The Rev. Zachery Keele, pastor of Escondido OPC, Escondido, CA, was elected as moderator. The total congregations at year’s end was 328. Total membership grew by 291 persons to 31,809 members. Total offerings of $67.6 million represented an increase of 3.31 percent from 2019, with a 2.90 percent increase in average giving per communicant member to $2,901.
The 87th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is meeting July 7–14, 2021 in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Wednesday July 7, 2021
Sioux Center, a small town in the northwest corner of Iowa, is the home of Dordt University, the location of the 87th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Originally scheduled for 2020, the Assembly, like so much of life last year, was postponed due to COVID.
The usual custom of the General Assembly is that the moderator of last year’s Assembly convenes the present year and speaks in the opening worship service. This year this custom met a sober challenge. Not only was last year’s Assembly postponed, but the moderator of the previous year, Mr. David Haney, passed away in August 2019. So the custom of opening the Assembly fell to his predecessor, the moderator of the 86th General Assembly that met in 2018, the Rev. John Van Meerbeke (Living Hope OPC, Gettysburg, PA). The Rev. Claude Taylor (New Hope OPC, Bridgeton, NJ), Mr. Haney’s pastor, was invited to preach. He took for his text 2 Corinthians 4:7–12, dwelling on the 7th verse, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” The sermon was an earnest exhortation to look up from the humble state of ourselves or our ministries to the glory of the gospel we proclaim and the Lord we serve. The preaching was followed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, served under the auspices of Covenant OPC, Orland Park, Illinois. The singing during worship, as is typical of Assemblies, was robust and enjoyable.
After a brief recess the Assembly was reconvened in the Haan Auditorium—which will serve as the principal meeting room for the Assembly’s business—with prayer by Mr. Van Meerbeke. The roll call was taken by the stated clerk, the Rev. Hank Belfield (Providence OPC, Chilhowie, VA). Members of the Assembly’s Committees were seated as corresponding members. A corresponding member is granted privilege to speak on the floor of the Assembly but is not allowed to make motions or vote.
Mr. Mark Bube, Administrator of the Ecumenicity Committee, introduced fraternal delegates from the ARP (Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church), BPC (Bible Presbyterian Church), PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), and RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America), who were also seated as corresponding members.
The Stated Clerk presented the minutes of the 86th General Assembly.
The next item of business for the evening was the election of the moderator. Before proceeding to this, a presentation was made by the Rev. Danny Olinger, General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, and Mr. David Nakhla, Administrator of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. They spoke about the ministry of the family of David Haney in the OPC. There was a look back on the extensive service of David’s late father the Rev. George Haney, and then the many significant roles that David Haney fulfilled in the denomination up until the time of his unexpected death not long after the Assembly in 2019. David’s wife Becky, who shared much in her husband’s long service to the church, joined the Assembly via video conference and spoke warmly of her husband’s heart for service and love for his Lord, the church, and his family. It was a moving moment for all gathered. After this Mr. Van Meerbeke prayed for the Haney family and for the continuance of work so ably begun and carried forward by Mr. Haney.
Next the Assembly opened the floor for nominations for moderator. Two names were put forward: the Rev. Zachery Keele (pastor, Escondido OPC, Escondido, CA) and Mr. Darryl Hart (ruling elder, Hillsdale OPC, Hillsdale, MI). Mr. Keele was elected and was led to the podium by Mr. Olinger who prayed.
The docket was adopted and some routine matters regarding the disposition of business and the setting times for convening and recessing in the coming days was handled, including the assigning of matters to various advisory committees by the clerk. The newly-elected moderator closed the first evening’s session with prayer.
Thursday Afternoon, July 8, 2021
The first full workday of the Assembly does not commence with the commissioners gathering together as a whole. Rather, following breakfast at 8:30, they meet in their respective advisory committees in various rooms across the campus. What does this mean?
All members of the assembly, except the moderator, clerks, and commissioners who give presentations to advisory committees, are assigned to serve on one of the advisory committees. There are 13 such committees at this year’s Assembly. Advisory committees and temporary committees help the assembly with its work. They are tasked with meeting with representatives of the various standing committees of the General Assembly (e.g., the Home Missions Committee or Christian Education Committee) to review those committees’ reports and recommendations. When an advisory committee reports to the Assembly that it is “silent” with regard to the work of a standing committee under its review, this silence is understood to convey approval of the standing committee’s work and concurrence with its recommendations. However, an advisory committee may bring recommendations to the assembly that might differ from a standing committee’s report or recommendations under its review. But they may not do so without conferring with at least one member of that committee present at the assembly.
The advisory committees were originally scheduled to meet until 3:15 in the afternoon, the time of the regular afternoon break, after which the whole Assembly would convene together at 3:35 to begin the work of the whole. This is the typical practice of the Assembly but this is not a typical year for two reasons. The first is that because last year’s Assembly was postponed, some of the work of that year remains to be attended to this year. This, incidentally, is why an extra day was added to this year’s Assembly. Secondly, there is an extraordinary number of appeals and complaints this year: 13 altogether. Some of these are carry-overs from last year, but most are new. This is far more than is typical for even a two-year period.
To quote the Book of Discipline (7.1), “An appeal in a judicial case is the removal of the case to an appellate judicatory by the filing of a petition asking that the final judgment of a lower judicatory be reversed or modified. An appeal may be taken by the accused, or by a judicatory whose judgment has been reversed or modified by an appellate judicatory.” The Assembly has received four such appeals from cases in three different presbyteries.
