Robert B. Needham
On Wednesday, June 4, 1997, at 8:00 p.m., the Sixty-fourth General Assembly (GA) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) commenced with a worship service in the auditorium of "Old Main," the original building of Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. For your reporter it was a real privilege to participate in the glorious singing of such great, bold hymns as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," and "Unto the Hills...." During the service, Lawrence Semel, pastor of Reformation OPC in Morgantown, West Virginia, preached from Philippians 3:1-21 on our present and future citizenship in heaven.
The first working session of GA convened at 8:00 a.m. with the singing of "The Church's One Foundation" and prayer. We began our work in earnest withwhat else?passing out papers. After that, the roll was called, and each commissioner was asked to stand when responding. That was helpful in identifying commissioners, especially for those of us who are visually challenged when trying to read small print on name tags. The seating of corresponding members was followed by the first of many electionsthis one for moderator of the Assembly.
While votes were being counted, the annual census of the number of commissioners ordained in each decade was taken. This year the Assembly had thirty-two commissioners who were ordained in the nineties, thirty in the eighties, twenty-two in the seventies, twenty-seven in the sixties, eleven in the fifties, four in the forties, and two in the thirties. When those last two, the Revs. Lawrence Eyres and John Galbraith, stood up, the Assembly broke into spontaneous and sustained applause. There were also twenty-one commissioners attending GA for the first time.
By the time the census was completed, votes had been counted and we were informed that the Rev. John Mahaffy, pastor of Trinity OPC in Newberg, Oregon, was our new moderator. The commissioners were then dismissed to their assigned advisory committees for work that would occupy them through Friday morning.
The Assembly reconvened before the noon meal for its first daily devotional exercise. After lunch, the first of several fraternal delegates spoke. He was the Rev. Jerome Julien from Lynwood, Illinois, representing the newest Reformed denomination in the United States, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). This denomination consists of fifty-one congregations, most of whom recently left the Christian Reformed Church. In his warm address, Pastor Julien told the Assembly that the URCNA strongly desire to be faithful to the Word of God and to the confessional standards which they have adopted. He expressed appreciation for the encouragement given to them by our Committee on Ecumenicity, as well as by individual GA commissioners. He asked for our prayers on their behalf and for God's blessing on our developing relationship with them.
Next was the stated clerk's report, which included some earnest exhortations to greater diligence in keeping him promptly informed of new addresses of church officers, changes in information about church worship times, and so forth.
The Report of the Trustees of the General Assembly included important IRS information which we strongly encourage returning delegates to distribute to church officers and treasurers who were not at GA.
Then we heard an address by the Rev. David Englehard, fraternal delegate from the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). He urged the Assembly not to sever fraternal relations with his church (see the sidebar on page 6).
The Report of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE) began with some insightful comments about the many requests for help in the establishment of new churches, followed by remarks from two regional home missionaries, the Rev. Donald Poundstone (Presbytery of Southern California) and the Rev. Gary Davenport (Presbytery of the Southwest). They gave a most encouraging review! As with almost all reports to GA, questions followed. Someone requested a definition of the term missionary pastor, to which CHMCE's general secretary Ross Graham replied, "We don't have missionary pastors; we have organizing pastors of mission works."
Following the afternoon break and elections to CHMCE, came the report of the Committee on Foreign Missions (CFM). The Rev. Tony Curto gave a thrilling account of his work in Uganda, followed by General Secretary Mark Bube's review of the situation in Eritrea. By the end of his report, we had reached the order of the day for supper. (An "order of the day" is business or other activity determined ahead of time to be done at a certain time that day.) Following supper, Mr. Bube provided additional information about our African mission work, which he concluded with a powerful appeal for prayer for our missionaries.
The next item of business was the report of the Committee on Christian Education (CCE), introduced by its vice-president, Mr. David Winslow. He asked the Rev. G. I. Williamson, editor of Ordained Servant and the theological editor for Great Commission Publications (GCP), and the Rev. Thomas Patete, executive director of GCP, to make appropriate comments to the Assembly about their areas of responsibility. The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson, general secretary of CCE, read Psalm 78 and made some delightful comments on Christian Education highlights.
The Assembly then considered the report of the Committee on Coordination. This committee keeps track of and reports on the finances of our three program committees (CHMCE, CFM, and CCE). One of its chief responsibilities is to recommend a combined Worldwide Outreach budget to the General Assembly each year. This year it recommended a budget of $1,880,000 for 1998, up 6.8 percent over 1997, and the GA approved the recommendation.
With the singing of Psalm 100, GA reconvened at 8:00 a.m. and resumed the discussion of the previous evening. A rather intense debate ensued on the philosophy of funding and funding management in the CFM.
