An Assembly Seeking the Lord
The Sixty-eighth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church convened on Wednesday, May 30, at 8:00 p.m., at Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a two-hour worship and communion service in the college chapel. It was led by Thomas E. Tyson (regional home missionary of the Presbytery of Philadelphia), Hailu Mekonnen (associate pastor of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia, and missionary to Ethiopia), William Shishko (pastor of Franklin Square OPC in Franklin Square, New York), and Larry Wilson (general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education and editor of New Horizons). Piano accompaniment was provided by Calvin R. Malcor (associate pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, California).
Approximately 135 commissioners (ministers and ruling elders), plus various family members and visitors, were in attendance as the moderator of last year's General Assembly, James S. Gidley, exhorted the Assembly from Romans 11:33-12:1 with a message entitled "A Living Sacrifice." Dr. Gidley urged those assembled to see that Christian ethics is based on the multiple mercies of God, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is by divine grace lays the foundation for what we ought to do. He noted that the words "a living sacrifice" are singular. They therefore stress that not merely as many individuals, but as one church, we are to be offering ourselves to the Lord in service to others.
Each weekday morning, commissioners gathered for a devotional service. Howard Currie (pastor of Immanuel OPC in West Collingswood, New Jersey) spoke from Isaiah 65:17-25. The prophet saw by faith the day when brothers (even brothers who may be at odds today) will walk hand in hand in the New Jerusalem in the joyful presence of the Suffering Servant. It is fitting that we anticipate this pattern here and now.
William J. Gorrell (pastor of Faith OPC in Cookeville, Tennessee) challenged the commissioners from Matthew 5:5 on the grace of meekness. Meekness is not gentleness or weakness. It is not the same as self-control or humility. It is not a natural characteristic. Meekness is "that gracious, mild, benign, quiet, tractable, subdued, and patient disposition of soul, whereby the believer, in a Christlike manner, in both conduct and speech, bears, without irritation, peevishness, resentment, or exasperation, the faults and injuries of others; resists the temptation to self-assertiveness, insubordination, rudeness, harshness, and arrogance toward God and man; recovers quickly, humbly, and contritely when failure occurs; and strives to inculcate the same childlike, anger-bridled, and unresisting docility in those taken in a fault or opposing him."
Calvin R. Malcor (associate pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, Calif.) spoke from 2 Kings 6:15-17. He encouraged the Assembly to see what we so often fail to see, that even when we are in the midst of the most discouraging and dangerous anti-Christian situations, the almighty Lord with his heavenly army is present with us.
Richard J. Venema (stated supply for Grace OPC in Wasilla, Alaska) spoke from Acts 2:42-47. He reminded the Assembly that the church which our Lord Jesus builds is a church which is steadfastly faithful to his Word. "This God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end" (Ps. 48:14).
The Assembly enjoyed a blessed Sabbath rest. Commissioners worshiped at several churches in the area, and enjoyed their fellowship and hospitality. How sweet it was!
Larry E. Wilson, general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, presented its report. He spoke about the Committee's two magazines (New Horizons and Ordained Servant), its Web site (www.opc.org), its internship program, the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC, and Great Commission Publications (GCP). Thomas R. Patete, GCP's executive director, told the Assembly about future editions of our Sunday school material.
Mr. Wilson requested churches to put him on their mailing list to receive their congregational newsletters, to inform him of their educational resource needs, and to send him resources they have developed that might benefit the broader church.
Ross W. Graham, general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, presented its report. William V. Welzien (pastor of Keys Chapel, a home mission work in Key West, Florida) gave an easel evangelism presentation, such as he gives in Mallory Square, dealing with the question "Is God Narrow-minded?" Stephen A. Migotsky (pastor of Jaffrey OPC in Jaffrey, New Hampshire) and Benjamin K. Wikner (pastor of Providence OPC in Temecula, California) reported on the Lord's work in their respective home mission works.
Mr. Graham reported that church planting was proceeding at such a pace that the Committee was stretched to its financial limits. They had to cut back on spending. They thought that meant that fewer churches would get started. But "something very unexpected has happened." The Lord has continued to enlarge the OPC and start new mission works, and has been providing for their financial needs. "In spite of our best efforts to avoid it, God has continued to increase us!" Praise the Lord!
Mark T. Bube, general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions, used a series of pictures (which had been hung on the walls all around the meeting hall) and spoke of how our Lord is building his church through the OPC in various lands, including Suriname, Japan, Ethiopia, Korea, Kenya, and Uganda.
