The Sixty-sixth General Assembly
Alan D. Strange
The General Assembly of the OPC meets yearly to conduct business on behalf of the whole denomination. Since the founding of the denomination in 1936, there has been a general gathering of the OPC every year (and twice in two early years). This year the Sixty-sixth General Assembly met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from June 2 to June 8 on the lovely new campus of Reformed Bible College.
We read in Acts 15 of the first recorded general gathering of the apostles and elders of the burgeoning New Covenant church. Such apostle/elder rule was not new in the church. To be sure, the church in the Old Testament did not have the office of apostle, but it did have an office of blessing and proclamation: the Levitical priesthood. And it was the Levitical priests who joined together with elders of the people in governing the assembly of God's people.
There is a New Testament analogy to this Old Testament governance. After the extraordinary office of apostle gave way to the ordinary office of minister of the word and sacrament, ministers joined together with elders of the people in the rule of Christ's church. This is just what we witness at our General Assembly: the ministers and elders of the church declaring what God's Word teaches about the matters that are brought before them.
It is in this joint rule that we see the genius of Presbyterianism: ministers and elders of the people (called "lay elders" in older Presbyterianism) join together in a biblical rule that avoids the errors of Episcopacy (rule by a hierarchy of bishops) and Congregationalism (self-governance by independent congregations). Yes, God does still call certain men to preach the word and administer the sacraments. These men, however, do not rule alone in the church. Rather, ministers rule along with ruling elders, whom God has raised up from among the peoplemen who pursue various jobs like the rest of the congregation. Ruling elders are recognized as gifted and called from among the people to exercise gifts of governance and spiritual oversight. This is Presbyterianism as biblically mandated and historically practiced.
The primary purpose of the General Assembly is to do the business of the whole church, or, as the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church puts it, "to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church" (XV.6). But the General Assembly is more than just a weeklong business meeting. It always has an eye to worship, the highest calling of the church.
Accordingly, the Assembly regularly begins with a worship service. This year we were led in worship, which included the administration of the Lord's Supper, by retiring moderator Ross W. Graham. He preached a sermon on Hebrews 11:22 entitled "Old Bones and New Hearts." Mr. Graham declared that Joseph, in directing that his bones be buried in the land that God had promised to Abraham, pointed the children of Israel forward to the Exodus and ultimately to the Resurrection. As ministers of the New Covenant, he said, we should point people to our exodus out of death through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the deliverance that awaits us in the general resurrection, in the hope of which we now live. Mr. Graham noted particularly that we should encourage one another with such hope as we reflect on the recent home-going of such servants of our Lord as Charles Dennison, George Haney, and Roger Ramsey [and Chip Stonehouse, returning from the AssemblyEditor].
An offering was received during the opening worship service to assist in the organization of the Ethiopian Reformed Church. Our missionary, the Rev. Hailu Mekonnen, has been working with this group. The offering amounted to almost $1,800.
Worship did not only open the Assembly. It pervaded the Assembly. Every session (even after every break for coffee or meals) was opened with song and prayer and was closed with prayer. Prayer was also offered after the report of every committee.
Every day at 11:55 a.m., the commissioners were led in a devotional by a commissioner appointed by one of the presbyteries. On Thursday, June 3, the Rev. A. Craig Troxel, pastor of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania, spoke from Jeremiah 17:9-10 and 1 John 3:19-20 about the depths of our heart's wickedness and the love and grace of God, which is even greater than our sin.
On Friday, June 4, the Rev. Mark T. Smith, pastor of Covenant OPC in Columbia, Tennessee, spoke from Revelation 3:7-13 on "The Church at Philadelphia." He encouraged us to look to no one other than the one who holds "the key of David," who alone opens and shuts the doors of the kingdom.
On Saturday, June 5, the Rev. C. Lee Irons, pastor of Redeemer OP Chapel in San Fernando Valley, California, spoke on Job 1:1-12. He noted that God initiated the conflict that resulted in Job's troubles, and that God also delivered himeven as he delivers us and shall shortly crush Satan under our feet.
