Missing Mandate And Better Metrics: Understanding the 2017 PCA General Assembly

By TE David W. Hall
Midway Presbyterian Church, Powder Springs, Georgia

If broad churchmen were looking for a mandate to increase female ordination in the PCA, based on a concessive study, that didn’t happen on this issue at this PCA Assembly. The Mandate Moment was missed. Sure, all the recommendations of the study committee passed. However, even before the voting began, the following comments—tokens of some concession—were prefaced by various committee members:

  • Harry Reeder stressed that ordination was what was key and that any actions must be confined to the parameters of Scripture and confession.
  • Kathy Keller stated that in no way, shape, or form, was this about ordaining women to the eldership; and if one held that position, he should just leave now.
  • Bruce O’Neill affirmed that no one wished to ordain women to existing offices of the PCA but simply to allow women to fully use their gifts.
  • Chairman Irwin Ince (surely next year’s Moderator, to be followed by RE John Bice the following year—wow!) repeatedly stressed that none of the recommendations were directives, only suggestions to be considered.

Later, Clerk Taylor would vocalize that this report could never be used as grounds for discipline or accusation; of course, it is not part of the constitution, in other words. It really is nothing more than the in thesi statement by one particular democratic meeting.

First, there actually seemed to be a lot of concessions made by this discussion. Moreover, the level of persistent resistance was surprising, which may bring considerable relief to some. Dying the death of a thousand qualifications, with advocates having to promise that they never wanted to ordain women as elders or deacons, momentum for broadening was hard to detect. Despite the best hopes of a committee, which tried its best to cultivate some inevitability, this may become known as the assembly where a hoped-for mandate vanished. Why, maybe even politicizing is partly to blame. Who knows, but:

  • Joey Pipa’s motion to punt the whole committee report nearly prevailed (651-614)—hardly a vote of confidence for broadening.
  • An astute ruling elder pointed out that this committee had no single ruling elder, although several unordained members were appointed.
  • David Coffin effectively amended item #4 (but later it was reversed).
  • Item #5 almost was replaced by a floor substitute (eventually prevailing by about a 60-40 vote, which we’ve now seen as a DOA threshold—if proponents cannot obtain 60% at assembly, they seldom succeed in garnering the 2/3 to amend the BCO, sometimes failing even to receive a majority in constitutional voting.

The proponents of broadening seemed to fight for every yard—leading spokesmen often being needed at the mics. Our friends can tell themselves that they have a mandate all they want, but few outside their guild would agree. That was clear from the resistance of this assembly. Then again, if friends are right in thinking that they constitute such a super majority, then surely they’ll man up and bring BCO amends quickly. Let’s watch and see how confident they are in that. Or perhaps they will realize that ‘Mo was lost.

If you’re looking for a wave to mandate female ordination, that mandate is missing, except among the self-congratulations of only the most triumphalistic of caucus partisans. The wave election/mandate is missing.

Second, meaningful metrics are becoming clearer—which leads me to my second point that I’ve been saying for a few years now. Let me phrase it analogously: Just as all important governing does not occur in Washington, so all ecclesiastical import does not occur at GA. General Assembly only represents 1% of our annual time—so keep it in perspective. Next year, thankfully, that will shrink a bit more (even though there never seems to be a cost reduction on registration fees). And of the attendance at GA, I wonder what percentage of the 1100 TEs are actively on a session? With less than half of churches represented anyway, does anyone really wish to argue that General Assembly is MOST representative of the PCA? Or has it not become the favored venue of a sub-set of the PCA, whose main stage is the 1% of our calendar called GA?

As to metrics, rather than churches being discouraged by another unrepresentative assembly, maybe there are two other far more reliable indicators than the 1% General Assembly:

  1. The Overtures Committee (with 2 reps from any presbytery)

    and

  2. Presbytery voting on BCO amendments.

The common thing to both of those is (dare I as a minister say it?): Ruling elders. And partisans who want to broaden ordination can surely bring overtures to the next Overtures Committee, seeking votes at presbytery if they want expansion.

In sum, out of 7 recommendations of substance (item one was a defense of legitimacy and item 9 was to dismiss the committee with thanks):

  • Several were quite abstract and achieved little more than symbolic statement of sentiments;
  • At least two were only passed by fairly slim majorities (certainly not close to the 2/3 that would be needed to approve BCO amendments);
  • Item #6 was significantly modified for good;
  • The previous day, item #4 was approved by amendment.

In short, even though the committee valiantly attempted to find middle grounds at nearly every station, and even with heavy political lobbying and caucus organization, at best, this in thesi deliverance had mediocre support and gained little discernible momentum. Indeed, of the invitations to implement any of this report’s idea in the BCO, it could be years before any of these are heard of again—much less approved by 2/3 of the presbyteries.

So maybe those are far more accurate metrics of the PCA. Will the most visible faction risk proving or disproving that by offering actual overtures on any of the invited points from the committee, which admittedly settled nothing? With such a great study, if you can win every vote, how soon will we see overtures that go beyond in thesi lines in the sand?

To be encouraged: after 8-9 years of sustained badgering, virtue signaling, and nagging, the vaunted study of women’s roles has now been completed, and barely anything is settled. There’s nothing left but to amend the constitution—which in its present form is clear and offers little consolation to those who’ve given so much of themselves to broaden the church.

And in the process, the CMC (which started all this) had its sail trimmed a bit and will be watched more, the OC had its hand strengthened, and more ruling elders are standing up.

No mandate for broadening . . . new metrics for reality . . . and money will probably be more wisely allocated. Those are outcomes that many didn’t predict this time last year.

That may be winning almost every vote.

20 comments

  1. Seems to me they should be looking for a mandate from scripture first, since it is lacking, why move forward?

  2. Thanks, Scott, for the nice summary. Someone told me after the main session today that I got the award on twitter for the most floor speeches, but am grateful that the Lord providentially blunted the worst of the recommendations. Interestingly, those pushing for sweeping changes would have been better off taking Dr. Pipa’s motion up front.

    • Hi Bob,

      OPC member here, but I like to keep an eye on the PCA’s dealings as well, I appreciated your speeches on the floor, especially with regard to the issue over images of Christ.

      Thanks!

  3. Is there any actual evidence that a significant number of PCA members – let alone TEs and REs – want to ordain women to any office? I have never heard or read any support for this anywhere in the PCA. What am I missing?

  4. Thank you, David Hall and Scott Clark! I have only been in the PCA 19 years and have only been an RE for 9 of those years. These last two years have been some of the more discouraging years as I see “progressives” gain more and more of the national stage. As I have analyzed and published about this discourse and have read analyses from others I am discouraged by the use of language that comes from critical race theory, Black Liberation Theology, and the typical social justice warrior discourse that I find on my state university campus. This is not the kind of discourse I expected to hear from the denomination with which I am affiliated. Its lack of Biblical-centerdness and its high-horse moralizing is discouraging.
    As such, your report comes as a breath of fresh air. Thank you!
    Are there any measures underway to seek greater parity between TEs and REs in regional presbyteries and at GA?

    • Unfortunately many in the pulpits learned it from their communities, pastors, undergraduate programs, perhaps even in seminary classes. There were some students, though not current professors, who took up this progressivism of women deacons, critical race theory, social justice issues in the name of diversity at RTS (I do not think the faculty are on board with these troubling issues you bring up, but are in fact, very much against them). To be fair, I am sure you can find some students embracing these ideas at any confessional seminary in the United Sates. Also, in the PCA there is disagreement over allowable differences to the Confessional Standards… notably seen in the Federal Vision issue across different presbyteries. Seminary rid me off Federal Vision sympathy, and I’m hopeful will rid others of the issues raised in your post. As the ARP has just gone through a lot of trouble in keeping their Seminary free from Neo-Orthodoxy/Progressivism, so must the PCA be vigilant in getting rid of progressives in the denominational schools (if it is truly the case), otherwise we might be producing progressives as a denomination, which, as a result, in perhaps 20-40 years down the road we will be like the ECO or the PCUSA.

      Go Red Raiders?
      I think I went to church with y’all when I went to Texas Tech for my undergrad.

  5. Could it be that the Lord has a controversy with our Evangelical and Reformed world? I shudder to think so. It always seems that it is easiest to compromise with the idolatries of the day, while few welcome any attempt towards greater integrity. [prayer of repentance and plea for forgiveness given silently].

  6. Thank you for your gracious assessment, Ben.

    Mark – There are a number of changes coming to the PCA GA format to make it easier and more enticing for REs to attend, including shortening GA by a day. We moved the business meetings in our presbytery back an hour so that us REs would have to take less time off from work. One brilliant RE at GA talked about an overture requiring each TE to bring an RE to GA as a requirement to attend. I’d vote for that. We desperately need more REs to act as neutron rods in the TE reactor going more progressive every year.

  7. The Tennessee Star carried a June 15, 2017 article titled, “Conservative Presbyterians Elect Progressive Academic Who Bemoans ‘White Privilege’ As Moderator Of Annual Meeting.”

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