Danny E. Olinger
When the Forty-first (1974) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church met on the campus of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, it was a big change. For the first time, the assembly met on a college campus, not at a local OP church or at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The commissioners stayed in dormitories, not in homes of members, and ate in the dining hall, not in a church’s fellowship hall with meals supplied by the local congregation.
Forty-three years later, the Eighty-fourth General Assembly returned to Trinity Christian College on May 31–June 6, 2017, with the innovations introduced by the Forty-first (1974) Assembly still in place. Six ministers—George Cottenden, Donald Duff, Richard Gaffin, Jr., Glenn Jerrell, John Mahaffy, and Stephen Phillips—were commissioners at both assemblies. These fathers in the faith, with a combined 293 years of ministerial service in the OPC, were not mere figureheads at the recent assembly. Mr. Duff nominated Larry Westerveld, pastor of Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, as moderator. Mr. Mahaffy served as the assistant stated clerk of the Assembly. Mr. Phillips, president of the OPC Trustees, presented the Trustees’ report. Mr. Cottenden served as chairman of an advisory committee. Mr. Gaffin, president of the Committee on Foreign Missions, helped present that committee’s report and was elected to serve a three–year term for a record seventeenth time.
Luke Brown also participated in both assemblies. In 1974, Mr. Brown was a twenty-eight-year-old ruling elder and first–time commissioner from Church of the City in Philadelphia. At the Eighty-fourth Assembly, Mr. Brown, the OPC’s statistician, gave a summary of statistics for 2016. A comparison of his report and Edward Haug’s statistician’s report to the Forty-first (1974) Assembly indicates that much has changed in the OPC in the forty-three years between the two assemblies. Mr. Haug reported that the total membership at the end of 1973 was 15,043, consisting of 210 ministers, 9,940 communicant members, and 4,893 baptized children. Mr. Brown reported that total membership at the end of 2016 was 30,918, consisting of 540 ministers, 22,745 communicant members, and 7,633 baptized children or noncommunicants. Mr. Haug also reported that 126 churches and 22 chapels (mission works) were a part of the OPC. Mr. Brown reported 278 churches and 44 mission works in the OPC.
In his comments to the Assembly, Mr. Brown stated that a review of the noncommunicant history suggests that with over 540 children being added to the noncommunicant membership roll each year by baptism, some 80 percent of that roll consists of children below twelve years of age. Of the remaining 1,700 young people on the roll, 300 profess their faith and are enrolled as communicant members each year. Since most of our young people profess faith sometime during their teen years, there is no statistical indication that we are losing large numbers of covenant children, as is happening in some denominations.
Mr. Brown’s pastor at Trinity OPC, Mr. Westerveld, was elected as the moderator of the Eighty-fourth (2017) Assembly. Upon accepting the honor, Mr. Westerveld lamented that he had only one suit jacket for the week. Thankfully, not only his wardrobe, but also his moderating, fared well during the week, as he provided a consistent and firm hand in guiding the Assembly through its business.
The connections between the past and the present continued with the reports of the committees. In 1974, a potential merger of the OPC with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) led the Forty-first Assembly to debate possible changes to Larger Catechism questions 86–89. In union talks, the RPCES had proposed amending those questions to ensure “eschatological liberty” in the confessional standards. Specifically, the suggested changes were to allow a place for ministers in the RPCES who held to premillennial eschatology and believed that WLC 86–89 excluded that understanding of the second coming of Jesus Christ. The OPC’s Assembly did not agree. It stated that it was neither necessary nor wise to amend the questions.
This year’s assembly also considered matters related to the Westminster Standards. In response to the action of the Eighty-third (2016) Assembly, asking that it consider creating a “Modern English Study Version of the Shorter Catechism,” the Committee on Christian Education recommended to this Assembly “that it, in accordance with FG 32.3, elect a special committee or authorize a standing committee to make specific proposals for changes to the doctrinal standards of the OPC (The Confession of Faith and Catechisms) that are morphological in nature (e.g., ‘thee’ to ‘you’ and ‘hath’ to ‘has’) and update clearly obsolete and archaic words (e.g., ‘stews’ in Larger Catechism 139).” The Assembly did not approve the recommendation, but referred it back to the CCE for perfecting. It also directed the CCE to confer with the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations (CEIR) regarding whether the suggested recommendation should be communicated to other churches that adhere to the Westminster Standards.
The Eighty-fourth Assembly’s invitation to the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) to enter into an ecclesiastical relationship also has a historical connection with the Forty-first Assembly and its talks with the RPCES. In 1938, some members of the OPC (which was called the Presbyterian Church of America until 1939) departed to form the Bible Presbyterian Synod. They left over issues of eschatology (whether officers could adhere to dispensational theology), temperance (whether members could partake of alcoholic beverages), and the exact nature of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms adopted. In the mid-1950s, the Bible Presbyterian Synod split into two groups. One of them, the Bible Presbyterian Church, Columbus Synod, became the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1961. Four years later, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church merged with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod, to create the RPCES.
