Few churches in this country have as rich a history as the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or the Southern Presbyterian Church. It has combined within itself the great Presbyterian tradition of Scotland and the New World and also the distinctive tenacity with which many in the southern states have clung to the faith of their fathers. Readers will perhaps be aware of the fact that the PCUS (as I shall call it henceforth) has therefore remained much longer true to the Scriptures than its northern sister denomination, now known as the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (hereafter the UPUSA) from which it broke away at the beginning of the Civil War in 186 1. Likewise few denominations in America have produced theologians more distinguished than J. H. Thornwell of South Carolina and R.L. Dabney of Virginia, both of whom were unimpeachable adherents of the Reformed faith and whose works repay reading to this day. Even a cursory look at such a volume as that published by the church’s highest court in 1897 to mark the 250th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly will show to what an extent the PCUS was committed, and continued to be committed, to the historic position of the Reformed Churches. In some respects it was, of course, unlike those denominations which trace their origins to the Netherlands, to Germany, or to some other European country. That goes without saying. At the time of the Synod of Dordt itself there were nuances of opinion amongst genuinely Reformed theologians, and some of the practices of the various churches differed quite widely. For centuries the Scottish Church, for example, eschewed the use of organs or any instrumental music and any other songs of praise than the Psalms of the Old Testament; it also abolished the observance of religious holidays, and persisted in doing so till fairly recent times. In my own congregation in South Carolina, while Easter is now observed, and the Sundays immediately preceding Christmas are given over to reflection upon the advent of our Lord, yet there is no Christmas service, and neither Ascension Day nor Pentecost is remembered at all. This is not due to carelessness, but to the residual operation of a viewpoint reaching all the way back to the Reformation itself – a viewpoint not shared by all the Reformed Churches, but one resting upon a principle common to them all: that of the regulatory character of the Word of God. Or as it is expressed in the Belgic Confession: “Since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures.” (Art. VII) And again: “We reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.” (Art. XXXII)
But that long history of Reformed orthodoxy is at the present time imperiled. Some are arguing indeed that it is already so decayed as to be irretrievably lost, and that the PCUS has ceased to be a Reformed Church in any real sense of the word. It is still very much so constitutionally and confessionally, though even there some important changes have been introduced which show the extent to which the church has deviated from its own historic position, a position still largely reflected in the documents upon which the organization of the denomination is based. Thus, for example, in 1964 the ordination of women as elders and ministers was formally enacted. The list of apostasies in the life and practice of the church as a whole, however, is long and grievous. These have recently been documented in The Presbyterian Journal, the weekly magazine supported and read by conservatives in the church (issue of Oct. 13, 197 1). To give only a sampling of what has taken place, in 1961 the General Assembly refused to revise the chapter in the Westminster Confession on predestination, but declared that “in its judgment the doctrine of foreordination to everlasting death as formulated in the Confession is not an adequate statement of the Christian faith.” In 1966 the Assembly decided to enter into the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). In 1969 committees were authorized to prepare a new confession of faith and to draw up a plan of union with the UPUSA (the Northern Church), hunger was given “top priority” in the mission of the church, evolution supported as compatible with Genesis, ordinary business for the first time conducted on the Lord’s Day. In 1970 the Assembly approved abortion for “economic reasons,” among others, authorized youth delegates to future Assemblies, etc. In addition the presses of the church pour forth a flood of materials in which the biblical position has been abandoned for some shoddy modern substitute, and the denomination has been permeated with the poison of theological confusion and unbelief. The catalogue of departures from the official faith and practice of the church could be extended on any of the levels of the church courts almost without end. One is referred here to the full coverage of these things in the issue of The Presbyterian Journalcited above.
At the same time it should be stated very clearly that a strong conservative minority has remained active in the church, and that the situation is not so unrelievedly dark and dreary as these official actions and trends would seem to indicate. There are many evangelical congregations, even some presbyteries (i.e., classes) with a considerable orthodox majority, and at least two of the synods can upon occasion muster a fair sized conservative preponderance of votes. My own presbytery, for example, is still clearly conservative, and the bulk of the congregations want nothing to do with the new movements which have captured the seats of power on higher ecclesiastical levels. And while the four denominational seminaries (Union at Richmond,Louisville, Austin, and Columbia) are all predominantly on the other side, none of them cleaving any longer to a Reformed or even evangelical point of view, a new seminary—Reformed Theological Seminary at Jackson, Mississippi, founded to serve the PCUS but outside its control—now exists and is growing rapidly, with nearly a hundred students preparing for the ministry. It promises much good for the future, and is certainly far closer to the historic Reformed faith than any of the official seminaries has been for many a long year.
