Alan D. Strange
The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church meets yearly to deal with matters that concern the whole denomination. Since the founding of the denomination in 1936, there has been a general gathering of Orthodox Presbyterian ministers and ruling elders every year (and twice in two early years). This year the 69th GA met in Wenham, Massachusetts, from June 12 to June 18 at the campus of Gordon College on the beautiful North Shore. There were cool and rainy days, as well as warm and sunny ones. The surrounding countryside was lush and green from the rain, and some of the commissioners enjoyed their first view of the Atlantic Ocean.
We read in Acts 15 of the first recorded general assembly of the apostles and elders of the burgeoning new covenant church. Such rule by apostles and elders was not new to the church. It had its genesis in the Old Testament. To be sure, the church in the Old Testament did not have the office of apostle, but it did have a like office of blessing and proclamationthe Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priestssometimes called eldersjoined together with elders of the people in the rule of the assembly of God's people. We find a New Testament analogy to this Old Testament rule of clergy and elders of the people: after the extraordinary office of apostle gave way to the ordinary office of minister of the Word and sacrament, ministers (as counterparts to the Levites) also joined together with elders of the people in the rule of Christ's church.
This was the understanding of the primitive church. In our context, it came to expression most specifically at the Westminster Assembly. The Assembly's 1645 Form of Presbyterial Church Government and its Directory for the Publick Worship of God both identify the minister as the New Testament counterpart to the Old Testament priest (with certain differences): "under the names of Priests and Levites, [as] continued under the Gospel, are meant evangelical pastors." In fact, the Assembly's Form of Presbyterial Church Government identifies ministers (or pastors) as the New Testament analogue to priests and Levites no less than four times. In addition to ministers, the Form also speaks of "other church governors," or ruling elders: "As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church; so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church, besides the Ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church. Which officers Reformed churches commonly call Elders."
It is in this joint rule that we see the genius of presbyterianism: ministers and elders of the people (called "lay elders" in older presbyterian terminology) join together in a biblical rule that avoids the twin errors of episcopacy and congregationalism. Yes, God does still distinctly call men to minister the Word and sacraments. These men, though, do not rule alone in the church, as in episcopacy. Rather, such ministers join with the ruling elders whom God has raised up from among the people, men who are not preachers, but who pursue various callings like the rest of the congregation. Ruling elders are those recognized as mature and gifted, called from among the people to exercise gifts of governance and spiritual oversight. This is presbyterianism as biblically mandated and as historically practiced. And this is exactly what we witness at our General Assembly: the ministers and elders of the church serve together, seeking by the Holy Spirit to declare what God's Word teaches about the matters which are brought before her.
The primary purpose of the GA is to do the business of the whole church, or, as our Form of Government puts it, "to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church" (XV:6). But the GA is more than just a weeklong business meeting. In fact, the GA always has an eye to worship, the highest calling of the church.
Ordinarily, the moderator of the previous assembly calls the new assembly to order. But since the moderator of the 68th GA, the Rev. David J. O'Leary, was stranded in Connecticut with car trouble, the immediately preceding moderator, Dr. James S. Gidley, called the Assembly to order at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12. He introduced the Rev. Ross W. Graham, general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, who led the Assembly in worship. Joining Mr. Graham were the Rev. Gregory E. Reynolds, who led in prayer; the Rev. Gregory A. Hills, who preached on "A Kingdom Vision" from Matthew 9:35-38; and the Rev. John D. Van Meerbeke, who administered the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Worship did not only open the Assembly, though. It pervaded the Assembly. Every session (even after every break for coffee or meals) was opened with song and prayer and closed with prayer. Also, prayer was offered after the report of every committee. Every day at 11:55 a.m. the Assembly was led in devotionals by commissioners appointed by their presbyteries. Thus, the whole time at the Assembly was bounded by the means of grace.
The Assembly is led in its work by a moderator, and this year the GA elected as its moderator the Rev. Douglas B. Clawson, then pastor of Grace OPC in Hanover Park, Illinois, and as of July 1 the associate general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions. Mr. Clawson steered the Assembly through its labors with grace, ability, and good humor to an early adjournment, just shy of 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18.
