50th General Assembly to Consider Thirty Overtures
By Larry Hoop
General Assembly

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of our previous overture coverage. It now includes information on Overtures 28 and 29.

In the PCA, an overture is a proposal from a lower church body to a higher body requesting the higher body to take a particular action. As of April 28, 27 new overtures will be before the 50th General Assembly (GA). In addition, one overture has been carried over from the 49th Assembly. 

Who May Testify 

The overture carried over from last year,  Overture 2021-41, along with three new overtures made this year — 10, 13, and 14 — deal with procedures in ecclesiastical cases. 

Both overtures 2021-41 (O41) and 13 (O13) would change Book of Church Order (BCO) 35 concerning who may testify as a witness in such cases. 

O41 would simply eliminate the first sentence of BCO 35-1, which requires witnesses to be “of proper age and intelligence” to testify and excludes those who “do not believe in the existence of God, or in a future state of rewards and punishments.” O13, however, would not entirely exclude those considerations. It would amend the sentence to read: “All persons generally are competent to testify as witnesses, though the court shall give consideration to age, intelligence, belief in God, relationship to the parties involved, and other like factors in judging testimony.”

O13 would also offer an alternative to the oath witnesses take, which ends with the phrase “as you shall answer it to the great Judge of the living and the dead,” to allow witnesses “who for conscientious reasons prefer to swear or affirm in any other manner, or with other language,” provided the oath “impresses the solemnity of this duty upon the witness’s conscience.” O13 also goes beyond O41 by removing the requirement that a person bringing an accusation must testify in the trial.

In support of allowing fewer restrictions on who may testify, O13 cites the Report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault (DASA) which recommended allowing medical professionals and other persons who may not believe in the existence of God to provide testimony in cases of abuse. Though not stated in its rationale, O41, which was sent to the Assembly prior to the DASA report, appears to have grown out of the deliberations of that Committee. 

Limits on Professional Lawyers

Overtures 10 and 14 are virtually identical, with both seeking to place  limits on professional lawyers serving as counsel in an ecclesiastical trial. Currently, BCO 39-19 allows accused parties to be represented by any member of the court, but prohibits the use of “professional counsel” in ecclesiastical trials. 

In 1999, the Committee on Constitutional Business issued an opinion that this referred to an attorney/client relationship in which the counsel was compensated for his work. 

O10 and O14 would prohibit professional attorneys or employees of a law firm from appearing in a case or assisting with oral or written arguments, or engaging in communications regarding the case if they are functioning in an attorney/client relationship, receiving any form of compensation — paid or unpaid — or otherwise using corporate resources.

O14 has additional provisions not found in O10. It allows a session involved in a case to ask the presbytery to provide a representative for a party should no suitable representative be available in the church (provided the presbytery and the party agree on the selection). It prohibits a representative’s assistant from arguing the case, and also prohibits representatives from serving in cases of complaint before a higher court.  

Both presbyteries argue that their proposals add greater clarity to 32-19 and prevent either party from gaining advantage by using professional resources.

Disqualifying Men From Office 

Three overtures appear to be variants of last year’s Overture 15 which would have added a new paragraph to BCO 7 disqualifying men from church office who describe themselves as homosexual, even if claiming celibacy. 

While this year’s proposals would add a similar paragraph to BCO 7, only one, Overture 16, mentions homosexuality specifically, though in the context of a longer list of sins drawn from I Cor. 6:9-10. It would, then, disqualify men from church office, “who describe themselves by any biblical sin,” listing as examples the sins mentioned in the I Corinthians passage. Catawba Valley Presbytery argues that the proposal avoids potentially confusing language that led to some of the opposition to last year’s Overture 15.  

Overture 9 would disqualify “Men who deviate . . . from God’s creational intention for human sexuality,” including, “declared conviction, self-description, lifestyle decisions, or overt practice.” Arizona Presbytery argues that “the preservation of chastity . . . is an indispensable duty and qualification for office” and that “any expression of sexual attraction or sexual intimacy that is not directed toward the fulfillment of a lifelong covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is contrary to nature and to nature’s God.” 

Overture 17 from the Session of Meadowview Reformed Presbyterian Church was rejected by Piedmont Triad Presbytery. The Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO), however, allow a rejected overture to be considered by the Assembly when certain conditions are met. O17 would disqualify “Men who refer to a particular sin struggle as descriptive of their personhood, being, or identity” from church office. The heart of Meadowview’s argument is that as “the Christian’s identity is rooted in Christ so that he is a ‘new creation’ in Him; his identity, therefore, cannot be defined by desires or lifestyles that are contrary to the Holy Scriptures.”

