Presbyterian International News Service
News Bulletin 29-2 June 21, 2001
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Assembly to Continue Debate on Westminster Presbytery’s Overture
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Dallas, Texas (June 20, 2001)—A spirited debate on an overture from Westminster Presbytery occupied more than an hour of General Assembly time this evening. The overture, which comes in conjunction with a communication from the lower court in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee of its intention to withdraw from the denomination, asks for the establishment of a new presbytery with the same geographical bounds. If the presbytery does finally withdraw, as it is slated to do in January 2002, the expectation is that the vast majority of churches and ministers will remain with the Presbyterian Church in America, while only a few—perhaps as few as two churches and two ministers—would remain with an unaffiliated Westminster Presbytery outside of the denomination.
The Rev. David Coffin, Pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church, Fairfax, Virginia, presented the recommendation from the Mission to North America Committee of Commissioners. By a vote of 22-8-0, the Committee is recommending that the overture be denied and that Westminster Presbytery be urged to reconsider its action and to reverse its judgment.
While recognizing the legal and ecclesiastical right for the Presbytery to withdraw, the Committee argues that the manner in which a majority was attained to pass the motion, lacks integrity. The response proposed by the Committee states that those who voted with the majority to withdraw but who did so with no intention of withdrawing “have apparently voted on a proposal of great moment . . . out of mere expediency. Surely this is unworthy of the solemn privilege and responsibility of voting.” Furthermore, they are duty bound “to submit to this decision of Westminster Presbytery, and withdraw from the PCA.”
There are also questions of integrity raised by those who supported the measure with the intention of withdrawing. The document declares: “You have allied your cause with brothers whose actions are at odds with their true intentions, and at odds with your purpose, and in so doing you have made your cause dependent upon behavior of questionable integrity.”
The Committee recommends that the overture be answered in the negative because, among other reasons, “this Assembly cannot countenance the action which gave rise to the request, without expressing our deepest concern for the integrity of the Presbytery in so acting, and sustaining a hope that our counsels may well be heeded by our brothers.” The proposed response concludes by saying that “for the sake of those who may find their insurance coverage threatened by Presbytery’s withdrawal,” the Presbytery, should it remain determined to withdraw, “change the effective date of the action to withdraw, until the conclusion of the 30th General Assembly so that those who desire to remain members of the PCA immediately be admitted as a presbytery of the PCA.”
Moving as a substitute motion the recommendation of the Permanent MNA Committee, that the overture be answered in the affirmative, was the Rev. Bill Leuzinger, current Moderator of Westminster Presbytery. The Abingdon, Virginia, pastor argued that the “package” adopted by the Presbytery honored the Constitutional right for every congregation to choose whether to remain with the PCA or not. He also appealed to the resolution adopted by Westminster Presbytery in 1974, when it formally affiliated with the denomination, in which the lower court specifically reserved to itself the right to withdraw at any time for any reason it deemed sufficient.
Arguing against the substitute was the Rev. Larry Ball, a charter member of Westminster Presbytery and its stated clerk from 1976 to 1999. “Nobody knows Westminster Presbytery better than I know Westminster Presbytery,” he averred. “There are things General Assembly is not aware of. There are three groups, not two. I represent the third.” Mr. Ball brought the house down in laughter as he added: “I am theonomic, postmillennial, presuppositionalist, paedo-communionist, reconstructionist, and believe it or not I’m considered a middle of the roader—in Westminster Presbytery.”
The Kingsport, Tennessee, pastor distinguished himself from some of the other brethren in the Presbytery by saying, “I have a high view of the church, and I don’t think we should leave until it becomes apostate.” The Presbytery’s overture was not so much a withdrawal as “a cover-up for schism.” It was a compact between two parties, one of which “cannot stay any more”, the other of which is saying to the other, “we want you to leave as soon as possible.” He also pointed out that only about ten percent of the Presbytery would actually intend to leave the PCA at this time. And he noted that he had filed a complaint which had not been adjudicated at a called meeting which was held just over a week ago (June 12th).
Another pastor from Kingsport, the Rev. Brent Bradley, spoke in favor of the substitute motion. “This is a difficult time for all of us,” he said. In his view, “We really do have differing views about certain presuppositional principles. . . . The main point is that I’m having a hard time seeing what the lack of integrity is. Men have come together and now recognize that the denomination does not share these principles.” He stated: “Our Presbytery has been drawn along by those who want to be in step with the denomination. . . . The other side has said that they recognize that they are taking us in a direction where we don’t want to go, and we’ve said that we’re holding them back from going where they want to go. . . . We got together and said, How can we reach a peaceful resolution to these things? . . . We’re not saying that the PCA isn’t Presbyterian or Reformed. We’re saying that we’re a little bit different, that we’re a different variety. We don’t want to be constantly battling against you, but fighting our common battles with you, but as long as we’re in the same denomination, we’re constantly fighting on what we consider to be different.”
Dr. Joseph Pipa, though not in favor of the substitute, proposed an amendment to it, which would have provided that “No minister or church that voted to leave may be certified to be a part of the new presbytery.” But the chair ruled that motion out of order because it would interfere with the right of a presbytery to determine its own membership.
At that point, the hour of the day had been reached (10:15 PM). On a closely-divided vote, the chair ruled that the hour of the day was not extended, and the Assembly recessed for the night, to resume the debate in the morning.
General Assembly Decrees Newspaper Article to be ‘Unfortunate and Unfair’
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Dallas, Texas (June 20, 2001)—By an overwhelming margin, the 29th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America voted to find that an article in Presbyterian & Reformed News was “unfortunate and unfair.” The article, which appeared in the March/April 2001 issue, centered on Covenant Theological Seminary and the availability of tapes from Dr. Diane Langberg’s messages on campus.
Moved by Dr. Charles McGowan, Moderator of the 1996 General Assembly, the motion followed a presentation by President Bryan Chapell of the Seminary. In his address, Dr. Chapell affirmed the St. Louis school’s commitment to “male eldership and the restriction of the office of preaching to that”—a point he demonstrated by means of a stack of books written by present and former faculty members which presented those views.
Dr. Chapell maintained that the Seminary had announced that Dr. Langberg was not going to be preaching. He did concede that there were forty seconds of sermonic material in her first message held in the seminary chapel, and some applicatory material also.
The President stated that the school became aware that P&R News was going to be doing a story on Dr. Langberg’s appearance on campus because “a student’s family received—quite literally—dozens of unsolicited calls over a two-day period from unknown persons who did not identify their purposes but were asking about Dr. Langberg’s being at Covenant. When the young wife got scared, her husband reported the calls to our Dean of Students.” He indicated that since the time of reporting this matter to the Board, the school had become aware of a second family that had been subjected to the same treatment.
He decried the fact that the newspaper had not cited “a single named witness among the hundreds of students that could have been talked to.” He concluded: “We must rise above this. We have more important things to do. . . .” His remarks were greeted by a prolonged standing ovation.
Speaking in opposition to Dr. McGowan’s motion was the Editor of P&R News, who stated that the news service had not harassed students and had no idea who had. He urged that representatives of the news organization and the Seminary be instructed by the Assembly to sit down with an ad hoc committee to mediate any differences. The court, by an overwhelming margin, later rejected a formal proposal to that effect.