This book is an informed history of the first half century of a denomination formed in 1973. Other works discuss the events and personalities which led up to the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America, but this one traces the development and history of that church from 1973-2023. This volume benefits from the observations of participants, while also seeking to present an accurate (not a triumphalistic) chronicle. Over this “First Fifty Years,” each year’s General Assembly is summarized with distilled commentary. Readers may view this as an informed tour through the landmarks of a young church, seeking to avoid the entropy that was affecting other churches at the time.
Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023)
The 1996 General Assembly of the PCA met in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, June 18-21. It may best be understood in contrast to several earlier Assemblies. To give some perspective, below we compare the issues of the PCA’s previous 10 years to that of the last three years.
The 24th General Assembly was hosted by the largest church in the PCA, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, pastored by D. James Kennedy. The accommodations were splendid, and the host church did as fine a job as anyone can recall. The main floor of the sanctuary was virtually filled for most meetings, with 1123 commissioners registered. Once again, the Teaching Elders outnumbered the Ruling Elders nearly 2-1. Although attendance had been about the same for the past five years, registration was down slightly—perhaps an indication of the relative absence of controversy.
CofCs began to meet on Monday afternoon, June 17th. The busiest committees were Review and Control, Bills and Overtures, and Administration. CEP brought a few issues for approval to the Assembly. MNA reiterated its goal to enlarge the PCA to 2,000 churches by 2000. MTW extolled the retirement of the $3.2-million-dollar debt—not even known three years earlier. Meanwhile, other committees fell into line by giving pro forma reports with few, if any, recommendations—lest the feisty CofCs of recent years assert too much grassroots correction.
The opening Worship Service had over 1500 people assembled (including wives and visitors) to hear retiring Moderator Frank Brock give an exhortation to “Embrace Change.” Mr. Brock, the President of Covenant College, enjoined the commissioners to move ahead and let change have its way. Following his sharing, the PCA celebrated communion led by the host Pastor. After the communion service, the Assembly elected Rev. Charles McGowan (Nashville, TN) as Moderator by acclamation. The Reverend McGowan occasionally lightened the mood with good humor and proved to be another fine Moderator. As for his rulings and demeanor, Mr. McGowan lived up to all the expectations of his exemplary character. Accusations of the Vision Caucus notwithstanding, their selections for Moderators proved fair, efficient, and beneficial to these meetings in the 1990s.
The following day the Assembly heard from the fraternal delegates. Contrary to previous years, the Interchurch Relations Committee was not as controversial in 1996. Despite a substantial overture from Northeast Presbytery to hold discussions with the OPC about “obstacles to a merger,” the CofCs voted 10-9 not to enter such, preferring instead to stick with the J&R approach. Interestingly, this recommendation (which eventually passed) would have been different—it would have favored discussion with the OPC—had two members of the Ad Interim Committee on Judicial Procedures been present at the time of the IRC Committee of Commissioners’ vote. Had Morton Smith and Dale Peacock (members of that CofCs) been present, the recommendation would have been approved for discussions with the OPC. Of course, this might have been defeated on the floor anyway. The Assembly did encourage Sessions and Presbyteries to unite in worship and fellowship with OPC churches. This year, there was no direct action concerning the CRC, but the Assembly reminded the IRC not to invite the EPC to pursue fraternal relations without prior Assembly direction.
The Ridgehaven, IAR, Covenant Seminary, and Covenant College reports were routine. However, on Wednesday, one of the substantive matters came to the floor for the first time. The Ad Interim Committee on Judicial Procedures (AICJP) was appointed in 1993 and hoped to complete its work this year. Upon procedural motion, the Assembly allotted 60 minutes of free debate on the final proposals. Chairman David Coffin reviewed the process and the recommendations, leaving 40 minutes for input from the floor. Approximately 100 commissioners had attended a final seminar on this issue the previous day and made suggestions. Most speakers from the floor advocated the “package” of proposals which contained some compromises from many sectors. In sum, the package was to be voted on as a whole in the presbyteries in 1996-1997. The main features of the proposal were:
- To constitute the SJC as a true commission, allowing its decisions to be unreviewed, except in extraordinary cases; thus, the SJC was to issue final rulings.
