Substance And Procedure: A Synopsis Of The OPC General Assembly 2024

Every year, the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church meets to consider the business of the church requiring the attention of the whole denomination, this summer meeting at Seattle Pacific University. This report summarizes some of the main conclusions from OPC GA 2024 to give insight into the issues we handled. First, however, it might be useful to consider how the OPC GA differs from other denominations’ national assemblies.

One distinct feature of OPC GA is that we are a delegated assembly. I believe that our two closest NAPARC relations—the URCNA and the PCA—both open their assembly to commissioners from every congregation. At least in the PCA, that means that if your church is willing and able to send a pastor and ruling elder(s), they can attend as they wish. In the OPC, each presbytery has an allotted number of commissioners made up of pastors and ruling elders. In our case, the denomination—rather than the congregation—funds travel and accommodation for every commissioner. That is why OPC GAs tend to occur on college campuses, as their facilities usually have meeting space and allow us to stay in student housing that is empty for the summer.

Why does this practice matter? A delegated assembly keeps the number of commissioners lower, which allows us to address every issue as a whole body. Larger assemblies often must assign the lion’s share of the work to smaller committees, and then have that finished work simply approved by the assembly. Although committees do meet to make some initial assessments of the issues on the agenda, the OPC assembly considers every matter on the floor. Every denomination’s way of practicing their national assembly has its strengths, and these details have to be weighed on wisdom. We believe that Scripture points us to the general structure of ecclesiastical governance but that the execution of those principles—how often the assembly meets, where, when, how big, etc.—must be decided as matters of prudence. As Westminster Confession 1.6 says, “Some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (emphasis added). Although other practices have their own strengths, the OPC’s approach ensures that the issues stay in the hands of the whole assembly and adds extra layers of transparency. The concern is that if unhelpful people were appointed to committees, by-and-large-determined decisions could highjack the denomination’s direction. Aligned with some of our historical concerns, the OPC often strives against ecclesiastical centralization.

The General Assembly always opens with a worship service where last year’s moderator preaches the sermon and where we take the Lord’s Supper together. It struck me this year during this service how wise this practice is. Although the succeeding days will be filled with issues where commissioners debate and disagree, this first action of worship ought to bring us into the starting place of unity. We all come in need of what God’s Word teaches us and we all come to the Supper as members of Christ’s one body. What better place to start our work for the denomination than by reminding ourselves of our unity in Christ and that all the tasks before us are for the sake of helping and furthering his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

This year, we elected J. V. Fesko as moderator. Although I am admittedly biased toward Dr. Fesko, who has been a longtime mentor and friend, he was an excellent choice to serve the assembly well. Few, if any, others would have been as able to push us through some challenging tasks that often pressed us for time. As I will highlight below, perhaps the crowning moment of the assembly was Fesko’s pastoral address to a complainant whose appeal against his presbytery was rejected so that their disciplinary action against him would stand.

Much of the assembly’s business concerns the administration of denominational affairs. In that regard, most of it is unexceptional and not all that interesting to report. A few standout discussions, however, are worth recounting.

To start with a concern, it became clear during the report of the Foreign Missions Committee that the OPC is struggling to get missionaries on the field. I was moved to consider our missions efforts with new prayerfulness. The OPC is committed to funding its missionaries as a denomination to prevent those serving abroad from having the stress of raising funds. I believe this is a good and right practice. Although we have the funding to send missionaries, we are right now struggling to find people to go. The reasons for this struggle are puzzling and need prayer as the OPC’s real presence abroad is waning. I hope that the Lord will raise up more laborers. I also hope he will provide our Foreign Missions Committee with wisdom for how to address and overcome this challenge.

One of the spotlight issues coming into GA was a proposed revision to the OPC’s recommended curriculum for prospective ministerial candidates. The OPC Book of Church Order has long included this recommended curriculum which serves as a non-constitutional guide to presbyteries for how to work through examining and training men for pastoral ministry. The proposed revisions to the curriculum came from our Committee for Christian Education, which has been considering and working on this proposal for several years. Although most of the revisions addressed clearer organization, additional attention to pastoral approach, and tidier presentation, some people worried that a few of the proposed amendments were overreaching and might even dent traditional OPC values. The approved request from the committee itself was to have the proposal returned to them for more consideration after input from the presbyteries.

