Understanding the PCA General Assembly
Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. – Acts 19:32
Acts 19:32 describes a gathering in Ephesus, but unfortunately many elders have had similar experiences at a PCA General Assembly (GA). While they may strive to be good churchmen, they leave frustrated and disappointed that they could not be more effective as a churchman in the General Assembly.
This unfortunate experience, however, could be improved by knowing what is happening before attending the Assembly. In this article, I’d like to first review the important committees of the General Assembly, and then review just five key votes to be aware of in order to make a difference at the Assembly.
LIKE A PRESBYTERY MEETING…BUT BIGGER
The General Assembly should not be prohibitively intimidating for the elder who has attended presbytery meetings on a regular basis. We are familiar with our presbytery committees organizing the business of the presbytery in a way that allows for a smooth meeting. The General Assembly operates in much the same way.
Despite the similarities, there are differences between presbytery meetings and the General Assembly meeting. For one thing, the General Assembly usually has over a thousand commissioners while a presbytery usually has under a hundred. Thus, most of the work of General Assembly is first done in committees and then approved by the full Assembly. While the General Assembly meets, it also hosts many more activities unrelated to the work of the church and worship, such as activities for wives and children and several meals dedicated to various groups and seminaries.
Permanent Committees and Agencies
As stated above, the PCA GA gives a great deal of its business and duties to its various committees due to the large size of the Assembly. This came about in our history out of sheer necessity related to its size, with an inability of over 1,000 commissioners deliberating and acting in a timely manner. This has led to the committees of the PCA to being much more independent, and granted more powers, than many equivalents in other NAPARC denominations or in their presbytery-level counterparts. In practice, the Permanent Committees of the PCA are actually somewhere in between committees (that study and then let the body act) and commissions (that act on behalf of the body).
These Committees oversee various important functions, such as church planting (MNA), missionary work (MTW), college ministries (RUF), and various financial responsibilities (RBI, PCA Foundation, etc). The PCA Committees often are empowered to make many actions on their own in regards to staff, materials, and actions.
Some of the Committees of the PCA resemble commissions in even greater ways. For instance, there also exists another sort of Permanent Committee called a “Board” or, in the language of the RAO IV, an “Agency.” The institutions of the PCA, such as Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary—while they have boards selected by the PCA’s GA—choose their own presidents, professors and staff, and do so without significant input from the GA (beyond choosing the Board). Those Boards also give suggestions to the General Assembly’s Nominating Committee as to whom to nominate to their Boards, and these suggestions are largely followed.
The final Permanent Committee, the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), is actually fully recognized as a Commission. The SJC was set up to deal with any church discipline cases appealed from the presbytery level. This Standing Judicial Commission has a 24-member roster (12 Teaching Elders and 12 Ruling Elders on rotating 4-year terms). They conduct and conclude trials without the input of General Assembly, and their decision functions as the action of the General Assembly on their behalf as a final decision. The only way the General Assembly may have a sway on cases (other than choosing the members of the SJC) is if there is a sufficient minority (1/3 according to BCO 15.5c) to bring a minority report to the floor of General Assembly for the Assembly to decide themselves. (This, incidentally, has not yet happened as of the 2019 General Assembly).
That means the Permanent Committees, Boards, and Standing Judicial Commission conduct a great deal of the work of the Assembly in the PCA, and so commissioners at General Assembly often have less felt input than other NAPARC denominations. To aid an oversight, there are two other types of committees besides the Permanent Committees.
The first type of committee that has oversight over Permanent Committees and Agencies is called a Special Committee. The PCA has two Special Committees: the Nominating Committee and the Review of Presbytery Records. The Nominating Committee reviews nominations from presbyteries of men to serve on the various Permanent Committees and makes recommendations based on their resumes as to who would be best qualified to serve on these Permanent Committees. The Review of Presbytery Records reads and reviews the minutes of the presbyteries, insuring they have followed both form and the Standards in their proceedings. (Instances of error or irregularity are reported to the broader General Assembly for correction.)
Committees of Commissioners
The second type of committee that provides oversight are the Committees of Commissioners (CoC’s) that meet before General Assembly. Presbyteries send a Ruling or Teaching Elders delegate to serve on one of these committees. Each Permanent Committee and Agency has a CoC. The Permanent Committee or Agency makes a number of recommendations to the General Assembly—covering everything from their budget to the approval of any major decision the committee or agency wishes to pursue. Permanent Committees or Agencies can also be assigned overtures from lower courts if the subject matter of the overture pertains to their function. The Committees of Commissioners review the minutes of the meetings of the Permanent Committee or Agency to which they are assigned as well as whatever recommendations they make regarding budget or like matters that GA is asked to approve. Occasionally the CoC will revise a recommendation or recommend against their motions.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR DURING GENERAL ASSEMBLY
If you are concerned that the Committees of the General Assembly are doing all the work and wonder what difference a commissioner makes at GA: Here are five significant actions elders can take when they attend General Assembly.
