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Reflections on Our 80th General Assembly

Brenton C. Ferry

The 80th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church met this year, June 5–11, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. The weather was beautiful: warm in the day and cool at night. Turkey, deer, and even some cows roamed around the campus all week. We were all gobbling and grazing together. Things got off to an iffy start, because a train carrying the assembly’s voting equipment was in a wreck. Then, when the equipment arrived, the system failed.

One man got locked out of his room in a funny way. Someone tried to call the question. We sang from an overhead projector instead of hymnals this time. Someone got the Jack-in-the-Box award. A brother from Japan told the assembly, “I feel like a child who sees his favorite cartoon characters come to life!” Those are some of the lighter things I’ll remember about the assembly this year.

The most memorable part of GA was being around so many spiritually gifted men. The Holy Spirit’s fruit and gifts are very evident among the officers in the OPC, especially when so many are bunched up together for a week of work, worship, and fellowship. It is difficult not to grow in love and respect for such men as these.

At each annual assembly, a poll of ordination dates is taken, which begins simply to see if the voting clickers work or not. This year 8 men had been ordained since 2010, 38 men since 2000, 35 men since 1990, 24 men since 1980, 14 men since 1970, 7 men since 1960, and 1 man since 1950. Once the assembly identifies the men in the room who have been ordained the longest, the mood changes. They have kept the faith for a long time. Fewer and fewer of them are among us. I hope they see the Lord’s hand in us, as we see it in them.

Delegates

The General Assembly is the annual denominational meeting to which each presbytery sends a designated number of commissioners from among their ministers and ruling elders. That is to say, not everyone gets to go. It is always a privilege.

Prior to the Assembly, each commissioner receives a docket from the stated clerk (this year, the Rev. George Cottenden). It lists all the items of business, together with several hundred pages of committee reports and accompanying documents. Included is a list of advisory committee assignments—each commissioner is assigned to one. “What advisory committee did you get put on?” is how many conversations begin early in the week, because the nature of a commissioner’s advisory committee assignment will direct the focus of his work for the duration of the Assembly. For example, some commissioners end up reading a stack of presbytery minute books, looking for “exceptions and notations” (big mistakes and little mistakes, respectively). Others spend time reading through judicial appeals, interviewing offended and/or offending parties. The workload and the nature of the work vary greatly from committee to committee, requiring a wide range of gifts and abilities.

Committee Work

Ordinarily there are two sorts of committees that work for the Assembly: permanent standing committees, to which people are elected for an extended period of service, and advisory committees, to which people are assigned only for the duration of the Assembly. The advisory committees review the standing committees’ work and report back to the Assembly with any recommendations.

For example, the Committee on Foreign Missions is paired with an advisory committee on foreign missions (referred to as Advisory Committee 1). They meet together in a little room to go over everything the OPC is doing on the foreign mission field. Then both committees return to the auditorium together and address the entire assembly about foreign missions. Every day from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., the Assembly is treated to one report after another: a standing committee followed by its advisory committee, then another standing committee followed by its advisory committee, and so on. Reports from both kinds of committees may include recommendations, which the Assembly must debate and vote up or down.

The monotony is eased by breaks for meals and refreshments, preaching, singing, prayer, announcements, and fraternal addresses from representatives of other denominations. It is not a dance, but things happen at a good pace. There is usually a contingent of women in the rear gladly knitting and a flurry of young people passing out papers or collecting ballots. When evening finally comes, many men like to lounge around outside meeting old and new friends, telling jokes and stories, and sharing drinks and cigars with one another (or not) before it gets too late.

The Moderator

Every year a commissioner is elected to serve as the Assembly’s moderator. He holds the gavel and leads the meeting according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Someone once described this job as trying to push a wheelbarrow full of jumping frogs. Traditionally, the body elects a different man each year—one who has served the OPC for a long time with notable distinction and maturity among his peers. The Assembly even claps out of respect when the moderator is elected. This is followed by a short speech of appreciation, after which the new moderator lays down the law and quickly turns the Assembly’s attention to the business at hand.

This year the Rev. Tony Curto passed the gavel to the Rev. Jeffery Landis. Pastor Landis has served at Covenant OPC in San Jose, California, since 1986, when he was ordained to the gospel ministry. His humble and able leadership was well received by the Assembly. Thank you, Mr. Moderator!

Fraternal Delegates

General Assembly is also a time when other Reformed denominations from around the world send fraternal delegates to address the OPC in the interest of strengthening Reformed ecumenicity. Every now and then an ecumenical delegate comes across as little more than a public relations officer. But more often than not these delegates speak frankly to the OPC about denominational differences and similarities, strengths and weaknesses. This year the GA heard addresses from Adam Kaloostian, United Reformed Churches in North America; Takanori Kobayashi, Presbyterian Church in Japan; Jonathan Merica, Reformed Church in the US; F. Solano Portela, Presbyterian Church of Brazil; David J. Reese, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America; Lee A. Shelnutt, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; L. Roy Taylor, Presbyterian Church in America; and Kurt Vetterli, Evangelical Reformed Church, Westminster Confession.