On Monday, June 7, the Rev. John R. Hunt, Jr., pastor of Covenant of Grace Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, spoke from Genesis 22:1-14 on Abraham's resurrection faith and the provision of God's own Son to reconcile us to himself. Because of this, death is not the worse-case scenario. Instead, death for the believer is entrance into the paradise of God.
And on Tuesday, June 8, Terry Miller, an elder at Westminster OPC in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, gave a devotional from Psalm 40:1-11 on the blessing and obligations of serving our covenant God. Thus, the entire meeting of the Assembly was bounded by the means of grace.
The General Assembly is led in its work by a moderator. This year the Assembly elected the Rev. Larry G. Mininger, pastor of Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, Florida, as its moderator. (By custom, one is chosen who has never served as moderator before.) Mr. Mininger steered the Assembly through its labors with unflagging patience and good humor.
Of the 133 commissioners enrolled at the Assembly (having been elected by the presbyteries), 21 were attending their first assembly. A poll of the commissioners (7 being absent) revealed that 34 were ordained in the decade of the nineties, 30 in the eighties, 24 in the seventies, 24 in the sixties, 9 in the fifties, and 3 in the forties. Two, the Rev. Lawrence R. Eyres and the Rev. John P. Galbraith, were ordained in the thirties.
The work of the Assembly is carried on, first of all, in a number of temporary advisory committees. This year there were thirteen advisory committees. They met on Thursday, June 3, and later during the Assembly as neededeither to finish their original work or to do additional work as directed by the Assembly. The advisory committees reviewed the reports submitted by the program committees (Foreign Missions, Christian Education, and Home Missions) and the other standing committees of the General Assembly, as well as communications, committee and presbytery minutes, appeals and complaints, and overtures.
The Assembly has several officersa stated clerk, a statistician, and an historianwho make a yearly report. The stated clerk, the Rev. Donald J. Duff, answers to the Trustees of the General Assembly, who reported that the corporate name has been changed to "The Orthodox Presbyterian Church" from "the Trustees of the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church." This change should eliminate problems that some have experienced with the Internal Revenue Service failing to recognize the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The report of the statistician, Luke E. Brown, showed that as of December 31, 1998, membership in the OPC totaled 24,413, an increase of 4.43 percent in one year. Total giving was up 11.4 percent to $26.8 million. The number of local congregations stood at 199, not counting mission works.
The Committee for the Historian brought amendments to the Standing Rules of the Assembly that the Sixty-fifth General Assembly had proposed to this Assembly for approval. A minority of the advisory committee that dealt with the report of this committee persuaded the Assembly that it was preferable to amend the Standing Rules in a way that would bring the Committee for the Historian more into line with the operations and procedures of the other standing committees. John R. Muether was elected as the acting historian, and a three-man committee was elected to propose revised Standing Rules for the work of the historian and the committee that he serves.
The untimely death of our previous historian was noted with sadness, and the Assembly passed the following resolution: "We humbly acknowledge the goodness of the Triune God, who has granted to us the privilege of fellowship with His servant, the Rev. Charles G. Dennison, who having completed his earthly task as minister and Historian of this church, went to be with the Lord on April 29, 1999. We gratefully recognize the service that Mr. Dennison performed for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as Historian for 18 years in loyalty to Jesus Christ, the one to whom all preeminence and glory belong."
The reports of the three program committees are a highlight of any assembly. This year we heard first from the Committee on Foreign Missions. On Friday afternoon, Mark T. Bube, general secretary of the Committee, spoke of the opportunities and challenges in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Japan, Kenya, Korea, the Middle East, Suriname, and Uganda, as well as openings in other countries.
Mr. Bube reported on the growing Reformed church in Ethiopia and the continuing work of our missionaries in Japan. He explained the serious setbacks encountered by our missionaries at Muruu, Kenya, which necessitated their withdrawal from the field last September. (He also updated the Assembly on recent developments within the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church that have been quite encouraging.) He was also able to report that there has been a growing response to the preaching of the gospel among the Arawak Indians in the jungle of Suriname.
