The ratification of the overtures would have been helpful and a key victory, but largely symbolic. In this sense the National Partnership was right: Overtures 23 and 37 are unnecessary (but they are neither unclear nor unloving). Everything required by these overtures is already set forth by the Westminster Standards. The problem has been an unwillingness in some presbyteries and agencies of the PCA to uphold the Standards or to interpret them according to their historic meaning.
Despite voices warning the PCA was slipping down a progressive slope, for the most part confessional churches (now referred to by the chic as “Neo-Fundamentalists”) and progressive congregations (are they the “Neo-Liberals” according to the new chic nomenclature?) got along well enough until recently.
While they had concerns regarding some currents in the PCA, many small-and-medium-sized confessional churches were content to leave the work of General Assembly largely to others. As a result, the PCA lurched slowly, yet steadily in a broad, progressive direction until about 2019.1
The 2019 and 2021 Assemblies represented a clear rejection of the broad, progressive, wing of the General Assembly. And elders at the Assembly took heed to the warnings about the slippery progressive slope.
- Changing the PCA Trajectory
The recent unveiling of a series of emails from the once-secretive National Partnership (NP) reveals the alarm of the Progressives regarding the new trajectory of the General Assembly beginning in 2019. A member in the NP sent this email as voting was about to begin in Dallas:
“The Overtures will be voted on in the assembly NOW. If by chance you are picking up SWAG in the assembly hall, smack yourselves and join us!”
After the votes were taken that same NP coordinator summarized his goals for the 2019 Assembly as follows:
The 47th GA is in the books. If you remember I listed three of my personal goals for this assembly:
1. Reject Nashville statement and approve SSA study committee
2. Approve the Abuse study committee
3. Approve Overture 8 regarding the service of unordained people on committees
While the Study Committee on Abuse was approved after receiving widespread support in the Assembly, the Assembly rejected an attempt by the NP and its allies to dilute the PCA doctrine of ordination by permitting unordained people on the committees of the General Assembly.
Even more tellingly, the Assembly resoundingly approved the Nashville Statement (NS) as a faithful summary of biblical doctrine regarding gender and human sexuality. These were two significant defeats for the progressive agenda in the PCA. For more assessment of the NP agenda, read the Session report from First Presbyterian Church.
After the approval of the NS, one of its vocal opponents took to Twitter to prophesy the ultimate victory of a progressive vision for the PCA and a defeat for those in favor of the definitions in the NS:
“Last night the NS won the battle, but they will lose the war. 1. We had a seat at the table. That’s new. 2. Notice the average age of the proponents and opponents. Big shift. 3. About 40% of the PCA leaders rejected NS. WE got a study committee whose report will supersede NS in the PCA.”
While the author of this Tweet spoke out against approval of the Study Committee Report in 2021, the Study Committee was passed overwhelmingly by that Assembly and it seemingly does not undermine or contradict the Nashville Statement, but only strengthens it.
The 2021 GA in Saint Louis was an even more decisive defeat for the NP and the broad/progressive wing of the PCA. The PCA almost unanimously approved its solidly biblical and remarkably concise Study Report on Human Sexuality. The 2021 Assembly also delivered several other items long sought by confessional and conservative elders in the PCA:
- The Assembly rejected a latitudinarian impulse on the Review of Presbytery Records Committee.
- The Assembly prohibited Mission to the World from having unordained women and men in line authority supervising missionary pastors or ruling elders.
- The Assembly overwhelmingly passed two overtures (23 and 37) that clearly bar anyone identifying as a Gay Christian or enslaved to other scandalous sins (e.g. racism, pornography, violence, etc.) from church office.
- The Assembly largely rejected the (secret) NP slate of recommended candidates for the permanent committees, agencies, and Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA.2
An organizer in the NP graciously and realistically noted the goals of the NP and their progressive colleagues were clearly not accomplished at the 2021 Assembly and they would need to take stock of their “place” in the PCA:
“The side representing our views was significantly outnumbered. We will have to take that to heart and consider what it means for the next years. There will be conversations in the weeks and months ahead about how we best steward our place in this denomination. But for now I just wanted to thank you all for working together, and for stepping into the gap when it was needed on committee reports, microphones, bottles of bourbon and cigars.”
- The Significance of the General Assembly
While many celebrated (or lamented) the passage of Overtures 23 and 37 (Item Three above), they are not the most significant result of the Saint Louis Assembly. Nor are they the only reason to be hopeful about a confessional renaissance in the PCA.
Item Four is the most significant because it is the permanent committees who oversee the daily operation of the PCA and recommend to the GA the hiring and firing of senior staff who set the agenda for the PCA. A few more Assemblies like Saint Louis (and to a large extent the 2019 Dallas Assembly as well) and the character of this denomination will reflect a clearer commitment to biblical fidelity and confessional integrity.
If conservative and confessional elders stay engaged and active at the General Assembly and presbytery level, we will be able to elect men to those committees and the SJC who will plot a course for the PCA within the Old Paths of the Reformed Faith, who will not prioritize “the culture’s view of the church over the church’s faithfulness to the unvarnished, countercultural, and often offensive proclamation of God’s truth,”3 and who will enable the courts of the PCA to uphold the Standards all her elders have subscribed.
That’s a big if; do confessional and conservative churches have the numbers to send elders to the General Assembly in 2022 to build on these successes from 2019 and 2021? I believe they do.
1 One notable exception to this is the Greensboro General Assembly in which the confessional wing of the PCA succeeded in having Northwest Georgia Presbytery cited with an exception of substance for including a purported image of the Second Person of the Trinity in their worship order in violation of WLC109. The reason for the confessional success later was revealed by documents containing the NP Correspondence: the members of the NP didn’t know this was happening and were “taken by surprise on the floor of the Assembly” (p. 255). I guess many of them didn’t read their Commissioner Handbooks to know they should be on the floor for this. This was the debate in which the Assembly was told pictures of “Jesus” should be allowed because “we all have pictures of Aslan in our office.”
2 “ALL_NPP_Emails…” pp. 431ff. While some NP recommended candidates were elected by the Assembly, the compositions of these committees and the SJC took a decidedly conservative and confessional turn after the 2021 GA.
3 TE Jon Payne, https://www.facebook.com/jon.d.payne.7/posts/1878803962320114.