Crisis In The Southern Presbyterian Church (2)

In my first article I gave a brief summary of the situation with which evangelicals are confronted today in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the Southern Presbyterian Church. I should like now to attempt an assessment of the present state of affairs, especially of certain factors which complicate it, and to say something of my own reaction to the direction events appear to be taking. The character of the PCUS is so very mixed and the spectrum of theological opinion so broad that it is difficult to be both concise and accurate. Readers will take what I say as representative of my thinking as an individual. I am, of course, very much on the side of the Reformed party, if it may be called that; but I also have some quite serious doubts and criticisms at the same time. 

To begin with, those of us who are concerned with the doctrinal soundness of the PCUS and continuing the historic testimony of the denomination have had to face the question of schism, or at least of separation. The charge is being leveled against us from many sides that we are seeking to rend the body of Christ. Indeed, one of the most painful attacks found place inThe Banner of the Christian Reformed Church (issue of Oct. 8, 1971) in which the editor plainly accuses the steering Committee of this very thing, and then goes on to state that though conservatives in the PCUS complain of laxity in discipline, “it is obvious that were it otherwise, prime candidates for disciplinary action would be members of the steering committee.” We recognize that schism is sinful and that no separation even may be undertaken unless the case is perfectly clear and there is no alternative. 

But upon long and diligent reflection we have come to the conclusion that schism is not an issue in our present ecclesiastical context, nor, for that matter, is separation as such. The whole point may be summed up thus: Are we in the Southern Church who are committed to the historic confessional and constitutional position of the denomination (and of the Reformed Churches generally) obliged to enter into a union with the essentially confessionless UPUSA? We do not wish to leave the present denominational structure. Instead, we pray daily for the grace of God to be displayed. amongst us afresh. But we feel bound in conscience to continue on as a Reformed Church when the merger with the UPUSA has been determined upon and consummated. That is the true state of affairs with us. 

There has been some careless talk about a “new denomination,” to be formed after merger. It may be that from one point of view, in that the constituency of the continuing church will not be identical with that of the PCUS as presently existing. But we are insistent upon the fact—and I write as a mere minister, and as having no official relationship to the Steering Committee or any other agency—that we intend to continue, not to separate. And we assert that the real separationists will be those who forsake the Reformed confessional and constitutional position of the Presbyterian Church to enter into union with a body (the UPUSA) that has long since given up any binding relationship to the Westminster Confession, or any other, has adopted position after position in which the moral and doctrinal posture of the Church of Christ has been corrupted, openly tolerates error of the most grievous sort, and no longer requires its ministers or its members to adhere to the evangelical faith of the Word of God. Dr. De Koster’s charges are both unjust and untrue, but one prefers to think of him as poorly informed on these matters. 

Furthermore, the liability of the members of the Steering Committee and others to discipline in a tighter and better ordered ecclesiastical system, according to Dr. De Koster, is an assertion so full of strange presuppositions and so replete with misconceptions that it is difficult to comprehend how it could be made at all. For the editor of the official publication of the Christian Reformed Church—a church born in .separation at best, and professedly orthodox—to come down on that side is a very strange thing indeed. The Steering Committee and others—I among them—are working toward a continuing church and denouncing the present laxity of the PCUS because it is now possible—our constitution notwithstanding—to hold almost any aberration imaginable of a doctrinal or moral order (for example, the lawfulness of abortion for “economic” reasons) and yet to remain in good standing in the denomination. While admittedly in a sounder situation it would not be tolerated for a group to raise itself against the courts of the church and openly to protest and work against their decisions, in the present case it is a question of heresy and grave moral and spiritual error. And we believe that while the peace of the church is of great importance, there can be no true peace when the truth is not honored and adhered to. What the Steering Committee is doing is to insist that the church is duty bound to respect its own constitutional position and its own confession, and to declare that though the majority may be prepared to commit ecclesiastical suicide and to surrender their doctrinal identity, all are not so willing; some will continue to hold to the gospel of Christ. It is easy for those who have forsaken the faith—and I refer here not to any Christian Reformed editor, but to those who hurl the charge of schism within our own denomination—to cry up peace and to cry down disturbers and troublers in Israel. But with whom does the fault lie? Who are the liars and thieves, the destroyers of the souls of men? 