Missionaries Sam Folta and Tony Curto also addressed the Assembly. They spoke of the glorious progress that is being made in their fields.
The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson, general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, presented the work of that committee. Mr. Tyson's report covered a number of areas, including worship, teaching, evangelism, equipping ordained officers, the OPC Website, the internship program, the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC, and New Horizons magazine.
Regarding worship and teaching, Great Commission Publications (a joint publishing venture with the PCA) markets items for use both in worship (such as the original and the revised Trinity Hymnal) and in teaching (a full range of Sunday school materials for all ages, as well as VBS materials). GCP also makes available, upon request, regional teacher-training seminars.
The Committee itself publishes booklets like What Is the Reformed Faith? and What Is the OPC? The CCE has mailed out evangelistic booklets and tracts approved for use in the churches, as well as producing its own tracts and study guides, such as God or Mammon? and Personal Evangelism Made Less Difficult. The quarterly periodical Ordained Servant is sent to the ministers, elders, and deacons in our churches.
The CCE reported that thirteen summer interns were funded in 1998, and that thirteen also served yearlong internships. All together, at least seventy-four men who are currently OP ministers have served in internships since 1983. On the recommendation of the CCE, a Committee to Prepare Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism was elected to serve as a special committee of the General Assembly.
Dr. James S. Gidley and Dr. James H. Thomas, Jr., spoke of the formation of the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. A pre-Assembly conference was held to explain the nature of the Institute and its work, as well as to introduce some of the teachers in the Institute to members of the Assembly. Courses to be offered this fall include "The History, Character, and Distinguishing Commitments of the OPC" (to be taught by Mr. Muether), "Presbyterian Church Polity, with Special Emphasis on the Book of Church Order of the OPC" (the government section to be taught by the Rev. Robert W. Eckardt, and the discipline section to be taught by the Rev. Stuart R. Jones), and "The Westminster Standards" (to be taught by the Rev. G. I. Williamson). (For further information about this extension program, contact the director of the MTIOPC, the Rev. Thomas E. Tyson.)
An election was held to choose the members of the class of 2002 to serve on the Committee on Christian Education. After the results were announced, Mr. Galbraith expressed the Assembly's appreciation for Dr. F. Kingsley Elder's forty-four years of service on the Committee. The Assembly thanked God for his distinguished service and gave Dr. Elder an extended standing ovation.
The report of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension has been a thrilling one in recent years. The Rev. Ross W. Graham, general secretary of the Committee, reported that fourteen new home mission works were started and began receiving financial assistance from the Committee in 1998. Also in 1998, twelve churches discontinued or completed denominational support, leaving a total of thirty-three churches receiving aid. Six of our presbyteries had full-time regional home missionaries last year.
Mr. Graham noted that many inquiries are made each month about establishing new home mission works all across the country. There is now a great need for men to serve as church planters. We must be faithful in praying that the God of the harvest would thrust workers into the harvest fields, on both the home and the foreign fronts.
The work of home missions has, in fact, become so great that Mr. Graham can no longer manage it alone. Accordingly, the Committee on Home Missions has called the Rev. Richard R. Gerber, formerly pastor of Westminster OPC in Hamden, Connecticut, and a longtime member of the Committee, to the new position of associate general secretary. Mr. Gerber will begin his work at the administrative office building in August.
Other Standing Committees
Each year the Committee on Coordination presents a unified budget for the work of the three program committees. The Committee reported a decrease in giving to Worldwide Outreach in 1998 that resulted in a 1.6 percent shortfall in the 1998 budget. Nonetheless, this Assembly adopted a budget of $2,225,000 for the year 2000, an increase of 10 percent over 1999.
We should all be encouraged to do all that we can to support this budget. While there was a shortfall in giving to Worldwide Outreach last year, we should remember that total giving in our congregations was up significantly. Perhaps our churches should be more mindful of the ministries of Worldwide Outreach when budget time comes around.
