Thoughts Following the PCA General Assembly


Post General Assembly Thoughts

Last week, June 25-28, the Presbyterian Church in America held its 47th General Assembly in Dallas, TX.  For those of you who are new to CPC, General Assembly is our annual denominational gathering.  I had a front row seat for the business of the assembly because I served on the Overtures Committee.  The Overtures Committee is a super-committee that is tasked with reviewing and making proposals on each overture submitted.  This year there were 47 overtures and we spent sixteen hours discussing and debating each of them (originally there were 48 but Overture 29 from Metro New York Presbytery was withdrawn).  

Time and space do not permit a recounting of each individual overture, so I will only address a handful that were related to the hot-button issues this year and I’ll address those hot-button issues in three categories.

Human Sexuality

First, there were eleven overtures that dealt with issues related to human sexuality.  It perhaps goes without saying that human sexuality and gender identity are pressing issues in this day and age.  The questions before us are: What does the Bible teach about many of these delicate and intricate issues of sexuality and gender, what must we say to these issues as a denomination that seeks to be faithful to the Bible, and how can we shepherd and care for people within our churches who are struggling with these issues?  One solution, which was put forth in Overture 42 was to establish a study committee on human sexuality that will take into account the teaching of the Bible, our doctrinal statements set forth in the Westminster Standards, and several other documents produced by other denominations and para-church organizations.  I supported Overture 42 and believe it is absolutely necessary.  The PCA needs to address these issues head-on but first, we must do the hard work of studying and producing our own internal report that is biblically faithful, theological precise, pastorally sensitive, and missionally minded.  I believe that adopting Overture 42 and moving forth with a study committee should have been the only action we took at this assembly in relation to human sexuality.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Another overture, Overture 4, proposed declaring the Nashville Statement a biblically faithful statement on human sexuality.  The Nashville Statement is a two-year-old statement of affirmations and denials produced by the Council on Biblically Manhood and Womanhood.  While I agree with 95% of the Nashville Statement, I disagree with a couple of its points and I do not believe that a bare statement of affirmations and denials is the best way to approach these issues.  I do not believe that the PCA is unclear in our position on human sexuality, gender, marriage, and the many related issues.  What I believe is unclear is how best to apply our position in a pastorally sensitive way with people who are struggling.  Simply stating what we affirm and deny is, in my opinion, redundant and not very helpful.  Nonetheless, Overture 4,  declaring the Nashville Statement as biblically faithful, passed with a vote of approximately 800-550.  I would have preferred that the assembly reject the Nashville Statement and answered the issues with our own study report, which I am hopeful will be remedied in a year or two when our study report is presented.   

A handful of other overtures proposed similar statements of affirmation and denial related to human sexuality and each of them were answered in reference to Overture 4.  In other words, the assembly said, “Our answer to Overture X,Y, and Z is the same as our answer to Overture 4.”  I was pleased with the decision to essentially reject those overtures and answer them with reference to the Nashville Statement because while I do not entirely support the Nashville Statement, I believe it is far better than some of the other statements proposed by Calvary Presbytery and Westminster Presbytery.

Women in Positions of Leadership

Second, there were six overtures that dealt with the role of non-ordained persons in leadership positions of our PCA boards and agencies.  Simply put, as it currently stands, only ordained Teaching and Ruling Elders can serve as board members of our institutional agencies such as MTW, MNA, RUF, RBI, etc.  I believe that the conversation surrounding these overtures was fear driven–fear that somehow women, as non-ordained persons, will be placed into positions that put them in authority over men.  In my mind, it is absurd that we do not allow non-ordained persons, including women potentially, to serve as board members.  Board membership is not ecclesiastical authority, there is no teaching of Scripture, there is no administration of the sacraments, there is no exercise of discipline through our agency boards.  Furthermore, the decisions and actions of our agencies through their boards are all subject to the review and control of General Assembly, which is exclusively comprised of Teaching Ruling Elders.  Also, within the overtures, provisions were put in place to ensure that a 2/3 majority of every board would still be comprised of Teaching and Ruling Elders.  

Take for example RBI, which is the acronym for Retirements & Benefits, Inc., the agency that oversees, as the name implies, retirement investment plans, human resources, insurance options, etc. for PCA staff members.  You could have the most gifted, Ivy League educated, Wall Street experienced man or woman who would bring a wealth of knowledge and leadership to RBI but because they are not an elder they are not permitted a seat on the board.  Or, consider Covenant College, there could be an individual, man or woman, with decades of higher education experience, decades of educational administration training, perhaps a world-leader in liberal arts education but because they are not an elder they are not permitted a seat on the board.  

I simply do not see how board membership is within the purview of the Apostle Paul’s prohibition against women exercising ecclesiastical authority over men.  I voted in favor of each overture that sought to expand the role non-ordained persons but I was in the minority.  For the time being, the status quo remains and only elders may serve as board members and agency leaders within the PCA.  I believe this will change in the not too distant future and will speak for it at every opportunity.  We must do better than this and we must not be given over to fear or sloppy biblical exegesis.

Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault

Third, what had the potential to be somewhat divisive ended up being broadly received–to form a study committee to address issues related to domestic abuse, sexual assault, and related matters.  There were nine overtures calling to erect a study committee to investigate and act on these issues.  Quite simply, the curtain has been pulled back and abusive church leaders are being exposed for their abuse.  Much of this began with the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse scandals.  We’ve also seen sexual and spiritual abuse scandals and cover ups in Sovereign Grace Churches and Southern Baptist Churches in recent years.  Lest we in the PCA believe that we are immune to these abuses and scandals, we need to act to put forth a formal position paper and develop resources for our churches when the unimaginable happens.  I am pleased that there was very little debate or dissension on these overtures.  A study committee was adopted and will soon begin this much needed work.

There were many other overtures that proposed minor BCO changes or addressed some outlying issue but the aforementioned three categories are what this General Assembly will be remembered for.  Overall, I am pleased with the outcome and pleased with where we are as a denomination.  My discouragement related to the passage of Overture 4 was short-lived because I believe its deficiencies will be remedied by the forthcoming study committee report.  While I believe that there are certainly divides on some issues within our denomination, I believe the PCA is healthy and growing in health and I’m happy to serve CPC as a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Ethan Tonne