In the July-August number of The Reformed Journalnotice was taken by Dr. James Daane of the two articles I contributed some months ago to this paper under the title “The Crisis in the Southern Presbyterian Church.” And while I am appreciative in some respects for the interest he shows in our situation, yet at the same time I cannot forbear to reply. Certain of the conclusions which Dr. Daane thinks himself able to draw from my articles and certain of the charges which he feels inclined to make leave me with no choice but to impose once again upon the patience of the readers of The Standard Bearer, whose editor has generously opened its pages to me.
In the first place, then, I am not aware of having said or implied in any way that “a separation within the PCUS (i.e., the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or Southern Presbyterian Church) has long been justifiable,” and that, in my view, “the people in the PCUS who are thinking secession have long had serious and valid reasons for separation.” I did indeed speak of the “apostasies” which have characterized the church in recent years, and it may be that that is what Dr. Daane intends. I could not and did not say, however, that separation has long been justifiable, inasmuch as I do not know that, am not able to say that such is the case. I do not doubt that the situation is very grave even at the present time; nor do I question that, whether or not church union with the UPUSA (the Northern Presbyterian Church) takes place, continuance under prevailing conditions would confront those committed to the Reformed faith with great problems. But one of the points I sought to make in my first article was just that conservatives remain in the PCUS because, though it has been guilty of many offences, yet its constitutional and confessional position has continued to be basically sound. And that, it seems to me, is a matter of the utmost importance. So long as the foundation of the church is unaltered, and the constitutional position of the church is essentially unimpaired, conservatives believe they are duty-bound to press on with the struggle for the faith within the denominational framework. Moreover, they are able to do so in good conscience.
It is a mystery to me why Dr. Daane would have me say that “a separation within the PCUS has long been justifiable,” and then go on to reproach me for having “made no move to separate,” on the ground of my own conviction. “Given his (my—d.W.) conscience on this matter, his failure to separate,” says Daane, “raises serious questions. For if a separation is justifiable it is also demanded,” etc. I must protest vehemently against this kind of treatment, and declare publicly that it proceeds on an assumption wholly unwarranted by what I said. Bad as the situation now is, it can be tolerated by conservatives who, because of their high doctrine of the church (a doctrine to which I hold with all my heart), “abhor schism, shun separation, groan for the manifestation of the power of God in the preaching of the gospel of Christ,” as I said in my first article.
The prevailing situation is about to be profoundly altered, however, and therein lies the difficulty. We are almost certainly going to see in the next two or three years a radical shifting of the constitutional and confessional position of the church: in fact, a subverting of that position. And as Southern Presbyterians we are having to ask ourselves whether, when the PCUS is no longer a Reformed church in respect of its constitution and its confession, we who are committed to the Reformed faith can in conscience continue any longer in its fellowship. That, in brief, is the issue; and it is quite different from what Dr, Daane has made it out to be.
In the PCUS two vastly significant questions are now before us: the one is that which I discussed at length in my previous articles, namely, union with the Northern Presbyterian Church (the UPUSA); the other, to which I alluded only briefly, involves confessional revision. The confessional question has become much more current in the intervening months because we now have a “tentative draft” of the “Proposed New Confession of Faith” in hand. One scarcely knows whether to smile at its puerility, or to be incensed and disgusted at its theological poverty, its insinuations of unbelief, its omissions, and its downright corruptions of the truth. But there is worse to follow. The adoption of this radically new confessional statement is to be accompanied with its inclusion in a “Book of Confessions,” after the fashion of the UPUSA, which means in fact the deconfessionalization of the church, its creedal statements only marking out the lines along which the thinking of the church has moved in the past, broadly defining its doctrinal tradition, but without binding authority.
The result will be, if this takes place, that the Presbyterian Church in the United States must become detached from its presently binding commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a commitment which signalizes and gives force to its profession of being Reformed, and grow into a modem, liberal denomination of the type only all too familiar to us, albeit from a Reformed root. What the adoption of both or either of the two proposals will mean—church union and/or confessional revision—is the subversion and overthrow of the constitutional and confessional foundation of the Southern Church. It will, not only in effect, but openly, publicly, in name and in law, no longer be a Reformed church. Just what it will be is perhaps difficult to define. But the outcome cannot be otherwise than that the PCUS will have rid itself of its historic posture as a church of the Reformation and have abandoned itself to the advanced critical views and theological disarray of the age. That is the position as it really is. And that is the situation we face in the PCUS.
