Forty-seven Overtures Await the 48th General Assembly
By Larry Hoop
48th General Assembly

Each year, the PCA’s General Assembly gathers to consider, and then accept or reject, several overtures. These are typically made by the denomination’s 88 presbyteries. To learn how overtures come to the Assembly, see The Path of a General Assembly Overture.”

Of the 47 overtures before the 48th General Assembly, several are likely to generate vigorous debate, including three that will be discussed away from the Assembly floor.

Overtures Relating to Sexuality and Identity

Overtures 2 from Central Georgia, 4 from Savannah River, and 25 from Southeast Alabama invoke a seldom-used provision of the Book of Church Order (BCO) (Section 34-1) that calls for the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) to assume jurisdiction when a presbytery “refuses to act in doctrinal cases or cases of public scandal.” These presbyteries allege that Missouri Presbytery “refused to act” on allegations against Teaching Elder Greg Johnson and the session of his church, Memorial Presbyterian of St. Louis.

These overtures are now before the SJC, which has appointed a seven-man committee to determine whether the provisions of BCO 34-1 apply. Consequently, they will not be debated on the Assembly floor.

Further complicating the issue is that a complaint on the matter, filed by a member of Missouri Presbytery, has been taken to the SJC. The Commission has determined that a decision on whether Missouri Presbytery has refused to act should not be made before this process is complete.

Four other overtures, all related to qualification for ordination with an emphasis on sexuality and identity, will likely stir debate.

Overture 23 from Gulf Coast Presbytery calls for the addition of a paragraph to Chapter 17 of the BCO, which defines ordination. The proposed addition would declare a man who identifies as a “gay Christian,” “same sex attracted Christian,” or “homosexual Christian” as unfit for ordination.

With biblical qualifications for character and morality already appearing in the BCO, this would be the first instance in the BCO that so specific an aspect of character or morality would be listed so as to automatically disqualify someone from ordained office.

Westminster Presbytery has approved Overture 16 which addresses the same issue but calls for a change to a different section of the BCO. It would amend BCO 7, which identifies the church offices, by adding language that would disqualify any who identify as homosexual, including those who “claim to practice celibacy,” from holding church office.

The Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) concluded that both overtures are in conflict with BCO 12-5.b, 13-9.a, 21-4, and 24-1 which state it is the right and responsibility of the lower courts to determine if the candidate is qualified according to biblical qualifications.

Lowcountry Presbytery has submitted Overture 30, which would provide a broader consideration of a candidate’s character. Specifically, this overture would amend BCO 21-4 to require that specific attention be given to “notorious” concerns during a candidate’s examination. These would include “relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, and financial mismanagement.”

Overture 30 further calls on examiners to reflect on a candidate’s struggle against sinful actions and persistent sinful desires. And calls on candidates to give clear testimony to their reliance on their union with Christ and the work of the Spirit to make progress over their sin.

It goes on to state that a candidate should not be known “by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness.”

Eastern Pennsylvania Presbytery has submitted Overture 37, which is nearly identical.

Twenty-eight of the remaining 38 overtures fall into four broad categories:

Six Overtures Relate to Study Committees.

Overture 32 from Central Indiana Presbytery and Overture 43 from Hills and Plains Presbytery request that the Assembly appoint a committee to study biblical ethics in digital media.

Overture 36, from Chesapeake Presbytery, calls for a committee to study white supremacy. Another overture from Chesapeake, Overture 47, calls for a committee to study critical race theory.

The Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) allows only two study committees to be continued or appointed in any given year, unless two-thirds of the Assembly’s commissioners vote otherwise. Because the Study Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, appointed at the 2019 Assembly, is expected to ask for an additional year to complete its work, only one of these could be appointed without a supermajority vote.

Overture 38 from Calvary Presbytery asks that the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality, presented to this General Assembly, be declared a biblically faithful declaration and referred to the Committee on Discipleship Ministries “for inclusion and promotion among its denominational teaching materials.”

In addition, Overture 17, from Pacific Northwest calls for an amendment to the RAO concerning how study committees are funded.

Nine Overtures Deal With the BCO Form of Government:

Overture 1 from Potomac Presbytery would require chaplains who need ecclesiastical endorsement to seek it though the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains (PRCC).

Overture 5 from Calvary would change the requirement for election of church officers (including the pastor) from a majority of voters present to a majority of votes cast.

Overtures 6 from Covenant Presbytery and Overture 18 from Pacific Northwest Presbytery would alter the officer nomination process to give sessions more flexibility in eliminating unqualified candidates and in the timing of officer examination.

The CCB found Overture 6 constitutionally vague because it does not identify a means by which a nominee is deemed qualified or unqualified. It found no such problem in the similar change proposed by Overture 18.

Overtures 9 and 10 from Ascension Presbytery would increase the number of members of the Overture Committee of the General Assembly required to file a minority report with the GA. It would also limit the arguments of that report to those presented in the OC meeting.

