A Presbyterian Amalgam? (2)
A few months ago, writing on the above subject, we reported concerning a proposal by the Fraternal Relations Committee of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod which, in effect, would ask the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to invite the RPCES to be swallowed up by and to become a part of the PCA. Since that time, there have been several significant developments. In the first place, the whole idea of a merger with the PCA has been expanded to include also the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters). This was an idea which has been in the air for some time; but it is now an actual proposal coming before the General Assembly of the PCA. This will mean that all the generally conservative Presbyterian denominations, with the exception of the Bible Presbyterians (Rev. Carl McIntire) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterians would be included in the proposed amalgam.
In the second place, there is trouble in the United Presbyterian Church USA, the old northern Presbyterian Church. Generally speaking, the liberals have been turning the screws tighter on the conservatives, attempting to force them to live according to some of the liberal provisions of that denomination, with the result that some of the more conservative congregations are at last separating from the denomination. This is the denomination from which Dr. Machen and others were expelled already in the 1930s. It is also the denomination which adopted the Confession of 1967. It has long been liberal, and it is indeed a question just how conservative, let alone Presbyterian, some of these separating congregations are. Nevertheless, some of these congregations are already looking for a new denominational roof; and some of them are casting their eyes on one or the other of the very denominations involved in the merger proposal mentioned above. This complicates matters somewhat for all concerned.
In the third place, before any of the smaller Presbyterian groups have even met in Synod or General Assembly, and before they even asked for or received any invitation to be swallowed up by the larger PCA, the PCA’s Sub-committee on Inter-Church Relations has proposed a letter of invitation for such a merger. This proposal will be before the PCA Assembly which is meeting June 14-20 in Savannah, Georgia. The PCA Assembly will be asked to approve it by a three-fourths majority if it is to be considered by the other denominations involved.
Because of the importance of this proposed letter, we are reproducing it below, as it appeared in The Presbyterian Journal of April 9, 1980. The proposed letter is as follows:
To: The General Synods and General Assembly of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Subject: An invitation to participate in steps designed to effect one church among us.
Greetings in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King and Head of the Church.
Whereas we hold to and desire to promote a common testimony to the inerrancy of Scripture, the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and the doctrine of the purity of the visible Church; and
Whereas we feel constrained by our commitments to seeks a more perfect unity among us as members of Christ’s body:
Now Therefore, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, in the bonds of our Lord Jesus Christ, invites you to come with us for the purpose of effecting and perfecting one church among us. We propose, as the basis of this association, the above named principles, together with the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America.
We suggest that initial steps to this end be taken as soon as possible and that the time and place for final action be Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., in June 1982.
Specifically, we suggest that General Assemblies and General Synods act on this invitation by or in their 1981 meetings, with constitutional ratification following, before we meet together in a ratifying General Assembly. The order of business would be approximately as follows:
1.Each General Assembly or General Synod would act upon a resolution to join with the PCA on the basis of the governing standards of the PCA in a single church to be called the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA’s resolution would approve joining to the PCA the RPCES, the RPNA and the OPC on the basis of the existent governing standards of the PCA, as a continuing Presbyterian Church in America.
2. Each General Assembly and General Synod would then appoint representatives to a Committee on Presbytery Boundaries, consisting of one representative from each presbytery; the Convenor to be designated by the PCA Assembly. This Committee would hold meetings between the 1981 and 1982 Assemblies.
3.Each General Assembly and General Synod would authorize its Boards, Committees and Agencies to meet jointly with the corresponding Boards, Committees and Agencies of the other bodies throughout the year, 1981-1982, for the purpose of working out details of merger and to prepare a united report to be submitted to the 1982 General Assembly when constituted. The Arrangements Committees planning for the Grand Rapids meetings would also be instructed to work together. In each case, the Convenor of the joint meeting would be the chairman of the respective PCA committee.
