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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 15

Alan D. Strange

Chapter XV The Whole Church and Its General Assembly

1. The whole church consists of all the members of its regional churches.

Comment: The Presbyterian church, in any of its respective denominations and discrete bodies, such as is the OPC, consists of all the members of its regional churches, governed by all its presbyteries. The nomenclature “whole church” here refers to the church as defined by this FG: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is not an assertion, obviously, that the OPC exhausts the meaning of “church,” as if the OPC in its FG failed to recognize the whole church as it exists throughout the world in many different denominations.

2. The general assembly, which is the governing body of the whole church, shall consist of not more than one hundred and fifty-five voting commissioners, including the moderator and stated clerk of the previous assembly, the stated clerk of the current assembly, and such ministers and ruling elders as are commissioned by the respective presbyteries in accordance with proportions determined by a previous general assembly. In the event that the general assembly fails to establish such proportions, the next general assembly shall consist of every minister and of one ruling elder from every local church.

Comment: The general assembly serves as the governing body of the whole church, in this case the OPC, even as does the presbytery for the regional church and the session for the local congregation. The OPC in drafting this FG has decided, given its relative overall size and the number of its presbyteries (sixteen at this writing), that the assembly shall consist of not more than 155 voting commissioners. Several of these commissioners are automatically selected: the moderator of the previous assembly, the stated clerk of the previous assembly (if different than the present stated clerk), and the stated clerk of the current assembly.

The rest of the assembly consists of the ministers and ruling elders commissioned by the respective presbyteries in the number accorded to each, determined by a previous assembly. If the general assembly fails to establish such proportions for presbytery representation, the next assembly will consist of every minister of the OPC and of one ruling elder from every local church. This has served as an effective prod to every assembly to establish such proportions: it is generally agreed that an unproportioned assembly, consisting of every minister in the OPC and a ruling elder from every congregation, would prove unwieldy and destroy the character of the OPC GA as a truly deliberative body. The assemblies, then, are always duly proportioned to retain that deliberative character.[1] The established proportion customarily yields, roughly, two-thirds ministerial and one-third ruling elder membership from the respective presbyteries.

Some have complained that there are not an equal number of ministers and ruling elders commissioned to serve at each assembly. This is true and reflects the historic practice of having more ministers than ruling elders in the church’s highest judicatory, no small part of which involves the practicality of the matter: given the worldly employment of ruling elders, it is significantly easier to secure the attendance of ministers at the assembly. For this same reason, many of the committees of the assembly also reflect this same practice of greater ministerial involvement. Some would also note, beyond the practical considerations, that the Presbyterian church has generally desired the judicatories of its assemblies, beyond the level of the session, to retain a ministerial or pastoral sensibility, which is best secured by having a higher proportion present of those who hold the ministerial or pastoral office.

The presbyteries of the OPC employ their own processes, ordinarily detailed in their by-laws or standing rules, for electing ministerial and ruling elder commissioners to the general assembly. Some have a strict election of such, others use some sort of rotation system, while still others utilize some combination of rotation and election. In any case, whatever process of electing the proportioned ministers and ruling elders for the assembly that a presbytery employs, assemblies in the OPC generally enjoy a healthy balance of ministers and elders, and not only from the larger more wealthy churches but also from the smaller struggling churches: attendance at the GA does not depend on everyone “paying their own way,” but monies for such come out of a common General Assembly Operating Fund.[2]

3. The general assembly shall meet at least once in every year. On the day appointed for the purpose the moderator of the preceding assembly shall open the meeting and preside until a moderator is chosen. In the event of his absence the member present who was last elected moderator of the general assembly shall preside in his place. Each commissioner shall present his credentials to the clerk of the assembly. Any twenty of these commissioners, of whom at least five shall be ministers and at least five ruling elders, being met on the day and at the place appointed, shall be a quorum for the transaction of business. No commissioner shall have a right to deliberate or vote in the assembly until he has been enrolled.

