A Presbyterian Amalgam?
One of our readers was kind enough to send me a copy of a letter which was circulated to all ministers and sessions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod by the Stated Clerk of that denomination. Said letter contains an important proposal from the Fraternal Relations Committee of the RPCES which in effect proposes that the denomination allow itself to be swallowed up — if it should receive an invitation — by the rather recently formed denomination known as the PCA, the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination formed largely by separation out of the so-called Southern Presbyterian Church. The proposal is in the form of the following three motions adopted by the Fraternal Relations Committee of the RPCES:
Moved that we recommend that the RPCES, if it receives an invitation from the PCA to be received into that denomination, accept such an invitation on the basis bf the inerrancy of Scripture, the Westminster Confession of Faith as held by the PCA, the doctrine of the purity of the Church, and the PCA Book of Church Order.
Moved that if an invitation is received and accepted, we recommend that particular churches be automatically placed in presbyteries of the PCA within whose bounds they lie, with the suggestion that the PCA General Assembly be authorized to redraw presbytery boundaries without full constitutional process during a period of two years.
Moved that we recommend that the agencies of the RPCES be submitted immediately upon union to the four major committees of the PCA, and that the existing boards and agency heads negotiate with the appropriate committees of the PCA plans of transition and merger to be completed within a period of three years.
There were no grounds attached to these three proposals in the letter circulated to ministers and sessions. The proposals will be up for consideration at the Synod of the RPCES in Seattle, Washington next July 4-10.
It seems evident that this is not an ordinary proposal of merger or of discussions of the possibility of merger. It is simply a proposal to join the PCA en masse if the latter will have them and invite them. Or, if you will, it is simply a proposal to the RPCES to allow themselves to be swallowed up. And if this proposal meets with approval and the wished for invitation is forthcoming, the PCA will become an amalgam -—or more of an amalgam than it already is — that is, a compound of various elements.
What will the RPCES bring to the PCA? I am not talking about physical assets, about funds, about educational institutions, about missions, etc. There are these, and it is evident from the proposal that some arrangements will have to be made concerning these. Nor am I talking about numbers of members or congregations. There are also these. I do not have at hand any current statistics; but although the RPCES is far smaller than the PCA, a mass joining of the PCA by the RPCES will undoubtedly result in a sudden growth-spurt for the PCA, which, by the way, has been a fast-growing denomination from its infancy. I am raising the question what the RPCES will bring to the PCA aschurch. What ecclesiastical heritage, what doctrinal heritage, what peculiar tenets, if any, will the RPCES bring along with it to the PCA?
To answer this question, we have to go back in history.
The RPCES was originally part of the separatist movement in the old “Northern” Presbyterian Church which is associated with the name of Dr. Machen, part of the same movement which is today known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was established in 1936 under the leadership of Dr. Machen and others, there soon became evident rather serious differences of views within the new denomination. These differences concerned chiefly premillennialism and matters of Christian liberty (the use of alcohol and tobacco). Ultimately these differences gave rise to a separation in the new group, with a segment forming the Bible Presbyterian Church in 1937 — the church which still today is associated chiefly with the name of Dr. Carl McIntire. From the start the Bible Presbyterian Church has been strongly premillennial, and it even modified its confessional basis in order to provide room for its premillennial position. Particularly in the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 86-89 (which deal with the doctrine of the last things), several changes were made which made allowance for and even to a degree adopted a premillennial position with respect to the doctrine of the coming of Christ. I will not now specify these changes; any reader who is interested in more details can look them up in Vols. 48 and 49, where I discussed a proposed merger of the OPC and the RPCES. At its first General Synod the newly formed Bible Presbyterian Church also adopted a Declaratory Statement appended to the Westminster Confession affirming its belief in the universality of the offer of the gospel and in the salvation of all who die in infancy. As far as I know, no statement concerning the matters of Christian liberty was adopted at that time, although it is well known that the BPC and the later RPCES continued to maintain their so-called “strict” stance on the use of alcohol and tobacco.
Then in 1956 there came a further division within the Bible Presbyterian denomination. Whatever the legitimacy of this claim, Dr. McIntire asserts that this defection began in 1954 “under the leadership of the Rev. Francis Schaeffer, Dr. Robert Raybum, and the Rev. Tom Cross, who felt that the church could get a great deal farther if it would take a softer approach in dealing with apostasy.” This new group became known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This new group received its doctrinal heritage from the Bible Presbyterians. This means, therefore, that it kept its premillennial views (reaffirmed at the time of its formation), its Arminian views of the offer of the gospel, and its so-called “strict” views on Christian liberty. In 1965 this Evangelical Presbyterian Church united with a segment of Reformed Presbyterians (in the Covenanter tradition) to form what is now the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod. At the time of the latter merger, it numbered about 100 congregations and 10,000 communicants. I have no current statistics at hand, but the denomination has never enjoyed phenomenal growth in numbers. Numerically speaking, it would be counted among the smaller denominations.