- To allow minority reports to come directly to the GA if and only if one-third of the SJC members voting crafted a minority report within 20 days of the decision.
- To have the SJC members take vows, promising to base their decisions solely only on judicial factors in the Record.
- To have the SJC ratified as its own Commission by each GA.
- To publish a procedural checklist for discipline cases.
- To have the Minutes (but not the decisions) of the SJC reviewed by the Assembly’s Committee on Constitutional Business.
- To have the Assembly adopt the SJC’s Manual of Operations as part of the Rules of Assembly Operations, thus requiring future amendments to it to receive a super-majority of an Assembly.
After much discussion, RE John White came to the floor and stated his endorsement of the package. Even though initially he had qualms about the process and original recommendations, White noted that he now supported the Committee’s work. In an interesting change from the previous year—when many leaders of the Vision caucus sought to dismiss this committee—when the vote was taken, the 24th GA approved the AICJP’s package by an overwhelming 791-17 vote. It appeared that many had come to support the changes that the AICJP was advocating.
A mere three years ago, a vocal minority sought even to prevent the AICJP from beginning its work. Then as recently as 1995, that same group tried to dismiss the effort entirely. At each juncture, the Assembly itself voted overwhelmingly to retain and support the AICJP–by increasingly large voting margins. The AICJP seemed to be in touch with the Assembly, if not with various caucus groups.
To compare, in the three years since the creation of the AICJP, the SJC saw the following changes:
- Each case had to be discussed by the entire plenary of the SJC;
- Each case could be amended by the plenary;
- Final voting by mail on cases ceased;
- The SJC employed a rotating pool on its panel instead of pools picked by the Officers;
- The Assembly would review the Minutes of the SJC;
- The SJC’s Manual became the property of the Assembly;
- The SJC could have a minority report come to the Assembly;
- Vows were required for this delicate work.
Most of the PCA believed that numerous and beneficial clarifications had been made to the SJC, which was now more accountable to the Assembly and more open to the plenary membership. The AICJP made a real contribution to the PCA’s life, stability, and peace. Moreover, it was another token of a new generation of leadership. Much of the first-generation leadership had discouraged the AICJP’s recommendations. Still, by the end of this Assembly, the PCA of the 21st century had come to appreciate an improved set of judicial procedures.
Moderator McGowan expressed it well: “I feel as if this is a major, major event in the PCA. I sense that the entire Assembly is impressed that this committee came back with a unanimous recommendation; that could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. We’ve all had to admit that there have been undercurrents in the denomination that trouble us all. You [the committee] have blessed us all.” Kennedy Smartt, who initially opposed the creation of the AICJP, recommended to the Moderator for the Assembly to sing the Doxology, which they did.
The SJC cases this year were fairly non-controversial. All passed with no substantive debate. Few would set grand precedents, but several controversial cases loomed before the SJC in the coming year.
The Assembly was ahead of schedule on Wednesday and recessed for the day before supper. That night, a contemporary worship service was held.
On Thursday morning, the Assembly began to take up another substantive matter. Following the SJC’s Chen case in 1993, many in the Assembly construed that the decision wrongly prohibited a Session from exercising due discipline should the Chen case become a precedent. Thankfully, the 24th General Assembly’s action clarified that the Chen case did not intend to be a precedent that tied a Session’s hands. Over the past two years, numerous declarations, memorials, and overtures had arisen to clarify that a Session could discipline a person who stopped participating in the church if they deemed it appropriate. One group called for a purely “voluntary society,” while the other older view advocated that vows were serious expressions of covenantal obligation.
