem so very confusing and laborious; however, it is important work of the church and necessary for maintaining good order in the church.

As I say, it is all important work of the highest court of our denomination, but I want to just draw your attention to two items which, in my mind, are something that we all should at least be aware of:

(1) There were several overtures dealing with a trial in which a minister of our denomination (Peter Leithart) was tried by his presbytery for holding views which are commonly known as ‘Federal Vision Theology’ (the views of both the New Perspective on Paul & Federal Vision theologies were formally denounced as being contrary to the Westminster Standards by the GA in 2007). The minister who was in question was found not guilty by his presbytery and this judgment was upheld by our denominations Standing Judicial Commission (a group of 24 men from our denomination who are elected to try ecclesiastical court cases at the highest level in our denomination).

There are many in the PCA (myself included) who believe that this judgment was in error, that Mr. Leithart does indeed hold to and teach views which are not only contrary to the Westminster Standards, but that strike at the heart of the biblical understanding of justification by faith alone. There is a lot of background information which I don’t have time to go into at this point, but would be happy to do so at some later date.

However, at this point, there is a very practical issue that came to light last week. Any attempt to address this court case by the GA of our denomination was made impossible by the procedural rules that are currently in place. This means that, in practice, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the highest court of our denomination (GA) to address any concerns that it may have with regard to the actions of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). Here is a very brief summary of issues involved (with some helpful historical context provided in the comments section): http://www.bringthebooks.org/2013/06/no-court-of-appeals-for-pca.html.

(2) In 2011, the General Assembly elected an “Ad Interim Study Committee on Insider Movements.” That committee brought two reports to the GA (one in 2012 and one this year, 2013). If you’re unfamiliar with the “Insider Movement,” it is basically an attempt on the part of missiologists and missionaries to seek ‘converts’ to Christ, while those ‘converts’ continue to maintain the forms and practices of their birth and societal religions. There are many facets to the Insider Movement, but in essence, proponents of the Insider Movement argue that a person who is converted to Christ from Islam can still attend the mosque and still partake of all of the religious and social practices associated with their former faith. They are called ‘insiders’ in that proponents see them as covert missionaries to people of other faiths. Here is an excellent, recent article which explains the problems with the Insider Movement: http://www.reformation21.org/articles/insider-movements-gutting-the-bible.php.

In 2012, the GA dealt with part one of the study committee’s report. That report mainly dealt with the issue of some Bible translations which have arisen out of the Insider Movement which remove ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in the Scriptures as references to God. Proponents of the Insider Movement see these familial references to God in the Scriptures as obstacles to evangelizing people of certain faiths (e.g. Muslims). The report condemned such Bible translations and part one was approved by the General Assembly last year (http://theaquilareport.com/at-the-pca-general-assembly-ad-interim-study-committee-on-insider-movements-overwhelmingly-approved/).

In 2013 (last week), the GA dealt with part two of the study committee’s report. This report was a 163-page in-depth study of the history of missions and the Insider Movement, interaction with Scripture and Reformed theology, with recommendations for churches to help them in their evangelistic and mission outreach. There was also a 65-page minority report written by one man on the committee. The minority report “does not advocate for all that is represented as Muslim insider ministry, but it contends that there is a strong biblical basis for some aspects of insider ministries.” It was an attempt at a ‘via media’ (a middle way), embracing some aspects of the Insider Movement and rejecting others.

There was much debate over whether to receive and adopt the minority report. It seemed that about half of the delegates present were in favor of it. In the end, no final decision was made concerning these reports but they were referred back to the study committee for further improvement. For my part, this was the most disturbing part of this year’s General Assembly. The best that I can hope is that those who were in favor of the minority report either didn’t read it or didn’t understand it.

To be sure, there are many different reasons for which people vote on particular issues and I may be oversimplifying the issue, but it’s hard for me to see it any other way. What harmony has Christ with Belial, the believer with the unbeliever, or the temple of God with idols? The Church of Jesus Christ is the temple of the living God; He is our God and we are His people. “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:15-18).

I recommend the following article in which the author succinctly summarizes what I believe to be the crux of this debate: “If the vote to recommit the reports back to the study committee had not been narrowly won, the PCA would have been on record of accepting radically different ideas concerning the nature of religion, the nature of the church, the nature of conversion, and the exclusive connection between Jesus and his church” (http://theaquilareport.com/the-pca-insider-movement-report-mutually-assured-destruction/).

Conclusion

No church or denomination is perfect, yet the goal and motto of the Presbyterian Church in America is a noble one: “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, Obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.” Last week at General Assembly, we learned that there is much to praise God for in His blessing of the ministry of the gospel and the work of His Church in the PCA. And, we learned that there is still much to be done. This week, at PPC, in our sermon on Sunday from the book of Jonah we were exhorted to not be arrogant isolationists, but liberal with the free offer of the gospel to all peoples. And, through VBS this week, the children who come are being discipled in the faith. There is much to praise God for in the life of our local church, and still much work to be done, as well!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch