General Assembly 1998
Paul S. MacDonald
Is the Bible true and relevant only for salvation, or does it speak to all areas of life? Reformed, biblical Presbyterianism has always insisted that biblical truth applies to such matters as church government as well as to personal salvation and sanctification.
Why We Assemble As We Do
Presbyterian churches follow the pattern of church government found in the New Testament, where we learn that the apostolic churches were governed by elders selected by the congregations and ordained by the laying on of hands. Since the church at Antioch, after prayer and fasting, commissioned Paul and Barnabas as pioneer missionaries, Presbyterian churches today likewise commission and send out missionaries. And because, when a problem of general concern arose, the churches referred the matter to a council of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (see Acts 15), Presbyterians today call similar assemblies of ministers and elders to counsel the churches and adjudicate disputes.
Having originated in 1936 to maintain biblical Presbyterianism, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has regularly gathered its ministers and elders for annual general assemblies. In the early years of the OPC, all ministers were eligible to be commissioners to the General Assembly, and each congregation was entitled to designate one elder as a commissioner. As the church grew, that arrangement became unwieldy, and now the Assembly is composed of ministers and elders representing the various presbyteries. Because the presbyteries vary in size-both in the number of their churches and in the number of their membersthe larger presbyteries are represented by more commissioners than the smaller ones are.
Excitement in Grand Rapids
When the Assembly was smaller, it was hosted in various parts of the country by congregations that were large enough to accommodate the ministers and elders attending. In recent years, however, as the number of ministers and churches has grown, the Assembly has usually met on college campuses that could provide a sufficiently large conference hall, rooms for committee meetings, and adequate sleeping and dining facilities. This year, the Sixty-fifth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was held at Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from May 27 to June 2.
A weather front that triggered turbulent storms across the North Central and Midwestern states brought localized tempests with hail, cloudbursts, and violent winds to western Michigan early Sunday morning (May 31). Although some areas of Grand Rapids did not lose electrical power, Reformed Bible College and some of the motels where commissioners were staying were without power for most of the day. Trees and limbs were broken, and travel plans were disrupted. Some congregations, without electricity, united with others for worship that Lord's day. One commissioner was heard commending the civility of the citizens of Grand Rapids, who, even on the main thoroughfares, stopped at intersections with nonoperating traffic signals to let the traffic from side streets enter.
Even though parts of western Michigan were without electricity, they were not without spiritual power and light as commissioners dispersed to visit the various Orthodox Presbyterian congregations in the region. And the power and light of the gospel and the kingdom of God were evident, not only on that Lord's day, but throughout the proceedings of the Sixtyfifth General Assembly.
The Assembly began with a worship service at eight o'clock on Wednesday evening, May 27, in the chapel of Reformed Bible College. John W. Mahaffy, retiring moderator of the Sixtyfourth General Assembly, preached on 2 Timothy 4:12 with warmth, gentleness, clarity, and good humor. Would the apostle Paul have been surprised at the recent shootings on American school campuses? he asked. Probably not: read 2 Timothy 3. But in the midst of cultural upheaval, he reminded the commissioners, be concernedas Paul wasnot only for what you preach, but also for the way you proclaim it. Follow the model of Jesus, who sharply rebuked his unbelieving opponents, but gently constrained sinners who were struggling with their sins. Don't browbeat your hearers, but be gentle with them. Remember, you are not the judge; the Lord is the one to whom they must give account. Preachand livein the presence of Christ.
On Thursday morning, the assembly got down to business. The call of the roll showed eightyone ministers and fifty elders enrolled as commissioners. It is traditional, when the roll is taken, to survey the commissioners in terms of their years of service since ordination. Nearly half of the commissioners had been ordained since 1980. One commissioner was ordained in the 1930s, four were ordained during the 1940s, ten during the 1950s, twentyone in the 1960s, thirty in the 1970s, twentyeight in the 1980s, and thirtyfive in the 1990s (and two were unaccounted for). Twentyseven commissioners were attending their first general assembly.