The next item of business was the report of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM), which continues to be managed well under the leadership of the Rev. Leonard Coppes, pastor of Providence OPC in Denver, Colorado. We have much to be thankful for in the ways this Committee has provided significant diaconal assistancefrom helping needy individuals in our congregations to relieving congregations associated with our overseas work (such as those who suffered losses in the Kobe earthquake). GA requested our congregations to give at least half of their CDM contributions by the end of May, and to support this work at the annual rate of $19 per communicant member for the General Fund and $7 for the Aged and Infirm Ministers' Fund.
After a coffee break, we were blessed by an address from the Rev. Dean Anderson, fraternal delegate of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, Liberated (GKNV). Our Committee on Ecumenicity has been in contact with the GKNV for several years about the establishment of an official fraternal relationship. Mr. Anderson brought specific indications of their desire to continue moving toward the establishment of a formal relationship with the OPC. His address included valuable historical information about this denomination that came into existence in 1944 during the terrible days of World War II.
The Assembly then turned to a judicial task. Mr. John Lofton, formerly a member of Covenant OPC in Burtonsville, Maryland, was contesting the decision of the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic to disallow his appeal against the action of the Burtonsville session excommunicating him. The first question before GA was whether or not Mr. Lofton had the right to appeal the act of excommunication. Debate on that issue was interrupted by morning devotions and the noon meal, immediately followed by another previously scheduled fraternal address, this one brought by Dr. William Evans of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and a member of the faculty of Erskine College.
Hard on the heels of Dr. Evans's address, the Assembly returned to the question of the constitutional legitimacy of Mr. Lofton's appeal. After considerable debate, the Assembly voted to admit the appeal, and thus took up his request that the judgment of excommunication be overturned. Debate on this question continued for the rest of the day, and eventually the Assembly voted to uphold two specifications of procedural error on the part of the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic. However, GA also upheld Burtonsville's censure of excommunication, determining that the Presbytery's procedural errors were of insufficient gravity to justify overturning the session's judgment.
After a somewhat later and more leisurely breakfast, commissioners dispersed in all directions to visit Orthodox Presbyterian and other churches for worship. Of course, no Assembly business was conducted on the Lord's day.
Assembly work continued with a consideration of the boundary between the Presbytery of Ohio and the Presbytery of the Midwest. After some lively debate, the Assembly adopted a recommendation that the two presbyteries "appoint a Joint Special Committee consisting of representatives from each presbytery to develop a planagreeable to both presbyteriesfor redrawing the boundaries of the respective presbyteries, or even proposing boundaries of and a strategy for planting a new presbytery, which plan could then be submitted to General Assembly for its approval."
GA granted an overture requesting expansion of the boundaries of the Presbytery of the Midwest into Ontario, Canada, embracing nine counties in the southwestern part of the province.
GA also granted the request of the Presbytery of New York and New England to establish a new presbytery, to be named the Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New York. When the new presbytery comes into existence on January 1, the OPC will have fourteen presbyteries.
We returned from recess to hear a brief but delightful address by the fraternal delegate from the Presbyterian Church in America, the Rev. Nick Protos, who addressed some PCA-OPC differences in an honest and gracious manner, concluding with warm greetings and solicitations for mutual prayer.
The report of the Committee on Pensions was next brought by that venerable servant of the Assembly, ruling elder Garrett A. Hoogerhyde. GA approved the request for a contribution of $8 per communicant member from each of the churches in 1998, and all members of the Class of 1997 of the Committee were reelected.
The morning session was concluded with devotions led by the Rev. Richard Ellis, pastor of New Hope OPC in Frederick, Maryland, who spoke on 1 Corinthians 9:1-23. His talk raised a question in the mind of this reporter: how do we distinguish between the sin of being a man pleaser and the obligation to "be all things to all men that by all means we might win some"? He concluded with three questions: (1) Do we put up obstacles to the work of the Holy Spirit? (2) If so, what are they and what "rights" may God be calling us to give up in order to reach individuals? (3) Are we alert to the changing shape of all men in our world?
After lunch, the Assembly received greetings from the Federation of Canadian Reformed Churches (CANREF) through its representative, the Rev. John De Gelder. In his thoughtful address he said, "We believe that in our latest discussions as Committees we have come to an agreement on the matters of the fencing of the Lord's Table and confessional membership that can open the way to the establishment of a relationship as sister churches. It is our hope and prayer that now both the General Assembly of the OPC and the next General Synod of the CANREF can accept this agreement and be willing to establish ecclesiastical fellowship."
