Review of the PCA's 45th General Assembly

Pastor Bob O'Bannon

During the week of June 13, I was blessed to be able to attend the General Assembly (GA) of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), in Greensboro, NC. It’s always a pleasure to reconnect with pastor friends (from Maine, Illinois, Florida, Colorado and Pennsylvania!) and seminary classmates, and personally I always find it rewarding to participate in the work of the body of Christ at the highest court level.

General Assembly is held every June, most frequently in the southeast, and is where about 1,400 PCA pastors and elders from all over the world gather to hear reports from various denomination agencies, and to vote on various overtures (requests for action made by local presbyteries) that have been sent up for consideration. All local PCA congregations are encouraged to send their pastors to GA, so that all churches are represented when it comes to making such high-level decisions. I’m thankful to the session of New Life for seeing the importance of sending its pastor to this event. (For a brief explanation of why general assemblies are Biblical, go HERE). 

So, what happened at GA this year? It’s always interesting to hear the annual report from L. Roy Taylor, our stated clerk, who updates us on how the denomination is doing overall. In the year 2016, compared to 2015, Taylor reported that the PCA had:

  • 1,545 churches, an increase of 11.
  • 347 mission churches (church plants), an increase of 20.
  • Total membership of 374,161, an increase of 3,829.
  • An increase in giving all categories. 

Taylor summarized these stats by writing, “With virtually all mainline and some evangelical denominations plateaued or declining, our growth, though not as spectacular as in our early years, is noteworthy.” 

One of the most distinctive marks of this year’s General Assembly was the obvious presence of more ethnic minorities in leadership throughout the week, including the choices for keynote speakers, a more intentional African-American music style during worship, and the election of the first ethnic minority to moderate the GA proceedings. These efforts suggest that the PCA isn't just giving lip service to last year’s public acknowledgment of past racism among its churches. 

But clearly the most time-consuming and controversial matter of this year’s GA concerned a report  on women in ministry, which was written by an ad interim committee that was formed by the 2016 General Assembly. On the committee were seven voting members and five advisory members, including well-known names (in PCA circles, anyway) such as Dan Doriani, Ligon Duncan, Harry Reeder, and Kathy Keller (Tim’s wife). The full report can be read HERE

The mere formation of a committee to consider such a topic has made some conservatives in the denomination a little skittish. They see this as a slippery slope, the beginning of the end, a sneaky ploy by “progressives” to move the denomination one more step toward the eventual ordination of women deacons and women elders (currently prohibited in the PCA). For some, this is serious enough to consider leaving the denomination

The report, however, goes a long way to put such fears to rest, professing over and over again such clear statements as, “We humbly and happily embrace Scripture’s clear teaching that the eldership is to be composed of qualified men” (2401), and, “Our unanimous aim is not to undermine or alter our confessional commitments” (2402), and that “women should not become the principal instructors and defenders of the faith in the institutional church” (2422). I see no reason why we shouldn’t take these statements as genuine, sincere and honest.

It’s also worth noting that the study report carries no binding authority on PCA churches, who are completely free to toss the report in the trash can or refuse to read it at all. After giving careful examination of relevant Biblical texts and historical realities, the report concludes by offering not mandates, but a list of “prudential recommendations,” which were each considered individually during the proceedings on Wednesday and Thursday, and which were each officially adopted by majority vote. In summary, the report recommends:

  • that the church “strive to develop, recognize and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional and national church.”
  • that elders consider how to “include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church” in order to use the gifts God has poured out on his church.
  • that godly women of the congregation be selected and appointed to “assist the ordained leadership.”
  • that the church consider how it can “affirm and include underprivileged and underrepresented women in the PCA.” 

For all of these recommendations, I voted in the affirmative. They seem healthy, Biblical, and not in violation of any of our confessional standards. If anything, these are practices that should have been in place long ago. The session at New Life already knows about these recommendations and we will be considering how we can implement them in the life of our congregation.

There was another recommendation that advised churches to “establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.” This was approved by the assembly by the fairly narrow margin of 649-501, but I was included among the dissenters. I see no reason to establish a pseudo-office when the Scriptures are clear that each local congregation be governed by elders and deacons. It was even publicly acknowledged by one of the study committee members that there is absolutely no Scriptural support for a “church worker” position. 

For the record, I am sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the more cautious brothers in our denomination. Fact is, denominations have a notorious tendency to bend toward the left, and sometimes all the way to apostasy. In Acts 20:29-30, Paul warned that "wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves (italics mine) will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” 

And when churches and denominations depart from the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, it always happens in small increments and tiny steps, with such nefarious slowness that most people don’t even realize what is happening. So to  dismiss the conservative voices in our denomination as alarmist doomsaying is just naïve. It will take diligence and extreme alertness to make sure the PCA doesn't drift away and become just another feeble, watered-down, mainline denomination, carried about by every wind of doctrine.  

But that doesn’t mean that some revisions of practice are not in order. In my estimation, the recommendations of this study committee are good, and PCA congregations should think carefully about how to implement them in a way appropriate to their ministry context, so that they may “encourage women to use their gifts and talents to serve in Biblical ways in the various ministries of their congregations and our denomination, making it possible both for women and for the church to fulfill their callings from the Lord.” (2458).