Reflections from Inside the Overtures Committee at the 46th PCA General Assembly

Or, how the proposed amendment to BCO 59, the Marriage Chapter, at the PCA GA was finally drafted and approved.

The PCA General Assembly voted to propose that BCO 59-3 be given constitutional authority and amended it to read: Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24-25; Matt. 19:4-6; 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.” This proposal must be approved by 2/3 of the PCA Presbyteries to take effect.

 

The 46th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a confessionally Reformed denomination, met in Atlanta June 12-15, 2018. One of the issues before the GA created a lot of online buzz; it was about the debate on making “constitutionally binding” a chapter of the Book of Church Order (BCO), which is a part of the PCA’s constitutional document of government and practice.

All PCA elders have to take a vow to declare that they believe that Scripture is infallible and authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. They confess this belief and their shared interpretation of what the Bible teaches in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism, i.e., the Westminster Standards. The BCO is like the operating manual by which the PCA practices these beliefs and its form for church government.

The PCA’s Book of Church Order has binding elements that are constitutional (provisions that ordained officers are required to follow), as well as other non-binding provisions that we sometimes call “pious advice” (things that are important and by which church officers can guide the ministry of the church).

When the PCA originally adopted the BCO, not every section of the Directory of Worship portion was given binding constitutional authority. Three of these chapters were given constitutional authority: BCO 56 on Baptism; BCO 57 on Church Membership; and BCO 58 on the Lord’s Supper. All of the other chapters of the Directory for Worship were not granted constitutional authority. However, while they do not have the force of law they should be taken seriously as the mind of the Church agreeable to the Standards.

Partly due to recent events in our culture, efforts have been made over the last few years to make BCO 59, the chapter on marriage, constitutionally binding. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is a part of the PCA’s constitution, expresses the PCA’s theological views. Chapter 24 teaches and affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman. However, while the Confession defined marriage in this way, BCO 59, the chapter on marriage, did not have the corresponding binding authority regarding the Confession’s view of marriage. Over the years some Presbyteries requested the General Assembly to correct this anomaly by making BCO 59 binding.

It is here that there were some confusing reports about the nature of the debate at GA regarding amending BCO 59. This account will hopefully provide some of the discussions that led to the final decision, and clarify any lingering questions.

THE INITIAL DEBATE AT GENERAL ASSEMBLY

The General Assembly met and took up the debate on BCO 59, among others, in a subset of the Assembly called “Overtures Committee.” This Committee is composed of hundred or so elders who are tasked with bringing a perfected proposal to the floor of the Assembly, with close to a thousand elders present, for consideration.

When the BCO 59 issue was taken up in the Overtures Committee, there were four different overtures dealing with the same issue. The Committee decided to use the wording of Overture 24 as the means by which to debate the matter. From the outset it was clear that there was opposition to granting BCO 59, the marriage chapter, constitutional authority. Why this opposition in the PCA, a denomination of bible believing orthodox Christians? Let me explain:

It was clear that every elder on the Overtures Committee affirmed the paragraph that defined a marriage as between one man and one woman (BCO 59-3).  The issue arose with some of the wording in others sections of BCO 59. For example, some suggested that we remove or change the wording in the section that required ministers to keep a record of their marriages they performed (BCO 59-7). Some had not kept records and were concerned of coming under discipline for something they had not been required to do before.

Others spoke to eliminate a paragraph that spoke of parental compulsion to marry in a way that used confusing language about “inclinations” that might could be interpreted differently (BCO 59-5).

Still others were concerned with an older Puritan conviction against a minister being required to perform marriages at all (BCO-59-2).

There were some concerned with the paragraph on obedience to the civil magistrates on marriage “so long as they do not transgress the law of God” was sufficiently worded to protect both religious liberty and civil disobedience (BCO 59-1).

And nearly everyone agreed to deleting the confusing paragraph about parental consent (BCO 59-4).

How could anyone be opposed to making this chapter on marriage in our Book of Church Order binding? What could their reasons possibly be? It was obvious that there was no opposition to defining biblical marriage as that between one man and one woman.  The reasons for hesitation were rather the wording in various sections of BCO 59.

As a result of a lack of consensus on how to re-word the various sections, the Overtures Committee deadlocked and a majority voted to recommend to the full GA that Overture 24 be answered in the negative; that is that no changes be made to BCO 59. However, a minority of the Overtures Committee decided to craft a “Minority Report” that would be presented alongside of the Majority Report, which would then allow the full GA to decide which way to proceed.

The elders who worked on drafting the Minority Report aimed at a proposal with three objectives:  Simplicity, Clarity, and Unity. They decided to recommend keeping the first three sections: BCO 59-1, 59-2, 59-3. They reasoned that these three sections had the most Scriptural support.

When the Majority Report and the Minority Report were distributed to all the Commissioners before the presentation of the Overtures committee to the whole Assembly, some of the Committee members who had voted with the majority in the Committee, found themselves able to support the shorter version. Since enough of the members of the Overtures Committee had changed their view on the matter, the Assembly voted to send the Overtures Committee back to work for a second session.

THE SECOND DEBATE OF THE OVERTURES COMMITTEE

After the Assembly sent the Overtures Committee back to work on new wording, the debate began with a motion that the Minority Report become the majority recommendation of the committee. Debate ensued on this motion. A number of elders who had voted in favor the original Majority Report, indicated that they could support making 59-1, 59-2, and 59-3 constitutional.

However, there were still some who were still not settled with the wording in 59-1 and 59-2. It was during this part of the debate that a motion was made to just make BCO 59-3 constitutional, with the rest of BCO 59 remaining “pious advice.” This was attractive to many who wanted to retain the old language in BCO 59 because it was historic and had been useful to them. While there was still some hesitation on not including BCO 59-1 and 59-2, it was obvious that the sentiment was to recommend just BCO 59-3 to the full GA.

Thus, a final motion was made to amend 59-3 by adding a line restricting the practice of ministers who perform marriages (worded as “ministers who solemnize marriage” so as to allow for the liberty of ministers who prefer not to perform weddings).

The final motion as amended was approved by a vote of 104-1 (there was one abstention).  The Overtures Committee now had its recommendation to the full GA, that would grant only BCO 59-3 constitutional authority with the paragraph to read as follows:

Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24-25; Matt. 19:4-6; 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.

After the lengthy debate and multiple motions, the members of the Overtures Committee sang the Doxolgy in thanksgiving to the Lord for his gracious guidance.

When the Committee recommendation was presented to the full GA, it was approved by a vote was 764-12.

The proposed amendment will be sent to the Presbyteries for their vote. The BCO requires that 2/3 of the Presbyteries approve the proposed amendment, and then if it receives this 2/3 vote then the 47th GA must also vote to approve it.

A LESSON LEARNED

Let me say upfront, I had hoped that the Assembly would approve more than just BCO 59-3 to be constitutionally binding. I think there are important issues of practice, especially in 59-1 and 59-2. But I see now those paragraphs are not yet clearly worded enough for some elders to be able to submit their consciences to them. When the sentence about practice was added to BCO 59-3, I was convinced unity, simplicity and clarity were being upheld in the statement we passed.

The conversation over issues related to marriage is not over. Many other legal and pastoral issues related to marriage are being wrestled with in many Presbyteries. But the debate over this overture should teach us that the conversation can only continue as we trust all sides to speak and act with integrity. This, in the end, was what I saw in the Overtures Committee this year. Something encouraging happened in the Committee as I witnessed that graciousness in listening, while maintaining convictions, can end in something as beautiful as a hundred men singing the doxology in thankfulness to God for answering our prayers.

Jared Nelson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, Penn.