Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Last year I attended our denomination's General Assembly which was held in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the first time that I was able to attend since 2001.
There were two firsts for me:
1) I worked at General Assembly serving on the committee to review presbytery minutes.
2) I actually went to the microphone to address the assembly during the discussion concerning Federal Vision. Above is a photo of the assembly in action. You can see Dr. R.C. Sproul on the big screen in the upper right speaking to the assembly (he is in the lower right in a dark suit). If you look in the center of the photo (main aisle) you will see a guy in a blue blazer and olive slacks waiting to speak --that's me.
There is a bit of a funny story about all of this. I'm pretty sure that I had been standing at our microphone before R.C. got up to speak. A substitute motion was on the floor to send the study committee back to do additional work and report to this year's assembly. The moderator kept alternating speakers -- one in favor of the substitute, then one opposed, and so on. For some reason my microphone kept getting skipped. After Dr. Sproul spoke there was little left to say, and the substitute motion was defeated. I stayed at the microphone to speak in favor of the main motion (approving the study committee's report) and kept getting passed over. Finally another speaker humorously noted the moderator's oversight of 'the commissioner at microphone 10' and deferred his privilege to speak so that I could be recognized. In the end the point that I made had been overlooked by all the speakers in the previous 1 1/2 hours of debate. Shortly thereafter the main motion passed (that report is available at http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/07-fvreport.html).
This year (2008) the big issue is the role of women in the church, specifically with regard to the role of 'deaconnesses.' Last year during the process of reviewing presbytery records we flagged two presbyteries for allowing churches to forego the ordination and installation of deacons per the Book of Church and 'commissioning' men and women to serve as deacons and deaconnesses. It might seem like theological hair-splitting but it isn't. The former practice ordains and installs men to an ecclesiastical office. The latter appoints men and women as equals to serve on a committee together.
One of the presbyteries we cited (Metro Philadelphia) has sent an overture to this year's assembly asking that a study committee be appointed to clarify this issue. Many of the churches in this presbytery (including James Montgomery Boice's church, Tenth Presbyterian) were allowed to join the PCA while maintaining their practice of appointing women to serve alongside the deacons as deaconnesses (in a non-ordained, non-ecclesiastical role). This was allowed under a grandfather clause, that to my mind, was limited to those specific churches when they joined the PCA. What our committee found last year is that this practice is apparently spreading to newly planted and organized churches. Moreover, some progressive churches are going beyond this and doing away with the ecclesiastical office of deacon altogether. In its place is a 'committee' of 'commissioned' men and women doing the work of deacons but without the official title and the ordination to office.
Our Book of Church Order (9-7) allows the elders to "appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need." So under the current arrangement women can be appointed to assist the deacons. It seems that the debate then centers on what to call them. Some argue that to use the term 'deaconness' infringes on the office of deacon. Others strongly disagree.
Its hard to know how this will turn out. Progressives in the PCA have been testing the limits of what women can do in the church for the last few years. Commissioning them to do the work of deacons (while calling them something else) is just one example. Some have gone so far as to allow women to read Scripture in the service. Others allow women to help serve Communion. One church recently left the PCA after being cited for referring to a woman on staff as a 'pastor of congregational care' (she had a Masters of Divinity degree but was not ordained). These are isolated incidents but when seen together they constitute a trend that is troubling.
Stay tuned. I hope to blog from General Assembly and give you my perspective on what goes on.