My Thoughts on the 2013 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America

What struck me as unique about this GA was the party spirit of those in control of things

There was little mood for unity evidenced by anybody at this GA. The mood was set by the opening sermon by the outgoing moderator, Mike Ross. It was a provocative sermon on the sin of conservatism. Rev. Ross has always been one of those whose style from the pulpit is confrontational; in any other context the sermon theme might be considered a healthy challenge to self examination. But sermons are not preached in a vacuum. Considering the obvious anxiety many conservatives had over the direction of the PCA coming into this year’s GA and the strained relationship the theme had to the text, it could not help but be heard as a direct attack. And it was.
General Assembly (GA) seems to be the gift God gave to make Presbyterians miserable in this present world and long for the world to come. If true, then this GA was particularly successful.

There are many places one can go to get an accurate roundup of the actions of GA—those who thought it was the end of the PCA, those who thought it could’ve gone better, and those who thought that everything was a smashing success.
From my perspective the story is not the actions of GA particularly. The actions were pretty much laid out before us before GA convened. GA is a well oiled machine and its actions are usually outlined a month of so in advance.

Sometimes the floor moves things in a different direction, but rarely with significance. This is not to say I am pleased with the actions of GA; I am not. I think they were bad decisions for our life together as a confessional church. But, except for the minority report on the insider movement (which we deferred for another year), there were no surprises.

What struck me as unique about this GA was the party spirit of those in control of things (I will refrain from using a left/right analogy) which I will refer to as Atlanta because that is where the denominational bureaucracy is headquartered. Now party spirit on all sides is something that has plagued the PCA as long as I have served in her ministry. However, it is generally a behind the scenes thing and is thought to be too unseemly to let out in the open. I personally can’t see how we can avoid parties and it may be that openness about it is a good thing. But I would hope that openness about parties would rather soothe than heighten the divide among us (by way of eliminating suspicion).

There was little mood for unity evidenced by anybody at this GA. The mood was set by the opening sermon by the outgoing moderator, Mike Ross. It was a provocative sermon on the sin of conservatism. Rev. Ross has always been one of those whose style from the pulpit is confrontational; in any other context the sermon theme might be considered a healthy challenge to self examination. But sermons are not preached in a vacuum. Considering the obvious anxiety many conservatives had over the direction of the PCA coming into this year’s GA and the strained relationship the theme had to the text, it could not help but be heard as a direct attack. And it was.

The rest of GA followed suit. The new moderator appeared to be overwhelmed by his duties and this slowed, confused, and frustrated the floor. The inability of the GA to even protest the actions of the Standing Judicial Commission was bad enough; but it did not help matters that the man who was moving the protest was berated by the moderator’s stand in. The mood off the floor was even worse.

Too many in our church think that the PCA is okay as long as we refuse to ordain women. It is clear that we are not near that course of action so therefore we must be okay overall–that is the conclusion of far too many. We don’t question the Bible’s infallibility or inerrancy so we must be very healthy. But what if we don’t slide into liberalism and yet still lose the gospel? What will it matter if we only ordain men if those men only care about extending their influence and power? What does it matter if our church grows if those in the church think membership and sacraments are their safe harbor rather than the testimony of a conscience trusting in Jesus Christ for righteousness and holiness?

The lack of unity and identity in the PCA has finally caught up with us I fear. The great problem with a party spirit is that it allows one to accept positions he normally would not in order to defeat the other party. It also tends to make the smaller party more defensive and less open to compromise. It leads to a breakdown of trust necessary to the life of the institution which is corrupted by party spirit. Our national politics is sufficient proof of this. I think this GA should wake us all up to this danger.

I don’t know what to do about it, but I think for the love of our Lord and his church we ought to do something. I am a confessionalist. I think it would be great if the PCA were more fully so. At this point, however, I think my party should aim more modestly. I am a traditionalist. I think the chaos that we have in regards our worship practices is not healthy for our church (it makes us de facto congregational outside matters that concern only the eldership).

But I also think that uniformity has always been a pipe dream in the PCA and we should be realistic in our expectations. But we do need an identity that we can all get behind: All—not just those who attend presbytery and GA. Hopefully, some dear saints that love the PCA from different parties can get together (openly) and hash it all out before we go our separate ways.

Hugh Acton is pastor of Heidelberg Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Heidelberg, MS. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.

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