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New Horizons

Ten Things You Always Wanted to Know about General Assembly

Larry Wilson

Note: since our General Assembly is being held this month (June 12-19, 2002 at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts), we thought it might be helpful to get answers to some basic questions from the Rev. Donald J. Duff, the stated clerk of the General Assembly.—Editor

1. What is a General Assembly?

If the session is the body of elders over the local church, and the presbytery is the body of elders over the regional church, then the General Assembly is "the governing body of the whole church," the whole OPC (Form of Government, XV.2). In judicial matters, it is the highest court of the church. It meets once every year.

2. Why is it called the "General Assembly"?

This is the name traditionally given to the highest court in Presbyterian churches. It is drawn from Hebrews 12:23, where it refers to Christians gathered around the Lord in heaven. Some of our sister denominations call their analogous meeting a synod.

3. Who pays for it?

The General Assembly has two funds, supported by contributions requested from the local churches. The GA Travel Fund reimburses the travel expenses of commissioners to the Assembly. The GA Operation Fund pays for the expenses of the Assembly itself. For 2002, the General Assembly has requested the churches to contribute $24 per communicant member for these two funds.

4. Who attends?

As many as 150 commissioners-both ministers and ruling elders-coming from each of the presbyteries. They are apportioned according to the number of ministers and communicant members in each presbytery.

5. Why are those who attend called "commissioners"?

Those who attend are elected by their presbyteries. They are not "delegates" who are told how to vote. Rather, they are "commissioned" (authorized) to attend, to exercise their own judgment according to the mind of Christ given in his Word, and to vote according to their own conscientious understanding of what the Spirit says, speaking in and through the Word.

6. How does the Assembly begin?

The General Assembly begins with an evening worship service. It is ordinarily led by the moderator of the previous assembly, who also preaches a sermon. The service includes a celebration of the Lord's Supper. Members of nearby OP congregations generally attend this service.

7. What does the Assembly do?

The Form of Government, XV.6-8, says this about the assembly's work:

6. The general assembly shall seek to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church. It shall seek to resolve all doctrinal and disciplinary questions regularly brought before it from the lower assemblies. It shall seek to promote the unity of the church of Christ through correspondence with other churches.

7. The duties peculiar to the general assembly include organizing regional churches, reviewing the records of the presbyteries, and calling ministers or licentiates to the missionary or other ministries of the whole church directly or through its standing committees.

8. ...The deliverances of the general assembly, if declarative of the Word of God, are to be received with deference and submission...because of the nature of the general assembly as the supreme judicatory of the church.

8. Do ministers from other churches attend?

Churches of like faith and practice with which the OPC has a formal relationship of "ecclesiastical fellowship" are invited to send fraternal delegates to the General Assembly. They are like ambassadors to help increase and further the visible unity of the church catholic. They give a formal address to the Assembly on behalf of the church they represent and may contribute to the discussions, but not vote.

9. May anyone sit in on discussions and debates?

Most General Assembly sessions are open to the public. Interested persons are welcome to observe the proceedings, although they must stay out of the way and may not try to become involved in the discussions. Only if the General Assembly goes into "executive session" because of some sensitive issue, which is very rare, are visitors asked to leave.

10. Do church committees get input from anyone other than the General Assembly?

Individuals, sessions, and presbyteries are always welcome to write to General Assembly committees (like Foreign Missions, Home Missions, or Christian Education) with questions and suggestions. A session may ask its presbytery, or a presbytery may on its own decide, to "overture" (formally request) the General Assembly to put something on its docket for consideration by the whole assembly.

Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2002.

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