The Houston PCA General Assembly: A Pastor’s Reflections

Reflections on the 42nd PCA General Assembly

This could have been a snapshot of the PCA 10 years ago, or 40 years ago. The PCA’s doctrine, confession, and the grassroots are about the same. There have always been reformers on the peripheries who sought to mold the PCA into a more conservative or a more liberal direction. Over the decades, the middle thankfully seems to shrug off this four-day event while maintaining a fine ministry the other 362 days of the year, regardless of any assembly’s excesses, intents, or pronouncements.

 

Some Assemblies chart a new course or make history. The 40-year anniversary celebration of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) founding (at the 42nd GA) probably will not bend the lines of history very much. It was a par-for-the-course General Assembly, which pronounces another resounding “Meh,” to the idealist reformers. As is becoming customary, most of the interesting things took place off the floor as this court of the church has become largely irrelevant for the year-round functioning of the church. Perhaps it is a sign of growth and stability that churches no longer depend much on annual four-day meetings[1] and are doing the work of ministry themselves without reliance on either a Plantation or a Corporatist model.

The attendance at the Hilton of the Americas in Houston, TX, was down slightly, with about 1,050 commissioners registered. The location outside the southeast, despite promotional efforts for several decades, still forfeited about 15% of the previous year’s revenue for the Administrative Committee due to this lower registration. The previous year’s AC record surplus exceeded $250,000 [that’s great news! A fix for AC funding has surely been found, even without cutting or reducing expenses]; obviously some of that prior surplus will be needed to offset a lower attendance for 2014.

Prior to the Assembly, numerous caucus groups held their meetings—some open to the public, some frats by invitation only. And a host of seminars (that demonstrably have not increased either total attendance nor ruling elder attendance) were sprinkled throughout Tuesday and the other mornings.

In honor of the anniversary, one mega-seminar was hosted, with presentations from three generations of PCA pastors. Interestingly, despite efforts to have a Founding Father presence, that cohort was virtually invisible at this Assembly. Moreover, another attempt to re-sculpt the original intent of the PCA as being a broad denomination picked up little steam, other than being signed by about 1/3 of the living Founding Fathers. It was nice to be spared historic revisionism by a small statistical sampling.

If the standard of measurement is what will be significant in 40 years from this GA, the answer is probably very little footprint will be left by this assembly. And that status quo, while frustrating to reformers, is the new normal.

So what did not happen? What did happen? What almost happened? And what is growing?

What Did Not Happen

  1. This meeting did not codify the intent of some Founders based on a Feb. 2014 letter calling for such. Of course, it will take constitutional amendments instead of personal or revised memories to settle such.
  2. In contrast to the Assemblies of the 1980s-1990s, there was little dominance or sway from big personalities. The day in which towering pastoral Legends from a few big-steepled churches (or theological personalities) could sway the whole court by force of personality seems over.
  3. Except on child abuse, there were no bold moral stands. The PCA actually appears to be more Thornwellian and less transformationalist over the past 5 years than at any time in our history. If the days are gone when bold pronouncements denounce abortion and immorality, so likely gone are the days when we will condemn lesser, more faddish social causes. Why, there even remained an unhandcuffed smoking floor in the GA hotel—surely a setback for over realized eschatology. And much non-organic food and drink was consumed.
  4. Despite the yelping a few years back for new seats to be ceded over to minorities and youngers, a number of Caucasian ex-leaders seem to prefer to continue serving on select committees. Every generation finds it difficult to lose “control” or hand off those batons.
  5. The once-hip Keller trichotomous pathology report (i.e., that the PCA was divided into camps of Pietists, Doctrinalists, and Transformationalists) may be giving way to the newer dichotomous view, voiced in the Past/Future Ghosts of the PCA seminar on Wednesday morning, i. e., that there are now two parties, distinguished roughly by hair color (without dye): (a) the old gray mares are only interested in “control,” while (b) the young ponies (many of whom are actually pretty bald) are only interested in “credibility.”
  6. David Coffin, once the bane of moderators and caucus groups, was not ruled out of order once! Perhaps that could be added to the list of accomplishments of the transformationalists, because I certainly never saw this coronation coming in the 1980s.
  7. We could not find a new Mission to the World (MTW) CEO. Anywhere. According to secret documents (which, of course, never remain secret for long in the PCA, nor in a digital age), the reason we cannot find a Coordinator is that our missions committee is viewed as too stodgy, doctrinaire, and I guess “gray haired” or fixated on “control.” Thus we must repackage missions, apparently not prioritizing the ancient missionalism of the Book of Acts, before anyone will accept a high paying job that is never required to report if/how many actual Presbyterian churches are established for $53,000,000 each year.
  8. Nor did such a resounding sea change or triumphalism occur that either Old School confessionalists or Hipster progressives fled the PCA in disgust, stomping out en masse. Sorry, all parties: the Lord apparently wants us to live together and strive to keep the unity of the body.
  9. Contrary to confused news reports, thankfully, the PCA did not condone same sex marriages—that was done by the denomination we left in 1973, hopefully not in a way that expressed any inhospitality or insensitivity then or now.

