Almost Heaven: The 78th General Assembly
Robert Y. Eckardt
There were few speeches and not even many questions at the General Assembly that convened on June 8, 2011not just because the newly elected moderator, the Rev. Danny Olinger, urged new commissioners to watch and learn for a few years, nor just because we were celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of what was to become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. There was a sense of maturity based on the grace of God, whose works in weak vessels were lauded throughout. We could see God's hand at work in the OPC, reminding us of what the apostle Paul says in Philippians 1:6, "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
The outgoing moderator, the Rev. Alan Pontier, gave a message from Revelation 12 entitled "The Conquering Church." Yes, we are in a battle, to be sure. But Christ has won, and though we are still the church militant, we can rest in him and his triumph.
Things were peaceful, but not because we in the OPC, as "Machen's warrior children" (as John Frame once dubbed us), called a truce and laid aside our debating swords. Nor surely was it that there was no sin among us! Perhaps, however, by the grace of our Lord, there has been sanctification, and therefore he granted us rest, reflection, rejoicing, and reunion. We experienced a taste of heaven for the weary along the way.
Experienced commissioners know that the General Assembly is no party. Long hours of work, complicated committee meetings, lengthy debate, and anguish amidst close votes usually await us. But this year, because we were progressing so well through the docket, the moderator allowed longer breaks for us to enjoy the refreshment of the day.
We had fewer hours of work by design. The evenings were largely reserved for the reports of the program committees, including devotionals. Video reviews, not only of the year, but of the entire history of the OPC, were presented in unofficial, public meetings. There was no debate or discussion during those evenings. By definition, we were resting. Mr. Olinger, general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, was elected moderator on the first ballot. He was clearly a good choice because of his timely historical observations and sense of the history of the OPC in matters great and small.
Ordinarily the assembly hungers for the Lord's Day as the respite that it should be. This time the Sabbath was added to our restful week as two local congregations, nearby Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware, and Columbia Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Columbia, Maryland, led us in worship in both morning and afternoon services. Also, in contrast to previous years, most commissioners stayed on the conference grounds, though some went to other congregations for worship. As the Sabbath is a foretaste of heaven, so we rested in such anticipation.
Heaven will also surely involve much reflection on the ways of the Lord throughout history. We have become aware that nostalgia is not healthy, since we cannot return to the past nor relive it, but reflection in praise and thanks to the Lord is salutary. Such reflection was the order of the day, as each of the normal committee reports included notes of historical import.
Advisory committees were in the mood for "silence," which meant that they concurred with the reports and recommendations of each committee. Even balloting for elections was rare, as incumbents regularly retained their positions or new men were added without need for an election.
We became aware again of the many labors of the Committee on Christian Education. To name a few:
- Ordained Servant: Choosing topics of healthy controversy.
- Psalter-hymnal: Continuing to develop this project that may also be of service outside the OPC, as a recommendation to work with the United Reformed Churches in North America in this endeavor was approved to be presented to the URCNA synod in 2012.
- Ministerial training: Managing the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC and running a flourishing internship program.
We were encouraged by the work of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, especially in "restarting the engine" of church planting this year after only four new churches were established in 2010 as the economy stagnated. This year already there have been eleven start-ups, with three more soon to begin.
We reviewed the work of the Committee on Foreign Missions in the context of the founding of the OPC in the midst of controversy in foreign missions about what constitutes the gospel itself. The OPC stands firm upon those original convictions and seeks to move forward in developing new fields. As with Home Missions, there are many opportunities for missionary service abroad, and both Home and Foreign Missions emphasized that the need for men called to serve is greater than the need for funds.
We learned how the Committee on Foreign Missions continues to interface with diaconal needs in places like Haiti, Uganda, and Japan. David Nakhla was introduced as the short-term missions coordinator. His position has been created in light of all the needs and the increasing number of volunteers.
As usual, various missionaries from both home and foreign fields addressed the Assembly with news of the Lord's blessing.
The Report of the Committee on Coordination demonstrated the high degree of unity among the program committees by reporting the rare occurrence that the program committees' askings and the Committee's recommendations to the GA for funding were identical. This came about within the context of cooperation and a sense of give-and-take that enabled the committees to give preference to one another. The Assembly agreed with all of the committees and a quick vote eventually was taken to approve the budget, all without any debate at all! Many of us truly wondered where we were.
Overall it was evident that the committees have been doing excellent work in harmony with one another. The presentations of Worldwide Outreach to the churches continue in updated "refrigerator displays," with pictures of missionaries, general secretaries, and staff. The unified packet continues as a testimony to the combined witness of the OPC in her committees.
The Committee on Diaconal Ministries has been very active recently. Their report proved that you never know where the excitement is going to come from. The opportunities at home and abroad continue to be tied to the needs for wise ministry to the physical needs of an area. The OPC's long history of working with hospitals and clinics, developing work-for-food programs, and now coordinating disaster relief in connection with our missionaries, has helped us to maintain an integrated vision for missions and diaconal ministry. Diaconal Ministries is now prepared to coordinate an immediate response when disasters strike. With David Nakhla now on staff, service can be multiplied through a central connection.
