Danny E. Olinger
The General Assembly is the highest governing body of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Consisting of commissioners (ministers and ruling elders) from the sixteen presbyteries of the OPC, the Assembly represents in one body all the particular churches of the OPC. It must meet at least once a year to deal with matters that concern the entire church. Each Assembly brings the previous year in the church to a conclusion and sets the direction and tone for the upcoming year.
The Seventy-fourth General Assembly of the OPC convened on Wednesday, June 13, on the campus of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. At the forefront of the Assembly was consideration of the revision of the Directory for the Public Worship of God. Another weighty matter was a study report on the propriety of receiving illegal aliens into church membership. But the major theme of the Assembly, woven from the reports of the program committees, the devotionals, and the sermons, was one of unity with our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and with the brethren. The following is a report of the highlights of the Assembly.
The Rev. Richard Gerber, associate general secretary of the Committee of Home Missions and Church Extension and moderator of the previous Assembly, opened the Assembly by preaching on the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The Father sent the Son to seek and to save that which was lost. When a lost sinner repents, the Father rejoices, and the Father calls the church to rejoice as well.
Mr. Gerber then called the Assembly to order and opened the floor to nominations for moderator. On the first ballot, the Assembly elected the Rev. Robert Y. Eckardt, pastor of Redeemer OPC in Dayton, Ohio. The election was poignant on a number of levels. Forty-two years earlier, Mr. Eckardt's father, the Rev. Robert W. Eckardt, served as moderator of the Thirty-second Assembly. After Mr. Eckardt remembered his father, he thanked the Assembly with trembling voice for the honor to serve this Assembly at this place in Iowa where his dear younger brother, Doug, had died in an accident ten years earlier. Doug's memorial service was held in the very chapel where the Assembly was meeting.
Mr. Eckardt proved himself to be a quite capable moderator throughout the week. He made sure that the Assembly moved through its agenda in a detailed but efficient manner. Quoting the late R. B. Kuiper"Gentlemen, if you don't have a sense of humor, you will crack"Mr. Eckardt attempted to bring a smile to the commissioners' faces through a number of "levity reports." A recurring theme of the levity reports was his devotion to the Philadelphia Phillies, the losingest team in baseball history. In Mr. Eckardt's opinion, the Phillies are the perfect team for an Orthodox Presbyterian to root for, as they require one to be a pilgrim who perseveres.
On a more serious level, Mr. Eckardt's stated goal as moderator was to encourage vigorous debate marked by a commitment to truth and love. He reminded the Assembly that such debate, without personal animosity, historically has been a hallmark of the OPC.
One of the traditions of the opening of each Assembly is to survey the commissioners in regard to the length of their service as an ordained officer in the OPC. Thirty-nine commissioners were ordained in the 2000s, and thirty were ordained in the 1990s. This meant that over half of the commissioners were ordained in the last sixteen years, which made the Assembly one of the youngest in recent memory. Of the remaining commissioners, thirty-one were ordained in the 1980s, eighteen in the 1970s, thirteen in the 1960s, and four in the 1950s. Twenty-six commissioners were attending the Assembly for the first time.
The OPC grew by more than 500 members last year to 28,486 members, according to Mr. Luke Brown (an elder at Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pennsylvania), who has faithfully served as the statistician since 1985. He reported that there are now 312 congregations in the OPC: 255 churches and 57 mission works. Using the information that he had received from the churches, Mr. Brown calculated that 82 percent of OPC members attend morning worship on an average Sunday morning, while 45 percent of OPC members attend Sunday school. He also reported that total giving increased by 13 percent from the previous year to $45.9 million, and that average giving per communicant member increased 11 percent to $2,251. The $45.9 million contributed to support all aspects of the ministry of the OPC can be divided up into $34.7 million (75.6 percent) for local church expenses, $7.2 million (15.8 percent) for benevolence activities such as missions, outreach, and diaconal ministry, and $4.0 million (8.7 percent) for capital improvements.
Eighteen new Home Missions worksthe largest number in OPC historywere established by the Lord of the harvest in 2006. General Secretary Ross Graham gladly reported this to the Assembly and added that one-third of the organizing pastors of OP mission works are over the age of fifty. According to Mr. Graham, such experience among OP church planters is a strength for establishing good patterns for Reformed ministry in the mission works. With great thankfulness, Mr. Graham also emphasized the unity that is at work currently in the OPC between the program committees, as seen in the production of the new Worldwide Outreach brochure. Three church planters, David Harr (Medford, New Jersey), George Barros (Toronto, Ontario), and David Smiley (Bradenton, Florida), also delivered reports concerning their respective missions.
Foreign Missions general secretary Mark Bube detailed the OPC's work in ten fields around the world. According to Mr. Bube, OP missionaries are currently bringing the gospel to needy sinners in China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Japan, Korea, Quebec, Suriname, Uganda, and Ukraine. Missionaries Brian Wingard (Eritrea), Phil Proctor and Bob Wright (Uganda), and Tony Curto (Ethiopia) gave firsthand accounts of the work in the respective countries in which they labor. Meluku Solomon, an Ethiopian pastor with whom the OPC works, also addressed the Assembly. Looking to the future, Mr. Bube appealed to the Assembly for additional missionaries in Haiti and Suriname, and for an evangelist in Ethiopia. Also presented to the Assembly was a resolution regarding the late missionary Matt Baugh.