David E. Haney, who serves as director of finance and planned giving for the Committee on Coordination, thanked everyone for the love and concern expressed in the recent passage to glory of his father, the Rev. George E. Haney. [Even a few days before his death, his body greatly weakened by cancer, Mr. Haney expressed the hope of being able to get back soon to his work as administrator of the OPC Loan Fund.Editor]
The Committee on Diaconal Ministries reported disbursements of $208,500 for 1998. Eight percent went for administration, 24 percent for ministry abroad, 33 percent for ministry in the U.S., and 35 percent for the Aged and Infirm Ministers', Widows', and Orphans' Fund. The Assembly approved a request that congregations contribute $19.00 per communicant member to the General Fund, and $7.00 per communicant member to the Aged and Infirm Ministers' Fund for the year 2000. The Assembly also approved the request of the Committee that congregations be asked to make at least half of their contributions by the end of May.
The Rev. David W. King, president of the Committee, spoke about the recommendations of the Committee to those who ask them how to help, particularly in war-torn countries. The Committee is willing to determine where help is most needed, remembering that as we minister in word and deed, we are to do good to all men, "especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10 nkjv).
Garret A. Hoogerhyde reported for the Committee on Pensions. There are 235 men in the pension plan, with 53 drawing a pension. As has been the case in recent years, the fund did quite well in 1998, enjoying a gain of 19.19 percent. The Pension Supplement Fund, set up for those who ministered prior to the formation of the pension plan, is helping to support fifteen ministers and fourteen surviving spouses. This committee also oversees the hospitalization coverage of many of our ministers, as well as other church officers and employees. Mr. Hoogerhyde informed the Assembly that the Committee has assured itself of its Y2K readiness. The Assembly approved the Committee's recommendation that congregations be requested to contribute $8.00 per communicant member for its Pension Supplement and Hospitalization Supplement Funds.
The Rev. Jack J. Peterson, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations, reported on the work of that committee. In 1998 the Committee sent fraternal representation to the highest assemblies of the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in Japan, the Reformed Church in the US, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Observers were also sent to a number of other Reformed and Presbyterian bodies. Those churches with whom we have the closest ties are those with whom we have "ecclesiastical fellowship" (such as the PCA, RPCNA, RCUS, etc.). With some other Reformed and Presbyterian churches we have a "corresponding relationship," particularly with newer bodieslike the United Reformed Churches in North Americawith whom we have only recently begun to work.
The General Assembly adopted a letter to be sent to the Reformed Church in Japan, addressing them on the issue of women in the office of minister and elder. The Assembly of the RCJ is set to take up that matter this fall, and one of our missionaries to Japan, the Rev. Stewart E. Lauer, has worked diligently with those who oppose women in office in the RCJ.
The General Assembly also agreed to send an observer to Synod 2000 of the Christian Reformed Church. This is the synod that will review their decision in 1995 to admit women to the ruling and teaching offices of the church.
The Assembly also invited the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales to enter into a corresponding relationship with us. The Assembly seeks to establish a corresponding relationship with the Bible Presbyterian Church, and determined to suspend further efforts to establish a fraternal relationship with the Canadian Reformed Federation until evidence of progress in removing an offense is forthcoming.
Appeals and Complaints
The Assembly then spent a good deal of time on Saturday afternoon and Monday dealing with the report of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints. Two cases coming out of the Presbytery of Philadelphia were handled fairly easily. In the first case, the Assembly determined that the complaint was not in order and not properly before the Assembly. In the second case, the Assembly agreed with the Committee on Appeals and Complaints that there was no case.
Two other cases took more time, though. One of the cases was the appeal of a trial in one of the congregations of the Presbytery of New Jersey. In that case, none of the specifications of error were sustained, and the excommunication proposed by the New Jersey congregation was upheld.
In the other case, a declaration by the Presbytery of the Dakotas regarding certain persons in a particular congregation was found to be in error. This case went back, in some of its issues, ten to fifteen years. Because of all the complications involved in this case, the Assembly elected a committee of three (with an alternate) to seek reconciliation between all the parties.