Overture 15, sent by New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Abingdon, Maryland, after it was rejected by Chesapeake Presbytery, would redefine prohibited communications to the GA as including “digital communication for vote coordination be[ing] transmitted or received by any person or portion of the General Assembly while in session.”

Overture 26 from Philadelphia Metro West Presbytery would permit meetings of General Assembly, presbyteries, and churches by telecommunication if the arrangements meet certain conditions. It would also authorize subordinate committees, commissions, and agencies to do the same.

The CCB ruled that this proposal creates a conflict with RAO 1-1 which requires GA to open with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper which, in the opinion of the CCB, cannot be held virtually.

Overture 31 from Northwest Georgia would allow an assistant pastor, after one year’s service, to be called by the same congregation to serve as associate pastor without the election of a pulpit committee.

The CCB noted that the overture assumes a provision not currently required by the Constitution – that a pulpit committee must select an associate pastor.

These overtures were referred to the Overtures Committee.

Thirteen Overtures Would Change BCO Rules of Discipline

Overture 12, from Philadelphia Metro West, would require church courts to investigate allegations against members before instituting a formal process against them.

Overtures 19, 33, 34, and 35, all from Pacific Northwest Presbytery, would clarify the procedures for conducting cases without process that involve a confession of sin.   

Overtures 20 and 21, also from Pacific Northwest, would require super-majority votes of a court to suspend a person from office or from receiving the Lord’s Supper prior to completion of that person’s appeal of the censure.

Overture 22 from Pacific Northwest proposes changes to the Rules of Discipline, BCO 32-20. The revisions acknowledge that while no “statute of limitations” for prosecution of offenses exists, a member of a court could vote against hearing a case should conditions (such as time elapsed since the offense was committed) warrant.

Overture 27 would require that the censure of excommunication be administered or announced to the church in a public setting.

The CCB found an internal conflict in this overture as written. It is required in BCO 36-6 that a censure of excommunication must be administered publicly, while BCO 36-2 would allow it to be either administered publicly or merely announced publicly.

In Overtures 28 and 29, Philadelphia Metro West Presbytery proposes a detailed, mandatory process for investigating an allegation prior to bringing formal charges against a member. Overture 28 would add this process to the Rules of Discipline, and Overture 29 add an Appendix to the BCO with further explanation of the provisions.

The CCB found multiple conflicts between these proposals and other provisions of the Constitution, including removal of the “great discretion” provided to courts in BCO 31-2; conflict with representation at the discretion of the accused (BCO 32-19); conflict with obtaining response from the accused that is not required; and conflation of later elements of the Rules of Discipline.

In Overtures 40 Tennessee Valley Presbytery proposes a change that would allow “reasonable accommodations to shield accusers from face-to-face contact with the accused” in cases involving child, domestic or sexual abuse, or sexual assault. Overture 41, from the same presbytery, would remove the BCO provision that limits testimony to believers of those judged to be of “sufficient age or intelligence” to testify.

Other Overtures

These 10 overtures don’t fit neatly into any broader categories:

Overture 3 from Heritage Presbytery and Overture 14 from Evangel Presbytery call for additional language in the Mission to the World (MTW) manual to “ensure that non-elders serving with MTW are not placed in ecclesiastical positions of authority over elders, churches, or church plants.” The Heritage overture would allow the appointment of a nonordained man to such a position in extraordinary cases.

Four overtures — 8, 11, 42 and 44 — ask for changes to presbytery boundaries.

Overture 13, from Mississippi Valley Presbytery, calls for the Assembly to endorse the work of Lifeline Children’s Services.

Two overtures — 24 from Tennessee Valley Presbytery and 39 from Fellowship Presbytery — call for the General Assembly registration fee for ruling elders to be reduced from $450 to $250.

Three overtures — 45 proposed by Metro Atlanta Presbytery, 46 from Metropolitan New York, and 48 from Korean Capital – have arisen from the recent increase in violence against Asian Americans in the past year. Overtures 45 and 46 call for the General Assembly to pursue several avenues to highlight the Asian-American experience in America and in the PCA and suggest a pastoral letter as a means to provide care for Asian American members in light of the recent rise in violence against Asian Americans.

Overture 48 recommends the Assembly take more extensive actions for the same purpose. It calls for the Assembly to strongly repudiate the sin of anti-Asian racism; to reject and condemn the sexual objectification of Asian women; to denounce the use of discriminatory anti-Asian rhetoric, racist jokes, mocking, and other actions inconsistent with Biblical ethics; to exhort its ministers to faithfully and regularly teach the doctrine of Imago Dei and its implications as well as the implications of the gospel that call us to love and protect their neighbors regardless of race, ethnicity, and nationality; to exhort our ministers to teach that social change must go hand-in-hand with the proclamation of the gospel; and to consider a variety of ways we as a denomination may have either explicitly or implicitly contributed to anti-Asian racism.

Read all of these overtures on the PCA’s General Assembly Resources page.

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