Tension in Our Polity: A History of the Assistant Pastor

Tension in Our Polity: A History of the Assistant Pastor

In all the debates that took place on this topic, it does not appear that any of the polity tensions with BCO 17-2 inherent in the office of Assistant Pastor identified by the Ad Interim Committee were ever resolved. If we are to be a denomination who are Reformed and “always reforming,” perhaps it would be healthy for us to continue to wrestle with this initial question that earlier generations raised: is it truly congruent with our polity for a man to serve as pastor of a congregation in all the above-mentioned ways if that congregation has no opportunity to vote on him? Why should the PCA revisit this question?

Is it possible that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has had, since its inception, provisions in its Book of Church Order (BCO) which violate its own Preliminary Principle (#6) regarding the rights of congregations to consent to those who serve as their pastors? I suspect that most members and officers in the PCA do not know that early on in the history of the denomination, a study committee that at one time included such men as R.C. Sproul, Don Clements, J. Ligon Duncan Jr., Kennedy Smartt, Michael Schneider, Morton Smith, and others, recommended that the PCA remove this element from the BCO, and the committee made this same recommendation year after year from 1974 to 1979. That element in question: the position of Assistant Pastor, which the committee insisted could not be squared with the fundamental tenets of Presbyterianism.

There is a longstanding principle in Presbyterian polity that says, in essence, that no one may be placed over a church without the consent of a congregation. This principle applies to elders, to deacons, and even to pastors. The 1898 version of the BCO puts it this way:

“Since the government of the Church is representative, the right of the election of their officers by God’s people, either immediately by their own suffrages, or mediately through church courts composed of their chosen representatives, is indefeasible. Nor can any man be placed over a church, in any office, without the election, or at least the consent of that church.”

F.P. Ramsay, that great commentator on the BCO put it this way at the time:

“The sole authority is Christ, and from this point of view the Church is a monarchy. But he administers the government solely by his Spirit working in all his people, and from this point of view the government is representative; for if the Holy Spirit calls any man to an office, he also calls the people to elect him thereto.”[1]

James Bannerman, in his 1868 book The Church of Christ, points out that a minister’s ordination does not depend upon the consent of the local church, but on his calling by God, and its recognition by the presbytery. However, his becoming pastor of a particular church does require their consent:

That pastoral relation necessarily implies the election, or at least the consent, of the people, in order to make the formation of the tie lawful; and this element therefore enters as an essential one into the title to the pastoral office. In addition to the joint call by Christ and the Church, which is necessary to give a right to the exercise of the ministerial office, there is also the consent or election by the people, which is necessary to constitute, over and above the ministerial, the pastoral character. The pastor cannot properly discharge the duties of the pastoral office without the consent of the people over whom he is appointed.[2]

The modern version of the PCA BCO calls the right of congregations to vote on those placed over them “inalienable,” making the congregation’s vote, in other words, an essential element in the call of Christ to a particular work in a particular church. Presbyterians have fought and died for the right of congregations to only be ruled by those they consent to. And yet there is a curiosity in the polity of the PCA when it comes to the above principle and the office of Assistant Pastor. The office of Assistant Pastor is enumerated in the PCA BCO, chapter 22-3, which says the following (as of 2023):

An assistant pastor is called by the Session, by the permission and approval of Presbytery, under the provisions of BCO 20-1 and 13-2, with Presbytery membership being governed by the same provisions that apply to pastors. He is not a member of the Session, but may be appointed on special occasions to moderate the Session under the provisions of BCO 12-4.

The PCA is in the notable minority when it comes to Reformed Churches on this subject. Just a sampling of Reformed denominations shows this to be the case:

  • The PCUSA ceased allowing anyone to serve as “Assistant Pastor” after 1984.
  • The URCNA has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The OPC has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The Presbyterian Reformed Church has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The ARP has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The RPCNA has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The EPCEW has no office of “Assistant Pastor.”
  • The RCA has an office of “Assistant Minister.” “An ordained minister serving a congregation under contract and providing assistance for its installed minister. The assistant minister may be commissioned by the classis as a minister under contract, but shall not be ipso facto a member of the church or the consistory.” (1.I.2.8; see also generally 1.II.7.9)”
  • The EPC has an office of “Assistant Pastor” who is called by the session. However, the Assistant Pastor is called for a definite period of time that is renewable. The call may be terminated prior to that time (if the presbytery agrees). (EPC BCO 10-6)
  • ECO has what it calls “Assistant Pastors.” However, they have a provision that allows the Assistant a vote on session if the congregation votes to allow it (see 2.04c of the ECO BCO).