In the early 1970s there were official discussions between the RPCES and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with a view to a possible merger of the two denominations, a merger which would have been in the nature of a reunion, in view of the fact that the RPCES was (although separated by two separations and one merger) once a part of the OPC. These discussions, however, involved some real discussion in both denominations concerning the differences between the two groups and involved attempts at resolving these differences. However, this attempt at merger ultimately failed. Nevertheless, both groups have remained in contact, especially through NAPARC (the North American Presbyterian And Reformed Council), in which also the larger PCA is a participant.
Suggestions for merger discussions between these smaller denominations (the OPC and the RPCES) and the Presbyterian Church in America have been turned down by the PCA. One gets the impression that the PCA, which is much larger and has enjoyed rapid growth, feels no urgent need of such merger and does not want to get bogged down in protracted discussions and negotiations, though it might indeed be willing to “swallow” them.
Now what may be said about this RPCES proposal to accept a possible invitation to be received into the PCA?
In the first place, of course, there is very little to judge by, because there are no grounds furnished along with the threefold proposal. There are, however, some presuppositions, it seems to me, which lie at its basis. Some of these are hinted at in the fourfold basis included in the first part of the proposal, namely, that a possible invitation be accepted on the basis of: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture; 2) the Westminster Confession of Faith as held by the PCA; 3) the doctrine of the purity of the Church; 4) the PCA Book of Church Order. The proposal, by the way, is somewhat ambiguous. Does it really mean that the above four bases are the basis of accepting the (possible) invitation? Or does it mean that these four items form, or ought to form, the minimal basis of the invitation from the PCA, and thus the basis of the only kind of invitation which the RPCES would be willing to accept? I understand it to mean the latter.
Without trying to define further the four items mentioned or the reasons for their inclusion, I would say that the following presuppositions are implied:
1) That the PCA does indeed hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrine of the purity of the Church — whatever is to be understood by these undefined items.
2) That the PCA does in fact and in truth hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and does not merely hold to it in form and in name. This, of course, ought to be the crucial question. There are many Presbyterians who have the Westminster Confession as their creedal basis but who do not in fact and in truth hold to it. And it is indeed a question precisely in how far the PCA holds to its confession.
3) That the RPCES also holds to the Westminster Confession in fact and in truth. This should be the question which the PCA confronts seriously before it issues an invitation. However, this appears to be the presumption with respect to both denominations in this proposal.
4) That the RPCES is willing to waive the peculiar tenets to which it has formerly held as a denomination. I refer to the Declaratory Statement attached to the Westminster Confession concerning the offer of the gospel and infant salvation. I refer also to the revisions of the Larger Catechism, Questions 86-89. Under the proposal the latter will be avoided as an issue for the PCA because the Larger Catechism will not be a part of the confessional basis, only the Westminster Confession. It must be that the committee of the RPCES feels that the PCA is a large enough umbrella to cover premillennialists along with postmillennialists and amillennialists. For I cannot conceive of it that the RPCES is suddenly going to give up its premillennial views. That the PCA is a large enough umbrella I do not doubt. But the only basis on which pre- and post- and amillennials can co-exist, it seems to me, is on the basis of all being little frogs in a big pond, and then agreeing not to make an issue of their millennial creakings.
In the second place, it seems to me, that underlying this proposal, which practically asks for an invitation from the PCA, is a willingness on the part of the RPCES to give up all that it has ever stood for as a separate denomination over the years, and to do so in the interest of being a part of a much larger and fast-growing denomination. Presumably, in the past the RPCES felt that it had good reasons for separate existence, even to the extent that twice in a span of about twenty years it went the way of separate existence. Just how truly Presbyterian the RPCES was in its stance is another question. But it would appear that its stance in the past could be classified as exclusivist, at the cost of being relatively small and slow-growing. Is this now changing to an inclusivist policy, at the cost of whatever distinctive positions they have held?
Meanwhile, from what I know of both the PCA and the RPCES, I can see no overwhelming reason why this new kind of merger should not go through. The PCA would appear to have nothing to lose and something to gain. The RPCES appears willing to be swallowed up; in fact, if this proposal of the fraternal relations committee is at all representative of the trend in that denomination, they would appear to be eagerly waiting for an invitation to let themselves be swallowed up. In that case, the PCA could continue on its way of being rather broadly Presbyterian, but not distinctive over much.
