New Horizons

A Quiet General Assembly

Alan D. Strange

In more recent years, the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has held some of its meetings in the Midwest. Both Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, have welcomed our GA, and it was with joy that we were able to return to the Chicago area for the Seventy-seventh General Assembly. It was held at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

We were on the beautiful Trinity Christian College campus for the 2006 General Assembly, and it was good to be able to return this year. Next year's GA, celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the OPC, will be held, appropriately, at Sandy Cove, Maryland, near the historic cradle of American Presbyterianism (the greater Philadelphia area). The following year (2012), the GA will return to the Chicago area and be held at Wheaton College.

The summer of 2010 is already on record as one of the hottest in years, and the 77th GA opened in the midst of sweltering heat and humidity. This struck this writer, a Mississippi native, as rather apropos: this GA was earlier slated to be held in Pineville, Louisiana, but was changed to the Midwest due to the perception of easier accommodation. The weather, however, was not that much different in Chicago than one might expect in the Bayou State. However, while the temperature was hot outside, our accommodations were pleasant and cool as we got under way on Wednesday, July 7.

Newer readers or those who have come more recently into the OPC may ask, "What is the General Assembly, and what is its purpose?" I think that this writer's answer to that question from his New Horizons article on an earlier Assembly (the 2002 GA) bears repeating here. We read in Acts 15 of the first recorded general assembly of the apostles and elders of the burgeoning new covenant church. Such rule by apostles and elders was not new to the church. It had its genesis in the Old Testament. To be sure, the church in the Old Testament did not have the office of apostle, but it did have a like office of blessing and proclamation—the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priests—sometimes called elders—joined together with elders of the people in the rule of the assembly of God's people. We find a New Testament analogy to this Old Testament rule of clergy and elders of the people: after the extraordinary office of apostle gave way to the ordinary office of minister of the Word and sacrament, ministers (as counterparts to the Levites) also joined together with elders of the people in the rule of Christ's church (cf. Acts 20, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Paul's epistles to Timothy and Titus).This is presbyterianism as biblically mandated and historically practiced. And this is exactly what we witness at our general assemblies: the ministers and elders of the church serve together, seeking by the Holy Spirit to declare what God's Word teaches about the matters that are brought before her.

Early Business

The moderator of the 76th (2009) GA, William Shishko, called the 77th GA to order and preached a sermon from 2 Corinthians 3:1-3. Pastor Shishko reminded all the commissioners, particularly the ministerial ones, that each one is writing a book, a book that is seen and read by all, made manifest in the lives of the congregants.

After this encouraging and challenging word from the Lord, the GA proceeded to business, especially that of electing a moderator. Two men were nominated, and Alan R. Pontier, pastor of Big Bear Valley OPC in Big Bear Lake, California, was elected as our moderator. Mr. Pontier wielded the gavel ably and graciously, with charity and bonhomie.

Other matters were addressed this first evening, including setting the docket, calling the roll, erecting advisory committees, and assigning materials to those committees. Significant matters that come to the floor must come through advisory committees—this makes for the smoother working of the assembly.

On Thursday morning, July 8, the advisory committees began meeting to receive the reports of the program committees (Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education) and the other committees of the GA (Ecumenicity, Diaconal, Pensions, Chaplains, etc.). The ten advisory committees (along with the Arrangements Committee and two temporary committees, one to examine presbyterial records and the other to examine committee records) continued to meet during the day, with most finishing their work by dinner. The GA went into plenary session on Thursday evening and began to attend to the business that was before the church.

The stated clerk, the trustees of the GA, and the statistician gave their reports. Particularly noteworthy in the stated clerk's report was his announcement that thirteen of the sixteen presbyteries had approved the new Directory for the Public Worship of God that the previous GA had sent to them. The new DPW will take effect on January 1, 2011. The centerpiece of these reports was the recognition of the retirement of Donald J. Duff as the stated clerk of the General Assembly. Mr. Duff was the first full-time stated clerk, and had served for eighteen years. He was given rousing standing ovations, and a reception to commemorate his retirement was held after the Assembly recessed that evening. George Cottenden has now assumed the office of stated clerk. He was aided in this assembly by the efficient assistant clerk who had served in previous years, John Mahaffy.

Program Committee Reports

First up among the program committees was the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Associate General Secretary Dick Gerber presented the CHMCE report. Three home missionaries, Brent Evans of Momence, Illinois; Doug Watson of Pearl City, Hawaii; and DeLacy Andrews, regional home missionary of the Presbytery of the Southeast, gave stirring accounts of their work. General Secretary Ross Graham, recovering from double knee replacement surgery, thanked us for our prayers and heartened us all with his progress.

