Presbyterian Church in America

A New Name – The new Presbyterian denomination organized last December as the National Presbyterian Church held its second General Assembly at Macon, Georgia September 16-20, 1974. The threat of a law suit by a local United Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. which calls itself the National Presbyterian Church Jed to a decision to change the new denomination‘s name not so much because of fear of legal action as because of consideration of what would be “the Christian thing to do.” The name Presbyterian Church in America” was chosen after an earlier choice of “National Reformed Presbyterian Church” raised further objections from the Washington, D.C. church.

Rapid Growth – Since it was organized with about hvo hundred and fifty churches in December, nearly one hundred congregations have been added to it. It now includes about two hundred and seventy ministers and is represented in more than twenty states including some in the North. Its total membership is reported between 75,000 and 80,000.

Its Course: Exclusively Reformed or Ecumenically Evangelical? – Like many other churches who have at one time or another broken away from previous liberal affiliations, this new denomination has been facing the critical question regarding what course should be chosen instead of that which all agreed in rejecting. People may agree in what they are against without agreeing so completely on what they are for. In this case all were agreed that they must break with the apostate course of the churches they had left. Faced with the question what course the new fellowship should choose, a substantial number of the four hundred and fifty delegates, including especially some graduates of the new Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, were convinced that they should insist on a strong commitment to the Reformed faith and oppose entanglements with non-Reformed churches, organizations, or practices. Many others felt that the proper course should be less exclusively Reformed and more broadly evangelical.

There were several issues on the agenda of the meeting regarding which this basic difference of opinion might be expected to appear—especially questions regarding neoPentecostalism, inter-church relations, and overseas mission policy—but, as C. Aiken Taylor graphically dated in the October 11 Christianity Today (p. 48 ), “Nobody . . . knew over which particular item . . . the battle would be fought.” From the more militantly Reformed side there were overtures not to affiliate “with any existing ecumenical or nonReformed body, and to ensure that all extension work at home and overseas would be conducted either through established Presbyterian and Reformed churches or through new Presbyterian and Reformed work,” and to have the overseas missions agency break off its membership in the National Association of Evangelicals.

The expected clash really came over a recommendation to permit missionaries to work with and under such organizations as Wycliffe, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and others through which openings into certain areas of the world and certain types of work already exist. The four-hour debate which followed was described in the October 2 Presbyterian Journal (p. 4) as “spirited but never acrimonious, sometimes heated but always polite, unblemished by unfair parliamentary maneuvering.” The favorable decision on this important policy matter came by a six to one vote. Although some forty-three of those who favored a more exclusively Reformed policy signed a protest, there was no indication that any of them considered leaving the church as a result of the adverse decision.

Prospects – Although this decision is regarded as a victory for the more broadly evangelical and a defeat for the more distinctly Reformed party in the church, it seems to me as one who has watched these developments with keen interest, that this does not mean that the struggle for the Reformed faith in the new denomination is necessarily lost. It does mean that all who feel committed to seeking a truly Reformed, that is to say a faithfully biblical church fellowship, face what may be a long struggle as they try to move their brethren to see more clearly what they should be for as well as what they should be against. The break with liberal affiliations is not the end but only a beginning in what we hope will be a continuing effort to work and pray for a church fully faithful to the Lord and His expressed will. (That struggle, after all, never really ends on this side of heaven!)

Perhaps it is well to add the observation at this point that, though we need to work and pray for churches uncompromisingly committed to the Bible—which is what we mean by the Reformed faith—this does not imply, as apparently some would maintain, that we must therefore refuse all cooperation with other Christians whose views we believe are at some points erroneous. It does not necessarily exclude cooperation with Wycliffe, or the NAE agencies, for example. Seldom has this point of view been more clearly or better expressed than it was by J. G. Machen at the opening exercises of Westminster Seminary in 1929:

That system of theology, that body of truth, which we find in the Bible, is the Reformed Faith, the Faith commonly called Calvinistic, which is set forth gloriously in the Confessions and Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church. It is sometimes referred to as a “manmade creed.” But we do not regard it as such. We regard it, in accordance with our ordination pledge as ministers in the Presbyterian Church, as the creed which God has taught us in His Word. If it is contrary to the Bible, it is false. But we hold that it is not contrary to the Bible, but in accordance with the Bible, and true. We rejoice in the approximations to that body of truth which other systems of theology contain; we rejoice in our Christian fellowship with other evangelical churches . . . But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scriptures to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow-Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic Faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian Church. Glorious is the heritage of the Reformed Faith. God grant that it may go forth to new triumphs even in the present time of unbelief. (N. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen. p. 457.)

The Neo-Pentecostal Problem – The assembly came to grips with the “charismatic” or “neoPentecostal” problem, a matter carried over from last year‘s assembly. It adopted a committee report which stated, “Officers and gifts related to new revelations have no successors since God completed His revelation at the conclusion of the apostolic age.” This report was accompanied by a pastoral letter, accepted by the assembly, which stated that “The power of God in response to believing prayer to work wonders and to heal the sick cannot be limited. Such wonders certainly do continue to this day.” Regarding “tongues-speaking,” however, the letter said that “any view of tongues which sees this phenomenon as an essential sign of the Baptism of the Spirit is contradictory to Scripture,” and warned against “any practice of tongues which causes division within the church or diverts the church from its mission.”

Ecumenical Relations – The new denomination‘s stand regarding its relations with other Reformed denominations is indicated in especially two decisions. (1) The assembly approved a joint venture in publications with the Christian Education Committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “such venture to be based upon the principle of equal control of editorial policy and a share of financial support, with a view to making the joint venture the publishing arm of the two denominations.” (2) The Committee on Inter-church Relations was instructed to establish, “if the way be clear,” fraternal relations with the Christian Reformed Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.