Comment:: The general assembly is to meet at least annually. The moderator of the previous assembly presides until the point in the docket, which is quite early, at which a new moderator is elected. If the moderator of the previous assembly, for whatever reason, is not present at the assembly, the last elected moderator who is present shall preside until a new moderator is elected. Commissioners are to present credentials to the stated clerk, and this is commonly accomplished by the calling of the roll, presbytery by presbytery, with the stated clerk noting the presence of those affirmed earlier to him by the stated clerks of the respective presbyteries. This roll call is always the first item of business after the call to order and worship, since assembly enrollment must precede commissioners deliberating or voting in the assembly. Any alternates replacing absent commissioners are also at that time recognized and seated, as well as non-commissioned committee representatives, who are given the privilege of the floor with respect to the business of the committee they represent. All of this is in keeping with the Standing Rules of the General Assembly.[3]

A quorum for the general assembly is any twenty of the commissioners selected by the presbyteries. Of this number, there must be at least five ministers and five ruling elders. That number is needed both for the constituting and continuing of a general assembly. Problems sometime arise if a general assembly does not adjourn when anticipated and commissioners leave for home, resulting in a “rump” assembly, which, though having a quorum, is too diminished for a body making important decisions for the whole church. This has happened but not in recent years. Assemblies have remedied the problem of low numbers by establishing safeguards ensuring timely adjournments and thus retaining the kind of numbers needed for the proper conduct of business while the assembly remains in session.

A more unusual occurrence is the lack of a quorum to constitute an assembly. Such a purposeful lack occurred in 2020 when the coronavirus epidemic made meeting unviable. This lack of a quorum, coupled with the use of certain provisions of the GA Standing Rules,[4] allowed the moderator of the previous assembly and the stated clerk, in consultation with the Arrangements Committee and other relevant GA committees, and in keeping with the strictures of the civil authorities, to postpone the meeting of the assembly to the following year.[5]

4. The moderator of the preceding assembly, or a minister appointed by him in his place, shall preach a sermon at the opening of the general assembly. Each session of the assembly shall be opened with prayer. And the whole business of the assembly being finished, and the vote taken for dissolving the present assembly, the moderator shall say from the chair, “By virtue of the authority delegated to me by the church, let this general assembly be dissolved, and I do hereby dissolve it, and require another general assembly, chosen in the same manner, to meet at __________________ on the ____ day of __________ A.D. _____,” after which he shall pray and return thanks, and the apostolic benediction shall be pronounced.

Comment: The moderator of the previous assembly, or someone appointed by him, opens the general assembly by preaching a sermon. It is customary to do this in an opening worship service in which the Lord’s Supper is also administered. Each session, not simply each day, opens with prayer (an assembly day now has, typically, five sessions: two morning, two afternoon, and one evening). Hymns are also customarily sung to begin each session. Once all the business of the assembly is concluded, the moderator from the chair issues the solemn declaration (the explicit wording for which is given in section 4, above) dissolving the assembly and, following prayer and thanksgiving, pronounces the apostolic benediction. Some have argued that since only a minister can pronounce a benediction, this presumes a minister must be moderator. Others reckon that a ruling elder elected moderator may simply ask a minister to close the assembly on his behalf by pronouncing a benediction.

5. When any emergency shall require the calling of a general assembly sooner than the time specified by the previous assembly, the moderator of the previous assembly, or in the case of his absence, death, or inability to act, the stated clerk, at the request of twenty presbyters, including at least five ministers, and ruling elders from at least five congregations, shall call a special general assembly. The moderator or the stated clerk, as the case may be, if otherwise qualified to do so, may be one of those making the request. For this purpose a circular letter shall be sent, specifying the particular business of the intended meeting, to every minister and to the clerk of every session at least twenty days prior to the meeting. Nothing shall be transacted at such special meeting except the particular business for which the assembly has been convened.

Comment: Just as provision is made for emergency meetings of lower judicatories, so also for the general assembly. While not uncommon to call for a special meeting of a presbytery, it has never been deemed necessary in the history of the OPC to call an emergency meeting of the general assembly. Were one to be held, it would be called by the moderator of the previous assembly, or, if he could not do so, the stated clerk, at the request of twenty presbyters, in which number there must be at least five ministers and ruling elders from at least five different congregations.

The communication that goes around to all the churches (to every minister and clerk of session) must be sent at least twenty days prior to such a meeting. This letter must detail “the particular business of the intended meeting.” When the emergency assembly convenes it may not transact any business at the special meeting other than the particular business for which it has been called to meet.

6. The general assembly shall seek to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church. It shall seek to resolve all doctrinal and disciplinary questions regularly brought before it from the lower assemblies. It shall seek to promote the unity of the church of Christ through correspondence with other churches.

