How then do we add feet to our repentance regarding the Civil Rights era, while maintaining this purely spiritual mission and authority? That is what we will need to work out in the year to come in our sessions and presbyteries. I might suggest that we begin by looking to the book of Philemon as a patient model of how to urge repentance that stems from sincere love, rather than that which is merely external and formal, which no one wants.
The 2015 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America will be most remembered for how we responded to a personal resolution asking that the PCA acknowledge and repent of past sins during the Civil Rights era. A very helpful and detailed account of our actions was compiled by PCA Pastor Tim LaCroy and can be viewed here.
For those not familiar with the resolution or the General Assembly’s actions, the primary documents are helpfully compiled here. For those not there, I recommend reading both before considering my account and evaluation.
I wish to add to Pastor LaCroy’s report by describing what I see as five positive lessons from the week, as well as adding detail to clarify what the Overtures Committee did, as one who served on Overtures this year.
Here then are five encouraging lessons I believe we can take from the week:
1) Presbyterianism worked. The personal resolution came from two of the most respected Teaching Elders in the PCA, Drs. Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan. Many across the PCA count them as friends and heroes, myself included. And it is important to note that Presbyterianism is not as leveling as some traditions, such as Quakerism. Presbyterianism explicitly allows for influence to be wielded by some men more than others according to their gifts, positions and connections, all as God has ordained. And such was the case here. One can hardly imagine a more qualified pair – both ministering deep in Mississippi – to bring this important issue before the Assembly. So, it is not surprising that the Assembly received their personal resolution with the intent of providing an answer.
But Presbyterianism is also not Episcopal. A foundational principle of our polity is that all jurisdictional power is to be wielded jointly in courts, and not severally (i.e., as individuals). And so it was the will of the body to thank these two great men for their courage, and then to defer the matter for a year so that their intent could be even better carried out than they imagined, as the matter works its way through the normal overture process in presbyteries. It is the duty of courts to dispassionately consider a matter irrespective of the personalities involved and do our best to decide what seems “best to us and the Holy Spirit” (cf. Acts 15), all under the authority of the inerrant Scriptures.
In this way, God may raise up new men to help direct the court, men who are not as well known, but have yet equal authority and the Holy Spirit as well (cf. I Corinthians 7:40). And so God raised up not only a Lucas and a Duncan to lead us, but also lesser known ministers such as Alex Shipman and Jon Price to help guide the way. That is Presbyterianism at work. It is Jesus working through His whole church.
2) Godliness and integrity worked. One thing that stands out to me about the week was how little politicking there was on this issue, at least as far as I know. Drs. Lucas and Duncan did not “work the room,” but simply presented their evidence, and let the body do its work. There was honest disagreement as to how proceed, but as far as I can tell, men followed and expressed their consciences. Of course, every man’s motives will be sorted through in the end (cf. I Corinthians 3:13), but for this Assembly, all seemed rather plain and upfront to me. If there was back room dealing on either side, I did not see or hear of it. Both “sides” were up front with one another about what they were up to and what they hoped to accomplish. And for the most part, arguments were made dispassionately and with respect for the whole Body. Godliness and integrity worked.
3) Our (new) General Assembly structure worked. A few years ago, the PCA General Assembly was restructured to create a “super” Overtures committee, consisting of one Teaching Elder and one Ruling Elder from each presbytery, whose job it would be to carefully consider all overtures and resolutions referred to it. Debate is to be full, deliberate and without prior set time limits. It is the “senate,” if you will, of the Assembly. Matters then come to the floor of the Assembly, which does not have the power to amend recommendations, but only to vote them up or down (or to refer back). Since members of the Overtures Committee cannot normally speak on the floor, the floor thus acts as something of the “house of representatives” as a counterpoint to the Overtures Committee. The Assembly itself then either confirms or keeps in check the work of the Overtures Committee.
This system worked exceedingly well in this instance, it seems to me. In the end, the Overtures Committee recommended unanimously, 80-0, that we defer the resolution for one year. But this only came after hours and hours of some very confusing debate with substitutes, amendments and substitutes to the substitute. Our Chairman, Ruling Elder John Bise, did an exceptional job of keeping the discussion calm and good-humored. His gentle and kind spirit prevailed upon us all. One of the first major speeches made was by a Hispanic member of the Committee who wondered why we were only addressing African Americans in the resolution. A few men brought up general societal conditions, but those speeches were generally not considered germane to the discussion. Most interestingly, what was not much argued was whether sinful acts of racism occurred or not, or whether we were in fact covenantally connected to these sins in some sense, and should thus repent of them. By and large, this part of the argument was granted, as the PCA had already crossed that bridge back in 2002 in regards to slavery. The question was more about the proper way to address these matters as a denomination.
