The Parity of Elders in the PCA is a Great Idea: Overture 1—Not So Much

Overture 1 proposes to increase the attendance of Ruling Elder commissioners at the PCA General Assembly in relation to the number of Teaching Elders.

While parity of number among elders is an elusive goal, it should be vigorously pursued so that the historic foundation of grass roots Presbyterianism in the PCA is not lost at the court of GA. Instead of changing our BCO with the insufficient fix proposed in Overture 1, the elders of the church should work toward finding solutions that will increase RE participation as commissioners at the PCA General Assembly.

 

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Abstract: The court of the General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) lacks an effective parity of number among ruling elder (RE) and teaching elder (TE) commissioners, but Overture 1 is not a good solution to the problem since it would only increase the number of RE commissioners for those churches that already maximize their RE participation. There were only 58 churches out of the 1,572 churches in the PCA that sent their maximum number of RE commissioners to the 2018 GA, and those churches sent 141 RE commissioners. If a revised Book of Church Order (BCO 14-2) were in effect in 2018 as outlined in Overture 1, and if those same 58 churches maximized their RE participation, only 141 additional RE commissioners would have attended the 2018 GA. Overture 1 would have led, at most, to an increase in the RE commissioner participation rate from 22% to 28% of all commissioners at the 46th GA. Unfortunately, the eligibility of RE commissioners to participate does not often result in actual RE participation, and Overture 1 should be answered in the negative. Other strategies should be vigorously pursued so that the historic foundation of grass roots Presbyterianism in the PCA is not lost at the court of GA.

Overture 1

Overture 1 will be considered by the Overtures Committee and the 47th GA of the PCA in the fourth week of June. It is a proposal that its creators hope will increase the numbers of RE commissioners who participate in the annual GA in relation to the historically higher numbers of TE commissioners at the annual assembly. Presented by the Northwest Georgia Presbytery, the Overture seeks to amend Chapter 14, paragraph 2, of the PCA’s BCO to address the “severe crisis” of RE underrepresentation.[1] The proposed amendment would double the number of RE commissioners eligible to serve as commissioners. Increasing the number of eligible REs, however, will not automatically ensure a significant increase in RE participation at the annual GA as this report demonstrates.

Elder Parity in the PCA

Elder parity is generally thought of in two ways in historic Presbyterianism, and this is reflected in the PCA’s BCO. The BCO adopted at the first PCA GA in 1973 guarantees a “parity of authority” among elders but not a “parity of number.” Parity of number in the courts of the church is an aspiration, but it is not guaranteed in all cases. The PCA adopted a two-office view (the offices of Elders and Deacons) with the BCO describing TEs and REs as belonging to “one class of office” and REs possessing the “same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elder” (BCO 8-9). As the GA’s 1979 Ad-Interim Committee on Number of Offices stated, “the concept of parity does not refer to equality of numbers but rather equality of condition, rank, and value.”[2]

Concerning parity of number among TEs and REs, there are some ways in which this is guaranteed by the PCA constitution. For example, the committees of the GA “are to be established on the basis of an equal number between teaching and ruling elders” (BCO 14-1.10).[3] There have been situations in recent history when parity “on the basis of an equal number” was not maintained on GA committees, but this is the constitutional aspiration.[4] BCO 15-1 also provides a guarantee on the parity of number when a Presbytery creates a commission. While attaining parity of number is elusive in some church courts, in all church courts of the PCA there is a constitutionally guaranteed parity of authority among TEs and REs….

Conclusion

The historical data show clearly that the PCA lacks an effective parity of number among RE and TE commissioners in the court of GA. While almost any proposal to increase REs in the court of GA is a worthy cause to consider, Overture 1 is not a good solution to the problem, and it should be answered in the negative (i.e., it should be defeated). There were only 58 churches out of the 1,572 churches in the PCA that sent the maximum number of REs to the 2018 GA. Those churches sent 141 RE commissioners. If Overture 1 were passed, and if those 58 churches maximized their RE participation under the revised BCO 14-2 created by Overture 1, it would have meant, hypothetically, that only 141 additional REs would have attended the 2018 GA. The RE commissioners in 2018 were 21.7% of the total number or RE and TE commissioners. Overture 1 would have led, at the most, to an RE participation count at the 2018 GA of 475 or 28.3% of the total commissioners.

An increase from 22% RE participation at GA to 28% RE participation is not the level of RE participation to which the court of GA should aspire. It is worth noting that at the 2018 GA only 9.7% of the available RE commissioner slots were filled from the 1,572 churches of the PCA. There already exists a great deal of capacity for additional RE participation at GA.

While parity of number among elders is an elusive goal, it should be vigorously pursued so that the historic foundation of grass roots Presbyterianism in the PCA is not lost at the court of GA. Instead of changing our BCO with the insufficient fix proposed in Overture 1, the elders of the church should work toward finding solutions that will increase RE participation as commissioners at the PCA General Assembly.

This article is used with permission.