Assembly Accepts Assurances of MNA With Regard to Controversy

St. Louis, Missouri (July 3, 1998)-The 26th Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly this morning accepted the assurances of MNA officials with regard to the controversy over church planting in the West. Among other items, the memorandum from Philip Douglas (new MNA Chairman), Al Lacour (retiring MNA Chairman), and Cortez Cooper (MNA Coordinator) pledged those men "to devise regular procedures by which mission churches under MNA's guidance are reviewed periodically as to [MNA guidelines regarding worship], and to require such remedies as may be necessary to bring them into conformity." They also pledged to reaffirm an administrative directive and to bring to the October 1998 MNA Committee meeting a reaffirmation that all MNA staff "are servants of MNA/GA and our presbyteries, and possess no authority in themselves as individuals." Further, the memo pled with the Assembly "not [to] put upon MNA a task that the Assembly itself has been unable to perform, namely, the task of eliminating confusion and conflict as to what biblical worship is or is not. . . . We will submit to our brothers, but MNA cannot resolve issues that the Assembly has been unable to resolve."

The controversy was prompted by the attempt of Central Georgia Presbytery to send a church planter to Provo, Utah. Communications from the MNA's Western Coordinator Lewis Ruff, which Central Georgia had been made aware of, had stated that "[o]ur Presbytery [Northern California] will not endorse any candidate who has a problem affirming the legitimacy of other philosophies of ministry and who promises to bring conflict into our unified and growing Presbytery. [That potential church planter], as you remember, has been openly critical of non-liturgical styles of worship, such as those employed in most of the churches of our Presbytery. While he would not have to embrace those different styles, he would have [to] grant their legitimacy within our fellowship. I would want to see and hear progress in this area before giving blessing to his involvement in ministry under our Presbytery's banner."

About the same time, a member of Northern California Presbytery backed out of the internship plan which Central Georgia had arranged for its church planter to do with him. And, in February, Northern California overtured the Assembly to double its territory, by including most of Nevada and all of Utah within its bounds. If that plan were approved, no other presbytery could lawfully minister within that area.

At the heart of the dispute was New Song-Salt Lake, a PCA mission work which had employed alternative rock music and video clips of secular movies in its public worship services. Widespread coverage in Presbyterian and Reformed News and in a video, What's at Stake in the West, had brought the issues to the attention of many in the denomination.

In April, prior to the media coverage, Central Georgia Presbytery had overtured the Assembly to deny Northern California's proposed extension of boundaries; and to ask for an investigation of worship practices in Utah mission churches and whether MNA personnel had established a policy which effectively excluded men with a traditional understanding of worship from church planting in the West. Grace Presbytery also went on record in support of Central Georgia.

Although the motion was approved this morning, the debate occurred yesterday. The Committee of Commissioners had recommended that the Central Georgia and Grace overtures be answered in the negative, and had attached numerous grounds. One of those grounds stated that "several of the 'Whereas' clauses contain allegations which were found to be without substance." Upon motion from the floor, all those grounds were struck; and the overtures were answered in the negative "based upon the assurances set forth in the MNA memorandum."

The Assembly also voted not to extend Northern California's boundaries. Instead, the court remanded the matter to the various Western U. S. presbyteries for consideration. However, the Assembly voted down a substitute motion by Rev. David Brown of Northern California Presbytery which would have turned down the proposed extension of boundaries until after the New Song-Salt Lake situation was resolved.

Excerpts from the MNA Memorandum

Answering the Overture in the negative in no way provides MNA with an evasion of responsibility. Rather, it simply seeks to remand the conflict and confusion to its original sources, so that the process becomes manageable and is dealt with biblically in accordance with Matthew 18. We pledge ourselves to lead the MNA Committee and Staff in doing everything possible with Central Georgia Presbytery to address and resolve the grievances that provoked the overtures. Committee members, as well as Staff, will be directly involved in this process.

MNA requires the adherence of church planters and staff to the following guidelines regarding worship (excerpted from MNA "Church Essentials" document):

The church is committed to the necessity of biblical worship and the spiritual growth process of its people. The church is led in vital worship that balances the vertical and the horizontal, the transcendence and the immanence of God, and the private and corporate aspects of worship.

