After a wonderful opening worship at which the Word was rightly proclaimed, the Assembly got down to business with such moderation and care for each other that by mid-morning, we were already into the afternoon docket. Having come from the PC(USA), where parliamentary procedure is a full contact sport played merely for the sake of the game, the trust displayed by EPC commissioners in one another and in the permanent committees to do what is right and the easy flow of the meeting was a joy. One friend commented that with real prayer at the opening and closing of each report, she thinks that more time was spent in prayer than on “business.”
What could have been the most contentious issue facing the Assembly was resolved with compassion and care for all concerned.
In the EPC, Teaching Elders (pastors) are ordained and received by presbyteries. It is a matter of record that various Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders, congregations and presbyteries have different understandings of Scripture on the matter of ordination of women as Teaching Elders. And it must also be understood that neither the geographic presbyteries of the EPC nor the New Wineskins Presbytery have a monolithic understanding of the issue. It is a special concern for NWEPC, however, because we have as members several courageous, evangelical women Teaching Elders who have left the political protection of the PC(USA) to lead their flocks in respose to a new call from God.
Unlike some presbyteries in the PC(USA)—and arguably, the PC(USA) as a whole—neither the NWEPC nor the geographic presbyteries of the EPC ever want a mandated structure in which any person can be ordained as a Teaching Elder based on anything other than demonstration of an historically orthodox understanding of theology, Christology, eschatology, Scriptural interpretation, and the other matters germane to ordination. For many of us, it was the automatic pass that many unqualified candidates for ordination received from our former presbyteries because of personal world views or simply gender that was a sign of that denomination's decline. (I once heard a Princeton professor argue against a proposed Donegal Presbytery policy on ordination by saying “I oppose this overture because we frequently have unqualified candidates come before us for ordination that I like. If we are to be held to strict standards, I would have to vote against them, and I don’t want to have to do that.”)
At the same time, there is at least one presbytery in the EPC that, as a matter of written or unwritten policy, will not allow a woman candidate for care or ordination to even get to the floor of presbytery based solely on gender. As a result, that geographic presbytery asked the General Assembly to approve a proposal whereby it would re-establish itself into two “sub-presbyteries” (my phrasing, not theirs) within the one. One would allow women candidates for ordination to appear on the floor and the other would not. In all other respects, as I understand it, they would function as a single presbytery.
Faced with this request, the Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that, as a matter of EPC polity, this request could not be resolved by an act of the Assembly. Noting with specificity that it was not addressing the substantive issue of ordination, it determined that the overture had to be sent forward as a proposed amendment of the EPC’s constitution, subject to the rules on amendment.
The debate on approving or disapproving the PJC decision was quiet, courteous, respectful and Spirit-filled, without recrimination or pejorative comment. The PJC’s decision was affirmed.
But that was not the end. The PJC then asked the Assembly to approve a recommendation to the Permanent Committee on Overtures and Resolutions
That the General Assembly approve the creation of an interim committee to explore ways to provide a pathway to unity while protecting freedom of conscience among those pastors and congregations with conflicting positions on women Teaching Elders in the presbyteries of the EPC. This committee will be appointed by the Moderator, will include two representatives from each presbytery and include all positions held within the EPC on women Teaching Elders. The committee will report to the 30th General Assembly in 2010.
With only three dissenting voices that I could hear, the recommendation was approved. On Friday, the Overtures and Resolutions sent the proposal to the Assembly where it was approved without debate or dissent. Our presbytery, the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery, will have two representatives on that interim committee.
One dear friend and respected pastor from our presbytery who was present at the General Assembly wrote to our presbytery today
While denominations all over the country have split on this issue—the EPC has simply said, “Look—there is excellent biblical scholarship on both sides here. ‘We see in a glass darkly…’ And therefore until we see Christ face to face—there is probably not going to be total agreement on this issue. Yet are we able to agree to disagree for the sake of the greater and glorious calling we ARE united around—the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Absolutely! Therefore, we will do what the world says is impossible. Through Christ—we will stay united and love and accept on another and roll up our sleeves and get to work—keeping the main thing the main thing.”
She has reminded us that we must always remember that “It is all about Jesus!”
Of course, to use Robert Frost’s lovely lyrical phrase, we still “have promises to keep and miles to go before [we] sleep,” but what could have been a contentious and destructive issue has been treated with Christian love for and trust in one another.
The remainder of the General Assembly was filled with more energizing worship, prayer, and fellowship, fortifying us for the coming year.
Two short years ago, after nine months of prayer, Bible study, prayer, hard and intense discussion, prayer and more prayer, the New Wineskins Association of Churches and the EPC reached agreement that led to the creation of our presbytery and began the process of Becoming One. Because presbyterians are, in my opinion, genetically incapable of doing anything quickly—we talk an issue to death and then take it to the churchyard and say a few more words over the grave—the fact that we have come so far in two years convinces me that this is a God-driven thing. He alone could have gotten us this far this fast. And He will take us all the way to His conclusion.
To God be the glory, great things He has done (and continues to do).