The Sixty-third General Assembly
Kenneth J. Campbell
Because of the sovereign and eternal good pleasure of the God of all grace and powerthe Creator and Redeemerthe Sixty-third General Assembly met at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, from June 6 through June 13, 1996.
Of the commissioners to the Assembly, eighty-nine were ministers and forty-nine were ruling elders. Twenty-eight were first-time commissioners, an unusually high number.
A spirit of charity prevailed throughout the Assembly, even when differing opinions and convictions were strongly held and keenly expressed. A warmth of fellowship was evident. A daily devotional service was a source of encouragement and challenge to all present. Devotions were led by the Revs. Robert C. Van Kooten, R. Daniel Knox, George R. Cottenden, Larry G. Mininger, and Rollin P. Keller. Hymn singing and prayer punctuated the Assembly each day.
Most commissioners could leave the Assembly with a sense of accomplishment. Decisions that challenged the material as well as the spiritual support of the church were made. An abundance of God-given opportunities in missions, both home and abroad, and in Christian education demanded such decisions. Also, painful actions affecting individuals and interchurch relations were taken in obedience to Christ and his Word.
A stimulating pre-Assembly conference greeted early arrivers on June 6. Darryl Hart read an insightful paper on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as the "spiritual successor" to the Presbyterian Church USA, especially Old School Presbyterianism, which was marked by a commitment to the regulative principle of worship, Calvinism, confessional integrity, the identifying of the church with the kingdom of God on earth, and spiritual piety. He concluded that the OPC finds her roots in the first Synod of the Presbyterian Church of 1706.
Ruling elder John Muether, librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, presented a paper contending that "the Sabbath is emerging as an OPC distinctive, relative to other conservative Reformed denominations in America, not only in its (relatively) heightened appreciation, but also in the way the Church has shaped the Sabbath in distinctively covenantal and eschatological terms." Simply put, the OPC has maintained a commitment to the biblical Sabbath as confessionally defined, despite the collapse of national sabbatarianism in the twentieth century.
The Rev. Charles Dennison, pastor of Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and the OPC's historian, gave a passionate and compelling address on the influence of Cornelius Van Til upon the life and development of the OPC. If the mantle of Machen fell upon anyone, it fell upon Van Til in terms of the immensity of constructive influence. Simply put, Van Til wanted to preserve the integrity and uniqueness of the church of Jesus Christ as a new creation. Although Van Til labored for the reformation of society in the Kuyperian tradition, his ultimate influence was to increase sensitivity to the distinct and pilgrim character of the church of Jesus Christ. There was an evident unction upon Mr. Dennison's address as it lifted up the singular and sovereign glory of Jesus Christ and moved the hearts of many to praise the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
(Tapes of the three lectures, as well as the sixtieth anniversary address by the Rev. Thomas Tyson, are available for $10.00 postpaid from the Committee for the Historian, P.O. Box 48, Coraopolis, PA 15108; tel. 412/264-7032.)
The Assembly Proper
With the hearts of many still aglow from the afternoon addresses, the Sixty-third General Assembly began on Thursday evening, June 6, with a worship service in the Old Main Chapel at Geneva College. The moderator of the Sixty-second General Assembly, the Rev. Douglas Watson, led in worship. He challenged all present to be given more readily and more earnestly to prayer.
The next morning, ruling elder David Winslow of Garden Grove OPC in Garden Grove, California, was elected moderator. He did an excellent job.
At the beginning of the Assembly, the commissioners sit on advisory committees which review the reports and overtures presented to the Assembly. They work hard to produce their reports quickly, and then the commissioners struggle to read, digest, and prepare responses to the recommendations of those reportsall enveloped in prayer.
The stated clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Donald J. Duff, reported on his publishing and corresponding activities for the Assembly during 1995. He indicated that the General Assembly Operation Fund had been well supported by the churches. The clerk acknowledged with thankfulness the invaluable assistance of his wife Peggy during the year. The Rev. Glenn D. Jerrell served most ably as assistant clerk for this General Assembly, as in past years.
The statistician, Mr. Luke Brown, brought an encouraging report to the Assembly. He stated that "the OPC grew significantly in 1995 in nearly every area of measure. Many new local churches were added, new mission works were begun, church membership grew by almost 5 percent, and offerings increased by 10 percent." There were 225 congregations in the OPC by the end of the year (including 36 home mission works), and total membership had reached 21,131.