Two additional overtures address the same issue but propose changes to BCO 8 and 9 instead. 

Overture 23 from Mississippi Valley Presbytery would amend BCO 8-2 (on the qualifications of elders) by adding this sentence: “He should conform to the biblical requirement of chastity and sexual purity in his descriptions of himself, his convictions, character, and conduct.” It also adds the same language to a sentence in BCO 9-3 on the qualifications of  deacons. 

Overture 24 from Chesapeake Presbytery would amend BCO 8-3, a paragraph on the responsibilities of elders, by adding language that details the responsibility of elders to serve as examples to the flock in conduct, teaching, and self-description. Specifically, the proposal calls for elders “to understand, describe, and define themselves in light of their union with Christ . . . They are to guard against setting a damaging or confusing example to the flock by describing or defining themselves by their sinful desires [examples are given from 1 Corinthians 6:9,10]“ . . .  but rather are to endeavor by the grace of God to  confess, repent of, and mortify sin and sinful desires, and to present themselves and those entrusted to their care as instruments of righteousness to God.”

Other Overtures 

The remaining overtures propose the following:

  • Overtures 1 and 4 propose a slight modification in the boundaries of Southwest Florida and Central Florida Presbyteries. 
  • Overture 2 from Covenant Presbytery calls for the PCA to join the International Conference of Reformed Churches. 
  • Overture 3 from James River Presbytery calls for a change in the RAO that would limit General Assembly debate on committee proposals challenged by a minority report to 30 minutes (as opposed to the current 60-minute limit).
  • Overture 5 from Tidewater Presbytery would amend BCO 8-6 to exempt chaplains from the requirement to renew the powers of an evangelist annually and to specify more completely how a chaplain may exercise those powers.
  • Overture 6 from South Texas Presbytery would amend BCO 13-6, 21-4.b. and 24-1 to require criminal background checks for ministers transferring into the PCA , PCA ministers transferring into a different PCA presbytery, candidates for ordination, and candidates for church office. 
  • Overture 7 from Southern New England Presbytery would amend the RAO to require that Minutes of Agency Boards and Permanent Committees include a “recording of information sufficient to demonstrate the Committee or Board’s implementation of instructions received from General Assembly and of policies adopted by the Committee or Board.’
  • Overture 8 from Arizona Presbytery would amend BCO 31-10 to allow a non-censure suspension of a member of a church court under investigation arising from his being accused of “extraordinary moral failing that is public or in which there is an alleged victim”. It would give the court the right to prohibit the accused from having contact with potential witnesses during the investigation, and prohibit the accused from receiving greater access to information from the court or the right to speak before the court than his accuser.
  • Overture 11 from Platte Valley Presbytery would amend BCO 15-4, 45-1, and 45-4 to allow GA Commissioners to file Objections to SJC (Standing Judicial Commission) Decisions. To date such Objections have been ruled out of order since the GA commissioners who sought to file them were not members of the SJC.
  • Overture 15 was proposed by the Session of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church in White Rock, NM, and was rejected by Rio Grande Presbytery. Bryce Avenue proposed that BCO 53 be amended by the addition of a seventh paragraph that would prohibit any woman from preaching, exhorting, or teaching at a public worship assembly, “including assemblies or chapel services where men are present in any congregation, educational institution, or gathering overseen by the Church or one of its agencies.” As BCO 53 is found in the Book of Worship section of the BCO which, except for specified paragraphs, does not have full constitutional authority, Bryce Avenue also proposes that this paragraph to be granted that full authority.  
  • Overture 18, also rejected by a presbytery (Metro Atlanta), was proposed by four sessions –  Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, East Cobb Presbyterian Church, and Tucker Presbyterian Church. The overture calls for the Assembly to “recommit ourselves to the practical and pastoral steps involved in biblically based racial reconciliation,” but to “reject secular social justice and critical theory ideology . . . as antithetical to the Gospel and not the pattern that Scripture gives us for addressing the sin of racism and pursuing a Biblical approach to racial reconciliation.” The overture details four specific propositions to reject which it identifies as being part of this theory.  
  • Overture 19 from Tennessee Valley Presbytery requests that the Administrative Committee address several questions relating to the relative responsibilities a presbytery and a church Permanent Committee or Agency have in investigating a complaint against a member of the presbytery who is employed by the Committee or Agency. 