Comment: The general assembly, concerning itself as it does with the whole church, seeks to advance the worship, witness, and edification of it by the work that it does at the assembly and by the committees erected by the assembly to conduct its business in an on-going fashion, particularly the program committees for home and foreign missions as well as for Christian education. In addition to these program committees, assemblies also have important standing committees, including one addressing appeals and complaints, which helps prepare cases for and make recommendations to the assembly as it resolves doctrinal and disciplinary questions regularly brought before it from the lower assemblies (overtures from lower judicatories can also bring doctrinal matters before the assembly).[6]

Besides offices like stated clerk (which reports to the Trustees of the GA) and statistician, committees also include ones dealing with a unified budget (Committee on Coordination), diaconal matters, ministerial care, chaplains, the OPC historian, and ecumenicity. The last of these, working with the stated clerk, also promotes unity through correspondence and exchange of fraternal delegates with other churches (e.g., in NAPARC and the ICRC).[7]

7. The duties peculiar to the general assembly include organizing regional churches, reviewing the records of the presbyteries, and calling ministers or licentiates to the missionary or other ministries of the whole church directly or through its standing committees.

Comment: The assembly is the body which organizes new regional churches (and their presbyteries), exercises review and control over the records of presbyteries, and issues calls to missionaries or others (like general secretaries of program committees) who are serving the whole church, customarily through the respective committees erected to address such. For example, the committee on foreign missions regularly issues calls to missionaries serving abroad, and each of the program committees directly employs their general secretaries and other staff at their discretion. This means that the program committees enjoy executive powers, as do commissions or boards, under the general oversight of the assembly.

8. The general assembly is not invested with power, by virtue of its own authority, to make pronouncements which bind the conscience of the members of the church. Yet the deliverances of the general assembly, if declarative of the Word of God, are to be received with deference and submission not only because of their fidelity to the Word of God but also because of the nature of the general assembly as the supreme judicatory of the church. Deliverances, resolutions, overtures, and other actions which have the effect of amending or adding to the subordinate standards shall not be binding unless they have been approved by the general assembly and presbyteries in the manner provided in this Form of Government for the amendment of the constitution.

Comment: The assembly does not enjoy plenipotentiary power but is restricted, as is all of the church, to exercise its power as a proclamation of the Word of God. Another way of putting this is to say that all church power is ministerial and declarative, not magisterial and legislative. The general assembly, for example, does not have the power, as the 1934 GA of the PCUSA claimed with respect to J. Gresham Machen and the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, to issue orders or declarations on its own authority; rather, the general assembly properly issues directives solely as an administration of the Word of God. The 1934 GA acted as if the assembly possessed magisterial power, as the Roman Catholic Church claims in promulgating canon law.[8] Only the Word of God properly binds the consciences of the members of the church. No judicatory, including the GA, can bind consciences simply by the issuance of a directive on the basis of its own authority.

That having been said, any deliverance of the GA that is properly declarative of the Word of God is to be received by the faithful as something to be heeded. Given that the GA is, in fact, the highest judicatory of the church, its deliverances, when properly declarative of God’s Word, are to be received “with deference and submission,” being faithful as they are to the Bible and because the GA is the final court of appeal here on earth. No such deliverances, however, including the recommendations of study committees and other special committees adopted by the GA, properly have the effect of amending the constitution of the church. The subordinate standards can be amended only through the process provided for such in FG 32.

Endnotes

[1] This stands in contrast to the PCA, in which the GA is composed as follows: “It shall consist of all teaching elders in good standing with their Presbyteries, and ruling elders as elected by their Session. Each congregation is entitled to two ruling elder representatives for the first 350 communing members or fraction thereof, and one additional ruling elder for each additional 500 communing members or fraction thereof” (BOCO 14.2). This yields too high a number for a properly deliberative body. Most agree that the maximum for such is in the four or five hundred range (the House of Representatives in the American Congress currently has 435 members).

[2] See GA Standing Rules 12.5 for GA financing and Rule 12 more broadly for financing of all the programs run by the broader church, under GA supervision. I would argue for such a common purse to be employed more widely for the use and benefit of less prosperous churches, especially in depressed economic areas. Charles Hodge addressed such in his sermon before the GA when he preached before it in 1847, having moderated in 1846, and in his article, “Sustenation Fund” (The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, 38.1, 1866, 1–24).

[3] Standing Rules, chapters 1–4.

[4] See Standing Rule 2.3.

[5] The 87th GA (2020) was postponed to 2021. So, all the business scheduled to be before the assembly in 2020 came before the assembly in 2021, together with the matters due to come before the assembly in 2021.

[6] Standing Rules, chapter 10.

[7] Standing Rules, 10.2.g. ICRC is the International Conference of Reformed Churches.

[8] Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (1940; repr. Willow Grove, PA: The Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1992), 103–114; D.G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education and The Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1995), 27–39.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, April 2021. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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