Hailu Mekonnen serves as our part-time missionary to Ethiopia. He had been a full-time missionary until kidney failure forced him to return to the United States. He thanked God and his wife for her donated kidney, which he said he had "borrowed" and "will return at the resurrection." He rejoiced that in God's providence it has worked out well. He now visits the newly formed Ethiopian Reformed Church about four times a year, and he publishes Reformed literature in the Amharic language. The Lord seems especially to be using the translation of The Manual of Christian Doctrine, by Louis Berkhof.
Stewart E. ("Woody") Lauer spoke of his work teaching at Kobe Reformed Seminary in Japan, and of the Reformed Church in Japan. Several men have been converted from organized crime and are studying to be pastors.
Fear and Hope for Foreign Missions
Many commissioners came to the Assembly with deep concern over a rift that had developed between the Committee on Foreign Missions and one of its former missionaries, Victor Atallah. Some feared that the rift threatened to divide the church.
A number of the commissioners, especially those on Advisory Committee 1, worked literally day and night to solve this problem. Generally, the devotional sermons applied God's Word to this challenge and to similar relational dynamics in the Assembly. Many prayers ascended to heaven, beseeching the Prince of Peace to grant a triumph of his grace.
Before the Assembly ended, a surprising turn of events evidenced that the Lord had indeed answered those prayers (see "Holy Spirit Power" below).
Holy Spirit Power
Thomas E. Tyson
"Holy Spirit power!" We Reformed folks don't often use that phrase. But sometimesas when occurs what we witnessed on Tuesday, June 5it definitely does come to mind. Here's what happened:
The GA was seized by a problem that seemed to defy solution by mere human ingenuity. One of our ministers had brought a nonjudicial appeal of certain actions taken by a committee of the General Assembly concerning him and an organization he directs. Suffice it to say that all were perplexed and saddened by the presence on the docket of a question that did not admit of an easy answer. Thus, I won't even try unravel the many tangled strands of the whole ball of yarn. Besides, only God really knows all the ins and outs.
My purpose is far more important. I want to give glory to the blessed Third Person of the Holy Trinity, because when man couldn't, he couldand did.
One of the thorniest aspects of the whole matter was what to do with the mass of documents. Some fifteen reports, letters, submissions, and the like, competed not only for the Assembly's attention, but also for its approval. And it would be an understatement to say that they did not entirely agree with each other as to what actually happened, who did what to whom, and where blame should be put.
Now, Orthodox Presbyterian general assemblies always try to handle such matters according to the book. Thus, even after dealing with the heart of the matter head-on, we had to come back to those confounded documents. We had bypassed them temporarily, in an attempt to address the substance of the issue. And we were able to passbut not unanimouslya number of motions that did at least deal with the matter.
But now those documents, replete with their highly charged rhetoric, just lay there on the table, mocking our hopes for a peaceful settlement. So there we were, near the end of the last full day of deliberation, and the question was not resolved: would these documents go into the Minutes of the 68th General Assembly of the OPC to be accessed by all and sundry? Would that glorify God? Would it edify his church? Would it obey the ninth commandment? Our moderator, David O'Leary, had been counseling care in speech and attention to the concerns of others.
And then we witnessed Holy Spirit power. Somebody moved that all those troublesome documents be withdrawn. The motion was seconded. The various parties agreed to it. It passed without dissentand took about ten seconds. There was nothing left to do, except sing the Doxology.
But still the Holy Spirit wasn't finished. After we ended the session with prayer, the principal characters in the dispute moved to the front of the room, confessed named sin, asked forgiveness of each other, and gave it to each other.
Would you believe that we all had a good sleep that night?
A Triumph of God's Grace
Alan Strange, a member of the Committee to Seek Reconciliation in the Presbytery of the Dakotas, presented its report. He indicated that a great work of God's grace had taken place with respect to Park Hill Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, bringing about reconciliation between all the parties involved (for the details, see "A Story of Reconciliation" later in this issue). As a result, the recommendation to continue the Committee was lost, and the Committee was dissolved, with thanks.
Funding the Church's Mission
Donald M. Poundstone, chairman of the Committee on Coordination, reported that total Worldwide Outreach giving was up 6.79 percent last year. Still, even with this increase, the 2000 budget was underfunded by $120,730.
A Worldwide Outreach budget for 2002 of $2,350,000 was approved by the Assembly. Current provisions for funding the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC were extended until the end of 2003. The work of Bernard Westerveld, Jr., in the Québec Project of the Committee on Foreign Missions, was determined to be eligible for a "special relationship" with regard to funding. Mr. Poundstone led in prayer for the work of the Committee and its employees.