At the 1995 Assembly, the floor flooded the Assembly with various recommendations. As a result, the 1995 Assembly recommended that each presbytery discuss this matter along with the various proposals during the year and forward overtures as presbyteries saw fit.
By the time of the 1996 Assembly, however, over 15 overtures had been received. All were referred to the Bills and Overtures (B&O) Committee of Commissioners. Their first item to report was a consensus plan, crafted in the main by David Coffin and Jack Williamson. Chairman of B&O, Joseph Pipa, began to present the recommendation of the B&O CofCs. A few commissioners were allowed comments before the Assembly was interrupted by a point of order by RE Tom Leopard from Birmingham. The B&O CofCs had modified the original overtures (as permitted under the RAO and as has been practiced; indeed, it is absurd not to allow such modification), and it was in the process of leading the Assembly toward a consensus. However, Mr. Leopard asked the Moderator to rule this whole matter out of order, seeking to use parliamentary procedure to prevent the Assembly from reaching this salutary and gentlemanly consensus. In past years, the TRs had been accused of resorting to procedural tactics when they did not have a majority of votes; now, it seemed that the Vision members were lately doing the same.
The Moderator referred this to the CCB, who returned with advice to uphold the right of the B&O committee to recommend such modifications as originally proposed. After about a two-hour needless delay, Chairman Pipa resumed his recommendations, and the Assembly overwhelmingly approved the amendment to the BCO recommended to clarify this matter. Once again, a minority had tried to derail the majority’s will, but it was proving more and more difficult for some automatically to uphold their views. The PCA was siding with the future in both major judicial matters–this BCO amendment and the AICJP recommendations. A prime token of such was the speech by Rev. John Wood in favor of the AICJP, noting that the process “was broke and needed fixing.” The previous year, he had attempted to move to dismiss the AICJP with thanks.
The Nominating Committee’s report was made this year with fewer strikes from the floor than in previous years. Two men had been targeted for elimination from the SJC; one survived. Interestingly, one of the Nominating Committee’s candidates for the SJC held off a floor challenge from a candidate who had previously completed a stint as chairman of the AC. In this case, at least, a caucus group’s string of floor challenges was broken. Several non-Vision men were allowed to be elected–perhaps as much as anything demonstrating that the Vision caucus realized that the Assembly was not approving of its wholesale elimination of particular persons or perspectives.
Later, on Thursday evening, another controversial recommendation from a Permanent Committee was substantially modified. The AC had become the “concerned Presbyterians” because various internet ministries and other more traditional leaning publications were racing ahead in providing news services, electronic services, or other publications. Sadly, most other major denominations and nearly all NAPARC denominations had an internet presence, except the PCA. Meanwhile, others had offered to provide the PCA with a range of services—from an automated email directory of Elders to a list of PCA congregations’ home pages and links for PCA members. However, the AC—perhaps because it could not keep up with emerging technologies or because it seemed to imagine that it had some exclusive right to carry out other duties—thought it had to clarify which publications bore the imprimatur of Atlanta and which ones did not. To further complicate the matter, a Session from New York had created the PCA News Service, Inc.–wholly funded and staffed independently and explicitly controlled by that Session. The AC did not care for the name of this publication and sought to force them to change it, claiming that they had a registered trademark for the initials “PCA.”
The AC (which doubles as the Board of Directors) adopted a policy at its March 1996 meeting, seeking to claim the right to grant or prohibit the use of the initials “PCA” (The fully spelled name, “Presbyterian Church in America” could not be registered.) unless they first vouched that the ministry met their criteria as upholding the values of the PCA: “Approval shall not be granted unless the Committee is able to assert sufficient control over the mark’s use to assure the mark is only utilized in a manner consistent with the doctrinal tenets, existing ministries, and policies of the denomination.” Ultimately, this Assembly did not endorse the AC’s role as guarantor of orthodoxy. Furthermore, the unwise policy revealed that the AC did not fully comprehend the intricacies of emerging electronic technologies and copyright issues. Finally, but perhaps most unacceptable was the policy’s McCarthyite portion that asked for other PCA members to report any violations to central headquarters: “Presbyterian Church in America (A Corporation) requires that any incidents of possible trademark infringement be immediately reported to the Administrative Committee at the denominational level.” All along, of course, on any legitimate matter of possible misrepresentation, the AC could have simply asked that such ministry explicitly identify whose authority they were under or could have asked the proper ecclesiastical court to discipline a member if he was bearing false witness, i.e., representing himself as an official PCA agency, when in fact it was not.