Of the approximately 136 commissioners elected by the presbyteries, 37 were attending their first GA, an unusually high number of first-time commissioners. A poll of the commissioners revealed that 10 had been ordained since 2000, 36 in the decade of the 1990s, 30 in the 1980s, 33 in the 1970s, 16 in the 1960s, 10 in the 1950s, and only 1 in the 1940s.
The work of the Assembly was carried on, first of all, by temporary advisory committees that met on Thursday, June 13 (and as needed later in the Assembly). The thirteen advisory committees set to work to review overtures, communications, appeals and complaints, and the work of the program committees (Foreign Missions, Christian Education, and Home Missions) and the other standing committees of the General Assembly.
The Assembly has several officersa stated clerk, a statistician, and a historianwho make a yearly report. The stated clerk, the Rev. Donald J. Duff, answers to the Trustees of the General Assembly. They reported that, due to some lawsuits against certain OP judicatories and officers, they are in the process of purchasing a liability policy to cover such situations. The clerk also noted the liquidity of the General Assembly Operations Fund and the corresponding cut in requested support from $16 per communicant member to $14.
The report of the statistician, Mr. Luke Brown, showed that as of December 31, 2001, membership in the OPC totaled 26,290an increase of nearly 1 percent, despite the loss of two rather large congregations. Giving totaled $34.2 million, a slight increase over the previous yeara blessing in our post-9/11 world. The number of local congregations stood at 224, plus 65 unorganized mission works.
Mr. John R. Muether, who had been the acting historian for the previous three years, was elected as the historian of the OPC for a three-year term. A new set of rules was put in place to provide a better accountability structure for the work of the historian.
Among the highlights of this GA were the tributes paid to retiring medical missionary Dr. Grietje Rietkerk and missionary Dr. Young Son. Dr. Rietkerk and Dr. and Mrs. Son were honored Thursday evening at a reception given by the Committee on Foreign Missions. Before the reception, both missionaries received plaques heralding their years of faithful service to our King and heard remembrances of events that occurred during that service. Dr. Rietkerk also addressed the Assembly on Friday afternoon and recalled her many years of service in various African nations. She testified how God had led her all the way, and she thanked him for his faithfulness to her. She also reminded the Assembly that while it is fitting that we pray frequently for the missionaries on the field, it is also quite important that we remember to pray for the new believers who are the fruit of mission work.
The reports of the three program committees are always a highlight at any Assembly. We heard first from the Committee on Foreign Missions in a report presented by its president, the Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, and its general secretary, Mr. Mark Bube. Mr. Bube pointed the commissioners to various pictures on the walls about the room that highlighted the work that is being done by our missionaries. There are encouraging reports from Africa: growth in the Ethiopian Reformed Church, in Kenya, in Uganda (as seen in the picture of the new medical clinic in Karamoja), and especially the invitation to OP missionaries to return to Eritrea. The Rev. Dr. Brian T. Wingard and the Rev. Jonathan B. Falk will be going to Eritrea to work in the church there. Dr. Wingard spoke very movingly of the work that he has been doing in Uganda, telling us, among other things, of a young man to whom God gave the grace to overcome his fear of being cursed by a witch doctor and who publicly professed his faith and was baptized along with thirty-eight others.
The Rev. Karl A. Hubenthal also addressed the Assembly concerning his work in Suriname. Because of the health of his wife Rheta, he will not be able to return at this time to the field. He spoke warmly of the "two and one-half" congregations that have been formed there, and said that laborers are needed to continue that work. Mr. Bube pointed out the need for more missionaries several times, noting particularly the needs in Eritrea, Suriname, Japan, and Ethiopia.
Dr. Son also addressed the Assembly on the work that the Lord has done over the years throughout the world through the graduates of the Missionary Training Institute in Seoul, Korea. Korea has sent out over 6,000 missionaries to over 100 countries; more than 700 of these missionaries have been trained by MTI. He testified, as have so many others, to the formative influence that the Rev. Bruce Hunt had upon him. Only eternity will tell how far-reaching the influence of Mr. Hunt was in the Far East and reveal the souls brought to Christ through the work that he did there. Continue to pray for opportunities to preach the gospel in the Far East, even in places that are closed to Christian missions.
