We have been viewing the progress of the study committee, called the “Joint Committee of 24,” as it has been working in the past years towards a goal of eventual merger of the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church U.S. (Southern). Last time I called attention to their reports to their respective highest assemblies in 1963 and in 1964. This time I would present the report of this same committee to the General Synod and the General Assembly this past spring. The report itself is not very long, but included three supplements concerned with a study of the similarities and differences of the denominations involved. This report was adopted without dissenting vote by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church this past April, and was also adopted by the General Synod of the Reformed Church by a vote of 246 to 16 in its meeting at Buck Hill Falls, PA on June 3 to 9. The quotations which follow come from this report as it was printed in the “Handbook of the General Assembly” of the Presbyterian Church, pages 131-150. The report was kindly sent to me by Dr. James Millard, Jr., stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church.
A Comparison of Government and Organization
The first supplement of the report is a comparison of the government and organization of the two denominations. It compares (a) doctrine, (b) practices in congregations, (c) offices in the church, (d) ecclesiastical assemblies. The study shows considerable similarity between the two denominations. The Presbyterian Church U.S. has, as doctrinal standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) with later amendments, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The R.C.A., of course, has the three forms of Unity except for the negative sections of the Canons of Dordt. The joint committee is convinced that these various creeds express essentially the same doctrinal truths.
I will not bore the reader with a detailed analysis of this study. Members of the two churches involved, however, had better study this report very carefully.
There is a second study, or supplement, with the report which compares the permanent agencies of the two denominations as far as their structure and functions are concerned. This part of the report surely points out that even though two denominations believe themselves to be doctrinally one, it is not a simple matter now of declaring those who were two to be now one. During the period of many years, different organizations or committees have arisen. The committees of one denomination do not have exactly the same duties and functions of an apparently similar committee in the other denomination. If a merger takes place, an immense amount of effort must be expended in order to integrate the various efforts of the two denominations.
Examination of Certain Practices in the PCUS and RCA
A third supplement examines how close (or far apart) the two denominations actually are. The committee maintains that one must distinguish three categories in considering the different customs and usages within these two denominations. The first category are those matters that are clearly enjoined in the Word of God. There can be no disagreement between our two churches at this point, if we are to continue walking together in ever-deepening fellowship.” Concerning that first category, the committee declares:
. . . Both of our denominations believe in the proclamation of the whole counsel of God and the faithful observance of the Sacraments. A service of sacred music is no substitute for the preaching of the Word; nor do we observe the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper without the sermon. We share a common understanding of covenant theology. Children born into a Christian home are baptized in the name of the Triune God, their parents taking solemn vows to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Our two denominations spare no effort to provide the best possible program of Christian Education in the Church School, but the primary responsibility rests in the home. Deut. 6:4-7 would be binding upon us all.
Concerning the second category, dealing with those matters which are logical deductions from the teachings of Scripture, the statement declares:
. . . Both denominations have refused to baptize children indiscriminately. One or both parents must be professing Christians . . . . On this deduction from the Word of God we are in full agreement. In another area there is disagreement. The PCUS at the 1964 General Assembly officially approved for the first time the ordination of women as Ministers and other officers of the Church. After several years of study throughout the Church, this was enacted as a deduction from the teaching of the Bible. It should be pointed out that there is conscientious disagreement on this point within each denomination, though it has not proved to be sufficiently crucial to disrupt fellowship. Implementation remains in the hands of the local congregation or presbytery, and there is no possibility in either denomination that this would be changed.
In the third category of similarities (or differences) are included “what may be called ‘pious customs,’ which may be very beneficial to spiritual growth but which are not binding, no matter how good they may be.” Of these, the statement declares:
. . . There is the requirement in the RCA that the major points of doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism be expounded from the pulpit at least: once every four years. There is no similar requirement in the PCUS.