What Did Happen

  1. The Study Committee on Insider Movements, despite the lobbying of some missiologists, was overwhelmingly favored. A clear biblical and theological position was taken, giving encouragement to classical mission approaches.
  2. Irenic, articulate debate occurred. The Moderator only threw one or two yellow cards, and speakers were most respectful. At this assembly, personal stories gave way to actual, intelligent arguments, if and when a matter of substance could be found.
  3. Bryan Chapell was a very fine moderator—I can’t recall a single one of his rulings overturned. He led with patience, good humor, fairness, and expedited certain tedious matters in keeping with the desire of the whole. Moreover, key committee leaders were chosen and helped with complicated matters.
  4. A significant decline in revenue for Covenant Seminary was kinda startling. Although some effects of economic recession continue, some seminaries are also growing in revenue and enrollment. I overheard one ruling elder ask in a not very visionary tone during the CTS report: “Humm, that’s a lot of decline in revenue. Wonder if anyone will have the authenticity to see if there might be some underlying causes or objections here?”
  5. A new RUF Coordinator was elected. Will he be a team player or a loose “Cannon”?
  6. This assembly rejected reforming the SJC but probably has served notice. One more Leithart-type experience, and the PCA could well decide to pursue reform. But not yet.
  7. One group in particular seemed to have very large attendance at their sessions: the Gospel Reformation Network, love ‘em or hate ‘em, packed some rooms. These “obedience boys” (Darryl Hart’s nomenclature) may be winning some debates that stodgy old guys are not supposed to be winning.
  8. This assembly upheld the Minority report on Overture #43 (to pray for those standing for sanctity of life and traditional marriage) with an interesting coalition of speakers. Again, the debate was worth hearing. And, yes, the PCA did make a social statement with this. Of course, that was what the debate was about.
  9. We also saw a return to highly politicized elections; apparently this well-oiled machine seemed to be a revival of the old gray hairs “control” party—almost like the early 1990s. The 1980s “Vision Caucus”[2] used to distribute their private list of floor nominations, until one time somebody substituted a fake list, thereby totally confusing the caucus members. Oh my, it’ll probably happen again at some time; or a few ward captains will hold up their placards for the wrong guy (with a loyal and servile following). Or candidates will “grow” in office. Moreover, instead of landslide elections, there were actually some fairly close votes.

What Almost Happened?

  1. A vote against the Overtures Committee to send a warning out to all churches against theistic evolution, still garnered 40% of the floor vote. Meanwhile, the wording in the grounds of that action and in all floor speeches reaffirmed the 28th GA’s “full historicity of the creation account” (p. 138) against theistic evolution—hardly a victory for the progressives. The same kind of wording on Overture #22 to study the relationship of gender to the third ordination vow also affirmed, like it or not, that our standards are crystal clear (or so “sufficiently plain, and hence no such study committee is necessary,” p. 137) on male headship as a requirement for ecclesiastical office in the PCA. Very little triumphalism is coming out of fans of gender progressiveness.
  2. A slight dent was made through debates in to the “We don’t need to reaffirm what we’ve already pronounced” mantra. The no in thesi deliverance rationale will only continue to be selectively applied; or else the PCA will greatly frustrate the moral crusader-transformationalist-social gospel wing.
  3. In fact, this assembly almost took a moral stand and approved a deliverance Vs. child abuse. If that didn’t happen, a lot of people thought this assembly heralded a moral deliverance, and it almost did.
  4. A few halting steps toward technological innovation are being made. We are now largely digital in our Commissioners Handbook. Next year, we will experiment in electronic voting at the Assembly—sorry to inform, but at some point, the GA will allow all 4400 Teaching Elders to vote at remote locales and all 1600 churches (even the under-funded, non-hip, and rural ones) can do the same at very little charge—and we will eventually use Wi-Fi at the convention hall more. The gray hair “control” guys will lose this one to the shaved head “credibility” Ge-Ge-Ggeneration.
  5. We proved that the assembly needs no more than 2-3 days (if all the decisions are really left up to the Coordinators and staff for 362 days a year anyway), and that ruling elders in no great numbers wish to pay about $1000/head/week,[3] plus get to surrender income for almost a week in order to attend a 4-day fest, no matter how thrilling or reminiscent of a family reunion.

