Glenn D. Jerrell
To the southeast of Tacoma, Washington, snow-covered Mt. Rainier looms above the clouds. To the west, the crystal-clear waters of Puget Sound extend into Commencement Bay to form a coastline of striking beauty. To the east is the magnificently forested Cascade Range. Amid this scenic splendor, the commissioners to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church convened on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma on Wednesday, July 5.
The Sixty-seventh General Assembly began its work with worship. The singing, prayer, offerings, preaching, and the Lord's Supper signaled that we were standing united in the presence of the living God.
Approximately 140 ministers and ruling elders (from all sixteen presbyteries), plus various family members and visitors, were in attendance as the moderator of the Sixty-sixth General Assembly, the Rev. Larry G. Mininger, called the Assembly to order. The worship service included a sermon entitled "Do You Fear God?" from Psalm 121.
The church's compassion for those in need was manifest in the offering of $23,363.65 received from the commissioners and churches for diaconal assistance for refugees in Eritrea.
At its first business session, the Assembly launched into its work. A general assembly is an expression of the greater unity of God's people as we are bound together in a common confessional commitment, bound together to work in the Lord's vineyard!
James S. Gidley, a professor at Geneva College and a ruling elder at Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, was elected moderator. The moderator's key task is to maintain good order in the proceedings of the Assembly. We value a man who has an even hand, being fair to all, combined with a gracious toughness to keep us on track. Dr. Gidley performed his task faithfully, adding a touch of humor as needed.
Our moderator serves only while an assembly is meeting. When the assembly ends, his work is finished, except to consult with the stated clerk about the docket of the next assembly, to consult with the clerk about proposed advisory committee assignments, and to organize and conduct the constituting worship service of the next assembly. He is not an executive officer or an official spokesman for the church, as in some other denominations. Every year a new moderator has been elected.
The Lord in his inscrutable wisdom sovereignly changed our church in the past year. The familiar faces of such men as George Haney, Chip Stonehouse, Robert Knudsen, and Charles Dennison were absent from this Assembly. Faithful servants have entered into glory ahead of us, and, as pilgrims bound for the heavenly Jerusalem, we are beckoned homeward while we continue to labor in this world.
The stated clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Donald J. Duff, noted a wonderful problem posed by the expansion of our church. Changes to the OPC Directory are made almost daily, and a new format will soon be required to hold all the information.
Assemblies are busy places, requiring self-discipline and focus. Over the years, our assemblies have resisted a parade of addresses from many legitimate institutions, ministries, and vendors. Mr. Duff proposed procedures for screening these requests and the Assembly adopted them. The docket of our annual general assemblies could be filled with many worthy causes, but that would divert us from our own work.
The Trustees of the OPC (a body that reports to the IRS to maintain our federal tax-exempt status) gave Mr. Duff a "superior" job review, and nominated him for another three-year term as stated clerk. The Assembly then reelected him to the office. John W. Mahaffy was appointed as assistant clerk for the duration of the meeting.
The OPC's statistician, Luke E. Brown, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, reported that 1999 marked the sixth consecutive year of growth for the OPC. We are seeing 4 to 5 percent annual increases in membership and attendance. The total membership of the OPC at the end of 1999 stood at 25,302 (397 ministers, 17,327 communicant members, and 7,578 baptized children). Also, the OPC grew in 1999 to 204 organized churches and 63 mission works. Giving increased 11 percent during the year.
Mr. Brown was reelected as statistician.
Virtually nothing comes to the floor of the Assembly without being run through an advisory committee. All the permanent committees (including Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education) and special committees report to each assembly, and each report is handed over to an advisory committee for a "second opinion" before the Assembly hears the report and debates recommendations. Almost all commissioners are assigned to an advisory committee.
Advisory Committee 10, which considered the judicial appeals made to the Assembly, met for twenty-seven hours. In an unusual move, the Assembly excused the members of this committee from some of the Assembly sessions so that they might finish their work. Their diligent efforts contributed greatly to the Assembly's ability to complete the hearing of appeals.
