(Note: This report was prepared by the Rev. Robert A. Case, II, pastor of the Hope Presbyterian Church (RPCES) in Phoenix, Arizona. The Guardian sincerely appreciates the time and effort—and the accompanying photographs—given to this informative report by Mr. Case.)
The 154th General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, met in the shadow of Pike’s Peak,Colorado, to deliberate and to dedicate its ministry for the beginning of the third century of its American existence.
Plenary sessions were held at Glen Eyrie, the international headquarters of the Navigators. The synod convened on Friday evening, May 21, 1976, at Village Seven Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. The service of worship and communion was led by the Rev. Paul Alexander of Huntsville, Alabama, Moderator of the 153rd General Synod.
In the business session that followed, the synod elected the Rev. Robert Auffarth of Newark,Delaware, as its new Moderator.
On Saturday morning, the synod reconvened at 8 a.m. for worship through praise and at 8:15 for worship through service. Ten overtures (communications requesting some kind of synod action) were received from various presbyteries.
An overture from the Southwest Presbytery urged Synod not to approve the ordaining of women to any office—minister, elder, or deacon. Since a report from the Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Church was due, this overture was received as information only.
An overture from the California Presbytery asked that Synod’s Committee on Hospitalization not publish the names of those insured and the amounts paid by the plan. After a floor discussion with Dr. Franklin S. Dyrness, administrator of the plan, the Synod asked that a possible revision of current practice be studied.
From the Midwest Presbytery an overture asked Synod to admonish Dr. Arthur F. Glasser, Professor of Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary, for (among other things) his participation in the 1972 World Council of Churches’ missions conference in Bangkok. Synod ruled this overture out-of-order, and several commissioners expressed the belief that the Midwest Presbytery might better be admonished for a public display of unproven allegations against a brother.
Another overture from the Midwest Presbytery asked for a definition of the call of a pastor. The Form of Government Committee, having received this overture, later returned with a three-page “temporary” definition that was basically approved by the synod.
From the Southern Presbytery came an overture asking Synod to study the use of beverage alcohol and ways to deal with the abuse of alcohol in RP. churches. A study committee of five was authorized. It is perhaps a sign of maturity within the Reformed Presbyterian Church that Synod instructed its moderator to form a “balanced” committee composed of men who differed on the question of a Christian’s use of alcohol.
The New Jersey Presbytery overtured Synod asking for clarification of the status of elders in mission churches; Synod took no action on this. The Southern Presbytery asked Synod to change the Form of Government concerning the status of members and elders of mission churches. Synod approved this overture and sent it down to the presbyteries for action.
Toward merger with the OPC
Another overture from the Southern Presbytery asked Synod to present the current Plan of Union with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (which was not approved at last year’s concurrent meetings of the OPC Assembly and RPC Synod) to the 155th (1077) General Synod of the RPCES for vote, as well as urging the OPC Assembly to take concurrent action.
In response, Synod passed the following resolution: “We recommend in accordance with last year’s Synod action that the Fraternal Relations Committee be instructed to continue discussions with the O.P.C. Committee on Ecumenicity with a view towards the possibility of eventual union. As soon as possible, the committee is to present a finalized Plan of Union to the Synod, and Synod will vote on it one year after its presentation if approved for vote.”
In short, the earliest a possible vote on merger might take place would be the 156th General Synod in 1978.
An overture from the Rocky Mountain Presbytery concerning the status of a minister in his presbytery was referred to the Form of Government Committee for study. The Pittsburgh Presbytery overtured Synod to add two statements to the 153rd (1975) General Synod report on the “Amsterdam Philosophy” regarding the word of God and Scripture, and the kingdom of God and the church; Synod rejected this as not being “helpful” to the discussion of the issue.
A set of teeth was added to Synod’s various boards as it approved a recommendation of the Administrative Committee that members of agency boards who have not attended three successive board meetings be dropped unless retained by board action.
Covenant College. Dr. Richard Chewning, a professor of economics and clerk of session of the Stony Point Church in Richmond,Virginia, was presented to Synod as Covenant College’s newly elected chairman of the board. Dr. Chewning reported that Covenant was moving into its third historic phase and that a new era of administration was now beginning.
Dr. Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America and a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, was elected to the board. Also elected was Mr. Earl Whitener, ruling elder in Christ Church of Grand Rapids and newly appointed Executive Director of Synod’s National Board of Home Ministries, and the Rev. Mark E. Pett, pastor of Liberty Church in Randallstown, Maryland.
