The 1997 PCA General Assembly
Ross W. Graham
The Presbyterian Church in America held its Twenty-fifth General Assembly in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 9-13, 1997. Meeting in the sprawling facilities of Village Seven Presbyterian Church, more than 750 teaching elders and 350 ruling elders gathered to do the work of the church and to worship and fellowship together. Most of the commissioners brought their wives, and an ambitious women's program was also part of the annual event. More than half of the teaching and ruling elders in attendance gathered early on Monday (by the appointment of their presbyteries) to serve on committees of commissioners to review the work of the church's permanent committees and its administrative and judicial business. At Tuesday night's opening worship service, the 2,000-seat sanctuary was filled to overflowing, and seats were sometimes hard to come by in daily sessions of the assembly.
On the first full day of business, Stated Clerk Paul Gilchrist reviewed the PCA's growth and current statistics. The PCA is now a denomination of 275,326 communicant members and covenant children, 2,573 ministers, and 1,338 churches and missions. During the course of the week, the assembly celebrated the placing of eighty church planters during the year and fielding the largest Presbyterian foreign missions force in the world, with over 500 career missionaries. The work of Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary and the assembly's Christian education and administrative arms were also reviewed.
Of special note to readers of New Horizons were several decisions reached. The Presbyterian Church in America, like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church a few days earlier, determined to "terminate the recognition of the Christian Reformed Church as a church in ecclesiastical fellowship with the PCA, effective immediately." The Assembly went on to instruct its Interchurch Relations Committee to initiate conversations with the CRC with a view toward making a recommendation to the next General Assembly concerning the future relationship between the two denominations. It also requested sessions to have fellowship with CRC classes (presbyteries) and councils (sessions, including deacons) which do not practice the ordination of women.
Another difficult but clear decision of the General Assembly was to stand firmly for the rights of local churches and due process, even in difficult circumstances. A case was brought to the Assembly through its judicial commission concerning a session which had approved several Masons to stand for election as ruling elders. When a complaint concerning this reached the presbytery, it overturned the decision of the session and (since the congregation had elected them) removed the men from office. Although most commissioners agreed that membership in the Masonic order disqualifies a man from service as an elder, they also agreed that the presbytery's action was a clear violation of the Presbyterian principle of the separation of powers. Since no charges had been filed and no trial had been held, the presbytery could not simply change the decisions of a congregation and its session. The commissioners were quite knowledgeable about the situation and found themselves in an ecclesiastical dilemma. But the presbytery was told clearly that it could not overturn a session's decision unless a trial was held and judgment was rendered.
A recommendation from the Committee on Women in Combat, urging the General Assembly to petition the Government not to place women in combat roles in the military, was defeated. While most agreed with the sentiment of the Committee, many felt that it was not the Assembly's business to address the Government on this matter.
The OPC's big, younger sister has grappled well with her size and her youth, and has taken her place as a mature member of the family of Presbyterian churches in North America and the world.
Mr. Graham, the OPC's general secretary for Home Missions, served as the OPC's fraternal delegate to the PCA's assembly. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 1997.