Like the culture around it, the Presbyterian Church in America has been facing a fair amount of turmoil for some time now. Some of this usually shows up at the PCA’s General Assembly, the annual gathering of PCA elders (teaching and ruling). This year’s event, coming up this week in Dallas, promises more of the same.
Three years ago, much of the debate at GA focused on racial reconciliation. Last year, it was the role of women in the church. This year, it will likely be homosexuality and the Revoice movement, which is being hotly debated in the PCA and Southern Baptist Convention. Although sexual abuse and the “Me Too” movement is also in the mix and the role of women in the church is back for more debate. Plus, the debate over “social justice” is always lurking in the background.
Each year in General Assembly, its elders vote on a number of overtures, which are essentially petitions from presbyteries seeking to establish or clarify the PCA’s position on an issue. In some cases overtures are simply encouragements or general statements, but they can also lead to changes in the governing documents of the PCA. In either case, they reflect the direction our denomination is taking on specific issues and, more broadly, how we are doing when it comes to submitting to the authority of Scripture.
This year, the best I can tell, 48 overtures have been submitted for consideration, though not all of them may be voted on. Below I have tried to provide a summary of them that may be of interest to us lay folks. I do this because it is important for church members to be informed how our denomination is handling God’s Word, just as it is for Americans to do the same with our government. Which leads, as it also does in our democratic republic, to a responsibility for informed members to respond appropriately based on that knowledge. This dual similarity should not be a surprise because, though there are differences, the United States government is based on Presbyterian polity.
The results of the GA and the direction that the PCA is taking are important to more than just its members, though. Just watching the news tells the story that the culture war in the U.S. is being won by both cultural and theological liberalism. Though, to be clear, the battle is not over; it is still being engaged by Bible-believing Christians. The direction of the PCA, along with the SBC, may serve as leading indicators of the health of the orthodox church in the United States. If they were to submit to worldly wisdom, like numerous denominations before them, it becomes unclear what effect–absent another Great Awakening–the believing church will have on the culture in foreseeable future.
Here we go:
Homosexuality and Revoice–Overtures 4, 11, 22, 28, 30, 35, 37, 39, 42, 44, 45
The big debate over Revoice is whether it is possible to have simultaneous Christian and LGBTQ+ identities. Another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy. Some want to shift the focus of this debate on how to minister to people struggling with homosexuality. To settle this debate toward the side that homosexual identity/orientation is a sin, Overtures 4, 11 and 22 call for an endorsement of statements or reports from outside the official PCA governing structure. Overture 28 is similarly inclined, but calls on the PCA to adopt its own statement on homosexuality and gender. To the same end, Overture 35 asks the PCA to reaffirm its previous actions and declarations on this issue. Overture 37 takes a similar view toward homosexual orientation but a slightly softer view than some might toward Revoice. Overture 39 takes a less definitive approach with its encouragement to reaffirm a statement from the RPCES, which subsequently joined the PCA. Overtures 30, 42, 44, and 45 all call for the GA to establish an ad interim study committee on human sexuality. The perspective of these overtures differs from the previous overtures and call for “the church … to take a fresh and honest look at itself, assessing where and how it has too often failed to demonstrate Christian integrity with regard to its care for Same Sex Attracted believers, and where [it] can grow.”
Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault–Overtures 7, 10, 13, 20, 26, 31, 38, 43, 47
All of these overtures call for the establishment of a PCA committee on sexual abuse and domestic assault, in some cases noting “these sins are especially heinous because they are ‘against the express letter of the law,’ ‘break many commandments,’ ‘admit of no reparation,’ and often involve various other aggravations.” The motivation behind these overtures appears to stem largely from the fallout of the Me Too movement and the related problems the SBC is currently facing. Opposition to these overtures may come from two directions. The first is that there are no indications that sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the PCA. The second is that establishing centralized committees runs afoul of the PCA’s grassroots design. If it does become clear that the PCA has a problem in this area, the PCA’s overture process provides a way for presbyteries to provide leadership in dealing with it.
Role of Women in the Church–Overtures 8, 14, 19, 21, 29, 32, 40, 41
Five of these overtures (8, 14, 19, 21, and 32) are identical, asking the PCA to allow women (and unordained males) to serve on the permanent committees and agencies of the PCA. This is not a new proposal; it has been rejected by the PCA as recently as last year: “The Committees and Boards of Agencies of the General Assembly of the PCA exercise ruling authority in the Church as they implement and execute the one work of the Church at the General Assembly level. Such power ought to remain in the hands of ordained officers of the Church.” Overture 29, now withdrawn, had sought to “allow local sessions to decide whether women can be allowed to serve as deacons.” Overture 40 wishes “women leaders be authorized to select and appoint the officers of their Women in the Church [previously known as WIC, or more recently “Women’s Ministry”] with the laying on of hands to serve in the local church and assist the deacons in caring for those in need and distress.” Taking a different direction, Overture 41 would ensure that only “ordained elders will be allowed to serve in the roles of team leader, regional director, and international director within Mission to the World.”
A Stronger Statement Regarding Abortion–Overtures 46 and 48Overture 46 would “reaffirm our denomination’s commitment on this pertinent, prevalent issue regarding the sanctity of life and our stance against abortion in particular” because 1) “the sin of abortion continues to be a common practice in our culture despite political and religious efforts to outlaw, restrict, and prevent it” and 2) “our Confession of Faith indicates that it is proper and necessary for synods, ‘…by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary…’ (WCF 31:4) to address matters which pertain to the civil magistrate.” Overture 48 calls on the GA and the PCA to “make a stronger statement regarding abortion.” Among other things, the stronger statement includes “that all who participate in the practice of abortion, including mothers, for any reason other than to save the physical life of the mother, are guilty of complicity in heinous sin, and subject to the severe judgment of God unless they repent and seek His forgiveness.”
