Monday, August 12, 2013

Is the OPC's General Assembly an Ecumenical Council?

An article in the most recent edition of the OPC's New Horizons magazine makes some interesting comments regarding the nature of the OPC's General Assembly:

The Bible teaches that the apostles planted local churches, organized regional-city churches (Titus 1:5), and met as a general assembly to hear appeals from the latter (Acts 15). These churches had officers (Phil. 1:1), with biblically restrained authority (1 Cor. 4:6) over specified members “allotted to” their “charge” (1 Peter 5:3; Heb. 13:17). When one translates that into modern practice, the result is what we ordinarily call a Presbyterian denomination. The General Assembly is part of that original ecclesiastical order. This is important. . . .

More than that, the General Assembly is a gospel assembly—or it is nothing at all. This is not just a priority that our OP forefathers handed down to us. Meeting as a general assembly continues an ecclesiastical practice that began in Acts 15, when the New Testament church was struggling to transition from a circumcising Jewish church into a baptizing international church. Moving from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era was not an easy thing for people to do. Christ was murdered by the resistance, which continued to hound the church all through the New Testament age. This gross opposition provides the antagonistic backdrop for most of the New Testament, including the church’s first general assembly as recorded in Acts 15.

The apostles participated in an ecclesiastical assembly to debate what the gospel is and to vote on it with the other officers. This is an amazing juncture in the maturation of the New Testament church: the apostles, side by side with the men they trained to lead the next generation of churches forward, met together in a general assembly, to debate and vote on what the gospel is and is not. This was a foundation-laying moment. . . .

In substance, the first general assembly of the New Testament church addressed whether or not the gospel is the gospel. We have in Acts 15 the equivalent of the minutes of that meeting. Every subsequent ecclesiastical assembly is a gospel assembly or it is part of the resistance. May the OPC continue to follow that original trajectory in her assemblies and keep the faith.

Can you tell what I find interesting about these comments?

The author connects the concept of the "General Assembly" to the meeting described in Acts 15.  But what was the meeting described in Acts 15?  It was the first ecumenical council.  It was a meeting of the "whole church" (15:22) throughout the world.  Acts 15 is an important text in establishing the biblical basis for presbyterian church government, and for the concept that the unity of that government must extend to the whole church throughout the world in an ecumenical council.

As a matter of fact, the OPC uses ecumenical language in describing its General Assembly:

The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. (OPC Book of Church Order - Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies"

So does the OPC consider its General Assembly to be an ecumenical council, a gathering of the whole church throughout the world?  It should, because the General Assembly is the highest recognized judicatory in the OPC.  There can be no appeal to anything higher (short of God's Word itself).  In the presbyterian form of church government, the highest judicatory in the church is the ecumenical council of all the churches in all the world.  Therefore, either the OPC must recognize its General Assembly as an ecumenical council, implying that the OPC denomination is equivalent to the entire de jure catholic church in all the world, or the OPC can say that its General Assembly is not an ecumenical council but is a meeting of only a part of the de jure catholic church, in which case it has abandoned the biblical concept of the unity of the church and presbyterian church government.  There are no other possibilities.

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