On June 5, for the first time in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the General Assembly met in the state of Texas. The Presbytery of the Southwest and the OPC congregations in the Dallas area welcomed some two hundred commissioners, committee members, fraternal delegates, and visitors to the campus of the University of Texas at Dallas. A little over half of commissioners were ordained in the last two calendar decades; nearly a quarter of commissioners were attending their first assembly—while on one level a mere statistic, on another it brings to mind the reminder in Psalm 145 of the need for one generation to commend our Lord’s acts to another, that they may meditate on his wonderful works, proclaim his great deeds, and joyfully sing of his righteousness.
Ruling elder David Haney was elected as moderator. Mr. Haney noted that he was honored to serve as moderator, his father, George Haney, having served in the same capacity exactly forty years prior. Mr. Haney served the assembly admirably throughout, keeping the body on track and requiring order as needed; and seasoning his duties with humor on occasion.
The first major item of business the next day, Thursday, was the election of the next stated clerk to succeed retiring Stated Clerk Ross Graham. The trustees of the OPC nominated Hank Belfield, pastor of Providence Presbyterian in Chilhowie, Virginia. Mr. Belfield was elected to a three-year term which will begin officially on January 1, 2020.
Reporting in the place of Statistician Luke Brown, who was celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary, Stephen Migotsky summarized the statistics of the whole church, the regional churches, and local congregations. Overall, the statistics for our denomination held steady over the past year; there were small net gains for congregations (an increase of one) and mission works (increase of two), and at year’s end the total number of congregations (282) and mission works (42) stood at 324. Total membership saw a slight decrease of 0.77 percent, to 31,043; however, both morning worship and Sunday school attendance saw slight increases, of 0.73 percent (to 24,161) and 1.25 percent (to 12,302), respectively. Reflecting on the many figures contained in the report, Mr. Migotsky tenderly reminded us that they represent souls, individual sheep for whom our Savior died, and they reflect the work that our Savior is doing in building and preserving his church.
In the report on the work of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE), General Secretary John Shaw noted that thirty-four home mission fields received financial assistance in 2018, including seven that saw the arrival of organizing pastors and began to receive denominational funding this year. He also expressed enthusiastic optimism for the nascent but promising work of Nick Lammé, who has been called by the Presbytery of the Southwest as an evangelist in Houston—a call which the CHMCE and the Committee on Diaconal Ministries are helping to fund and facilitate.
Eric Hausler and Lowell Ivey also reported on their work as church planters. Each gave color to the particular circumstances in which they labor and the opportunities they have to engage their communities. Presentations like these are a highlight of the assembly, as they provide a vivid snapshot of what our home missionaries are doing and how they are faring; it brings to life what many of us only read about in a newsletter or the back of a bulletin, and it spurs us on to more faithful prayer for these men and their congregations.
As the assembly returned to work after dinner, the Committee on Foreign Missions reported. In contrast to the tenor of the assembly thus far, General Secretary Mark Bube’s report had a decidedly sorrowful, even anguished note. This was due in part to the increased persecution that many Christians are experiencing in parts of the world where our missionaries serve, affecting them either directly or indirectly and, at least in one field, causing us to involuntarily reduce our presence there. Another cause for sorrow was the necessary decision of the committee to remove a family from our largest mission field, the Uganda mission, thus leaving it shorthanded. The sobering report may tempt us to grieve this season of sadness, and yet we believe that God is good and will temper even these ills and use them for his glory. Yes, despite cross and trial, there is great cause for rejoicing as we continue to have many opportunities to call men, women, and children everywhere to faith and repentance.
Next to present Thursday evening was the Committee on Christian Education (CCE). General Secretary Danny Olinger stated that sales of the 2018 Trinity Psalter Hymnal were so strong that a third printing is scheduled for this fall. The work of Mr. Bryan Estelle as Hebraist on the Trinity Psalter Hymnal was given special recognition, with the assembly applauding him for his labors.
After the report of the CCE, the assembly recognized and thanked Donald and Carolyn Poundstone for their service to the OPC at home and abroad. A video tribute was shown, and the assembly responded with a standing ovation for the Poundstones.
The Committee on Ministerial Care—newly erected, but already very busy—presented Friday morning. Within this committee’s purview are: informing presbyteries and sessions of tools available for the care of their ministers, providing counsel and assistance in financial planning, managing and overseeing the OPC Retirement Fund and the Obadiah Fund, and maintaining denominational salary scale guidelines. The committee’s important work is guided by its director, David Haney.
David Nakhla, administrator of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries, presented a video showing aspects of the ministry of disaster relief. The video, which will soon be made available to the broader church at OPCDisasterResponse.org, focused on the response of a number of families who were blessed by the OPC’s disaster relief efforts in the greater Houston area in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Next, the assembly moved to the report of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations. The assembly determined to invite several fellowships into corresponding relations: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Central and Eastern Europe, the Presbyterian Church in Uganda, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Peru. On a somber note, the assembly also voted to send a communication to the 2020 Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, urging them to reconsider their decision to open the special offices of minister and ruling elder to persons who are biblically disqualified from such offices.
Following the Ecumenicity report, the assembly fittingly had another “historical moment,” this time reflecting on the life and ministry of Jack Peterson, who entered his eternal rest late last year. In addition to serving on the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations for forty-five years, he served on the Committee on Christian Education, the Committee on Foreign Missions, and on the Special Committee for Revisions to the Book of Discipline and the Directory for Public Worship. He also served as the moderator of the Thirty-Ninth (1972) General Assembly. Having served as pastor of Grace OPC in San Antonio since 1979, “Texas Jack” would have been delighted to see general assembly finally held in Texas.
