(In what may only be for you a palliative should you suffer from insomnia, I post a little summary of what goes on behind the scenes at an Assembly meeting. All erroneous characterizations are mine and I welcome correction.)
So we’re a few days into the 41st General Assembly. I know many of you are having to buy salve for all the hand-wringing our deliberations might be provoking. (ha)
You keep hearing me refer to these so-called overtures and may be wondering what they are, what they’re for, and how they end up accomplishing what they’re after. The path to denominational acceptance may not be as complicated as what it takes for a bill to become a law, but there are several parallels. I’ll try to explain by using one overture our presbytery submitted as an example (and keep you updated of its progress through the Assembly)
Overtures seek to do something. They appeal to the General Assembly as the representative body of the whole denomination to take some action, either amending our Book of Church Order (which I referenced Monday) or one of the documents that comprise our constitution, like the Westminster Confession of Faith. The overture may also call for a more moderate action by forming a study committee to review a matter of significance which may in time warrant an amendment to those aforementioned documents.
An overture is birthed in a presbytery. Last February our presbytery drafted an overture calling for a study committee to be formed to review Scripture’s precise teaching on the Sabbath. The Westminster Confession, the most stringent of Sabbath perspectives (think Eric Liddell here in Chariots of Fire) among the Reformed communions, teaches in 21.8:
This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments, and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
In other words, it was the view of those who composed the Confession back in 1643-47 that true keeping of the Sabbath entailed abstention
from any and all recreations for the whole day long. No soccer in the backyard with the kids. No tailgating at Jerry-World. Period.
Since the point of my post is about how an overture comes to pass, I won’t elaborate on the Confession’s rationale for that degree of abstention, nor will I outline alternative perspectives on the Sabbath. Suffice it to say the PCA respects the Confession’s view, but it allows those who come for ordination to office in the denomination to take exception with that paragraph’s teaching. One may hold that recreation is legitimate on the Sabbath day for various reasons and still be found to be in accord with the “vitals” (the foundations of our faith) of Christian orthodoxy. In fact the lionshare of those who come for ordination in recent memory take exception with that paragraph.
In view of how our denomination allows for alternative views of the Sabbath, and since most ordinands take exception with the Confession’s teaching on that point, our presbytery concluded that the time perhaps had come for the Confession itself to be amended. Why continue to include its teaching in our standards if it’s been determined that a good Scriptural case can be made for an alternative view? (Note well: the idea of amending the Confession of Faith is not based on a cultural or attitudinal change but rather on subsequent analysis of what the Scriptures teach.)
However since amending the Confession requires, according to our BCO, agreement by 2/3 of all 64 presbyteries in our denomination–and only after an overture to amend is accepted by the General Assembly, our North Texas Presbytery thought it more prudent that committee be formed to provide the Assembly a thoroughgoing analysis of what the Scriptures teach, appealing to the best historical and theological sources on the issue. Best to provide the Assembly an informed statement on the matter before asking it to authorize amendment of its constitution.
So back to the process a overture takes.
The North Texas Presbytery drafted an overture calling for such a study committee. At our presbytery’s February meeting in Tulsa, the draft was put before the teaching and ruling elders for consideration, deliberation, and decision. Amendments were considered, refinements were made, alternative opinions expressed–until a vote was taken. A majority of those present voted for the overture to be submitted to the Clerk of the denomination who would then submit the overture to the Overtures Committee.
The Overtures Committee is comprised of teaching elders and ruling elders nominated by their respective presbyteries. They are tasked with determining if overtures submitted by the presbytery are “in order”–that is submitted in the proper form and in the manner prescribed by the BCO. It also determines whether the overture, if accepted, would be in constitutionally valid since no matter how much support a given overture has, it cannot be put before the Assembly if it’s found to be out of accord with our doctrine and practice.
Should an overture be found in order, its substance is then evaluated by the same committee. Each overture can be debated with the committee hearing arguments for and against either from those who authored the overture or from committee members themselves. Overtures can be amended by the Committee, but those overtures the committee finds in need of extensive refinement or reformulation are “recommitted” back to the presbytery. Overtures found in order but not in need of revision are then either answered in the affirmative or the negative by the committee–that is the committee can encourage or discourage passage by the Assembly. However, an overture’s ultimate determination comes by vote of the Assembly. The Overture Committee’s answers to all the overtures it reviewed can be found here.
What of our presbytery’s overture to form a study committee that will provide the Assembly a comprehensive statement on what the Scriptures teach about the Sabbath?
The Overtures Committee found the presbytery in order, submitted in proper form, in timely fashion, and constitutionally sound.
[Correction: The Overtures Committee answered the overture in the negative, arguing that it would have been better for the presbytery to suggest specific changes to the Confession in order to justify formation of a study committee. The rationale for a study committee was found too generic.]
The overture comes before the full Assembly later today.
How will it turn out?
I’ll let you know.
I know you’re waiting with bated breath.
Oh yeah–Go Spurs!