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History of ACSWP


A Brief History of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, 1936–2006

From Social Education and Action, through Church and Society, with elements from the Council on Theology and Culture, to Social Witness Policy.


This brief paper was initially provided in January 2006 as background for the General Assembly Mission Council’s (now: Presbyterian Mission Agency’s) discussion of proposals to change the search process for the Coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

  • The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s structure and role have been reasonably constant since 1936, when the General Assembly approved the Report of the Committee of Five, which (among other things) recommended combining the Board of Christian Education’s Department of Social Education and the Board of National Missions’ Unit of Social and Industrial Relations. The resulting Department of Social Education and Action (SEA) was lodged in the Board of Christian Education but part of its Committee membership to be nominated by National Missions. In 1944 the GA expanded the Committee’s membership (to 20) with nominees from the Board of Foreign Missions and the National Council of Presbyterian Women.
  • The Social Education and Action mandate: “that the Presbyterian Church is under obligation to show how… Christian principles apply to all social, moral, economic, national and international relationships…; that responsibility for attacking this vital and far-reaching task be lodged with a group of socially-minded and consecrated men and women, authorized by the GA…and that the group so appointed be clothed with authority commensurate with their responsibility.” This authority included “recommending to the General Assembly of declarations of principles …and the means to be taken by our Church to make the Christian Gospel more effective…” A pre-1936 theme of warning and protecting the church from the world was still present, now combined with more research and deliberation on understanding and changing the world.
  • After the reorganization of 1972 in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Advisory Council on Church & Society (ACCS) was lodged in the more unified General Assembly Mission Council (now: Presbyterian Mission Agency), somewhat parallel to the Council on Theology and Culture’s (CTC) place in the Presbyterian Church in the US’ General Assembly Mission Board. Both ACCS and CTC conducted extensive studies and had their senior staff in the leadership teams of the GAMC and GAMB. In both traditions (three, counting the United Presbyterian Church in North America, which united with the Presbyterian Church, USA in 1958), the pursuit of “social righteousness” included a designated stewarding body, itself guided by past General Assembly positions.
  • The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s place within General Assembly Mission Council (now: Presbyterian Mission Agency) but not in a division or unit was re-affirmed in the Design for Mission in the Reunion of UPC and PCUS. This is also reflected historically in the Committee’s role in (a) helping design parts of the programmatic work of the GAMC (now: PMA) (such as the Peacemaking, Hunger, the Racial-Ethnic and Women’s advocacy offices, etc., upon approval of policies recommended to the Assembly), and in (b) providing Advice and Counsel Memoranda that explicate and guide responses to ethical concerns coming before each General Assembly.In the 1993 restructure, the Committee became an Advisory Committee, lost 4 of its then 16 members, gained 3 GAMC (now: PMA) members, and shifted in consultative connection from the Social Justice and Peacemaking Unit to the National Ministries Division, with its Director becoming a Coordinator. Given 3 of its 12 members from the GAMC (now: PMA), its Coordinator Search Committees were staffed by the GAMC (now: PMA) Executive Director’s office, but did not necessarily have membership overlap with the GAMC as with the Social Justice and Peacemaking Unit (which had provided 2 Search Committee members). Through these changes, the “Why and How the Church Makes A Social Policy Witness” broad study process helped reaffirm both the value of Christian social witness and ACSWP’s role in it.

Biblical and Theological Concerns

  • Biblically, the model for church social witness agencies lies in the prophetic vocation. Unlike in Islam, where the prophet became the ruler, in Judaism and Christianity the prophet remains separate from the ruler. Practically speaking, the “prophetic” function in organized church life does not “rule;” it advises. Past GAMC (now: PMA) and OGA leadership have benefited from not having direct responsibility for the social witness function. Our GAMC (now: PMA) Manual acknowledges some of this “lightning rod” element. Thus, on this model, the body that speaks up for the Church’s appropriate distance from the powers of state and culture rightly has itself some appropriate distance from control by the powers in the Church.
  • Similar processes of expanding and then contracting the resources for social concerns have gone on in most mainline Protestant churches, though our body of Christian social ethical teaching is (humbly stated) the most careful and comprehensive. Both Methodists and United Church of Christ have more autonomous social witness units, the Evangelical Lutheran Church has a larger office, but almost all denominations have some orderly way to include the “prophetic” function in their organizations. The Holy Spirit speaks directly to every Christian conscience, but part of the church’s “ministerial and declarative” voice has been seen to consist of ethical guidance, free enough to help reform the church under the guidance of the Word of God.
  • The Church is called to be an example to the world in its internal workings. General Assembly social policy repeatedly emphasizes democracy, the free conscience of the individual Christian, the rule of law and the independence of the Church to serve its Lord, “rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In no case in Presbyterian polity is unconditional authority given to any one person or body; authority, like wisdom, grows in democratic process; good witness begins in free internal dialogue. We believe that mutual accountability is at the core of Presbyterian ministry and should be structured into the relations between ACSWP and the GAMC (now: PMA).

Structural Relationships

  • Like the GAMC (now: PMA) itself, agent of the Assembly’s actions between Assemblies, the ACSWP helps coordinate the voice of the Assembly with more specialized roles of the Stated Clerk—thus sharing in some per capita support for designated projects. Unlike bodies that have degrees of autonomy based on function; the Foundation to manage the Church’s monies; or the Committee on Theological Education to nurture seminary relationships, etc., ACSWP is properly within the GAMC’s (now: PMA’s) leadership structures to enhance the Council’s vision, awareness and prophetic understanding of Christ.
  • Clearly, within a “reformed and ever-reforming” church, structures change. In these changes the Committee valued the principle embodied in the staff selection process—a committee-elected team, choosing its own moderator, working closely with GAMC (now: PMA) Executive Director’s office. This kept a balance between those who know the rhythms and imperatives of theologically-based social ethics and those who know the rhythms and imperatives of administering an ecclesiastical mission organization. (Since the initial writing, changes have been made in the search process going forward, among other changes affecting the General Assembly Mission Council [now: Presbyterian Mission Agency]).