Christian Education general secretary Danny Olinger thanked the commissioners for their prayers as he recovered from a recent appendectomy. He also expressed appreciation for the support that CCE had received from so many in the church. The Rev. Dr. Gregory Reynolds, editor of Ordained Servant, introduced the 2006 printed edition of this online journal. He explained that the print journal is sent free to all ministers and is available at no charge to all officers who request it. Those who are not OP officers can purchase it by contacting the CCE office. Dr. John Deliyannides explained the improvements that have been made over the past year to the operation of OPC.ORG, including the purchase of a new dedicated server and the introduction of an e-newsletter for OP members. Mr. David Winslow (an elder at Westminster OPC in Westminster, California) introduced the CCE's plan to hold a two-day conference in April 2008 in Escondido, California, hosted by our churches in Vista and Escondido, to encourage young men to consider preparing for gospel ministry in the OPC. The young men, who must be nominated by OP pastors and sessions, will spend time with OP ministers, attend seminary classes, and hear about the gospel ministry.
After forty years of work, including eighteen years by the current Committee on Revisions chaired by the Rev. George Cottenden (Trinity OPC, Hatboro, Pennsylvania), the Assembly received the Amended Proposed Revised Version (APRV) of the Directory for Public Worship for consideration. Mr. Cottenden thanked the many men who had labored over the years to bring the document to this point, particularly the Rev. John P. Galbraith, who for health reasons resigned from the Committee in the past year. Given the importance of the APRV, the Assembly set aside one full day to discuss and make amendments to the document, which, if approved, would be sent to the presbyteries for their approval.
Once consideration of the revision commenced, all were agreed in upholding the regulative principle, which is that nothing can be mandated for public worship except that which is commanded by the Word of God. All were also agreed that if the church goes beyond the Word of God in requiring religious belief or observance, the liberty of Christian conscience is destroyed. But questions were raised in the revision's dealing with the "circumstances" of worshipthose matters that are not directly mandated in Scripture, but from which a practice can be deduced from principle. Regarding the circumstances of worship, the APRV put forth a threefold classification in its preface(1) strongly recommended practices, (2) suitable practices, and (3) permissible practices. Commissioners debated at which level certain nonmandated practices should be set, or even if determinations regarding certain circumstances of worship should be given at all. Despite every good intention, the Assembly was unable to get very far into the document, and it decided to resume consideration of the APRV at the Seventy-fifth (2008) General Assembly.
The Special Committee to Study the Propriety of the Reception of Illegal Aliens into Church Membership (Todd Wagenmaker, John Fesko, and David Winslow), erected by the Seventy-third General Assembly, presented a twenty-five page report to the Assembly. In the report, the Committee argued:
Can an illegal alien, then, honestly promise to obey Christ when he knows that he will continue intentionally or perhaps unintentionally to break the third, fifth, eighth, and ninth commandments? We believe a credible profession of faith requires that the illegal alien seeking church membership should be willing to repent of these sins as he comes to understand them in the light of God's Word and through the ministry of the pastor/evangelist and the elders. What does this mean for the illegal alien? We believe that the illegal alien, out of a desire to serve the Lord with all that is in him, should honor the government by attempting to remedy his unlawful immigration status.
Committee members, however, offered differing views as to what steps should be taken to remedy one's immigration status prior to reception into church membership.
The Assembly heard one appeal and one complaint. When a petition is filed to reverse or modify the judgment of a presbytery, such an action is labeled an appeal. Mr. Gregory Baus appealed the judgment of the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, which upheld the sentence of excommunication rendered against him by the session of First OPC in Baltimore, Maryland. The Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic had judged Mr. Baus obstinate in abstaining from the Lord's Supper for eight years. Also, the Presbytery judged that he had been made the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end of being restored. Mr. Baus, as the appellant, maintained that the Presbytery had erred in its judgments. After a lengthy debate, the Assembly denied Mr. Baus's appeal.
When a presbytery is charged with delinquency or error, the charge is called a complaint. It may be brought by an officer or other member of the church against the session or the presbytery to which he is subject. Messrs. Andrew and James Duggan, elders at Knox OPC in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, complained against the decision of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which had ruled that it had not been delinquent in the discipline of a ministerial member of the Presbytery. The Assembly determined to remand the case to the Presbytery.
Historian John Muether (an elder at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida) announced to the Assembly that the Committee for the Historian has put the 1966 lectures of Edward J. Young at Grace Seminary into book form, entitled The God-Breathed Scripture. Mr. Muether also stated that plans are under way for a 2009 pre-Assembly conference celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin.
Robert Coie (an elder at Westminster OPC in Westminster, California), a member of the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel, encouraged the Assembly to remember OP chaplains and military personnel in prayer. The Rev. Richard Dickinson, a lieutenant colonel in the Maine Air National Guard, spoke to the Assembly about the needs of National Guard organizations. The Committee also showed a video on OP chaplains and military personnel.
Following the video presentation of the Committee on Chaplains, a protest regarding the showing was filed and signed by fifty-four commissioners, one of the largest signed protests in the history of the OPC. The protest read: "The undersigned do protest the Committee on Chaplain's presentation during its report to the Seventy-fourth General Assembly, in which the committee showed video footage of an Afghani man being shot to death with his body being severed in half. It is helpful for the assembly to be informed of the realities and difficulties that our church members face as members of the armed forces in order that we may pray for them. But such a video presentation confounds the mission of the kingdom of Christ, and could create the impression that the Afghani people are the enemy of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which they are not."
The Assembly closed its business by delivering a resolution of thanks to its kind hosts at Dordt College. It also picked the site and date for the Seventy-fifth General Assembly: July 9–16, 2008, at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.
The author is the editor of New Horizons magazine. Photos by Danny Olinger and Ross Graham. Reprinted from New Horizons, August 2007.