Tuesday, June 11, 2024

2024 General Synod, Day 1 Recap

Thank you, especially to the brethren of the Hopewell congregation, for the keen interest in how things go with our Lord's church in the ARP, and for giving yourselves to prayer for it. Since these include my own personal observations, I'm posting these summaries here, rather than on the church blog. If you'd like to try to keep up with the General Synod, you can see the Synod materials here, and watch the live streams here.

10a.m. Moderator's Committee on Memorials
Memorials are communications up from a Session to a Presbytery or a Presbytery to the Synod, usually asking for some sort of information or action. For some reason, rather than just being printed and passed out to the delegates, the ARP has a committee that is convened for all of one hour to discuss the memorials, then make one of two recommendations to the floor of the General Synod: recommend to approve or recommend not to approve. Even the chairman of this year's committee said that the committee should not exist. 

Because I want to be there to pray for them, and to be as well-informed as possible for when the issues come to the floor of the Synod, I always attend this committee meeting. Thus far, it has always just been as an observer. I have no idea how the delegates are decided upon. I don't think it comes from our Presbytery's nominating committee.

1. Canadian Presbytery's request to be dismissed into its own synod. The memorial basically said that this is for organizational reasons. Canada already sees them as their own entity. Also, they have been increasingly training their own candidates for the ministry in Canada, because when they send students to American seminaries, the students tend to stay in America. Someone asked if it might not be helpful to them to remain connected, since Canada is increasingly hostile to Christianity. The answer from the Canadians was that they are about as free as Americans. If you're from Hopewell, maybe remember to ask me about this one in the Sabbath School on the 16th. The Moderator's Committee voted to recommend to approve.

2. First Presbytery's request to rewrite the 2005 position paper on women in the life of the church. We were told that this had really come from Second Presbytery but that someone in First Presbytery got their hands on it and memorialized it there as well. It had died in Second Presbytery but made it through from First Presbytery. At issue is some ESS/EFS language in some of the reasoning. Originally, the memorial had asked to get rid of the paper, but First Presbytery had amended it to ask for a rewrite instead. On the whole, the paper is pastorally useful. 

In the Moderator's Committee, several men spoke against rewriting the paper just to correct some reasoning. Alarmingly, some defended ESS/EFS ideas in the ontological trinity—one quoting Turretin without understanding Turretin. Ironically, our spiritual heritage gives us plenty of help for reasoning about the Son's submission because of the good work done on the Pactum Salutis in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. To oversimplify a little bit: in covenanting to be our Mediator, the Son covenanted to submit in His role as our Mediator, particularly with reference to His incarnation. The reasoning that carried the day in committee was that there are a number of adjacent issues that need to be dealt with first before making an editorial revision of some reasoning in an otherwise good position paper. The Moderator's Committee voted to recommend not to approve.

3. First Presbytery's suggestion to take replace "self-excommunication" in Book of Discipline 8.1 with the concept of attempting to withdraw from the visible church. This is actually important, because it makes it sound like people can autonomously self-excommunicate. We have had this difficulty several times in the local church. The result is that the officers that Christ has charged with shepherding and ruling do not complete investigation of the sin and adjudication of it. Because the officers do not exercise their authority in this way, there is lack of clarity of what the sins are that need to be repented of (it's usually more than just failing to attend/keep vows), and therefore a less clear path toward restoration. Also, the rest of the church ends up not getting needed warnings about various sins and errors, and sometimes operates in perpetual confusion about how to relate (and not to relate) to the so-called "self-excommunicated" person. In the end, a writing error in which there was no close-quote punctuation made it unclear what exactly was the change that the memorial was asking for. At that point, discussion died. The Moderator's Committee voted to recommend not to approve

4. Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery asked to allow the New Days Church in the Atlanta area to be permitted to be put on the roll of Tennessee-Alabama. Members of Second Presbytery, in whose geographical bounds New Days is, expressed their agreement with this. The Moderator's Committee voted to recommend to approve.

11a.m. Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery Called Meeting
A called meeting can only transact business that was stated in the call of that meeting. In this case, the called meeting was six hours away from the nearest congregation in the Presbytery. Additionally, I was alarmed to learn that called meetings in TN-AL have different quorum rules: two ministers in  and ruling elders from two congregations. So the moderator could call a meeting in Tokyo, and four men by themselves could transact decisive business for the presbytery. It seems unwise. 