The Rev. John R. Hilbelink, president of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, reported for the Committee. The Rev. Ross W. Graham, general secretary of the Committee, informed us that requests to start new churches come almost daily from all over North America. Our presbyteries are getting used to the process of regularly processing and receiving new churches. We need to recruit new pastors in growing numbers.
Field reports were heard by the Assembly. Here are some tidbits from them:
Charles Jackson, pastor of Covenant OPC in Dayton, Ohio, said about their growth, "We have no tricks up our sleeves or programs to offer. People are starving for solid teaching about the exalted character of our God. People are coming from all sorts of backgrounds. We are excited about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church."
John Fesko, pastor of Geneva OPC in Marietta, Georgia, said, "We have challenges and have been through discipline cases. God is calling people to himself and is working there. God is blessing us in the centrality of the Word."
From Rocklin, California, Reformation OPC's Michael DeLozier reported: "It began with no elders or pastors. They came into the OPC after exploring several options. They wanted denominational affiliation when they saw the weaknesses of independency.... A strength of our church has been the fellowship of the people.... God is doing a great work."
The Lord has been pleased to add many churches to the OPC with the assistance of Home Missions. However, Mr. Graham commented that, in order to support all the new mission works, the Committee has had to draw heavily from its financial reserves. We will enter 2001 with nearly $480,000 committed to existing field support programs. Even with an aggressive budget, we will be able to assist only about six new churches in 2001, unless God intervenes in some unexpected way. "So with the rejoicing that this report brings in the blessings of our God upon our church-planting efforts, comes also a sober call to remember our constant dependence upon the Lord of the harvest to supply what is needed to carry on our work until he comes."
As your congregation approaches its next fiscal year, consider providing more for the increased opportunities that the Lord has given us!
Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, president of the Committee on Foreign Missions, reported for the Committee. General Secretary Mark T. Bube made comments on the report and introduced the Rev. and Mrs. Karl Hubenthal to the Assembly, saying that they have some of the toughest duty in the OPC. They are on the field in Suriname by themselves.
It was reported that tribal leaders in South Karamoja (Uganda) agreed in April to allow the OPC East Africa Mission to enter Karamoja with ministries of the Word and mercy (a mobile medical work). Also, fences were mended between the OPC and the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which will enable the two churches to resume working together. In May 1999, the first class of sixteen graduated from Westminster Theological College in Mbale, Uganda.
Pray for Hailu Mekonnen and his family that the Lord might give them physical strength "for the challenges that lie ahead, and that He might continue to use materials published as the fruits of Mr. Mekonnen's labors to provide a greater understanding of the whole counsel of His Word wherever the Amharic language is read or spoken."
The Committee is endeavoring to make better use of our missionary resources in Japan. Our missionaries there are the Cummingses, the Uomotos, the Yaegashis, and the Lauers. Join our Japan Mission in prayer: "We thank God for his goodness and mercy in 1999, and we look forward to the new year with the great hope that he will work ever greater wonders in Japan for his glory in the days ahead. Rejoice with us, for God has done great things for us. Pray with us, that his Word may spread and run rapidly, being met with repentance and faith. Come, work with us, so that the harvest of souls may be brought in without delay, to the glory of our great God."
Missionaries are also needed to fill positions in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Suriname. Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."
Churches in a dozen or more countries around the world have requested OP missionary assistance. Opportunities abound!
The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson will be leaving his current position as general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education to become the regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The Committee presented a resolution of thanks for Mr. Tyson's service. In a moving moment, the Assembly expressed its deep appreciation to Mr. Tyson by way of a standing ovation. The new general secretary, the Rev. Larry E. Wilson, was introduced to the Assembly. His service begins September 1, 2000.
