Clifford L. Blair
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church held its General Assembly in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from June 4 through June 9 on the grounds of Kuyper College. It was my good fortune (providentially speaking) to be a commissioner and to be asked to share some highlights from the week. What follows is by no means a minute-by-minute or motion-by-motion account of the Eighty-first General Assembly, but some observations of one participant. If you are looking for details, a daily report (and extensive photos) are available online at www.opc.org. If you desire even more detail, you can look for the publication of the minutes.
Most people in the OPC have heard the phrase “General Assembly,” and many have some idea of what it is and does, but for others it may seem obscure. A brief description of how our church is structured may be helpful to some—think in terms of three layers:
1. The local church is overseen by the pastor(s) and ruling elders, together called the session. The session is responsible for the local ministry and the care of church members. At the end of 2013, there were 269 local churches (plus mission works) in the OPC, with a total membership of 30,758.
2. All the members of the local churches in a given area are part of what is called a regional church, and this is governed by a presbytery. The presbytery meets multiple times a year, when the ministers and a ruling elder from each of its congregations convene to oversee the work of the regional church. It is the presbytery that examines men for the ministry, undertakes or assists in the work of church planting within its boundaries, and can be appealed to when problems cannot be solved in a local congregation. In the OPC, we currently have seventeen presbyteries.
3. The General Assembly, which normally meets annually, is the highest governing body of our denomination. Each presbytery is allotted a certain number of delegates, who are sent to this meeting. While much of our denomination’s work is done through standing committees that operate year-round—for instance, the Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education committees—these committees report back to the General Assembly, which may approve, disapprove, or alter their plans. The Assembly may also instruct the committees to undertake actions, or it may erect other committees for specific purposes. The Assembly approves the budgets of the committees and elects their members. More than this, the General Assembly serves as the final court of appeal in matters of discipline. Just as disputed matters may come from a local church to a presbytery for resolution, so too may they come from a presbytery to the General Assembly.
As I reflect on the week spent in Grand Rapids and the business of this year’s Assembly, four observations about our church stand out:
This year’s Assembly met for nearly forty hours, spread across five days. Much of that work included making decisions on budgets and logistics. If that had been all that was set before the Assembly, it would have been a dry business indeed. Happily our deliberations were punctuated with scheduled moments of praise and meditation.
By stated rule, each assembly opens with a sermon by the outgoing moderator, in this case Jeffery Landis, pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, California. On Wednesday evening, Pastor Landis took as his text Isaiah 66:15–24 and called on the gathered Assembly to look on their work in the light of the final judgment and the fact that “there are billions headed for hell.” With such stark facts before us, and the gospel hope as our charge, he said, we ought to take up our work as those laying battle plans for plundering the kingdom of Satan. It was a good and fitting start to our labors.
Following this, a new moderator, Craig Troxel, was elected, a few preliminary matters were taken care of, and the Assembly recessed to begin its work in earnest on Thursday morning. As an aside, I would note that moderating the Assembly is not a task for the faint of heart (or slow of wit). Dr. Troxel was up to the task, overcoming some moments of confusion with a gentle spirit and dry humor.
On each of the four full working days of the Assembly, there is a devotional scheduled just before lunch. On Thursday, we heard from Roth Reason (Redeemer OPC, Danville, Pa.), who spoke from Acts 3 on the reality of the power of the Holy Spirit to change people. He spoke movingly of the proof he has seen in the life of his own father, who has only recently become a Christian.
On Friday, Jim Stevenson (Providence OPC, Tulsa, Okla.) exhorted the commissioners from Acts 20 to watch over the flock of Christ in their care, mindful that each of these was bought with the blood of Christ.
On Saturday, Jonathan Shishko (Reformation Presbyterian, Queens, N.Y.) took the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians and observed that, despite the many problems that Paul addresses in the letter (problems that are in every church), his opening words are of profound and constant thanks to God for them. Those assembled were challenged to consider if they saw their own congregations with a similar heart.
On Monday, Archibald Allison (Emmaus OPC, Fort Collins, Colo.) opened to Ephesians 4:17–21 and spoke of the fundamental necessity that our knowledge of Christ be manifested in godly behavior.