4. In Grand Rapids, at the time and place appointed, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in America would act as Convenor. Clerks from each of the other churches would certify their respective enrollments to the Convenor. A resolution such as the following would be adopted: “Be it resolved that those enrollments certified by the OPC, the RPCES and the RPNA, together with the enrollment certified by the PCA, are hereby declared to be and will constitute the 10th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.”
5. A Moderator would be elected. The PCA stated clerk, being the only full-time officer occupying such a position among us, would continue in office, with additional assistants later to be determined by the General Assembly.
NOTE: If necessary, recognition would be made of any other grouping from among assembled commissioners that any dissenting parties may want to make, and an opportunity given for such meeting(s) to take place.
6.The Assembly would recess into meetings of presbyteries as determined by the Committee on Presbytery Boundaries and approved by the Assembly. Commissioners from the former churches would meet with those presbyteries within whose recognized boundaries they then live and/or labor. These presbytery meetings would be convened by the Moderator in office in that presbytery which bears the name agreed to by the Committee on Presbytery Boundaries—for example, Ascension Presbytery or Rocky Mountain Presbytery. There would be no ordinary challenge to the credentials of any minister or elder properly certified. (Extraordinary challenges would be heard by the presbytery in its next meeting.) The PCA ministerial “obligation” would be subscribed to by all. Each presbytery would then elect a new Moderator and Stated Clerk and appoint a Nominating Committee to restructure presbytery committees. Each presbytery would also elect representatives to a General Assembly Nominating Committee, with each of the former churches represented. Each presbytery would also elect nominees to each new class of Assembly committees.
NOTE 1: It is suggested that for the purpose of this step in the restructuring process, the full membership of all the presbyteries of the constituent churches be present in Grand Rapids. This could be accomplished by having all the presbyteries adjourn their immediately previous meetings “to meet on June—, 1982, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” By such action, the new presbyteries would be able fully to constitute themselves and transact necessary business.
NOTE 2: Local churches not represented by commissioners to this General Assembly would be contacted by the presbytery of jurisdiction with an invitation to attend the next meeting. At that meeting, they would be welcomed and their ministers enrolled upon signing the obligation.
7.The Assembly would reconvene to organize itself. Committees of Commissioners (Standing or Advisory Committees) would be designated according to established PCA procedure, but would receive the business of the equivalent boards and/or agencies from the other Churches—for example, Foreign
8. Meetings would be held of boards, commissions, committees, trustees and agencies where enabling resolutions would be necessary for the dissolution of existing structures and the perfecting of new ones—for example, Covenant College.
9.The Nominating Committee would present slates of nominations for all vacancies on Committees, Commissions and Agencies of the Assembly according to the Book of Church Order, par. 15-1-11.
10. A special ad interim Judicial Committee would be elected to receive and consider organizational and administrative changes to be recommended to the 1983 General Assembly. This committee would consist of the former Stated Clerks, the Moderators, and additional personnel determined by the General Assembly.
NOTE: It would be understood that distinctives of the participating churches-such as the worship practices of the Covenanters—would be safeguarded by this merger. Congregations and ministers would have complete freedom is such matters.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether this proposal will be approved by the PCA, and then how it will be received by the other denominations involved. Already there has been considerable discussion in print, especially in The Presbyterian Journal Most of this discussion has centered upon and has arisen from three of the denominations concerned, the PCA, the OPC, and the RPCES. Thus far I have noted no discussion on the part of Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Covenanters). And, in fact, much of the discussion only mentions the PCA, the OPC, and the RPCES. There seems to be some doubt whether the RPNA will be receptive to such a proposal and whether they would ultimately be included in the amalgam. The RPNA has a much older Presbyterian tradition than any of the other churches; and it also holds to “purity of worship,” something which might very well stand in the way of merger. But about some of these things later.
First let us take a look at the proposal itself.