The general secretary for the Committee on Foreign Missions, Mr. Mark Bube, reported that 1995 was a busy year for foreign missions. The Committee "assumed responsibility from the PCA's Mission to the World for the direction and oversight of the missionary work in the north Kitui area in Kenya where the Tei Wa Yesu Family Care Center in Muruu is located." There remains a desperate need for a permanent medical doctor for this work, and a Bible school instructor is also needed.
The work in Eritrea continues to be most demanding because of the largeness of the opportunities the Lord has given. Missionary Charles Telfer, presently on furlough, gave an historical overview of the work in Eritrea and urgently asked the Assembly for at least two more ministers to be sent to this land of spiritual hunger and thirst. August 1995 saw the reopening of the Mehreta Yesus Family Care Center, at which Dr. Grietje S. Rietkerk and Lois Ooms work. In Asmara, Steve and Jane Miller, Dirk Kievit, and Charles and Rhonda Telfer are busily involved in all aspects of establishing and strengthening the indigenous church.
Missionary Victor Atallah told the Assembly how the Middle East Reformed Fellowship, of which he is the director, is prospering beyond all expectation. By God's grace and hard faithful work, the gospel is being heard and received in many Middle Eastern countries. The Evangelical Study Center in Cyprus has been useful in instructing numerous Middle Eastern evangelical church leaders. To accommodate this growing work, a five-story building is under construction and will be occupied shortly. Mr. Atallah called attention to what may be the most persecuted and suffering church of todaythe church in Iran, which has been forced underground.
The work of Foreign Missions in its many fields both prospers and struggles. Hailu Mekonnen communicated to the Assembly that, through a kidney transplant from his wife Sharlene, God has restored him to health. While presently committed to translation work and the preparation of several commentaries in the Ethiopian language, he indicated that there are presently no health hindrances to his eventual return to Ethiopia.
Home Missions general secretary Ross Graham reported that, by the gracious provision of God, ten new mission works began receiving financial assistance in this past year. There are at least fifteen other home mission works continuing to receive financial assistance. Many more opportunities are awaiting the attention of home missions committees of both the Assembly and the presbyteries.
Encouraging reports were presented by the pastors of two home mission worksEd Gross, from Gwynedd Valley Presbyterian Church in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, and Rodney Thole, from Mill Creek OPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Assembly was informed that the Committee had discontinued its financial support of the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS) in Philadelphia as of December 1, 1995. CUTS has matured into a "full-orbed academic institution," no longer needing Home Missions financial involvement.
The report of the Committee on Christian Education (CCE) was a reminder of the wide range of its labors. In addition, there is the work associated with Great Commission Publications. The CCE subcommittees are involved with the areas of worship, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, Christian schools, and other activities, including the provision of materials designed to assist office-bearers in their responsibilities. A subcommittee on technology was erected to assist the OPC offices make fuller use of modern communications technology.
In 1995 the Ministerial Training Subcommittee, with the Rev. Thomas Tyson as intern director, provided twenty ministerial internships, of which twelve were summer internships and eight were yearlong internships. Of the current OP pastors, at least fifty-two have gone through the internship program since 1983.
For many years, CCE subsidized Great Commission Publications, but it is now self-supporting. Indeed, it plans to return to CCE approximately $432,000 over the next two years, in an effort to "erase the liability created by the inequity between OPC and PCA contributions for the first fifteen years of the joint venture," declares the Committee's report.
The printing of informative and educational materials is part of the responsibility of CCE. The booklet What Is the Reformed Faith?a companion to What Is the OPC?is now available from CCE. So is Personal Evangelism Made Less Difficult, by George Miladin.
The subcommittee on fellowship has been vigorously investigating the possibility of developing a potential camping/conference property in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, in the light of a generous offer by the property owner.
Worldwide Outreach Budget
The Committee on Coordination gained the approval of the Assembly for its proposed 1997 budget for Worldwide Outreach of $1,760,000. Worldwide Outreach funds, in a combined budget, the work of the Committees on Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and Christian Education, as well as New Horizons and the Committee on Coordination itself. This amount was a 6 percent increase over the previous year's budget. The Assembly also gave the Committee on Foreign Missions permission to have a special offering in 1997.
The secretary-treasurer for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, the Rev. Leonard J. Coppes, and his wife Diane, who assists him in his labors, were commended by the Assembly for their faithful work in administering the diaconal funds and addressing the needs communicated to them. A proposed budget for 1997 of $185,800 for the General Fund ($19.00 per communicant member) and $93,000 for the Aged and Infirm Ministers', Widows' and Orphans' Fund ($7.00 per communicant member) was approved by the Assembly.