Moderator Greg Duke, a minister from Prattville, AL, led a devotional in 3John.

The first order of business was a request from Presbyterial (the Presbytery's "women's group") for $1200 to pay for their speaker's fee for a women's retreat they have planned for this fall. Five years ago, Presbytery had responded to a similar request by directing them that they should get Presbytery's help and approval for any speaker, let alone when asking Presbytery to pay for it. One of the delegates basically confirmed that the women's group operates autonomously. One minister noted that Scripture gives no example of women's speakers for women's groups. The Presbytery responded by appointing a commission to look into the speaker and provisionally approved the funds if the commission approves of the speaker.

There were three other items in the meeting's call. One to receive a report from a committee helping a church in Red Level, AL, but the committee hadn't been able to do its work, and there was no report. One to approve new language in the TN-AL Manual of Procedure, but the parliamentarian, who had been asked by the Spring meeting to the provide the language, was not able to attend because of illness, and had not produced that language. And the last was supposed to be a recent seminary graduate who wanted to plant a church near the Alabama gulf coast, but who had since then gotten the local PCA presbytery to give him a call for that work.

3p.m. Business Session
General Synod opened with a 1:30 p.m. service in which we sang a Psalm, recognized ministers and elders who had passed away since the previous synod, heard a sermon, and partook of the Lord's Supper. It struck me that even if the Lord gives me the normal length of life for an ARP ministers, I would have around thirty years left. There is no time to waste in the Christian life or the Christian ministry. Retiring moderator Rob Patrick's sermon from Hebrews 12 was very good, answering the weariness that can set in while pursing sanctification or ministry (first half of the chapter) with the refreshment that comes from heavenly, reverent worship (second half of the chapter, and the primary sermon text). 

When business began at 3p.m. we were introduced to ministers, congregations, and ministry students who are new since last year. 

Then, we had to vote to receive all of the reports from committees and presbyteries, because none of them had been distributed on time (six weeks before General Synod). It was noted that we have not followed this rule in recent memory, but we decided to start following it this year

The retiring moderator's address consisted of a number of thank-yous, and the need for all elders and ministers to participate diligently in the courts of the church. He admonished us that the fewer the men who do the work, the more authority and influence gets concentrated in just a few men, functionally creating pesudo-executive-officers in the church.

The new moderator, a ruling elder from Rock Hill, was then introduced. His theme for the year (not sure why we do this) is "to the ends of the earth together. Each month this year will be dedicated to supporting a synod board or agency, and he challenged each congregation to commit to two years of advocating and supporting one of the agencies. This was rather disappointing, because it is almost the opposite of the ordinary means of grace emphasis from last year, and it rubs salt in the wound of the failure of our denominational restructuring committee to bring reformation back to the WCF 31 view of synods that we doctrinally confess. 

The next address was from the women's ministries president with a focus on celebrating female missionaries by celebrating something she called "jubilee birthdays." As one who doesn't see unordained missionaries in Scripture, it is troubling to me that we send those (men included) whom we have not even licensed to preach the gospel as "missionaries," let alone sending women in that capacity. If we were to regain the ministry to women within the home, and if we were to regain the corporate life of the congregation on the Lord's Day, and if we were to regain older women modeling and admonishing younger women to stay at home a la Titus 2, hopefully the return to Christ's own design for women's ministry would obsolete "women's ministry" as it has become. The lady who presented was very sweet, and I'm sure is a dear Christian.

The discussion of Index 11 (special committee that ended up recommending the dissolving of Second Presbytery) was moved to a specific time (8:15a.m. Wednesday morning).

The highlight of the day was Index 10, the report of the special committee on secret societies. Not only was the report adopted, including affirmation of the other NAPARC position papers, but officers/nominees who are currently members of secret societies were encouraged to consult with their sessions about the propriety of this. And, a motion to "forcefully and explicitly declare Free Masonry inconsistent with Christianity" passed resoundingly. One of the reasons that it passed was because men had said that if they had to choose, they would choose the Lodge. It was a heartening display of courage.

