On March 27, 1963 the Committee on Foreign Missions presented its report to the 30th General Assembly that included plans for a hospital in its Eritrea mission. A brief minority report, by Meredith G. Kline and Paul Woolley, questioned whether medicine was a “properly ecclesiastical function," prompting the Assembly to request that the Committee provide “a formulation of the Scripture principles of the ministry of mercy as they apply to the mission of the church” in its report to the 31st General Assembly.
In the following year, the Committee on Foreign Mission’s response included another minority report by Kline. Kline argued that medical work on the part of the church violated the principle of “sphere sovereignty,” as the church was performing tasks that fell under the sphere of general human culture. The church’s calling was restricted to the ministry of Word and sacrament.
Responding to Kline in the pages of the Presbyterian Guardian, missionary Herbert Bird agreed with the general principle of sphere sovereignty, but he argued that Kline was drawing distinctions too finely. He concluded that “a ministry of mercy is a valid expression of Christian concern by the church as church.”
The Guardian reported extensively on the “wholesome debate” at the 1964 Assembly, meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland. Edmund Clowney likened medical missions to the cup of cold water in the name of Christ. Cornelius Van Til, while conceding that medicine was best provided by an independent Christian organization, argued that this ideal was difficult to meet on the mission field. Eventually the GA went on record “as indicating its conviction that the work of medical missions is a proper work of the church.” Meredith Kline was not reelected to the Foreign Missions Committee, and the plans for a hospital in Eritrea were approved.
Picture: 30th General Assembly meeting at Vineland, New Jersey