Pensions and Hospitalization
The Committee on Pensions had good news and not so good news to present. The good news was that each participant's pension increased in market value in 1995 by 29 percent (thanks to a big rise in the stock market).
The not-so-good news was that liabilities exceeded assets for the Hospitalization Trust in 1995, because of large claims in the last month. At the end of the year, there was a deficit of $373,918. The Committee on Pensions has implemented measures this year which should assist in correcting what has become a perennial problem.
In presenting the Committee's report, chairman Roger W. Huibregtse pointed out that the plan needs more participants. In 1995, only 127 of the 335 ministers in the OPC participated in the plan. It is open to all officeholders and employees of Orthodox Presbyterian churches.
The Assembly approved a request of $1.00 per communicant member for the Pension Supplement Fund and $7.00 per communicant member for the Hospitalization Supplement Fund.
The report of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations highlighted its ongoing effort to foster relationships and unity with churches of like faith and practice.
The Rev. John Galbraith reported on his visit to the Reformed Church of Japan for their fiftieth anniversary. He was able to take with him a love gift from the OPC to assist church members who had suffered in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Mr. Galbraith reported on the RCJ's confessional faithfulness amidst attempts by some to loosen that commitment.
The Rev. Thomas Tyson attended the 1995 synod of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ). He was greatly heartened by the clear commitment of the church's leadership to its unique confessional position (the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession), and to the closeness of that denomination to ourselves. The Assembly unanimously voted to support the RCNZ's request to be received as a member of the International Council of Reformed Churches.
Relations with the CRC
A most painful responsibility was laid upon the Assembly at this point with respect to our relationship with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC). After many hours of deliberation, the Assembly by a large majority voted to suspend our relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC.
This means that sessions and presbyteries can no longer assume that the CRC is "a church of like practice." This will affect the reception, removal, and erasure of church members by sessions. Also, presbyteries are no longer obliged to receive and seat CRC delegates as corresponding members. And the "occasional pulpit fellowship" with the CRC is to be discontinued "except at the discretion of the session."
The Assembly also voted to terminate the relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC as of the close of the Sixty-fourth General Assembly. This will allow next year's assembly, if it so desires, to determine whether intervening actions of the CRC Synod would "warrant a reversal of this action or a continuation of the period of suspension."
The Assembly decided to suspend and next year probably terminate our relationship with the CRC because the CRC Synod last year opened up the office of minister and elder to women, contrary to the Word of God. Also, the CRC has taken other actions which concern the OPC. Efforts by past assemblies and their representatives to influence the CRC in these matters have been fruitless.
A lengthy letter to the CRC prepared by our Committee on Ecumenicity was appropriately amended and adopted by the Assembly. Its aim was to communicate the OPC's gratitude for past fellowship, our heartfelt concern for the present direction of the CRC, and the reasons why we are suspending and likely terminating our relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with them. (See John Galbraith's report on the CRC's Synod 1996 on page 9.)
An Appeal of Discipline
The General Assembly, in Presbyterian church government, is the final court of appeal. This year, the Assembly had two appeals before it. The first appeal was from Mr. John Lofton, a well-known columnist and a member of Covenant OPC in Burtonsville, Maryland. Mr. Lofton had appealed against the judgment of the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, claiming that it had erred in denying his appeal against the judgment of the Covenant session, which had convicted him of the sin of contentiousness (in connection with an argument with a family at that church) and proposed the censure of indefinite suspension from the privileges of membership.
Mr. Lofton presented three specifications of error in support of his appeal. The Assembly sustained one of his specifications of error, but determined that this was a procedural error by the presbytery that was not important enough to require a reversal or modification of the session's original judgment. The censure against Mr. Lofton was therefore upheld. The Assembly urged prayer for all parties involved in this appeal.
The Gray Case
The second appeal occupied the Assembly's attention for most of June 12. In the words of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints, "The Presbytery of the Midwest, via a committee of five, charged ruling elder Terry M. Gray of Harvest OPC [in Grand Rapids, Michigan] with 'the public offense of stating that Adam had primate ancestors, contrary to the Word of God (Gen. 2:7; 1:26-27) and the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (WCF IV.2; WLC Q. 17).' " On August 5, 1995, the Harvest session found Dr. Gray guilty of this charge and proposed the censure of indefinite suspension from office. Dr. Gray appealed to presbytery, which denied his appeal, and then appealed to the General Assembly. The Rev. Douglas A. Felch, an able and articulate speaker, acted as Dr. Gray's counsel and defender.
