07.19.22 | PCA | by Jake Bennett | by John Jones


    From Pastor John

    At the risk of being repetitive, thank you very much for sending your elders to the 2022 annual meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in Birmingham. General Assembly (GA) is actually attended by a tremendously small percentage of PCA pastors. There are more than 5,000 ordained pastors in the PCA (serving some 1,500 churches), yet less than 2,000 attend General Assembly. This year you sent me, Pastor Jake Bennett, and one of our elders, Adam Sanders. Thank you.

    On this note, one of the pleasing trends of our denomination over the past two years is the growing ratio of ruling elders (non-pastor elders) to teaching elders (pastors). In the first five years of our denomination, 40% of attendees (commissioners) were ruling elders, but that figure declined to 22% in 2018. In the past two years, however, ruling elder participation has grown - a good indication that we are returning to our grassroots heritage. There is a strong desire to continue this trend (even voting to reduce ruling elder fees).

    Below are a few items of interest I’d like to share with you. For a more detailed summary, see the report in byFaith Magazine.

    At this General Assembly, the denomination received a 220-page Report on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, which addresses both Biblical and theological foundations of abuse, and a practical and pastoral approach to abuse in the church. The PCA also adopted a change to the Book of Church Order (our guide for church government) in which victims will no longer be required to testify in the presence of the alleged abuser (BCO 35.1-5). You can learn more at the DASA committee’s website.

    The denomination voted to leave the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a partnership of 39 denominations founded in 1943 to promote evangelism and activism in the US and abroad. The NAE also sought to counter liberal coalitions like the National Council of Churches (publishers of the NRSV Bible); the NAE published the NIV Bible. Our denomination is increasingly cautious of allowing other organizations to speak for us publicly. We remain members, though, of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

    In an example of making our own public statements, we agreed to petition President Biden to end abortion, reading, in part:

    “We who love our nation, in the name of God who alone is sovereign, call upon you to renounce the sin of abortion, to repent of the complicity in the mass slaughter of innocent unborn children, who are persons in the sight of God, and to reverse the ruinous direction of both law and practice in this area. The obedience to God which places us in subjection to your rightful authority, requires of us to proclaim the counsel of God as it bears upon the same God-given authority.”

    Human sexuality and qualifications for leadership in the PCA have been points of discussion for a number of years. Last year, the PCA praised the cumbersomely-titled, Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality, and instructed our Committee on Discipleship Ministries to promote this statement as a teaching tool in our denomination.

    Also, we voted to add several statements to the Book of Church Order regarding topics related to sexuality and qualifications for leadership. So, in a chapter about the calling of an officer, a statement was added, in part, that they “must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions (BCO 16.4).” This statement may not directly mention sexuality, but it does address sinful actions and sinful desires.

    In a chapter about the classification of officers into elders and deacons, a more pointed statement was approved. This statement reads: “Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office” (BCO 7.4). In a rare floor speech, Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, author of The Christ of the Covenants (and personal friend of Dr. Caines), spoke convincingly in favor of this addition.

    Finally, in parts of the Book of Church Order that address the ordination of pastors (21-4) and elders and deacons (24-1), a statement was added:

    “In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns.” The statement continues: “Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3, Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, the candidate must exercise great care not to diminish the seriousness of those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in his progress in holiness (1 Cor. 6:9-11).”

    We should keep in mind that these various changes to the Book of Church Order still await ratification by two-thirds of the 88 presbyteries of the PCA (ours is the Tennessee Valley Presbytery). At the June 2023 General Assembly, we will gather in Memphis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of our young denomination and, at this meeting, my hope (and expectation) is that each of these BCO additions will be approved.

    General Assembly is always a brief respite to reconnect with friends, greet our supported missionaries, encourage favorite ministries, and collect more books (of course). It is also a time to witness and take delight in the continuing objective of our denomination, etched on the front of Covenant’s sanctuary: “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” For me, this was especially so at the 2022 General Assembly.

    From Pastor Jake

    Dear church family,

    Thank you for your many prayers, encouragement, and support for the work of our denomination’s annual General Assembly, our largest and highest ecclesiastical (church) court. On Tuesday, June 21, Pastor Jones, his wife Karen, myself, my son Micah, Adam Sanders, and his daughter, Bea, traveled down to Birmingham, Alabama to participate in the 49th General Assembly. Thank you for your prayers for our travel and participation. The Lord was very gracious to us during this time.

    The theme of this General Assembly was Purified to Proclaim. It was an encouraging reminder and challenge for our presbyters as we gathered. There may have been times when reports from past General Assemblies made us nervous and anxious about the future of our denomination. When we have had these reports, my encouragement has always been the same: trust the Lord, trust His elders, and trust in the process. Let me encourage you that your trust was honored by the Lord. My hope is that as you read this report you are brought into the same gratitude that I had for the Lord’s provision and direction.
    Overall, as I participated through the many hours on the floor of our Assembly, two major points continued to emerge throughout the debate and actions. The first was that the PCA remains a grass-roots denomination. This means that our philosophy, constitution, and actions of the higher court do not begin in the higher courts of the PCA. For newcomers to Presbyterianism, this may sound insignificant, but it has massive implications for how the denomination functions. Actions, changes, and direction flow from local church sessions to the higher courts, not from the top down. This foundational principle creates levels of accountability that encourage continued fidelity to our defining characteristics, i.e.., the inerrancy of Scripture, the importance of our Confession, and our commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel. This year had one of the highest turnouts of ruling elders (elders who are not pastors), which is an encouraging sign of the continuing grass-roots character of our denomination.