  • Overture 20  from Potomac Presbytery calls attention to the fact that, in an age of electronic records, the denomination still has many processes that either do not recognize the existence of electronic records or require paper records. Potomac would have the Assembly to call for the PCA Administrative Committee and Stated Clerk’s Office to study the matter to “provide practical and defendable conclusions; within two years to provide clerks, churches, and presbyteries with its initial findings and recommendations; and to update the “Clerk of Session  Handbook” to address electronic records,   
  • Overture 21 was submitted by the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama, to Southeast Alabama Presbytery which rejected it. It proposes amendments to BCO 33-1 and 34-1 which concern the procedures for requesting a higher court to assume the right to first hear and decide (original jurisdiction) a doctrinal case or a case involving scandal, normally be the prerogative of a lower court. A similar proposal was sent to the presbyteries by the last Assembly but was not approved by 2/3 of them as required for ratification. First Presbyterian changed two provisions of that proposal: (1) At the presbytery level (BCO 33-1), the threshold for making such a request would be 5% of the sessions in the presbytery, but no less than two; (2) At the General Assembly level, the threshold would be 5% of the presbyteries or two presbyteries and at least 1/3 of the membership of the SJC.
  • Overture 22 was also submitted by the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery and rejected by Southeast Alabama Presbytery. It calls for an amendment to the RAO that would allow the General Assembly to substitute the findings of a minority of the Committee on Constitutional Business concerning the review of SJC Minutes for the findings of the Committee as a whole. 
  • Overture 25 from Arizona Presbytery would add a paragraph to BCO 31 that would place special requirements on a court’s investigation of a report concerning one of its members that “alleged extraordinary moral failing that is public or in which there is an alleged victim.” Specifically, it calls for such an investigation to be undertaken promptly (no more than 30 days after the initial report), requires those investigating to be free from conflict of interest, allows the court to hire a professional investigator to ensure impartiality, and calls for the court to show deference to legal authorities in cases that involve a criminally chargeable offense.
  • Overture 26 from Northwest Georgia Presbytery would amend BCO 7-3 to forbid that unordained people “be referred to as, or given the titles connected to, the ecclesial offices of pastor, elder, or deacon.”
  • Overture 27 would make several changes BCO 38-1 which concerns cases where a person takes the initiative to confess his or her sins to the session or presbytery. The would allow the matter to be referred to a commission which would be empowered  to (1) formulate the Statement detailing the facts, the matters the person is confessing to, any evidence of his or her repentance, and a description of attempts the confessor has taken to reconcile with any party he or she has offended in the commission of the sin(s) confessed; (2)  to obtain response to the proposed Statement from any person against whom a personal offense has been committed (3) to present the Statement to presbytery for its judgment, including a report of the way any  offended person was informed of the parts of the Statement pertinent to him or her. 
  • Overture 28 from Calvary Presbytery calls for the Assembly to declare the “Message to All Churches” issued by the First GA “a faithful expression of Biblical polity which shaped the founding message of the PCA in 1973” and to direct the Stated Clerk “to send this letter to the Presbyterian Church in the USA via its Stated Clerk as a communication from a loving daughter to a prodigal mother.” The Overture reproduces the “Message to All Churches” with one amendment – the addition of a paragraph from the Overture presented by Mississippi Valley Presbytery in 2016 confessing the sin of racism. The addition  acknowledges our indebtedness “to the movement of Bible-believing, Reformed Christians who brought us into being” while acknowledging “the sins and failures of our movement and denomination, including in those areas that have ongoing and significant negative ramifications for the unity, ministry and witness of the church today.”
  • Overture 29 from Southern New England Presbytery concerns risk management of complex gifts received by the PCA Foundation (PCAF). It calls for the PCAF Board to “adopt a policy requiring prudent and conservative management of the risks associated with the activities of the Foundation; requiring Board oversight of the Foundation’s risk management; and addressing financial, reputational, and legal risks as well as any other risks identified by the Board.”

Overtures proposing changes to the BCO are reviewed by the Committee on Constitutional Business (CCB) to advise the Overtures Committee of any conflicts those proposals have with other parts of the Constitution. This year, CCB noted such conflicts in five overtures: Overtures 5, 8, 10, 14, and 25. Details of the CCB report on these overtures may be found on pages 271-274 of the General Assembly Commissioner Handbook.

The full text of each of these overtures may be found here. For information about how these overtures originate and are brought to the Assembly floor, click here.

This article will be updated regularly as the Stated Clerk’s office receives more overtures.

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