One Pastor's Thoughts On This Year's Overtures
Every year dozens of Overtures are sent to the General Assembly of our denomination for consideration. For those who aren’t aware of our polity and process, an Overture is a proposal from a lower court (think church or presbytery) to a higher court (the General Assembly) with regard to a specific action. In short, it’s how things change in our denomination. Each year, dozens of Overtures are submitted, considered, and voted upon. If an Overture passes at the General Assembly, it must then be approved by 2/3’s of the Presbyteries, before returning at the following year’s General Assembly for final approval.
In June, the General Assembly voted to send down 12 overtures to be considered by the Presbyteries. Most of these overtures are not controversial, but several are in response to controversies in our denomination, and have caused much discussion. While others have written about how best to prepare for these upcoming discussions at the Presbytery level, my desire is to simply share my opinions regarding these matters, and how I think the PCA should respond. I’ll skip over the overtures that passed the Overtures Committee with 90+%, or passed the General Assembly in Omnibus(without debate), in order to focus my thoughts on the 4 overtures which have been deemed the most “controversial”.
ITEM 4 (Overture 29) - Amend BCO 16 by adding 16-4 Regarding Qualifications for Church Office
This Overture would add the following paragraph to chapter 16 of our Book of Church Order, on the subject of qualifications for Church Officers:
16-4 Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. While office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification. Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.
This overture is a “re-do” of Overture 23 from last year. Many of the arguments against the previous versions of this overture had to do with the language of “identity”, which has been removed here. I voted for Overture 23 last year, as I did not agree with the concerns surrounding the identity language. I voted for Overture 29 this year, as the qualifications listed here are consistent with a biblically orthodox, and confessionally faithful understanding of how a church officer is to understand his battle against sin, and the work of progressive sanctification. I believe Overture 29 should be passed, as it is a helpful overture, which really shouldn’t be controversial.
ITEM 5 (Overture 31) - Amend BCO 21-4 and 24-1 by adding the following paragraphs regarding requirements for ordination:
21-4.e In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3, Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, the candidate must exercise great care not to diminish the seriousness of those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy Spirit in his progress in holiness (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
24-1 In the examination of the nominee’s personal character, the Session shall give specific attention to potential notorious concerns. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The nominee must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3, Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, when confessing sins and sinful temptations publicly, the nominee must exercise great care not to diminish the seriousness of those sins in the eyes of the congregation, as though they were matters of little consequence, but rather should testify to the work of the Holy in his progress in holiness (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Similar to Overture 29, Overture 31 this year was a “re-do” of last year’s Overture 37. I voted for Overture 37 last year, as I felt it was helpful and necessary given the issues surrounding biblical sexuality that the PCA has faced in recent years. This year, Overture 31 has been refined, and gives helpful instruction to Candidates and Credentials Committees on how to examine a man for ordination. This is very important, as it instructs these committees to put into practice what is being codified in Overture 29. As the Chairman of my Presbytery’s Candidates and Credentials Committee, I can say I find this language to be helpful in guiding our process. I would also add, that my members have responded unanimously to both of these overtures with overwhelming support, as they see both Overtures 29 and 31(as well as last year’s O23 & O37) as common sense measures towards protecting the church. I believe Overture 31 should be passed and implemented within our denomination.
ITEM 7 (Overture 8) Amend BCO 33-1 and 34-1, establishing a percentage threshold for Original Jurisdiction requests.
Overture 8 might be one of the most important overtures in recent years. It seeks to address a serious issue which exists currently in our Book of Church Order. The overture would seek to change BCO 33-1 and 34-1, resulting in the following paragraphs:
33-1. Process against a church member shall be entered before the Session of the church to which such member belongs. However, if the Session does not indict in either doctrinal cases or instances of public scandal and the Sessions of at least ten percent (10%) of churches in the same Presbytery request the Presbytery of which the church is a member to assume original jurisdiction for a case of process, the Presbytery shall do so. The Presbytery may assess the costs thereof equitably among the parties, including the petitioning Sessions and the Session of the church member.
34-1. Process against a minister shall be entered before the Presbytery of which he is a member. However, if the Presbytery does not indict in either doctrinal cases or instances of public scandal and at least ten percent (10%) of Presbyteries request the General Assembly to assume original jurisdiction for a case of process, the General Assembly shall do so. The General Assembly may assess the costs thereof equitably among the parties, including the petitioning Presbyteries and the Presbytery of the minister.
In short, Overture 8 seeks to address the issue regarding Original Jurisdiction. Can a higher court (Presbytery or General Assembly) rectify clear and obvious errors with regards to the discipline of members or pastors, especially in the cases of scandal? As of right now, the language of the BCO reads that a higher court only can do so when there is a “failure to act”, which is a low threshold to meet. This has resulted in effectively no way for the denomination to address any clear and obvious errors made by local sessions or presbyteries. The new language here would allow for a legitimate path forward, and to balance out this new procedure, the threshold for instituting Original Jurisdiction has been raised to 10% of churches or presbyteries for their respective courts. This would result in a high bar for Original Jurisdiction requests, which would not come easily, but would allow a genuine way for issues to be handled and addressed. I believe Overture 8 is very much needed in the PCA, and I hope to see it pass.
ITEM 1 (Overture 15) Amend BCO 7 to disqualify from office men describing themselves as homosexual.
Overture 15 represents perhaps the most controversial item before us this year. Overture 15 passed as a Minority Report, and passed the General Assembly with 54% of the vote. As a matter of self disclosure, I served on the Drafting Committee which wrote the Minority Report for Overture 15, and so I have some obvious bias in favor for Overture 15. This overture would result in the following paragraph being added to our Book of Church Order:
7-4 Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Martin Luther has been famously attributed with saying “Though we be active in the battle, if we are not fighting where the battle is the hottest, we are traitors to the cause.” In our current cultural moment, the battle over sexuality and gender is where the fight is hottest. We have seen the peace and purity of the church disturbed over recent years by those who want to give allowances in this area that the Bible simply does not permit. If the PCA is to remain faithful, we must win this fight. One major concern before us is the matter of ordination, and whether or not those who describe themselves as homosexual(or “gay”) can be ordained in the church. Overture 15 would answer this in a way which is clear, helpful, and needed.
It is clear because, unlike Overture 29 and 31, it directly speaks to this most pressing issue. It’s helpful, because it locates the issue with how a man describes himself. This is a public measurement, that can be evaluated and determined objectively. It is needed, because the peace and purity of the church have been disturbed greatly over this issue, by the allowance of men to persist in teaching errant views which do not conform to Scripture and our Westminster Standards.
I have heard several objections for Overture 15, but they have not been convincing. Some will say it is uncharitable that the overture uses the language of “even those who…claim to practice celibacy”. The overture is not seeking to evaluate motives, but rather, is trying to focus on the fact that such a claim does not disregard the main issue. Another objection is that it is possible that this new language will be misused and even possibly abused towards some men pursuing ministry, who are truly walking in holiness, though they may occasionally battle temptation in this arena. While it is always possible that some portion of our polity may be misused, the reality is that this represents a hypothetical problem. If this were to arise, there are ways to go about rectifying it. The greater issue before us, however, is an actual disturbance of the peace and purity of the church. We ought not hinder ourselves from rectifying a clear and present problem today, on the possibility that it might not be a perfect solution. I believe Overture 15 is clear, helpful, and needed, and I pray it will pass.
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