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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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:
Since the Book of Church Order states explicitly, in Section #17-2: “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.”:, and since the present practice of allowing for the calling to office of an Assistant Pastor merely by vote of the Session of the Church is inconsistent with this section of the Book of Church Order, we would recommend that this practice be eliminated and that only the titles of Pastor and Associate Pastor be recognized. This does not preclude, however, the hiring of non-ordained personnel by the Session to carry out specific functions within the church (e.g., youth ministries, Christian Education directors, Administrative Assistants, etc.). Such non-ordained personnel could well be seminary-trained men who are candidates for service as ‘Preaching Elders.’
(If this reply is adopted by the Third General Assembly, your committee recommends that the Assembly immediately act on the following change to the Book of Church Order: “Change Section #23-1 (page 43, line 5ff) to read: ‘The various pastoral relations are pastor and associate pastor.’ Change Section 23-2 to read: ‘The pastor and associate pastor are elected by the congregation using the form of call in 21-6. Being elected by the congregation, they become members of the Session.’ Delete 23-3. Renumber and change 23-4 as follows: ‘23-3. The relationship of the associate pastor is determined by and spelled out in the call, and regarding dissolution, must comply with Section 24-1.’)
According to the committee’s reasoning, the office of Assistant Pastor is at fundamental odds with the PCA’s own Presbyterian polity which says that “no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church” (BCO 16-2). The committee’s recommended solution to this conflict was to remove references to the Assistant Pastor from the BCO altogether, and for such churches to instead hire such individuals as staff members of the church who could be hired and fired as needed. Surely it also goes without saying that in addition to this, many of those serving as Assistant Pastors could have been voted on by congregations and made Associate Pastors.
After the presentation of the Ad Interim Committee’s report, discussion ensued, not around the office of Assistant Pastor, but around the number of offices. It was decided to create a new committee, with members to be determined by nominations committee. Nominations was instructed to place a “knowledgeable church historian on the New Ad-Interim Committee.”
A new Ad-Interim Committee to Study the Question of the Number of Offices in the Church was formed. It included TE Don Clements, RE Ligon Duncan II, TE R.C. Sproul, TE Morton Smith, TE Don Dunkerley, RE Rob Kirksey, RE John Snyder, and RE Jules Vroon. They were expected to continue the work of the previous committee and report back to the fourth Assembly in 1976.
At the 4th General Assembly in 1976, John Snyder gave a report from the Ad Interim Committee asking for the committee to be allowed another year to do their work. Its work was deemed to be “too involved for it to come to a quick and ready solution.” The committee regarded its report to the 4th Assembly as a “progress report.” RE Duncan and RE Vroon indicated they could not continue for another year and were replaced by William Borden and Richard Ayres.
At the 5th General Assembly in 1976, the Ad Interim Committee returned with its report presented by Don Clements. A minority report was also distributed at this Assembly that had no bearing on the office of Assistant Pastor.
The committee’s report was distributed to the Assembly. Relevant to the subject of the Assistant Pastor, it made a brief comment, and then offered three refinements of its previous recommendations to the Assembly:
E. ASSISTANT PASTORS: This is a second area in which there has been a continuity in agreement through the various committees. Especially in light of the renewed emphasis on licensure in the Church, the needs of the Church now met by “Assistant Pastors’ could be more properly met by utilization of licentiates. Therefore, the Committee makes the following recommendations:
RECOMMENDATION NO. 11: That the General Assembly affirm that since the Book of Church Order states explicitly, in Section 17-2: “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore, no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent, of that church;” and since the present practice of allowing for the calling to office of an Assistant Pastor merely by vote of the Session of the Church is inconsistent with this section of the Book of Church Order, this practice should be eliminated and that only the titles of Pastor and Associate Pastor be recognized. This does not preclude, however, the hiring of non-ordained personnel by the Session to carry out specific functions within the Church (e.g. youth ministries, Christian education directors, and administrative assistants). A Candidate for the Gospel ministry desiring to learn from working with an experienced minister of the Word may be licensed to preach by the Presbytery and may be employed by the Session, and then can serve as an unordained pastoral assistant.
