The most significant action of the 105th General Assembly of the 938,000-member Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern), meeting at Montreat, North Carolina, in late April, was the decision to move resolutely ahead with plans for organic union with the Reformed Church in America. If the General Synod of the Reformed Church, due to meet in early June, also gives its assent, a joint committee of twenty-four (twelve from each denomination) will begin to formulate a plan of union. The General Assembly asked the committee to return with the plan by 1968.
Approval of the step toward merger with the Reformed Church, virtually all of whose 229,000 members reside in the North, came just after the standing committee on inter-church relations presented its recommendations in connection with proposals on relations with the 3,280,000-member United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. The Synod of Virginia had sent an overture urging the assembly to name a committee of twelve to meet with a corresponding UPUSA committee to “explore the conditions that are before our churches today with a view to our reunion.” Two presbyteries of that synod had submitted similar proposals. The ensuing debate was vigorous and prolonged. Practically all the commissioners who participated on both sides were men known as having previously favored all moves toward reunion of all denominations in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. Here the lines were clearly drawn between those favoring wider talks on church union and those determined to preserve the Reformed faith, and the latter gained an overwhelming victory.
The standing committee’s recommendation was “that Overtures 53, 54 and 56 should be answered in the negative; that our church continue to explore possible union with the Reformed Church of America; and that all possible means of cooperation and unity with the United Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., continue.” The assembly adopted the recommendation by a vote of nearly three to one. A few moments later the commissioners voted to adopt the joint committee’s recommendation for the RCA union. Then an invitation to participate in the six-denomination Consultation on Church Unity, an outgrowth of the so-called Blake-Pike proposal, was refused. Instead of providing participants, the General Assembly will continue to send only “observer-consultants.”
A record number of eleven overtures requesting steps toward withdrawal of membership or support from the National Council of Churches came before the assembly. These were rejected by a majority of about 2½ to one. At the same time, however, the assembly voted decisively in favor of an overture urging various reforms in NCC practices and procedures.
A report of the committee on Christian relations led to the longest and most heated debate. S. J. (“Jap”) Patterson, the San Antonio layman who was elected moderator, presided with disarming humility and directness, and the debate was characterized by courtesy. But no one could fail to feel and to understand at least to some extent the agony of spirit in many commissioners from the deep South. They had lived through a decade and more during which the whole social structure in which they and their fathers had lived for generations was being shaken. To some, the effort to spell out a Christian viewpoint on the civil rights movement seemed like “self-flagellation.” Some have been trying loyally, and with great difficulty, to interpret and carry out the decisions of the church in previous General Assemblies. To them the report entitled “The Civil Rights Movement in the Light of Christian Teaching” seemed likely to increase rather than lighten their burden.
The assembly patiently waded through this paper chapter by chapter, first that on “ ‘Respect’ or Love?,” then chapters that showed sympathetic understanding of “The Methods Used,” “Demonstrations,” and “Sit-Ins.” Phrases were altered here and there in the interest of accuracy; yet each section was adopted decisively, until the chapter favoring “Boycotts and the Use of Worldly Power” was reached. This one was rejected. Chapters on “Civil Disobedience” and “The Peace of the Church” were then adopted. At the end, a Negro commissioner from Kansas City, deeply moved, said he had seen something “that I never thought could happen here in the South.” The cumulative effect of the voting was to place the assembly on record as endorsing peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, and certain types of civil disobedience.Subsequently, more than sixty commissioners recorded a signed dissent on those parts of the report having to do with demonstrations, sit-ins, and civil disobedience.
The only close vote of the entire meeting came in a paper condemning capital punishment. Commissioners voted it down by a narrow margin.
On the final day, a report from the Permanent Judicial Commission led to a long and difficult discussion. Last year’s assembly had voted to “instruct” three synods to dissolve the three remaining all-Negro presbyteries and also to “instruct” the presbyteries in whose geographical areas the Negro churches were located to take these churches into their membership. As a result of this action, four overtures were sent to this year’s assembly pointing out the original jurisdiction of the presbyteries in such matters and the unconstitutionality of “instructing” presbyteries on matters in which no judicial process had been initiated. The commission said that “the 1964 General Assembly did not follow strictly the procedures provided in the Book of Church Order” and that “to request such action through the synod is more properly consistent” with the book.
The action finally taken this year “requested” the presbyteries to take similar action but “instructed” them to report on it by next year. A vigorous but unsuccessful attempt was made to couch the whole action as an “instruction,” thus disregarding the advice of the commission. In the debate it became clear that many commissioners were concerned mainly with enforcing the will of the assembly without realizing the far-reaching implications for Presbyterian polity of permitting such actions to originate at the top rather than in the court where original juridiction resides.
