What started as a grassroots denomination was still one—but some of that was giving way to bureaucratic impulses. The various proposals by the blue-ribbon Ad Interim Committee to revising church structure (1985-1989) were seldom embraced. However, the inertia of centralization, coupled with a desire for larger size, inevitably drove the PCA toward broadening.
Editor’s Note: What follows below is an excerpt (pp. 124-127) from Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by Dr. David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023), the first published history of the PCA’s inaugural 50 years. Single copies are available for purchase from Amazon.com, and discount pricing is available on bulk orders from the author. In this excerpt, Dr. Hall summarizes the 17th General Assembly (1989), at which the Assembly formally constituted the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) and made other significant centralizing changes to the denomination’s polity. He also here summarizes the first two decades (the 1970s and the 1980s) of the PCA’s development. Dr. Hall’s lucid and informative history of the first fifty years of the still-young denomination will – along with earlier histories – serve as a baseline for subsequent historical work on the PCA.
The 1989 (17th) Los Angeles Assembly: Turn Toward the Judiciary
The first PCA Assembly in the far West convened on June 15, 1989, reporting almost 1,000 churches and over 200,000 members. Thus, the PCA had quadrupled in 16 years. Such growth gave rise to understandable pride but would not be sustainable at those rates. For example, the meeting on the campus of Biola University had an attendance decline of about 25%. Ruling elder from Atlanta, John White, was elected Moderator from four nominees as the Assembly convened in the gymnasium of the college.
The opening worship service led by retiring Moderator D. James Kennedy, complete with an academic-robed processional from the newly formed Knox Theological Seminary, doubled as an infomercial for a new seminary at Dr. Kennedy’s campus. This Assembly would try a new format, beginning its meeting in midweek to allow commissioners to worship in a local church over Sunday; it would also, churches were told, lower airfare expenses. Housing was in the Biola dorms.
A new Stated Clerk, Paul Gilchrist, had been in office for nearly a year. Between assemblies, most amendments to the BCO passed easily. However, a few minor loose ends from prior years either did not pass or were found to be defective. For example, one amendment that changed the makeup of the AC (to double the committee side by adding representatives from the permanent committees) was not initially favored. But, upon later reconsideration, it passed 290-172 (Min17GA, 40). This was another of those centralizing initiatives rescued only by adroit use of reconsideration the following day after having been initially defeated on the floor of the Assembly. The same amendment also permitted Coordinators to attend and debate but not vote on the AC.
Several other proposed amendments were deferred to the following year (and likely would not have passed) when the new clerk reported that they had “substantive errors” that “could not be rectified.” (Min17GA, 44 and 48).