The Presbyterian Church in America

Two of the most encouraging developments to Bible-believing Christians in recent years have been (1) the return of. the Missouri Lutherans to Biblical and confessional orthodoxy and (2) the rise and rapid growth of the new Presbyterian Church in America which is seeking, by breaking away from apostate denominations and establishing a new church organization, to restore such Biblical and confessional orthodoxy. THE OUTLOOK has from time to time outlined some of the Lutheran development. Now let’s notice what has been happening among these Presbyterians.

A Story of Rapid Growth

Donald Dunkerley, Pastor of the McIllwain Memorial Presbyterian Church of Pensacola, Florida, writing in the December, 1977, issue of the British Banner of Truth nicely surveyed the history of the new denomination as he commented on its Fifth General Assembly meeting last September. He observed that in three years it had grown to include 62,000 communicant members, 405 congregations, 457 ministers, and had placed 90 missionaries on the field. Although it began in the South it now includes churches in many parts of the U.S., one of them a mission church in Hawaii.

Rocky R0ad to Reformation

Some of the most interesting items of Pastor Dunkerley’s report are those which deal with the problems of restoring in the new church the long-lost Reformed faith and practice. He described the problem in this way:

Those who originally fonned the PCA suffered from the effects of many years in a liberaldominated denomination. Many had only limited contact with the Reformed faith over the years, and while expressing an openness to the Reformed faith and a willingness to learn more, their faith and practice was not so much a consistent Calvinism as a general evangelicalism of the sort one would associate with Billy Graham or Campus Crusade for Christ.

He observed that in the First assembly meeting a marked conflict arose between . . .

the main body of the denomination and those who referred to themselves as ‘TR’ meaning that they were self-consciously ‘thoroughly Reformed.’ In the opening assemblies, the TR‘s most of whom were recent graduates of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, tended to sit together and vote as a bloc. The belligerence of the TR group tended to cause many older men who were sympathetic with their aims to dissociate themselves from them.

Gratifying Progress

The writer went on to describe how these early internal differences are being surmounted.

This animosity, which was in the atmosphere of at least the 6rst two assemblies, seems to have been dissipated by the fifth. Although many of the votes were on theological issues and voting tended to follow theological lines, the spirit was very good. The animosity was gone and so was the appearance of evident blocs. The assembly as a whole seemed much more Reformed, as is evidenced by the thrust of the debate and the nature of the votes, although, of course, there are still many inconsistencies.

He listed some of the factors contributing to the “emergence of the more Reformed majority” (1) “One certainly is the result of the influence of the thoroughly Reformed element in the church, which has itself matured, gaining wisdom and effectiveness.” 2. “Also, the church as a whole is now much better educated in the Reformed faith and much more responsive to it.” (3) The PCA has grown from sources outside of the old Southern Presbyterian Church now including many men from more strongly Reformed backgrounds such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. (4) Most new ministers ordained since the beginning of the denomination are graduates of Reformed, Westminster and Covenant Seminaries “giving them a much better theological education than that possessed by the majority of the men present at the first assembly.”

Social and Political Action

The assembly decided to petition the President and Congress to reconsider the decision to withdraw troops from Korea and decided to inform the President that abortion is condemned by the Word of God. Although the new church strongly opposes the hahit of liberal denominations, with which most of its members were only too familiar; of making pronouncements on all kinds of social and political issues, a majority felt that on these two issues the Word of God warrants a church body taking such action.

Educational Policy

A proposal to have the denomination share with the Reformed Presbyterian, Evangelical Synod the ownership and operation of Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, was opposed by some who felt that such a move violated the principle of sphere sovereignty which does not permit a church to run a liberal arts college, and the matter will undergo further study.

The denomination also adopted a proposal for thorough reorganization of the traditional seminary training which would place more emphasis on practical and evangelistic experience, relying on “small tutorial seminaries, one in each presbytery,” which is to be further worked out by a sub-committee.

Regarding campus ministries, the assembly after discussion adopted a motion that the principal thrust of PCA campus ministries should be distinctly Reformed, but it also approved, despite opposition, presbyteries supporting and supervising staff workers in non-church organizations such as Campus Crusade and Intervarsity. Pastor Dunkerley concluded his report with the observation that:

One thing appears certain: the PCA is not willing to be just another little denomination, Reformed in theology and Presbyterian in government. It is interested in innovating. It wants to do more than has been done before to reach the nation and to reach the world, not simply with the Gospel of Christ, but with the whole counsel of God, which we often call the Reformed faith.

Dr. Van Groningens Observations

Much interesting additional light is shed on these developments in an article by Dr. G. Van Groningen entitled “Observations on Presbyterianism in the South Eastern Part of the U.S.A.” appearing in the Australian magazine Trowel and Sword of October, 1977.