The Rev. William Warren, pastor of Garden Grove OPC in Garden Grove, California, on behalf of the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Persons in the Military Service (PRJC), introduced Colonel (Chaplain) David Peterson, United States Army (Retired), who is presently serving as the executive director of the PRJC. Colonel Peterson gave an encouraging review of important aspects of the work of the Commission. He made a strong plea for more ministers from the OPC to enter the chaplaincy of our Armed Forces.
The Assembly then turned its attention to procedural matters raised in the extensive report of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR), which occupied it up to the afternoon break.
With the return to business, the Rev. Ronald Potter, fraternal delegate of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), brought greetings from their 251st Synod, held just a few days before in Sacramento, California. He reported that the RCUS was now backing away from earlier expressions of interest in organic union with the OPC and had decided to discontinue direct talks to that end, but desired to maintain close fraternal relations and pursue opportunities for joint ministry. The RCUS does not wish to reexamine its commitment to six 24-hour days of creation and its opposition to women voting in congregational meetings, and also wishes to maintain its creedal and historical distinctives. Mr. Potter also noted that the RCUS holds its officers to strict subscription vows and its members to vows that include the confessions of the church.
At approximately 7:00 p.m., the commissioners began debating a recommendation of the CEIR concerning the termination of ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church. The evening's work concluded with a motion that sent the recommendation (and a minority report) back to the CEIR, with instructions to prepare a revised proposal for presentation to the Assembly.
Another fraternal address began the day's business. The Rev. Hideo Ogata, representing the Reformed Church in Japan, said: "We are thankful to you for having sent us many able missionaries and missionary associates since 1951. Standing on the position of the orthodox Reformed faith, they and we have worked together in cooperation toward both the spread of God-centered evangelism and the establishment of true churches, faithful to the Scriptures and the Westminster standards."
The Assembly then turned its attention to the report of the Historian, the Rev. Charles G. Dennison. His report, and that of the Committee for the Historian, were accepted with minimal discussion. One significant advisory committee recommendation, which the Assembly adopted, was to instruct the Committee to return to next year's Assembly with a proposal for regularizing its status in light of the General Assembly's standing rules.
A few minutes after nine o'clock, copies of the revised recommendation from the CEIR, proposing the severing of our ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRCNA, arrived in the commissioners' hands. After careful discussion, it was approved by a substantial margin. Our long relationship with the CRCNA would be severed as of July 1, 1997 (see the text of this action below).
This is a matter of real sorrow for Orthodox Presbyterians. While it may take several years for all the implications of this unusual historic event to come to light, we do encourage members of the OPC to pray that God would be pleased to bring about a reversal of those CRCNA decisions and practices which caused our Assembly, after several years of discussions with the CRCNA, to take this action.
Morning break was followed by an address by the Rev. Bart de Graaf, fraternal delegate from the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands. He brought greetings and some interesting historical reflections, including the fact that they have applied for membership in the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), and that last year they severed their ecclesiastical relationship with the CRCNA.
When CEIR business was taken up again, the Assembly approved recommendations to enter into "corresponding ecclesiastical relations" with the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in Uganda, the United Reformed Churches in North America, and the Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv in Nigeria.
Morning devotions brought the Assembly a convicting and most appropriate exhortation from Revelation 2:1-7 by the Rev. Lawrence Eyres. His primary question was, "Have we left our first love?" An effective supporting question was, "Has our righteousness slipped into self-righteousness?" His singularly moving message radiated years of pastoral effort and wise concern for younger elders in the church.
After lunch, the Assembly returned to ecumenicity matters. It approved a communication from the Presbytery of Southern California that the CEIR investigate the possibility of establishing a fraternal relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Mexico. It also granted the CEIR permission to facilitate the OPC's hosting of the ICRC meeting in the year 2001.
The Assembly adopted two recommendations of the Committee on Date, Place, and Travel (CDPT). First, churches would be asked to contribute $10 per communicant member to the GA Travel Fund. Second, presbyteries would be requested to name their 1998 GA delegates by January 31, 1998, and so inform the stated clerk, the CDPT, and the Committee on Arrangements.
Earlier, GA decided that the Sixty-fifth General Assembly should be held from May 27 to June 3, 1998, at the Reformed Bible Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. GA also tentatively approved times and places for the following two assemblies. The Sixty-sixth General Assembly is tentatively scheduled to meet June 2-9, 1999, at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. And the Sixty-seventh General Assembly is tentatively planned for July 5-12, 2000, at Snow Mountain Ranch in Grandview, Colorado. The possibility of a denomination-wide family camp just prior to the 2000 Assembly in Colorado was mentioned.
Mr. Luke Brown, our statistician, brought a few final corrections to his membership figures for the OPC. Total OPC membership now stands at 22,186 (up 5.5 percent in one year). Certainly this is a cause for thanksgiving to God.
The Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Worship reported on its work. It stressed the importance of sessions discussing the Committee's proposed Directory changes now.
The advisory committee examining the Chaplains' report recommended that the required steps be taken to change the status of the OP members of the PRJC to that of a permanent standing committee of the GA. The recommendation was sustained.
The GA also approved a recommendation that bears directly on each congregation. Specifically, churches were requested "to contribute $16 per communicant member to the GA Operating Fund (GAOF) in 1998."
A motion was passed instructing the CCE "to make the complete draft of the [proposed new GCP] Trinity Songbook available to sessions for review and comment, upon request, and to withhold its endorsement of the [songbook] pending approval by the 65th General Assembly."
Other miscellaneous business followed, including the important matter of approving Assembly minutes. GA was able to finish its work a bit ahead of schedule, at approximately 11:30 a.m.which it did with prayer and a benediction.
All in all, we have much cause to give God abundant thanks for his sustaining and enabling grace given to the 64th General Assembly of the OPC, most particularly in being able to complete several matters of business that were difficult and complex, and to do so with debate that was, for the most part, conducted in a kind, careful, and biblical manner.
May God be praised for his abundant grace to his churches, and may he be pleased to grant us in the OPC the unwavering will and ability to love him and his written truth with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength in all that we think, do, and speak.
Mr. Needham is pastor of New Hope OPC in Hanford, Calif., and is a retired Navy chaplain. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 1997.
The General Assembly adopted the following motion regarding the OPC's relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church in North America:
That, with respect to the relationship between the OPC and the CRCNA, the 64th (1997) GA:
A. Determine that,
Whereas the 63rd (1996) GA decided, "That, unless the 1997 regular general assembly determines that intervening actions of the Synod of the CRCNA warrant a reversal of this action or a continuation of the period of suspension, the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the CRCNA shall be terminated with the close of that assembly" (Minutes, Arts. 169 and 171, p. 52), and
Whereas Synod 1996 of the CRCNA not only retained the decision of Synod 1995, but also further proceeded to implement the 1995 decision by confirming certain women as "candidates for the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church" (Acts, Synod 1996, Art. 75.2, p. 560);
Therefore, in accordance with the action of the 63rd GA quoted above, this General Assembly
1. Determine that intervening actions of the CRCNA do not warrant a reversal of the action of the 63rd (1996) GA to terminate the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the CRCNA.
The setting aside of the clear command of 1 Tim. 2:12 by the Synods of 1995 and 1996, allowing the ordaining of women to ruling and teaching office in the church, changes the basis of the covenant established between the CRCNA and the OPC in the relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship; the OPC cannot any longer fulfill the requirements of that covenant because it cannot participate in ecclesiastical matters with the CRCNA where women ministers and/or ruling elders are involved.
Postpone the effective date for such termination to July 1, 1997 ... [to permit] a fraternal delegate of the OPC to be present in an official capacity at the Christian Reformed Synod of 1997 in order to inform the Synod of this action and to convey personally the sorrow of the OPC that the fellowship that our churches have had for over 60 years can no longer be continued.
B. Inform the Synod of the CRCNA that the opening of the special "offices of elder, minister, and evangelist" to women (Acts 1995, Arts. 75 and 79, pp. 731-736, and Acts 1996, Art. 75.2, p. 560) is contrary to sound doctrine.
1. The ordination/installation of women to "the office of elder, minister, or evangelist" is prohibited by Scripture (1 Timothy 2:12). Synod 1995 erred when it set aside a clear Scripture command (1 Tim. 2:12) when it opened the special offices of "elder, minister, and evangelist" to persons biblically prohibited from holding them (Acts of Synod 1995, Arts. 75 and 79, pp. 731-736). The inviolability of the passage is particularly incisive. God declares, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man." That this prohibition clearly is an abiding prohibition for the church today is apparent from its context. Scripture gives the reasons for that prohibition by declaring, "For Adam was formed first, then Eve" (v. 13). He then states a second reason for the prohibition, namely, "And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (v. 14). Scripture thus grounds its forbidding of women to rule and teach in the church in the account of creation and the fall. And by grounding the prohibition in these events in the history of redemption, the prohibition is removed from the temporary and culturally conditioned to that of abiding requirement for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
[Eight more grounds follow, too lengthy for reproduction here; they will be printed in the next issue of New Horizons.Editor]
C. Inform Synod 1997 of the CRCNA that: in spite of the seeming finality of the CRCNA decision on women in ruling and teaching office, the OPC pleads again with Synod to turn from the course on which the church has embarked, and return to full fellowship with the brothers and sisters in the OPC.