The Case for a Delegated EPC General Assembly

The advent of the coronavirus has thrown the normal practices of our society, including our churches, into disarray. The main obstacle the virus presents is the necessary prohibition of large gatherings. The EPC General Assembly (GA) normally has ~1,000 attendees and ~650-800 commissioners, far too large to occur if the bans on large gatherings are still in place at the time the GA is currently scheduled for mid-June. Rescheduling or cancelling the GA are certainly options, but a third consideration is a delegated assembly with representatives from each presbytery as participants.

The purpose of General Assemblies

The EPC prioritizes and celebrates its connectional culture, and sees the meetings of its larger courts (presbyteries and GAs) primarily as opportunities for worshiping together, catching up with old friends spread across the denomination, and training together for different aspects of ministry. It’s not uncommon to hear GAs referred to as conferences, or to have people say that they only attend for the relational aspects of the assembly, or that the networking aspects are the real reason for people to attend. There is truth to the value of the these things, and I find myself most looking forward to connecting with ministerial peers I don’t normally have the opportunity to see when I attend presbytery and GA.

But the relational aspects of GA are not the reason for its existence. GA, as a solemn court of the church, is a synod convened to conduct the business of the church. WCF 31.2 states our synods (GAs) gather for this purpose:

It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.

GA is a church council called to do the business of the church, namely, to address issues related to our faith (e.g. the Revelation 7:9 Task Force) and to provide oversight of lower courts. The specifics of how the EPC does this are laid out in BoG 20-4. Things like the worship services, the Leadership Institute, networking lunches, and catching up with friends are good, but are not the purpose of GA. The purpose of GA is to act as a court of the church in regards to the Christian faith and organization of the church’s government. This means that if all those other aspects of the GA are eliminated, as disappointing as that may be, the biblical purpose of the synod remains intact. A delegated assembly could still conduct the business of the church, even if all the other things we enjoy about GA were eliminated. Therefore cancelling GA because the coronavirus makes large gatherings a foolish impossibility is not the only option; better to have a synod that conducts the business of the church without all the extras than no assembly at all.

Historical Precedents and Biblical Warrant

Delegated assemblies are unpopular in the EPC, not only because of the aforementioned reasons, but because they were employed by the PCUSA. The practices of the PCUSA, which often appear to our EPC culture as overly bureaucratic, anti-relational, or susceptible to an aggressive minority imposing its well onto the rest of church, should be taken seriously, but should not determine the EPC’s practice.  The abuse of a practice does not make that practice bad, and it should be asked why the PCUSA had a delegated assembly in the first place.

Currently in North America, the CRCNA (a fraternal partner of the EPC) holds a delegated assembly, as do the NAPARC members OPC, RPCNA, and URCNA. The Free Church of Scotland also has a delegated GA. The ARP (another fraternal partner of the EPC) along with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland allow all TEs to participate in their GAs, but REs must be delegated as either a fixed number by their presbytery or in proportion to their congregation’s size (the EPC’s practice). Along with the PCUSA, the more mainline RCA and Church of Scotland also have delegated assemblies. Historically, both the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly were delegated assemblies. Delegated assemblies are a common practice in the Reformed tradition, with a venerable heritage. The reason why the PCUSA had a delegated GA in the first place was because it was the normal practice of the Reformed tradition.

The does not mean that a delegated assembly is necessary, but it should provide a sense of relief to those worried that having a delegated assembly is only the practice of the PCUSA. Another question that should then be asked is why churches of a reformational character had delegated assemblies in the first place. If synods exist to conduct the church’s business, rather than existing to facilitate fellowship between the church’s ministers, then it becomes easy to see why a delegated assembly makes sense: it’s easier to conduct the business of the church.

The Reformers, to my knowledge, never made the case that either a delegated assembly or an assembly open to all TEs was the biblical model. But it is worth noting that the only biblical example of a synod begins with , “…Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question” (Acts 15:2). The Jerusalem Council was a delegated assembly.

Constitutional and Practical Considerations

So does the EPC’s constitution allow for a delegated assembly? The answer is yes, but it would require cooperation from all of our congregations and presbyteries. BoG 20-2 states that membership of the GA is the same for presbyteries, which is every TE, every RE who is an officer of the court, and two REs per congregation for every TE they have (to a minimum of two REs per 500 congregational members). However, BoG 20-5.C states that a GA’s quorum shall be, “at least five Ministers and five Ruling Elders representing at least three Presbyteries.”

If congregations and presbyteries agreed in advance, they could select a certain number of TEs and REs to send as delegates to the GA. While every TE would have a right to attend and every congregation would have a right to send REs, no rules are broken if an agreement is struck in advance to send delegations to GA instead. This would require cooperation and trust, and the very temporary nature of the arrangement would protect against this being imposed upon the church in the future. Having the presbyteries select their delegates would also ensure that the GA continues to be representative of the EPC overall. Most presbyteries still have their spring meetings coming up before GA and could easily add this to their docket.

If we took our fraternal partner the CRC as a model, each EPC presbytery would send 4 officers: one TE, two REs, and either another TE or RE at the presbytery’s discretion. This is 56 total members, plus our current stated clerk, moderator, and moderator-elect as officers of the court. This is far more doable than our normal assembles. Even if this number is considered too large for a group gathering in light of the coronavirus, it is not too unwieldy for a video conference. Video conferencing is unthinkable with a 700-member assembly, but very doable for ~60 people. The most current edition (11th) of Robert’s Rules of Order, which governs EPC GAs (Rules of Assembly 14-1), allows for video conferencing as long as all members are able to simultaneously participate in the discussion. Many organizations have already practiced things like this in light of the coronavirus. Preemptively deciding to do the GA by video conferencing also makes it easier to have a delegated assembly: The only people who could register to “attend” the GA would be those selected by their presbyteries in advance.

In short, a delegated synod this year would allow the GA to still meet to conduct the business of the church without endangering its participants. It should be seriously considered.