Dr. Daane seeks to declare against us that “when an adequate reason cannot be found to justify a contemplated action, multiple reasons are often substituted. Quantity is substituted for quality in the belief that out of the alchemy of compounded inadequate reasons an adequate justification will emerge.” Then he goes on afterward to state that I, and others, have long thought a separation justifiable, and to comment adversely on our failure to take the step of withdrawing ourselves from the denomination. But, as I have indicated, there is ground neither in my articles nor in my mind for a grievous and unfair charge of this sort. No doubt it can sometimes be the case that many inadequate reasons are put forward when a single, adequate reason cannot be found for this or that contemplated action. Daane states unequivocally that this occurred when the Christian Reformed Church came out of the Reformed Church in America in 1857. But this does not serve to overthrow the cumulative effect of deviations from the truth—such as those I cited in my initial article—, as though a whole host of objectionable positions and shameful apostasies were not of greater weight than one or two. Of course these things pile up. Of course there is a cumulative working here. Of course the situation is becoming graver with every passing year, as successive general assemblies meet and, under liberal leadership, abandon increasingly large stretches of territory. It is on the face of it absurd to say that ten arguments have no more force than one; or that no difference exists between the adoption of one erroneous position and ten.
It may be that one “adequate reason” for separation has not yet presented itself—I have in fact said as much; but the addition of disturbing and worrisome and distressing factor after factor through the years certainly adds weight to the conservative side of the argument, when face to face with what, if carried through (as it almost inevitably will be), is surely a most compelling and convincing reason. I listed a series of instances in the recent history of the PCUS which show the doctrinal and moral direction it has been taking, not to give an “adequate reason” for the justification of withdrawal, but to describe conditions as they exist among us.
But the terminal point of that series is what really concerns me and engages all my attention. Loyal Presbyterians have had, all their struggles and efforts notwithstanding, to stand by helplessly and see the PCUS add nail after nail to its own coffin in the past twenty-five or thirty years. Each “nail” may not have been enough to indicate that the coffin was completed and that the denomination was now prepared to make use of it by confessional and constitutional suicide. But the point which must be made—and the fact which must be emphasized—is that the critical phase of deterioration has been drawing closer, perceptibly closer, for years. And the end of the process, signalized in successive annual reports and Minutes of the General Assembly, is now very definitely in sight. The question is whether Reformed Christians are obliged to participate in the act of denominational self-destruction, or whether they are to press on, faithful to the Lord and to his holy gospel, in a continuing Presbyterian church.
Still further, Dr. Daane charges: “It seems that church union, even between Presbyterian churches that once were united, is a far greater evil than the host of alleged apostasies from the Reformed faith. They (i.e., conservatives in the PCUS—d.W.) will separate for the sake of the Reformed faith if the PCUS and the UPC reunite. Such a stance is more born of a schismatic spirit than it is grounded in Reformed theology.” But mark well that the issue is not, as Dr. Daane appears to believe, reunion with the UPUSA as such. This matter, too, is not so simple as it looks on the surface, since the Northern Church has undergone two unions of its own since 1861. The nineteenth century controversy between the Old and New School branches of Presbyterianism still continues to exercise influence; and the present Northern Church is quite different in composition, as well as stance, from what it was when the Southern Church went its own way at the outbreak of the Civil War. But that, as I said, is not the issue. The issue here is rather union with a UPUSA which has forsaken its heritage, cast itself into apostasy, virtually surrendered all binding obligation to adhere to any confession of faith, and even ejected some who sought to be consistent and loyal to the doctrines of the Word of God. The issue is whether the PCUS is to be a Reformed church any longer, a Christian church even, in the full and historic and Reformation sense of the word. As I attempted to make plain in my first article, no one can be opposed to the idea of union in itself; but church union must be union in the truth, and not in the lie or in apostasy or in unbelief or in surrender. It is not that “church union, even between Presbyterian churches that once were united, is a far greater evil than the host of alleged apostasies.” That is simply not true. The dividing line is about to be reached; the end result of the cumulative succession of deviations from the faith is within sight; a choice, difficult but inevitable, must be made: a choice between consenting to confessional and constitutional subversion and a continuing Presbyterian church loyal to Scripture and the Reformed faith.