Mr. Bube then introduced a brother from the Presbyterian Church in Asia, who gave a moving address to the body. This man, from a sister denomination that is under systematic persecution, spoke memorably to us of the Lord’s work in Asia. He gave heartfelt expression to the ways in which the OPC has been of assistance to their denomination in the past and present. And, looking to the uncertain future, he boldly urged us to look beyond political persecution into heaven itself, that we might see Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. He declared that the persecution the church experiences is the world’s rebellious response to the risen, ascended, victorious King Jesus; and though the church is outwardly persecuted, it is in fact the invading, victorious army. He assured us that Christians in Asia are not hiding or wavering, but are seeking to make Jesus’s name known. Observing that “the darker the night, the brighter the dawn,” he also assured us that Asian Christians are not merely trying to survive until the dawn but are in fact the very light that the world needs. He reminded us that the church will not merely survive, but will thrive, because King Jesus reigns. He also implored us to continue to labor together with the Presbyterian Church in Asia, that we might together see much spiritual fruit in the days ahead. His words were electrifying; if you were there, this was the moment of the assembly. In response to his conviction and courage, the assembly gave a standing ovation.
For the remainder of Friday afternoon, the assembly took an opportunity to reflect on the recent shooting at Chabad of Poway synagogue, an incident which directly affected Rev. Zach Keele and the session and congregation of Escondido OPC, because the shooter is a member of the congregation. Mr. Keele spoke about the heartbreak this incident has caused for both the synagogue and his church. He spoke sorrowfully, admitting that he and the church are perplexed at the events, not understanding how such evil could go out from among them. He thanked the commissioners for their prayers, noting that he had heard from many in the days after the shooting. He asked, too, for prayer for the children in the congregation, for whom these events are especially confusing and troubling. He reflected that in the midst of this trial, even as the church condemns the atrocity and as they grieve with the victims, the session and congregation are striving to honor Christ and to continue to proclaim the good news of the gospel.
This period of somber reflection for the body, led by Eric Watkins, was closed with tender, pleading prayer. Mr. Hausler prayed for the synagogue members, for healing relations between the church and synagogue, and for the hope of the gospel to be held forth in the midst of this tragedy. Mr. Ivey prayed for the young member who has been charged with murder, that he might repent; and he prayed for comfort for the family and the members of the church. Finally, Mr. Watkins prayed for Mr. Keele, for his labors, and for the ministry of Escondido OPC. We recessed for the evening reminded again that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring hope and peace in this evil age.
On Saturday, Mr. Strange presented the report of the Special Committee on Updating the Language of the Doctrinal Standards of the OPC, which was established last year. By way of reminder, this committee is authorized to propose only such changes as do not change the doctrine or meaning of the standards. In all cases, the committee is to strive to propose changes that preserve the cadence, memorability, and dignified style of the standards. Following a time of questions, the assembly voted to continue this Special Committee for another year, affording them additional time for their work.
The remainder of Saturday afternoon was taken up by more addresses from fraternal delegates, and by the presentation of the report for the Committee for the Historian. Committee member Brian DeJong presented a short video describing how to conduct oral history interviews, a recent emphasis of the committee as a way to record and preserve the experiences of ministers and members of the OPC.
Sunday brought a very welcome day of rest and worship for the commissioners. The majority were hosted by the five local Dallas-Fort Worth OP congregations, while a few visited other Reformed or Presbyterian churches. A handful of hardy folks even made the trek to farther flung congregations of the presbytery in Waco, Tyler, and Longview. What a delight it was to be able to worship with local congregations, and for local members to be able to get to know ministers, elders, missionaries, and church planters!
For many, the return to campus was harrowing, as the metroplex experienced one of its most severe thunder-bursts in years. It was a daunting drive that required fighting the wind, weaving around downed branches, avoiding high water, and dealing with power outages that affected traffic signals. With everyone safely back on campus, we were able to have a joint worship service for the commissioners and members from the local congregations. Rev. Joe Troutman, pastor of Mid Cities Presbyterian in Bedford, Texas, preached a sermon from Job 36 entitled, “Worship: The Path through Suffering.”
The assembly reconvened Monday morning. The first order of business was to consider an overture from the Presbytery of the Midwest which asked that the general assembly consider changing our form of government in terms of how we receive and install ordained ruling elders and deacons from denominations of like faith and practice. The overture observes that our form of government has a clearly defined approach with respect to ministers, but is less clear regarding ruling elders and deacons. After some discussion and debate, the assembly decided to grant the petition of the Presbytery of the Midwest by referring the overture to the Committee on Christian Education for its consideration and to report back at a future assembly.
The final actions of the assembly were to adopt the recommendations of the trustees regarding the General Assembly Operating Fund, and to adopt and read the assembly’s resolution of thanks to the many University of Texas-Dallas personnel and the many, many volunteers from local churches who helped the assembly to run smoothly. Lord willing, the Eighty-Seventh General Assembly will be held on the campus of Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, beginning on June 3, 2020, at 7:00 p.m.
After a week full of peaceable discussion and debate on the matters before our church, and a week full, as well, of much prayer and praise and singing, the assembly sang one final time, concluding with “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art.” Mr. Haney then led in prayer, and the Eighty-Sixth General Assembly was dissolved.
The author is ruling elder at Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Garland, Texas. New Horizons, August–September 2019.