This June, commissioners (elders) from the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) met in the southern city of Mobile, Alabama, to convene the 44th General Assembly, the denomination’s annual meeting for business.
For the last few years, missional theology, and most recently, racial reconciliation, are subjects that have sparked animated debate. But on 23 June 2016, the 44th General Assembly (GA) took the momentous step of voting 861-123 in favour of a statement on racial reconciliation and repentance of sins.
The overture stated: ‘Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers, such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages interracial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)’.
While all were in favour of its sentiment, there were some who contested whether this should be done at a denomination level instead of a presbytery or local church level. After all, not all of the current pastors or parishioners had been there during the Civil Rights movement or had committed those sins. Nonetheless, it was passed with an overwhelming majority.
But how did this issue come to the 44th GA, and why is it relevant today? While the PCA was not created until 1973, it was in inception a predominantly southern denomination. During the Civil Rights movement, there were many in the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) who discriminated against African Americans.
Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans had limited, if any, voting rights; could not use the same facilities or schools as whites; and were treated in the most horrible manner. While many white evangelicals may have been kind personally to African Americans during this time, they were by no means in support of changing the status quo in favour of black equality.
In the PCUS there were three different camps in regard to black equality. Sean Michael Lucas, a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson) and a PCA minister in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, describes these three camps as: those in favour of segregation; those who were moderate; and those who wished to integrate the races in society.
Segregationists defended ‘Jim Crow laws’ (laws enforcing racial segregation), fearing that integration would lead to ‘developing a mongrel population, a development I believe God opposes’ (W. A. Gamble, quoted in Gospel Coalition, 2/6/2015).
Moderates believed that ‘continued legal segregation would undercut the preaching of the gospel in America and abroad. On the other hand, they believed, forced integration would open the door to the possibility of unthinkable race-mixing. Better to do away with legal barriers to blacks’ participation in American society, but then let Christian love and prudence take its natural course’ (Ibid.).
Those that sought for integration were few, but strongly preached that segregation was contrary to the advance of the gospel. Many of them actively sought to bring African Americans into their churches (Ibid.). Many of those pastors would become the pioneers of the PCA in 1973.
The vision and heart of this third group of pastors has been exemplified in the ministry of Billy Graham, who sought to preach the gospel to racially inclusive groups and make social changes through the gospel.
But the PCA is still a predominately white, middle class denomination, whose theological beliefs ‘have still been trumped far too often by other, deeper seated commitments to race, class or region’ (Ibid.).
This process of reconciliation began during the 43rd GA, in June 2015, when two highly respected elders in the PCA, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan, brought forward a personal resolution calling for confession of and repentance for historical racial sins of the PCA and resolving to reconcile whites and African Americans in the denomination.
The overture received much debate in the Overtures Committee (OC) (over nine hours) and much more debate on the floor of the GA. There were many different opinions expressed. Some said the issue needed more thought and better wording. Others stated that, since the PCA didn’t exist during the Civil Rights era, it should be confessed on a personal level.
Those who were for the resolution gave biblical reasons for denominational confession and repentance, and said dealing with this issue was long overdue. The committee voted to refer the resolution to the next assembly. But what happened next could hardly have been anticipated and was certainly an incredible event.
The resolution went back to the GA floor for a final vote and passed in favour of waiting until next year. However, there were many who did not share the same opinion as the OC and desired to pass the resolution that year.
After hours of debate, an elderly man by the name of Rev. Jim Baird, one of the founding pastors of the PCA, got up to speak. In his speech he confessed that he and the other founding members did nothing to help the plight of their African American brothers and sisters during the Civil Rights era.
As he continued to confess his sin before those gathered, the room was moved by the Holy Spirit and many men wept for their sin and the sin of the denomination.
Although the committee’s motion to delay the final resolution until next year (2016) passed, many felt they should pass some some kind of confession and wanted to suspend the rules to do so. The moderator had ruled that they could not suspend the rules, but that they could move for a formal protest.After his confession, the moderator opened the floor for a season of prayer and men pressed forward in droves in fervent confession and prayer for healing that lasted for an hour.
Rev. Jon Price moved against the moderator’s ruling, in which nearly half of the commissioners came forward to sign their names to the protest right there on the GA floor!
It was certainly an historic assembly and one that will be noted as one of the more sweet, holy moments in PCA history.
Thus it was with great anticipation during this year’s GA that the commissioners voted on the numerous overtures advocating racial reconciliation. Over the course of last year, 40 overtures were sent in regarding racial reconciliation and confession of sin.
The OC adopted Overture 43 from the Potomac Presbytery with their final amendments and passed it on to the GA floor. Finally, on 23 June, Overture 43 was passed with an historic vote (85 per cent in favour).
Overjoyed with such unity and the work of the Spirit in our Church, an African American brother led the assembly in a heartfelt singing of ‘It is well with my soul’.
In the light of ongoing riots and attacks on blacks and other minority groups, it can be said that Overture 43 has been timely for the PCA. It heralds a unified and concentrated effort on the part of the presbyteries to confess past sin and move towards reconciliation.
I would affirm, as others have, that the Bible espouses confession for generational sins, especially in regard to the generations of Israel that forsook the Lord in the wilderness or went after the Baals in the time of the Judges.
Having grown up in the PCA, I know first-hand that the denomination is not very ‘multicultural’, and I hope that these resolutions and their proactive measures will be used for the blessing of all nations and races.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.