One of the major difficulties the Committee faced was the sudden manner this resolution came to us, since it dealt with such complicated and painful matters. We were presented with about twenty pages of research Wednesday morning. Normally, commissioners on the Overtures Committee are sent materials weeks in advance and properly admonished to come prepared to discuss the items before us. But most of us did not have time to prepare or consider these materials prior to the Assembly. Social media notification does not, as of yet, have official standing in our Rules of Assembly Operations. One unfortunate result of this is that 80-100 men on the Overtures Committee missed most of the business on the floor Wednesday, and much of Thursday morning as well. Those wishing to bring such personal resolutions in the future should balance the urgency of their concerns with the added stress it puts on the Overtures Committee and Assembly.
But in this case, I think it turned out just fine. Here is what happened, from near as I can tell. The real debate was between those who believed the time to repent was this year, and those who wished to do it more carefully, thoroughly and through the presbyteries.
The former argued that when sin is identified, quick repentance is always best, imperfect though it may be. The latter argued that particular sins should be repented of particularly, so that after a year of education and work in the presbyteries, we would know better what exactly we were repenting of, so that the repentance may be more heartfelt and thus perhaps bear greater fruit. This matter of timing was simply a matter over which “men of good character and principles may differ” (BCO Preliminary Principle II.5).
When voting came, a bare majority preferred to wait a year. Thus some members in the minority announced that they intended to bring a Minority Report, asking us to adopt the original resolution and repent this year. The committee thus recessed Wednesday evening divided, frustrated and tired, but agreed to meet Thursday morning to hammer out grounds for our vote to refer this for one year.
As we gathered Thursday morning, a couple of different presbyters came in with grounds they thought reflected the will of the Committee and characterized well our main concerns. In the meantime, members of the Minority Report were in discussions with some of the African American pastors in attendance at the Assembly. One thing that was starkly different about this year’s discussion and the resolution on slavery in 2002 was the absence this year of African American brothers visiting with the committee. It seemed strange to many of us that a largely white committee was discussing all this without hearing directly from them, as we had in 2002. And so several of these African American brothers (and one sister) were invited in to look over the grounds we had come up with, and make suggestions, while most of the committee was recessed. After the committee reconvened, three African American ministers addressed the committee, mostly asking that this resolution spell out what the fruits of repentance might look like at the local level. As another African American elder put it to me after the Assembly (whom I met at a random rest stop in Virginia), he did not want “another band aid” that in the end, meant nothing.
After seeing the grounds we presented and hearing from these brothers, the Overtures Committee voted 80-0 to approve these grounds. Then a member of the Minority asked that we reconsider the original motion, so that we could come in united to the Assembly, and thus spare the floor a contentious and divisive debate. That motion was passed and the new recommendation to defer a year was also passed unanimously 80-0. Personally, I had never seen anything like this in my many years of attending General Assembly, and had never seen a minority so humble and flexible, wishing to listen and change their mind as they believed the Spirit led them.
This ending and unanimity of mind was so remarkable that we stood to sing the Doxology and The Church’s One Foundation at the close of our meeting. It was obvious to us that God had led us to that point.
Then we came to the floor Thursday night for the recommendation to be debated by the Assembly. I think it would have been well for the moderator to re-read the motion and the grounds before debate began after dinner, as many of the arguments made against the recommendation echoed the very reasoning found in the grounds themselves. It read as follows:
That the Personal Resolution on Civil Rights submitted by TE Sean Michael Lucas and TE J. Ligon Duncan III, be referred to the 44th General Assembly (80-0-0)
Grounds: After consultation with the leadership of the African-American Presbyterian Fellowship, we present the following grounds:
Due to the gravity and complexity of racial sin, and sympathetic with the need to pursue corporate and personal repentance over it, the Committee believes that:
- A perfected version of the resolution would effect particular denominational, regional, and local church repentance more particularly, and could include specific suggestions with regard to the nature of the fruit of such repentance (Matthew 3:8; II Corinthians 7:10; 5, 6);
- More time for Dr. Lucas’s research to be disseminated and studied by the church would also help effect a more particular and heartfelt repentance (cf. WCF 15.1);
- Time for our African-American brothers to visit with the Overtures Committee in next year’s Assembly will further perfect the language and allow our repentance to be more heartfelt and accurate (cf. WCF 15.2)
- These matters of corporate repentance ought to come through lower courts of the church rather than by personal resolutions. [It is important to note that personal resolutions have special provisions in the RAO for people without access to the courts of the PCA or in case of emergency. (Cf. RAO 13–2; RAO 11–2: “Communications from individuals shall not be received by the General Assembly, unless they originate with persons who have no other access to the Assembly.”)]
For the sake of the peace and purity of Christ’s Church, and in preparation for the 44th General Assembly, the Committee encourages sessions and presbyteries to prayerfully consider any and all sins of racial prejudice and to pursue a proper course of action humbly, sincerely and expeditiously (Matthew 5:21–26; Ephesians 2:1–22; 4:1-32).