To again quote the Book of Discipline (9.1), “A complaint is a written representation, other than an appeal or a protest, charging a judicatory with delinquency or error. It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject, by one session against another session, by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, or by one presbytery against another presbytery.” The Assembly has received nine complaints involving cases in four presbyteries.
In light of the extraordinary workload relating to judicial matters, a second Appeals and Complaints advisory committee was formed and, to accommodate the still heavy load these two committees would bear, the time for advisory committees to meet was extended to 5:15, the time of the dinner recess. Following the evening meal, Lord willing, the whole Assembly will come together at 6:45.
Just a word about meals and breaks. Each day the commissioners receive breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Commons, Dordt University’s cafeteria. Thus far we have been cheerfully and well provided for by the staff. Additionally, there are two 20-minute breaks with coffee and refreshments, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 3:15 p.m. Lunch is at noon but before breaking for that meal, the Assembly has a daily devotional at 11:40.
This morning we gathered to the Haan auditorium from our respective advisory committee meetings through a light drizzle. As men filtered into the room we sang the 23rd Psalm to the familiar tune Crimond. Our devotional was brought by the Rev. Alan M. Flowers (Spencer Mills OPC, Gowen, MI) who gave a lively exhortation from the familiar passage of David and Goliath. He used the text to encourage those serving Christ to not be discouraged in their work, but rather have confidence in the power of the Lord. His preaching was animated with energy and pithy words such as: “When the battle is the Lord’s you do not need even odds.” He suggested this perspective when facing what appears like daunting opposition to the work of God: “Look behind the giant that towers over you to the puny god behind him.” Or the encouragement when facing those who scoff to remember: “He who boasts, boasts from the earth, but He who laughs, laughs from heaven.”
We were dismissed to lunch with prayer. Following lunch those advisory committees whose work was not yet completed resumed their meetings. The fortunate commissioners whose work is completed before dinner will have some downtime before we convene this evening.
Thursday Evening, July 8
Following dinner the Assembly reconvened with the singing of Psalm 67B “O God, Show Mercy to Us” to the beautiful strains of Gustav Holst’s Thaxted. An opening prayer was given by the Rev. Peter Moelker (Sovereign Grace OPC, Redlands, CA).
The Rev. Anthony Curto, representing the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, introduced the Rev. Ed Blackwood, who brought fraternal greetings from the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America. Mr. Blackwood is Director of Admissions at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh and serves on the adjunct faculty. He observed the similarities of recent experiences between our denominations – postponed meetings and some judicial maters facing their courts. He spoke of some developments in their denomination including the possibility of the congregations in Canada establishing themselves as a distinct denomination. A possibility that raises a question about the name of the current denomination. He gave a warm address to those gathered saying that while we may have some differences, when he is among us he does not see Orthodox Presbyterians but men and women who love the Lord Jesus Christ. Following his address Mr. Curto prayed for the ongoing work of the RPCNA.
Mr. Belfield presented the Report of the Stated Clerk. Mr. Belfield has had a trying initiation in the role of stated clerk. Last year’s Assembly was to be his first in that capacity, but instead of the expected work he found himself, in coordination with acting moderator, having to make a number of decisions to bridge the time between the previous Assembly and this year’s meeting. A series of motions were presented and passed ratifying those ad hoc decisions.
Mr. Belfield presented an amendment to the standing rules of the General Assembly regarding the composition of the committee on arrangements. This was adopted. The Rev. George Cottenden, a former stated clerk of the Assembly, prayed for the work of the stated clerk.
The Rev. Richard Ellis, President of the OPC Board of Trustees, presented the Report of the Trustees. Two men were returned to service for another term: the Rev. Stephen L. Phillips, and the Rev. Chad D. Mullinix (PA) and two new men, both ruling elders, were elected: Kelvin R. Monteith (Gastonia, NC) and Michael D. Diercks (Columbus, OH). Mr. Cottenden prayed for the Trustees.
The Rev. Benjamin J. Snodgrass (Falls OPC, Menominee Falls, WI) reported on behalf of the Statistician Mr. Luke Brown. During 2020 the number of local churches grew by nine to 290, and unorganized mission works decreased by eight to 38. The total congregations at year’s end was 328. Total membership grew by 291 persons to 31,809 members. Statistics on attendance in morning worship and Sunday School, taken annually in November, are not particularly helpful this year. They both show dramatic declines (21.6 % and 61.6% respectively)—but these are expressions of COVID-19 restrictions and likely not indicative of the state of the church.
Total offerings of $67.6 million represented an increase of 3.31 percent from 2019, with a 2.90 percent increase in average giving per communicant member to $2,901. Of total giving, general offerings increased by 1.91 percent, benevolence giving decreased by 1.01 percent, and offerings for capital improvements increased by 26.4 percent from 2019.
The church welcomed 18 new ministers last year: ten men newly ordained to the gospel ministry and eight men received from other churches. Meanwhile, 16 ministers were removed from the rolls of presbyteries: three ministers were dismissed to other churches, ten ministers entered their eternal rest, two men demitted the ministry, and one was erased. This brings the total number of ministers to 570.
Mr. Brown was re-elected as Statistician. Mr. Snodgrass prayed for his work.
The Rev. Craig Troxel, president of the Christian Education Committee, introduced the work of the committee with a reference to the great commission in Matthew 28. He described the mandate of the Committee in these terms: to disciple people to a confession of faith and then equip them to live faithfully; to help congregations to equip members to grow in maturity, discernment, and love; and to encourage the saints to seek Holy Spirit; all to glory of Lord Jesus Christ.
