A Bird's Eye View of the 70th General Assembly
Stephen L. Phillips and Larry Wilson
The sun broke through the cool, overcast Wednesday, June 25, 2003, at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. Its rays lit up the high, vertical stained-glass west-facing window of B. J. Haan Auditorium. The words stood out, running the full length of the glass: "In Thy Light Shall We See Light." Commissioners to the 70th General Assembly were gathering when Dr. Joan Ringerwole, on a majestic pipe organ, began the prelude for the 8:00 p.m. worship service. The gilded lettering on the main organ casework proclaimed: "PRAISE YE THE LORD IN HIS SANCTUARY WITH THE SOUND OF TRUMPET, PSALTERY, HARP, STRINGED INSTRUMENTS AND ORGANS. PSALM 150."
The Assembly began with a worship service which included the Lord's Supper. Throughout the Assembly, many prayers and psalms and hymns were offered up to the Lord. In addition, each weekday morning commissioners broke from business for a devotional service in order to hear God's Word proclaimed and to offer prayer and praise to the Lord. The Assembly enjoyed a blessed Sabbath rest, with commissioners worshiping with and enjoying the fellowship and hospitality of several area churches. How sweet it was!
The Assembly elected Robert M. Coie, a ruling elder at Westminster OPC in Westminster, California, and the son of the late Rev. Glenn Coie, to serve as its Moderator.
Ruling elder Mark T. Bube, General Secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions, spoke of how our Lord is building his church through the OPC in various lands, including Suriname, Japan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Korea, China, Kenya, and Uganda. The goal of OPC foreign missions is to be instrumental in establishing healthy indigenous churches which are committed to the Reformed standards; which are self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating; with which the OPC may have fraternal relations; which are themselves sending out missionaries; and which no longer need the services of OP foreign missionaries. The Rev. Douglas B. Clawson gave an enthusiastic report on his first year as Associate General Secretary.
Missionary Woody Lauer reported on our work in Japan. We have three evangelists and one missionary teacher working with our sister church, the Reformed Church in Japan. Joining them are three short term missionary associates. We are beginning a new endeavor: a team of seven young people will go to Japan for one month to do intensive outreach. Hopefully, a side benefit will be the recruiting of future foreign missionaries. More young people applied than the missionaries were able to handle.
Mr. Bube introduced our new missionary to Suriname, the Rev. Gerry Mynders. Mr. Mynders was born and raised in Holland and came to Canada in 1974. He was recently ordained by Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario. He and his wife are eager and ready to go to Suriname. Their youngest children (11 and 17) will join them, while their four oldest will stay in Canada. Please remember them in your prayers.
Mr. Bube warned the Assembly of a looming financial crisis in Foreign Missions as income continues to fall short of commitments and opportunities.
The Rev. Ross W. Graham, General Secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, presented its report. The goal of this ministry is to assist the presbyteries in their establishment and care of new congregations throughout the country. Mr. Graham had two men the Committee supported tell how the Lord was blessing. The Rev. T. Nathan Trice, pastor of Matthews OPC in Matthews, North Carolina, and chairman of his presbytery's church extension committee, spoke of how that church was able to start a daughter church, and that God had provided an intern who will become the pastor of the daughter church. The Rev. Richard N. Ellis, pastor of New Hope OPC in Frederick, Maryland, and part-time Regional Home Missionary for the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, spoke of the enthusiasm generated in an OPC "church-plant" in a maximum security prison, where the beginning discipleship book is J. G. Vos's commentary on the Larger Catechism! The Rev. Eric B. Watkins, Assistant Pastor of Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, told of his involvement in the new church-plant in Oviedo, Florida. Associate General Secretary Richard B. Gerber reported to the Assembly about his role on the Committee. This committee, too, sounded the alarm about the need for financial support to continue to pursue the many outreach opportunities before the OPC.
The Rev. Larry Wilson, General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, reported on the work of the Committee. The goal of the Committee is "to provide biblically Reformed resources and training in order to assist the OPC in its service toward bringing God's people to maturity in Christ." The ministries of the Committee include its two magazines (New Horizons and Ordained Servant), its OPC.ORG website, its OPC ministerial intern program, its OPC Ministerial Training Institute, and its publishing arm, Great Commission Publications (GCP). The Rev. Thomas A. Patete, Executive Director of GCP, told the Assembly about the new Kid's Quest! Catechism Club materials.