    This leads to the second observable point: the PCA is not sliding towards liberalism or a desire to appropriate cultural values. There have been fears in recent years that the PCA is on a progressive track towards the same pattern that infiltrated our mother denomination, the PCUSA. From the discussion and debate, no arguments were made that did not seek to have a grounding in Scripture. There were numerous bold declarations of elders on both sides of issues as to their biblical commitments. We must remember that the major theological shift in the PCUSA was primarily over Sola Scriptura. When the authority of Scripture, the Word of God, is not the bedrock for our theology, then a decline is inevitable.

    Those are two important points to remember as I delve into some of the nuances of our Assembly’s actions. One of the first major decisions the Assembly took was to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The rationale for disassociation ranged from controversial positions that the NAE has taken recently to cost-saving endeavors. Interestingly, when a church court acts the rationale is never truly known or recorded. From the debate, reasons for staying included the opportunity to influence the NAE and our long history of associating broadly with other denominations of evangelicals. In our departure from the NAE we will likely experience both gains and losses in this decision. We gain distance from statements that the NAE has made. Many have argued that the definition of a modern-day evangelical has changed from when the PCA joined the NAE in 1974 at our 2nd General Assembly. One of the major losses, however, is that as the largest Reformed denomination in the NAE we will lose some influence to help define or shape what it means to be an evangelical in America at this point in history.

    The General Assembly received a report from a study committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault. This report was well received by the Assembly. The content was very organized and provides practical wisdom for churches and presbyteries on how to understand abuse and assault. Let me encourage you that if you or someone you know is experiencing any form of abuse, please reach out directly to one of the pastors of our church. Our heavenly Father loves the vulnerable and issues particular protections for those who are weakest in our midst. We want to reflect His heart and actions as we pastorally care for those who are being abused. You can read this report here.

    Additionally, the General Assembly received many valuable reports from our denominational agencies and committees. A favorite for me was our Mission to the World (MTW) Committee. Dr. Lloyd Kim, the MTW Coordinator, shared many encouraging items about how the Lord is expanding the kingdom of God through MTW. A particular highlight was the good report on how God is using our missionaries in Ukraine right now. The Lord has used the Russian invasion of Ukraine to sensitize Ukrainian hearts to their need for the Gospel. There has also been an unprecedented outpouring of love and support from the Church towards our missionaries serving there through prayer, financial support, supplies, and volunteers. I would encourage you to watch (and be encouraged by) their video update here.

    When we read about the actions of the General Assembly, let me encourage you to go to the facts and original sources. ByFaith, our denominational magazine, is our primary source for the actions. You can read about all the actions here. I mention this need to remain in the facts and original sources because there are many personal interpretations that could be made of the actions of the Assembly. Some may be well-meaning, but there are some who are purposefully seeking to discredit actions or distort the results for adversarial purposes.

    This is likely true for several Overtures that were deliberated upon. For example, the Assembly received an Overture to denounce Critical Race Theory (CRT). We decided to postpone this matter indefinitely, which is a way of not affirming or denying the content of the Overture. This was not because of some secret promotion of CRT. It was due to a concern that the motion was so poorly worded that to approve it would not allow us to reference certain biblical truths, and to deny it would make it appear that we were affirming it! Our polity is complicated; we must resist the urge to adopt inappropriate presumptions!

    This was also true when the Assembly rejected the statement on political violence. Even though we did not affirm the proposed statement, the PCA is not claiming to endorse political violence. A wise seminary professor used to say, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying.” We must listen to these wise words whenever we observe action or inaction. There are a multitude of reasons for voting for or against something.

    Concerning the controversy that emerged during the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB), this was complicated. The CCB’s sole purpose is to provide polity clarifications. They do not create motions, nor do they offer differing opinions on items. Their committee is like a dictionary; when you look up a definition you receive facts and data. Sometimes it is multiple pieces of data, but never an opinion. The members of this committee are to research what our BCO states and report on it - nothing more. There was an attempt at this Assembly to expand the CCB’s purpose by bringing a dissenting opinion on what the BCO states. The attempt had the aim of requesting the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), our ecclesiastical Supreme Court, to retry a controversial case. The Assembly voted against the novel practice of allowing the CCB to bring a dissenting opinion (in essence ruling that this was not the right way to request a retrial and that it would have created an appeal in an inappropriate manner).  

    Perhaps the most debated item of our assembly was concerning Overture 15. This overture was amended by the Overtures Committee before reaching the floor of the Assembly. The adjusted language called for an ordination standard that would bar any individual who defined themselves as homosexual, even if they were practicing celibacy, from ordination in the PCA. This overture did pass by a very narrow margin (54.41% in the affirmative). It will require two-thirds of the presbyteries to affirm it during this year and then a second Assembly vote to become part of our constitution.

    Be encouraged - the Lord was proclaimed in this Assembly. I believe He was honored with our words and attitudes toward one another. I witnessed moments of those who are fierce opponents humbly praying and loving each other. I observed brothers holding one another accountable for their words and tone. We sang more hymns together at this Assembly than any previous ones in my recollection. Ultimately, we sought the peace and purity of the church for the glory and honor of Christ, our Savior. Thank you for your prayers. May He build up His Church in and through us as Covenant Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Tennessee Valley Presbytery, members of the Presbyterian Church in America!



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