Since, traditionally, no one serves as moderator of the General Assembly more than once, there is always a certain degree of suspense leading up to the election of the commissioner who will be chosen to preside at the meetings. This year the gavel was awarded to Ross Graham, a minister from the Presbytery of New Jersey and general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Mr. Graham performed his duties with fairness and dispatch. The efficient yet gracious performance of his duties helped steer the Assembly through its responsibilities by three o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, nearly a full day ahead of its projected adjournment at noon on Wednesday.
As a means of expediting the work of the Assembly, every communication, appeal, and report presented to it is assigned to an appropriate advisory committee consisting of between three and fourteen members. The advisory committees this year spent most of Thursday and part of Friday reviewing the materials, analyzing the reports, and preparing recommendations that would help the Assembly to deal efficiently with the matters that came before it. When those committees had by and large finished their deliberations, the Assembly reconvened in full session on Friday forenoon to begin hearing reports on the life and ministry of the church and responding to appeals and requests for the Assembly's counsel and judgment.
It is true that statistics can sometimes be dry and lifeless, but the report of the statistician presented great cause for rejoicing at the evidences of the power and light of God's blessing on the OPC in recent years. Church membership grew in 1997 by more than 6 percent (four times the rate of a few years ago), continuing a trend of the previous three years so that, in four years, membership has increased by 22 percent. Attendance and offerings have also grown. Offerings in the OPC during 1997 exceeded $24 million, and giving for benevolence went up at a particularly high rate.
During 1997, eight new congregations entered the OPCsix that grew out of home missions works and two that were received from other sources. On the other hand, four churches were dissolved during the year. Ten new missions works were begun, and one was terminated.
The outreach ministries of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are mainly exercised through its denominational committees on Christian Education, Foreign Missions, and Home Missions and Church Extension. Each year these committees present extensive reports to the General Assembly, detailing their ministries for the previous year.
Among the highlights of the report of the Committee on Christian Education were its curriculum preparation through Great Commission Publications, its assistance in the development of the Machen Retreat and Conference Center near McDowell, Virginia, progress on the production of a book of acceptable contemporary worship songs, its efforts to improve ministerial training, and continuing work in ministries such as fellowship, teaching, worship, evangelism, and Christian schools.
A new revision of the primary Sunday school curriculum is available for this September. Although the lesson content remains essentially unchanged, the materials are more attractive and the teacher's guides are much more userfriendly. A new publishing venture (of GCP) is As for My House, a quarterly guide for family devotions, the first issue of which will be published in October.
The publication of the proposed book of contemporary worship songs has been delayed by the Committee on Christian Education, which has reiterated its solicitation of sessional input. In order to receive as much feedback as possible, the Committee is encouraging all sessions to obtain copies of the Publisher's Report from GCP and to send responsesboth favorable and unfavorablebefore the end of September to Worship Subcommittee chairman Larry Wilson.
The intern program, organized and monitored by the Committee on Christian Education, continues to be popular. It was pointed out that seventy current Orthodox Presbyterian ministers have come through the program.
The Assembly heard the Committee's recommendation to set up a Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC to provide seminary students, licentiates, and ministers with instruction in such areas as presuppositional apologetics, preaching, and Orthodox Presbyterian history, confessional standards, and church polity. The Assembly approved the concept, but requested further refinement of the proposal with respect to the institute's necessity, purpose, and costs.
The Assembly did adopt the Plan for the Website of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as it was presented by the Christian Education Committee. It is the understanding of the Committee that, although other churches have unofficial Web sites, the OPC is the first denomination to officially adopt a presence on the World Wide Web.
Later in the Assembly, DeLacey Andrews, the pastor in Glade Spring, Virginia, presented a thirtyminute slide show describing and promoting the Machen Retreat and Conference Center. Facilities now available in a renovated farmhouse owned by the conference can accommodate up to twenty people, and there are hookups in the backyard for several RVs. Work is progressing on the conference/dining hall; it was expected to have a roof in time for the family conference over the Fourth of July holiday.
