Monday, July 2, 2012

PCA General Assembly Sidesteps Escalating Controversies 

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America seemed reluctant to escalate controversy on four disputed topics at its 40th annual gathering in Louisville, Ky. in June, opting instead to rely on previous pronouncements and historic confessions or deferring decisions for a year.

The hotly debated issues included:
  • Admission of very young children who have not made a public profession of faith to the Lord’s Supper.
  • Theistic evolution and the historical reality of Adam.
  • The legitimacy of a growing practice to serve the bread and wine/juice of the Lord’s Supper as a single element.
  • The church’s response to so-called “insider movements,” efforts to blend Islam and Christianity.
Three presbyteries had approved men for ordination who hold to paedo-communion (admitting to the Lord’s Table very young children, perhaps even infants). The Assembly concluded that responses of a committee in the three cases were not consistent with one another, and remanded the cases to the committee for report to next year’s Assembly. Conservatives seeking official clarity on the issue warned that the problem of paedo-communion (said to be contrary to the PCA’s standards in substantive ways) is a growing problem in the church and a violation of Scripture’s requirement for self-examination and discernment when partaking of communion. Supporters of the practice claim there are covenantal parallels between the Lord’s Supper and infant baptism. A number of GPTS alumni and supporters opposed the practice during debate.

Two overtures had proposed that the G.A. make a definitive new official statement condemning theistic evolution and affirming that Adam was directly formed by God out of substance that God had created ex nihilo (out of nothing). Instead, the Assembly approved a third overture arguing that such a statement was not necessary, as church standards are already sufficiently clear. Conservatives, including many associated with Greenville Seminary, argued that previous pronouncements apparently are not sufficient, since theistic evolution and doubts about the special creation of Adam continue to grow within the church and its educational institutions. Ultimately, this means that cases regarding ordained men who hold these views will have to be brought through the church courts for adjudication.

The third issue dealt with the practice of “intinction” — serving the Lord’s Supper by dipping the bread or wafer into the wine or juice, thus combining  the two sacramental acts of eating and drinking into one. One overture proposed that changes to the Book of Church Order be prepared  to make it explicitly clear that such a practice is contrary to the PCA’s constitution. This overture was approved. Thus there will be during the next year a great deal of discussion of the practice in PCA presbyteries. It was clear from the debate that this practice, though performed by a minority, is growing within the PCA. Proponents say it facilitates communicants sharing hygienically in a “common cup” and thus promotes unity. Opponents say intinction blurs the spiritual distinctions between and significance of the separate elements of the bread and wine/juice.

Last year, the G.A. formed a special committee to study “insider movements” and their effect on Bible translations and evangelization of Muslims. The committee reported that there are a number of “insider movements” in Muslim countries that claim the Biblical language of father and son referring to God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, inhibits the evangelization of Muslims. Bible translations have arisen that avoid the father-son terminology in reference to God and Jesus Christ and use such terms as "guardian" and "representative" instead. “Insider” advocates say Muslims who profess Jesus may continue with Muslim worship practices since Islam's Allah and the Christian God are one and the same, but opponents say this is unbiblical syncretism. (See videos here.) Debate at the G.A. concerned the accuracy of parts of the committee report, and some claimed it improperly impugned the practices of certain well-known Bible translation organizations. The committee was extended for another year, and a full report will be brought to next year’s Assembly in Greenville, S.C.

(Editor's Note: Dr. Benjamin Shaw contributed substantially to the above report. For his commentary on the G.A. debates, visit his GPTSRabbi blog.)