OPC and CanRC Join Hands
"This is a banner year!" exulted the Rev. Jack Peterson, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR). After years of discussion, the two denominations approved this "Agreement for Opening the Way to Ecclesiastical Fellowship Between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church":
Concerning Fencing the Lord's Table:
The churches of the Reformation confess that the Lord's Supper should not be profaned (1 Cor. 11:27, see Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 30, Q&A 82; Westminster Confession of Faith XXIX.8). This implies that the celebration of the Lord's Supper is to be supervised. In this supervision the church exercises discipline and manifests itself as a true church. This supervision is to be applied to the members of the local church as well as to the guests. The eldership has a responsibility in supervising the admission to the Lord's Supper.
Concerning Confessional Membership:
The churches of the Reformation believe that they have to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and are called to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned (Rom. 16:17). Anyone who answers the membership vows in the affirmative is bound to receive and adhere to the doctrine of the Bible. The patristic church has summarized this teaching in the Apostles' Creed and the churches of the Reformation have elaborated on this in their confessions. Every confessing member is bound to this doctrine and must be willing to be instructed in it.
There is need to continue to discuss the differences in confession and church polity which can take place within the relation of Ecclesiastical Fellowship. The intention of such discussions will be mutual upbuilding in the faith to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3).
The 2001 Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches, which met in May, adopted this agreement unanimously (see the July issue of New Horizons). Our General Assembly also adopted it without dissent, thus joining our two bodies officially into ecclesiastical fellowship.
The last paragraph of the agreement "really puts teeth into what ecclesiastical fellowship is all about," said the Rev. John P. Galbraith, a longtime member of the CEIR. Our Lord Jesus Christ's goal for his church is that "we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). Genuine church unity comes, not by ignoring differences, but by addressing them in humility and teachability, with a love for the Lord and his church, and with a commitment to submit to the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
The Rev. Jan DeGelder, representing the Canadian Reformed Churches, addressed the Assembly with evident joy: "It has been a long road. Let's walk together. Let's support each other. Let's help each other. Let's encourage each other. Let's admonish one another when necessary." He recognized that neither church has "arrived." "God's children never have reason to be complacent." Today, he said, the church is under attack. God's Word is under attack. We need one another's support, love, and prayers.
Luke E. Brown, the OPC's statistician, reported that the 1990s were a period of unprecedented growth for the OPC. During this decade, total membership increased by over 43 percent, surpassing the growth of the 1970s and 1980s combined.
During this past year, total membership exceeded 26,000, thirteen new local churches were added, fourteen new mission works were begun or received, and two new presbyteries were formed. Morning worship attendance grew by about 400 persons. Furthermore, a vigorous 10 percent growth in per capita giving combined with the membership increase to produce a 14 percent growth in total offerings.
The number of organized local churches grew by twelve to 216. Ten mission works were organized as churches, and three other congregations were received as particular churches, while one church withdrew from the OPC. The OPC at the end of 2000 had a total of sixty-five home mission works, a net gain of two. Fourteen new mission works were either started or received into the OPC, while ten were organized as churches and two were closed. This brought the total number of congregations (organized churches and unorganized mission works) to 281 at the end of the year, compared with 267 a year before.
Finally, total offerings reached $34 milliona 14.4 percent increase over the previous year. General offerings were up by 12.7 percent, benevolence giving was up 21.0 percent, and contributions for capital improvements increased by 15.9 percent.
Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism
The Assembly approved proof texts for the Larger Catechism, which had been prepared with great diligence by a Committee on Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism in only two years. Now there are Orthodox Presbyterian proof texts for the Confession of Faith and both Catechisms.
The Assembly authorized the Committee on Christian Education to publish the Confession and Catechisms, including the OP proof texts, with the following preface: "The Scripture proof texts were originally prepared by the Westminster divines, revised over the years by a succession of committees, and approved for publication by various General Assemblies of the OPC, but are not a part of the Constitution itself. At the direction of the 68th General Assembly, these proof texts are presented largely in full. The King James Version has been used, without prejudice to other translations, since this is the English text that was in use at the time of the Westminster Assembly, the language of which is at times reflected in the Confession and Catechisms."
Days of Creation
Controversy over the length of the days of creation, as revealed in Genesis 1, came to the 68th GA via two avenues: first by means of appeal, and second by means of an overture. Does God reveal enough information for us to be dogmatic in our interpretation of Genesis 1? Is there latitude for the church to permit its officers to agree to disagree? If so, how much?