Problems of the Non-Seceders

First Dr. Van Groningen comments on the plight of “many consciously Reformed people” who have not as yet joined the new PCA but remained in the old Southern Presbyterian Church. Some felt that a breakaway was premature, that there was no constitutional issue that warranted it, and they hoped that the old church might be brought back to its faith. These people face increaSing difficulties as that church movestoward adopting a new confession (which is not necessarily to bind its members), as it ordains women as elders, and as that church continues to identify itself with the National Council of Churches and its obnoxious actions. The report takes note of the fact that there has generally been a surprising lack of bitterness between those who seceded and those who remained in the old denomination although some tensions are arising.

More on the Problems of Reformation

Dr. Van Groningen’s report deals mainly with the new denomination and the problems which it is encountering encountering in seeking to achieve a really Reformed Church. The underlying, main problem of the new denomination, as he analyzed it is the lack of unity and harmony among the diverse elements that comprise that church. These diverse elements came to one mind in their decision to secede from the old Southern church. As soon as the new denomination, the PCA was formed, and had to decide on its course the differences between the various elements that compose it became apparent. They were agreed on what they were against but not agreed on what they were for. Arriving at agreements between these various groups in determining a common policy for the new body seems to be its main problem.

Dr. Van Groningen distinguishes “five specific emphases” within the PCA which are “not always mutually compatible.” Sometimes two may combine, but “in no instance do all five combine.”


1. The “original Southern Church”

Although the motivation for leaving the old church and forming a new one was supposed to be loyalty to the Presbyterian Creeds, it has become apparent after the break that many who joined it were not moved so much by concern for the Reformed doctrines of those creeds as they were by their growing disgust with the actions of the old church leaders on social and political issues.

2. The TR’s

A second group, as we have already observed, has been characterized as the “totally Reformed and/or thoroughly Reformed,” or TR‘s. The phrase was allegedly coined by Dr. Morton Smith a leader in the PCA, to refer to those who wanted to be “not half-heartedly but consistently, completely” Reformed. Sometimes criticized for being harsh, or tactless, they want to be a totally Reformed church.

3. The Mission Enthusiasts

A third group consider missions, especially overseas missions, to be the only reason for the church‘s existence. Some of these favor cooperation with non-Reformed or non-Presbyterian bodies which will allow Refcrmed or Presbyterian activity. Their concern is plainly with wide-spread evangelism rather than with sound doctrine and this brings them into conflict with especially those who would strive for sound doctrine.

4. The Charismatics

Sympathizers with the charismatic (or “Pentecostal”) movement constitute a fourth group; sometimes they are sympathizers with the mission enthusiasts but find themselves at odds with the first, traditionally Presbyterian, or second, doctrinally Reformed people.

5. The Independents

Finally, the writer observes people who want to be independent and have independent, often big, individual churches.

The Struggle for a United Reformed or Presbyterian Church

With these diverse elements in the church it is achieving in some measure a united policy. At the same time the writer sees “overall tension . . . stronger than it was before.”

Van Groningen describes the notdenominationallyconnected Jackson Reformed Theological Seminary (in which he is a professor) as caught between and sometimes criticized (in opposite ways) from the sides of these various groups. An ingredient that will further complicate the situation promises to be the decision of the last assembly of the PCA to set up its own seminary training programs. In that program he foresees especially problems of getting qualified professors.

Through these problems the writer observes the Lord “blessing the work of the PCA, of those battling for the truth in the PCUS and of the Reformed Theological Seminary as it seeks to serve all those committed to the Lord and His Word of Truth.”

Concluding Observations

The growing pains of the new Presbyterian denomination are not unfamiliar to those who know something of our Reformed church history. The records of our churches tell of similar problems in seeking to establish a common policy for a new, seceding church. The tensions between the evangelical old secession from a liberal state church and the later broader-fronted Kuyperian “Doleantie” lie deep with the history of our Reformed churches. But the growing pains of those who are seeking together to return to faithfully preaching and teaching the gospel of repentance and faith in Christ that includes the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:21, 27) are much to be preferred to the death pains of those who are losing that gospel faith and life. Let us pray for, seek and encourage such gospel revival.

The experience of these Presbyterian brothers is showing how necessary it is that in efforts toward church reformation we constantly emphasize the positive aims toward which the Lord’s gospel encourages us to strive. Our necessary exposure and rejection of the evils that are destroying the churches’ faith and life must always be part of our contending “for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). When the Lord gives the opportunity for reforming action either by restoration of the old church (as He seems to be doing among the Lutherans) or by secession (as He is doing among the Presbyterians) that action will be the more effective in the measure that those engaged in it see clearly the common Biblical aims they must try to achieve. Seeing and teaching those aims made John Calvin, Abraham Kuypers and other reformers. This is God‘s way of making reformers and reforming His church also in our time.