Mr. Troxel, newly-elected President of the Committee, gave thanks for two things: the work of his predecessor Elder Jim Gidley who filled that role faithfully for 17 years and for the Lord’s deliverance of the General Secretary for Christian Education, the Rev. Danny Olinger who spent 23 days of this year in the hospital with COVID-19. Mr. Troxel spoke of the high degree of love and trust amongst the members of the committee.
Mr. Olinger then addressed the Assembly and spoke very movingly of his time in the hospital, much of it in near isolation—seeing essentially no one but the nurses and physicians attending him. He spoke of his thoughts during that time, of his thankfulness for the OPC and the clarity of belief. He said he knew that it was not Jesus, the environmentalist, or Jesus, the good man, or Jesus, the philanthropist, who would help him, but Jesus the Son of God who laid down His life for him. His love for his Savior was evident as he spoke, as was his thankfulness that the Lord had called him to serve in this particular expression of his church.
The Rev. Alan Strange, a member of the Committee, then introduced the Rev. Mark L. Lowrey, Jr., a ministerial member of the PCA, who serves as the Interim Executive Director of Great Commission Publications which produces Sunday School curriculum. Mr. Lowrey detailed how COVID came very close to ending the almost 50 year-old joint ministry of the OPC and PCA. The onset of the pandemic, which saw many churches closed and Sunday School suspended on a large scale, cut GCP sales 60-70%. This reduced the venture’s revenues from approximately $2.5 million to approximately $1.2 million. Added to this was a rise in material costs and a disruption in supply chains. By a combination of sharp budget cuts, largely in salaries, some assistance via the government’s paycheck protection program, and the use of materials already in the warehouse, it seems that GCP has come through the worst of the storm and is now on a course to survive and return to steadier operations. The latest reports show sales returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Elder David Winslow presented an update regarding the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) which has been produced as a joint venture with the United Reformed Churches of North America. This has proven a very successful project. Through 2020 there have been four printings totaling 62,788 copies of the TPH. The partnership is planning a fifth printing for mid-2021 (delays in that printing have been largely COVID related). Thus far a total return of $345,000 to each of the partner churches since sales began in 2018. The Trinity Psalter Hymnal is approaching 50% usage rate of OPC and is also being used far beyond our geographic and denominational bounds. In April a mobile Apple iOS app was made available. An Android app is currently under development.
The advisory committee was silent with regard to the Committee’s report.
In 2019 an overture was brought to the Assembly seeking a change in the Form of Government with regard to the installation of elders or deacons that had been ordained in another denomination. The overture was given to the Committee on Christian Education to consider. In response they recommended a change in the wording of the Book of Church Order that was adopted by this year’s Assembly. This will now be sent for approval to the presbyteries, without which it will not go into effect.
A complex question was raised from the floor concerning articles that appeared recently in New Horizons, the denominational magazine published by the CCE. The matter was referred to the advisory committee for Christian Education to advise the Assembly on how to handle the matter.
The Assembly was in the process of electing members to the Committee when the lateness of the hour and some difficulty with our voting devices signaled the time for our evening recess. The session was closed in prayer by the Rev. Jesse Pirschel (Providence OPC, Temecula, CA).
Friday Morning, July 9, 2021
The commissioners awoke Friday morning to a campus cleansed by an overnight thunderstorm. Cool temperatures welcomed us to a full day of meeting together.
The opening hymn was number 282 in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” followed by prayer led by Ruling Elder Eric Kooi (Long Beach, CA). The Assembly then immediately picked up business where it left off the evening before, with the elections for the Committee on Christian Education. All the current members whose terms had expired were re-elected.
Prayer was offered by the Rev. Jeremy Jones (Covenant OPC, Grove City, PA) who was the chairman of the advisory committee for the CCE.
The Rev. James Cassidy (South Austin OPC, Austin, TX), a member of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, introduced the Rev. John Shaw, General Secretary of the CHMCE to lead their report. Mr. Shaw read from Philippians 1 “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” He emphasized that the work of home missions from the Committee to the church planters and regional home missionaries was characterized as a gospel partnership.
Mr. Shaw then introduced the Rev. Ethan Bolyard (Heritage OPC, Wilmington, NC) to speak of his experience as an OPC church planter. Mr. Bolyard described the blessing of the Lord on the work in Wilmington in terms of people, a place, and a purpose. In terms of people, the work went from 21 to the mid 70s in two years — with evangelistic Bible studies even now bringing them new contacts; by utilizing the OPC loan fund they have been able to purchase and refurbish a church building as a place of worship; and, Lord willing, they will reach their initial purpose of a new and separate congregation at the end of this month. The Lord has blessed and they are eager to see His hand in the work ahead.
The Rev. Al Tricarico, the Associate General Secretary of the CHMCE, next outlined the expanding role of Regional Home Missionaries in our denomination. Regional Home Missionaries work directly for presbyteries identifying and nurturing mission works until a church planter can be called and then coordinating the work of church planters with the presbytery and denominational Home Mission committees. To date we have eight RHMs in seven presbyteries and there are three more presbyteries looking to add RHMs.
The Rev. Bruce Hollister, recently installed RHM for the Presbytery of the Midwest, addressed the Assembly and spoke of his eagerness for the new work he has taken up. A potential blessing of COVID is that many have become more proficient in the use of video conferencing. Mr. Hollister meets regularly with the church planters in his presbytery this way. His wife Sue has also begun a regular meeting of church planter’s wives.
