A New History of the PCA’s First 50 Years

by David W. Hall | July 12, 2023

Image Credit: Presbyterian Polity

Editor’s Note: What follows below is an excerpt (pp. 124-127) from Irony and the Presbyterian Church in America by Dr. David W. Hall (Covenant Foundation, 2023), the first published history of the PCA’s inaugural 50 years. Single copies are available for purchase from Amazon.com, and discount pricing is available on bulk orders from the author. In this excerpt, Dr. Hall summarizes the 17th General Assembly (1989), at which the Assembly formally constituted the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) and made other significant centralizing changes to the denomination’s polity. He also here summarizes the first two decades (the 1970s and the 1980s) of the PCA’s development. Dr. Hall’s lucid and informative history of the first fifty years of the still-young denomination will – along with earlier histories – serve as a baseline for subsequent historical work on the PCA.

The 1989 (17th) Los Angeles Assembly: Turn Toward the Judiciary

The first PCA Assembly in the far West convened on June 15, 1989, reporting almost 1,000 churches and over 200,000 members. Thus, the PCA had quadrupled in 16 years. Such growth gave rise to understandable pride but would not be sustainable at those rates. For example, the meeting on the campus of Biola University had an attendance decline of about 25%. Ruling elder from Atlanta, John White, was elected Moderator from four nominees as the Assembly convened in the gymnasium of the college.

The opening worship service led by retiring Moderator D. James Kennedy, complete with an academic-robed processional from the newly formed Knox Theological Seminary, doubled as an infomercial for a new seminary at Dr. Kennedy’s campus. This Assembly would try a new format, beginning its meeting in midweek to allow commissioners to worship in a local church over Sunday; it would also, churches were told, lower airfare expenses. Housing was in the Biola dorms.

A new Stated Clerk, Paul Gilchrist, had been in office for nearly a year. Between assemblies, most amendments to the BCO passed easily. However, a few minor loose ends from prior years either did not pass or were found to be defective. For example, one amendment that changed the makeup of the AC (to double the committee side by adding representatives from the permanent committees) was not initially favored. But, upon later reconsideration, it passed 290-172 (Min17GA, 40). This was another of those centralizing initiatives rescued only by adroit use of reconsideration the following day after having been initially defeated on the floor of the Assembly. The same amendment also permitted Coordinators to attend and debate but not vote on the AC.

Several other proposed amendments were deferred to the following year (and likely would not have passed) when the new clerk reported that they had “substantive errors” that “could not be rectified.” (Min17GA, 44 and 48). While it appeared that a considerate editorial hand was seeking to help, some commissioners were not expecting the clerk’s role to include such editorial opining.

In the final year in which judicial commissions would be heard by the Assembly (instead of by the Standing Judicial Commission), there were only 3 judicial cases. This Assembly formally deleted the Judicial Business Committee and the CofCs, which had reviewed and reported on their work to yield to the new Standing Judicial Commission.

Extensive amendments to the Insurance and Annuity plan were presented to the Assembly, even though the work of this arm of the church required much professionalism. Moreover, the IAR board cautioned that the medical insurance program was technically insolvent (p. 116), requesting participants to continue paying premiums in hopes that the plan would survive. Yet, the distress signal was accurate and called for a capital infusion or alteration of benefits.

On the ecumenical front, while some advocated for a second time the commencement of fraternal relations with the EPC (the first proposal arose in 1984), the Assembly declined to enter that relationship with the EPC due to their irrevocable commitment to ordaining women (p. 59). This Assembly opted not to send down the Guiding Principles for Ecumenical Relations paper to presbyteries, instead directing the IRC to pursue face-to-face meetings with OPC leaders (Min17GA, 59).

A lengthy study report on the new issue of AIDS and the church’s response was presented for guidance in homes and churches. The Marriage and Divorce committee was extended for another year.

One lasting change from this Assembly was to allow CC and CTS to have more input into who served on their boards. Paul Kooistra and others led CC and CTS to be allowed to communicate their preferences for board members directly to the GA Nominating Committee. The argument was that educational institutions required unique abilities and expertise. Those educational boards were to satisfy accreditors, manage large facilities on campus, and recruit excellent faculty members (see Min17GA, 141-145 for some of the rationales). Clearly, these leaders thought the present nominating process to be deficient. The bureaucratic turn was becoming more evident with the vocal leadership from these two institutions, as the by-laws were ultimately amended to read: “In addition, the board may request presbyteries to nominate specific men to the board and may submit to the Assembly Nominating Committee letters of recommendation concerning particular nominees from the presbyteries.” (Min17GA, 89) Since that change, few (if any) insiders backed by the seminary or college have not been elected. Over the next generation, both boards, in effect, chose their own successors, rather than be governed as the other committees were.[1]

Summary of the First Two Decades

The PCA began in the early 70s with:And ended after the 1980s with:
41,000 members [2]218,000
260 churches998 churches
16 Presbyteries47 Presbyteries
Primarily southern, ex-PCUSMerged with RPCES, almost w/ OPC
No central locationAll offices in Atlanta
Few f/t Coordinators10 f/t Coordinators
No educational institutionsBoth a seminary and a college
No Conference CenterRidgehaven [sic]
No ministerial annuity planFull, modern retirement plan
Need to develop constitutionFully developed Assembly protocols
All elections open/unbiasedEd. Institutions all but choose their own boards.

There was also a fusing of cultures with the RPCES merger in 1983, but there was a corresponding swelling of bureaucratic centralization. All Coordinators were now housed in a central location, and many church plants were happening – often far from the traditional churches in 1973. Several early debates over confessional adherence would grow into later actions that moved away from either the earlier or the presumed view of doctrinal adherence. What started as a grassroots denomination was still one—but some of that was giving way to bureaucratic impulses. The various proposals by the blue-ribbon Ad Interim Committee to revising church structure (1985-1989) were seldom embraced. However, the inertia of centralization, coupled with a desire for larger size, inevitably drove the PCA toward broadening.

An irony could be observed as the 1980s ended: a union which was not to sacrifice truth, might end up plastering over differences, albeit unintentionally—thus, affecting the root of church life.

Dr. David W. Hall (PhD) is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, GA.

[1] It is worth noting that the recommendations from the CTS report grew shorter and shorter, portending difficulty in commissioners providing detailed oversight. The rationale was that the schools performed their day-to-day operations, with Assembly being needed only for high-level policy decisions. Over time, one could confuse the accountability lines thinking that the seminary or college were virtually independent of substantive Assembly oversight. Also, over time, other committees would gravitate toward the same model, with very few items presented to the Assembly for meaningful action, although funding was always welcome.

[2] See Appendix A: PCA Church Growth, 1985-1989, later in this chapter.

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