General Assembly backgrounder: church polity and ordered ministry

Among other topics, the Committee on Church Polity and Ordered Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly will debate the degree to which candidates for ministry should be guided by or obedient to Scripture.

The Assembly runs June 14-21 at Detroit’s COBO Center.

In its overture to the Assembly, the Presbytery of East Tennessee said present language in the Book of Order, found in G.20104b, “implies that Scripture is merely equal to the confessions and has no binding authority in the life of an ordained person or in a council of the church.” The proposed change “clearly recognizes the authority of Scripture and conforms to the language of the constitutional questions in the ordination process.”

Other scheduled business items for the committee include:

  • An overture from the Presbytery of Upper Ohio Valley to clarify what is meant by “essentials of the Reformed faith.” Candidates for ordained office are asked if they believe in those essential tenets, the overture rationale states, but the Book of Order contains no comprehensive list of those tenets.
  • The Presbytery of Eastern Oregon’s request to allow for, with GA and synod approval, presbyteries smaller than the 10 sessions and 10 teaching elders currently required by the Book of Order. Most of the denomination’s smallest presbyteries are in the western United States, “where the distance between churches is often measured in hours and presbytery boundaries include entire states,” the overture rationale states.
  • The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta seeks a Book of Order change that would require criminal background checks and a check for civil judgments against teaching elders before a church can issue a call. Almost every other mainline denomination requires background checks for its pastors, the overture rationale states.
  • The Presbytery of San Diego asks that presbyteries be allowed to elect and ordain ruling elders to serve as commissioned ruling elders. In light of the denomination’s goal of developing 1,001 new worshiping congregations, “it makes sense to allow a presbytery the option of ordaining ruling elders for the purpose of commissioning them …,” according to the overture rationale.
  • The Special Committee to Review the Preparation for Ministry Process and Standard Ordination Exams has 10 recommendations. Among them: seeking consultation on the cross-cultural accessibility of standard ordination exam questions and requiring presbyteries, in consultation with sessions and seminaries, to address with candidates under their care “the contemporary challenges of the ministry of teaching elder as well as the realities of financial debt incurred from education and other sources.”

Matters related to church polity and ordered ministry will be considered by Assembly Committee 6. Mike Ferguson, reporter for The Billings (Montana) Gazette and regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service, will cover the committee for the General Assembly Communication Center.

by Mike Ferguson, Special to Presbyterian News Service