Two appeals complained against a presbytery which had written this into its bylaws: "That if a candidate holds to a view of creation days other than six days of essentially ordinary length, he shall declare his views, take exception to the Westminster standards, and be required to refrain from advocating his view as confessional." An overture from another presbytery requested the GA to determine whether the so-called framework view (which sees the Genesis 1 account as a literary device) "is consistent with the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures as contained in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church."
The Assembly elected a committee of seven "to examine the Scriptures and our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, to assist the Church in its understanding of the biblical doctrine of creation with respect to the various views of the days of creation (e.g., the days of ordinary length, the day-age view, the framework view, and the analogical view), thereby assisting sessions and presbyteries in their dealing with officers and candidates who hold differing views; and to report on its progress to the 69th General Assembly, and to complete its report no later than the 70th General Assembly."
The following were elected: Leonard J. Coppes, Brian D. Estelle, C. Lee Irons, John R. Muether, Alan R. Pontier, Alan D. Strange, and Peter J. Wallace. Please pray for this committee and its work.
Missionaries to the Military
Robert B. Needham, vice-chairman of the Committee on Chaplains, presented its report. He noted that eight OPC-endorsed chaplains are serving on active duty, five on active reserves, two as part-time chaplains with the Veterans Administration, one as a full-time federal prison chaplain, and one with the Civil Air Patrol. He reminded us that, in a very real sense, our military chaplains are "missionaries to a foreign culture," an often hostile culture. He urged our churches each to "adopt" a military chaplain, to commit to encouraging him and upholding him in prayer.
Women in Combat
A special Committee on Women in the Military and in Combat was established in 1998 to respond to a request by the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel. The four-man committee was evenly divided and brought two reports.
Report 1 sought to show scriptural warrant for the GA to declare that "the OPC is opposed to any possible future drafting of women into combat service, in time of war or peace, under any and all circumstances," as contrary to the Word of God. Report 1 argued further that the OPC should declare its opposition "to the inclusion of women in combatant military units, or in units which during wartime, have a high degree of potential involvement in combat and possible capture and potential risk of rape, even if their command is not designated a combat element." (However, this would not rule out female personnel serving in noncombatant assignments.) Finally, no endorsed OP chaplain should be "required to advocate, support, or agree with any philosophy and effort to include women in military combatant units, nor can he be required by any superior line or staff officer to teach or advocate such a philosophy and effort, nor shall he be forbidden to provide the biblical counsel contained in this report."
Report 2 contended that the OPC ought not make a formal ecclesiastical declaration on the issue of women in combat. This report argued that Report 1 used Scripture in a way that was inconsistent with the Confession's teaching that the civil law of Moses had expired (except for the general equity thereof). It also argued that it would be inappropriate for the OPC formally to make such a declaration, given the church's spiritual nature and ministerial task.
A majority of the commissioners were persuaded by Report 1. However, a minority, while agreeing that women should not serve in combat units, questioned (a) whether Report 1 had provided adequate scriptural support for a pronouncement on the subject, and (b) whether it is legitimate for the church as church to make what they regarded as a political statement.
After considerable debate, the GA adopted the following motion: "That the 68th General Assembly declare that the use of women in military combat is both contrary to nature and inconsistent with the Word of God. Grounds: 1. This is a ministerial declaration of what is revealed in Holy Scripture (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:14; Report 1, Sections III-VI). 2. This provides the biblical counsel requested by the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel without making any further pronouncement that would, presumably, cause the church to 'intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth' in a matter that some would say is not yet an extraordinary case (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith XXXI.4)."
Forty-three commissioners registered a protest. Later, the GA adopted a response to the protest.
The Reactions of a First-Time Commissioner
I was ordained as a minister in December 1998 (and installed as associate pastor of Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio). This year, I attended my first general assembly. I left fired up about Christ and his churchand wishing that Iand every ministercould attend every assembly!
For seven days, I fellowshiped with godly ministers and elders. I heard firsthand reports about our denominational ministries. I am thankful to be a part of this church.
I enjoy pastoral fellowship at presbytery meetings, but they are too short. I occasionally see my colleagues at family or youth camps, but those are too infrequent. I benefit from the writing ministry of many OP men, but it's not the same as seeing them in person.
The OPC grew by 43 percent in the past decade, and now has over four hundred ministers. Praise the Lord! But when will I get to meet you, brothers? When will we talk together, debate together, laugh together, weep together, and pray together? Why can't every minister come back every year?
Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2001.