At issue was the meaning of the word "dust" in Genesis 2:7. According to Dr. Gray, a professor of biochemistry at Calvin College, this dust, out of which God formed the body of Adam, may have consisted of animal life, specifically an evolved primate. His defense paper (Appendix 3, "Exegetical Issues Surrounding the Origin of Man") states: "I do not claim that there is any Biblical evidence to support the claim that Adam's body had animal ancestors.... The sole basis for believing that Adam's body had animal ancestors is a study of God's creation using scientific methodology.... I have become convinced that the biological evidence supports evolutionary theory and that there is some sort of genetic and biological continuity between man and other animals."
Dr. Gray's appeal was narrow in its focus. He contended that the session should have dismissed the charge against him because the alleged offense was not serious enough to warrant a trial, and because the offense of which he was found guilty was not a chargeable offense.
In support of his appeal, Dr. Gray presented five arguments. First, he argued that, in accordance with the Book of Discipline, III.7.b, his doctrinal views, as an elder, should be judged only by "the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as that system of doctrine is set forth in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms." He asserted that his views on the animal ancestry of man were not incompatible with our Confession and Catechisms, because they did not address the issue.
Second, he argued that there were no theological implications to his particular view of man's origin. That is, no other biblical doctrines were affected or threatened by his view.
Third, he declared that his view was not contrary to Scripture. The "dust of the ground" in Genesis 2:7, he argued, need not be interpreted as inert, lifeless dust. Rather, this dust could be understood as mature animal life.
Fourth, he argued that such orthodox Presbyterian scholars as B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen were tolerant of views such as his.
Fifth, he argued that the doctrine of Christian liberty gave him freedom to hold and to teach his particular views on the creation of man, since they were not contrary to Scripture or our church standards.
In opposition to Dr. Gray's arguments, it was pointed out on the floor of the Assembly that the 1978 General Assembly had rejected the view that only the secondary standards (or the Word of God as defined and limited by them) could be used in the judgment of doctrinal offenses. Furthermore, it was argued that the view maintained by Dr. Gray was in conflict with our Confession of Faith, I.10, which states, "The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."
The majority of the Assembly, while arguing for the primacy of Scripture as the highest standard in the judgment of doctrinal controversy, did not accept the contention that our secondary standards do not speak specifically enough to refute Dr. Gray's views (see Larger Catechism, Q. 17).
Dr. Gray's contention that there were no theological implications to his views was challenged by the majority. At the very least, the authority of Scripture and its perspicuity and perfection, it was contended from the floor, were under threat from his use of scientific methodology.
Dr. Gray's interpretation of the "dust of the ground" in Genesis 2:7 was found wanting. Other passages, it was argued, militated against his interpretation. The same dust of the ground was what Adam was called to till (Gen. 3:23) and that to which he was to return after death (Gen. 3:19). If man returned to the dust of the ground at death, then it had to be inanimate, lifeless soil, not a living creature.
The argument that worthies such as Warfield and Machen tolerated views akin to those of Dr. Gray, it was noted, was irrelevant. The claim that Machen tolerated such views was contested from the floor. In any case, such toleration, by these or other men, was in no way binding on the church in this case.
Dr. Gray's appeal to liberty of conscience was met by the retort that the conscience is free from the doctrines and commandments of men, but not from those of God.
In the judgment of the Assembly, Dr. Gray's views were not compatible with Scripture or the confessional standards of the OPC. He was not able to persuade the Assembly that the charge against him was not an offense serious enough to warrant a trial, or that the offense for which he had been found guilty was not a chargeable offense. His appeal was therefore denied and the proposed censure of indefinite suspension from office was sustained.
Throughout the deliberations, a charitable spirit was exhibited by and toward Dr. Gray. The quality of the debate was commendable. Fourteen commissioners spoke in defense of Dr. Gray and for the argument that the charge did not warrant a trial. In the voting, a small number of commissioners added to that number. However, an overwhelming majority rejected the views of Dr. Gray and determined him guilty of an offense for which the proposed discipline was appropriate.
Five overtures were brought by various presbyteries before the Assembly, and only one was rejected. The Assembly was not willing to excise the word "worship" from the third question asked at the ordination of the church officers, which reads: "Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?"