The report of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension paralleled the statistician's presentation in illustrating the growth of the OPC. Before 1994, new home missions works averaged three or four a year, but the pace since then has picked up dramatically. The Committee no longer goes looking for places to start new churches, because requests for help have come in so rapidly. New sites were announced at the AssemblyAda, Michigan; Bentonville, Arkansas; and Salt Lake City, Utah. Five presbyteries have either recently divided or are proposing divisiontestimonies to the encouraging growth of new congregations.
Among the home missionaries who addressed the assembly, James Bosgraf, regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Midwest, reported that the presbytery has begun twenty new works in the past five years. Right now the presbytery needs six new church planters. Some of these groups have money in the bank and large numbers of committed peoplethey just need pastors.
Mr. Bosgraf made the interesting observation that he sees the greatest blessings going, not to the new works, but to the churches that oversee the missions. He recounted many cases where the overseeing churches at first declined to accept the responsibility, but later reconsidered. The challenge of providing leadership and encouragement to a new congregation stimulated the lives of church members. The power and light of the kingdom spilled over into the stewardship of those churches. "Some that had not met their budgets for years have suddenly experienced surpluses of $18,000 or $40,000," Mr. Bosgraf said.
The Committee on Home Missions shared with the Assembly the resolution of thanks to be presented to William Vermeulen, the director of evangelism and church development, who is scheduled to retire in August after nearly twenty years of service. Mr. Vermeulen pointed out that the best way to lead people to the Lord is to plant new churches. The success rate in evangelism increases from 9 percent for personal witnessing to 23 percent when new churches are planted. He said that the number of new churches he has assisted "years ago was over 100," but since then he has "lost count." In appreciation of Mr. Vermeulen's vigorous leadership in helping plant new churches, the General Assembly gave him a standing ovation after the Committee's resolution was read.
Mark Bube highlighted aspects of the work of the Committee on Foreign Missions. He said, "At this very moment, while we sit here, a new church is being planted in Ethiopia." In spite of the political tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Christians in those lands are working more and more closely together. Hailu Mekonnen's writing and translation work is having an enormous impact in Ethiopia. Some Christian texts and reference works have sold fifty thousand copies and are being used by Christians of various denominations there.
In general, the emphasis in our missions policy is shifting away from direct evangelism to the training and preparing of native pastors. Just as, in home missions, planting a church amplifies the effectiveness of personal witnessing, so, in foreign missions, the training of indigenous pastors amplifies the impact of the missionaries.
Mr. Bube reported that there were only two students at the Bible school in Muuru, Kenya, when missionary teacher Daryl Daniels arrived. Now there are thirteen. The students rise at 4 a.m. to work four or five hours on their farms and in their gardens to provide for their families, and then walk to school to study before spending the hottest hours of the day going doortodoor to evangelize the people. As an indirect result of El Niño (which has encouraged the spread of measles, malaria, cholera, and Rift Valley fever), the number of patients visiting the Tei Wa Yesu ("Compassion of Jesus") Family Care Center at Muruu (where missionary doctor Herb Prawius labors) has swelled from one hundred a day to five or six hundred, exhausting the clinic staff and supplies.
Missionaries to Japan David Moore and Stuart Lauer addressed the Assembly, as did Yasunori Ichikawa, the fraternal delegate from the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ). Mr. Lauer moved to Japan in February to teach at Reformed Theological Seminary in Kobe, in southern Japan. Mr. Ichikawa is also associated with the seminary, which currently enrolls twenty fulltime students.
In the context of underscoring the importance of training indigenous pastors on the various mission fields, one of the most emotionally charged issues to come before the General Assembly reached the floorthe possibility of closing down the Japan Mission. The Committee on Foreign Missions had decided at its February meeting to consider in September whether to begin taking steps to close down the OPC's evangelistic missionary work with the Tohoku Presbytery of the RCJ. Mr. Ichikawa reported that the Tohoku, in northeastern Japan, is the smallest of the five RCJ presbyteries, and that it is very difficult to evangelize because that part of Japan is the most traditional in its customs and lifestyle. Yet he pled for the OPC to continue ministering there because the preaching stations are gradually growing, and because Japan, although one of the least fertile evangelistic fields in the world, is one of the countries that is most closed to foreign missions.