The most prominent defector from the conservative movements in the PCUS after the announcement of the formation of the Steering Committee was Dr. L. Nelson Bell, former medical missionary to China, prominent evangelical leader, father-in-law to Billy Graham, and board member and associate editor ofThe Presbyterian Journal. The same Banner editorial which spoke out against efforts to lay the ground work for a continuing Presbyterian Church in the South made much use of his words in resigning from the Journal in protest against the plan of action adopted by his erstwhile colleagues. Dr. Bell feels that “the battle must be ‘on a higher level than that of an organizational issue and that a division in the Church will not solve the problems caused by liberalism.” He thinks moreover “that there are evidences of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit working across America and within the bounds of our Church, which should cause us to look up and thank God.” And he holds also that “The Journalboard’s involvement in what will certainly prove to be a separatist movement is not justified by the present situation in the Church.” Dr. Bell is no doubt an admirable Christian and a notable evangelical leader. We all respect him for what he has done in the past, and for his courage and forthrightness in the present. But we think him wrong. And we grieve at the harm which his withdrawal may have done, not to us, but to the cause of Christ. I, for my part, believe that he has seriously misjudged the situation. His own words indicate that this is the case. Our battle is not one having to do with an organizational issue only. It is basically a theological one. The gospel is at stake. Furthermore, no Presbyterian with any understanding of history or of the New Testament can hold that organization is an incidental matter, and that what really counts in the end is the intangible spirit of the thing. Structure pertains to the very nature of the church. Why otherwise are we Presbyterians? Is not our form of church government based squarely upon the teaching of the Word of God? Even there, though that might not justify separation—indeed, I believe it would not—we cannot be indifferent. But the issue is still more fundamental, as I sought to show in the first of these two articles. Though we respect a man like Dr. Bell, therefore, we cannot follow him; and we lament the decision which he has felt compelled to make. 

Second, another complicating factor in assessing our situation is the very mixed character of the denomination, even of the evangelical party within the denomination, which I referred to at the beginning. As a relative newcomer to the PCUS I am still insufficiently familiar with the details of the history of the denomination to be able to put my finger on the source of the trouble. Perhaps one ought to say “sources” of the trouble, since there is seldom a single point of origin in denominational deterioration and decay. It does seem certain to me, however, that even the conservatives in the church are in large measure so unclear in their adherence to the Reformed position and the Westminster Confession as to make quite difficult any attempt at co-operation under the present circumstances, and even more so later on in the projected continuing church. Many men call themselves Calvinistic and Reformed when they are in fact very far from that. Ministers—and I speak here of evangelicals—appear able to sign the Confession in good conscience, intending nothing like the mental reservations of the liberals, and then to go on in the practice of their ministries behaving much more like Arminians. It is well known that Mrs. Billy Graham is a member of the PCUS, and Leighton Ford, Graham’s associate evangelist and brother-in-law, is a minister in our denomination. Such instances may be taken as typical of many others. We have many amongst us who are broadly evangelical, but not distinctively Reformed. In current usage one employs the word “evangelical” as distinct from Reformed: one who is Reformed is certainly an evangelical in that he holds to the great doctrines of the gospel; but, alas, not all evangelicals are Reformed. Many are Arminian. Evangelistic practice among these evangelicals involves the employment of all the techniques of modern mass evangelism, decisionism, preaching in which the glorious truths of the Word of God on election, the nature of man, the bondage of the will, dependence upon the Holy Spirit for regeneration, are either obscured or not mentioned at all, preaching which is quite indistinguishable from that in churches making no claim to the name of Presbyterian or Reformed. It has been astonishing to me that there can be so open a claim to the historic position of the denomination and at the same time so little awareness in some quarters of what that means in terms of the actual work of evangelism and the ministry as a whole. I rather think that only a minority among the conservative ministers could give a creditable explanation of the five points of Calvinism, though these are abundantly evident in the Westminster Confession of Faith; certainly relatively few of them would make any effort to put them to work in their preaching and teaching. It is my impression also that a great part of the orthodox constituency of the church are in ignorance on the very basic significance of the Reformed faith. 

No doubt this is to be traced in large measure to the theological seminaries and to the preaching and teaching of the past. As so often has been the case, decline did not come all at once, but the seeds of it were being sown long before the fruit they were to produce became apparent. There was a movement from the high Reformed convictions of men like Thornwell and Dabney to a lower, vaguer form of Calvinism, and from thence to the situation as we find it today. What a heavy burden of guilt for the apostasy among the majority in the leadership of the PCUS must be borne by the seminaries is self-evident. But reaching a bit further back, the finger of blame must also be pointed in their direction for the indefinite, untaught evangelicalism of the conservative part of the church as well. Because instruction in the theological faculties grew careless and became caught up in a diluted theology, this was passed on to the actual preaching within the congregations themselves, so that thousands of church members have, I believe, never so much as heard a truly Reformed sermon. Even with evangelicals in many places fifteen to twenty minute essays on religion, topical treatments of some biblical subject, have been the rule rather than the exception. There is little taste for exposition, little love for preaching, though there is a residual conservatism that balks at the perversion of the gospel which is currently being handed down from above. 

I do not know what percentage of the conservative ministers are truly Reformed. There are some, of course. And there are many others who mean to be such. That in itself is a hopeful sign. Where there is adherence to the Scriptures and a determination and intent to be faithful to the confessional stance of the church, there is always a point of contact of which advantage may be taken and which in the mercy of God may yet be the means of strengthening the Reformed witness in our part of the country. But one may easily understand how uncertain the future must be said to be when strong Calvinists, weak Calvinists, evangelicals, even distinctly Arminian evangelicals, will be constrained to co-operate with one another and to rebuild the fabric of the church with one another in the event of a continuing PCUS. As I have made clear enough by this time, I am very much on the side of those who are prepared to resist to the end any merger with the UPUSA. But I also have doubts as I reflect upon our circumstances whether there are enough men of a Reformed character to ensure the continuation of a truly Reformed and Presbyterian Church, “a Presbyterian Church loyal to Scripture and the Reformed faith.” 