But the Assembly did approve the request of the Presbytery of the Dakotas to divide it into a continuing Presbytery of the Dakotas and a new Presbytery of the Central U.S. The new presbytery will cover Kansas, Nebraska, and portions of Oklahoma and Missouri. It will come into existence on January 1, 1997, and will initially consist of six ministers and four churches (with 180 communicant members).
In agreement with another overture, the Assembly voted to propose to the presbyteries amending the Form of Government, chapter 20, by adding a section 9 to permit ordained men to transfer to another presbytery without a call. This is currently permitted by some presbyteries, but not others.
The Assembly's action with respect to the CRC satisfied the two overtures that focused on our relationship with that church.
Sixtieth Anniversary Celebration
The Assembly paused on the evening of June 11 to celebrate, with thanksgiving and praise to God, the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the OPC. Exactly to the day sixty years before, the First (and constituting) Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America (soon to be renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) met in Philadelphia.
Three people present at that assembly were present at this celebration, namely, John Galbraith, LeRoy Oliver, and Robert Eckardt. The third named caused surprise when he stood with the other two at the request that any original attendees arise, for he was only thirteen years old in 1936. He explained that an aunt had brought him to that Assembly on the last day, but that he was oblivious to the momentous events taking place. (Chip Stonehouse claims that he was there, tooin utero.)
Jack Peterson read reflections on the personal sacrifice and hardship faced by many of the ministers in the early days of the OPC, penned a number of years ago by the late George Marston. That situation mattered little to those servants of Christ, who zealously accepted their calling and the conditions which went along with it. They counted it a privilege and a blessing beyond measure, even in the midst of sore trial, to serve the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in his church.
George McKenzie reminisced about those early days of the OPC in California and in particular about the ministry of the congregation in Berkeley.
A brief historical note by John Galbraith informed the gathering that eleven Constituting Members of the Presbyterian Church of America (now the OPC) are still alive. Five are members of the OPC: Bruce A. Coie, Mrs. Calvin K. (Mary) Cummings, John P. Galbraith, Mrs. Lewis J. (Ruth) Grotenhuis, and LeRoy B. Oliver.
The Rev. Thomas Tyson, in the featured anniversary address, preached on the glory of God in his church. He urged the gathering to exult in the reality of what was in the church already. That was nothing less than the resurrection power of Jesus Christ, which was accomplishing what God had promised, bringing to pass what God had purposed, and thereby revealing God's glory.
Seven fraternal delegates were present at the Assembly and spoke at various points. The Rev. Myung Doh Kim of the Korean American Presbyterian Church spoke with directness and concern about some of the proposed directions in his denomination.
The Rev. Hideaki Suzuki informed us that the Reformed Church in Japan, which was founded in 1946 with a membership of 300, now has a membership of 9,400. He noted the great difficulty of mission work in Japan, where less than 10 percent of the population is even interested in Christianity. Mr. Suzuki spoke of an "identity crisis" in Japan and of secularism coming into the churches.
The fraternal delegate from the Presbyterian Church in America, the Rev. William H. Smith, in an upbeat address, spoke of things common to the two denominations. He mentioned Old School Presbyterianism, a high view of the eldership, a Reformational outlook, and a desire for unity.
The Rev. Kevin Backus, representing the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC), noted that a motion to establish ecclesiastical relations with the OPC was tabled at the last BPC synod, since further discussion was needed.
The Rev. Robert J. Haven, from the Christian Reformed Church, spoke of the accomplishments of God's grace in the life and work of the CRC. He urged the OPC not to allow "what we have had in common over the last sixty years to be put aside." But with respect to synodical decisions which have alarmed the OPC, Mr. Haven insisted that "to ask us to repent is to ask us for more than we can give."
The Rev. Ronald Potter, of the Reformed Church of the United States (RCUS), dwelt upon the important influence of the OPC in the life of his church, which has just celebrated its 250th anniversary. He indicated that the RCUS was not yet ready to be pressed on the subject of organic union, but was most keen to clear the ground for working together.
The Rev. Willard G. McMillan emphasized what the OPC has in common with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). He told of greater reaching out with the gospel in the RPCNA and the resulting planting of new churches.
The outworking of the sincere and faithful labors of the men of the Assembly must have given the commissioners a deep sense of gratitude to God for his abundant grace toward the OPC as a part of the glorious Body of Christ.
Mr. Campbell is the pastor of Grace OPC in Fair Lawn, N.J. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 1996.