The 73rd General Assembly
David K. Thompson
This year Trinity Christian College, tucked away in the quiet, southwestern suburbs of Chicago, played host to the Seventy-third General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The beauty of the Trinity campus offset the thunderstorms that greeted commissioners and interrupted the travel plans of many. But even as the refrains of the opening hymn rose from Ozinga Chapel, the reminder that God's amazing love ensures our salvation set the appropriate tone for the coming week.
The Rev. James Bosgraf, moderator of last year's assembly, opened the Seventy-third General Assembly on Wednesday evening, June 21, with a message from Philippians 4:1-9. He encouraged us to "speak humbly to friends from a passage that sets for us the right mind-set as we set out to do God's work." That mind-set is one of joy, which is the result of unity in Christ. The fullness of joy that Paul describes is found in the unity of God's children. "God is pleased when he sees his children working in and at unity." What better way is there to start the Assembly?
Election of Moderator
Typically, an assembly celebrates the Lord's Supper as part of the opening worship service. Because of the lengthy docket facing the body, however, the celebration was postponed until Sunday evening, and the Assembly agreed to work through a number of agenda items on Wednesday evening.
The Rev. Richard Gerber, associate general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE), was the sole nominee for moderator and was declared elected.
The Rev. Richard Gaffin, president of the Committee on Foreign Missions, introduced the report of that committee, which Mr. Mark Bube, the committee's general secretary, gave. He read from Hebrews and reminded the Assembly that "Christ calls us to go outside the camp." The Assembly, through this committee, works to spread the gospel outside our camp.
The Assembly was blessed to hear from the Rev. Tony Curto, the Rev. Heero Hacquebord, and the Rev. Al Tricarico, each providing updates about God's work in their respective fields. Mr. Bube commented on the death of the Rev. Matt Baugh on the field in Haiti on May 4. At Sunday evening's worship service, a special offering was taken for the Baugh family; it totaled over $34,000.
The president of the Committee on Christian Education, Mr. James Gidley, introduced the committee's report. The Rev. Danny Olinger, general secretary of the committee, presented the report. He expressed his thankfulness for the opportunity to serve the church. He especially recognized Mr. Christopher Tobias, who has helped with graphic design (for New Horizons and OPC.ORG). The Rev. Rodney King presented the work of OPC.ORG, and the Rev. Gregory Reynolds, the new editor of Ordained Servant, presented the objectives and goals of the journal, which is now published on OPC.ORG.
Mr. Olinger noted that there has been a decrease in the number of both interns and churches willing to host them for yearlong internships. This is an important part of the "cultivation of young men for the ministry." As the average age of OP ministers increases, we need to prepare the next generation of church leaders.
Home Missions and Church Extension
The Rev. Ross Graham, general secretary of CHMCE, stated that the committee provided support for twenty-eight mission works or fledgling congregations in 2005. And so far in 2006, there have been fifteen new works.
Mr. Graham focused on CHMCE's role in disaster relief efforts in the fall of 2005 in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. What can we, a small church with limited resources, do in the face of such overwhelming destruction? As "questions began to pour into the administrative offices" in Philadelphia, CHMCE took the lead in contacting pastors in affected regions, he said. Mr. Graham asked Mr. David Haney, the OPC's director of finance and planned giving and a member of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, "to coordinate initial fact-finding and response efforts from the administrative offices."
Mr. Haney presented a video montage of the destruction caused by the hurricanes, the human desperation that followed, and the response of a small church moved by the Spirit of God to act. The Assembly recognized by resolution those directly involved in volunteer relief efforts and made special note of the tireless efforts of Mr. Haney, who received a standing ovation. By God's grace, he helped the OPC raise over $400,000 and field eleven disaster relief teams that served hurricane victims in the South. The Assembly passed a motion requesting CHMCE to undertake relief ministries on behalf of the GA in the event of a future "major disaster" in North America.
In response to questions from many within and without the OPC about the church's position on justification, the Seventy-first GA (2004) erected "a study committee of seven (ministers or elders) to critique the teachings of the 'New Perspective on Paul,' 'Federal Vision,' and other like teachings, as they are related to the Word of God and our subordinate standards, with a view to giving a clear statement to the presbyteries, sessions, and seminaries."
This year the special committee presented its report and provided a meaningful critique of those teachings. At their heart, both systems misunderstand the role of good works in the life of a believer, and thus repeat the old error of confusing justification with sanctification. Justification is "an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 33). Sanctification is "the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God" (Q. 35).
The report points out that, according to the New Perspective, justification occurs twice. Our initial justification, which we experience now, results from "looking to Christ in faith." But we must still await a future justification at the final judgment, which will be "based on the believer's Spirit-produced works." The views of the Federal Vision camp are more diverse, but many of its advocates include works like "faithfulness and obedience" in "the very definition of faith." Both teachings compromise the fundamental biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, which was at the heart of the Reformation. Also, both teachings, in essence, deny that Christ's active obedience (his perfect keeping of the law) is imputed to us.
The Assembly commended the report for study and requested the Committee on Christian Education to distribute it and post it on the OPC website with a preface explaining its context. The CCE was also requested to dedicate an issue of New Horizons to the topic.