Now, years after the splits and mergers, CEIR administrator Jack Sawyer stated that there was a growing realization within the OPC and the BPC that there exists a common commitment to the Reformed faith as confessed in the Westminster Standards, and expressed in Presbyterian worship and government. He thanked BPC representative Kevin Backus, pastor of Bible Presbyterian Church in Grand Island, New York, for his role in bringing about the growing level of cordiality and trust between the two churches. This assembly marked the twenty-third consecutive year that Mr. Backus has represented the BPC. After voting to approve the CEIR recommendation to invite the BPC into ecclesiastical fellowship, the commissioners responded with a standing ovation.
At the Forty-first (1974) Assembly, the Committee on Foreign Missions announced that Lendall and Sherrill Smith were preparing to go to Taiwan as OPC missionaries. At the Eighty-fourth (2017) Assembly, Mr. Smith played a different role. As president of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM), he presented the committee’s report, along with CDM administrator David Nakhla. Mr. Smith and Mr. Nakhla reported that the CDM’s work today focuses on ministry to those in need in the OPC, ministry to those in need internationally, ministry to those affected by disasters, and ministry to pastors and their widows.
In 1974, the report of the CDM voiced the rising concern to provide for OPC ministers who were reaching retirement age without sufficient income. The issue of ministerial care has continued to be a major one in the OPC, and the Eighty-fourth (2017) Assembly took the rare step of closing one standing committee, the Committee on Pensions, and erecting in its place a new committee, the Committee on Ministerial Care. The Assembly amended its standing rules and accepted the recommendation that the initial membership include the following OPC officers: ruling elders Bruce Stahl, David Vander Ploeg, David Haney, Greg De Jong, and David Nakhla, and pastors Darren Thole, Clark Brooking, Douglas L. Watson, and Lendall Smith.
In closing the Committee on Pensions, the Assembly recognized Garret Hoogerhyde and Roger Huibregtse for their service. Mr. Hoogerhyde served on the Committee from its beginning in 1958 and Mr. Huibregtse from 1976. The Assembly adopted a resolution of praise and thanksgiving to God for the many decades of faithful service by Mr. Hoogerhyde and Mr. Huibregtse, attending to the needs of ministers and elders and the work of the Committee on Pensions. The Assembly also prayed for Mr. Hoogerhyde, who was hospitalized and unable to attend the Assembly.
Even during the devotions, the Assembly was reminded of 1974. Preaching from Philippians 1:21, Bill Welzien talked about his conversion, when, as a wandering hippie in Palestine, he was pursued by the Lord, who drew him to himself forty-three years ago.
Throughout the Assembly, it was evident that the Lord has blessed the OPC with experienced men who have given, and continue to give, their lives in service to the Lord. But it was equally evident that the Lord is raising up a new generation of ministers and elders in the church. Thirty-three ministers and elders from the seventeen presbyteries of the OPC were first-time commissioners. Jeremiah Montgomery, 36, preached at the opening worship service of the Assembly. Later he addressed the Assembly as the OPC’s newest foreign missionary, as he will serve in China with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five children. Young ministers Steve McDaniel and Chris Hartshorn were elected to the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension.
In addition to the new day of ecumenical relations with the Bible Presbyterian Church, the assembly made plans in 2018 to hold a joint assembly/synod in Wheaton, Illinois, with the United Reformed Churches in North America. The anticipated centerpiece of the meeting is the release of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, a project that the two churches have worked on together since 2012. The two bodies also plan to share with each other their work in home and foreign missions, with the hope of finding areas of potential cooperation.
Douglas Bylsma reported for the Special Committee on Canadian Matters. Due to the Canadian Revenue Agency’s restrictions on funds being transferred out of the country, OPC congregations in Beamsville, London, Meaford, and Sheffield, Ontario, and Airdrie, Alberta, have been unable to contribute to Worldwide Outreach. To remedy this situation, the Assembly established a Joint Ministry Agreement of eight members to be appointed by the Ontario Committee of the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario.
Undoubtedly, the hardest work of the Assembly was sitting in a judicial capacity and hearing an appeal of a minister against the Presbytery of the Dakotas. After more than ten hours of deliberation over two working days, the Assembly sustained four specifications of error in favor of the appellant minister. The Assembly then determined that the sustained specifications of error were of such importance as to require the reversing of the judgment of the Presbytery.
The highlight of the last day of the General Assembly was the Committee on Foreign Mission’s recognition of retired missionaries Brian and Dorothy Wingard. General secretary Mark Bube read a resolution of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ for the Wingards’ twenty-three years of missionary service in Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, and South Africa. The Assembly responded with an extended ovation for the Wingards.
At the end of the meeting, many commissioners were mentally and physically exhausted from the work. And yet there was the shared belief that the Spirit of the Lord had been present and that the body had reached decisions with one accord.
The author is the editor of New Horizons. Photos by Sara Grace Baugh, Kathryn Yen, and the author. New Horizons, August 2017.