Catechetical in6truction of children and youth has gone through great changes in both denominations under the pressure of modern times. One of the most significant features of the Covenant Life Curriculum in which we are jointly engaged, is the renewed emphasis on the catechism. Many churches in the PCUS (though not all by any means) have special classes in the catechism. The Board of Christian Education awards a Bible to those who recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Communicants’ classes, preparing young people to make their public profession of faith in Christ, vary from six weeks to much longer periods.
The PCUS has a carefully defined “Rules of Discipline” which states that “every court should show its constant concern that the conduct of members, officers, churches and courts under its care be in accordance with the laws of Christ.’ . . . Individual pastors and elders seek to prepare their people by pastoral counseling, and by public proclamation, for the proper observance of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It would be fair to say that both denominations are equally concerned for the purity of life in the congregation.
In the RCA there is the Spring Classical Inquiry at which time each Minister gives an accounting of his stewardship. In the PCUS there is the Commission on the Minister and His Work, which gives oversight in local situations as needed, and has the power of Presbytery to act within certain clearly specified limits . . . .
The question of clerical dress is regarded by both churches as a matter of local custom and free decision.
Concerning the above, a few remarks might be in order. Regarding the second category, especially the ordination of women as Ministers, it is stated that this is a point of difference between the RCA and the PCUS. That is true. But it ought to be noted that at its last meeting this spring, the General Synod of the Reformed Church approved the ordination of women elders and deacons. If this action receives the approval of two-thirds of the classes, as it likely will, it will have become church, law, and the RCA will have taken definite action to remove this difference between denominations. I understand that there is also a document prepared for study in the churches concerning the possibility and scriptural basis for the ordination of women ministers. It is rather interesting, or perhaps I should say: shocking, how .this develops. This is termed one of those “logical deductions” from Scripture with which it is “possible to disagree.” The Reformed, Calvinistic churches in the past have strongly, consistently opposed not only women as Ministers, but even forbade women to vote within the church. First the barrier against women voting is eroded away (only recently the Christian Reformed Church reversed its former stand and approved woman suffrage—though yet maintaining that it is contrary to Scripture that women hold offices in the church). The next step, inevitably, is that women are allowed to serve as deacons and even elders (that will also happen in the Christian Reformed Church within the next few years—even as it has happened in the Reformed Church this summer). The final step, which has already been taken by most major denominations of our land, is that women are ordained as Ministers of the Word.
In the third category there are also questions which ought to be raised. This includes “pious customs” which are not to be binding in the church. Catechetical instruction is included in that list. Does the committee mean that this catechetical instruction is one of the “pious customs” not to be binding (that appears to me to be the idea of the committee), or that the material of instruction can and, does vary from church to church? In this same category is placed the matter of “discipline.” It is stated that “both denominations are equally concerned for the purity of life in the congregation.” But this does not say much yet. Is discipline regarded as a matter of pious custom in these churches—and that is all? That would explain too how that liberal, even modernistic elements exist within both denominations.
The Joint-Committee of 24 presented the following recommendations at the close of their report, for adoption by both the General Synod of the Reformed Church (adopted 246 to 16) and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (adopted without dissenting vote):
Your Committee, after three years of study, exploration, consultation with Boards and Agencies of our respective Churches, and earnest prayer seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recommends that the General Assembly and General Synod:
1. instruct the Joint Committee to begin drafting a Plan of Union for possible presentation to General Assembly and General Synod not later than 1968;
2. authorize the Joint Committee to call on persons from various areas in both communions to assist in preparing the first drafts of sections of a Plan of Union;
3. and authorize the Committee to circulate to our Presbyteries and Classes the preliminary draft of sections of the plan, requesting that the Presbyteries and Classes send their suggestions concerning the draft to the Joint Committee for their consideration in the completion of their assignment.
One declared that the adoption of the above recommendations did not yet mean that the R.C.A. and the P.C.U.S. are engaged. True; but their courtship has become very serious—leading, it would seem, to a firm engagement before or by 1968, with marriage shortly thereafter. Members especially of the more conservative element in the Reformed Church (found largely in the mid-west) must be having very serious, disquieting thoughts about this time concerning where all this will lead them.