In addition, four organizations have been called into being by the struggle of the past several decades against the incursions of liberalism in its various forms. The first and oldest of them is The Presbyterian Journal, which lays claim to being the “circulation leader among independent publications in the Presbyterian- Reformed world,” a claim which there is no reason to doubt. Tens of thousands of readers are every week kept informed on conditions in the PCUS and elsewhere, are instructed in the doctrines of the Word of God, and are being provided with guidance for the battle in the years ahead. Along with the Journal and working closely with those associated in the publishing of it are Concerned Presbyterians, an organization of Presbyterian laymen, Presbyterian Churchmen United, a group of ministers and sessions (i.e., consistories), and the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, which now also has a missionary arm in its Executive Commission on Overseas Evangelism.
These all co-operate very cordially with one another and have been able in some degree to give point and direction to the mounting conservative protest against the prostitution of the gospel which has gained the upper hand in the church as a whole. The high point of the efforts of these groups—and of another organization of moderates calling themselves the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians—was reached at the meeting of the General Assembly this past year, 1971, when it was decided by a vote of only 213 to 189 that the church would remain in the National Council of Churches, and the decision to effect a radical (and, it is said, gerrymandered) restructuring of the synods of the denomination passed by a mere ten votes, 217 to 207. Nothing like this strength in terms of numbers has been known at the Assembly in a long while, but so large a minority was achieved only after much arduous work, and many believe that it represented the maximum possible effort, the high watermark of conservative capability in the PCUS. And even though the conservative protest against the leftward march of the denomination was so very much in evidence, the liberal majority pressed right on with its own program, paying little or no heed to the great number of openly dissatisfied and disturbed people among the constituency of the church.
In any case, as if our problems were not already sufficiently grave and the prospects for continuing a Reformed witness in the present situation within the PCUS dim enough, we are now confronted with another issue which vastly outweighs everything else that we have been called upon to face in the past. Though voting has not yet begun in any form, yet it seems certain that in a very few years’ time the PCUS and the UPUSA, the southern and northern branches of the Presbyterian Church which separated at the outbreak of the Civil War, will be brought together again. A joint committee of twenty-six has been entrusted with the preparation of a plan of union, a “study draft” of which is already in hand, and which may be voted upon as early as 1973. There is every likelihood that by 1974 or 1975 our denomination will be merged into the United Presbyterian Church. And a considerable number of ministers and congregations who find it possible now to work in the Southern Church because of its essential constitutional and confessional soundness—and also because of the large measure of autonomy which is still reserved to the local churches, in many departments of church life left free from outside interference—are convinced that it will be impossible to have any part at all in the new united denomination which must result from such an amalgamation. I say “new united denomination” because while the two great branches of American Presbyterianism were at the outset very much alike, though not without their differences, yet the passage of time and the more rapid pace with which liberalism captured the citadels of power in the Northern Church have so changed the faces of the two bodies as to make them even at the present time in some fundamental respects quite dissimilar.
It will be remembered that it was the Northern Church which in 1929 brought about the re-organization of Princeton Seminary—till that time a bastion of Reformed orthodoxy—which made it necessary for J. Gresham Machen and others in conscience to leave. It was the Northern Church which in 1935 actually deposed Machen from the ministry for his part in the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, established to provide an alternative to the rising modernism in denominational missionary work. It was that same denomination which in the 1960’s formulated and adopted the Confession of 1967 and virtually surrendered all binding obligation to adhere to any confession of faith at all. It was an agency of that very church which contributed $10,000.00 to the Angela Davis defense fund. It is that church which time and again has persisted in trampling upon the moral and spiritual and theological heritage of the whole Christian Church. And it is with that church that the majority among the leadership in the PCUS are bent upon uniting.
