David K. Thompson and Danny E. Olinger
The opening day of a general assembly is typically a joyful one. Commissioners are eager to renew old acquaintances and to make new friends of first-time attendees. An assembly is always an occasion to rejoice in the sweet fellowship that binds the church together in love.
Such was the case when representatives from the sixteen Orthodox Presbyterian presbyteries made their way at the beginning of June to the wooded campus of Reformed Bible College, just northeast of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the host institution for the Seventy-second General Assembly of the OPC. Greeting them there were OP pastors from the area (Stephen W. Igo and Robert M. Van Manen) and volunteers from local OP congregations who handled arrangements.
But with the opening gavel comes the realization that there is and should be a certain seriousness and austerity to the proceedings. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church's Book of Church Order states that the General Assembly is "the governing body of the whole church." It is charged to "seek to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church," to "seek to resolve all doctrinal and disciplinary questions regularly brought before it from the lower assemblies," and to "seek to promote the unity of the church of Christ through correspondence with other churches."
In light of their solemn responsibility, the commissioners' prayer is an appropriate one: "Father, grant this body the wisdom to be faithful to your Word and your will, and help our decisions to be effective arbiters of that wisdom in your church, so that your gospel can be boldly declared for your glory alone."
The Rev. Larry E. Wilson, moderator of last year's assembly, officially called the Assembly to order and led in opening worship, preaching from Psalm 63 on "The Heart of Biblical Worship." That heart, he said, is "communion with God." Mr. Wilson proclaimed:
We are in the wilderness, "in a dry and weary land where there is no water." But God is our God, and he will never leave us nor forsake us.... The living God draws near to commune with us through Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit.... Therefore, faint after the living God as your highest desire! Feast upon the living God as your deepest delight! Flee to the living God as your surest defense!
Following the sermon, the Rev. Alan D. Strange administered the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
The work of the Assembly proper started on Thursday morning, June 2, with Mr. Wilson continuing in the moderator's chair for the opening items of business. The roll was taken and 132 ministers and ruling elders answered the call and were enrolled as commissioners. For the first time in OPC history, no commissioner had been ordained prior to 1950. Over 40 percent of the commissioners had been ordained in the last fifteen years.
The most important item of business on Thursday morning was the election of a new moderator. The floor was opened for nominations, and the sole nominee was the Rev. James L. Bosgraf, regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Midwest and the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario, who was duly elected. Mr. Bosgraf guided the Assembly throughout the week with a steady hand, providing clear direction and light humor.
First to report to the Assembly was the Rev. Donald J. Duff, who highlighted his activities as stated clerk over the preceding year. The trustees, whose report was given by Mr. Richard A. Barker, a ruling elder at Grace OPC in Westfield, New Jersey, deemed Mr. Duff's performance "to be superior in meeting challenges of increasing complexity." Mr. Duff was assisted at the Assembly by the Rev. John W. Mahaffy.
Mr. Luke E. Brown, who has served the Assembly as statistician since 1985, reported that at the end of 2004 the membership of the OPC totalled 28,145, up over 1 percent for the year. The number of organized congregations increased by 11 to 252. In addition, the church is actively supporting 60 mission works. Although overall regular attendance was down slightly, general offerings increased by 5 percent and benevolence by 3.8 percent.
The Rev. Danny E. Olinger, general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education (CCE), presented the CCE report. The highlight of the report was the unveiling of the newly printed Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Mr. Olinger announced that for the first time the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as adopted by the OPC, together with all GA-approved proof texts, have been made available in one volume. Mr. Olinger expressed his thankfulness for the labors of Mr. James W. Scott and many volunteers in the production of the volume.
The Rev. Thomas R. Patete, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and executive director of Great Commission Publications (GCP), the joint publishing ministry of the OPC and PCA, reported on GCP's plans to change its Sunday school curriculum in the fall of 2005 for grades one to six from two three-year courses to three two-year courses. He urged commissioners to contact GCP if they needed any help in making this transition in their local churches.
Before electing members of the CCE, the Assembly was informed that the Rev. John P. Galbraith, whose term was expiring, had requested that he not be renominated. The Assembly adopted a resolution noting that this ended sixty-five years of continual service by Mr. Galbraith to the General Assembly. The resolution ended with the statement, "Mr. Galbraith's diligent and faithful service to the General Assembly has been a precious gift to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for which we thank and praise our God."