After a good deal of debate, the Assembly voted to entrust the decision regarding the future of the Japan Mission to the Committee on Foreign Missions. However, a significant minority wanted that decision postponed at least until after the next General Assembly.
Mr. Bube concluded the report of the Committee on Foreign Missions by calling attention to fresh opportunities for the OPC to enter into mission ministries all over the world. There was recent involvement in Poland with a group of eighty people who attended a conference on the Reformed faithin a country that is 96 percent Roman Catholic. Appeals have come from Mexico, Malawi, and other places, requesting OP missionaries to work with local Reformed groups. Praise God for the evidence that the power and light of the gospel are spreading to the ends of the earth.
The power and light of the kingdom were displayed in other ways at the Assembly, too. A highlight of each day was the noontime devotions led by various ministers. On Thursday, Leonard Chanoux from the Presbytery of New Jersey read 1 Corinthians 1:19 and presented a message entitled "Called to Be Holy." He exhorted the commissioners to show gentleness and consideration to one another in attitudes as well as in words.
The next day Gordon Cook from the Presbytery of New York and New England read 2 Corinthians 1:17 and spoke on "Ministering Comfort in a Hospital." He stressed the importance of possessing a pastor's heart in dealing with suffering and sorrow, and suggested ways to conduct voluntary hospital service, gleaned from his training and experience in hospital chaplaincy.
"Focus on the King" was the title of the Saturday devotional led by Jeff Landis from the Presbytery of Northern California. Mr. Landis read Revelation 1:920 and assured the commissioners that the worst days in their ministry do not compare with the days in which John wrote his book to encourage the saints in their times of difficulty. The vision of the triumphant Christ, the Son of Man among the lampstands, is the assurance that gives power to our ministries because we do not do it alone: Christ possesses the keys thatthrough our faithful ministrywill release his sheep from death and Hades and bring them into hope and glory.
On Monday, Richard Miller from the Presbytery of the Northwest read 2 Timothy 3:144:5 and delivered a message entitled "For the Time Will Come." He pointed out that the tension between what people ought to hear and what they want to hear has existed from the time of Paul and Timothy and continues right on through our own day. Preachers must be aware that hearers will reject them, but they must never give in to the temptation to simply scratch the itching ears of their hearers by replacing sound doctrine with the fables that people may prefer.
Tuesday's devotional was brought by Charles Jackson from the Presbytery of Ohio. Mr. Jackson read Matthew 7:1314 and presented the message "Be Faithful to the Way That Is Narrow." He pointed out that the verses in Matthew come at the conclusion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and hence serve as the invitation. He contrasted contemporary notions of invitation, which emphasize the easiness of the Christian walk, with what Jesus said about the narrowness, the oppression, and the tribulation involved in following him to the end. To emphasize how hard it is to be faithful to the way that is narrow, Mr. Jackson closed with the illustration of missionary Bruce Hunt, who, when captured by the Japanese during World War II, chose to go to prison rather than sign a paper renouncing his faith that would have enabled him to go free and return home.
In addition to hearing reports of what the Lord is doing in the ministries of the OPC, the Assembly heard and responded to several solicitations for advice and adjudication. After more than four hours of discussion on Saturday, the Assembly denied an appeal from Arthur Kuschke that the Presbytery of Philadelphia had dealt unfairly with John Pedersen by advising him to move away from the Gettysburg area after resigning as pastor of Living Hope Church.
On Monday, the Assembly refused, after a couple of hours of debate, to decide, as the Presbytery of the Dakotas asked it to, whether operating an automated laundromat on Sundays is sinful and a chargeable offense. It was the Assembly's judgment that such an issue could properly be addressed only in reference to a specific, concrete situation.
