Peter J. Wallace
After forty-two years, the Seventy-sixth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church witnessed the completion of the work of what may be the longest-serving special committee in the history of the OPC: the Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship.
The same Assembly also handled what may have been the shortest appeal in OP history: approximately thirty-five seconds! Since there were two appeals related to the same case, when the Assembly determined to send the first appeal back to the presbytery, the second appeal became moot, and so there was no point in discussing it further.
The moderator of the 76th General Assembly, the Rev. William Shishko of Franklin Square OPC in Franklin Square, New York, presided with wisdom and justice. In his opening remarks, he warned the Assembly about the lightning speed with which he would call speakers to order if they wandered from the subject being discussed, adding that "in New York we have defined a nanosecond. A nanosecond is the amount of time from when a traffic light turns green until a cabbie honks his horn [laughter]. And for those of you from Iowa, I can explain to you later what a cabbie is [laughter and groans]."
Last year the Rev. Donald Duff had indicated that he would like to retire from his position as stated clerk of the General Assembly. Therefore, this Assembly elected the Rev. George Cottenden as the next stated clerk. His term will begin next year after the General Assembly.
As usual, the Rev. John Mahaffy served diligently as assistant stated clerk, the Rev. Stephen Phillips ran the overhead projector, and Mr. David Haney and the Committee on General Assembly Arrangements kept things running smoothly. Kuyper College (formerly known as Reformed Bible College) provided excellent food and accommodations, as well as recreational facilitieswith basketball or soccer almost every evening.
The moderator of the 75th General Assembly, the Rev. Alan Strange, opened this year's Assembly with a sermon from Colossians 1:24-29. He urged preachers to wrestle with the text of Scripture, as Jacob wrestled with the angel, until they see how the gospel shines forth from the textand how the text calls us to obey Jesus Christ. The message that must be proclaimed in every sermon is "Christ in you, the hope of glory." He concluded by warning pastors and elders not to minister only to those who appear interested. Our task is to present everyone mature in Christ.
On Monday, the moderator, the Rev. William Shishko, preached from 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 on how "preaching Christ is not enough." If a minister preaches Christ, but does not imitate Christ in his own life, he falls short of his calling. "Brothers," he exhorted us, "too many of us spend our time in front of computers and minister by e-mail.... If you do not want to be with your people, if this is not your personality, then this is your failure to imitate Christ."
Undoubtedly the most anticipated decision of the 76th General Assembly was its vote on the proposed revision of the Directory for Public Worship.
While the Assembly made few changes of substance, one in particular should be noted. Some had voiced concern that the proposed revision blurred the line between those things that are mandated by Scripture and those things that are "strongly recommended." Therefore, the Assembly amended the preface to read as follows:
The Directory seeks to make clear this distinction in its use of language. The following denotations used in the Directory are to be understood as indicated. The first category denotes practices that are required by the Word of God.
1) Practices that are mandated are denoted by "shall," "will," "is to be," "must," and "are to be."
The following three categories denote practices that are not mandated:
2) Practices that are strongly recommended are denoted by "should," "ought to," "is desirable," and "is advisable."
3) Practices that are commended as suitable are denoted by "is appropriate," "is well," and "is fitting."
4) Practices that are permissible are denoted by "may."
The Assembly also spent considerable time on the question of who may participate in leading worship. It became quite clear that there are a variety of views held within the OPC, and that the language used in chapter I, section D, was probably the best way to harmonize them all. Those holding to the two-office view (who see ministers simply as teaching elders, sharing the same office with ruling elders) would have preferred to give ruling elders greater authority in planning and conducting public worship. However, there seemed to be no way to state that in a way that would not go beyond what the defenders of the three-office view (who see ministers and ruling elders as holding different offices) could accept. Others feared that the general office of the believer was particularly infringed upon by the final line, "No others should take such leadership in overseeing or conducting public worship."
It seems to the present writer, however, that the language of section D clearly focuses on the overseeing, planning, and conducting of public worship. It would be consistent with the language of section D for a deacon (for instance) to pray over the diaconal offering, since he would not be overseeing, planning, or conducting public worship. In other words, the proposed revision leaves room for a variety of activities under the oversight of the session.
In the end, the Assembly voted by a significant margin to send the proposed revision to the presbyteries for their approval. (No count was taken because the voice vote was so clear.) Now the Final Proposed Revision will be voted upon by the presbyteries. Since our Form of Government (32.2) requires that all amendments to the Constitution be approved by a majority of presbyteries, at least nine of the sixteen presbyteries must approve it before it can go into effect.
Mark Bube, the general secretary for the Committee on Foreign Missions, reported that the highlights of 2008 included the opening of a new field in Uruguay, short-term work teams in Haiti, village-by-village ministry in Uganda, and greater cooperation with sister churches in foreign missions. There are two missionaries who are ready to go to the field right now, but we simply do not have the resources to send them. Mr. Bube also reiterated the importance for churches to be very careful not to communicate sensitive information about certain missionaries on the Internet or by e-mail.
The Rev. Danny Olinger reported for the Committee on Christian Education on the ministerial intern program and the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. The Rev. Alan Strange added that the Psalter-Hymnal project is under way. Tom Patete, executive director of Great Commission Publications (the joint OPC-PCA publishing venture), informed the Assembly that the Rev. Ben Alvira is spearheading the translation of GCP's Sunday school curriculum into Spanish.
The Rev. Ross Graham reported for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Telling of their work were "the energizer bunny of the OPC church planting corps, Mr. Everett Henes," who serves at Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan; the Rev. Chris Sandoval of the Hispanic Bible Ministry in Chicago; and Dr. Norman De Jong, who has yet again come out of retirement to work with Fremont OPC in Fremont, Michigan.
