The PCA is 40 years old. It seems sad, then, that we’re still learning, only by fits and starts, that the mature way to define boundaries of doctrine and practice is by study, first in presbyteries — praying, reasoning, and arguing in a setting where relationships are strong and needed time can be taken — and then bringing matters to General Assembly, where a thousand men — many of them strangers to each other — make final decisions.
Pastor Rick Phillips enunciated the principle in the last issue of byFaith: “Unity always takes place within the context of personal relationships,” he said. And he’s right. If we ignore that, we’ll act nobly but rashly in our zeal to be faithful to God’s Word and to our Confessional Standards — which I think we did at the 40th General Assembly when we dealt with Overture 30, “concerning intinction,” (the dipping of the bread into the wine in the Lord’s Supper).
A minority of the Overtures Committee set aside the language of Overture 30, which sought to prohibit intinction. They drafted a new revision to the Book of Church of Order 58-5 and, because there was no time for the Overtures Committee to review, much less to debate the change, it was presented directly to the Assembly.
Surely the current rules need to be changed: No proposed amendment to the Constitution should be presented to the Assembly without first being debated by the Overtures Committee.
More significantly, the minority’s reasoning is inconsistent. Their argument simply pulls one command from our Lord’s words at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:27), “Drink,” and uses that as grounds to prohibit intinction. But it ignores the rest of the command, “Drink of it, all of you.” By their logic, individual cups should be prohibited too, since the most natural — and common — interpretation is that Jesus passed His cup and commanded all His disciples to drink from it.
And our Standards? Taken in its historical context, the Westminster Directory for Worship is clearly referring to a common cup in Chapter 58-5. Jesus, of course, drank wine, and the Directory therefore prescribes that, too. Yet, no one insists that we prohibit grape juice. But why not? Nor does anyone demand that we have a church meal in connection with the Lord’s Supper, which seems to be the New Testament pattern (see Matthew 26:26 and I Corinthians 11:17-26).
Core questions have simply not been addressed carefully: By what principles do we distinguish good practice from bad? What should we require? What should we forbid? And where might we want to encourage or discourage a practice while neither mandating nor prohibiting it?
If we’re to attain “peace through unity in the truth,” as one brother eloquently puts it, we have to be wiser. It is not mature for us to be defining doctrine and practice by overture to the General Assembly. Doctrinal deliberations should begin at presbytery, where we can reflect and reason together with greater care and mutual esteem, and then rise up to the General Assembly.
Ron Lutjens is senior pastor of Old Orchard Church in Webster Groves, Mo.