Mr. Wilson called the attention of the Church to another aspect of our financial predicament. Because the General Assemblyfor yearshas pared back the Committee's budget requests, the Committee has repeatedly been unable to implement its goal of increasing the financial subsidy for churches which participate in the ministerial internship program. Several congregations which regularly participate found themselves unable to afford to do so this year. As a result, several promising young men were unable to find ministerial internships in the OPC and took internships in other denominations.
The Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC is in the final year of a five-year trial period. The General Assembly was apparently satisfied that the Institute has demonstrated its helpfulness to the OPC, so it granted to Committee permission to continue it under the present plan.
Mr. Wilson also reported that he had requested the Committee's permission to candidate in order to return to the pastorate.
Funding the Church's Mission
The Rev. Stephen L. Phillips, Chairman of the Committee on Coordination, presented its report. This Committee has certain coordinating responsibilities with respect to the three denominational committees on Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education, including the umbrella budget of Worldwide Outreach. Ruling Elder David E. Haney, Director of Finance and Planned Giving, explained the budget and challenged the Assembly that giving is primarily a heart matter. He emphasized that it is indispensable for pastors and elders to give leadership in fostering an attitude of involvement in and support of the Church's ministries. The Assembly adopted a total Worldwide Outreach budget of $2,425,000, with Christian Education set at $265,000, Foreign Missions set at $865,000, Home Missions set at $825,000, New Horizons set at $200,000, and Coordination, including Planned Giving, set at $270,000. In case there is a shortfall exceeding $100,000 in Worldwide Outreach giving for 2003, the Assembly approved a special offering in the spring of 2004.
Missionaries to Military Personnel
OPC minister and U.S. Army Chaplain LTC Christopher H. Wisdom (in dress uniform) presented the report of the Committee on Chaplains. The OPC has ten active military chaplains, seven chaplains in active reserve, at least another four serving outside the Department of Defense, and five awaiting endorsement. Several of our chaplains serve in harm's way. Eight chaplains have been "adopted" by various OPC congregations for special encouragement and support. The report included various statements made by member churches of the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRJC) concerning women in military combat. The Assembly acted to encourage OPC congregations near military installations, etc., to take the initiative to reach out in ministry to active duty military personnel and their dependents. The Assembly also proposed that next year's Assembly change the name of the Committee to the "Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel."
Ruling Elder Luke E. Brown, the OPC Statistician, reported that at the end of 2002 the OPC had 295 congregations237 particular churches (an increase of 13), and 58 mission works (down 7, due largely to mission works becoming particular churches). Total OPC membership is 26,873, an increase of 563 (2.14%). General offerings increased by 4.9%, benevolence and capital improvement giving decreased 14.2% and 13.5% respectively.
Our Broader Family of Reformed Churches
The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson (Chairman) reported for the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations. We are presently in ecclesiastical fellowship with 13 churches: the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Free Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin), the Reformed Church in Japan, the Reformed Church in the U.S., the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. In addition, there are seven churches with which we have a "corresponding relationship," the only one in the States being the United Reformed Churches of North America. There are also other denominations with which the Committee is having discussions. The OPC is connected with two interchurch bodies: the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), and the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). The Assembly voted to approve the Reformed Church of Quebec also for membership in NAPARC.
Revision of the OPC Directory for Public Worship
The Assembly requested the presbyteries to erect special committees to guide them, in preparation for the 71st General Assembly, in making a serious, brotherly study of the issues of biblically reformed worship. To serve this end, the Assembly ordered the posting of provisional drafts of both the committee's proposed revision and an alternate proposal on the OPC.ORG website.
Appeals and Complaints
One mark of a true church is faithful pastoral care and discipline. But since church courts can err, and many have, we have the check and balance of a procedure for making appeals. Two cases of church discipline were appealed to the 70th General Assembly.
The first case was that of the Rev. Lee Irons, who had been found guilty of doctrinal error by the Presbytery of Southern California. The presbytery determined to suspend him from the ministry indefinitely, with the goal of restoring him. His presbytery decided that his teaching regarding God's moral law violated the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as set forth in our Confession and Catechisms. Mr. Irons was concerned that we never view God's law for the believer apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. A majority in his presbytery, however, deemed that he stressed this so much that he denigrated God's law. There was considerable debate concerning to whether the disagreement was over his doctrine itself or over the way he articulated that doctrine. There was also disagreement over degrees of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.