Removal of Covenant Theological Seminary from the Oversight of General Assembly–Overture 2
Covenant Theological Seminary is the official seminary of the PCA. Overture 2 would release CTS “from Presbyterian Church in America oversight and any accompanying restrictions.” The CTS board has recommended that the overture be answered in the negative, i.e., defeated–CTS is not interested in leaving its affiliation with the PCA. One motivation for this overture might be concern over CTS’ involvement in Revoice and its unwillingness to speak clearly (at least until pressured to do so) on the sinfulness of homosexual orientation, which might indicate less focus than desired at CTS on the authority of Scripture.
Elder Participation in General Assembly–Overtures 1 and 27
For some time, there has been concern over the fact that participation of ruling elders at the GA has been declining. Figures report a “steady enrollment growth of Teaching Elder commissioners with participation each year almost always higher than the prior year. The total TE enrollment in 2018 was 1202 — the highest enrollment number ever. Conversely, the data also show a trend of decreasing participation levels of Ruling Elder commissioners since their peak of 531 commissioners in 2002.” Overture 1 attempts to address this by increasing the number of RE’s a church can send as representatives to GA to 4 (from 2) for the first 350 communing members and to (2 from 1) for additional 500 communing members. While this might increase the number of REs sent from churches that already send their quota, many churches do not send their quota. To address this, Overture 27 asks the GA to ” instruct the PCA Administrative Committee to investigate and report at the 48th General Assembly a plan to create a DVC (Distance Voting Commissioner) which would entail the ability of regularly elected commissioners to vote electronically at a distance from the site of the General Assembly.” In other words, commissions could vote from back home where REs in particular might be more participate more. One possible motivation for these overtures is the belief by some that greater RE participation might provide a more biblical direction for the GA and the PCA. Others just want the voice of the GA to more fully represent the PCA’s leadership.
Support of Christian Education–Overture 25
Overture 25 states that “Christian families are experiencing an increase of tension in the public school arena as school policies, approved practices, classroom instruction, discussion, and textbooks oppose and in some instances, vilify, their Biblical convictions; indeed, sometimes resulting in legal action on the part of the state (more recently in reference to gender identity issues).” In response, it calls for “Presbyteries, Sessions, and Diaconates of the Presbyterian Church in America, [to] be encouraged to embrace and provide a supportive posture for Christian education in our churches and communities.” Two ways they can do this are by “offering, whenever possible, financial, spiritual and instructional assistance helpful to those families expressing a desire to pursue a wholly Christian education for their children [and] by encouraging the establishment of sound Christian schools in our churches and communities through prayer and support as our Lord provides.” The Committee on Discipleship Ministries recommends this be answered in the negative as unnecessary because “Scripture clearly teaches that parents have the responsibility for the education of covenant children [and] it is inappropriate for the General Assembly to direct parents to a particular method of fulfilling their responsibility to their children.”
PCA Withdrawal From the National Association of Evangelicals–Overture 23
Overture 23 calls for the withdrawal of the PCA from the National Association of Evangelicals. One reason is that while the NAE states that “we advocate for effective public policy,” the church’s (and thus PCA’s) calling is “to proclaim, to administer, and to enforce the law of Christ revealed in the Scriptures.” Another is that a NAE resolution, “in advocating for a political compromise regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and religious freedom, goes beyond Chapter 31 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.” The PCA’s Interchurch Relations Committee has recommended that Overture 23 be answered in the negative because, among other reasons, “Given the increasing secularization of our culture and threats to religious liberties, the PCA needs all the friends and allies we can muster “in order to advance the Gospel, be salt and light to our culture, and protect our religious liberties.”
Add a New Membership Vow Regarding the Trinity–Overture 33
Overtures 33 calls for a change to the PCA’s Book of Church Order by adding this new vow for members when they join, “Do you believe in the one, true, and living God who exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are of the same substance, equal in power and glory?” It calls for this in part because 1) “the doctrine of the Trinity has been and is currently under assault by the unbelieving world, by cults, by unitarians, and by various religions; and 2) Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other non-Christian faiths could affirm our current membership vows as stated.”
Promote the Exercise of Godly Prudence in Planning and Leading Times of Corporate Prayer and Worship at General Assembly–Overture 3 In response to worship services at GA moving toward a less traditional worship style while including prayers that not all commissioners are “able to pray … in sincerity and good conscience,” Overture 3 would ask that those organizing corporate worship at GA “exercise godly prudence as they strive to ensure that all that is said and done at these gatherings gives expression to the unity of our church by providing an opportunity for all in attendance to call upon the Lord in sincerity and good conscience.” The Administrative Committee has recommended that General Assembly answer the overture in the negative in part because the AC points out that the “overture is directed at pre-assembly prayer meetings and it would be impractical to assign AC staff to attend, monitor, and report every possible offense that might be taken to the conduct of these prayer meetings.”
Policy Manuals of PCA Permanent Committees Subject to the PCA Constitution–Overture 24
Overture 24 calls for all the policy manuals of PCA permanent committees and agencies to contain a statement that they are subject to the PCA constitution and the manuals and changes to them must be approved by the General Assembly before they are implemented. The GA’s Administrative Committee and several other committees recommended that Overture 24 “be answered in the affirmative (i.e., adopted) with amendments.” The motivation of this overture may be a desire to ensure that the PCA’s agencies don’t go “rogue” like many other church and governmental agencies have in the past.