Is the OPC Next?
It is not impossible that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church will also be involved in the discussion of a similar merger with the PCA as is the RPCES. While I do not now know of any official proposal to this end, there has been mention of this in OPC circles. Since the demise of the Presbyterian Guardian last year I have not been able to keep abreast of developments in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and so I do not know if anything is actually being proposed concerning merger to their General Assembly. However, there was a significant article by the Rev. Edmund P. Clowney, President of Westminster Seminary, in the very last issue of the Presbyterian Guardian which strongly urged Presbyterian unity.
Incidentally, the Presbyterian Guardian was not an official church paper of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but ever since 1935 has been the paper that served OPC interests. Officially, it has merged with thePresbyterian Journal, which for years served the conservative element in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) but now serves especially the PCA. As a separate magazine, therefore, the Presbyterian Guardian is dead.
In the final issue of the Guardian Dr. Clowney writes under the title, “Toward The Future Of The Presbyterian Church.” In this article he reflects, first of all, on the fact that the early leaders of the OPC were optimistic as to numerical growth. He quotes Dr. Machen as writing, “With what lively hope does our gaze turn now to the future! At last true evangelism can go forward without the shackle of compromising associations.” And the editor of the Guardian, H. McAllister Griffiths, is quoted as having written in an early issue: “We believe that in a generation it (the new OPC) will compare numerically with the body whose light has gone out.”
Secondly, Dr. Clowney calls attention to the fact that this optimism met with disappointment. He writes:
The generation has gone by and that prediction has not been fulfilled. The Presbyterian Church of America was soon divided, The heirs of that division in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod; and the Bible Presbyterian Church would scarcely equal in numbers a score of the largest evangelical congregations in the United Presbyterian Church. That denomination, in spite of declining membership, still reports almost two and a half million members, and has more enrolled elders than the entire membership of the other churches just named.
Yet Clowney does not see only gloom in the development of American Presbyterianism. For one thing, he still sees glimmers of hope for the United Presbyterian Church. For another, he writes:
Further, the situation has changed radically with the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in America as a result of division in the southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). The PCA is growing vigorously, establishing mission works here and abroad and is increasingly reaching out in fellowship with the other Presbyterian churches that take the Westminster Confession of Faith seriously.
Mr. Clowney then goes on to make mention of the cooperation among churches of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council and to mention specifically areas of cooperation between the OPC and the PCA and between the RPCES and the PCA. Then, after explaining and justifying the merger of theGuardian with the Presbyterian Journal, he makes the following plea:
The cause of Christ’s kingdom surely demands that the genuinely Presbyterian denominations in this country unite without delay. That cause also demands that the revealed will of Christ for the faith and life of his church be faithfully and lovingly communicated to the thousands of true Christians who are in denominations that are being led astray by leaders who set themselves above and not under the written Word of God.
One can readily detect that notes such as the above could easily lead eventually to a merger of the OPC with the PCA. In fact, if there are many OPC leaders who speak Dr. Clowney’s language, the merger will be inevitable.
And again, from the point of view of size and numbers and financial power and even name, why not merge? And if the OPC desires to be no more distinctively Presbyterian than the PCA, and the latter desires to be no more distinctively Presbyterian than the former, what obstacle is there?
But there is a lesson in all this.
It is, of course, not pleasant to be small, not to enjoy much growth in size, to be limited in financial power and in the ability to accomplish things. The OPC knows something of this by experience. We of the Protestant Reformed Churches certainly also know something of this by experience. We know what it means to struggle, to light for survival, to sacrifice, to be despised, to be ostracized for the sake of the truth. We know what it means “not to count” in the ecclesiastical world.
But it is a fact of church history and of experience that smallness and faithfulness to the truth go hand in hand. And not infrequently has it been demonstrated in church history that outward growth in size and financial power and standing in the world goes hand in hand with a relaxing of the reins as far as doctrinal purity and faithfulness to the creeds are concerned. If you want to grow, you must not be too precise doctrinally, you must not be too insistent upon the truth, you must not enforce the creeds and the Formula of Subscription too strictly, Be content to be “evangelical.” Be content to be generally Presbyterian or Reformed. Be not righteous over much!
But remember: the end of that road is the loss of your heritage. All the large denominations which today are modernist and completely liberal have trodden that same path before!
The church has but one calling, regardless of the consequences: maintain the marks of the true church!
The Lord will take care of the rest!