Should OPs and RPs Unite?

For some years talks have been held and efforts have been put forth toward a union of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. The former is the denomination which was formed in the mid-1930’s when Dr. Machen was expelled from the Presbyterian Church (Northern) because of his battle against modernism. Perhaps to many of our readers it is best known through its (unofficial) connection with Westminster Seminary. The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, is itself the product of a previous merger. And since this fact is rather closely connected with the proposed union now under discussion, it is necessary to explain the rise of the denomination with which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church now proposes to unite. When the Presbyterian Church in America (later called 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 in its doctrine, and has modified the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism to provide for its premillennial position. Moreover, the Bible Presbyterian Church also adopted a Declaratory Statement which is Arminian, as follows:

In adopting the Confession of Faith this General Synod (the first General Synod of the BPC) declares: First: its fm and glad belief in the reality and universality of the offer of the Gospel to mankind. We believe that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of all, adapted to all, and is freely offered to all men in the Gospel. We believe that no man will be condemned except upon the ground of his sin. 

Second: with regard to the salvation of those dying in infancy we do not regard our Confession as teaching or implying that any who die in infancy are lost.

In 1956 there was a further division within the Bible Presbyterian denomination. According to Dr. Carl McIntire, this defection began in 1954 “under the leadership of the Rev. Francis Schaeffer, Dr. Robert Rayburn, 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 the apostasy.” Whatever may be the truth of McIntire’s allegations on this score, this new group became known eventually as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This new group, of course, received its doctrinal heritage from the Bible Presbyterians. As reported in the Standard Bearer, Vol. 38, p. 93, it reaffirmed its premillennialism. Presumably, it also carried along an Arminian heritage. And it also inherited what are sometimes called “strict” views on Christian liberty. At the time of the Standard Bearer report just mentioned, this denomination has about 70 congregations throughout the country. Now it is this Evangelical Presbyterian Church (which two separations back was united with what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) that in 196 5 united with the Reformed Presbyterian Church (a church in the Covenanter-Secession Tradition) to form what is now known as the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. At the time of the merger, the new denomination was reported to number about 100 congregations and some 10,000 communicants, (cf. Standard Bearer, Vol. 41, p. 373). 

It is this latter denomination—for a large part once united with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—which is now busily engaged with the O.P.C. in seeking union. 

The status of these union efforts at present is as follows: 

1.The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod has adopted the “Proposed Basis of Union.” 

2.The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church acted in this year’s session also to adopt it “with the further provision that the Committee [on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations] be instructed to seek to improve this statement in joint meeting with the [Fraternal Relations] Committee of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, for inclusion in a Plan of Union.” 

3.Both the Assembly and the Synod instructed their respective committees to “prepare a Plan of Union to be submitted to the 1973 Synod and General Assembly.” 

4: The earliest possible date for the actual union would be in 1974. If both the O.P. Assembly and the R.P. Synod should approve a Plan of Union in 1973, then it would still have to be voted on by the Presbyteries (classes). 

In the June/July issue of the Presbyterian Guardian, Editor John J. Mitchell, who voted this year in favor of the proposed Basis of Union but who seems nevertheless to have some misgivings about it, reports on these actions of the O.P. Assembly arid of the R.P. Synod. He also publishes the “Proposed Basis of Union.” And among other comments on the matter, he states: “The O.P. General Assembly did not specify what improvement it desired in theProposed Basis of Union. The discussion preceding adoption of this instruction to its committee indicated that some commissioners (A commissioner is similar to our synodical delegate. HCH) wanted additional material, particularly in the area of Christian liberty, the need to avoid sectarianism and schism, and an emphasis on the sovereign grace of God in man’s salvation, as well as other possible concerns. 

In principle, the broadest assemblies of the two denominations have, therefore, given an affirmative answer to the question: Should OPs and RPs unite? 

Yet, apparently the decision is not with complete enthusiasm, either on the part of the Rev. Mr. Mitchell or on the part of others in the O.P. C. In expressing his personal views on the matter, Editor Mitchell writes as follows:

The recommendation passed, by a very large majority, both in the O.P. Assembly and the R.P. Synod. The undersigned voted in favor this time. Why? and why did so large a number agree? For some it was probably done with enthusiasm and full conviction that merger was right. For others it may have been reluctant, with concern for the problems to be solved and perhaps with a little nostalgia at the thought of becoming only a medium-sized frog in a larger pond. For others it was done because they felt it was the Lord’s will in spite of the difficulties and adjustments required.

A little later, after mentioning some points of agreement, Editor Mitchell writes:

But aren’t there differences? Of course there are. Yet I believe it is fair to say there are no differences between the two churches that are not also to be found within each of them. No doubt there will be some tense moments in any united church, as old frictions are rubbed afresh and new problems arise. But certainly both churches have had many such experiences in the past, with strong differences of opinion, strenuous debates and protests. 

The basic question is simply whether the Spirit of truth will so overrule our contentious natures that together we will grow to a fuller maturity after the image of Christ. The Reformed Presbyterian brethren may need to continue to grow in appreciation of the liberty we have in Christ free from the commandments of men, even as the Orthodox Presbyterian brethren need to grow in patterns of holy living that bring honor to the name of our Lord. It will not be easy, and there may be some whose consciences will not allow them to remain in such a united church. 