A Special Committee on the Work of Foreign Missions, erected at last year's GA, reported that it needed more time to do the work that the Assembly had asked it to do. The Assembly gave the Committee another year to fulfill its mandate. This committee had been given the task of reviewing the practices of the Committee on Foreign Missions in its dealing with missionaries on the field, with a particular focus on the question of whether or not a committee could, as a committee, bring a judicial charge against an individual. The Committee reported that it had interviewed a number of former and current missionaries, and that it needed more time to do its work, apart from studying the question of whether a committee could bring a judicial charge against an individual. The Assembly, after some debate, determined to put the question about committees bringing charges in the hands of the standing Committee on Appeals and Complaints, thus enabling this special committee to focus on its other work.
The Rev. Larry E. Wilson, general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, presented the work of that committee. Mr. Wilson's report covered a number of areas, including New Horizons, Ordained Servant, the OPC.org website and Internet ministries, the pastoral internship program, and the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC. Mr. Wilson reported that the Committee is undergoing a significant internal reorganization, in which all of the previous subcommittees are being subsumed under four subcommittees: Ministerial Training (SMT), Resources for the Church (SRC), Great Commission Publications, and Finance. The Committee on Christian Education has adopted a statement to clarify its understanding of the purpose, principles, and objectives of its ministry, and it will use the SMT and the SRC to carry them out in the coming years.
The joint publishing venture of the OPC and the Presbyterian Church in America, Great Commission Publications, produces resources for use both in worship (such as the original and revised Trinity Hymnal) and in teaching (a full range of Sunday school materials for all ages, as well as VBS material).
The report of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension has been thrilling in recent years. The Rev. Ross W. Graham, general secretary of the Committee, reported that "in spite of the necessity to cut back on the number of new mission works that [the Committee] was able to assist with denominational financial aid [six new works this past year], God continues to build and grow the OPC." The Committee said, in its written report, "The maturity of the OPC is such that her divine expansion no longer relies on the expertise and resources of a central denominational committee. Rather, a robust attitude that hastens church planting endeavors has permeated the presbyteries of the OPC. Now the sixteen Regional Churches expect and substantially help to fund the start of an ever-increasing number of new mission works."
In the previous year, five regional home missionaries labored in the presbyteries, and two new RHMs have recently come on board: the Rev. DeLacy Andrews in the Presbytery of the Southeast and the Rev. Danny Olinger in the Presbytery of Ohio. Both of these men addressed the Assembly about the challenges and opportunities that face them in their respective regional churches. Additionally, several other home missionaries addressed the Assembly, detailing blessings and difficulties in their ministries.
The Rev. Richard R. Gerber, associate general secretary of the Committee, also reported on the recent Home Missions conference at which the Revs. Robert W. Eckardt, Lawrence R. Eyres, John P. Galbraith, and Wendell L. Rockey spoke, each from many years of experienceseeking to encourage the church planters and doing so splendidly. Mr. Eyres especially recalled how he was encouraged as a young man by Dr. J. Gresham Machen.
Mr. Graham introduced to the Assembly a church-planting manual that the Committee has published to provide guidance in the planting of Orthodox Presbyterian churches.
The Committee on Coordination presents a unified budget for the work of the three program committees. The Committee reported that in 2001 the Church was blessed with a 1.51 percent increase in giving to Worldwide Outreach, with total receipts for the year up from $2,104,868 in 2000 to $2,136,711 in 2001. These 2001 receipts, however, still fell 7.8 percent short of the approved 2001 budget of $2,318,475.
The Assembly adopted a Worldwide Outreach budget for 2003 of $2.4 million, an increase of 2.13 percent over the 2002 approved budget and yet 7 percent less than the amount requested by the three program committees (Foreign Missions, Christian Education, and Home Missions). This $2.4 million budget represents an increase of 12.3 percent over 2001 actual receipts. We should all be encouraged to do all that we can to support this budget. While there was a shortfall here in 2001, we should be thankful that Worldwide Outreach received as much as it did in light of the events of last year, particularly following September 11.