At one sterling moment, two of the principals in the debate confessed sins of suspiciousness and forgave one another. They recognized in one another love for Christ and a desire to be fair. Other moments during this lengthy debate, however, were less than sterling.
The Assembly seemed to reflect a range of views, from belief that the minister was antinomian (opposed to God's law) to belief that the minister was inappropriate in the way he expressed scruples with the Church's Standards to belief that the minister was merely expressing a view that was represented in and tolerated by the Westminster Assembly. After an entire day of debate, the General Assembly denied the appeal and upheld the presbytery's verdict. A number of commissioners dissented from that conclusion and registered a protest. Please pray for Mr. Irons, his presbytery, and for the whole OPC.
The second case was that of ruling elder John Kinnaird from Bethany OPC in Oxford, Pennsylvania. This case largely revolved around what it means that, at the final judgment, our Lord will judge his people according to their works and openly acknowledge and acquit them (see Confession of Faith XXXIII, Larger Catechism 90, Shorter Catechism 38). His session had found him guilty of teaching that God justifies sinners not through faith alone, but through faith and works. He appealed to his presbytery, which upheld the verdict. And so he appealed to the General Assembly. Again, the case provoked considerable debate. He contended that he did not teach justification through faith and works but was concerned to emphasize that salvation involves not only justification but also sanctification and glorification.
There was considerable divergence over whether the debate was over the doctrine itself or over the way he stated that doctrine. Some were persuaded that, even though Mr. Kinnaird intended to teach orthodoxy, what he actually taught was culpably confusing and divisive. Others argued that, even though he taught unclearly, his views are nevertheless orthodox. The Advisory Committee which brought the recommendation that the Assembly adopted made this pointed observation: "While Mr. Kinnaird's teaching should not be judged to be out of accord with the Church's Standards, his teaching has not been as clear as should be expected from an elder (cf. Titus 1:9)." In that vein, the General Assembly determined that the session and presbytery had erred in convicting him. This means that the verdict was reversed. It seems that the Assembly was very concerned to maintain both a free justification (the concern of the accusers) and a full salvation (the concern of the accused). Again, a number of commissioners dissented and registered a protest. Please pray for Mr. Kinnaird, his congregation and presbytery, and for the whole OPC in the aftermath of this controversy.
Some Pastoral Reflections on the 70th General Assembly
It would be remiss to omit mention of the terrific facilities and wonderful hospitality of Dordt College and the Sioux Center community. Thank you!
On the other hand, it's tempting to formulate the theory that the nicer the accommodations are, the more grueling the Assembly will be. Several things seem particularly important for the entire Church to prayerfully ponder.
First, it seems that we must each recommit himself to godly speaking. It is far too easy to rationalize the grave sins of slander, gossip, and libelparticularly when we are persuaded that we are taking a stand for truth and holiness. We can commit these destructive sins all the more efficiently and extensively via the internet. These sins did pour a lot of fuel on the fires that made it all the more difficult for the Assembly to get at the truth of the cases before her. This should concern each of us. See James 3:1-10.
Before we say anything concerning others to anyone, we had better ask ourselves questions like: Is it true (is it really factually accurate)? Is it necessary (is it really any of the other person's business to hear about it)? Is it kind (does it show genuine love to our Lord, to his beloved bride, and to each of the people involved)?
Second, it seems that we must each recommit himself to godly listening. There were many times when it seemed that commissioners were speaking past one another. Nor would it surprise me if many readers have already prejudged the controversies that came before the General Assembly, without even hearing all the facts. But God says, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame" (Prov. 18:13). Before we draw any firm conclusions about someone's meaning or motives, we had better speak with that person and be sure that we understand him correctly.
In all these things, "Who can say, 'I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin'?" (Prov. 20:9, NIV). We should be all the more sobered about this when we reflect on our Lord's warning: "Do you not know that you (plural) are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you (plural) are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
At the beginning of this 70th General Assembly, the Moderator of the 69th General Assembly, the Rev. Douglas B. Clawson, convened the Assembly and preached a message from Ephesians 4:1-3 entitled "Foundations for Displaying the Wisdom of God." Mr. Clawson urged us to focus on what unites usour Lord Jesus Christrather than on what divides us. Our walk should display humility, gentleness, and forbearance out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us. Therefore we should be zealous by the Spirit for the unity that Christ has created and the peace that binds that unity. Observable unity in the body of Christ provides evidence that God has sent his Son into the world.
The authors are OPC ministers. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2003.