In the midst of our labors, we enjoyed a Sabbath rest on the Lord’s Day. The greater Grand Rapids area is blessed with many churches in the Reformed tradition, including six in the OPC. These six congregations opened their arms to us, all providing lunch and many furnishing transportation as well. In the evening, the churches joined together for a joint worship service. Originally this service was scheduled to meet in a high school auditorium, but a confusion of schedules called for a last-minute relocation to Redeemer OPC in Ada. With many extra chairs placed in their large foyer, nearly seven hundred people were accommodated for a rich service, including the Lord’s Supper and a fine sermon from Redeemer’s pastor, John Currie, from 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.
Here I must say a word about the singing of the Assembly: with the opening sermon and the daily devotions, and whenever we returned from a break, we sang a psalm or hymn. It was delightful in our meetings to hear nearly two hundred voices giving themselves to song. What was pleasant during the week become truly magnificent on the Lord’s Day, especially in the evening’s joint service. Before worship began, Pastor Dale Van Dyke (Harvest OPC, Wyoming, Mich.) led us in a number of hymns, and others followed during the service. The sound was simply beautiful, a foretaste of glory.
While we speak rightly of the work of the Assembly, there was in that work a consistent testimony that our business was not simply ledgers and numbers. This was a meeting of Christ’s church, suffused with his Spirit and mindful of his presence.
During the Assembly, there were a number of moments when we paused from our work to express thanks to God for the labors of particular individuals. Four were noteworthy:
1. Richard Gerber. Following the report of the Committee on Church Extension and Home Missions, Mr. Gerber, who has served as the associate general secretary of the committee for the past fifteen years and who is retiring at the end of the year, was given some time to reflect on his labors. He spoke of the Lord’s faithfulness to the denomination, congregations, church planters and their families, and to himself across the years. He spoke warmly of his faithful wife, Rita, who, due to illness, was watching via the Internet. Following these reflections, Mr. Hilbelink, the committee president, presented a fulsome, framed resolution of thanks for Mr. Gerber’s many labors in the OPC since his ordination in 1972. They included twenty-seven years pastoring two congregations and serving as the moderator of the Seventy-third General Assembly in 2006. The resolution was read to the Assembly and recorded in the minutes. Mr. Gerber was then given a standing ovation. On Friday evening, his retirement was marked with a dessert reception.
2. Paul MacDonald. A resolution was also offered thanking God “for the gift of Paul S. MacDonald,” in light of his extended service to the denomination, which includes forty-two years on the Committee on Christian Education and thirty-three years as a trustee of Great Commission Publications—the longest continuous service in the history of the joint venture.
3. Grace Mullen. Miss Mullen, a member of Faith OPC in Elmer (Pole Tavern), New Jersey, served for many years in the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary. She is now battling cancer. The Assembly approved sending her a communication declaring (in part), “We thank God for your life and the many ways your gentle, quiet, and faithful service has enriched the life of our denomination.” The denominational archives have been named in her honor.
4. JoAnn Vandenburg. On Monday evening, Danny Olinger, general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education, introduced a special visitor to the Assembly. Mrs. Vandenburg has been a member of the OPC since its inception. As a child, she accompanied her parents on a visit to Leith Presbyterian Church in North Dakota, and on December 27, 1936, she was present to hear what would be J. Gresham Machen’s final sermon. Over the years, she has often opened her home to presbyters meeting in her area. Following this warm introduction, the Assembly rose in a sustained ovation for a life of faithfulness.
Each of these things could be read as perfunctory duty, but the tone, and often the spontaneity, with which they were offered and received by the Assembly betokened a deeper feeling. It was manifest that the gathering was not merely a working meeting, but a gathering of saints who were thankful for those who had long labored in Christ’s vineyard and to the God who had raised them up to his service.
One way in which the long business or difficult debates are broken up is by listening to addresses by fraternal delegates from other churches. Our Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations labors to foster cordial and cooperative relations with other denominations, particularly those in the Reformed tradition. To this end, they invite representatives of other churches to briefly address the Assembly.
Over five days, we heard eleven such addresses. We heard of how some denominations are growing, sending out missionaries, publishing solid Reformed materials, training pastors, etc. We heard of those that are engaged in the work of reformation, laboring to make their bodies more self-consciously Reformed. Many spoke warmly of how they have benefited from the labors of the OPC. J. Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and the fraternal delegate from the PCA, said of the relatively small OPC that she is seen as a church that “punches above its weight.”