The work of the Committee on Christian Education is wide ranging, dealing with hymn books, Sunday school materials, New Horizons magazine, ministerial interns, worship, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, Christian schools, equipping ordained officers (including Ordained Servant magazine), ministerial training (including the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC), etc.
The OPC's Web site, opc.org, is a ministry of this Committee. The Rev. Stephen Pribble is the manager of the Web site and is doing a great job.
The Assembly approved a combined budget of $2,318,475 for the Worldwide Outreach program for 2001, as proposed by the Committee on Coordination. This is a 4 percent increase for Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and Christian Education. Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of our budgetary system, it has proved to be a worthy tool during our present period of considerable growth and strengthening of the OPC.
The ministry of mercy is vital to the church. The report of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries says, "May God grant that we ... will continue to have the gentleness, compassion, and wisdom of our Lord." This Committee funnels help to the needy in famine-stricken parts of the world and in the United States. A significant area of ministry has been to assist aged and infirm ministers and their widows, orphans, and families. "We do this in a variety of ways. One such avenue is the retirement supplement we send to some retirees. The recent expansion of the ministry of the Pensions Committee is slowly shutting this aspect of our work down. In addition, this year the Lord took some of our men who have been receiving help through this fund."
The Assembly requested a contribution of $10 per communicant member from the churches in 2001 to reduce the deficit in the denominational hospitalization plan. Also, the Assembly requested the Committee on Diaconal Ministries to supplement the hospitalization plan at the rate of $35,000 per year for the next three years in order to moderate premium increases that could jeopardize the continuation of the plan.
A report from the Committee on Ecumenicity indicated that the OPC is in ecclesiastical fellowship with eleven churches around the world. It also reported that the Free Church of Scotland has experienced a schism.
The Assembly amended the policy of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with regard to its relationships with other Reformed churches. Formerly, we had the single category of ecclesiastical fellowship, though in practice we had varying degrees of relationship. Now we will have three categories of relationship: ecclesiastical fellowship, corresponding relations, and limited contact.
In 2001, the OPC will host the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC) at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This will be a splendid opportunity to meet Reformed brothers from around the globe!
Fraternal observers and delegates addressing the Assembly were: the Rev. L. Dale Clark from the Reformed Church in the United States, the Rev. William Renkema from the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Rev. Robert Rayburn from the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Rev. Jan De Gelder and Gerry Noordeman from the Canadian Reformed Churches. The Rev. John R. Battles, representing the Bible Presbyterian Church, was also introduced to the Assembly.
A revision of the Directory for Public Worship (DPW) has been in the works for decades. The Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship reported that it intends to have a final draft of the DPW prepared for next year's assembly.
Five overtures from presbyteries came to the Assembly regarding revisions to the DPW. They highlighted various concerns, such as the timeline for its completion, the rationale for proposed changes, the involvement of presbyteries and sessions in the revision process, the distribution of the proposed DPW to other churches, the use of Bible versions, the retention of the expression "usual parts of worship," and the retention of language with respect to the distinct office of the pastoral ministry.
Developing a rationale for significant proposed changes to the DPW and the timeline for the Committee to complete its work became matters of deliberation and then refinement. The Committee on Revisions had their proposal, the advisory committee had theirs, and Overture 1 from the Presbytery of Ohio suggested another. Then the commissioners had a few things to say. In the end, the Assembly adopted the following modified version of Overture 1:
The other overtures were referred to the Committee for its consideration. Pray for the members of this committee as they labor.
Mr. John R. Muether, the acting historian, reported as follows: "In the first Historian's Report to the Forty-ninth GA in 1982, Charles Dennison candidly expressed what he saw as the principal challenge that lay before him. His first priority was to recover within the church 'that passionate historical awareness which formerly characterized her,' an enthusiasm that had waned in recent years. It is difficult to imagine a more strikingly different state of affairs than that confronting the Acting Historian today. The historical consciousness of the church has improved dramatically, and that due, of course, to the monumental labors of Mr. Dennison on behalf of the church in his eighteen years of service as denominational Historian."