The truth is, many of us in the PCA may today take for granted the office of Assistant Pastor. “Of course,” we think, “there can be a type of pastor in the church that is chosen by sessions but that the congregation doesn’t vote for or consent to.

However, in studying the history of this position in the PCA one cannot help but be provoked to the same question that the early generations within our denomination wrestled with: “Is it really consistent with our polity for a session to place someone as pastor over a church that the congregation has no vote on?

To pose this question, it is worth considering where this section of the BCO and the office of Assistant Pastor originated in the first place. The PCUS (from which the PCA was birthed) had no office of Assistant Pastor in its 1933 BCO. The 1933 version of the BCO formed the template from which the PCA’s own BCO would be formed in 1973. Where, then, did the office of Assistant Pastor even come from?

There has always been a need in the church for men to be eased into the work and responsibilities of ministry, of course. The Scottish Presbyterian tradition formerly had a practice of what they called “Probationers.” These were men who assisted the pastor and were given more responsibility than the average congregant. During this time, men are given opportunities to develop their gifts and to demonstrate their giftings in a congregational setting. They were permitted to read Scripture and preach in worship services. They were men who were in training to become ministers, and of course they served with the approval of the session, but not with a call from the congregation.

Sometime between 1933 and 1973, the PCUS did introduce a provision for “Assistant Pastors,” making this a present and live reality when the time to form the new denomination had arrived. At this time, internship requirements did not exist as we have in our current BCO (those didn’t come into existence until the PCA’s Joining & Receiving (J&R) with the RPCES, which did have internships, in 1982). Until that time, men served as Assistant Pastors during their probationary period. A bit of a stigma was attached to a man if he served as an Assistant Pastor for longer than a year. Essentially, where the PCA has interns today, Assistant Pastors existed. Kennedy Smartt, in his book I Am Reminded, makes an observation during the 1970s that “more and more the roles of assistant pastor and youth minister were filled by seminary interns.”[3]

The obvious advantage of the office of Assistant Pastor is that it allowed sessions of churches to add and remove pastors without the drama and trauma of a congregational vote. However, in the context of the liberalizing PCUS, the Assistant Pastorate sometimes served a more troubling function. In some cases the position of “assistant pastors” was used as a loophole allowing the introduction of female ministers into churches whose congregations might otherwise have opposed them if put to a vote.

The first version of the BCO of the National Presbyterian Church (name later changed to PCA) was adopted in 1973. Though it was based on the 1933 PCUS BCO, it contained one reference to the “Assistant Pastor” which is to be “called by the session,” but “is not a member of the session” (13-5, 1973 edition). It appears that some churches coming into the newly formed PCA had Assistant Pastors already, and so the provision which included them had to be added in to account for their existence.

In 1974 at the 2nd General Assembly, the barebones first draft of the PCA BCO adopted in 1973 underwent a series of drastic amendments. In the course of these amendments, the Assistant Pastorate in 13-5 was deleted and chapter 22 was created, which included provisions for the office of Assistant Pastor. From that point forward, it was not to be changed fundamentally from this form.

Also at the 2nd General Assembly in 1974, an Ad Interim Committee to Study the Number of Officers of the Church was formed. The Ad Interim Committee at that point included TEs Don Clements, A. Michael Schneider II, and Kennedy Smartt. It also included REs William Borden, Murdock Campbell, and Thurston Futch. They were assigned the topic of the number of officers of the church (Are the offices “elder” and “deacon”? Or are they “teaching elder,” “ruling elder,” and “deacon”?). The committee was also “instructed to include the study of the office of assistant minister in its assignment” (2-70). Kennedy Smart offers his own self-effacing commentary on this development:

“I was asked to serve as the Chairman and I was happy about that because I could hide my ignorance behind my presiding. Actually, Don Clements did most of the work. Don loves that sort of thing and he was a natural for it. We gathered a lot of material, did a lot of study and musing, and thanks primarily to Don, had our report ready by the next assembly.”[4]

At the PCA’s 3rd General Assembly in 1975 Kennedy Smartt presented the report of the Ad Interim Committee. Included in the lengthy report from the Ad Interim Committee was its significant recommendation regarding the question of Associate Pastors.

Read More

Scroll to top