Mr. Shaw then spoke of the Committee’s more intentional focus on mother-daughter church plants and the Committee’s decision to utilize money in the Neilands Fund to subsidize such plants. The Rev. Phil Proctor (Sterling OPC, Sterling, VA) was invited to share just such a work. The congregation in Sterling has just called a second pastor, the Rev. John Paul Holloway, with the intention of planting a daughter church in Manassas, VA. Mr. Proctor spoke of the necessity of constantly putting the vision of church planting before the congregation, even when a church is small. He spoke of the blessings of sending out a core group (chiefly stability); the downside (losing a significant part of the congregation); and the fears—will the Lord fill the places of those who have gone out? He encouraged us to put our confidence in the Lord.
Mr. Tricarico spoke of year-long internships, some particularly for church planting and Mr. Shaw encouraged the commissioners to encourage the church planters among us. The advisory committee was silent on the report. Elections were held and all the current members whose terms had expired were re-elected. Prayer was offered by the Rev. Mark Winder (Wolf River OPC, Collierville, TN).
Mr. Van Meerbeke, president of the Committee on Foreign Missions began that committee’s report by reading from Psalm 22:25-31. Mark Bube, General Secretary of for the CFM then presented an overview of the OPC missionary works in various countries, including Asia, East Africa, Ethiopia, Haiti, Quebec, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uruguay.
Following the morning break the Assembly sang Psalm 121 and the Rev. John Fesko, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MI, opened us in prayer.
Mr. Curto, representing the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, introduced the Rev. Brian Jansen, who brought fraternal greetings from the Presbyterian Church in America. He gave a sketch of our much larger sister—about 400,000 members, 2,000 churches, and 150 campus ministries—and told of their recent General Assembly which had a record attendance (over 2,100 delegates). At their Assembly the PCA received a report on human sexuality (authored by the Rev. Tim Keller and the Rev. Kevin DeYoung) and took the first step to adopting a significant change to their BCO declaring “Those who profess an identity (such as, but not limited to, ‘gay Christian,’ ‘same-sex attracted Christian,’ ‘homosexual Christian,’ or like terms) that undermines or contradicts their identity as new creations in Christ, either by denying the sinfulness of fallen desires … or by denying the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, or by failing to pursue Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions are not qualified for ordained office.” Mr. Jansen noted differences between the denominations, and different perceptions of their assemblies but dwelt warmly on our common ground and common call to be an alternative society that looks very different from the polarized society that is around us. Mr. Curto prayed for the work of the PCA.
Continuing the report from the CFM the Assembly heard from the Rev. Benjamin Hopp missionary to Haiti. It is a field that is prone to upheavals both natural and political. Just in the past week the President of Haiti was assassinated and the country entered into a new state of tension. Still the work of the gospel goes on.
Mr. Bube closed the report with a simple appeal: “We need missionaries” — and challenged commissioners to consider the call. It was announced that the Rev. Richard Gaffin, after 50 years of service, was stepping down from the committee. Elections were held and two new men were added: the Rev. Jeremy Jones (Covenant OPC, Grove City, PA) and the Rev. Zecharias Weldeyesus (Redeemer OPC, Atlanta, GA). The Rev. Brad Peppo (Covenant OPC, Vandalia, OH) prayed for the work.
The daily devotional was provided by the Rev. Andrew J. Miller (Bethel Reformed Presbyterian, Fredericksburg, VA) who took as his text Nehemiah 8:9–12. Mr. Miller made a simple three point outline from the scene of Ezra’s preaching to the people after the return from exile: We need God’s word, we need God’s mercy, and we need God’s joy. He pressed us to consider that while we may rebuild a building or city by erecting walls, to rebuild or restore the covenant community we must have the Word of God. As Peter wrote, we have “been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God … the word which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25b, emphasis supplied). Yet, as the people received the word expounded by the Levites, they wept. They need not just the word that condemns but the promise of mercy to cover their sin. Moreover, having received this, they must enter into the joy of the Lord and know, as Nehemiah said (Neh. 8:10), “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So must we if we will serve well. Our service, said Mr. Miller, must be joy-fueled.
The Assembly sang number 450 in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and was dismissed for lunch.
Friday Afternoon, July 9, 2021
The Assembly reconvened after lunch with the singing of number 292, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and prayer by Mr. Hopp.
The Rev. Stephen Oharek (Reformation OPC, Oviedo, FL), president of the Committee on Coordination, presented the committee’s report with a reading from Ephesians 4. The Committee on Coordination does much to facilitate the combined work of the denomination’s committees, particularly the three program committees: Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and Christian Education.
Mr. Jones spoke on behalf of the Committee and gave a moving tribute to David Haney, whose work for the Committee was large and pivotal. The Committee’s proposed budget for Worldwide Outreach (the unified budgets of the three program committees) of $4.75 million was adopted by the Assembly. The Rev. John Keegan (Grace OPC, Fair Lawn, NJ) prayed for the work of the Committee.
The Rev. Richard M. Dickinson, a member of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, introduced their report, reminding us that the church is called to show the love of Christ to those facing need. He then introduced Mr. David Nakhla, the administrator of the committee, to give an overview of their work. Mr. Nakhla described the committee’s mandate to facilitate and encourage the work of deacons on the local, regional, and national level. He observed there may be no better time for such things than a worldwide pandemic. He reviewed some of the work of the past year, noting that many deacons were called on to provide technological solutions to facilitate meetings, to minister to saints shut in by the pandemic, and even to learn to submit to their elders in implementing plans when they may not fully agree. He described the past year as a time of refining and sharpening for many deacons. He reviewed three areas of CDM focus: ministry to individuals, disaster response—which the CDM has been shifting to a more regional focus—and ministry to deacons themselves.
