Forty-three of the 63 overtures to the 44th General Assembly dealt with confessing and repenting of race-related sins. There were 10 distinct proposals. The others either endorsed or mirrored one of those ten. after much deliberation, the Overtures Committee decided that Overture 43 from Potomac Presbytery provided the base for its ultimate recommendation on the subject, and recommended an amended version to the General Assembly. In its Thursday evening session, the General Assembly adopted that recommendation.
The collaborative approach Potomac Presbytery took in formulating its overture is a story itself. Originally, one of Potomac’s churches submitted an overture nearly identical to Overture 4 from Missouri Presbytery. Another church considered offering an alternative but instead suggested that the matter be referred to a study committee. The presbytery agreed, referring the original overture to its MNA Committee. It also mandated that a forum be held giving any elder in presbytery the opportunity to provide input.
Teaching Elder Scott Seaton, MNA Committee chairman, said that this was the first time Potomac had taken such an approach. Roughly 30 elders attended the committee’s initial forum. Several ruling elders, unable to attend because of work commitments, requested a second forum. That meeting, held on a Saturday, drew 30 more elders.
Teaching Elder Scott Seaton, the presbytery’s MNA Committee chairman, said that this was the first time Potomac had taken such an approach.
During the forum, the church session that proposed the original overture explained its rationale. Others asked questions and expressed opinions; they voiced their concerns and suggested changes. But throughout, Seaton said, the two forums were “sweet.” “They were full of conviction and passion,” he said, “but no one was disrespectful.”
Even so, the discussions revealed points of contention. Some objected to the language relating to “repentance,” arguing that a person can’t repent for others’ sins. Others felt the language of “condemnation,” preferred by some, suggested that responsibility for the racial sin rested on others, not themselves. The discussion led to substantive changes, with the committee opting for the language of “confession.” Such language, the committee believed, had broader semantic range: Confession can signify simple recognition, but it can also acknowledge personal involvement.
Another change concerned Overture 4’s explanation of the phrase “continuing church” in the PCA’s “Message to All the Churches,” adopted at its founding. Overture 4 asserts that “a ‘continuing church’ inherits not only the faith of the predecessor organization, but also the larger history of the Church from which its descends, whether that history is honorable or dishonorable.” It goes on to identify the actions and inaction of “many of our founding denominational leaders and churches” during the civil rights era as “dishonorable.”
A number of presbytery members objected to this language, so the committee replaced it with a description of that history. This description included “the honorable and courageous commitment of our founding denominational leaders and churches” to faithfulness to the Scriptures. At the same time, it recognized that “there were founding denominational leaders and churches who not only failed to pursue racial reconciliation, but also actively worked against it in both church and society.” The description includes the continuing effects of both.
According to Seaton, the committee adopted a number of other changes, all as a consequence of the input they received. “We literally looked at every word or phrase,” he explained.
The final overture was adopted unanimously. Seaton believes this is especially significant given the composition of Potomac Presbytery. “Potomac is a microcosm of the various viewpoints you find in the PCA,” he said. “People from various perspectives were really listening to each other, trying to determine what would be best for the whole denomination.”
In Seaton’s view, the process presbytery adopted is just as important as the overture itself. “I long for the PCA as a whole to have that sort of conversation, where we really listen to everybody.”