1. Attend a Committee of Commissioners (CoC)
Most PCA elders will never serve on a Permanent Committee. Yet, every elder who attends General Assembly should serve on a Committee of Commissioners (CoC). These committees are checks on the work of Permanent Committees in the PCA. I have been on CoC’s that have discovered actions done (unintentionally) that were out of accord with our Book of Church Order. Often the Committee will thank you for letting them know and strive to be transparent and have their records and actions in order for the sake of trust. Committees also make recommendations for actions of the Assembly. Sometimes these recommendations need to be amended to help focus on the local church, or even to be eliminated. In previous years, a single elder has risen even after a Committee of Commissioners reviewed a recommendation and sunk a recommendation that was not fully thought through or out of step with our Standards.
2. Vote on Nominations (of Committees and Boards)
The Nominating Committee selects and recommends names to join the boards of the Permanent Committees. These nominations come from the presbyteries and then the Nominating Committee is directed to choose the best qualified candidates, while also attempting to give wide representation to the over 80 presbyteries for their members between similarly qualified candidates. Yet, commissioners are allowed to nominate men while at General Assembly if there is an opening with no nominee, or if they just want to run one man against another in a slot because they think one is better qualified. Commissioners to General Assembly should look early on at the Nomination Committee Notes to decide who they will vote for to fill the important committee assignments. (If you are unfamiliar with the men nominated, it is perfectly acceptable to ask other elders who have been around longer or have been more involved in the courts of the church. They may have more knowledge of the character and qualifications of the men who have been nominated). [See BCO 14-1-11 for more on this committee.]
3. Review of Presbytery Records (RPR)
All Presbyteries submit their records to the General Assembly and a committee known as the Review of Presbytery Records reads, reviews, and (hopefully) approves their minutes. They also find things that may not have been done properly, and let a presbytery know if they need to revise their process. This may relate to their worship, their form, or even their ordination of ministers and citing of exceptions. Ever since the passage of “Good Faith Subscription” in 2002, this committee has become increasingly important as the Assembly also has input on what sort of exceptions rise to the level of “striking at the vitals,” and that usually happens in the context of RPR doing its job. Just a few years ago, the General Assembly directed the Review of Presbytery Records to cite and correct a presbytery that approved a teaching elder who took exception with male-only ordination of elders. [See RAO 16, in particular 16-6, and BCO 40-2 for more on this committee.]
4. Vote on Overtures
The most watched Committee of Commissioners at General Assembly certainly is Overtures Committee. Overtures are requests from the lower courts or, in some cases, from individuals or sessions that the General Assembly act in some specified way. Sometimes overtures regard the redrawing of maps of Presbyteries, splitting presbyteries that have grown too large, or re-appropriating a territory if a presbytery has greater ability to target an area with church plants or closer oversight. Sometimes these overtures are for GA to start a process of amending the Book of Church Order in how the church does certain things, or could even be to amend the Westminster Standards. These changes must be carefully considered as they sometimes introduce inconsistencies within our Book of Church Order and other times may introduce unforeseen problems that only arise well down the road.
It is important to note that the Overtures Committee operates differently than all other committees that report to the General Assembly. First, it is a much larger committee in that it is comprised of both a Ruling and a Teaching Elder delegate from each Presbytery. Second, the Overtures Committee has much greater ability to amend the overtures placed before it. Third, the recommendations from the Overtures Committee to the General Assembly are not amendable on the floor. According to the RAO, all the Assembly can do is vote in favor of the recommendation of the committee, vote against that recommendation, or refer the matter back to the Overtures Committee (without instructions). Fourth, those who were on the Overtures Committee cannot usually enter the debate on the floor of the Assembly. [See RAO 15-6 for more on this committee.]
5. Vote on BCO changes
In the beginning of the Assembly, if any changes to the Book of Church Order were approved the previous year and ratified by the required number of presbyteries, then the General Assembly must again vote to accept those changes. As recently as 2019, BCO changes approved at all but the last stage have been defeated; so this is not a perfunctory vote. [See BCO 26-2 for more on this.]
If it is your first time at GA, hopefully this will help you know when to pay close attention. You may also read up on chapter 14 of the Book of Church Order, as well as skim the Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) in the back of the BCO. You don’t need to know the entirety of Roberts Rules of Order, consulting a “Quick Guide” can be very helpful and clarifying [for instance see https://diphi.web.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2645/2012/02/MSG-ROBERTS_RULES_CHEAT_SHEET.pdf
Finally, sit near someone who has been to a few General Assemblies in the past who can help you figure out the flow of the meeting and help make the experience more pleasant than painful. After attending Assemblies for the past ten years, I must admit, I genuinely find them to be an enjoyable and edifying experience. Such an experience is possible, especially if you remember that the Assembly work is a way to serve Christ and His bride, the church.