Mr. Nakhla also spoke of the Committee’s assistance to the OPC’s work reaching out to the large refugee community in Clarkston, GA through its Refugee Ministry Subcommittee. Mr. Weldeyesus, whose Atlanta-area congregation is deeply involved in this work, gave an update.
Upon the recommendation of the CDM the Assembly voted to request the churches of the OPC to support the work of this committee at the suggested rate of $30.00 per communicant member. The Rev. Stephen Phillips prayed for the committee.
Elder Gregory DeJong (Bethel OPC, Wheaton, IL), the Vice President of the Committee on Ministerial Care, and John M. Fikkert, the director of the committee, presented the CMC report. They reported on the robust health of the OPC’s 403(b) pension fund under the management of Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors, and shared a video outlining the CMC’s support for financial planning and sabbaticals for pastors. Mr. Phillips prayed for the work of the committee.
Mr. Bube, representing the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, introduced the Rev. J. P. Mosley from the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) to bring fraternal greetings. The RCUS has roots reaching to the 18th century German immigrants. Today it consists of 49 organized congregations, 5 mission works, and 61 ministers. Membership is approximately 3,600 members. Mr. Mosley reminded the Assembly that their fraternal relation with the OPC is the oldest such relationship the denomination has. He reported on how COVID had impacted their denomination—including two COVID-related deaths among their ministers. He spoke of their increased focus on home missions and ended his address with a warm reference to Psalm 133 and our fraternal bonds. Mr. Bube prayed for the RCUS.
The Assembly recessed for an ice cream social sponsored by Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
The Assembly reconvened with the singing of Psalm 119N, “Your Word Sheds Light upon My Path” and prayer by the Rev. David Graves (Covenant OPC, Coeur d’Alene, ID).
Mr. Curto, Chairman of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, began his report with a moving tribute to long-time committee member the Rev. Jack Sawyer, who went to be with the Lord in August, 2019. This allowed Mr. Curto to reflect on discouragement. He noted that it was only days after the passing of his friend Jack, that David Haney passed away. In the Spring following these losses, a denomination that the CEIR had been appealing to not begin ordaining women took that step, and then came COVID.
In the wake of such things Mr. Curto was asked by another: What is the Lord doing? His answer (echoing WSC 102) “He is destroying the kingdom of Satan, advancing the kingdom of grace, and hastening the kingdom of glory.” His point is that the work of the Committee is to assist churches to work together toward the greater goal of Christ’s kingdom that will answer for all the discouragements and setbacks of this fallen world.
A brief overview of the Committee’s work followed. Part of that work is to represent the OPC at the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC). One of the member churches of that conference, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, has recently taken the step—against years of counsel from multiple other churches—to ordain women. In light of this step, and their refusal of all counter-counsel, the Assembly voted on a recommendation from the CEIR that at the next meeting of the ICRC a motion be put forward to “terminate the membership of the RCN in the ICRC.” The Rev. Christopher Post (Providence OPC, Mifflinburg, PA) prayed for the work of the committee.
The Rev. Patrick Morgan (Christ OPC, Janesville, WI), on behalf of the Committee of Chaplains and Military Personnel, introduced the chairman, the Rev. Richard M. Dickinson, who presented the committee’s report. As of December 31, 2020, the Presbyterian and Reformed Chaplains Commission (PRCC) endorses seven OPC chaplains serving on active duty, five serving in the Reserves or National Guard, nine serving as civilian chaplains, and three serving as chaplain candidates. This includes two chaplains who were both civilian and Reserve or National Guard. The PRCC also endorses three OPC civilian chaplains at their own request. In addition, the OPC has eleven retired military chaplains and one retired civilian chaplain. Mr. Dickinson noted how very discouraging COVID had been for chaplains and military personal. The lockdown restrictions that effected so many fell with a particular severity on many serving in the military. He encouraged the Assembly to pray for those serving in uniform. The Rev. Anthony Monaghan prayed for the work of the Committee.
Mr. Olinger, President of the Committee of the Historian, opened the report by referencing Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” He then proceeded to give a warm retrospective on the work of Historian, Elder John Muether (Oviedo, FL) who, after more than two decades of service has announced his desire to retire from that position. By way of photos and anecdotes Mr. Olinger paid tribute to Mr. Muether’s service to and love for the OPC as its second Historian (following the Rev. Charles Dennison).
Mr. Muether gave a report on the current state of the archives, noting they are much improved in large part because of the work of part-time archivist, Ms. Abigail Harting. He also praised Mr. Olinger as a co-laborer and expressed deep thanks for being able to serve the denomination in this role. He received a standing ovation for his long service.
The Committee, per the Standing Rules of the General Assembly, submitted a nominee, the Rev. Dr. Camden M. Bucey, to succeed Mr. Muether in the office of Historian. He was elected. This was followed by elections for the Committee for the Historian—and Mr. Muether was immediately elected to serve!
The Assembly then recessed for the evening meal.
Friday Evening, July 9, 2021
When the Assembly gathered after dinner it was to the singing of a much-loved hymn: “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place” (number 425 in the Psalter-Hymnal). This was followed by prayer from Mr. Weldeyesus.