The GA requested the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations to communicate to our Bible Presbyterian Church brothers the Assembly’s gratitude to the Lord for his faithfulness to them on the seventy-fifth anniversary of their founding and assure them that we look forward to ever deepening fellowship with them in Christ.

The Lord’s Day

On Sunday, everyone loaded into vans and cars to worship at various OP churches in the region: Covenant Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, Covenant OPC in San Jose, Trinity OPC in Novato, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Monterey Bay, Delta Oaks Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, First OPC in San Francisco, New Covenant OPC in South San Francisco, and First OPC in Sunnyvale. Afterwards the local churches served lunch to their visitors.

Then that evening, all the OP churches in the area came to the St. Mary’s campus for a combined worship service and the Lord’s Supper. The Rev. Wayne Forkner led the service, Pastor Landis preached, and the Rev. Michael Dengerink administered the sacrament.

A Day of Prayer

On the final day of the GA’s work, the body adopted a recommendation calling for a day of prayer in the churches of the OPC for the spiritual and physical welfare and the release of prisoner of war SGT Bowe Bergdahl, USA, a noncommunicant member of the OPC, on the fourth anniversary of his capture, June 30, 2013, and for God’s sustaining grace for him and his family during this ordeal.

An Ecclesiastical Judicatory

The General Assembly is a church court, a judicatory that resolves matters of conflict arising from any of the presbyteries. Before the Assembly enters into any judicial proceedings, the moderator will say, “This body is about to sit in a judicial capacity and I exhort you, the members, to bear in mind your solemn duty faithfully to minister and declare the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and to subordinate all human judgments to that infallible rule.” When this happens, the room gets very serious all of a sudden.

Judicial appeals can be very delicate matters, because, on the one hand, commissioners are there to exercise judgment without respect of persons. But, on the other hand, each appeal represents an often dear person (or people) who got mixed up in something deeply frustrating that saddens everyone and which no one has been able to resolve with satisfaction.

This year one judicial matter was appealed to the General Assembly for judgment. The appeal was denied.

An Organized Religion

The concept of an ecclesiastical assembly like our General Assembly seems at odds with much of American Christianity, which tends to minimize the importance of organized religion and church government. It is not uncommon to hear sincere believers interpret the existence of denominations and church judicatories as signs of division, discord, and schism; they are in favor of independent churches, or even more isolated home churches, or even more isolated individuals who never go to church. It is an ironic view, because the abandonment of a denominational ideal really represents ecclesiastical division and deconstruction. We should see the denominational glass as half full, not half empty.

The Bible teaches that the apostles planted local churches, organized regional-city churches (Titus 1:5), and met as a general assembly to hear appeals from the latter (Acts 15). These churches had officers (Phil. 1:1), with biblically restrained authority (1 Cor. 4:6) over specified members “allotted to” their “charge” (1 Peter 5:3; Heb. 13:17). When one translates that into modern practice, the result is what we ordinarily call a Presbyterian denomination. The General Assembly is part of that original ecclesiastical order. This is important.

The First General Assembly

More than that, the General Assembly is a gospel assembly—or it is nothing at all. This is not just a priority that our OP forefathers handed down to us. Meeting as a general assembly continues an ecclesiastical practice that began in Acts 15, when the New Testament church was struggling to transition from a circumcising Jewish church into a baptizing international church. Moving from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era was not an easy thing for people to do. Christ was murdered by the resistance, which continued to hound the church all through the New Testament age. This gross opposition provides the antagonistic backdrop for most of the New Testament, including the church’s first general assembly as recorded in Acts 15.

The apostles participated in an ecclesiastical assembly to debate what the gospel is and to vote on it with the other officers. This is an amazing juncture in the maturation of the New Testament church: the apostles, side by side with the men they trained to lead the next generation of churches forward, met together in a general assembly, to debate and vote on what the gospel is and is not. This was a foundation-laying moment. Would the apostles remain united about the gospel, or would they divide between those following Paul and those following Peter? If the apostles remained united about the gospel, would the assembly stay with the apostles or follow the Judaizers? Would the regional churches of Antioch and Jerusalem remain of one mind or split? On all counts, they remained unified.

The same sort of troublemakers who caused Paul to write his letter to the Galatians provoked that discordant event in Antioch which prompted the first general assembly in Jerusalem. In response, the regional church of Antioch sent delegates, including Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem for a trans-regional (general) assembly. We read:

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:7–11, emphasis added)

In substance, the first general assembly of the New Testament church addressed whether or not the gospel is the gospel. We have in Acts 15 the equivalent of the minutes of that meeting. Every subsequent ecclesiastical assembly is a gospel assembly or it is part of the resistance. May the OPC continue to follow that original trajectory in her assemblies and keep the faith.

The author is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. He quotes the NASB, Updated Edition.

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