Although I appreciate the humility of the committee in hearing the pushback, my fear about the process was that we pulled the cord too quickly on the matter. It seems to me personally, especially given that the desire was for more input from the churches, that we should have had some discussion of the content of the revisions as a body. It would have been good to hear some initial thoughts from a range of positions about the best way forward. Although it is good to calibrate big decisions in light of where everyone is on the matter, we should not immediately back down just because someone expresses dissatisfaction. We may well should have given the proposal back to the committee. Right now, however, we do not really know why we should have done that because the complaints raised stopped all discussion from occurring. This silence seems less than ideal.

The bulk of the work for this year’s GA was taken up in what seemed to be a record number of complaints (a total of ten appeals and complaints). It would be neither expedient nor appropriate to put all the details of these issues, or my personal thoughts about them, in such a public forum as this. We can make some summary statements though.

It is good that presbyterial government has strong process. It is for everyone’s protection to have the right of appeal to a higher judicatory. Despite my conviction that strong structures of governance are good for everyone, I do worry at times that procedure can distract us from the substance of the matter at hand. It is not good for us if we blind ourselves to the spiritual issues in our care just because we get locked into steps of due process. My good friend, Everett Henes, well captured this concern in—of all things—a meme:

That concern aside, I am thankful that I believe our assembly eventually landed in the right place on most matters, even if it was a bumpy ride to get there.

Several of the complaints were loaded with tension. I believe that the body showed a lot of wisdom (pastor Larry Westerveld and ruling elder David Winslow chaired the advisory committees about complaints and often shared incredible insight in sifting the issues) in reaching good decisions. Even if some occasions made it necessary, it is usually sad to see people appeal against disciplinary measures, which are meant to help them, rather than to repent. That sadness pertains whether church members or church officers are appealing against the church’s disciplinary actions. As noted above, one pinnacle of the assembly was when moderator Fesko, upon request, addressed one of the complainants about his continued lack of repentance even as judicatory after judicatory had pleaded with him to heed the church’s wisdom and change his ways. If Fesko’s penetrating entreaty to heed the church’s voice, even as it came through this difficult providence, does not stir that man’s soul to tenderness and repentance, it is hard to know—from a human perspective—what possibly could.

Despite challenges and difficulties in the assembly’s business, it is good for the church to be together and to work as one for the gospel’s advance. I was particularly moved to see even those who were adamantly on opposing sides of debate sitting with one another and enjoying fellowship. GA is a time to see what God is doing not only in the denomination but also in other particular congregations outside our own. The gathering together that we might help one another shoulder the responsibility of leading the church is a beautiful thing.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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3 comments

  1. Dear Harrison,

    You wrote: “It would be neither expedient nor appropriate to put all the details of these issues, or my personal thoughts about them, in such a public forum as this.”

    This seems to say you think it’s inappropriate to include the details *of these public cases* in a public forum. Why would you think that? Unless these are not public cases, putting the details of a public case in a public forum is entirely appropriate. It may not be expedient for the purposes of your report, but that’s a different matter. Right?

    I find it somewhat highly unfortunate, for example, that the OPC New Horizons denominational magazine is inconsistent on about what details it gives on judicial cases. In my experience, being “cagey” and less than fully transparent about this stuff only serves to promote distrust, suspicion, and speculation.

    • Sorry. Got interrupted while editing.
      Should be “inconsistent about what details”
      And I had first written “somewhat annoying” and then meant to replace that with “highly unfortunate.” It is highly unfortunate for reasons beyond being somewhat annoying to me personally, as I go on to say.

  2. Dr. Perkins’ synopsis is good in that it helps move us to praise and prayer for what he highlights.

    However, as he readily acknowledges, there’s much which he left out which transpired at GA, many significant matters as well (some being “hot button” issues like women teaching co-ed SS and SG at one particular church, and another church barring credobaptists from membership who are unwilling to have their children baptized).

    Hence, the reader might want to also check out the daily reports from the GA found here (https://www.opc.org/GA/90th_GA_rpt.html) to get a fuller picture.

    Blessings in Christ,

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