In another appeal, the Assembly upheld the complaint of the session of Bethel OPC in Carson, North Dakota, that the Presbytery of the Dakotas should have consulted with the session before instructing it to stop using a former pastor as pulpit supply. Also, the presbytery erred in citing a Bible passage as its grounds without explaining how it applied.
In other matters, the Assembly voted to change the status of the Chaplains' Commission to a standing committee of the Assembly. After extensive debate whether the church would be getting too involved in civil affairs, the Assembly responded affirmatively to the request of the Chaplains' Committee that it erect a special committee to study the biblical principles related to the issues of women in combat and in the military.
The Assembly approved the formation of a new presbytery (effective January 1, 2000), the Presbytery of the Southeast, which will include some of the churches from the Presbytery of the MidAtlantic and some from the Presbytery of the South. It also reassigned the state of Arkansas from the Presbytery of the South to the Presbytery of the Central United States (effective immediately).
The Assembly reviewed the status of the Rev. Robert Van Manen, who has served for eight years as an evangelist for Little Farms Church in Coopersville, Michigan, a congregation that has recently transferred to the OPC. Mr. Van Manen has not yet studied Greek and Hebrew and does not have a seminary education. However, in consideration of his credentials, his excellent theological examinations, his expressed desire to study the original languages, and his background as a church planter and a Bible teacher in Christian schools, the Assembly expressed no objection to allowing the Presbytery of the Midwest to make an exception to the usual requirements for ministerial training and to recognize Mr. Van Manen as an ordained pastor.
Although the General Assembly, by necessity, concentrates most of its energy on the work and life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it recognizes that the OPC is not only not the "Only Perfect Church," but also not the "Only True Church." The OPC maintains fraternal relations with a number of other denominations, in this country and elsewhere. When Jack Peterson presented the report of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, he mentioned that there is no inhabited continent without a church that is true to the faith. He also reminded commissioners not to forget that, in many nations, their brothers and sisters are being persecuted for their faithfulness to Christ and the gospel.
There were a number of observers and fraternal delegates from other denominations who attended and addressed the Assembly. In addition to Mr. Ichikawa from the Reformed Church in Japan, who has already been mentioned, Neale Riffert from the Reformed Church in the United States, Jerome Julien from the United Reformed Churches in North America, and Walter Lorenz from the Presbyterian Church in America brought greetings to the Assembly.
It was in connection with ecumenical relations that the Assembly debated and finally approved a recommendation that the OPC approve the suspension of the Christian Reformed Church of North America from the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. A year ago the OPC severed fraternal relations with the CRCNA because it had approved the ordination of women elders and ministers. The vote to support the suspension of the CRCNA from NAPARC was based on the same grounds.
In a matter that rivals the choice of a moderator as an item of perennial interest, the selection of the date and place of the next General Assembly always involves some suspense. In view of the fact that the Sixtyfourth General Assembly had tentatively approved a site in Pennsylvania for the 1999 Assembly, it came as a surprise when the Committee on Date, Place, and Travel recommended that the next Assembly be held, as it was this year, at Reformed Bible College. The Assembly agreed to do so, from Wednesday evening, June 2, until (tentatively) noon on June 9.
Perhaps it was the spirit of gratitude for the evidences of God's grace in Orthodox Presbyterian ministries that led the commissioners to want to experience again the kind hospitality of RBC. Or perhaps it was the sentiment which one veteran commissionerwho shall go unnamed, but whose objectivity and veracity are testified to by the fact that this was the sixtyfifth general assembly he has attendedexpressed to this reporter: "This is the most pacific assembly in memory!"
Thanks be to God for the work he is doing in the churches, and for this opportunity to share the testimonies to his power and light in Christian education, home missions, foreign missions, and diaconal ministries, as well as in the nittygritty detailsand, yes, even in the hard issues of appeals and complaints. Soli Deo gloria.
Mr. MacDonald is an elder at Pilgrim OPC in Bangor, Maine, and a member of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from the New Horizons, August/September 1998.