This is minimally demonstrated by the following:

l The Pastor takes ultimate responsibility for the content and atmosphere of the worship service.

l Due to the high priority of worship in a biblical church, worship is conducted at the "prime time," that is, on the Lord's Day.

l The people are encouraged and trained in private and family worship.

l Worship considers the "unchurched" and seeks to make that activity intelligible in order that non-Christians may be drawn towards it.

These guidelines, as used in submission to the Scriptures and the subordinate standards, are good and sufficient for directing the development of worship in a mission church. We note that the overtures do not spell out specifics about the worship of New Song. We note further that the information most commissioners may have on the worship of New Song has come through a video tape and printed materials that have no standing in the church courts. Nevertheless, based on such reports, it appears that the MNA Committee may not have adequately required New Song's original church planter to adhere to these guidelines.

Therefore, we pledge ourselves to devise regular procedures by which mission churches under MNA's guidance are reviewed periodically as to these guidelines, and to require such remedies as may be necessary to bring them into conformity.

In conclusion, we reiterate our desire to submit to the Assembly and our commitment to provide the leadership to the MNA Committee and Staff that is necessary to carry out Assembly policy and direction. This includes giving such guidance to our church planters as is essential to ensure that they conduct worship in a biblical manner. At the same time, we pray that our brothers will not put upon MNA a task that the Assembly itself has been unable to perform, namely, the task of eliminating confusion and conflict as to what biblical worship is or is not. Conflicts and questions related to worship abound in our presbyteries and our General Assembly. We will submit to our brothers, but MNA cannot resolve issues that the Assembly has been unable to resolve. We pray for patience with one another as we seek the Lord's direction in being faithful to Him in what is surely the crown jewel of our Christian life-the worship of our great God.

Subsequent Developements at New Song-Salt Lake

The former organizing pastor of New Song-Salt Lake, who was suspended from the ministry for two years in February 1998, appeared there on August 23rd. The minister, still under discipline by Northern California Presbytery for adultery, gave a testimony with the approval of the mission work's oversight commission. Although there was no sermon as such in the service, the Lord's Supper was observed.

According to a member of Northern California Presbytery, the minister under discipline led the entire service up until the administration of the sacrament. The same source indicated that the gentleman apologized to the church during the service for his prior sin.

After the minister's testimony, the sacrament of communion was served by TE Patrick McDaniel, a member of Central Florida Presbytery. Mr. McDaniel has been brought in by the oversight commission and has moved onto the field. He had been serving on the pastoral staff at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palm Bay, FL.

Mr. Smith's appearance came three weeks after the resignation of Jeffrey Szakonyi as pastoral assistant. Mr. Szakonyi was ordained at New Song-Salt Lake on May 31 by a non-PCA congregation from Bellevue, WA. Summit View Community Church is affiliated with Willow Creek Church, the prominent "seeker-sensitive" group in Chicago.

At the called meeting of Northern California Presbytery on June 6th, that court determined that only a licensed person may preach at New Song-Salt Lake. Mr. Szakonyi, who has not been licensed by Northern California Presbytery, filled the pulpit on June 7th, and on subsequent Sundays, including August 2nd (the date he resigned).

According to commission member Michael Howard, positive steps have been taken to stabilize the young PCA mission work. He cited especially the presence of Mr. McDaniel, who has many years of experience in working with young adults.

The oversight commission for the Salt Lake City mission church consists of the Rev. Lewis Ruff, Western Coordinator for the denominational Mission to North America Committee; the Rev. Michael Howard, MNA-funded church planter in Layton, UT; Mr. Russ Olmo; and Mr. Earl Ross. Northern California Presbytery is slated to meet in October and to hear a report from this commission.

[Those wishing to obtain official copies of the commission's report may want to contact the Presbytery's Stated Clerk, Mr. Art Schick, 1616 Glenfield Drive, San Jose, CA 95125; (408)267-6150-Ed.]