In the first place, it strikes one that the proposal is devoted for the most part to the procedure and the mechanics of union. By far the larger part of it contains various provisions about this. Along with this, in the second place, the essence of the proposal is contained in the first three paragraphs— those beginning with “Whereas” and “Now Therefore. ” These are the paragraphs containing the basis of the proposed amalgam. From a formal point of view, this basis is a Presbyterian basis in so far as it makes reference to Scripture and the Westminster Confession. But the question which ought to be of prime importance for all concerned is: do the denominations concerned adhere to this Presbyterian basis in truth and in fact? Are they genuinely and specifically Presbyterian? This question is not addressed. Moreover, with few exceptions, this fundamental question is not addressed in much of the journalistic discussion concerning this matter. On the contrary, the genuinely Presbyterian character of the PCA, the OPC, and the RPCES is simply assumed, even as it was assumed in the proposal circulated in the RPCES which we discussed last March. But it is this very assumption which is all-important. For one thing, unless the denominations forming this union are genuinely and specifically Presbyterian, thoroughly Reformed, there can never result from the merger a greater and stronger Presbyterian witness. The cause of the Reformed faith cannot be served any better by a church of 100,000 members than by a church of 75,000 members IF that church is not genuinely Reformed. In other words, the question is not how bigyou are, but how sound you are. For another, as far as the merged denomination is concerned, if they do not first address their differences and settle them, the result can only be that all the differences will be carried over into the merged church; and while the umbrella may be broad enough to cover all for a while, or the pond big enough for all the little frogs for a time, sooner or later these differences will crop up again to cause trouble —unless all can somehow agree simply to be broadly evangelical. And as some have suggested, the present PCA is already enough of an amalgam and has enough differences within its denominational walls without adding to them.
All of this leads me to a general observation concerning this matter. The real problem involved in this merger is due to the fact that the three main denominations involved, the OPC, the RPCES, and the PCA, historically had their origin not in a controversy regarding matters specifically Presbyterian or Reformed, but in a modernist-fundamentalist controversy. This was true of the OPC and the RPCES, both of which had their origin in the 1930s in the so-called Machen controversy. The issues in that controversy were not specifically Presbyterian or Reformed, but they involved the bare minimum of orthodoxy, called fundamentalism. They were really the issues at stake in the infamous Auburn Affirmation. The same is true of the PCA in general. This young denomination did not even originate in a formal split with the PCUS, and still today (at least on the part of some in the PCA) communion with the PCUS (the so-called Southern Presbyterian Church) is possible. And for the most part separation from the PCUS did not have its reasons in matters which concerned Presbyterian specifics, but in matters which involve the bare minimum of orthodoxy, fundamentalism. In all instances, one might say, separation came too late to establish a strong and soundly Reformed new church. From this point of view, there really cannot be much objection to a merger among the denominations concerned. There may be differences of degree among the three. But there is not much to lose, nor much to be gained. Don’t look for a resurgence of genuine Presbyterianism, however!
Reactions to the Merger Proposal
Reactions to the merger proposal discussed above have, in the main, been rather favorable, judging from various articles and reports and editorial comments inThe Presbyterian Journal. Several favorable articles have appeared in that magazine. At the same time, however, there are those who are opposed. One large RPCES presbytery (classis) evidently voted against the proposal by an overwhelming vote. Also in the PCA voices have been raised against the proposal, and some rather cogent arguments have been put forth. Some claim that the proposal is improperly before the General Assembly. Others argue that parity of ruling elders and teaching elders, a cherished principle in the PCA, will be destroyed by the merger. Another argument has it that if merger is pushed now, prematurely and hastily, the result will be that the whole cause of eventual merger will suffer shipwreck because of unresolved differences. In a similar vein, it is also argued that it is far better to follow the longer and slower route of discussions.