In the past, short-term missions have often been done without much planning or integration with the needs of the people and our missionaries on the field. Now Mr. Nakhla is here to coordinate that. In addition to foreign missions efforts, presbytery efforts can be supported, such as the Boardwalk Chapel (http://www.chapelopc.org) and Keys Evangelistic Ministries (http://www.keys-christians.org). The Committee rejoiced to announce that the second Diaconal Summit would be held in conjunction with the 79th General Assembly on the campus of Wheaton College, June 6-12, 2012.
The Committee on Pensions has a long history of faithfulness, creativity, and success in meeting the changing needs of ministers and other workers in the OPC. Many have served long in support of the Committee, but special appreciation was shown to Garry Hoogerhyde for his fifty-plus years of ministry on the Committee.
The Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel reminded us that our chaplains are truly evangelists as well as ministers of the gospel. They reminded us also that information is available on the OPC website under "Ministries," including the "Plea for Prayer" newsletter about needs among our military personnel (http://opc.org/chaplain/index.html).
The General Assembly always has a wonderful note of rejoicing, with vigorous singing, repeated times of prayer, and worship and devotional opportunities. This year the joy was palpable in relation to the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. Will not heaven be filled with "joy inexpressible"?
The Committee on Arrangements did a wonderful job in the midst of unexpected hardships and a different kind of venue. But even David Haney was able to take a bit of respite, since many of the arrangements were managed by Sandy Cove. One very sad note, however, was the death of the registrar, Nancy DeHaan, in an automobile accident a few days before the Assembly.
As mentioned earlier, we had Lord's Day services, but we also had our other celebrations, such as the banquet on Saturday evening, with the Rev. Donald Poundstone as keynote speaker. He spoke on "A Witness to the Truth and the Heavenly Kingdom." We had our devotional meditations during the evening presentations by the program committees, all of which in some way enabled us to rejoice in the blessings of the Lord upon the OPC throughout her history. For example, the moderator brought a message from Matthew 5:3 entitled "The Church of the Broken Heart," on seeing the spiritual poverty in ourselves and fleeing to Christ. (The special presentations of the program committees and the devotional messages are available at OPC.ORG.)
The Lord blessed us, not only by enabling us to accomplish our business, but also with times to pray for the work of each committee and for special needs and personal requests that came to our attention. The assembly was bathed in prayer.
Finally, our celebrations were enhanced by an unusually large number of fraternal greetings from representatives from around the world. All were warm in their prayers for the Lord to continue to bless us in our next seventy-five years. The Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations has been active all year long in maintaining our brotherly connections with other Reformed churches, as well as in maintaining our activity in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council and in its international equivalent, the International Conference of Reformed Churches.
Fraternal addresses were given by representatives of the Reformed Church in the United States, the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of South Africa, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the United Reformed Churches, and the Presbyterian Church in America. The Assembly was almost heaven. We are not there yetnot by a long shot. Hanging over us are conflicts within the church and the need to be ever vigilant. The Assembly noted that two committees have not yet reported to us in their attempts to resolve difficult problems within the Church, whether doctrinal or personal. One committee was formed at this assembly to consult with the Presbytery of Northern California and Nevada regarding the issue of the length of creation days. Despite a report on this subject several years ago, uncertainty continues regarding its import and application to the presbyteries. Also, a committee formed last year to seek to resolve conflicts within the Presbytery of New Jersey has not finished its work. We still sow in tears.
If you were to see just one other person who was at the Assembly somewhere elselet's say, in a chance encounter at an airport or on the streets of a cityyou would be astounded and overjoyed at the providence. You might spend an hour or two catching up on life with someone like that. The General Assembly experience is therefore overwhelming even in an ordinary year. You are on "reunion overload" among hundreds of brothers and sisters with whom you may be close or would like to become better acquainted. To whom do you speak? How much time can you take? This assembly was no exception to this situation. It was even more like that than usual, since many people who have not come to an assembly in years made it a point to attend this year.
Can you imagine seeing all the saints in glory? This year's assembly surely was a help in that endeavor. The proximity of this assembly not only to Baltimore, the birthplace and home of J. Gresham Machen, but also to one of the main concentrations of Orthodox Presbyterian churches, helped make this possible.
Reminders of years past were everywhere. Displays and pictures of churches and members, ministers and elders, were abundant. Many saw friends they had not seen in decades. Books were available that showed the faithfulness of God through the years. Pastors, elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and others whose lives have been a part of our history were there. You could talk with the Rev. John Galbraith, who studied under Machen and who at the age of ninety-eight spoke to the Assembly and could also be seen chatting in the lobby.
The historian, John Muether, and the Committee for the Historian had much to do with the celebration. They introduced three books published in connection with the anniversary. Confident of Better Things: Essays Commemorating Seventy-five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, edited by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger, contains twenty-six essays. Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990, was written for the occasion by historian Darryl G. Hart. Finally, the 2011 edition of A Ministerial Register of the OPC, updated by Linda Foh, has been issued. These books are available at the OPC website.
One of the dangers of a celebration like this is that of falling into the trap of self-congratulation. So the refrain often heard at this assembly was: "Not unto us, but unto you be the glory." We surely have not arrived. We are weak, but our Lord is strong. Paul said it this way in Philippians 3:12-14:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The author is pastor of Redeemer OPC in Dayton, Ohio. New Horizons, September 2011