A third complicating factor is formed by the whole question of church property, pension funds, that kind of thing, and also the tendency of men, even of good men, to go along with the majority, the establishment; no matter if that does violence to their professed principles. In the study draft of the plan of union which is presently before us there is an important provision called the “escape clause.” This clause, as it stands, will permit those congregations which conscientiously find themselves unable to participate in the union to remain outside the new denomination to be formed by a merger of the PCUS and the UPUSA and to continue on as a Reformed and Presbyterian Church, taking their property along with them. The Steering Committee is adopting the approach that it is legitimate for conservatives opposing the union—unwilling to enter into it—to support the plan of union with the end in view of securing possession of their buildings and properties; and indeed it does seem that the plan of union invites this kind of support. I for one, however, am perplexed here, and unable to understand how I can be asked to vote for something which in the very nature of it I find reprehensible. Others are also facing the same ethical problem, and will be unable to have any part in such an undertaking. I hope that the “escape clause” is never removed. It may be. Voices are being heard to cry out loudly against it as “un-Presbyterian!” It is said that the clause proceeds upon Congregationalist rather than upon Presbyterian assumptions, that it opens the way to schism and independency, etc. As though it were Presbyterian for apostates to deprive the faithful of that which they have bought and paid for with their own contributions, which they resent seeing used for unscriptural worship, and which they will in consequence not willingly hand over to the enemies of souls. I hope the clause will not be removed, and I believe we must fight to see it retained as no more than just. But this does not mean that we are also to vote for a plan of union, which union we oppose, because some temporal good may accrue to us. 

Though unlikely at the moment, that clause may be taken away in the end. And if that happens I fear, human nature being what it is, that a good many ministers and congregations will go the way of their buildings and their pension funds, rather than the way of their consciences. This sort of thing has happened in the past, and it will happen again. I do not say that these people will consciously violate their consciences. Human nature is far more subtle than that, and more devious. What will take place is that these men will gradually evolve in their own minds a rationale that can enable them somehow to square their refusal to continue in a truly Reformed and Presbyterian Church without doing violence to what they have then come to view as their convictions. One sees this process already at work in men who are permitting themselves to become convinced that those who have given themselves to laying the groundwork for a continuing denomination are schismatic, separatist, ill-advised, precipitate, etc. Some are even now beginning to back away from the consequences of the principles they have held through many years because they see where these otherwise will lead them. 

I could go on and on. An excessive sanguineness about the future, based upon no realistic assessment of the prospects, is also coming to the fore. The better showing of conservatives at the last meeting of the General Assembly than has been the case in years is deceiving some into thinking that we shall now be going on from strength to strength, when what last year’s meeting really proved was that doing our utmost was not enough and that unless something else intervenes from the outside, unless God revives his church, the liberal hegemony is firmly in the saddle. This, too, has had its ill effects. 

It means something to be a Presbyterian in this country, to have the name of Presbyterian, to belong to one of the great Presbyterian denominations with their heritage, their traditional strength of character, their entrenched social position, their Bank of England solidity and dependability. And it costs a good deal to turn one’s back on all that, to say nothing of the heartache involved in contemplating the dissolution of the church which has been one’s spiritual mother, in which one grew to adulthood, and in which one heard the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. I can understand the mixture of feelings and thoughts and questions and perplexities in a man who stands face to face with an extremely difficult decision, one he has not courted and which he does not want to make. Many, unable to muster up the necessary resolve, will simply go along, though in much distress and with great distaste. And that, too, will affect the cause and add to the complications in this whole matter. 

But however many the factors are which complicate our situation, I believe with all my heart that our struggle is an urgent one, and that we have no choice but to press on. We are in a time of crisis. This is so negatively, in that we shall have to decide not to enter into a merger with a largely apostate church, and have to do so very soon. It is also the case positively, in that we live in a time of exciting and exhilarating opportunity and challenge: All about us is a society seeking for answers, seeking in all the wrong places, unwilling to listen, but needing to hear the answers which only the Reformed faith is able to supply. Some of us are called to labor in relatively uncomplicated ecclesiastical situations. Others stand in a much more complex and involved situation, confronting a much less unambiguous moral and spiritual set of circumstances. We do not perhaps see the issues alike, because our background, opportunity, and training are quite different. But we are basically one in the faith, one in the Lord. And in these times of hardship and trouble we cannot do more for the truth than to remember and pray for and help each other. That help has frequently to be little more than an indication of interest and sympathy—and for that reason I am glad for the invitation to contribute these articles. Sometimes it has also to take the form of brotherly admonition and even rebuke. The road ahead is still far from clear. We do not know where it will lead us because we cannot yet see the way. But we know that God is the Lord of history, and that therefore the sunlight of his holy truth will dissipate the mist, and that at last he will show us where our footsteps are to go. 

Brethren, love us and pray for us.