Presbyterian Mission: What the 1902 General Assembly Endorsed: The Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations” (9th of Eleven).

In 1902 the 114th General Assembly added a chapter to the Presbyterian Book of Order, (Chapter 23 in 1902, but retitled Chapter 28 soon afterward) called “Of the Organizations of the Church: Their Rights and Duties.”[1] This established the right of Presbyterians to organize special-interest associations which would be regulated by the General Assembly, but governed by the members of the special-interest associations themselves. That is perfect. Each special-interest association set its own mission, raised and spent its own funds, and elected its own board of directors. In return, the General Assembly recognized the right of each special-interest association to go about its work, so long as it was in good standing and reported annually to the General Assembly. Here is the text of chapter 28 of the 1902 Book of Order:

Section 1. The members of a particular church or particular churches may associate together and may associate with themselves other regular members of the congregation or congregations, under regular forms of association, for the conduct of a special work for missionary or other benevolent purposes, or for the purpose of instruction in religion and development in Christian nurture.

Section 2. Where special organizations of the character above indicated exist in a particular church, they shall be under the immediate direction, control and oversight of the Session of said church; where they cover the territory included within a Presbytery or Synod, they shall be responsible to the judicatory having jurisdiction; and where they cover territory greater than a Synod, they shall be responsible to the General Assembly.

Section 3. The names or titles of special organizations may be chosen by themselves, and the organizations shall have power to adopt each its own Constitution and to elect its own officers, subject always to the powers of review and control vested by the Constitution in the several judicatories of the Church.[2]

Blincoe: The Chapter 28 organizations, as they were called, usually reported to the General Assembly. The General Assembly regulated—but did not govern—these organizations. When the Northern and Southern churches reunited in 1983, the Northern Church provision recognizing special-interest mission groups was added to the new Book of Order (Chapter 28 was redesignated as Chapter 9.0601, “Right to Organize”). “This was a crucial decision,” writes Gary Eller. “The Form of Government constitutionally legitimized organized advocacy groups within the [newly-formed] PCUSA.”[3] The Book of Order regulated these groups (“Review and Control,” G-9.0602) by requiring an annual report. Every year a determination was made as to whether a reporting organization was “in compliance” or “not in compliance” with the witness of the Presbyterian Church. The term “in compliance” indicated “adherence to the Constitution of the Pres­byterian Church (U.S.A.) and guidelines, but does not imply the General Assembly’s concurrence with, or en­dorsement of, the organization’s position.”[4] To be found “not in compliance” carried disciplinary consequences. Criteria for evaluating special organizations were devel­oped along with a list of privileges for groups found “in compliance.” In his article “The New Missions and the Mission of the Church,” Ralph D. Winter stated that his discussion with church officials led him to conclude that Chapter 28 / Chapter Nine “clearly provides for the spontaneous emergence of other organizations which organize first and ask approval later,” an advantage that Winter interpreted as “highly significant.”[5]

There were 19 “Chapter Nine” organizations at the time of the 1983 merger.[6] But the provocative agendas of two of them, the Presbyterian Lay Committee and the Presbyterian Gay and Lesbian Caucus, seemed in the minds of many Presbyterians to enjoy the endorsement of the whole church, though the Book of Order made it clear that special or­ganizations “are not official agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” and that “they bear alone responsibility for their views and actions.”[7] Sadly, the 1991 General Assembly voted 422-104 to eliminate the provision recognizing special-purpose associations. The Presbyterian Church expunged chapter 9 from the Book of Order, and the formal reporting relationship was dissolved. This dissolution was at variance with “the principle of toleration” described by Robert Speer in the Special Commission Report of 1925. Speer and the other members of the Commission stated that the Presbyterian way of settling disputes was by the “union of hearts”:

Toleration as a principal application within the Presbyterian Church refers to an attitude and a practice . . . Presbyterianism is a great body of belief, but it is more than a belief; it is also a tradition, a controlling sentiment. The ties which bind us to it are not of the mind only; they are ties of the heart as well.[8]

The 1925 commission promoted toleration in a way that would keep the authority of the constitution foremost. “More than defending toleration, though,” William J. Weston writes, “the Special Commission report eloquently expressed the loyalists’ devotion to the Presbyterian Church itself. When the General Assembly of 1926 embraced this tolerant and constitutional understanding of the Presbyterian Church, the tide turned in favor of pluralism in the church.[9]

One Presbyterian voluntary society still exists,[10] enabled to do so by US non-profit corporation law, but its reporting relationship to the General Assembly has been ended. Gary Eller writes,

Can special-purpose groups be agents of reconciliation within the Presbyterian Church? Respectful dialogue and concern for the whole Presbyterian family must bring opposites together in the pursuit of the mission of the church. “If this is done in the power of the Spirit,” writes [David G.] Dawson, “the ‘theological Balkanization’ of the Presbyterian Church can end, and the identity of the new church can be firmly established, and authentic ministries of faithfulness can begin.”[11]

[1] Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, ed. Stated Clerk (Philadelphia1902). 164-165. Henry Van Dyke was Moderator of the 1902 General Assembly.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gary S. Eller, “Special Interest Groups and American Presbyterianism,” in The Organizational Revolution: Presbyterians and American Denominationalism (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992); ibid. 259

[4] Book of Order,  (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1992). G-9.0602

[5] Ralph D. Winter, “The New Missions and the Mission of the Church,” International Review of Mission 60, no. 1 (1971, January). 92-93

[6] The Chapter Nine organizations were: Presbyterians for Democracy and Religious Freedom, The Outreach Foundation, The Presbyterian Lay Committee, The Witherspoon Society, The Presbyterian Network on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, Presbyterians for Biblical Sexuality, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Presbyterians Pro-Life Research, The New Earth Covenant Community, Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians, Presbyterians for Biblical Concerns, Association of Presbyterians in Cross-Cultural Mission, Literacy and Evangelism International, Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, Presbyterian Order for World Evangelization, Presbyterian Elders in Prayer, Presbyterian Renewal Ministries, and Reformed Order of Discipleship. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, ed. Stated Clerk (Philadelphia1991). Most of the Chapter Nine organizations would identify themselves as “conservative,” but not all, a point made in Richard G. Hutcheson, Wheel within the Wheel: Confronting the Management Crisis of the Pluralistic Church (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979). 115-116

[7] Book of Order. G-9.0602

[8] The Special Commission of 1925. Quoted in William J. Weston, Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House, 1st ed. (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997). 80

[9] Ibid. 81. Emphasis added

[10] I am director of the Presbyterian Order for World Evangelization. Members pledge to live a missionary lifestyle and give the excess of what they earn or accrue to a mission cause of their choice.

[11] Eller, “Special Interest Groups and American Presbyterianism.” 278

Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog #9 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.