National Presbyterian Missions. After recessing over the Lord’s Day, Synod resumed business on Monday morning as it heard the report of its home missions. Both the Rev. Paul Taylor, agency chairman of the Board of N.P.M., and the Rev. Donald J. MacNair, Executive Director, emphasized that the burden of establishing new churches rests with the presbytery concerned, not with a national agency. N.P.M. will work with, but not in the place of, presbytery in starting new churches.
Three new mission churches were begun this year (up from 10 to 13) with the number of particular congregations increasing by one (to 151). In elections to the Board of N.P.M., it was again evident that Synod was not willing to elect a missions pastor to that board.
Covenant Theological Seminary. Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, president of the seminary, gave a moving personal testimony to God’s grace in his complete healing from a recent cancer. Dr. Rayburn is retiring next year and will be succeeded by Dr. William S. Barker, present Dean of the Faculty. Dr. Barker is the first graduate of the seminary to become a faculty member.
It was also announced that Dr. John W. Sanderson, Jr., presently on the faculty of Covenant College, would join the seminary faculty this fall as Professor of Biblical Theology. Continuing the move toward Reformed ecumenicity, Synod approved a Seminary recommendation that up to three seats on its Board be filled with men either from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or the Presbyterian Church in America.
World Presbyterian Missions. W.P.M. also was interested in having an O.P. brother on its Board and, during the previous year, had filled a vacancy by electing the Rev. Harvie M. Conn, Professor of Missions and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary. W.P.M. also signed an agreement with the PCA Committee on Mission to the World making it possible for the PCA to recruit and support missionaries to serve under W.P.M.
The church began this synodical year with 71 missionaries; by April 1, 1976, it had only gained two additional candidates. That, as it turned out, was also the growth percentage of the denomination, but it nevertheless caused concern to the Rev. Nelson Malkus, Executive Director of W.P.M. On the other hand, for the second consecutive year, W.P.M. received over a million dollars and as a pioneering venture has begun to raise funds for an $85,000 hospital facility in Ras al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates.
The Rev. David M. Linden, recent graduate of Covenant Seminary and pastor of the Hazelwood (Missouri) R. P. Church, was elected to the Board of NV.P.M., with Synod recognizing that some of its younger members have much to offer. Meanwhile, Dr. Frank Dyrness, a long-time Board member, refused to stand for reelection in order that a younger man might contribute to the church’s foreign mission policy.
Board of Home Missions/Ministries. In the past, the Board of Home Missions has had a hard time justifying its existence and defending its role before Synod. Partly this was due to a lack of agency competency, partly to a lack of clear marching orders from Synod, and partly because of its low “profile” from its origins in the pre-merger R. P. Church, General Synod.
In any case, this agency had been given new direction last year with the Rev. Frank P. Crane, pastor of the Westminster Church in Muncie,Indiana, elected as Board Chairman. Several younger men were added to the board at that time, giving B.H.M. a new vitality. This year the Board came with a proposed new set of by-laws (which were provisionally adopted).
The Board also introduced its new Executive Director, Mr. Earl Whitmer, a securities investor and elder of Christ Church in Grand Rapids. Finally, as if symbolizing the new wind in its sails, the agency changed its name to the Board of Home Ministries, reflecting its broad concern “to demonstrate the love of God to a dying world.”
Fraternal Relations Committee. This committee had held center stage last year as the OP-RP merger plan was presented. This year its report was understandably shorter and less controversial. The committee informed Synod that it was continuing close fraternal relationships with the OPC and PCA.
In addition, fraternal delegates were appointed to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The committee also reported its success in having the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) doctrinal statement strengthened by addition of the phrase “without error in all its parts” to the first paragraph of the “Basis” section.
Fraternal delegates to the 154th General Synod included James Bosgraf (OPC) of Denver, Paul McCracken (RPCNA) also of Denver, Stanley Mast (CRC) of Colorado Springs, and Wayne Buchtel (PCA) of Los Alamos, N. M.
The Magazine Committee. The other service committee to occupy substantial attention as this particular synod was the Magazine Committee, charged with the responsibility for overseeing a regular journalistic ministry to the denomination. Once again the committee was under fire for not fulfilling its mandate. The denominational periodical (Mandate) appeared only six times last year (and some of those issues never got fully distributed) instead of seventeen promised appearances.
In light of this performance, the committee sensed a lack of denominational support and loss of credibility, and so began to explore the idea of using an independent Reformed periodical (such as The Presbyterian Guardian or The Presbyterian Journal) to minister to the RPCES. Synod approved exploratory talks with the Journal, while simultaneously approving formation of a select committee to restudy completely the feasibility of a denominational magazine. Chairman of the select committee is the Rev. William Shell, editor-in-chief of NavPress, the publishing agency of the Navigators.
