A New Decade: Irony Continues At GA 51 (Part 2)

Will Conservatives Continue to Lead?      

The more doctrinal wing of the PCA was flexing some muscle in the first half of the week at the 2024 General Assembly, but would it continue through the week? And will that continue beyond this Assembly? If it does, it may be that historians will spy the beginning of a shift away from a more progressive ethos which began five years ago at an identifiable nexus: the liberalizing effort by promoters of “Revoice” and Side B Christianity.

Oddly, one of the greatest ironies in our short history is how much has been invested by the defenders of Revoice and Greg Johnson. Much capital was spent in that endeavor, and this week’s events hinted that much has been lost in that skirmish by one wing of the church. While a once powerful political machine—whether caucus members individually agreed with Side B advocacy or not, they supported it for partisan reasons or, in their view, to prevent the PCA from becoming narrow—had invested and lost much, Revoice produced a reaction, which awakened the dogmatic from their slumbers. Most of the observations that follow conform to that hypothesis.

One aspect of regular order, which began on Wednesday morning, was the report of the committee on the Review of Presbytery Records (RPR). A short note on history is worth making for comparison. Forty years ago, the name of that committee, which numbered less than twenty at that time, was Review And Control. Some of the PCA leaders in the 1980s who wished for broadening sought to remove or blunt that “and Control” term, lest the PCA became a “top-down” church, with the Assembly imposing its will too extensively onto all lower courts. Thus, to avoid such uniformity, the committee had a name change, although residual remnants of “control” remain from the original nomenclature.

Notwithstanding, in the early 2000s, this committee seemed intent on not imposing a doctrinal uniformity, but rather on fostering more breadth. Along the way, some of the more conservative presbyteries were disapproved for acts which they thought were clearly within their purview. Cases involving Federal Vision and the handling of exceptions were instructed to avoid narrowness. In recent years, there was a see-saw in the sentiment of RPR, depending on its representatives. RPR, now tripled in size, has become a fastidious unit, often taking exception to the work of lower courts for miniscule infractions. As years have proceeded, perhaps as a token of maturity, the RPR committee is bringing a narrowing and uniformity, alas “control,” to the PCA. Very little heteropraxy would escape the inspection of RPR’s fine-toothed comb.

RPR is also beginning to realize that it is being used for redundant complaints and has turned down several 40-5 requests this year. Last year, however, the SJC became enmeshed in several related cases and was advising not to circumvent the normal review functions by sending cases prematurely to the SJC without a lower courts’ opportunity to clarify a situation first.

In one such instance, involving Metro New York (MNY) Presbytery, a case concerning a well-known female theologian preaching in a PCA church was referred back to that presbytery for action. The SJC tutored the church on its objection to the earlier referral, but RPR was not satisfied with the response of MNY and took exception to their 2024 work, recommending that there was still a need to redress errors in that case.

The entire Wednesday morning session of this year’s Assembly was taken up with debate, and most of RPR’s recommendations were upheld, although more floor corrections than most years occurred and a few recommendations were referred back to the next year. The afternoon session, normally a sleepy part of the docket, resumed with serious debates about how to handle the preaching of a woman in MNY. After such debate, the Assembly by an 852-326 vote upheld the recommendation by RPR, calling for the presbytery’s case to be reviewed and adjudicated by the SJC.

Overtures

A few overtures sought to bring renewed accountability, but little change occurred from this Assembly. The thirty-five submitted overtures had less substance compared to the previous five years. Of those thirty-five, six were referred to Mission to North America (MNA) for routine adjustments to presbytery boundaries. Several others focused on minor technicalities (overtures #2, 9, 10, 22, 27) or were symbolic (#13, 33) instead of constitutional matters. Still others sought to handle dissolution of calls, and several addressed representation or aspects of judicial hearings. The remaining constitutional overtures that were submitted proposed:

  • Revision to the Rules of Discipline, including several rules on witness eligibility, carried over from the prior year, with perhaps less emphasis on omitting the vow heretofore required for witnesses
  • Background checks for all prospective officers (five overtures)
  • Elevating the Book of Church Order (BCO) chapter 53 (on Preaching) to fully constitutional status, restricting preaching more explicitly to males (#3); another sought to permit only males to preach in PCA educational institutions (#29)
  • Several sought more accountability—for example, overture 7 specified again to have overtures to amend any polity standards go to the OC for recommendation to the Assembly—most thought we had sufficiently clarified this, until multiple overtures to change the PCA’s historic view on limitations for Permanent Committees were referred to every Committee of Commissioners possible in 2024; also #14 specifying the numbers of enrollment for Covenant College (CC) and Covenant Theological Seminary
  • A solution to discourage the growing abuse of BCO 40-5 (#28)1

One far-reaching overture (#31) sought to give Permanent Committees (PC) more autonomy in defining their own work (this overture was recommended by the Administrative Committee [AC] to be considered next year). Thus, even before the Assembly, the AC may have sensed (especially after the disinvite debacle mentioned in Part One) that this recommendation was somewhat radical and retreated a bit by recommending: “That the Administrative Committee recommend that the 51st General Assembly refer Overture from New River Presbytery (‘Amend BCO 14-1 Regarding Changes in Permanent Committee and Agency Policy’) to the 52nd General Assembly in order to give all the Committees and Agencies time to consider it.” (Commissioners’ Handbook, 3062).

In contrast to previous years, there were few progressive overtures. Most overtures dealt with administrative issues, and it became clear that numerous lower courts and elders believed some judicial procedures could be improved.

As the normally overloaded Overtures Committee (OC) gathered, its slim workload was as follows. Of its twenty-nine assigned overtures (excluding the six referred to MNA), along with those that did not pass their own presbyteries (which rarely succeed), eight others were either deemed constitutionally vague or in conflict with some part of the constitution by the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB). Further, with the background check proposal amendments (five overtures) becoming merely pious advice (approved overwhelmingly on the floor Thursday morning), no more than twelve overtures of substance were considered, with several of those also beginning with near unanimous support from Permanent Committees.

Of substance among the shrunken slate of surviving candidates for deliberation were the overtures (1) seeking to make BCO 53 fully constitutional, (2) symbolically redistributing last year’s letter about gender reassignment surgery (which had been conveyed and was ultimately recommended as a biblically faithful statement), (3) proposing to settle the referral method of all changes to standards, and (4) addressing a few other apparent inconsistencies of hearing method. The only ad interim study committee called for by a presbytery (to amend the entire Rules of Discipline) failed, meaning that the normally virile OC had little business before it. The typically long-working committee completed its initial business in record time at 10:45 AM on Tuesday before the Assembly began. The same was true for the Assembly on Thursday, although healthy debate over a few recommendations managed to fill the time. Notwithstanding, few amendments advanced for approval by the lower courts.

Successful nominations confirmed a trend: known conservatives, for example, were elected for AC, MNA, Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), InterChurch Relations (ICR), and CCB—a startling development compared to the previous decade. A caucus that had once been so effective at conveying its preferences for nominees was a shadow of its former self this year. In turn, over the past five years, virtually all of the Council of the Gospel Reformation Network, an avowedly non-political organization, has been elected to serve on GA committees or commissions.

The SJC continued to receive many cases. The growing attempts to use BCO 40-5 and 31-2 as Hail Marys threatened to choke that court’s already-full court docket. The SJC report occupied 30% of the Handbook. Two hundred pages (out of 621) were devoted to the SJC, somewhat supporting the above stereotyping of the PCA as the “Process Church of America” (while likely irritating to some).  In this annual forum, discussions over commitments to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission became less prominent than those of process, the judicial branch, and wrangling over minor adjustments to cumbersome rules.

Steve Dowling, who led the meeting with excellence, was the fifth moderator in a row who has also served on the SJC.3 Does this election of another moderator not identified with a progressive caucus indicate a conservative or center-right resurgence? Some think so, although the percentage of ruling elder participation, which had risen in recent years, may have peaked.

Various affinity groups might boast of a resurgence or reform. The Gospel Reformation Network had its largest gathering ever, with one thousand in attendance on Wednesday night for an address by Rosaria Butterfield. The new Alliance for Mission and Reform (the son of the National Partnership and grandson of other earlier progressive groups) did not seem as large or as organized as its parents had been in the past (still, it had a well-attended gathering on Wednesday night and a few successes in derailing recommendations from the OC). This smaller footprint could signal a retreat by the progressives—or more likely, a politically wiser and less overt effort carrying a similar agenda with similar leaders.

Future years are needed to confirm long-term trends. Now in its sixth decade, ironically, the divides are not so much over doctrine as over control and leadership. While some of the ideological lines are blurring, nonetheless, the sense of ownership among entrenched bureaucracies is carving a deeper divide.

Another irony observed: progressives had been the pioneering advocates favoring protocols to stop instances of large-spread abuse. Progressives themselves, however, were not immune from abuse allegations. Another irony could be witnessed in the significant increase in dollars combined with shrinking productivity. Clearly burgeoning, however, was a large denominational bureaucracy.

Over the past five years, the Assembly and its lower courts may have slowed the progressive movement of the past thirty years. Dating back to the 1995 “PCA Consensus” movement, a coalition of participants who desired a broadened church succeeded in manning most of the institutions and committees of the PCA. Those same groups sought to move the PCA to become broader with regard to sexual mores, the ordination of women, anti-fundamentalism, ecumenism, and denominational leadership—virtually all of the Strategic Plan goals from 2010. During this first year of the PCA’s second half-century, however, the leadership of the left wing seemed weakened or temporarily unsure of next steps. With the sad passing of Tim Keller last year, the removal of Scott Sauls from a large pulpit, and the recent exit of Greg Johnson and several other progressive ministers to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or ECO, along with the effectiveness of right leaning social media and a broader dissemination of information, the PCA seems to have blunted the leftward tilt of the past thirty years. “Revoice” may prove to have been a gift after all.

