How to Keep 390,319 Sheep in Green Pastures

How to Keep 390,319 Sheep in Green Pastures

The greatest guardrail entrusted to us is the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We cannot allow the demands of growth to deter us from a proper use of our authority, from striving to maintain this bond of peace. The question thus becomes: how can we use our authority to shepherd our Permanent Committees and develop the mutual trust and support required for us to be more effective in our mission?

Is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) a “Big House,” or a “Big Tent?” How about a third option? The PCA a “Big Flock!” In its 50-year history the PCA has enjoyed numerical growth nearly every year, so much so that the 50th General Assembly reported 390,319[1] members in her care. The last year marked another year of growth in terms of ministers, members, and money. With growth comes an important question—how do we, as elders, effectively shepherd a large denomination?

Growing pains have forced us to ask this question, haven’t they? When I was a young licentiate, the repeated refrain was to “trust your committees.” However, the last three years have seen a marked shift from that reigning advice. In 2021, an outcry by a Committee of Concerned MTW Missionaries prompted Overture 14, asking the 48th General Assembly to deem a change that opened “leadership positions with authority over MTW church planting and church development ministry to unordained men and women” as out of order. This move limited the authority of that Permanent Committee.

Likewise, this year saw both the addition of Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO) 4-21.d and discussions of the new RUF Affiliation Agreement. The Agreement has prompted many questions from multiple presbyteries over everything from the originating source of calls to the place of appeals. The Agreement’s FAQ admitted that the document proposed “substantial change” to current arrangements; however, the RUF Permanent Committee did not bring this matter before the Committee of Commissioners. As at the 48th Assembly (over MTW’s proposed policy change), the 50th General Assembly’s action restrained the authority of a Permanent Committee.

What prompted these two occasions of Assembly intervention? The short answer is growth. Looking forward, we must begin to ask how our polity establishes guardrails for the Assembly and her Permanent Committees to properly manage growth in the PCA. What are those guardrails? I propose that our polity gives us three guardrails.

Our First Guardrail

First, authority properly resides within church courts. Authority is a key issue in how an organization operates. American Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) once quoted the great Princetonian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) to the effect: “Each individual church is under the watch and care of its appropriate judicatory; and the whole body, by a system of review and control, is bound together as one homogeneous community.”[2] Review and control requires authority, and authority has a limited supply. I tend to think of authority as pie. There is only so much pie to go around. We cannot simply make pieces appear out of thin air. Any authority given to a Permanent Committee is taken from the authority already entrusted to the church courts. The question then becomes: how much authority can a church court relinquish before she has too little left to adjudicate her own affairs?

If the General Assembly allows a Permanent Committee to make substantial changes without first presenting the proposal to the appropriate Committee of Commissioners, the General Assembly effectively relinquishes authority. Or, for instance, if presbyteries allow calls to come from those same Committees, their oversight effectively lacks any authority, any real bite. In this case, the presbytery’s authority over a minister has been relinquished. Authority given away is a challenge to get back. Economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) once said, “There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”[3] Or to return to our previous illustration, how much pie can a church court give away before she goes hungry?

Our Second Guardrail

This drives us to our second guardrail: Permanent Committees are committees, not commissions. As elders in the PCA committed to the authority of Scripture, we understand that words are important. How we define “commission” and “committee” has titanic implications for how effectively we conduct business. Book of Church Order (BCO) 15-1 states: “A commission differs from an ordinary committee in that while a committee is appointed to examine, consider and report, a commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it.” A committee has no authority to act, but only examines what is committed to them; a commission receives authority from the court to act upon the particular mission entrusted to it.[4] If we lack clarity on these definitions, the PCA’s administration of her affairs will be as clear as mud.

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