The Magazine Committee was also given approval to investigate the possibilities of publishing and distributing selected study reports approved by the Synod. Meanwhile, Mandate is being published as funds permit.
Chaplain’s Committee. This committee called attention to the hymn, “It Was on a Friday Morning,” in the latest edition of the Book of Worship for the United States Forces. Clearly blasphemous, this hymn was apparently approved by the Armed Forces Chaplains’ Board. Synod unanimously approved sending a strongly worded objection to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Functions of the Deacons. The study committee on this subject brought in a report that caused little disagreement, though much time was spent in haggling over details to help clarify the report. The one substantial issue in the report, that favoring the ordination of women as deacons, was postponed until after the report on the role of women in the church was discussed. One ex-moderator thought the time spent discussing this report was a waste. But if God has given us instructions, principles, and examples from which to form the manifestation of his church on earth, then such discussions — though time-consuming—are vital for the advancement of God’s kingdom.
Role of Women in the Church. This report, by all accounts, was the major one at the 154th General Synod. Including forty-nine pages and extensive exegesis (by Dr. James Hurley of Covenant College), the report stressed that there was but one authoritative church office, that of the elder. While women are clearly excluded from that one authoritative office, the report contended, they are not to be excluded from the non-authoritative office of deacon.
The report stated: “A central principle regarding the role of women within the church is that with respect to ecclesiastical authority, there are but two groups within the church — elders and non-elders.” Further, male non-elders and female non-elders are equal in authority in the church.
While much of the committee’s report was adopted, the central issue of the ordination of women as deacons, and the accrual to them of all the rights and responsibilities of that ordination, was sent back to a reconstituted committee for further study. At one point, Moderator Auffarth described the 154th General Synod as “the Synod that recommits” — and to supporters of the women’s role report this seemed to be a case in point. The committee was instructed to send a bibliography and additional materials to the presbyteries by December 31, 1976.
Work of the Holy Spirit. The report of this study committee was very short (one and a half pages), but was notable in signaling a shift away from the view of Warfield that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (as tongues, healings, prophecies, etc.) ceased with the end of the apostolic age. The report, based on three earlier lengthy reports, concluded that the canon of Scripture is closed, that speaking in tongues is not to be sought as an attestation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that speaking in tongues is not to be encouraged or lauded, and that those who have had special experiences with God should guard against the divisiveness of making their private experience with God normative for all believers. While much was left unsaid and unexegeted, most commissioners believed that the RPCES needed to say something now about the activity of the Holy Spirit as it is currently being interpreted and experienced. They believed that the most useful course under the circumstances was to agree on what they could agree on and not attempt any further clarifying consensus.
Ecclesiastical Separation. Nineteen full pages of material came in the report of this study committee. The report, adopted with a few minor changes, stressed the denomination’s need for a separatist identity without being hostile or arbitrary in that identity. As the Rev. Paul Alexander put it, “We have finally that we are a branch of the Christian church, not the trunk.”
Indeed, in one key sentence (touching on the Glasser-WCC matter) the report reads: “The elder must differentiate between attending meetings (e.g., W.C.C. meetings) as an observer on the one hand and as a subscribing participant on the other.” To attend such meetings as something less than a “subscribing participant” was approved by Synod’s actions.
Several things distinguished this from previous synods. The reorganization of business permitted the commissioners much more time to discuss the study reports than ever before allowed. The giving over of Saturday afternoon to report seminars was the idea of Dr. Paul Gilchrist, Synod’s Stated Clerk.
Also the bicentennial theme in the worship periods highlighted the contributions of three great Presbyterian pastor-teachers during the Revolutionary era (Witherspoon, Davies, and Edwards). This was helpful in reminding commissioners from whence they came.
Several leading commissioners spoke of the “era of good feeling,” of the honesty and openness and relaxation that has apparently come upon the RPCES, as evidenced at this 154th General Synod. The Stated Clerk noted that several votes for cloture were passed without a great ruckus being raised from the floor. One past moderator noted that because the RPCES no longer has either a single domineering personality nor a narrow crusading spirit, the old tensions and threats are gone.
Perhaps this new era is upon the RPCES because the commissioners recognize that the denomination cannot afford to conduct internecine warfare at Synod. Consider the following: Statistics for 1975 show the RPCES total membership grew only 1.26% (from 23,241 to 23,581). This is ironic in light of last year’s pomposity about the RPCES growth and the OPC “deadness.”
But perhaps this greater appreciation for each other is due more to the maturing influence of the Holy Spirit on that part of Christ’s body known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod.