You will be reading news reports this week, if you haven’t already, explaining that “Presbyterians” have decided in their annual General Assembly meeting to allow gay marriage.
When reading reports like this, it is important to note that not all Presbyterians are the same. In fact, not all Presbyterian denominations are the same. It is the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) that has made this decision in Detroit regarding gay marriage, not the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination to which New Life belongs. (To learn more about the differences between the PCA and PCUSA, go here.)
The PCA also had its General Assembly (its annual denominational meeting) in Houston this past week. You can go here for a review of what that denomination decided.
If you think this is going to be another rant about gay marriage, it is not. Instead, I want to take a moment to discuss something much less controversial, far more boring, and yet no less important. It is the reason why denominations have “general assemblies” to begin with. After all, isn’t this where all the trouble comes from?
I can hear the objection now: “Why do denominations spend so much time and money conducting these lavish annual meetings, where everyone gets bogged down in arguments over irrelevant details, when they all could be spending their time so much better by feeding the poor, loving their neighbor and spreading the Gospel?”
Whether we agree or not with the decisions that are made at these annual meetings, there are at least two good reasons why denominations continue to have them.
1) General assemblies are Biblical.
In Acts 15 we have a description of the first church council, which is something very similar to a general assembly. In this chapter, a dispute arose over whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. This was a very significant theological issue. It certainly was possible that every local congregation could have been encouraged to make its own decision on how to approach the question, but that’s not how the early Christians dealt with the issue.
Instead, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders about the question (15:1-2). This was the first church council in history. Lengthy debate ensued at the council, in which many different individuals spoke, giving their views on the matter (15:6-21). Finally, the council came to a decision (15:23-29), which was codified in a letter that was then delivered to various churches “for observance” (16:4).
In other words, church leaders came together to discuss a controversial issue; after lengthy discussion, they made a decision; finally, the decision was distributed to churches under their jurisdiction in the understanding that those churches would submit to the decision. The result was that “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in numbers daily.” (16:5)
This is the model that Presbyterian general assemblies are seeking to follow. It is a Biblical model. Whether the decisions made by such assembles are Biblical is another matter entirely.
2) General assemblies are appropriate.
A Scottish preacher named Eric Alexander once said: “The most significant thing happening in history is the calling, redeeming, and perfecting of the people of God…The rest of history is simply a stage God erects for that purpose.” What God is doing in and through His church is more important than what takes place in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, the White House or the United Nations.
It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that leaders of the church should be called together to carefully and methodically conduct the business of God’s church and to make decisions with regard to controversial issues. This is also a sober reminder that the decisions of all such assemblies should be done in reverence and awe, in the knowledge that matters of eternal consequence are at stake, and that God will hold his leaders accountable for how they lead Christ’s bride.