The Assembly also dealt with several overtures from the presbyteries. An overture from the Presbytery of the Midwest would have changed the composition of the quorum for a presbytery meeting and would have permitted the commissioning of two elders per congregation for a presbytery meeting. The overture was denied (see Form of Government XIV.3).
Overtures 2-6 had to do with adjusting the boundaries of some existing presbyteries and forming a new presbytery. After quite a bit of debate and some close votes, the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario was formed out of the Presbytery of the Midwest, with the inclusion of part of Indiana (from the Presbytery of Ohio). Also, the new Presbytery of the Southeast (coming into existence in the year 2000) will receive part of the Presbytery of Ohio (a portion of Kentucky).
An overture from the Presbytery of New York and New England requested that the "necessity of locktype record books" be reevaluated in light of modern technology. This overture was denied.
At various times, men from denominations with whom we have fraternal or corresponding relationships, as well as men representing various institutions, addressed the Assembly. Delegates from the United Reformed Churches in North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in the US, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Reformed Church in Japan brought greetings to us from their respective denominations and told us of the work of the Lord in their midst.
Representatives from Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Seminary, and Reformed Bible College also addressed the commissioners. In addition, several distinguished guests were recognized at various points in the meeting, including Mary Alphenaar, who served the OPC at medical works in Eritrea and Kenya, and the Rev. Raymond E. Commeret, who has served fifty years in the ministry. (The same milestone was also noted for the Rev. Theodore J. Georgian, a commissioner to the Assembly.)
The Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship, which has been at work for ten years, presented a complete draft of its revisions through April 22, 1999. This draft is also being sent to all presbyteries and sessions for study. The Committee solicits changes to its proposed revisions by November 30, 1999. The Committee anticipates recommending to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly the adoption of the revision that it will submit at that time. Now is the time for serious study of this document and for suggesting changes.
Even as the Assembly serves as the highest body of appeal in judicial cases, so it is the body that must examine the minutes of all the presbyteries and all its standing committees. One of the new presbyteries wasalong with an older one, the Presbytery of the Southwestthe only one to have no exceptions and but a single notation made to its minutes. Several of the standing committees had no exceptions or notations.
The Committee on Date, Place, and Travel recommended that the next Assembly meet July 5-12 in Tacoma, Washington, at Pacific Lutheran University. The Assembly agreed to that proposal.
The report of the Committee on Chaplains informed the Assembly that we have eight chaplains serving on active duty, four serving in the active reserves, one serving as a part-time VA chaplain, and one serving as a full-time federal prison chaplain.
Women in Combat
The report of the Committee on Women in the Military and in Combat caused no little stir. This report cited a considerable number of Scriptures in seeking to establish the point that the Word of God forbids women from being warriors. Debate centered around whether there was exegetical warrant to assert, as did the report, that women should not be subject to the draft nor be placed in combat.
After various amendments had been offered, the Assembly decided to recommit the whole matter and seek a fuller basis for instructing our chaplains on this subject, and to consider more fully what we wish to say as a denomination about women in combat. The Assembly determined to augment this Committee with two men to be chosen by the moderator. Interesting exegetical differences emerged that will doubtless continue to inform the discussion.
The only protest of the Assembly, signed by forty-seven commissioners, dealt with this issue: "The undersigned respectfully protest the failure of the General Assembly to adopt a statement of any kind on the matter of women serving in combat roles in the military services, especially conscripted women, despite what appeared to be widespread agreement among commissioners that such service is wicked."
The Assembly adopted a General Assembly Operation Fund budget of $162,321 for the coming year. This fund supports the clerks, the historian, the statistician, the eleven standing committees, and a number of other matters that fall under the direct authority of the General Assembly. Churches are asked to contribute $16.00 per communicant member to this fund.
The Assembly approved all of its minutes and was dissolved by decree of the moderator half a day early, at 8:43 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8. This Assembly was marked by sadness at the passing of fathers in the faith, yet expectant in hope of the resurrection, of the day in which the church militant will be at one with the church triumphant, in the full enjoyment of the new heavens and new earth.
Mr. Strange, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 1999.