The 221st General Assembly will have a plateful of potentially explosive matters when it convenes in Detroit in June. It is possible that Item 03-03, from the Synod of the Covenant, will fly under the radar. That would be unfortunate.
Item 03-03 proposes to amend G-3.0501 to require that each presbytery elect “one young adult commissioner (ages 18-25).” It would further amend G-3.0503 to require that a quorum for a meeting of the GA include “twenty young adult commissioners (ages 18-25).” The rationale for the overture appeals to “goals of inclusiveness and representation” and argues that the proposed change would “welcome, embrace and listen to our younger Presbyterian generations.” Laudable goals, both.
At the risk of self-nomination for Curmudgeon of the Year, however, I want to register serious reservations about this action. Principally, those reservations are rooted in the foundational idea that the governance of the church is the responsibility of presbyters. It is worth citing the text of F-3.0202 here:
This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, by ruling elders and teaching elders. Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matthew 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Teaching elders shall be committed to equipping the people of God for their ministry and witness.
Adopting Item 03-03 would mean that the General Assembly would include commissioners who have not been elected ruling elders. This would be unprecedented not merely for the General Assembly, but for Presbyterian governance as a whole.
The governance of the faith community by its senior leadership is not a new idea. Indeed, it may be one of the oldest ideas still active in the life of the church. In Numbers 11:16-30, as Israel wandered in the wilderness, Moses called on seventy elders of Israel to gather before the tent of meeting in the midst of a controversy. According to the story, “the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders … .” In Acts 15:1-35, amidst the Pauline circumcision controversy, “the apostles and the elders” hear the arguments of both Paul and his opponents, and advise James as he decides to broaden the Christian community to include non-observant Gentiles. Presbyterians — our name bespeaks the trust we invest in elders — have insisted on the engagement of both teaching and ruling elders in governance precisely because of this biblical tradition of entrusting the guidance of the church into the hands of those with long and deep experience in listening for the Spirit. More significantly for us, perhaps, it is the voice of the people of God, speaking through election and confirmed by ordination, that identifies those who are elders.
It is worthy of note that being an elder — either ruling or teaching — is not a right reserved for the elderly, despite the rootage of the term in the notion of advanced age. The Book of Order states no minimum age requirement for election as a ruling or teaching elder. There is a widespread practice of electing young persons as ruling elders in congregations, so that they might participate in the church’s governance on an equal footing with other, older members. This is a good practice, one that appropriately “expresses the rich diversity of the church’s membership” (G-2.0401). My concern about this proposal stems not from any prejudice against or disrespect for the young.
My concern is rather with the absence of election and examination of the proposed “young adult commissioners.” The sixth historic principle of church order holds that “ … the election of the persons to the exercise of … authority, in any particular society, is in that society” (F-3.0106). Built on this early commitment of Presbyterians to their right of election of those who govern, F-3.0202 mandates that the governances of the church is done by those “chosen by the congregation … .” Every ruling elder is elected by a community of God’s people; his or her authority to function in the ministry of discernment and governance stems from God’s Spirit speaking through the voice of the congregation (see W-4.4006b(1)). For the presbytery (rather than a congregation) to elect persons to fulfill a central governance function at the assembly level is to bypass this foundational congregational right of election, and to miss the guidance of the Spirit in the congregational voice.
The Book of Order further requires that “the council responsible for ordination and/or installation … shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry” (G-2.0104b). This examination — so hotly debated in our recent past — would be completely circumvented by the creation of non-ordained “young adult commissioners” as envisioned in this overture.
The argument may be raised that young adult commissioners, or YACs (surely we don’t want that acronym grazing in the fields of our ecclesiastical vocabulary!), are not elders, but merely commissioners for a single meeting of the General Assembly. In response, it should be noted that voting in the church’s deliberative councils is and has exclusively been the responsibility of those who are elected as presbyters — ruling and teaching elders. The only difference between the current young adult advisory delegate and the proposed young adult commissioner is, in fact, the one aspect of the church’s deliberative process that is uniquely placed in the hands of presbyters. The creation of the young adult commissioner equates to the creation of unelected, unexamined commissioners who are, de facto if not de jure, ruling elders.
There is, of course, a simple solution. Congregations should be encouraged to elect, and sessions to examine and ordain as ruling elders young persons in whom they see the gifts of discernment and governance. Presbyteries should be encouraged to elect as commissioners to synod and General Assembly those young ruling elders they believe will contribute well to the work of the church as a whole. Of course, no amendment to G-3.0501 or G-3.0503 is necessary to accomplish this solution. All that is necessary is the readiness of congregations and presbyteries to listen to the guidance of the Spirit as it raises up a new generation of leaders in our midst — something we should always be doing.
One final note: the rationale for the overture claims that it is “consistent with” the more “permission-giving” nature of the current Book of Order. While it is true that the Form of Government seeks to enhance the ministry of the church—and especially the presbytery — by reducing the mandated structures required of various councils, it is not the case that the Form of Government encourages or tolerates the abandonment of historic principles of church order and government that have stood the test of centuries. There is a significant difference between not requiring a committee named “the Committee on Ministry” (even though the functions are still mandated) and altering the basic principle of government by presbyters. In our zeal for flexibility and nimbleness, let us not lose track of that difference.
PAUL K. HOOKER is associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.