For the Committee on Foreign Missions, General Secretary Mark Bube gave us an around-the-world tour of our mission work (as well as an around-the-room tour of posted missions pictures). He read a particularly touching letter that a man in prison for the faith had written to his wife, expressing his willingness to suffer, and even his joy in suffering, for Christ and his cross. Missionaries, such as Benjamin Hopp, also addressed the Assembly. It is difficult to describe the glorious effect that hearing from our home and foreign missionaries has on us all as we delight to hear of the gathering and perfecting of the saints throughout the world to the glory of our King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Committee on Christian Education reported for the rest of Friday morning and resumed after lunch. Vice-President Alan Strange gave an overview of the Committee's work, and General Secretary Danny Olinger reported on a number of aspects of the Committee's work, including the Internship Program, the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC, publications, and the website. Others reported on the ongoing success of the Timothy Conferences and the progress being made on the psalter-hymnal project. The executive director of Great Commission Publications, Tom Patete, reported on the work of this joint publishing venture with the PCA.

All during this week, beginning before noon on Thursday and continuing on each subsequent day, the GA heard men from selected presbyteries open up to us the Word of God. Additionally, each advisory committee, when its work was concluded, prayed for all the matters that pertained to it, so that there was extensive prayer for the work of the whole church in all its parts all during the Assembly.

Other Committee reports

President George Knight of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations introduced that committee's report and gave thanks for the faithful labors of its longtime member, and more recently its administrator, Jack Peterson. The Assembly gave Mr. Peterson a standing ovation in expression of its thanks for his service. Dr. Knight then introduced Jack Sawyer, the new administrator. The OPC has fraternal relations with a number of Presbyterian and Reformed churches worldwide. We were privileged to receive fraternal greetings from representatives of the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Reformed Church in the United States, and the Bible Presbyterian Church. This assembly voted to enter into relations with the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Heritage Reformed Congregations, the Independent Reformed Church of Korea, and the Reformed Church of Quebec.

The Committee on Appeals and Complaints and the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel were not ready to report when the GA came back into session on Saturday morning, so the moderator began looking about for other business for the GA to address. Historian John Muether had already reported, giving the good news that all the issues of the Presbyterian Guardian are now available on our website. The Assembly approved the formation of a new presbytery—the Presbytery of Central Pennsylvania—with eight churches from the Presbytery of Philadelphia and one from the Presbytery of Ohio. The Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario sought advice from the General Assembly with respect to two candidates for whom they sought exceptions for the educational requirements stated in the Form of Government. The GA, after some debate, determined to tell the Presbytery that the GA did not object to the proposed exceptions. Later the GA denied an overture from that presbytery that sought to modify the Form of Government with respect to the candidacy, licensure, and ordination process for ministers. The GA did, however, refer the concerns contained in the overture to the Committee on Christian Education for its consideration.

On the Lord's Day, area OP churches offered hospitality to the visiting commissioners, and in the evening a joint service was held at Trinity Christian College, hosted by Bethel Presbyterian Church (Wheaton, Illinois) with area ministers participating and Craig Troxel preaching and administering the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Refreshed by Sabbath rest, the GA reconvened on Monday, ready to tackle such matters as the budget presented by the Committee on Coordination for Worldwide Outreach (approving $3.4 million for Home Missions, Foreign Missions, Christian Education, Coordination, and New Horizons) and the report of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (including an encouraging report on the first Diaconal Summit).

Appeals and Complaints

On Monday afternoon, the Assembly finally arrived at the report of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints. The report involved two matters arising from the Presbytery of New Jersey. One was the appeal of a judicial censure of rebuke under BD 3.6 (charges were found not to warrant trial and were deemed censurable). The other was a complaint against an action deemed unconstitutional by the complainants (presbyters from New Jersey). The complaint was denied. With respect to the judicial appeal, the GA, on a close vote (60-55, with commissioners from the Presbytery of New Jersey not voting), ruled that the session that sought to rebuke those who brought the meritless charges did not have jurisdiction to do so. The slim majority interpreted the Book of Discipline to mean that in order for those who bring unwarranted charges to be censured, the case must be referred back to the judicatory having original jurisdiction over those who brought the charge. A protest was later filed, contesting this ruling on several grounds. Interestingly, the moderator of the GA signed the protest, something that this writer has not witnessed in all his years of going to GA. The GA also erected a committee to visit various parties within the Presbytery of New Jersey to help them resolve difficulties that were widely perceived as larger than those presented in any of the cases that came from that presbytery this or last year. The report of this committee went from Monday afternoon through Tuesday afternoon, punctuated by reports from the temporary committees to examine presbyterial records and committee records.

The only remaining substantive issues on the docket came from the Committee on Chaplains. The main matter involving the chaplains was the giving of advice requested by the military itself with respect to the current policy pertaining to homosexuals in the military. The GA advised the inquiring parties as to the Scripture's condemnation of homosexuality. Also, Robert Needham concluded his service on CEIR and a quarter century of service on the Committee on Chaplains. The GA honored the retired naval chaplain (and current pastor) with a standing ovation.

After the conclusion of all business, Moderator Pontier led in prayer, declared the Assembly dissolved, and pronounced the Apostolic Benediction. The 77th General Assembly was dissolved on Tuesday, July 13, at 9:14 p.m. We all look forward to next year and the joyful celebration of our seventy-fifth anniversary, God willing.

The author teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, Sept. 2010.

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