RECOMMENDATION NO. 12: That the General Assembly give initial approval to the following changes to the Book of Church Order, submit them to the various Presbyteries for their approval, and resubmit them to the 1978 General Assembly for final approval and inclusion in the Book of Church Order: 1. In Section 13-4, delete the words “and Assistant.” 2. Change Section 23-1 to read: “The various pastoral relations are pastor and associate pastor.” 3. Change Section 23-2 to read: “The pastor and associate pastor are elected by the congregation using the form of call in 21-6. Being elected by the congregation, they become members of the Session.” 4. Delete Section 23-3. 5. Renumber and change 23-4 as follows: “23-3. The relationship of the associate pastor is determined by and spelled out in the call, and regarding dissolution, must comply with Section 24-1.”
RECOMMENDATION NO. 13: That the General Assembly postpone final action until the Sixth General Assembly on those amendments to the Book of Church Order (Paragraphs 22-5 through 22-10) initially approved by the Fourth General Assembly (4-66 and 4-71), regarding the ordination and installation of an Assistant Pastor. (See page 102).
The Ad Interim Committee noted that in all its prior permutations, this committee had always agreed with the initial recommendations, even as the members had filtered in and out over the years. They also set forth in a more systematic way their own recommendation regarding the office of Assistant Pastor that it be struck from the BCO. They suggested that churches ought to have interns and licentiates to fill the role formerly filled by Assistant Pastors. The stated reason for this removal was not mere preference, but rather a glaring inconsistency with Presbyterian polity: “the present practice of allowing for the calling to office of an Assistant Pastor merely by vote of the Session of the Church is inconsistent with this section of the BCO, this practice should be eliminated and… only the titles of Pastor and Associate Pastor be recognized.”
While there was a minority report that came from the Ad Interim Committee related to the number of offices, it had no disagreement with its recommendations on the Assistant Pastorate and even repeated them in its own minority report. The Assembly that year voted to suspend discussion of the Ad Interim Committee’s recommendations until the 1978 assembly. F. Nigel Lee was also added to the ad interim study committee.
At the 6th General Assembly in 1978, RE Ayres presented the Ad Interim Committee’s report. John Snyder presented a minority report from the committee. A second minority report was presented by RE Futch (this second minority report was the same as the report presented to the 5th GA). As with the 5th General Assembly, the disagreements of these minority reports did not touch on the subject of Assistant Pastors. By all appearances, there was no stated disagreement or dissent amongst committee members on its recommendations from the previous years related to the office of “Assistant Pastor.” In fact, the report went so far as to acknowledge this as an “area in which there has been a continuity in agreement through the various committees.”
The second minority report (which was simply the earlier report to the 5th Assembly) was received for perfecting. Perfecting work began Thursday afternoon of the assembly. However, because of time considerations, the Ad Interim Committee report was not completed at the 6th Assembly. Of particular significance is that before the work was deemed impossible to complete, some deletion work took place. During this time, a motion was made to excise the recommendations (11, 12, and 13) regarding Assistant Pastor from the report.
While the minutes of this GA are silent on the substance of debate around this motion, Mickey Schneider (an original member of the Ad Interim Committee) recalls (via personal correspondence with the present author) that he spoke against the motion, since it seemed wrong to call someone a pastor and a spiritual authority who was not called by the congregation. As Schneider remembers, Don Patterson (then Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS) rose to disagree with him, saying by way of summary, “We need to have Assistant Pastors, because these men come and go so quickly, and they are too young to be on the session.” Lest the reader be tempted to judge the pragmatism of Patterson’s argument too harshly, it’s worth remembering that the PCA at this time still did not have a such thing as internship requirements. There was, indeed, a very real need for young men to be tested following seminary and to receive firsthand experience. Patterson’s argument reflects the need which existed up to that point.
The motion was passed to remove the committee’s long-standing recommendations from the report. The Assistant Pastorate would remain in the BCO for the foreseeable future, even after internship requirements became a part of the BCO in the 1980s.
Before any more work was completed, it was decided to postpone the remaining work on the Ad Interim Committee’s report until the 7th General Assembly. The work of the Ad Interim Committee was finally concluded in 1979 at the 7th Assembly, but no further work was done on the subject of the Assistant Pastorate. The PCA has not fundamentally changed the office of Assistant Pastor since its revision in 1974.
