It’s that time of year again for the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA)—summer is here and General Assembly (GA) is upon us. GA is the annual gathering of pastors (Teaching Elders or TEs) and elders (Ruling Elders or REs) that serves as a meeting of the entire Church, an opportunity for friends to catch up, and a convention where a variety of ministries connect with people. I have been attending GA since 2001 (in Dallas), first as a Ruling Elder, and after 2006, as a Teaching Elder. Over the course of those many years, I have noticed a continued and disturbing trend at GA: the tenor and tone of discourse is often unbecoming of a church gathering. I wonder what many would think if the media actually covered our GA and published extensive quotes from our debates? Now let me be clear, I am not saying that men should not vigorously discuss important issues, or that we should not seek to sharpen each other using Scripture. I am saying that we need to be wise in our speech, no less than if we were speaking to our congregation from the pulpit or in a congregational meeting. Wisdom, discretion, and patience are important qualities for a churchman.
Learn Before You Teach
Let me start with a principle that might seem obvious, but my observation of GA teaches me otherwise: you need to learn before you can teach. What that means is that if you are a young man at his first GA or two, you really should not be quick to jump up to the microphone to share all your insights. This is not because every man just needs to wait his turn or navigate some hazing ritual, but the best way to develop skill and to understand how to be effective speaking at GA is to watch and learn. This is the biblical principle expressed in James 1:19, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.” Far too often, new commissioners (especially young pastors) believe that they have a burden to immediately correct the problems and errors in the PCA. What most do not realize is that they do not know the way that arguments have been conducted in the past, or why certain polity structures are the way they are. They have no experience with past debates, and they have not heard what the more experienced, wise elders have expressed on a given topic. Think about it this way: how would you like it if a stranger came into your congregation and at a meeting immediately tried to tell you what your church should do, without having any background or experience with your church’s life and ministry? I would encourage newer commissioners to watch and learn and to trust the Lord that there will be other more experienced commissioners who will make the point you wanted to make.
Remember Where You Are
If you do speak, an important consideration is to remember where you are. You are not in a town hall meeting. You are not in a debate with an atheist. You are not even at a community gathering of various denominations of Christians. You are at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. You are among fellow elders, men who have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, who have been nominated, trained, and elected to serve the Lord in their congregations, and who have taken a vow “faithfully to perform all the duties [of an elder], and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your life, and to set a worthy example before the Church” (BCO 24-6, vow #4). I realize that we all do not agree on every issue in the PCA. I even realize that there are sharp disagreements about significant matters in the PCA. But it would do us all well to remember that in the midst of our disagreement, we are brothers. The belief that Jesus Christ is fully God, or that God is the Author of the authoritative and sufficient Scriptures, or that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone is not up for grabs. To understand that does not make us milquetoast, indecisive men. Paul and Barnabas disagreed so sharply that they could no longer work closely together in ministry (Acts 15:39). But neither Paul nor Barnabas viewed the other as the equivalent of a Pharisee, or a Roman centurion. We can, and should (yea, must!) disagree without viewing our “opponents” as those who wish to destroy the Church or abandon Jesus. GA is a meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ, and we should treat it as such.
To Whom Are You Speaking?
At the same time that we realize that GA is gathering of not only Christians, but Presbyterian Christians, we cannot help but see that there are issues that divide us. Those issues are not as crucial as those that divide us from unbelievers, or even as fundamental as those that divide us from our Baptist or Methodist brethren, but they do divide us. It is important that we think critically and hard about the way in which we conduct our mission efforts, the interpretation of Reformed distinctives, and church government issue, among other things. Elders in the Church are called to stand for the truth of God’s Word, and to seek the Lord’s will in how we make disciples and carry out the Great Commission. The very fact that GA is a meeting of the Church with motions, debate, and votes guarantees disagreement. But here, I’d like to take a moment to point out how to be effective (in my judgment) when speaking. Many bemoan the fact that in our public discourse today there are two sides speaking past each other, each with their own news outlets, websites, and publications. Just a quick glance at any number of Facebook threads will show that little effort is made to convince others; instead, all the effort is put into voicing one’s opinion as stridently and loudly as one can. This is exactly not the way to speak at GA. The floor of GA is not about sound bites or making an impression. It is about debating, perfecting, and passing motions. To do that, you must get a majority vote (sometimes a super-majority). Like virtually every deliberative body, the GA has many men who are undecided on a given issue. They are not the strident partisans. They may not even have taken the time in advance to fully think through the issue, preferring to listen to the debate on the floor. These are the men to address when speaking at GA. Do not try to score points with zingers or one-liners that you can laugh about later with friends. Approach your speeches with sobriety and speak informatively, practically, and judiciously.
You Do Not Need to Speak to Every Issue
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not address an issue that almost everyone is aware of but few speak about: the practice of some in the Assembly to feel the need to rise to the microphone and speak to every single issue. I understand that GA is important (I agree—that is why I usually serve on at least two GA committees each year!). I understand that men are passionate about the Church. But I would caution men (especially newer commissioners) that their influence and persuasive ability is inversely proportional to how frequently they rise to a microphone. Once a man has spoken on his third, fourth, or fifth (!) issue, eyes begin to glaze over, and his words have much less effect. I am not speaking about making brief or necessary parliamentary motions or questioning a decision of the Moderator. I mean insisting on making full, substantive speech after full, substantive speech on nearly every issue before the GA. I have a reminder for myself that I think others would do well to heed: “you are not Cicero.” That is, we should not think that we have to speak to a given issue or all will be lost. There are many other (1200+) elders in the room. Many share the same opinion that you have. Give them an opportunity to speak.
I am looking forward to GA this year, attending as I usually do with my wife and several elders from our church. I love the work of the Church. I love the Church because Jesus placed so high a value on her that He laid down His life for her. You will see me working in committees, making points of order, and even occasionally speaking substantively to an issue. It is always my hope and prayer that at GA we will glorify the Lord Jesus Christ and do the Lord’s will.