The proposed plan of union between the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Southern Presbyterian) is a rather lengthy doctrine of some 97 pages. For those interested, this plan of union in booklet form is available in Presbyterian or Reformed Church Book Stores for 25. I would point out in this and subsequent articles various features in this proposed union which certainly could not be acceptable to any truly Reformed man. There are those in the Reformed Church in America who also firmly believe this. In a radio interview over WFUR in Grand Rapids, the Rev. Gordon Girod of the Seventh Reformed Church in that city stated that there are Reformed churches in the Midwest that have already decided that they can not go along with any merger even for the one-year requirement of the merger proposal.
Apart from the question whether these two de nominations maintain the same basic Calvinistic doctrinal confession, the proposed plan of union is itself unacceptable to the Reformed Christian.
Hierarchical church government
There are presently men and ministers in the Reformed Church who continue to hold to the fundamental truths of the Reformed Confessions—even though the denomination as a whole has, to a large degree, departed from these. Such men remain within the Reformed denomination because, they contend, each local church remains fairly autonomous. A local church can refuse to go along with such decisions of the Synod with which it can not agree. However, the proposed plan of union places the power and authority in the higher bodies—and the local consistory must submit. It is this feature which many in the Reformed Church find very objectionable. Some instances of this follow:
A minister, according to the present practice in Presbyterian churches, will be considered a member of the Presbytery (equivalent to our Classis) rather than of the local consistory, and is accountable to it.
15-2. A minister shall hold his membership in the Presbytery where his work is located, unless there are reasons satisfactory to his Presbytery why he should not do so. The Presbytery may give a Minister permission to labor outside its geographical bounds and in work not under its jurisdiction; but no Minister shall engage in work which is within the bounds of and which falls properly under the jurisdiction of another Presbytery without its consent.
The power of the Presbytery is also set forth in paragraph 15.8:
The Presbytery has power:
(1) To receive and decide references, appeals and complaints brought before it according to constitutional procedures.
(2) To assume original jurisdiction in cases in which a Session cannot exercise its authority.
(3) To review the records of Consistories, redress whatever they may have done contrary to order, and take effectual care that they observe the Constitution of the Church.
(4) To see that the lawful injunctions of the higher courts are obeyed.
(5) To visit churches for the purpose of inquiring into and redressing the evils that may have arisen in them. When necessary for the welfare of the Church, the Presbytery may dissolve the active relationship between an Elder and the church, provided there has been a hearing which affords procedural safeguards as in cases of process . . . . .
(6) To unite or divide churches, at the request of the members thereof.
(7) To organize new churches.
(8) To receive and dismiss churches.
(9) To dissolve churches, after hearing which provides adequate procedural safeguards, when the Presbytery finds that the interest of the Church imperatively demands such dissolution.
(10) To control the location of new churches and of churches desiring to move to new locations.
(11) To take special oversight of churches without Pastors, and appoint a Minister of the Presbytery to preside over the Consistory in such churches.
(12) To receive under its care Candidates for the Ministry.
(13) To ordain, receive, dismiss, install, remove, and judge Ministers.
(14) To establish the pastoral relationship; and to dissolve it at the request of one or both parties, or, when it finds that the purity and peace of the Church imperatively demand it, following hearing which provides procedural safeguards as in cases of process . . . .
(15) To set apart Ministers as Teachers, Evangelists, and in other works proper to the ministry.
(16) To require Ministers to devote themselves diligently to their sacred calling and to censure the delinquent.
(17) To devise measures for the enlargement of the Church within its bounds.
(18) To condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the Church.
(19) To encourage whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under its care.
(20) To institute and superintend the agencies necessary for its work.
(21) To appoint Commissioners to the General Assembly.
(22) To overture the Synod or the Assembly for such measures as may be of common advantage to the whole Church.
Now a careful study of the above would reveal, of course, that many of the “powers” of the Presbytery will be similar to those which a Classis normally exercises. However, there are also many “powers” which the Reformed man has always maintained are to be rightly exercised only by the Consistory. Particularly it is to be noted that the Presbytery assumes the right of initiating discipline of members, ministers, and churches within its jurisdiction. It has the “power” also of seeing to it that “lawful injunctions of the higher courts are obeyed.” Such a “power” would not bode well for a local church, for instance, which can not for conscience sake make use of some of the liberal and modernistic Sunday School materials presently produced within these two denominations.
The denomination also claims the property of a local church if such church decides to withdraw from the denomination:
6.6. . . .If a particular church withdraws from the communion and discipline of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America, or if a church is dissolved by the Presbytery, or if a church otherwise ceases to exist, those who hold the title to the property shall deliver, convey and transfer to the Presbytery of which the church was a member, or to the authorized agents of the Presbytery, all property of the church; and the receipt and aquinttance of the Presbytery, or its proper representatives, shall be a full and complete discharge of all liabilities of such persons holding the property of the church. The Presbytery receiving such property shall apply the same or the proceeds thereof for the purposes of the Church at its discretion.
It might be noted, however, that provision is made for any dissenting congregation to remove itself from the new denomination within a specified time without the penalty of loss of property. The procedure to be followed is very precisely outlined. The decision states in part:
Article 17. Withdrawal Provision—Congregation and Property.
It is agreed as a part of the Plan of Union between the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, for the purposes of this union alone, that any particular church under the jurisdiction of either body may petition the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America for leave to withdraw from the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America with its property, but only after full and complete compliance with the following procedure:
17.01. No particular church shall take any action regarding such petition to withdraw before the first, or after the second anniversary of the effective date of the union, except as hereinafter provided in case of reversal on appeal.
According to this provision, all churches of both denominations would be obliged to remain in the united church for a period of one year. Then for a one year period any church can remove itself from the union by following, certain stipulations listed in the plan of union. I would assume that the purpose of this one-year enforced union would be to give all the churches and membership of these churches an opportunity to observe the new denomination in action for one year. Possibly, too, a one-year “cooling off” period would reduce the possibility of large numbers of churches forsaking the new denomination.
At the last Synod and General Assembly an amendment was also offered and adopted which provides for a guarantee for escape later if this new denomination should subsequently decide to merge with other denominations. There were those in the Reformed Church who expressed misgivings concerning the present discussions carried on in the Consultation for Church Union of which the Southern Presbyterian Church is a part. Therefore the following amendment was also adopted:
In the event of the union of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America with any other ecclesiastical body, adequate provision shall be made in any plan of union to permit the withdrawal from the union of any congregation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in America with its property in such manner and such procedures as shall be equitable. Equitable provisions regarding ministers desiring to withdraw from such new denomination shall also be made.
In a subsequent article I hope to point out other unacceptable provisions (for any Reformed person) which will become effective if this plan of union is finally adopted.