Frank Smith, editor of the PC* News Service, Inc. (who contended that even at the Assembly, the AC had never legally completed its application for such a trademark), was pacified when the AC Committee of Commissioners asked the Assembly to request him to change the name of his publication. It might seem petty to some, but he had a meritorious point: Would the Assembly itself control such matters or let an autonomous Board of Directors (B.O.D.) create heavy-handed policies? In this case, the Assembly chose to reserve that right to itself. Thus, they modified the permanent AC’s approach. Moreover, the AC CofCs added language explicitly requiring that the Board of Directors never be allowed to sue a brother without first going through the ecclesiastical courts—an all too clear requirement that biblical process must be followed, not worldly litigation. Why the B.O.D. and the AC had not resorted to this was inexplicable. Interestingly, some of the B.O.D. the previous day had wanted to exclude the provision for ecclesiastical discipline before civil litigation but backed off only after considerable pleading. Finally, after discussing this matter for some time, the Assembly upheld the CofCs’ recommendations.
However, after the matter was completed, former Stated Clerk, Morton Smith rose to make a motion (which once again, Mr. Leopard tried to have ruled out of order; this time, however, the Moderator knew better, ignored the earlier more tenuous parliamentary advice, and permitted a motion). Dr. Smith moved that the B.O.D. formulate specifically what they considered permissible and what was not on this matter, and that such information be sent to every PCA minister and Clerk of Session; thus, the AC’s work would come out into the open and be reviewable the following year. These motions passed unanimously, as it became clear that the Assembly had a mind of its own and would not stand for a highly centralized policy in this matter. The AC now found that it was being directed to do its homework more thoroughly, by communicating its recommendations broadly, and not think that it could act outside the parameters authorized by previous Assemblies. Again, the Assembly was fairly unanimous, even as it corrected a Permanent Committee.
There were other instances of the AC bureaucracy seeming to exceed its mandates. For example, the AC invited itself to consult with the MNA Committee over the spinning off of Reformed University Fellowships as a Permanent Committee, even though no case was ever made that the AC was either essential to this process or that it was to assume a central coordinating role. Moreover, the AC recommended a significant increase in the GA fee, which covered no part of the Commissioner’s food, housing, travel, or rental of the main hall. Just what and how was the AC spending $130.00 per capita when commissioners each paid their expenses, and the host church/Presbytery absorbed many? The AC also reported that it couldn’t find any hotel rooms in the bounds of Potomac Presbytery (a troubler of Israel or Atlanta, at times), which years ago had invited (and been approved to host) the GA in 1999; however, the AC could find rooms in Louisville, where we had a single 86-member church. Still, the AC lamented that about half of the churches would not support their work, not quite pausing to ask: Could the lack of financial support be related to mistrust or disapproval? One prominent Pastor even suggested that the AC be shrunk only to serve as an arrangements committee for GA meetings, similar to its earlier structure.
The Review and Control Committee did a thorough job and rebuked a few presbyteries for not approving their actions related to the doctrine of creation and the ordination of women.