Many of the assembly debates reflected a problem that is troubling top churchmen in this and other denominations: the clergy-laity split. Very frequently the support for a proposal comes largely from ministers and the predominant opposition arises from the laymen, or vice versa.
Other assembly developments:
—One commissioner proposed that the assembly seek to withdraw an invitation extended to Dr. Martin Luther King to address a Christian social action conference to be held in Montreat. The conference is being sponsored by the Division of Christian Relations of the Presbyterian U. S. Board of Christian Education. Some support was found, but even some who would not have favored the invitation itself felt that withdrawal would have led to even more serious consequences. The proposal was voted down.
—A somewhat equivocal report on glossolalia was adopted. One commissioner translated it as saying, “Yes, and then again, no; but possibly perhaps.”
“The Evangelical Imperative: A World in Crisis—the Church Is Involved” was the theme of the twenty-third annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals attended in Minneapolis by nearly 800 delegates April 27–29. The theme, based on Romans 1:14, “I am debtor,” bore a logical relation to that of the 1964 convention, “Evangelicals Unashamed,” with its reference to Romans 1:16. The convention showed that NAE not only is moving out of its shell but also has attained a strong sense of direction.
The usual simultaneous meetings of commissions and affiliates, the morning public and business sessions, and the evening mass meetings were in the familiar mold, as was the warm devotional spirit that characterizes an NAE convention. With impressive sincerity, speaker after speaker dealt with the imperative of involvement in the needs of the world. Clearly audible in the public sessions and also in group luncheons and smaller commission meetings was a wholesome note of self-criticism. Manifestly NAE has attained the maturity of honest introspection. At the meeting of the Evangelism and Spiritual Life Commission, President David L. McKenna of Spring Arbor (Michigan) College asked the pointed question, “If you were the arch-enemy of God, … would you attack evangelical Christianity?” Evangelicalism must, he insisted, speak with an uncompromising voice that challenges secular society and must show a new sense of responsibility for social problems. At a morning public meeting, Dr. John Haggai, well-known evangelist, told the delegates, “It takes greater dedication to be in the world than to recede from the human race and to criticize from the outside.… We must combine with all colors, occupations, and nationalities to display our liberation.”
One of the most outspoken addresses was given by Dr. Richard C. Halverson, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Washington, D. C., at the closing mass meeting. In an astringent analysis based on Christ’s words, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” “Ye are the light of the world,” and “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister,” he said: “With the Church of Jesus Christ, nothing is secular; all is sacred.… The work of the Church lies outside the church establishment and requires every member to do it. The work of the Church is downtown and in the social structure.… We have tended to pull men out of the world … instead of sending them out to the world equipped to witness and serve for the glory of Christ.”
A unique feature of the convention and a further evidence of NAE’s developing maturity was the premiere of the motion picture, It Can Happen. This forty-minute film, made under the sponsorship of the Scripture Press Foundation, World Vision, Inc., and Mr. P. J. Zondervan, is based on comments from people in various walks of life who were asked their opinion of the evangelical church. The film probes the self-centered superficiality and narrowness of many evangelicals, few of whom will view it without pangs of spiritual disquiet.
What about the trend of NAE toward the Church’s involvement in the world? Is this association, with its membership of two million and its broader constituency of ten million, known for nearly a quarter of a century for its biblical and social conservatism, now moving toward the social gospel? To come to any such conclusion would be to misunderstand this 1965 convention. While NAE leadership is determined to move the association out into the world, in doing so it is equally determined to bring the one transforming Gospel to the world and through this Gospel to serve the world.
The meaning and extent of the kind of church-world involvement NAE stands for is reflected in the resolutions of the 1965 convention. These began with a strong reaffirmation of the basic witness of NAE in which its biblical, doctrinal statement (signed publicly by the officers at an evening session) was reiterated. Other resolutions dealt with matters ranging from obscenity, civil rights, labor unions, and immigration laws to leisure time and public education. While the trend of the resolutions was conservative, NAE again took sides on sensitive matters relating to federal policies and social problems.
Dr. Jared F. Gerig, president of Fort Wayne (Indiana) Bible College, was elected NAE president for a second year. The Layman of the Year Award was given to Dr. Stephen W. Paine, president of Houghton College and a former president of NAE.
FRANK E. GAEBELEIN
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more