As I wrote yesterday, an overture is basically a request to the General Assembly to do something, to act on a specific matter. The typical way an overture comes to the Assembly is through a Presbytery. A session in a particular presbytery works on an overture, sends it to the presbytery at a meeting where arguments are made for or against it and then it is voted either up or down. All it needs is a simple majority of the delegates present at that meeting to proceed to General Assembly, where it will again need to approved by a simple majority, unless the overture is to change the constitution of the denomination. There is a provision for an overture to proceed to the Assembly from an individual or a session without the approval of a presbytery, it’s just not as common, and they rarely pass.
It is important to note that the Bible is not a part of our constitution, it is the foundation of the Church, the rock on which all saints have their faith anchored, and thus it is not our constitution, but the basis for our constitutional documents. And the Bible may never be changed.
There are two types of changes allowed to our constitution, a change to the Westminster Standards or a change to the BCO. These types of overtures are more difficult to pass, because we don’t want to be constantly changing how we understand the Bible, or changing how we order church life.
To change the Westminster Standards, first the overture must go to the assembly where it needs 75% approval, then over the next year it needs 75% of the presbyteries to approve it, and 75% approval of the next General Assembly as well. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen often.
To change the BCO the process is the same, but the threshold is 66% in each instance. This also doesn’t happen often. We don’t see changes being suggested to the Westminster often at all, but BCO changes are pretty regular suggestions, but not regularly implemented. That means the overtures are sent up, but not as often passed through the entire process. Just this last year we saw several overtures come out of GA and get passed down to the presbyteries where they failed to receive the 66% majority needed to go back to GA.
Before an overture makes it the Assembly floor it first goes to the Overtures Committee (OC) and is reviewed by other pertinent committees. All constitutional overtures are reviewed by the CCB (Committee on Constitutional Business) to ensure that they don’t violate other parts of the constitution somewhere. In the OC the language is perfected so that when the overture is presented to the Assembly we don’t have 2000 picky Presbyterians trying to work out language issues on the fly. Just so you know, we still do try to work out those language issues “on the fly” in Assembly, this preliminary process just helps expediate the process. The OC has its work cut out–they often meet 12-16 hours before the business begins to sort through the overtures. This is the part I like to go early for, so I can get a more full understanding of what the overtures are about and vote accordingly.
The first overture we’ll look at is one that originally went to the 48th GA in 2021, was referred to last year’s GA and approved. It was approved by 66% of presbyteries so now it heads back to the Assembly for approval (http://chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Overture-2021-41-TN-Valley-BCO-35-1.pdf). The overture would change chapter 35 paragraph one of the BCO concerning Evidence in cases of discipline. The change essentially allows an unconverted person to testify in a church case of discipline. This is a case where we see there are good reasons on both sides of the matter. Should the unregenerate be allowed to bear witness in a case that affects God’s people? Can we trust a person’s testimony who doesn’t trust Jesus as their savior? Shouldn’t we use and utilize every fact as best we can, regardless of where it came from in the same way the Israelites are said to have plundered the Egyptians (Exodus 3:22, 12:36)?
There’s more to come…