The Committee on Diaconal Ministries reported disbursements of $218,978 for 2001, with 7 percent for administration, 22 percent for ministry abroad, and 71 percent for ministry in the U.S. (including disbursements from the Aged and Infirm Ministers', Widows', and Orphans' Fund). The Committee is quite involved with foreign ministries. For example, it gave $9,000 to help in Kenya (in cooperation with the Presbyterian Church in America) and $20,000 in special relief aid through the Middle East Reformed Fellowship earmarked for the Sudan.
The Assembly approved the request of the Committee that the congregations be asked to give at least half of their contributions by the end of May. The Assembly also approved a reminder to presbyteries that the words "free from worldly care" should not be contained in a call to a minister if he will need to pursue other employment to supplement his income. Additionally, the Assembly reminded the presbyteries that adequate health insurance is to be provided for ministers, and that they ought to look into whether ministers have adequate insurance coverage.
The Committee is willing to recommend 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), and that the first line of aid in the church is in the diaconate of the local congregation and the presbytery.
The Assembly requested the Committee on Diaconal Ministries to publish its guidelines for responding to requests in its report to the 70th GA. The Assembly requests $29.00 per communicant member for the General Fund and for the Aged and Infirm Ministers' Fund for the year 2003, unchanged from 2002.
Mr. Roger Huibregtse reported for the Committee on Pensions. There are 258 people in the pension plan, with 58 currently drawing a pension (and 4 receiving an annuity). After several years of double-digit increases, the pension fund lost over 4 percent of its value in 2001, due to a difficult year for the stock market. Many other pension funds, however, suffered double-digit losses.
This committee also oversees the hospitalization coverage of some of our ministers, as well as other church officers, there being 128 participants in the plan. Extensive discussion followed about the rising costs of insurance. The hospitalization plan struggles to remain solvent in the face of huge increases in the cost of insurance in the last few years.
The Assembly approved a request from the Committee for a contribution of $15 per communicant member for hospitalization deficit reduction. In addition, the Committee asked for help from the Committee on Diaconal Ministries at the rate of $75,000 per year for the next three years. The Assembly instead approved assistance only for the next year, to allow time to consider alternatives without doing damage to the diaconal reserve fund.
Additionally, the Assembly asked this committee to study the insurance problem more thoroughly and report back next year, recommending solutions. Given the crisis in the health insurance industry and the no-end-in-sight increases, it seems that more and more money will be needed from the people of God to make sure that the ministers of the church are properly insured.
The Rev. Jack Peterson, Chairman of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR), reported on the work of that committee. We have ecclesiastical relations of some sort with twenty-six other denominations in the U.S. and around the world. There is much encouragement in this area.
The Bible Presbyterian Church, which withdrew from our church in 1937, has expressed regret over its departure and has been meeting with us to explore ways to increase the level of fellowship with the ultimate goal of formal union.
Members of the Committee have also been meeting with representatives of the United Reformed Churches in North America to see how we might come into closer fellowship with them.
The Committee recommended closer ties with the Presbyterian Church of Japan and the Reformed Church of Québec. The Assembly heartily approved these recommendations. It also sent a congratulatory letter to the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin) for its fifty years of ministry.
In 2001, the OPC sent fraternal representation to the highest assemblies of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Church in Japan, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church of Japan, 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, the RPCNA, and the RCUS). With some other Reformed and Presbyterian churches, we have "corresponding relations." At various points in the Assembly, fraternal delegates from churches with whom we have either ecclesiastical fellowship or corresponding relations addressed the Assembly.
The Committee seeks to maintain an active fellowship with churches abroad, especially through our membership in the International Conference of Reformed Churches, though not limited to that. Relations with churches in North America are maintained in large part by our involvement in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). The General Assembly adopted the following resolution regarding one of the members of NAPARC: "That membership of the Christian Reformed Church of North America in NAPARC be terminated no later than the 2004 meeting of NAPARC," and then reasons followed. This resolution was adopted with great sadness, for the Christian Reformed Church had, from the very beginning of our history, been one of our best friends. We pray earnestly for her repentance and restoration.
The Rev. John P. Galbraith, who has served the CEIR since 1971 (as chairman for many years), had informed the Committee of his request that, his term of service having expired, he did not wish to have his name placed in nomination for reelection. The CEIR expressed its thanks to him for his faithful service. But more than this, the General Assembly as a whole passed a resolution, without dissent, in gratitude for all of Mr. Galbraith's service (see the sidebar on the next page).
