Does a “Big” and Bloated Denomination Need to Lose Some Weight?

The bloggers at Vintage 73 have been silent for a while but they returned to eprint with a vengeance by asking whether the PCA should divide. Sam DeSocio has the nerve to ask the question and he suggests the benefits are several:

If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

This might also give us a much need opportunity to reassess how we have interacted with other ethnic and cultural groups in America. Right now the dominant cultural paradigm of the PCA is a White South Suburban perspective (consider why we don’t have General Assembly outside of the south east but once or twice a decade.) Maybe such a shake up would produce a healthier inclusion of Black Christians, Asian Christian, Latino Christian etc.

The Second potential benefit of a partitioning is the chance for local church leaders to assess their hopes for the church at large. Quite honestly, I believe that many of the problems of the PCA come down to ostrich-itis. Local church leaders are unsettled with certain things going on in the PCA (shifts to the right or to the left), but many shrug their shoulders and give up. They see the stalemate. So, they simply give up participating at a denominational level.

One intriguing aspect of this post is that it conflicts with Tim Keller’s own assessment of the PCA (from a piece no longer available on-line “Why I Like the PCA”):

TThe history of conservative Presbyterianism in the U.S., Scotland, and the Netherlands over the last 125 years is a painful account of bloody splits and the formation of many new, smaller, and weaker denominations. Let me assert right here that there is nothing wrong with smallness per se. (Pietists and culturalists often sneer at smallness as being intrinsically inferior, and I think this one of their inherent spiritual blind spots which rightly makes doctrinalists furious.) Splitting a church over an issue of truth and conscience can sometimes lead to theological and spiritual renewal. The best example of this, I think, was the original Disruption of 1843 of the Church of Scotland, led by Thomas Chalmers, after which the new Free Church of Scotland grew in both quality and quantity, reaching out across the land in an explosion of both new church development and a renewed sense of social responsibility. In this case, the new ‘schism’ church was truly a healthy new Reformed church with all its historic impulses intact.

Nevertheless, such fruit from church splits is rare. A more normal result of church splits is the pruning off of branches in a way that both wounds and yet, ironically, does not last. Something of this pattern, I think, can be seen in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.20 Early in its history, after the death of J. Gresham Machen, the OPC went through a split in which its New Side/New School branch left, led by J.Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College and Carl T. McIntire. But, no surprise, by the 1970s the OPC had grown a new ‘pietist/revivalist’ wing under the influence of Jack Miller. The New Life Churches and their Sonship course was classic revivalism, and it did not fit well with the more doctrinalist cast of the OPC. While not a formal split, like that of 1937, the New Life churches were made to feel unwelcome and nearly all left in the early 90s to swell the pietist ranks of the PCA.

Whenever a Reformed church purifies itself by purging itself of one of its impulses, it finds that within a generation or two, its younger leaders are starting to at look in a friendly way toward the lost parts.

I happened to use Keller’s piece in concluding my course at WSC this week and find that his perspective on Presbyterian history is decidedly fanciful — the Free Church hardly resulted in a communion with quantity. Either way, DeSocio’s idea that a split may be valuable and Keller’s that the PCA needs to remain a big take tent is another indication that the younger generation is not following the PCA’s celebrity pastor and may be willing to figure it out for themselves.

One other point to notice is this prevalent idea that the PCA is large. I know that it looks big from the perspective of the OPC (30,000) and the RPCNA (6,000). But 300,000 (the PCA’s rough membership) makes them a piker in American Christianity. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (one of the U.S.’s top ten) has roughly 5.5 million members (last I checked). The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has about 2.6 million. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has approximately 400,000 members. The ELCA is to Lutheranism what the PCUSA is to Presbyterianism, just at the LCMS is the Lutheran equivalent of the PCA, which leaves the Wisconsin Lutherans the Lutheran version of the OPC. In other words, the small Lutheran denomination — WELS — has 33 percent more members than the PCA. And I bet the Wisconsin Synod folks think of themselves as small. So why is the PCA so impressed with its size? Comparing yourself to the OPC is not wise.

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  1. Frank Aderholdt
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, “sean,” you’ve never spoken more clearly.

  2. Richard Smith
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    D. G. Hart: Richard, isn’t caffeine a sin against the Holy Spirit (since we’re all just joking today — except for Old ever loving and ever sanctimonious Bob)?

    RS: It is if one is Mormon, which is what I tell people right after telling them that I don’t drink coffee. Mormons think that drinking caffeine is a sin, but they own Pepsi. I guess that means it is okay to make money off of the sins of others. Please be nice to Bob.

    Deut 28: 49 “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, 50 a nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young.

  3. Mike K.
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  4. sean
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Frank, give Dean Wormer and the Omega’s, hugs and kisses por mi.

  5. Mikelmann
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    So, Frank, you went to a blog, tricked people who don’t know you, and added nothing to the conversation. Impressive.

  6. Richard Smith
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Mike K.:

    RS: Assuming that is correct is correct, I guess I will have to adjust my comment to people about why I don’t drink coffee. I thought I heard the bit about Mormons not being able to drink caffeine from a Mormon, so I did some serious research (google) and came up with the statement below. I guess it is the case that there are differing beliefs within Mormonism, but it appears that the official position is that they can drink caffeine. I have heard for years and years that they owned either Coke or Pepsi, and now to find out I was wrong.

    Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.

    This statement will hopefully correct the misconception (both inside and outside LDS Church) that Mormon’s cannot drink Pepsi and Coke. Despite the clarification, the debate among Mormons will never end. Reading the comments from various news sites show that many Mormons still think we should not be allowed to drink it even if it doesn’t violate the Word of Wisdom because its unhealthy even if its not banned under the Word of Wisdom.

  7. Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Dr. Hart,

    I appreciate your thoughts.
    My hope with putting forward this article was to suggest a way past the present loggerheads, that might lead to a larger more unified American Presbyterian Church. I am well aware of how silly it is for the Pug to tease the Chihuahua. My hope would be to see a unification with the Presbyterian Tradition. If it were in my power I would gather up all the Split P’s, and bring them together with Presbyterian churches in North and South America, to form a Presbyterian Church of the Americas.

  8. Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Sam, no need for titles here.

    What in your opinion would be gained by a PCA of the kind you suggest? Church union virtually inevitably yields breadth and vagueness. I know it’s a different institution, but family union is not a good idea. Two parents running things makes for more coherence in the home than 24 parents running things. So why would a unified church bring about a positive change?

  9. George
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    DGH sez: “… Church union virtually inevitably yields breadth and vagueness. I know it’s a different institution, but family union is not a good idea. Two parents running things makes for more coherence in the home than 24 parents running things. So why would a unified church bring about a positive change?…”

    Yes, and ample proof of this lies in the ELCA, which consists of a myriad of smaller, more liberal Lutheran “synods” such as the LCA, ALCA, ULC, etc. that merged to form the now mainline, vastly inclusive, social justice-inclined organization formed in the late 80’s. As stated in other threads, this ramps down to the much smaller and rather divided, but at least nominally confessional LCMS to the likes of the tiny, but stringent WCS, ELS, and the newer ACELC. No, unification and size definitely do not bring about a positive change.

  10. Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Darryl or (DG if you prefer),
    Maybe some will consider me a bit bipolar in my thinking but I can imagine a number of benefits in a PC of the Americas.

    1. It would be a witness to the world if there was one Presbyterian Church made up of millions of Christians from different countries and cultures all covenanted together.
    2. Accountability from Christians in other cultures might help us see our own American blind spots.
    3. In Scripture we are told that God uses difficulties for our growth. Pastors warn people to not immediately run from challenges, but, as American Presbyterians, we are very comfortable in many ways, and would prefer to avoid rocking the cart.

    I blame my father for showing me how to rock the cart.

  11. Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Sam, thanks. I see more in points 2 and 3 than 1. Size is overrated on the witness scale, but that’s an opinion.

  12. Wayne Sparkman
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink


    Have you ever looked at Dr. Robert Godfrey’s proposal, “A Reformed Dream” ?

    No splits involved!

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