And so it seemed to many of us that this would help the Assembly to proceed in a clear, quiet and peaceful way forward. But that was not exactly what God ordained. He had ordained something even better in my judgment.
For even though the Overtures Committee came in with an 80-0 recommendation, there was obvious frustration on the floor. The Assembly’s “house of representatives” was about to act as a check to the Assembly’s “senate.” There was remarkable passion on the part of some that we needed to act this year. Others argued that we should indeed wait a year, to give the resolution more weight and thoroughness as the Committee recommended. One of the more persuasive arguments in my mind was made by African American pastor Alex Shipman, who called us to work hard on this and get ready for something decisive in Mobile, Alabama (the site of next year’s General Assembly). In the end, the recommendation to defer prevailed overwhelmingly, something like 650-50, as memory serves.
But the frustration on the floor led several to suggest that we repent somehow that night, in prayer if not by official pronouncement. And then after the motion passed, a “protest” was filed by Pastor Jon Price which both acknowledged the need to work on the matter for a year but also confessed the need to repent of what we knew this year. Since about 200 men signed that “protest,” but only 50 or so voted against deferring for a year, an obvious compromise had been reached that satisfied the consciences of many men on both sides of the formal vote.
Next, our moderator, Ruling Elder Jim Wert, handled the suggestion to pray with great grace and wisdom, such that a compromise of sorts was reached. We put off for a year any sort of official action for the reasons listed above. At the same time, a wonderful period of confession and prayer occurred this year, lasting well over an hour, until about 11:30 p.m. Thursday night. As PCA pastor Mark Robinson later tweeted: The civil rights resolution was enacted by prayer this yr though it was referred by process to next yr. Beautiful. Whatever one thinks of how this Assembly handled this matter, an hour of sincere prayer on the floor of the Assembly never hurts, and may have been unprecedented in our history. (If so, this fact alone may need as much repentance as anything; though to be fair, this year’s fairly light docket helped make this possible.)
The point is this: our system worked. The “senate” came in with a carefully worded recommendation that passed overwhelmingly. But some members of the “house” expressed their frustration, such that a compromise of sorts was reached. Repentance occurred this year in the form of prayer and will then occur next year more officially, with even greater depth and meaning than the original resolution asked for, as the Lord leads and blesses. The best possible result indeed. Our General Assembly structure works.
4) The Holy Spirit worked. Obviously, we must be very careful when speaking to what God may or not be doing. But it seemed obvious to many that God Himself orchestrated all this, and that unless a court clearly errs (cf. WCF 31.3), we may count those actions as from the Lord Himself (cf. WCF 31.2, BCO 3-6). And given the lack of politicking or pronouncements on how to vote by various parties or voting blocks within the PCA (that I know of), the way this all ended was obviously not humanly preordained. It had to the Holy Spirit at work, bringing His church together that we might more honestly reflect the heart and character of Christ to the world as we own up to our past.
5) The Church works. Finally, we have a year ahead of us to prove this last lesson. But having begun so well and so unexpectedly, I think we have good reason to be optimistic. On the other hand, as this process works its way through sessions and presbyteries, some unpleasant attitudes and histories will likely emerge. It will not be easy. But it can be a defining moment for the PCA, to see whether we are a denomination defined more by culture or by the Word of God. And this will cut both ways. To use a rough analogy, will we be willing to let the voices of both AM “talk radio” and NPR take a back seat to sound exegesis of the Scriptures? Or to put it another way, will we heed the admonition of the end of James 1:27 to remain unstained by the world, knowing that worldliness can come at us from both right and left?
Specifically, the challenge we face as Reformed Christians will be to maintain a fierce focus on the Cross through all this. To continue to major on a Grace so great as to be able to save all sorts of sinners, whether racists or self-righteous, as they acknowledge and repent of their sins, resting on Christ alone. We will also need to remember and even celebrate the spiritual nature of the Church’s mission, that our power is merely ministerial and declarative (BCO 3-4 and Preliminary Principle II.7-8), and should not normally address civil affairs (WCF 31.4).
How then do we add feet to our repentance regarding the Civil Rights era, while maintaining this purely spiritual mission and authority? That is what we will need to work out in the year to come in our sessions and presbyteries. I might suggest that we begin by looking to the book of Philemon as a patient model of how to urge repentance that stems from sincere love, rather than that which is merely external and formal, which no one wants. But it will take patience and listening to all sides, even as Paul exhorts us in Philippians 3:15, I Thessalonians 5:14 and II Timothy 2:24, and then so well models for us in this important little book of Philemon.
With thanks to Drs. Lucan and Duncan for beginning this process, let us now all labor and strive to that end, as together, we pray and prepare for the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America in Mobile, Alabama.
Chris Hutchinson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Va. He has been moderator of Blue Ridge Presbytery and has served on four different Overtures Committees since his ordination in 1998.