The Assembly then heard the report of the Committee on Appeals and Complaints. One complaint was against certain actions of the Presbytery of Southern California in its dealings with one of its ministerial members in the aftermath of his being censured for an unconstitutional view of continuing revelation. The Presbytery had expressed satisfaction with the modified and clarified views of the minister. But another member of the Presbytery alleged that the censured minister had not materially changed his views and that the Presbytery was in error to regard his views as now acceptable. The Assembly denied the complaint, however, and upheld the Presbytery.
In an appeal taken in the Presbytery of Ohio, a man in a divorce case alleged that certain actions of a local session were wrong. The General Assembly found the appeal, for several reasons, not to be in order and therefore not properly before it.
In a case remanded back to the Presbytery of Northern California, in which the General Assembly retained jurisdiction, the General Assembly found that certain actions taken by the Presbytery to remedy earlier problems were themselves problematic, giving the impression of amending the constitution without doing so, and thus were null and void.
The Assembly also passed a modified version of an amendment to the Book of Discipline recommended by the Committee on Appeals and Complaints that involved clarification of certain judicial procedures. If approved by a majority of the presbyteries before the next GA, it will become effective in 2005.
The General Assembly then heard the report of the Committee on Chaplains. We have seventeen chaplains serving on active duty, in the reserves, or in other capacities outside the Department of Defense. These men serve as missionaries to the agencies of which they are a part. OP chaplains played important roles both at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero (the site of the wreckage of the World Trade Center) in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. The Committee recommended regular prayer for the chaplains, calling on congregations to "adopt" chaplains and their families for prayer sponsorship and quarterly communication.
The Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship, which has been working (with changing personnel) for at least thirteen years, presented a Proposed Revised Version of the Directory for Public Worship. The General Assembly agreed to send the Proposed Revised Version, with minor amendment, to all presbyteries and sessions for study. The plan is to present the Proposed Revised Version (with any changes made by the Committee as a result of interaction with the sessions and presbyteries) to the 70th GA for approval. If approved, it will then be sent down to the presbyteries for their consideration. If a majority of the presbyteries approve the new directory before the 71st GA in 2004, it will become effective in 2005.
It was clear from some of the debate that the two-office/three-office question continues to occupy us as a church, and that it will concern us as we address matters having to do with the Directory for Public Worship. The question is whether ministers and ruling elders occupy separate offices (along with deacons) or the same office of elder. We have men strongly on one side or the other and a number in the middle (a "two-and-one-half-office" position).
A recommendation of a minority of the Committee that would have amended the Proposed Revised Version to state explicitly that ruling elders may "read" a salutation or benediction in the absence of a minister was defeated.
The Committee on Views of Creation gave a progress report with a view to giving its final report at the 70th GA. The Committee had done extensive work on the questions put to it by the 68th GA, and it reported that its members had been working well together as a committee.
Another matter came up that had to do with the qualifications for ministers. Several presbyteries sought the advice of the GA in cases where men seeking licensure or ordination had not completed all the formal requirements of university or seminary education. There was a concern expressed that presbyteries should exercise great care in granting exceptions to the formal educational requirements set forth in the Form of Government. It was agreed that even in the cases where such exceptions are granted, presbyteries should assure themselves that everything that a university and seminary education is calculated to achieve is present in the men being examined.
Even as the Assembly serves as the highest body of appeal in complaints or judicial appeals, so it is the body that must examine the minutes of all the presbyteries and the standing committees of the GA. There was an attempt, defeated by the Assembly, to flag a presbytery for having a commission do what some alleged that only a presbytery itself could do.
The Committee on Date, Place, and Travel recommended that the next Assembly meet at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, from June 25 to July 2. The recommendation was approved. There was a general agreement among the commissioners that this Assembly was able to adjourn early, in no small measure, because many matters await resolution at the next Assemblynot the least among them being the Proposed Revised Version of the Directory for Public Worship and the report of the Committee on Views of Creation. Thus, this Assembly served as a prelude for next year's Assembly, for which we all ought to be in earnest prayer.
The author is associate pastor of New Covenant Community OPC in New Lenox, Ill., and a teacher at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, August/September 2002.