The Assembly then took up the matter of a special committee erected at the 86th General Assembly in 2019 in response to an overture from the Presbytery of the Dakotas. The mandate of the Committee was to help the Presbytery “work through the serious division that is affecting our functioning as a Church of Christ.” The chairman of the Committee, the Rev. Roger Wagner, presented the report. Following this and a period of questions and answers two recommendations were adopted: the first to commend the presbytery for progress made thus far, and the second to continue the committee for another year. Mr. Winder prayed for the work of the committee.
The 85th General Assembly elected a Special Committee in 2018 and gave it a mandate: “to propose specific linguistic changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC (The Confession of Faith and Catechisms). The committee is authorized to propose only such changes as do not change the doctrine or meaning of the standards. The kinds of changes that the Assembly authorizes the special committee to consider are limited to the following: 1) Morphological changes, such as “executeth” to “executes” and “hath” to “has”; 2) Replacing archaic pronouns, e.g., “thou” to “you”; 3) Replacing obsolete and/or archaic words, e.g., “stews” in LC 139. This includes, as in the example just given, replacing words that are still current in the language but are used in obsolete or archaic senses in the standards; 4) Substituting a modern translation of the Scriptures for the text of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. In all cases, the committee is to strive to propose changes that preserve the cadence, memorability, and dignified style of the standards.” Mr. David Noe, the chairman of the Special Committee on Updating the Language of the Doctrinal Standards, along with Mr. James S. Gidley, presented the progress of the work thus far and both men answered questions from the Assembly. The recommendation to continue the Special Committee on Updating the Language of the Doctrinal Standards for another year passed. Mr. Jones prayed for the work of the committee.
The meeting was recessed for the evening.
Saturday Morning, July 10
On an overcast Saturday morning the Moderator called us to order and announced the singing of number 110B, “The LORD Has Spoken to My Lord.” The Rev. Ryan Cavanaugh (Mission OPC, Merrillville, IN) opened the Assembly with prayer.
The Assembly returned to the business of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints. Two related complaints have come to the Assembly from the Presbytery of the Northwest. Both matters are questions of polity; that is, questions of how we operate under the rules of our denomination.
The first complaint involves a case in which a session from outside the presbytery complained against a session within the presbytery. The session receiving the complaint declined to handle the matter and the session making the complaint appealed to the presbytery. The presbytery denied the complaint on the grounds that the complaining session, not being within their bounds, lacked standing. Members of the presbytery believed their presbytery erred and have brought a complaint to the Assembly.
The narrow question before the Assembly was how to understand the language of Book of Discipline 9.1, specifically a clause regarding a session complaining against another session: “A complaint is a written representation, other than an appeal or a protest, charging a judicatory with delinquency or error. It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject, by one session against another session, by a session against the presbytery which has jurisdiction over it, or by one presbytery against another presbytery.” The complainants argue that the reading is fairly straightforward: all sessions have equal standing and may file a complaint against any other regardless of being in the same or different presbyteries. The representatives of the presbytery argued that the larger reading of the book would have us understand an implicit limitation of sessions within the same presbytery.
The advisory committee recommended sustaining the complaint. Representatives for each side were given 10 minutes each to present their case. This was followed by 20 minutes for questions from the floor of the Assembly. Each side then had 5 minutes apiece to make closing arguments. Following this the assembly had open discussion and then voted. The complaint was sustained.
Two amendments were then adopted by vote. The first: that the presbytery acknowledge their error, and the second: that they apologize to the session whose complaint had been denied.
During the discussion, the assembly came to the time of the morning break. It was originally planned that the annual assembly group photograph would be taken during this break at an outdoor location. It was not to be: the skies had grown dark and torrents of rain were coming down. The commissioners enjoyed their coffee break indoors and upon return, sang number 408, “For All the Saints.” We were reconvened with prayer.
Before the Assembly resumed discussions, Mr. Bube, representing the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, introduced the Rev. Alan Avera from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) to bring fraternal greetings. The ARP is very similar in size to the OPC, though, despite being a national church, half of their congregations are in the Carolinas. Recently, for the second time, they elected a Canadian as moderator of their Synod. Mr. Avera spoke warmly of the OPC’s commitment to biblical orthodoxy, love for Christ, precision, and biblical hospitality. Speaking of our Assembly’s work thus far, he said he was impressed with the focus and functioning of our committees. He told us of the ARP’s recent Synod. Reflecting on an earlier speaker who likened the OPC’s Assembly to a business meeting, and the PCA’s assembly to a jamboree, he said he would liken the ARP’s national gathering as a family reunion. He mentioned some pressures facing the denomination. Specifically, their old-style, defined-benefit pension plan has placed a significant financial strain on the church. They are addressing this problem but it has required significant restructuring—an exercise fraught with both opportunities and dangers. He asked for our prayers. Of potential interest to many, the Synod recently formed a study committee to examine the ARP’s practice of allowing local congregations the latitude of ordaining deaconesses. The ARP does not ordain women to other offices. They have also voted to require that candidates for pastoral office be educated in the original languages of Scripture. His address was warmly received. Mr. Bube prayed for the ARP.
The Assembly returned to matters from the Committee on Appeals and Complaints and the second complaint from the Presbytery of the Northwest. The session which was complained against from without their presbytery (complaint 1 above) is a church without a pastor. Our Form of Government makes provision for such a scenario in chapter 17.2, “The presbytery may supervise a church that is without a pastor through a ministerial advisor (cf. Chapter 13.6) or a committee. Such supervision includes cooperation with the session, or with any authorized committee of the particular church, in the supply of the pulpit and in the seeking and securing of a pastor.” Pursuant to this, at the invitation of the session, three men were assisting the session when the complaint from the other session came to them. When the matter came before the presbytery, the three men voted on the matter. The contention of the complainants is that these men, as ministerial advisors of the session being complained against, should not have been allowed to vote, per Book of Discipline 9.4, “When a complaint has been carried to a higher judicatory … Neither the complainant nor any member of the judicatory whose alleged delinquency or error is complained of shall propose or second motions, or vote in any decisions concerning the matter.” The perspective of the presbytery is that these three men were not ministerial advisors functioning as part of the judicatory but a committee of presbyters and, as such, they remained free to vote on the issue before them.
