Second General Assembly
The National Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian Church in America
William H. Smith
The Presbyterian Church in America
William H. Smith
[This Report on the Second General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church, now the Presbyterian Church in
, was originally Published in The Presbyterian Guardian, November 1974. John W. Mitchell, Editor of the Guardian had an interest in the Presbyterian Church in America and reached out to some of the Young TRs in the denomination, soliciting and publishing their articles. The writer was two years out of seminary and had just turned 24 years old at the time of publication. The report is published here as an historical curiosity.] America
The Second General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church convened at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, September 17, at the Fist Presbyterian Church of Macon, Georgia. (This church had been the host for two previous assemblies of the Presbyterian Church,
It was also a church in which Dr. J. Gresham Machen frequently worshipped on vacations; his maternal grandfather was its clerk of session for over forty years.) U.S.
State of the Church
|First Presbyterian Church, Macon, GA|
Only one name was placed in nomination for moderator: the Rev. Erskine L. Jackson, pastor of the First Church of Kosciusko, Miss. He was elected by acclamation and served to the obvious approval of commissioners.
A rose by any other name
The assembly was faced with a possible lawsuit over its name on the part of the National Presbyterian Church (UPUSA) in
Though a single congregation, this church does have a nationwide influence and support and felt its situation would be adversely affected by the new denomination’s chosen name. Rather than go to court over the name, the General Assembly moved to choose a new name. Out of sixteen names proposed, it finally chose “National Reformed Presbyterian Church” - which name was widely reported in the press. Washington, D.C.
Overnight, however, strong dissatisfaction with the new name had grown, and even doubt that the new name would escape the legal threat since it still contained the word “National.” The assembly agreed to reconsider, and finally chose the name “Presbyterian Church in
.” A move to reconsider even this was rejected. America
[Note: The present Orthodox Presbyterian Church was originally named the “Presbyterian Church of
” in 1936. Challenged in court by its parent denomination, the (now United) Presbyterian Church in the America , the infant church lost an initial court decision; rather than continue an expensive legal struggle, it took its present name. However, a recent assembly initiated steps to investigate the possibility of reclaiming its original name. Some legal experts believe this could be done and, if necessary, defended in court successfully.] U.S.A.
The question of spiritual gifts
At the First General Assembly, held in December 1973, adoption of standards for the new church was a major part of the docket. In considering the Book of Church Order (form of government), that assembly was unable to agree on the traditional wording of Chapter Seven, paragraph 1, which read:
“Under the New Testament, our Lord at first collected his people out of different nations, and united them to the household of faith by the mission of extraordinary officers, endued with miraculous gifts, which have long since ceased.” Debate over the final phrase led the assembly to refer the whole question to a special committee. This ad interim committee reported to the second assembly; it recommended that the paragraph be made to read:
“Under the New Testament, our Lord at first collected his people out of different nations, and united them to the household of faith by the ministry of extraordinary officers who received extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and who were agents by whom God completed His revelation to His church. Such officers and gifts related to new revelation have no successors since God completed His revelation at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age.”
This proposed wording was adopted. A “pastoral letter” also proposed by the ad interim committee was accepted by the assembly. It appears elsewhere in this issue of the Guardian.
Comment: In some respects the new paragraph of the B.C.O. is stronger than the old one. Consistent with Chapter 1 of the Confession of Faith, it makes absolutely clear that revelation has ceased and that those officers and gifts related to the giving of revelation have also ceased.
The sufficiency and finality of Scripture are two of the most important issues facing Reformed Christianity today, both in relation to its confrontation with neo-orthodoxy and in discussion with the broader evangelical world. The new paragraph leaves no doubt on these two issues. Neo-pentecostals will find little with which to be happy. The pastoral letter is a constructive one which should prove helpful to the church as a whole.
[For further comment on this matter, see the remarks elsewhere in this issue by Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, who was a member of the ad interim “committee to study the question of spiritual gifts.”]
Theological extension seminaries
The assembly was confronted with different recommendations on the matter of extension seminaries by the Committee on
Mission to the (home missions committee) and the Committee on Christian Education and Publications. The first urged that it be allowed to move ahead with plans for extension seminaries while the latter committee recommended that no definite steps be taken toward establishing such seminaries this year. U.S.
A temporary committee was appointed to seek a resolution of the differences. This committee determined that the responsibility for such seminaries was that of the Committee on Christian Education, but recommended that the assembly charge that committee to formulate plans and programs for extension seminaries in consultation with the MUS Committee. This recommendation was adopted.
Debate on this overall concept focused on the need for ministers in the new denomination and the practical advantages of offering theological training without the normal three or four years of residence at a seminary. Extension seminaries could also provide training for teachers and other church leaders. Objections to the idea centered on the need to maintain high academic standards for ministerial training, particularly in the areas of the biblical languages and Reformed doctrine. Placing responsibility for such extension seminaries under the Christian Education Committee was designed to ensure academic quality.
Perhaps the most important issue faced by the assembly was raised in connection with the recommendations of the Committee on
to the World (foreign missions committee). The assembly was urged to “authorize the Committee on Mission to the World to establish working relationships with other evangelical missionary agencies which welcome the services and teachings of missionaries holding the Reformed faith and polity…” Mission
In contrast, an overture from Mississippi Valley Presbytery had asked the assembly to “direct its Committee on Mission to the Word to use care to see that all missionaries sent by the Assembly’s Committee be involved in propagating the Reformed faith, either by working with already established Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, or, if no Reformed church exists in the land to which they are sent, to establish a Reformed witness there.”
A move to commit the whole matter for further study was rejected and the first recommendation was adopted. More than forty commissioners recorded their negative votes. As adopted, the recommendation permits implementation during the coming year, but does call for further evaluation at the next assembly.
The assembly also approved the nomination of the Rev. John E. Kyle as Coordinator of the Committee on
to the World. Mr. Kyle formerly served with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, an independent mission agency specializing in Scripture translation work. Mission
Comment: Though the reports of both the Christian Education and the MUS committees contained theological statements setting forth the basis and principles of their work, no such statement was contained in the report of the Committee on
to the World. The church is in need of a biblical theology of missions, one that will mold and motivate the practice of world missions. One must hope that presbyteries, and the committee, will enter into a thorough study of Scripture and consciously seek to relate the study to the way mission work is to be done. Mission
In the debate on the proposal to work “with other evangelical missionary agencies,” Dr. Morton Smith of Reformed Theological Seminary (and the assembly’s stated clerk) opposed the proposal and noted the quite different policy of the constituting assembly of “southern” Presbyterian Church in 1861. In an “Address to All Churches” (primarily authored by Dr. J. H. Thornwell) that assembly said:
“The only thing that will be at all peculiar to us is the manner in which we shall attempt to discharge our duty. In almost every department of labor, except the pastoral care of congregations, it has been usual for the church to resort to societies more or less closely connected with itself, and yet logically and really distinct. It is our purpose to rely on the regular organs of our [church] government, and executive agencies directly and immediately responsible to them. We wish to make the church not merely a superintendent, but an agent. We wish to develop the idea that the congregation of believers, as visibly organized, is the very society or corporation which is divinely called to do the work of the Lord. We shall, therefore, endeavor to do what has never yet been adequately done – bring out the energies of our Presbyterian system of government. From the session to the Assembly, we shall strive to enlist all our courts, as courts, in every department of Christian effort.”
[This paragraph from its earlier history the National Presbyterian Church had adopted itself in a “Message to All Churches” from its first general assembly. But the second assembly has rather clearly chosen to depart from the principle of doing mission work in a Presbyterian way in order to gain the supposed advantages of working through existing agencies. Though the proposal adopted insists that the missionaries must be free to propagate the Reformed faith and polity, a requirement that many independent agencies may not be willing to grant, it remains to be seen how well truly Presbyterian mission work can be done under such circumstances.]
Ruling elders and the sacraments
In adopting the Book of Church Order, the First General Assembly made provision for presbyterial licensing of certain ruling elders for more or less regular preaching. Both historically and by immediate need, ruling elders have regularly filled pulpits particularly in small churches unable to support a pastor. But when this provision was adopted in 1973, the question of having such elders administer the sacraments created considerable debate. The question was referred to an ad interim committee for study. That committee reported to the second assembly, but with a majority and minority recommendation.
The majority report recommended keeping the present wording of the B.C.O. which does not provide for ruling elders’ administering the sacraments. The minority urged that it be provided for. The assembly erected a new committee with responsibility to study the question along with others relating to the eldership.
Comment: Neither the majority nor the minority had made use of the writings of Dr. Thornwell, despite the fact that he had successfully persuaded the Southern Church to his conviction on the “parity” of ruling and teaching elders.
As Thornwell put it: “To rule well was the duty of all Elders, regarded simply as Elders; to labour in the word and doctrine was to do something more than the Presbyterate [or, eldership] required…The eldership, as such, never includes teaching: this is always a superadded function, and it is not in consequence of his presbyterial authority that an Elder preaches…[The preacher] differed from his brethren in nothing but the authority to preach and administer the sacraments; the dispensation of the sacraments being, in fact, only a symbolic method of preaching, and, therefore, are the exclusive function of the Preacher’s office” (from Collected Writings, Vol. IV, pp. 118-120).
Though Thornwell is surely not the final authority on such questions, it does seem that his views need to be studied by those who claim to follow in his steps and insist on the “parity” of the elders. The new church has already emphasized anew the role of the ruling elder, an emphasis welcomed by nearly everyone. But it is to be hoped that this new study committee will investigate thoroughly the writings of Dr. Thornwell in this crucial area of church life and polity.
Joint venture in Christian education
A decision, taken in closing hours of the assembly but without dissent from the commissioners still present, may turn out to be one of the most significant acts of the young church. The Committee on Christian Education had considered an offer from the Orthodox Presbyterian’s Great Commission Publications to set up a joint operation funded and controlled by both denominations. The joint venture would initially concentrate on producing Sunday school materials, and such other Christian literature as might be developed.
In clarifying some of the conditions, it became clear that the joint venture would be as expensive as each church felt it could afford, that joint operations could be begun on whatever limits were mutually agreeable. With that understanding, the assembly readily approved an initial investment of $50,000 in a joint operation of Great Commission Publications.