The Presbytery of Southern California brought before the General Assembly an overture ripped from today's headlines. It asked the Assembly to decide whether it is proper for churches to receive illegal immigrants as members. At issue is whether we can, in good conscience, receive those who intend to continue breaking the law. The Assembly responded by erecting a committee to study the issue and report back to next year's assembly.
The Presbytery of Ohio asked the Assembly to authorize the Committee on Christian Education to investigate the feasibility of producing a Psalter-Hymnal. The Assembly approved that request.
In 2004, the Seventy-first General Assembly erected a special committee to study how contributions to Worldwide Outreach are distributed among the church's three major program committeesForeign Missions, Home Missions and Church Extension, and Christian Education. The Rev. Robert Broline, reporting on behalf of the committee, presented the Assembly with seventeen recommendations for changing Instrument E, one of the General Assembly's mechanisms that govern the funding process.
The most significant change adopted by the Assembly was the elimination of this paragraph: "If a program committee shall receive the amount set forth in its approved budget, it shall not share further in the allocation of contributions ... until all other program committees receive their approved budgets." In its place, the Assembly elected to allow the program committees to receive contributions without regard to preset limitations. It asked the Committee on Coordination to report to the Assembly each year on ways in which any program committee's budget shortfalls can be satisfied.
The remaining recommendations, dealing mostly with how program committees are allowed to promote their work inside and outside the church, were adopted.
Chaplains and Military Personnel
The Rev. Robert Needham presented the work of the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel, which works together with sister denominations on the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel. As of February 2006, there were thirteen OP chaplains in uniform and over one hundred other OP men and women serving in uniform, many overseas. The committee actively maintains lists of all OP personnel who serve in the armed forces, and provides updates on their behalf, keeping the church informed of their needs.
The committee recommended that the Assembly "encourage the presbyteries to ... be prepared to aid churches where the pastor is mobilized," to "encourage their positive involvement in processing calls presented to those either currently serving as chaplains or intending to serve as chaplains in the military reserves," and to "request that their churches consider utilizing approved chaplain candidates either as pulpit supplies or as interns or be utilized to assist the pastor in a manner that such candidates are enabled to fulfill their chaplain candidate ministry requirement of up to two years of ministry before endorsement."
The Rev. Ronald Pearce, the committee's president, reported on the expression of God's amazing love, as seen in the significant financial contributions of the church in 2005. The year started with a plea for donations to help those in tsunami-ravaged regions along the Indian Ocean, and the church responded by giving over $145,796. The year ended with a plea for donations to help those in the hurricane-ravaged regions along the Gulf Coast and in Florida, and the church responded by giving over $290,000. And these contributions were above and beyond normal diaconal contributions. Total receipts exceeded $666,000, and almost all of that came from OP sources!
The Rev. Leonard Coppes, who has served his Lord and the church faithfully for many years, concluded thirty-three years of service on the Committee on Diaconal Ministries this year. The Assembly adopted a resolution of gratitude to God for the tireless efforts of Mr. Coppes and his wife, Diana, on behalf of this committee.
Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations
The Rev. Jack Peterson, administrator of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, and the Rev. Thomas Tyson, chairman of the committee, presented its report. The OPC continues to participate in the International Conference of Reformed Churches and the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. It enjoys fraternal fellowship with Reformed churches throughout the world.
With this year's Assembly, the Rev. G. I. Williamson's term of service on this committee expired, and he asked that he not be nominated for another term. In recognition of his sixteen years of faithful service on this committee, the Assembly adopted a resolution of thanks to God for this untiring and industrious servant.
Appeals and Complaints
The Assembly heard one appeal this year, from Mr. John Vandervliet, a former member of Grace Covenant Church in Sheffield, Ontario, Canada. Mr. Vandervliet appealed the decision of the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario to sustain the ruling of the session of Grace Covenant Church to excommunicate him for slander and for violating the fourth membership vow (agreeing to submit in the Lord to the government of the church). In his appeal, Mr. Vandervliet claimed that the presbytery committed four major errors when it heard his appeal, especially regarding his right to present witnesses on his behalf. The Assembly, without audible dissent, voted to sustain the appellant on this specification of error. After extended debate, the Assembly concluded that the error was of sufficient weight to require that the judgments of the presbytery and the session be vacated, and that Mr. Vandervliet be given a new trial.
Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship
Since 1989, the present Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship has faithfully labored to help the church revise its Directory for the Public Worship of God. This document is part of The Book of Church Order, which guides and governs much of what we do as a church.
This committee had hoped to present to this Assembly a revised directory for consideration. However, there have been so many requests for amendments from the presbyteries that the committee asked the Assembly to extend the deadline for revision until December 31, 2006. This request was granted. This will give the committee time to process the additional requests and act upon them appropriately. Also, in order to ensure that the year-end target can be reached, the committee received permission from the Assembly not to consider any amendments suggested after June 1, 2006.
In some ways, this Assembly was a difficult one. Extended debate required the commissioners to put in long hours. More than once, work had to be redone by advisory committees. Complex procedural issues proved taxing. But God provided us with an able moderator, who steered us through some rocky shoals. And, as he has done for seventy years, God sustained us with his amazing love. May God continue to bless the OPC as she labors to proclaim faithfully the good news of Christ Jesus.
The author is a ruling elder at Immanuel OPC in West Allegheny, Pa. Photos by Danny Olinger, Ross Graham, and Joy Muether. New Horizons, August/September 2006.