A simple testimony to the breadth of Christ’s kingdom was heard in the range of deliveries. While all the addresses were in English, and most in some American dialect, others came with more exotic accents: Welsh, Korean, Swiss, Dutch Canadian, Japanese. Ben Westerveld’s long labors in French gave an inflection to his words as he spoke for the Reformed Church in Quebec. These words gave simple testimony to the richness of Christ’s church and the promise of the Scriptures that he will have his own from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
On the note of foreign voices, I would be remiss if I did not mention the reports we heard from three of our missionaries: Sam Folta laboring in Asia, David Okken in Karamoja, Uganda, and Ben Westerveld in Quebec. Perhaps no three foreign fields could be more dissimilar! Yet these diverse cultures are united to each other and to us in their need of the gospel.
Among the fraternal delegates who addressed us was Casey Freswick of the United Reformed Churches in North America. Significant in his report was that the Synod of the URCNA (analogous to our General Assembly) had unanimously approved the Psalter section of the ongoing Psalter-Hymnal project, which our two denominations have been working on together for some years. Our Assembly also voted to approve this with an overwhelming majority and no debate. Indeed, former moderator Jeffery Landis, considering how easily this business was handled and how past assemblies had wrangled over this project, declared himself in a state of “shock and awe.”
Work will now continue on the hymnal side of the project. Marking this significant step forward in the project, the URCNA invited the OPC to hold our annual meeting concurrently with theirs at a common location in 2016. This would prove logistically difficult for us, so we suggested 2018 (URCNA Synods do not meet every year), at which time we can hope to sing from the completed songbook.
Since the Assembly is the highest governing body of the church, it is appealed to for judgments and guidance. The Eighty-first Assembly deliberated over a number of such questions; these three give a sense of the range of matters that may arise:
1. An overture was sent to the Assembly from one of the presbyteries, asking that a study committee be established to consider “whether and in which particular sense the concept of the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the Adamic Covenant is consistent with the doctrinal system taught in the confessional standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.” While most members of the church—including many officers—may find this question theologically obscure, one of our presbyteries has suffered from contention over it. They appealed to the Assembly for help. The Assembly heard discussion of both the doctrinal and the brotherly discord that has attended this issue. The Assembly’s response was twofold: A motion was passed to send a visitation committee to the presbytery to promote the peace of the church. A second motion was passed to erect a five-member study committee to consider the doctrinal question.
2. The Assembly also heard an appeal regarding the orderliness of a decision made by a presbytery to resolve a dispute between two sessions within its bounds. The details of the case were complex, and the pastoral concerns were weighty. While passing over the particulars of the case, I would emphasize that it was handled with manifest patience. The Assembly sought to apply the rules of our polity, but without losing sight of the needs of the church members and officers involved. Another case, involving the discipline of a former minister who was appealing his censure, was handled with like gravity.
3. A third notable instance of deliberative action had to do with the matter of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. As many readers know, Sgt. Bergdahl, recently released after five years in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan, was a noncommunicant member of an OP congregation before enlisting in the Army. As there has been a great deal of media speculation about the circumstances of his capture and return, our church has faced numerous inquiries—many from people seeking guidance on how to pray. Our Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel brought a recommendation that was received and perfected by the Assembly. The following was included in the minutes:
In the wise providence of our Sovereign Lord, we acknowledge thankfully, the 31 May release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl USA from Taliban captivity; and that he is in the custody of the United States Army. Consequently, for those who ask how to pray, we suggest the following, or similar, petitions:
• For grace to resist the temptation to rush to judgment, in the absence of sufficient information
• Thanks to God for the release of Bowe
• For Bowe’s recovery from any and all ill effects arising from his captivity, with healing as well for his family members
• That truth will triumph and justice will be done
• That, in the months to come, it might please our Lord Jesus to use the events of the past five years to draw Bowe and his family increasingly closer to Himself and give them His peace.
There were more decisions made at the Assembly than these, but in these three you get a sense of the breadth of the work. I was encouraged to see the depth and thoughtfulness in which the Assembly sought to come to the most helpful and God-honoring responses.
There is a cliché about the OPC (sometimes said with good humor, sometimes not) that the initials stand for “Only Perfect Church.” Anyone who has participated in the work of the church—locally, regionally, or at the Assembly—will be quickly disabused of the notion. The OPC is far from perfect, and yet anyone attending her General Assembly and there participating in her worship, hearing her gratitude, seeing her embrace of other Reformed denominations, and witnessing the judiciousness of her deliberations, knows that this imperfect church is yet an expression of our perfect Savior’s body.
The author is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. The photos were taken by Tricia Stevenson and her daughter Rachel. New Horizons, August 2014.