At this point in time (this is being written in mid- June) only one of the three churches has held its General Assembly meeting—the OPC, whose Assembly met in mid-May. The PCA proposal could not, of course, be before that assembly for the simple reason that the PCA Assembly had not yet passed on it. However, there was before the OPC Assembly a proposal similar to that in the RPCES, the one which we discussed last March: in effect, a proposal to ask for an invitation to join the PCA en masse. This proposal was not adopted, however. Instead, the OPC made decisions which will, I think, definitely slow down the merger process, but which will not completely shut the door to the PCA proposal. The RES News Exchangecarried the following report:
OPC DESIRES CHURCH UNITY BUT NOT TOO QUICKLY
(Beaver Falls, PA, USA) The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church meeting here in May affirmed “its desire to achieve biblical unity and union with the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America as soon as possible.”
To implement this resolution, the Assembly decided to request the 1980 General Assemblies/Synods of these churches to agree, i.a., to a meeting of representatives later this year
to draw up a statement on “the compatibility of the participating churches,” and
“to insure insofar as possible that if a united church were to be achieved it would produce a church of one mind in its willingness to deal on a biblical basis with issues that would inevitably arise from time to time which would in turn minimize the possibility of division in the future.”
The Assembly was concerned that adequate opportunity be given to the participating churches to study the standards of the governments, discipline and worship in the four churches so that each church may act responsibly in any eventual proposal for merger. The Synod therefore informed the three other churches that in its opinion “the interest of the unity of the Body of Christ would be served well by holding in abeyance formal consideration of merger until the major Assembly meetings of 1981 when there shall have been opportunity for each church to receive the information it needs in order to act on a matter of such far-reaching effect upon all our member churches.”
(RES NE /6/3/80)
CRC Decision on the Boer Gravamen
After one morning’s discussion, the Christian Reformed Synod reached the following decision concerning the Boer Gravamen and the related Study Report:
1. That synod give the privilege of the floor to two representatives of the study committee who may be available when this report is discussed.
2. That synod do not accede to the request made in Dr. Harry Boer’s Confessional-Revision Gravamen: namely that “the doctrine of reprobation ought…to be exscinded from or become a nonbinding part of the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church” (Gravamen, p. 330).
a.The Canons of Dort do not teach what the gravamen erroneously understands the doctrine of reprobation to be: namely, a decree by means of which God is the cause of man’s unbelief, and by means of which God has from eternity consigned certain human beings to damnation apart from any merit or demerit on their part.
b.b. The Scriptures do teach a doctrine of election and reprobation in that they teach that some but not all have been elected to eternal life.
3. That synod refer report 30 to the churches for elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation.
4. That synod refer this report and decision for information to the churches which are in ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church, and the churches which belong to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.
5. That synod express its appreciation to Dr. Harry Boer, and to the study-committee for their sincere efforts to help the church in coming to a clearer understanding of the Scripture and the, creeds with respect to this difficult doctrine.
6. That synod discharge its study committee with thanks.
7. That synod consider this its answer to overtures 20 and 23.
We will not comment at length at this time. There was very little substantive discussion of the Study Report or the Gravamen; most of the discussion centered on the question whether or not to defer action until next year in order to allow time for the churches to study the report of the Study Committee. As it turned out, Synod rejected a proposal to defer action and adopted the above decision by an overwhelming vote.
And so the doctrine of reprobation is effectively buried in the Christian Reformed Church.
It is doubtful, however, whether the debate is ended. The Boer forces will probably take advantage of point 3 of the decision in order to renew the discussion. After all, they did not want reprobation to be buried, but to be cremated.
ADDITION TO EDITORIAL
There has been, to date, only one development. The General Assembly of the PCA has met and has formally extended the invitation spoken of in the above editorial. According to The Presbyterian Journal, the motion was adopted by a vote of 525 to 38. So the support was overwhelming. The official letter which is to be sent is, in part, identical with that quoted above. The first four paragraphs remain the same, but a paragraph was added which reads:
It is to be understood that this invitation is an action of the Eighth General Assembly, and to receive any denomination which responds to this invitation it should be stated that for the Presbyterian Church in America to consummate any such union, it would have to go through the constitutional process of approval by subsequent General Assemblies and three-fourths of our presbyteries. In this constitutional process, each denomination must be dealt with separately.
It remains to be seen what the other invited denominations will do.