One hopes and prays that this will not come about. Not, of course, because there is anything wrong in the nature of the case with church union. Sometimes conservatives, Reformed Christians among them, speak as though church union were something reprehensible, with which Bible believers ought to have nothing to do. In the New Testament the church is conceived of as one, one in spirit (one in the “Spirit”), but also one in organization. The organic unity of the church presupposes an external, an organizational unity as well. Other issues are involved here, however; and therefore, while one must be for the unity of Christians—while one longs for and rejoices in the unity of Christians within the one Church of Christ!—yet one cannot tolerate the union of denominations upon any other basis than that of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. There is the great question of truth which is at issue here. And it cannot, it will not be ignored.
Indeed, one hopes earnestly that the union of the PCUS and the UPUSA will not come about, and that revival will be granted to the church, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. We recognize the great, crying necessity for a new reformation and for the quickening movement of the Holy Spirit of God. We abhor schism, shun separation, groan for the manifestation of the power of God in the preaching of the gospel of Christ. And we believe further that God can still reverse the present course of events, and restore to us the years that the locust has eaten. There are still those who cling to the doctrines of Paul and Augustine and Calvin and Knox and Thornwell, and who believe that they constitute the only acceptable basis for co-operation and ecclesiastical structure and organization.
But though we take that point of view, yet we realize at the same time that as responsible Christians we have to deal with the situation as we find it, and that it is required of us to make good use of the time the Lord has given us to ensure the continuation of a Reformed and evangelical witness in the historic area of the Southern Church. Some amongst us in the providence of God are doing just that. On the annual “Journal Day,” held every summer in support of the work of The Presbyterian Journal, the announcement was made this past August 11 of the formation of a Steering Committee composed of some twelve members from the four conservative organizations mentioned above. This Steering Committee, the chairman of which is the Rev. Donald B. Patterson, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss., has been “charged with the responsibility of developing and implementing a plan for continuation of a Presbyterian Church loyal to the Scriptures and the Reformed faith.” In his address Mr. Patterson declared: “We resolutely set our faces in a new direction. We shall, with God’s help, preserve for future generations the witness of our historic faith, that faith once delivered to the saints.” The committee is now at work throughout the church, amid denunciations, threats, insinuations, lowering reprisals, and also disappointing defections on the part of some of whom it had been hoped that they would hold firm.
There is in our Book of Church Order a phrase which speaks of the need for promoting the “peace and purity” of the church which, strangely enough, the liberals in the denomination greatly delight to make use of. Time and again conservative movements have been castigated because they endanger the supposed “peace and purity” of the PCUS; and now above all, when a Steering Committee has been delegated the task of laying the groundwork for a continuing church after merger with the UPUSA the outcries are loud and long in which the orthodox who have any part in this effort are denounced for disturbing this same “peace and purity.” Yet it is precisely because they believe so much in the doctrines of the gospel and in the confessional and constitutional position of their church, and because they insist that there cannot be peace without purity—that one cannot speak of unity without unity in the truth—that the evangelicals in the denomination have grouped themselves in these organizations and are carrying on the struggle for the faith of the Scriptures. Presbyteries are beginning to warn their constituencies against the four groups behind the Steering Committee on some such ground as an offence against “peace and purity,” without any apparent awareness that it is the liberal establishment which has forsaken the Confession of Faith, which has denied the biblical constitution of the church, and which has openly and publicly displayed its hostility for many years toward the fundamental doctrines any believer holds dear and recognizes as indispensable for the wholeness of his faith and the certainty of his salvation. It is the liberals who are the real offenders against “peace and purity,” and we do well to repeat that time and again.
So the battle has been joined. It is a sad thing that one should have to speak of a “battle” in the church, and that one must also come to live in the expectation of a rupture between those who have lived together in a great denomination. But we have not initiated the struggle. Responsibility for wrenching the church loose from her ancient moorings does not rest with us. And we have not undertaken the movement toward merger with the UPUSA, the merger which will certainly involve the separation of a large part of the church—the liberal part—and their removal to another ecclesiastical connection. We can only attempt to follow the leading of the Word of God, and pray that in the end we shall have the grace to pay whatever price may be required of us if we are to be found faithful and to obey God rather than men.
Next time I hope to say something more in the way of an assessment of the situation.