One of the central issues before the Assembly was the severe recession and its impact on the work of the church around the world. Each of the three program committees has significantly curtailed its spending for 2009 and proposed a reduced budget for 2010. All in all, the budget for 2010 is 5 percent lower than the budget for 2009.
Mr. Olinger reminded the Assembly of the financial hardships endured by the fathers of the OPC. He told about the Rev. Edward Kellogg, who in 1937 was sent to plant a church in New York City. Friends in the Presbytery of New Jersey were so concerned for the Kellogg family that they launched a food-and-clothing drive so that his family wouldn't starve.
Mr. Graham pointed out that the records of those days of financial shortage show us two things: (1) you never find anyone complaining about not having enough money, and 2) you never find them curtailing actual outreach ministrywhether or not there was money for it! We may not have much money, but we can still serve our Lord Jesus Christ!
Speaking of finances (some readers may wish to skip the next two paragraphs!), the Assembly revised the notoriously complex "Instrument E" that governs the combined budget of Worldwide Outreach, in an attempt to make it simpler both to understand and to follow. The OPC has tried to avoid competition among the program committees of the church by creating a unified Worldwide Outreach budget, overseen by the Committee on Coordination (which consists of representatives of each of the program committees, together with several men elected by the General Assembly).
The revision permits any of the three program committees to enter into "special relationships" with presbyteries or sessions in order to "implement a part of that committee's program with respect to a specific missionary or project." The admitted danger is that giving for special projects could wind up taking away from the combined budget. Therefore, the Instrument states that financial support for such special relationships must come "from sources that are over and above its regular giving to the Worldwide Outreach combined budget." This means that a session or presbytery may not fund special relationships instead of the combined budget (though sessions and presbyteries are always free to give designated gifts if they cannot in good conscience support the work of Worldwide Outreach as a whole).
As usual, the fraternal addresses were some of the highlights of the Assembly. Delegates and observers were sent from twelve churches. The moderator replied appropriately to each delegate and observer.
One of the most remarkable addresses came from the Rev. Ludgero Morais and Dr. Augustus Lopes of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, a 788,000-member denomination that broke relations with the PCUSA in 1975 and the PCUS in 1983. Last year they entered into corresponding relations with the OPC, due to their desire to have relations with the heirs of those who brought the Reformed faith to Brazil. Dr. Lopes, the chancellor of Mackenzie Presbyterian University, also spoke of their efforts to give the 45,000-student university more of a confessional identity.
Another notable address came from the Rev. Kevin Backus, who reported that the Bible Presbyterian Church has lost 40 percent of its members over the last two years, simply because the BPC has remained in corresponding relations with the OPC. He thanked the OPC for being patient and willing to answer the questions and concerns of the Bible Presbyterian Synod in recent years.
The Rev. Richard Holst spoke on behalf of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales. He pointed out that while 70 percent of Brits claim to be Christian, only 10 percent attend church at all, and 50 percent of teenagers claim to be atheists. With a total communicant membership of 380 in twelve congregations, the EPCEW is struggling to maintain a foothold for the Reformed faith. Given the challenge of finding sufficient ministers for their smaller congregations, perhaps a retired minister or two could consider moving to England for a few years to assist them.
In an effort to broaden their work, the Committee on Diaconal Ministries has now been reorganized to include four deacons, together with three ministers and two elders. They are preparing a Deacon's Summit for the summer of 2010, and hope eventually to have a full-time staff person to coordinate short-term mission trips, diaconal projects, disaster relief, and short-term home-missions teams. Since all four deacons had to be elected at once, the election was quite an affair. Seven deacons were nominated, and from the nominating speeches, it would appear that we have some truly remarkable deacons in the OPC!
While everyone should know our first missionary deacon, Robert Wright of Karamoja, the new members of the committee deserve some introduction. Robert Keys of Columbus, Ohio, has served as a deacon for more than twenty-five years, and when Hurricane Katrina hit, he asked his session the following day for permission to go help. Kenley Leslie of Morgantown, West Virginia, spent several months in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, working in hurricane relief, and was referred to both as a "doer extraordinaire" and as a "deacon's deacon" for his dedicated service over many years. Chris Sudlow of Wheaton, Illinois, received a rather unique nominating speech, as he was called "a freethinker, gifted beyond words, arrogant above all imagination, and a wonderful, soft-hearted servant" who is known for his ability to communicate effectively. He is the organizer for the Deacon's Summit that will be held in Wheaton next summer.
Considerable debate was prompted by the recommendation from the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel to send a humble petition to President Obama regarding the matter of gays in the military, on the ground that such a petition was needed in order to provide encouragement to our chaplains and military personnel. Nearly half the Assembly voted to sustain the moderator's ruling that the petition was out of order because the Committee had not demonstrated that this was truly an extraordinary case (as required by Confession of Faith 31.4). While some others wished to send a letter, they did not approve of this particular letter, and so the Assembly voted to postpone the matter indefinitely.
As one speaker put it, there are dozens of public sins that we could take positions on, but the way we best make our voice heard is by proclaiming the Word of God in all its fullness, and also in coming alongside those who are suffering for the gospel's sake. Other speakers pointed out that the OPC has already made clear statements on homosexuality in our Confession and Catechisms, as well as in the Instruments of the General Assembly and in the 60th General Assembly's letter to President Clinton.
There is no proper way to summarize the debate over the appeals before the Assembly. As one speaker put it, the existence of a Committee on Appeals and Complaints is a reminder of our fallen condition. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that the Assembly sent both cases back to their respective presbyteries with the hopes and prayers that through the continued interaction between the parties, God will bring true reconciliation.
The author, an OP minister, is stated supply of Michiana Covenant Church (PCA) in Granger, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2009.