Reading the Minutes of the Assemblies that dealt with this question leads one to believe that the debate over the number of offices (two-office vs three-office view) occupied those in the debate far more than the subject of Assistant Pastor. The Assistant Pastorate seemed to have been an afterthought in the discussions. Some have speculated that the issue of Assistant Pastor was sacrificed by those whose higher priority was defending the two-office view in order to gain support of larger churches which disproportionately favored the office of Assistant Pastor. If this is the case, then the PCA may still be due for a healthy conversation on this subject that deals with the merits of the question of the Assistant Pastorate and how it truly fits with our polity.
It may be that the right time to truly re-evaluate the position of Assistant Pastor was after the joining and receiving (J&R) of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) in 1982. After the addition of the internship requirement provision into the BCO of the PCA, the work of the Assistant Pastor became less about training men, and more about whether a session wanted to go to the trouble of a congregational vote over a particular candidate for a non-senior position on the pastoral staff. To some, it was sufficient that the Assistant Pastor may preach regularly, administer the sacraments, moderate session meetings, counsel families, conduct weddings/funerals, pray for members, serve in presbytery, be called the Pastor of a church, and otherwise serve as a minister in the midst of a congregation, so long as he had no vote on the session of the church. But does that sufficiently mean that such a man is not “over” a church, as BCO 16-2 says may not take place?
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? I propose three possible answers. In the first place, the preference of the session is not more important than the rights of the congregation. Congregational vote is, indeed, an important means by which the call of God is affirmed. Second, there is an argument to be made that Teaching Elders in good standing with their presbytery deserve job protection for both themselves and their families. Perhaps the PCA may revisit this issue and feel it is not right to make it so convenient for a session to dismiss a man from the pastorate. Finally, the PCA may wish to revisit this question simply because we do have an obvious hole in our polity, as we can see, that the Ad Interim Committee noticed and pointed out for years.
How could the PCA address this issue? Again, I propose three ways to address the question of whether or not the Assistant Pastor provision is consistent with the historic polity of the PCA.
First, the denomination could enact the very recommendations that the Ad Interim Committee made for half a decade until its work was completed, and thereby remove the Assistant Pastor provision from the BCO. In practice, such a move would need to give churches practical time to enact such a move. My suspicion is, this would take several years as churches decide whether their current Assistant Pastor should be made an Associate, or whether he should become simply paid staff. Such paid staff who are ordained would keep their ordination, but without a call from the congregation would simply be (like a seminary professor, perhaps) serving out of bounds (as far as their presbytery is concerned). This is a clumsy option, because the PCA now has 50 years of the Assistant Pastorate embedded in it, but it is feasible to find ways to phase out such a position if we are convinced it is incommensurate with our foundational principles regarding the rights of the congregation.
Second, the PCA could tighten up the language of 16-2, which is where the tension with Assistant Pastors is most evident. Currently 16-2 says, “Therefore no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.” The language of “no man” is a blanket negative. If the PCA really doesn’t believe or desire this principle for the sake of the Assistant Pastorate, this could be changed to say, “Therefore, no man can serve as Ruling Elder, Deacon, Senior Pastor, or Associate Pastor of a church without the election, or at least the consent of that church.”
Third, it may be the case that the Assistant Pastor provision remains in the BCO, but with the added proviso that after some arbitrary period of time (perhaps a year) the congregation must vote to affirm the man’s continuing work as Assistant Pastor among them, and that his service should be for a definite period of time with the option to renew their call (similar to what the EPC does).
There are debates and discussions to be had around the rightness or feasibility of the above suggestions, but they are mentioned here so that readers can see that there are still ways in which we can address flaws and inconsistencies in our polity that our fathers saw so many years before. Is it truly Presbyterian for sessions to possess the power and right to decide who will serve as pastor of a congregation without that congregation’s vote? It may be expedient or even helpful to sessions, but is it in keeping with our foundational principles? This is the conversation we as a denomination ought to consider taking up once again; it’s hard to argue that it has ever really been settled.
 F. P. Ramsay, Exposition of the Book of Church Order, 1898, pp. 122-123.
 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Kindle Loc. 6973; my emphasis.