The Rev. Richard R. Gerber, associate general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE), reported that CHMCE provides financial support to over forty mission works and eleven regional home missionaries. It also sponsors an annual church-planting training conference, presents the "Readiness for Ministry in the OPC" seminars at Reformed seminaries, publishes a biweekly prayer bulletin, and hosts an annual conference for regional home missionaries and presbytery home missions chairmen. The Assembly also heard encouraging news of a potential Hispanic mission in Chicago and church-planting opportunities in the Minneapolis area.
The Rev. Ross W. Graham, CHMCE's general secretary, reported on the recent OP Hispanic ministries conference. He noted that, on the preceding Lord's Day, seven OP worship services had been conducted in Spanish.
The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson spoke about his labors as regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia and his approaching retirement. The Assembly expressed thankfulness for Mr. Tyson and his service with a standing ovation.
The report for the last of the three major "program" committees, the Committee on Foreign Missions (CFM), was presented by Mr. Mark T. Bube, general secretary of the CFM. He discussed at length the decision to intermit, or suspend, the work in Japan. Many questions concerning the Japan mission were asked of him during the question-and-answer period. When an overture from the Presbytery of Ohio came up, encouraging the Assembly to reconsider the CFM's decision to intermit the Japan mission, the Assembly adopted a procedure for dealing with the overture at a later time.
Mr. Bube and the Rev. Douglas B. Clawson, associate general secretary, also delivered news about mission work and opportunities in Québec, Africa, and Haiti. Each commissioner was presented with new missionary prayer cards. The Assembly also was blessed with the presence of several missionaries who were home from abroad, including three from Japan.
The president of the Committee on Pensions, Mr. Roger A. Huibregtse, a ruling elder at New Hope OPC in Green Bay, Wisconsin, reported that 258 men at the end of 2004 were participating in the pension plan, with 55 drawing some form of pension or annuity. He also reported that the pension fund returned 9.3 percent in 2004, and that the hospitalization plan was doing well financially.
The Rev. Stephen L. Phillips, president of the Committee on Coordination, and Mr. David E. Haney, director of finance and planned giving, presented the Committee on Coordination's report. They reported that offerings for Worldwide Outreach increased 1.3 percent from 2003 to 2004, reaching a total of $2.4 million.
The Assembly adopted a 4 percent increase in the budget for Worldwide Outreach in 2006, and granted permission to the Committee on Foreign Missions to receive a special offering in the spring of 2006 (outside the combined budget).
The Rev. Leonard J. Coppes, secretary-treasurer of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, delivered its report. He stated that the Committee distributed $75,000 for tsunami relief, $45,950 for foreign missions assistance, and $155,807 for ministry in the United States in 2004. The Assembly then adopted the Committee's recommendation that OP congregations support this ministry at a suggested rate of $29 per communicant member.
Mr. John R. Muether, the OPC historian, announced to the Assembly the availability of two new products, a CD of the Minutes of the General Assembly from 1936 to 2004 and a DVD version of the OPC History Video. Mr. Muether thanked Mr. Andrew Moody, a ruling elder at Faith Presbyterian Church in Garland, Texas, for his labor in scanning old General Assembly Minutes.
The Rev. Robert B. Needham, vice chairman of the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel, presented its report. He stated that twenty-two OP chaplains are serving in various capacities, and that twenty-one congregations serve as their "sponsors." He also thanked Mr. Robert M. Coie, a ruling elder at Westminster (Calif.) OPC for gathering and distributing information about OP chaplains and military personnel for the purpose of prayer.
The Rev. George R. Cottenden, chairman of the Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship, reported that the Committee was ready to send to presbyteries and sessions its Amended Proposed Revised Version for study. Presbyteries would be requested to send any proposed amendments to the stated clerk and the other presbyteries, with a copy to the Committee, by May 10, 2006, for inclusion in the GA agenda. The Assembly agreed to this procedure.
Mr. Tyson and the Rev. Jack Peterson, president and administrator, respectively, of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR), presented its report. The Assembly approved the CEIR's recommendation that the OPC approve the pending membership of the United Reformed Churches of North America in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. The Assembly also approved the CEIR's recommendation to the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) that the ICRC encourage reconciliation between the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), and, if that is not achieved, to offer an ecclesiastical method of binding adjudication to settle disputes with regard to church properties and assets.
If listening to the committee reports is the easy work of the Assembly, interacting with the body on difficult matters is the hard work. As committees finish their reports, or, at designated times on the docket, important matters come before the Assembly that often require lengthy debate. Debate is not by any means a bad thing-indeed, it can be the most profound and direct way of arriving at the best decision, as the voices of many godly men are heard. But the gravity of certain matters, and the realization that people's lives will be significantly impacted by the Assembly's determinations, weigh heavily and give each commissioner pause. It is incumbent upon each man to listen closely, to focus clearly, and to work diligently, so that he can truly be conscience-bound to his vote. This year, there were two such matters: an appeal in a judicial case, and the future of the Japan Mission.
The one appeal before the Assembly this year came from the session of Providence OPC in Royal Oak, Michigan. The session had denied a member's request to transfer his membership and that of his family to another OP congregation in the area, and then brought charges against him. The member lodged a complaint with the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario against that denial of transfer, alleging that the session erred in its decision not to grant the transfer. The Presbytery sustained the member's complaint, and instructed the session to dismiss him to another jurisdiction. The Providence session then appealed that decision to the General Assembly.
The ensuing debate included questions of whether the session had taken too long to deny the request for transfer and whether the session's reasons for denying the transfer were justified. It was argued that since charges had not yet been filed against the member when his transfer was denied, the session was not justified in refusing the transfer. But the reply was made that the provision of the Book of Discipline that uses this language pertains to situations in which transfers may be granted, not those in which they may be denied. In the end, the Assembly upheld the appeal of the session and returned the matter of the transfer to their jurisdiction.
Having informed the previous two general assemblies of the dwindling state of its cash reserves, and that it would not be able to maintain its current level of missionary activity (let alone expand it) for much longer without a significant increase in revenues, the Committee on Foreign Missions determined last September, with deep regret, to begin the process of intermitting the work in Japan. Among the reasons reported for the Committee's decision were: (1) The activities proposed by the Japan Mission in its Five-Year Plan seemed to make only limited strategic contribution toward the final accomplishment of the primary goal for a fully operational field. (2) Multiple significant opportunities are pressing upon the Committee from other fields. (3) The Committee is responsible to exercise good stewardship of its limited resources.
But that was not a declaration that nothing else remained to be done in Japan. Indeed, less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation's 125 million people claim Jesus as Lord. Accordingly, the Presbytery of Ohio overtured the General Assembly to reconsider the decision to intermit. In addition, a group of OP ministers and elders formed an ad hoc committee to find a way to continue the work in Japan. In response, the Presbytery of Southern California, concerned that the ad hoc committee would cause confusion, overtured the Assembly to rule on its constitutionality.
The overture from the Presbytery of Ohio was considered first. The advisory committee responsible for reviewing the overture recommended to the Assembly that it not be granted. Its advice was to allow the determination of the Committee on Foreign Missions to stand, giving the following ground: "All of us are saddened by the decision to intermit the OPC Japan Mission, but the Committee on Foreign Missions is and remains the most knowledgeable body in the OPC on matters related to the entire foreign missions program of the church, its financial condition, and the constraints affecting its options for the future." After lengthy and sometimes emotional discussion, the Assembly did not accept the overture.
As difficult as that was, the issue of the ad hoc committee and the overture from the Presbytery of Southern California still required attention. The advisory committee produced both majority and minority reports and recommendations for the Assembly as to the disposition of the ad hoc committee. The discussion was tense, and the Assembly was divided over the best course of action. As the Assembly moved toward an impasse, a motion passed to refer all pending motions relating to the status of the ad hoc committee to the Committee on Foreign Missions.
God's providential care brought commissioners to the peaceful venue of Reformed Bible College. Those in attendance could not help but be reassured by the beauty of God's creative hand in this corner of Michigan. Assembly work is hard work-not because God's grace is insufficient for our needs, but because we are sinful, finite men. Such matters force commissioners to their knees in prayer. The Seventy-second General Assembly was challenging, indeed, but by God's grace and through the faithful prayers and attention of God's people, he will continue to bless his church and enable us to work boldly as his servants.
The authors are members of the Committee for the Historian. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2005.