Memorable voices. Upsets! What is growing?

  1. The final speaker on Overturn 43 was downright courageous and did bring a strong personal story worth hearing. In fact, as one of those old control freaks who didn’t even seek to speak while seeking “credibility,” I quite enjoyed hearing some younger voices.
  2. David Garner was again thoroughly impressive—watch this new voice. He actually has credibility; so did missionaries Bill Schweitzer, Berti Kona, and pastor Scott Seaton. In fact, there are a lot of CSGs (certified smart guys) in that ballroom.
  3. Fred Greco again showed strong articulation in leading the Minority Report on Overture 43 to success.
  4. Jim Wert provided another superb example of leadership as Chairman of Overtures. He was refreshingly straightforward, competent, and non-hysterical. Oops, I almost awarded “credibility” to a “control-freak” generation guy.
  5. The ratio of Teaching elders to ruling elders seems unabated. Smart teaching elders might want to take note of this, lest even more elitism damage the “credibility” of some generation. Smart and not-so-smart ruling elders already have taken note.
  6. Centralized power is increasing, as is the lack of meaningful status for committees of commissioners.

In sum, here’s the highlights of what this Assembly did, even if most of these will probably be forgotten in five years or so:

  • Found one Coordinator replacement for Reformed University Ministries (RUM); couldn’t find a replacement for the MTW CEO, which will be the 5th Coordinator transition in three years.
  • Approved a conservative missions policy on the Insider Movement.
  • Opted not to reform its judiciary; instead to re-elect a lot of the same members.
  • Chose not to take bold stands on controversial matters, with the exception that we did take an in thesi pronouncement on child abuse matters.
  • Reaffirmed its male-only stand for ecclesiastical office and reiterated that its prior study committee’s findings on Creation still stood.
  • Had a few good, spirited, and fair debates.
  • Refused to advocate for more openness in the nominating process and by offering nothing but bland recommendations by the permanent committees.

This could have been a snapshot of the PCA 10 years ago, or 40 years ago. The PCA’s doctrine, confession, and the grassroots are about the same. There have always been reformers on the peripheries who sought to mold the PCA into a more conservative or a more liberal direction. Over the decades, the middle thankfully seems to shrug off this four-day event while maintaining a fine ministry the other 362 days of the year, regardless of any assembly’s excesses, intents, or pronouncements. It almost appears that our Founding Fathers were wise to adopt a confession and a constitution that is not easily perverted. I don’t know that they were properly thanked for that, but maybe an exercise toward intentional and sustained faithfulness would be just the thank-you gift card that they love.

All of this is pretty good news; the churches are pretty healthy. The Lord of the Harvest is even more so.

And henceforth we can all start our speeches as catechized with the National Partnership issued soundbite: “I love the PCA.” And then proceed to bash her and others for their shortcomings.

The only large change (other than fashion) is that the PCA is following many of the centralizing evolutions that have characterized liberalizing denominations. Perhaps a review of where the PCUSA went wrong 1933-1973—and a little less boasting about ourselves and our transformations—would be a good theme for our 52nd General Assembly.

Dr. David W. Hall is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Ga.

 

[1] I cannot remember anytime in at least the past 10 years when a Friday morning session transacted anything crucial. In fact, most Assemblies now conclude by late Thursday evening—this one finishing up by mid afternoon on Thursday. Of course, we could cheer on efficiency, but it is more likely that the vast majority of ruling elders believe that important business is handled long before the actual GA, and, coupled with the fact that very little serious debate or business is transacted, it should not be a surprise that only about 20% of the commissioners in 2014 were ruling elders. Any unbiased review of time management, if wished, could see that no more than 48-72 hours is needed for an annual meeting. Better yet, since little correction/oversight is provided, why not cut the costs dramatically by going to a bi-annual or tri-annual assembly? Then again, if I wanted “control” I’d be in favor of keeping things just as they are.

[2] The “Vision 2000” caucus preceded the “PCA Consensus,” which preceded PPLN, which preceded the Original Vision Network (note: wonder which players overlapped in these?), which preceded . . .

[3] That estimate is based on: $450 (registration fee) + $250 for transportation + $140 for only 2 nights in a hotel, sharing a double room + $125 for food (8 meals at tourist venue prices) and incidentals ($35).