Mr. Danny E. Olinger spoke enthusiastically of the reprinting of the book For a Testimony, by Bruce Hunt. Thanks were extended to the Committee on Foreign Missions for the gift used to make this publication possible.
The Rev. Robert B. Needham reported for the Committee on Chaplains. The Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Chaplains, of which the OPC is a member, currently endorses fifteen OP chaplains: eight on active duty, four in the active reserves, one with the Veterans Administration (part time), one in the federal prison system (full time), and one with the Civil Air Patrol.
The Committee on Appeals and Complaints gets to see and deal with various warts and wrinkles of the church that officially land on the doorstep of the General Assembly. It performs a task that is absolutely necessary to the health of the church. It is prohibited from recommending the disposition of any appeal or complaint. Its task, rather, is to draw together the pertinent information necessary for the advisory committee and the Assembly to get a handle on the situation.
The valiant efforts of Advisory Committee 10, chaired by the Rev. Calvin R. Malcor, helped set the stage for the Assembly's dealing with two significant appeals. Appeal 2 took over ten hours of floor time in the Assembly. Appeal 1 took up several hours. In both cases, the order of the day was extended. On two evenings, the Assembly worked late into the night. Any commissioner who required rest in his cycle of day and night may have felt that he had been incorporated into the movie Sleepless in Seattle. But without the work of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints and Advisory Committee 10, the Assembly might have been permanently in Seattle!
Before both appeals, the moderator reminded commissioners that the Assembly was not sitting in a trial capacity, but in a judicial capacity. He read the following solemn words from the Book of Discipline (IV.A.1): "This body is about to sit in a judicial capacity and I exhort you, the members, to bear in mind your solemn duty faithfully to minister and declare the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and to subordinate all human judgments to that infallible rule." At this point one realizes that ruling elders and ministers of the Word have weighty duties.
The Rev. Arthur W. Kuschke and the Rev. John K. Pedersen presented the prayer of Appeal 2 that a judgment against Mr. Pedersen by the Presbytery of Philadelphia be overturned. The Rev. Bruce P. Jarvis and the Rev. Arthur J. Fox defended the Presbytery's verdict that Mr. Pedersen had violated his ordination vow "to be zealous and faithful in maintaining ... the purity, the peace, and the unity of the Church" by engaging in "schismatic actions." Fifteen minutes of questions were allowed to clarify the presentations of the appellant, of the Presbytery, and/or the recommendations of Advisory Committee 10. Then the representatives of the two parties made their closing remarks. At this point, the Assembly proceeded to consider the specifications of error cited in the appeal, voting on them one at a time.
On separate motions, five of the six specifications of error submitted by the appellant were not sustained. And on the one specification of error that was sustained (regarding the record of the trial), the Assembly determined that the error was not of such importance as to require a reversal or modification of the judgment of the Presbytery. The case now returns to the Presbytery of Philadelphia for the pronouncement of its censure of indefinite suspension from office.
Mr. P. Lee House and the Rev. George C. Miladin addressed the Assembly in defense of Appeal 1. The Rev. Roger Wagner and the Rev. C. Lee Irons addressed the Assembly on behalf of the Presbytery of Southern California, which had found Mr. Miladin guilty of doctrinal error in teaching that "the Holy Spirit-given revelatory modes of 'prophesy' and 'speaking in tongues' may, and probably do, continue in the church today." Questions were asked of the Presbytery representatives and Mr. Miladin. On separate motions, none of the specifications of error submitted by the appellant were sustained. The moderator ruled that since none of the specifications of error had been sustained, the judgment of the Presbytery of Southern California stood, and the Presbytery may pronounce its censure of admonition.
While the Assembly takes its work very seriously, some humor helps from time to time to relieve the tension. On one occasion, the moderator humored the Assembly with this account: At a Chinese restaurant, just off campus, he was given two fortune cookies. The message of one was, "Hypocritical tension may be increasing presently." He had not yet opened the second cookie.