This year also demonstrated the possibility that leadership can be in touch or out of touch with the grass roots. The coming years will show whether or not leaders who have previously been aligned with progressive caucuses can adjust and work constructively with conservatives (as clerk Chapell had in May) or if a continuing resurgence of conservatives will also lead to the next steps of institutional reform. Clearly, the post-Covid Assemblies were advocating reforms, along with calls to the various bureaucracies for greater support for the grass roots.

Getting Things Done

The analysis of an ecclesiastical assembly in terms of “winners” or “losers” seems ill suited, even though all were winners by simply being present. In lieu of that rubric, some perspective may be summarized by noting who got things done and who did not. Among the “get ‘er done-rs” were:

  • Right wing social media: face it, one ideological wing turned a tide and got it done in terms of the proposed Assembly-wide seminar; the other group did not. Sure, there would be chaffing over social media, and one might even revive the old allegation about a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Notwithstanding, a loud right wing—lacking office buildings, a large financial base or corporate resources—achieved some of its goals.
  • Polity podcasters: a group of largely young elders are committed to highlighting issues of ecclesiology on an ongoing basis. While there may be some eventual thinning out of the ranks or combining of forces, the various podcasts that championed old school orthodoxy and orthopraxy had visibility and a continuing presence.
  • Jon Payne and the Gospel Reformation Network—which had begun in 2013 by opposing antinomianism and “Sonship”—had a very successful gathering, and its members seemed pleased with most of this Assembly’s votes.
  • Moderator Greco and the OC Chairmen of the past several years provided competent leadership for the annual meeting. Gone is the day when a “big steeple” moderator is elected because of his charisma or accomplishments; more likely, the future leaders of key governing units and the Assembly itself will be competent parliamentarians who are capable, independent, and not owned by a caucus.

Among those who might be frustrated were two classes: (1) nary a clear victory, except for budget allocations and re-elections, was given for bureaucratic interests; and the survivors of the National Partnership that had been so dominant for nearly a decade only managed to avoid a few proposals that they disliked; (2) advocates for implementing the ideals of previous study committees seemed frustrated (at times, understandably so) that an Assembly would approve an in thesi statement one year but fail to adopt implementing measures the next. In this regard, the PCA was tracking similarly to the Southern Baptist Convention, which was meeting the same week as the PCA.

Then, again, the perennial re-election of tenured coordinators, along with a 50% increase in budgets over five years, could indicate the PCA’s disinterest in reform and satisfaction with business as usual.

British philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed while discussing tradition that “not all innovation is, in fact, improvement . . . to innovate without improving is either designed or inadvertent folly. Moreover, even when an innovation commends itself as a convincing improvement, [the conservative] will look twice at its claims before accepting them.”4 He continued to note that “the disruption entailed has always to be set against the benefit anticipated.”5 To be conservative, then, he averred is to “prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. . . . to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise.”6

Will the PCA continue to opt to be conservative in this sense or not? And will the church find leadership that will unite rather than divide?

Notes

  1. While Overture 28 might have helped marginally (part of the problem was detected), it was not made clear how, in application, the mere change from “important” to “substantive” makes a difference in most cases. It would be better clarified to state that RPR cannot recommend to the SJC until the Presbytery first has a chance to respond in any case. In SJC member Howie Donohoe’s commentary on this overture, he seems to think it is clear that the SJC should be a last resort, only following two years of dialogue. Such, if practiced, might restore some order.
  2. All page references in parentheses are cited from the Commissioners’ Handbook, the pre-Assembly edition.
  3. A noticeable consolidation of power can be observed: Only one in four moderators over the past twenty years did not serve on the SJC. Furthermore, each moderator served on the umbrella Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC) for five years. Those serving as Moderators and also on the SJC were: Howard Q. Davis (2005), Dominic Aquila (2006), E. J Nusbaum (2007), Paul Kooistra (2008), Dan Carrell (2011), Mike Ross (2012), Bruce Terrell (2013), Bryan Chapell (2014), George Robertson (2016), Howie Donahoe (2019), Roy Taylor (2021), John Bise (2022), Fred Greco (2023), and Steve Dowling (2024). Only an occasional Moderator such as Brad Bradley, Harry Reeder, Jim Wert, Alexander Jun, or Irwin Ince did not serve on the SJC.
  4. Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 2nd edition (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 1991), 204.
  5. Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative,” 205.
  6. Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative,” 203–204.

©David Hall. All Rights Reserved.

Part One.


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    Post authored by:

  • David Hall
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    Reverend David W. Hall is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children and grandparents of eight grandchildren. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. Previously, he served as Pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1984–2003) and as Associate Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia (1980–1984). He was ordained to pastoral ministry in 1980. He was educated at Covenant Theological Seminary and is the editor and author of several volumes.

    More by David Hall ›

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One comment

  1. Protecting the PCA from “becoming narrow”? Didn’t some guy in Scripture speak about a narrow path and a narrow gate? Do progressives and liberals even read the Scriptures before they open their mouths?

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