Do I think the OPs and RPs should unite? Yes, though it is a cautious and perhaps reluctant affirmative….

Having aired his own view, Editor Mitchell expresses the desire to see the views of others on this subject. He does not say whether by “others” he means “insiders” or “outsiders”; and so, here is an “outsider’s” view. 

Without presuming to give either an affirmative or negative answer to this question, I offer the following considerations. 

In the first place, it seems to me that an ecclesiastical marriage should be transacted either with complete enthusiasm or not at all. A reluctant “I do” and one with misgivings before it is ever consummated bodes ill, it seems to me, for a marriage. This is true for two individuals who contemplate marriage; I believe it applies equally to the union of two churches. If the reluctance and misgivings continue after the marriage is consummated, they may become the cause of marital difficulties and, eventually, of a divorce suit. One will reproach the other for being railroaded, for being deceived, for not living up to the agreement, etc. And the end will be ecclesiastical trouble. In fact, if Mr. Mitchell’s report on the reasons why the O.P. General Assembly wanted improvement in the “Proposed Basis of Union” is correct—and there is no reason to think it is not correct—then there are serious enough misgivings already. And I would suggest that indeed the O.P. Church should insist on clearing these up before it says a final “I do.” Surely, marriage merely for the sake of marriage is not to be recommended. The O.P.C. has steered clear—rightly, I believe—of organic union with the Christian Reformed Church. But let it not contract a potentially troublesome marriage with the R.P. Church, as it were, on the rebound. 

In the second place, in my opinion some important matters have indeed not been cleared up. This is important. Marital harmony—also on the ecclesiastical level—requires unity, unity in the truth of God’s Word. It will not do at all to ignore differences, to try to “live with” important differences. Indeed, this does not mean that there must be complete agreement on every little detail. But it does imply fundamental agreement in doctrine and life, in confession and walk. It seems to this writer that these are lacking. And here are my reasons: 

1) There is much attention paid to the matter of Christian liberty in these merger talks; and indeed, in a practical sort of way this can be a grave source of trouble. It was a troublesome thing in the early years of the O.P.C. And I do not know how much opinions have hardened or softened in the intervening years. But while much attention is paid to this matter in the Preamble of the “Proposed Basis of Union,” I cannot see that these statements settle much of anything. They leave the impression on me of a sort of compromise, of a glossing over of differences, of agreeing to disagree. And this is a potential source of flare-up of the old trouble. 

2) The matter of premillennialism is apparently left an open question. In the section of the “Proposed Basis of Union” dealing with the Doctrinal Standards there is included the following: “The text of the Westminster Larger Catechism in its original form, with the amendments adopted by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod in reference to answers 86-89 which seek to ensure neutrality in regard to the eschatological sequence. . . .” True, this does notadopt the premillennial position, as do, for example, the amendments to the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism made by the Bible Presbyterian Church. It only seeks to ensure “neutrality.” I suppose this means that in the proposed new denomination one will be able to be pre-, post-, or amillennial. Now, in the first place, confessional neutrality on an important matter like this, even if it were possible, is wrong. Eschatology is, especially today, an important part of the church’s confession. Neutrality simply means that the church will have NO confession about the eschatological “sequence,” as it is called. In the second place,—as the Standard Bearer pointed out at the time of the original conflict about this mattercirca 1936 – premillennialism is at best not consistent Presbyterianism; and if it is premillennialism plus dispensationalism (as is true of consistent premillennialism), then it is not Presbyterianism at all. For then there is much more involved than Answers 86-89 of the Larger Catechism. Then the unity of the church and the kingship of Christ are also involved. In the third place, it seems to me that the O.P.C. should be extremely careful on this score. Is it not true that the very attempt at neutrality on premillennialismfailed in the conflict which gave rise to the Bible Presbyterian Church? And is there not a danger of similar failure if the proposed merger results in a large influx of died-in-the-wool premillennials? 

3) There is the very important matter of Arminianism. Anyone who is acquainted with the little brochure by Murray and Stonehouse on the Offer of the Gospeland with the treatment of Dr. Clark in by-gone years may have doubts about the strength of the O.P.C. over against Arminianism. But evidently the O.P. commissioners have doubts as to the strength of the Reformed Presbyterian Church on this score. Why, otherwise, would they want an improvement in emphasis on the sovereign grace of God in man’s salvation in the “Proposed Basis of Union?” And while I am not personally acquainted with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, nevertheless, judging from their background in the Bible Presbyterian Church, I would expect considerable Arminianism among them. Nor do I find the “Proposed Basis of Union” to be strong and specific on this score in this day of rampant Arminianism. 

In the third place, Editor Mitchell suggests that there are no differences between the two churches that are not also to be found within each of them. If this be true, it is nevertheless not a reason to proceed with merger. And if it applies to the differences which I have mentioned above, then it is surely a reason to avoid merger. For I venture to say that then a merger will only result in a strengthening of whatever legalistic, premillennial, and Arminian elements there are already in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And this will surely not result in the fulfillment of Mr. Mitchell’s fond hope that “Perhaps we shall see yet again a Presbyterian church in our land with the strength to challenge the apostate churches and the size to provide a fellowship for all those of like precious faith throughout the land.” Why not? Because the truly Presbyterian character of such a church will be jeopardized!