Mark Marquis announced that this year's "Jack-in-the-Box Award" went to William "Tripp" Martin for the second year in a row.
The General Assembly oversees the work of the presbyteries and its own committees. One way that oversight is carried out is by examining the minutes of the presbyteries and its committees each year. This reading involves much more than form and style; it also involves substance. All the recommendations of the Committee on Presbyterial Records and the Committee on Standing Committee Records were adopted.
The Committee to Prepare Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism was given a massive undertaking by last year's assembly. The Committee, consisting of Messrs. George Knight, Steven Miller, Stephen Pribble, and Peter Wallace, did their work in one year! They supplied the text of the Larger Catechism with revised proof texts (quoted mostly in full) in a 106-page document. The KJV was used in the proof texts "without prejudice to other translations," since the KJV is incorporated into the text of our Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Traditional proof texts containing words that have been dropped from many modern translations were not used (except for the last question on the Lord's Prayer), thus avoiding a debate on the biblical text.
Few committees, if any, in OP history have accomplished this much work, so thoroughly and yet so quickly. The Assembly requested the Committee on Ecumenicity to forward this report as a work in progress to the other churches with which the OPC is in ecclesiastical fellowship, the churches of NAPARC and the ICRC, and the churches with which we have a corresponding relationship.
Consideration of the recommendations of the Committee was postponed until the Sixty-eighth General Assembly.
Consideration of the report of the Committee on Women in the Military and Combat was postponed until the Sixty-eighth General Assembly. This was due largely to the press of time in this Assembly. Two members of the Committee thought that the General Assembly should not address the issue of women in combat, and the two others thought that it should take a stand against it. The Committee reported: "At the heart of our problem is a significant difference in the hermeneutical positions of your committee members, well illustrated by the fact that two committee members hold that the statement of the Confession of Faith on 'general equity' is sufficiently undergirded by the (mostly) Old Testament texts and the New Testament texts to justify its proper application to the issue of women serving as combatants today. Whereas two of us, not agreeing with their conclusion, believe that because of our Confession's concept of 'general equity', this matter should not be considered by the Assembly." The Committee also reported that they sought to find common ground for drafting the report and that their discussions were "thorough and cordial."
The report of the Committee to Seek Reconciliation in the Presbytery of the Dakotas indicated that progress is being made. The Committee reported: "We esteem the members of the PoD for their graciousness to the Committee to Seek Reconciliation (CSR), their receptiveness to counsel, and their earnest desire biblically to resolve troubling issues.... Because of the complexity and long history of these matters, and some outstanding unresolved issues, the CSR recommends that it be continued another year." The Assembly concurred.
The Sixty-eighth General Assembly has been scheduled to convene at Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, beginning at 8:00 p.m., on Wednesday, May 30, 2001, with a terminus of noon on Wednesday, June 6. Deciding a terminus, not a projected terminus, is a shift from recent practice. The shift to a more definite ending time comes as a result of the growing numbers of commissioners who have been asking to be excused to leave the Assembly before it has completed its business. Twenty-five commissioners were excused for early departure this year. If this trend continues, the "faithful few" commissioners could be put in the precarious position of deciding whether to act on weighty issues late in the meeting or to put off the business. Next year we will find out if more commissioners stay until the final bell! Maybe presbyteries ought to ask men if they will stay to the end of the meeting before electing them as commissioners.
The Assembly was dissolved on Wednesday, July 12, at 11:37 a.m. with prayer, the singing of the Doxology, and the closing benediction being pronounced by the Rev. Robert W. Eckardt. We must live with the fruit of this year's Assembly, while recognizing that our work is not done. If the Lord tarries and if he wills, we will meet again next year to learn more lessons of patient perseverance in the practice of presbyterian-style unity. Love one another.
The author is the pastor of Grace Reformed Church (OPC) in Walkerton, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2000.