The advisory committee recommended denying the complaint. Representatives for each side were given 10 minutes each to present their case. This was followed by 20 minutes for questions from the floor of the Assembly. Each side then had 5 minutes apiece to make closing arguments. Following this the Assembly had open discussion and then voted. The complaint was denied.
Before lunch the Assembly came to the time for the daily devotional given by the Rev. Lane B. Keister (Momence OPC, Momence, IL). Mr. Keister took as his text Revelation 12:1–6, a passage that presents the image of a powerful dragon poised to devour an infant about to be born. Mr. Keister vividly painted the contrast: on the side of the dragon there are brains, brawn, teeth, and claws; on the other an image of weakness—a woman in labor. He asked, “Who do you put your money on?” He pressed us to consider the perspective of heaven and earth. From below, the woman’s case seems hopeless, but we serve a God who has a long history of favoring the weak and hopeless—and through them showing His strength. Mr. Keister developed the symbolism of the woman as God’s people, the Bride of Christ and the murderous dragon as Satan bent on the destruction of Christ and thwarting His mission—goals he has and will always fail to accomplish. The devotion was followed with the singing of number 243, “How Firm a Foundation.” The Assembly then recessed for lunch.
Saturday Afternoon, July 10
The commissioners made their way back to the Haan Auditorium through a heavy rain. Having gathered, they sang together Psalm 98A, “O Sing a New Song to the LORD.” The Rev. Alan Pontier prayed for the ongoing work of the Assembly.
The next item before the Assembly was an Overture from the Presbytery of the Southeast. An overture is a request from a presbytery asking the GA to take some action. This overture asked the Assembly to adopt a resolution regarding the limits of government restrictions on the conduct of public worship in light of circumstances of some churches during the pandemic and a call for days of prayer and fasting.
The Assembly voted to indefinitely postpone the matter. The function of this motion is to avoid having to vote either for or against a matter. As the long overture contained many elements that would be supported by most, if not all, of the commissioners, but also contained many elements that some did not wish to support, this allowed the Assembly to move on without making a definitive statement on the whole.
The Assembly then proceeded to take up two complaints brought by a minister who was disciplined by his presbytery. One complaint was against the procedure leading to his trial and the other an appeal of the verdict. Both matters were denied by the Assembly. The Rev. Larry Westerveld (Trinity OPC, Hatboro, PA) prayed for the minister and the presbytery.
During the lengthy consideration of the above matter we came to our afternoon break, again falling during a heavy downpour, keeping all but the most dogged commissioners indoors. When we returned we sang number 159, “Abide with Me,” followed by prayer by Elder David Wical (Lakeside, CA).
In the time remaining before the evening recess the Assembly began to hear presentations regarding a complaint from a session against the Presbytery of the Dakotas. Having reached the order of the day (the Assembly ends business with dinner on Saturday evening), the Assembly recessed with prayer by Mr. Proctor.
Monday July 12, 2021
After a delightful Lord’s Day rich with preaching, teaching, fellowship, and beautiful weather, the Assembly reconvened on Monday morning with the singing of number 170, “God, in the Gospel of His Son,” followed by prayer led by the Rev. Vernon Picknally (Bethel Reformed OPC, Fremont, MI).
The Assembly resumed the work of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints and returned to a consideration of a complaint from the Presbytery of the Dakotas. The complaint arises following actions of the 85th (2018) General Assembly. That Assembly heard a complaint from the presbytery related to a disciplinary case. That Assembly ruled that “the complaint on appeal was remanded with jurisdiction being returned to the Presbytery of the Dakotas, providing the presbytery opportunity to revisit matters preliminary to and including trial.” The complaint before the 87th General Assembly now arises from the handling of that remand, i.e., the complainants contend that the presbytery did not follow proper procedures in handling the matter and are seeking recourse from the Assembly. The advisory committee recommended sustaining the complaint. After presentations from both sides and discussion on the floor, the Assembly voted to deny the complaint. The advisory committee was also asked to meet again to give further advice on what this decision means for the presbytery. Mr. Winslow prayed for this matter.
The Assembly next considered together two appeals by two ministers from the Presbytery of the Dakotas, which found both men guilty of the same charge on the same grounds, and so, their identical appeals, though separate, were deliberated on together by the Assembly but voted on separately. A procedure was established: the appellants and the representatives of the presbytery would each be granted up to 20 minutes to make their presentations; this would be followed by 20 minutes for questions from the Assembly; and then 5 minutes for each side to close.
The usual mid-morning break was extended by five minutes so the Assembly could gather for the group photo.
The Assembly reconvened with the singing of number 82, “God Stands in the Great Assembly” and prayer by the Rev. Zachary Siggins (Living Hope OPC, Gettysburg, PA).