One thing that came up in the discussion was a catch-22 in the Synod's manual of procedure. All changes to the constitution must be sent to the committee on revisions before they can be discussed, but the committee on revisions can only handle material sent to it by action of the General Synod. It was not clear how a proposed change could be acted upon to send to them without discussing it.

Something in the neighborhood of $2.7 million was allocated to various denominational ministries/agencies in a few seconds. This is normal (and connected to what I wrote earlier about the moderator's theme and the now defunct committee on restructuring).

We began Index 14, the special committee "on the nature, scope, and authority of the diaconate." It is an excellent report and was received very easily as information. But when a motion was made to make it the ARP's official understanding of the office of deacon in the ARP, there was pushback that brought us to the break for Supper.

6:30p Sermon and Business
After Supper, we returned to the second excellent sermon of the General Synod meeting, this time on Isaiah 11 by Erskine Seminary Dean Seth Nelson. It was a sound, excellent exposition, with good application to the men and the business at hand.

Then the discussion of the report on the diaconate resumed. Three years ago, an excellent and thorough paper had come up from First Presbytery, and the Synod was on the verge of voting to restrict the diaconate to men only, on probably a 65-35 or 70-30 majority. However, there was enough pushback from the minority that the majority voted instead to have a Synod study committee—hoping that the study committee's paper would help bring the minority along. 

But the original study committee asked for an extra year, then after two years came back to the 2023 General Synod with one of the poorest reasoned, researched, or written papers I have ever seen in a church court. It was hard to believe that much effort had been put into it. And this opinion is separate from the evident purpose of the writers to try to maintain ARP status quo. 

In the course of the 2023 discussion, one of the ministers pointed out that the reason that we have so much confusion is because we sinned fifty years ago, and we needed to own that we had done so and not attack our brothers and sisters but seek their forgiveness for leading them astray, as we return to the biblical doctrine and practice of the church that is our heritage. 

So, it was very discouraging that toward the end of the discussion of making this year's report our official position, a minister from a congregation with female deacons said that he personally thinks that's wrong, but that the narrow majority is trying to force this down people's throats by accusing people of sin, using fractious and unedifying language. Not only was this a falsehood about the 2023 discussion (no one accused the other side of "being in sin"), but it slandered what was actual a humble call to unified and corporate repentance as being fractious. 

As long as men are using the "good men disagree about this" reasoning, we will not be able to admit that the reason that we have confusion and division is because of a wrong action that we took comparatively recently (50 years is just 20% or so of the ARP's life). Ironically, it was said that we cannot have female elders because you can't change the meaning of "I suffer not a woman to teach or have authority over a man." The implication, however, is that you can change the meaning of "A deacon must be a man of one woman [...] and rule his household well." Just because otherwise good and godly men can disagree does not mean that the scripture is any less clear about the male diaconate than it is about the male eldership.

At any rate, the 2023 General Synod subsequently formed "the committee to study the nature, scope, and authority of the diaconate." But when the paper came back to help them, discussion of adopting it as the Synod's position devolved into reasoning for or against the difficult work of bringing the church order back into consistency with itself (and, of course, with the Scripture)—and even the accusation made above. Ultimately, the motion failed. The damage from the late 60s, early 70s period (in which the ARP was descending toward full liberalism, before the Lord mercifully retrieved her), remains to be undone.

The last thing that we were able to do was to hear a representative from the Special Committee on Net Assets Reallocation. It's a fancy name for trying to make sure that there's enough money in the now-closed government-style pension plan that ministers used to be in, but was financially failing. They have raised a great deal of money over the last four years, and after a good year on the stock market, the chairman reports that it is within 2% of where it needs to be now. He expects to make his final pleas for donations this fall.

At this point, we took a break, and after a long day, and with no business on the agenda (just informational reports from Erskine and fraternal delegate greetings), I decided to come back to the AirBnB and write this up so that our congregants can keep their finger on the pulse of things. There's a Psalm sing at 7:10a (6:10a, central time), which is always a highlight of General Synod for me, so it's time to turn in for the night. It is a bit of a loss, because fraternal greetings are always a highlight for me.


  1. Thank you Pastor James!

  2. Thanks for this update. T had listened all day at work but wasn’t able to jump back in after dinner. Disappointing to hear the result of the Diaconate paper. What happens with this issue next?

    1. Unless a presbytery brings a new memorial, nothing else happens.