But now Dr. Daane goes so far as to say: “A separation from the church is never legitimate. No amount of sin, weakness, unfaithfulness of the church warrants separation from it. Separation from the church is always separation from Christ, from the Christ who loved and died for the church and therefore never withdraws from the church.” I am not completely certain how Dr. Daane wishes us to understand him here, for obviously enough the word “church” is the vital one; and how we interpret that will determine just how far we can go along-with him. Does he mean: “A separation from a denomination is never legitimate?” If so, the statement is preposterous, inasmuch as no denomination is “the church” in any absolute or complete sense. What is the church? That question needs answering before we can assess his claim. And so does another, immediately related to it: When does what we call the church cease to be the church? For surely it is clear that “a” church can cease to be that any longer, when it abandons the faith and becomes lukewarm; indeed, “a” church may even be rejected by God: “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) In the present discussion we are not dealing—alas!—with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church whose organic and external unity is visible to all, but with denominations, with the proliferation of various forms of the church. And of these it is not possible to speak as though they were “the church” from which all separation is always unlawful because it is separation from Christ.
I grant, of course, that at present the PCUS is the form of the church with which I have to do, just as the Christian Reformed Church is for Dr. Daane. And I grant also that one cannot otherwise contemplate the confused and multiform character of the church than with pain and sorrow, as something not countenanced by the New Testament, which envisions the church as one, and commands it to be one. But to say this does not resolve anything, nor make it clear to me where my duty and obligation lie. For the question confronting me, and others like me in the PCUS, is whether, when the PCUS is no longer confessionally and constitutionally true to the Scriptures and true to itself, it remains and continues to remain “the church” to me, and indeed whether in that event I am permitted to go on regarding it even as “a” church at all. I do not deny the presence of “churches,” that is to say, congregations, in the UPUSA, nor in the united denomination to be produced in the future, any more than Calvin did in the Church of Rome, to which as a whole he refused to ascribe the name of “church.” But we have to do here not with the existence of genuine “churches,” congregations of true believers who may be faithful and continue to go their own, scriptural, way, in the face of the general apostasy and deterioration, but with a denomination, “a” church. And it is plain that on this score there can be no doubt about the position I have to take. True enough, “separation from the church is always separation from Christ.” I am altogether convinced that outside of and apart from the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. But separation from an. apostate denomination is not at all the same thing. And if one is to cleave to Christ with all his heart and strength, and to be faithful to the truth as it is in the One who himself is Truth, that sometimes means separation, separation, that is, from what persists in calling itself church but has no right to the title.
To be sure, the confused state of the conservative part of the PCUS does greatly complicate the situation. There are many amongst us who are by no means Reformed; and one wonders just what will happen when a continuing church comes into being, whether it will be possible to build upon the foundation of the New Testament and the heritage of the Reformed faith. But I do not see, all my doubts and my criticisms notwithstanding (and I was at pains not to conceal these in my discussion of the state of affairs in our church), how it is possible for me to do anything other, if I am to be obedient to the Lord, than to refuse to have part in the overthrow of the confession and constitution of the church. I can live with the present situation because of its essential soundness. But that absolutely basic consideration will be removed upon union and/or confessional revision, and then I must decide whether I shall work together with my brethren in the faith, whom I regard as defective in their views at some or at many points, or whether I shall drown out the promptings of conscience and the leading of what I believe to be biblical principles and submit myself meekly, not to the Lordship of Christ, but to the hegemony of the liberal establishment. Surely that decision, however painful and difficult it may be in many respects, is in the nature of the case already determined by the situation. There can be no doubt about the choice one has to make.
I must add a single word before I close. It is significant that Dr. Daane’s comments found much favor with the editors of The Presbyterian Outlook, the leading independent paper of the liberal part of the church, and considerable extracts were included from what he had to say in the issue of September 25, 1972, without so much as a reference to the occasion which called them forth or to The Standard Bearer. How interesting that such strong denunciation of Southern Presbyterian conservatives should come from the pen of a Christian Reformed minister, and be employed as an instrument with which to flay those seeking to adhere to the gospel in the Southern Church! How interesting, and how sad!