Before resuming discussion on the aforementioned appeals, Mr. Bube, representing the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, introduced the Rev. Todd De Rooy from the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). Mr. De Rooy spoke of our current cultural moment, citing verses in the book of Jude. He spoke of our culture’s current identity crisis, with many now finding their identity in licentiousness. Against this, faithful churches such as the URCNA and the OPC stand with a message of a true and right identity in Jesus Christ. Mr. De Rooy spoke warmly of the bonds between the URCNA and the OPC, which were made notably concrete by the joint production of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal in 2018. He mentioned current efforts within the URCNA to restructure some of their mission work, as well as the denomination having benefited from observing the work of the OPC. He told us that the state of the denomination is steady but asked for prayer on three points: wisdom for the relatively young denomination (25 years old); men to fill pulpits (18 pulpits, approximately 10% of all, are vacant presently), and for their Canadian churches (about a third of their churches) that are still laboring under heavy COVID restrictions. He closed his address with the benediction from Jude’s epistle.
Following this address the Assembly resumed deliberations on the two appeals from the Presbytery of the Dakotas along the timelines of the procedure agreed to prior to the morning break. At 11:40 a.m., discussions were suspended for the daily devotional and lunch break.
The devotional was brought by the Rev. Richard Ellis (Faith OPC, Elmer, NJ). His text was 1 John 1:5–2:2b. He presented a searching examination of this text and specifically the alacrity with which self-advocacy arises in us, even as easily as we breathe. That is, when we sin, our natural and quick instinct is to defend ourselves. Mr. Ellis pressed us to consider the wisdom of John Calvin in the second paragraph on his Institutes. He quoted thus: “We all have tendency to hypocrisy, any hollow appearance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us, instead of righteousness itself. We are greatly tainted with impurity, as long as we are assessing limits of human corruption; anything which is slightly less putrid makes us very pleased with ourselves.” Rev. Ellis encouraged the members of the Assembly to turn from self-advocacy to our Advocate, Jesus Christ, our Advocate who is our propitiation and who answers for our sin. He pressed us to remember that Jesus has more mercy than we have sin; that we cannot outsin his mercy. Mr. Ellis encouraged the commissioners to become humble experts on Calvin’s insight. Moreover, he encouraged us to beware of presenting such curated lives that our congregations erroneously conclude that a mature Christian has no need of Christ to advocate for us. Following the devotion, the Assembly sang number 277, “Before the Throne of God Above,” and recessed for lunch.
Monday Afternoon, July 12
Following lunch the Assembly reconvened with the singing of number 43,1 “And Can It Be?” and prayer led by the Rev. Matthew Holst (Shiloh OPC, Raleigh, NC).
The Assembly resumed consideration of the appeals from the two men in the Presbytery of the Dakotas. Both appeals were sustained. The Rev. David VanDrunen (professor, WTS California) prayed for the men, the presbytery, and the ongoing work of the visitation committee to that presbytery.
The Assembly then took up a difficult case from the Presbytery of the Southwest involving a session that barred a member of another OPC congregation from attending their church for a period of time following an incident at the church. That man’s session complained to the presbytery that the session was imposing a censure of discipline against someone not under their jurisdiction. The presbytery denied their complaint. The session has now appealed to the General Assembly. The already established procedures for time limits of debate and discussion were followed again.
During the discussions, the meeting came to the order of the day for the afternoon break. Following the break, the Assembly sang Psalm 2A, “Why Do Heathen Nations Rage?” The Rev. Doug Clawson (associate general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions) prayed.
Debate on the matter from the Presbytery of the Southwest resumed for an extended period. The complaint was denied. Mr. VanDrunen prayed for those involved.
Next before the Assembly was an appeal from a judicial case in the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic. An individual was excommunicated from his church for a sinful unwillingness to forgive. His appeal to the presbytery was denied resulting in his appeal to the General Assembly. The man was not at the meeting to present his side of the case, so another spoke on his behalf, as did a representative of the session. The appeal was denied.
The Rev. Bryan Estelle (professor, WTS California) prayed for those involved in this case. This brought the Assembly to the break for the evening meal.
Monday Evening, July 12
The evening session opened with the singing of number 244, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and prayer by the Rev. Craig Troxel (professor, WTS California).
Earlier, after the Assembly denied a complaint from the Presbytery of the Dakotas, the advisory committee was asked to meet and bring back to the Assembly some advice for the presbytery as to what this meant for where they are in their deliberations (see the second paragraph of the Monday morning report above). The advisory committee brought a recommendation that the effect of the denial of the complaint would leave the presbytery where it was in September of 2018, i.e., ready to proceed to the second meeting of a trial of a minister in their presbytery. That recommendation was adopted.
The advisory committee also brought a recommendation for amends regarding the two men whose judicial appeals from the Presbytery of the Dakotas were sustained (see the third paragraph of the Monday morning report above). The committee recommended that the presbytery should apologize for their error, and the men should offer forgiveness. This was recommendation was adopted by the Assembly. Mr. VanDrunen prayed for all the parties involved to these matters.
Next before the Assembly were three related complaints from the Presbytery of the Southeast. The established time limits for consideration were adopted for the consideration of all three complaints (with a slightly longer amount of time granted for the third complaint).
The first complaint was that charges brought against a minister that were denied by the presbytery as not being in proper form should have been admitted. After a lengthy debate the Assembly voted to deny the complaint.
With less than ten minutes left until the end of the day, the Assembly took up some administrative matters and delayed consideration of the other two complaints from the Presbytery of the Southeast until morning.
The evening session was closed with prayer by Mr. John Mahaffy (pastor, Trinity OPC, Newburg, OR).
This report was written by Clifford L. Blair, Pastor, Redeemer OPC, Charlotte, NC.