The last day of the General Assembly concerned itself with B&O and answers to Personal Resolutions. Among matters reported out by B&O and approved by the Assembly were the following:
- They recommended against deleting the word “control” from the BCO chap. 40;
- They politely said “no thanks” to an overture (by referring to another action) from a SC Presbytery, calling for folks to feel free to depart from the PCA if they could not support the “settled” PCA polity reflected in BCO 46-5—which was so settled as to have just been subject to amendment;
- They declined to erect a special study committee on Theonomy;
- They agreed with an earlier SBC resolution that Disney Corp. should be rebuked for their support of homosexuality;
- They anathematized the President’s veto of partial-term abortions;
- They condemned arson in church buildings and encouraged presbyteries to support those effected;
- They called for a day of prayer and fasting for the 1996 Elections;
- They referred back an overture from Philadelphia Presbytery re: women in combat.
When this Assembly adjourned, the church seemed at peace. Indeed, apart from either strong caucus group—the Concerned Presbyterians or the Vision Caucus—the Assembly seemed to do just fine. But, equally, there were no visible signs of support for an earlier “consensus” attempt, nor did the Concerned Presbyterians have a visible thrust. The PCA was growing such that it did not need elitist leadership. In its place was a new spirit of cooperation, trust, and consensus–far better than some earlier attempts that tried to force such.
Several stories would play themselves out in the coming months. It would remain to be seen if the Vision group continued to support the judicial amendments to the BCO in their presbyteries in the coming year; or if they would become frightened. Moreover, a birthday party was planned for 1997-1998. It would also be interesting to see if some people could resist the urge of revisionism. As the PCA reflected on its first 25 years, would some who could not win the day in voting and by BCO amendments seek to read back into PCA history original intents that we never stated, despite clear constitutional language to the contrary? The temptation would be strong for both caucus groups. Honesty might prevail, however, and prevent such hollow claims in light of an explicit constitution.
To conclude, one might compare and contrast the success of the AICJP Ad Interim Committee with the earlier Ad Interim Committee in 1985-1990. The first one barely sold the church on its proposals. The most recent one had succeeded. The first Ad Interim Committee proposed (and had rejected in the presbyteries) the following ideas: to disallow higher courts to act for lower courts, to remove a Presbytery’s power to dissolve churches unless they consent (again, defeated in 1996); to have triennial assemblies; to have a delegated assembly, to change the Nominating Committee; to define “Power” or “authority” in a congregationalist manner; to diminish connectionism; to define power as advisory-alone; to make higher court action contingent upon consent of lower court; to eliminate “control” from Review and Control (again, defeated in 1996); to expand the powers of the AC; to reduce CofCs to “advisory”; to change the structure of General Assembly reporting, strengthening the Permanent committees; to discourage minority reports; to shorten the length of General Assembly, and others. All these structural changes ultimately failed. The only lasting fixture from the first Ad Interim Committee was the SJC which: (1) was defeated in its initial proposal and only kept alive due to alert parliamentary tactics; and (2) was now seriously altered by the second Ad Interim Committee.
Growth among PCA churches continued at about 3%. Most of the largest churches kept up with the overall denominational growth rate for the first time in a decade. Much of the PCA’s growth was now fueled by newer and smaller churches. During 1995, 20 net new churches were added, with 6,205 new communicants gained. The average growth rate for the past 7 years was 2.8%. The PCA had reached a plateau since 1988 with about 3% annual growth. Compared to the mainline churches’ consistent decline in the same period, this was a good level of growth, although some other groups might grow at larger rates: the OPC at 4.9%, the EPC at 9%, and the Evangelical Free Church at 14%. If the PCA were to attain the goal of 2,000 churches by 2000, the next four years would have to see growth about six times greater than the growth rate for the past five years.
Still needing to be addressed were the following: Several important judicial cases were on the horizon; the church needed more accountability; positive publications were required; and although there was some good news about foreign missions—both in terms of retiring the debt and reports of more theological integrity—still, the excessive overhead promised to be addressed.
The young church seemed amazingly healthy. Ahead, if the church could use the 25th-year birthday party to try to change the future instead of trying to re-envision the past or what might have been, and if presbyters continued to apply themselves in their presbyteries, the church would continue to mature and expand.
David Hall is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Midway PCA in Powder Springs, Ga.