Alliances, Ecumencity, and Being Reformed

The OPC’s 75th anniversary also coincided with the regular meeting of General Assembly. My pastor, whose energy consumes more calories in a day than I devour in the course of a week, wrote the daily report and perusing his summary reminds me of an important point about communions like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The pastor’s notes on Friday’s sessions included the report from the OPC’s Committee on Ecumenicity and Inter-Church Relations (CEIR), with a list of the various denominations with which the OPC has a relationship.

The OPC reserves the category of ecclesiastical fellowship for fifteen different churches, which include:

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC)
The Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRef)
The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CRCN)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales (EPCEW)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland (EPCI)
The Free Church of Scotland (FCS)
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
The Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin) (PCKK)
The Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ)
The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ)
The Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS)
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland (RPCI)
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA)
The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

According to the OPC’s rules for ecclesiastical relationships:

Ecclesiastical Fellowship is a relationship in which the churches involved are Reformed in their confessional standards, church order and life though there may be such differences between them that union is not possible at this time and there might be considerable need for mutual concern and admonition. It is to be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of fraternal delegates at major assemblies
Occasional pulpit fellowship (by local option)
Intercommunion, including ready reception of each other’s members at the Lord’s Supper but not excluding suitable inquiries upon requested transfer of membership, as regulated by each session (consistory)
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the fellowship
The exercise of mutual concern and admonition with a view to promoting Christian unity
Agreement to respect the procedures of discipline and pastoral concern of one another
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the major assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Runner up to ecclesiastical fellowship is a corresponding relationship, an OPC category into which eleven churches fall:

The Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Free Church of Scotland Continuing
The Free Reformed Churches of North America
The Heritage Reformed Congregations
Independent Reformed Church in Korea
The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated)
The Presbyterian Church of Brazil
The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
The Presbyterian Church in Japan
The Bible Presbyterian Church
The Reformed Churches of South Africa

According to the rule book, a corresponding relationship is one in which:

. . . mutual contact with another church is undertaken to become better acquainted with one another with a view towards entering into Ecclesiastical Fellowship at some time in the not-too-distant future. It shall be implemented where possible and desirable by:

Exchange of official representatives at major assemblies
Joint action in areas of common responsibility
Consultation on issues of joint concern, particularly before instituting changes in polity, doctrine, or practice that might alter the basis of the relation
Exchange of Minutes (Acts) of the broadest assemblies
Exchange of denominational church directories (yearbooks)
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the confessional standards
Exchange of the most recently published edition of the (Book or Manual of) Church Order
Exchange of the most recent denominationally published edition of hymnals or Psalters

Finally, the last level of relationship is ecumenical contact and the OPC puts ten churches into this category:

Confessing Reformed Church in Congo
Presbyterian Free Church of India
Free Church in Southern Africa
Free Reformed Churches in South Africa
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi Calvinis
Gereja-Gereja Reformasi di Indonesia
Reformed Churches of Brazil
Reformed Churches of Spain
Reformed Presbyterian Church of India
Reformed Presbyterian Church North-East India

An ecumenical contact is a status reserved or denominations that belong to the International Council of Reformed Churches and .reflects an effort to follow the ICRC’s stated d purpose, “to encourage the fullest ecclesiastical fellowship among the member churches.”

It shall be implemented, as appropriate, by:

Meetings, both formal and informal, of delegates to the quadrennial meeting of the Conference
Welcome of official observers at the broadest assemblies
Communication on issues of joint concern
Mutual labors as members of the Conference in discharge of the purposes of the Conference

A couple of matters are worth highlighting about these lists and terms: 1) The OPC is often characterized as narrow and idiosyncratic but her ecclesiastical relationships extend well beyond the United States and (even) North America to places which U.S. parachurch agencies and alliances have no presence. 2) The list and definitions extend not to celebrity pastors but to actual churches.

All the more reason to associate the word, “reformed,” with another word, “church.” Without church, reformed makes no sense.

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30 thoughts on “Alliances, Ecumencity, and Being Reformed

  1. Dr. Hart,

    I am confused here, where are the Reformed Baptists? And for goodness sake, the Lutherans?! 36 communions might be impressive, but without the endorsement of Acts 29 and Desiring God how can the OPC improve its street cred? Maybe a joint commission with Insert Hip Christian Association Here on the approval of all the cultural issues that are pertinent to the transformation of society would be a good place to start.

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  2. Can I ask a couple of practical questions?
    If a member of the Free Church of Scotland were visiting America and showed up on a Comnunion Sunday, does the above mean that he/she would be welcomed to the table on the basis of declaring membership in that communion but if, say, a member of the Free Church of Scotland Continuing showed up, he/she wouldn’t?

    Second, if a member of a church in Ecclesiastical Relationship wished to transfer membership into the OPC, as long as inquiries showed he/she was a member in good standing, would he/she have to go through a process of catechism to become a member?

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  3. Jed:

    The OPC shed street cred when it came out of the old PCUSA. This is implication and application of the famous words of J.G. Machen: “members, at last, of a true Presbyterian Church.” The constituting words of the OPC are that it is “true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.”

    both statements can be found in Presbyterian Guardian at
    http://www.opc.org/cfh/guardian/Volume_2/1936-06-22.pdf

    At least, that’s one interpretation of the OPC’s identity: not mainline, but counter-cultural in the broad sense, not the 1960’s/1970’s leftist/hippie sense.

    Dangerous to make a historical call on DGH’s blog, but there you go.

    -=Cris=-

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  4. Alexander:
    Yes, that member could take communion. If that person continued to attend the OPC with no intent to go back to the Free Church, the member would (should?) be encouraged to become a member of the OPC.

    On the second question, I think requiring some kind of catechetical (sp?) process would be inconsistent with the gist of what it means to accept a transfer. A session shouldn’t require it, and I doubt many, if any, do.

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  5. Yeah, Cris, I keep on telling a local PCUSA congregation that we are the true Presbyterian Church, so they need to give us their majestic building – the one with stained glass more valuable than our entire building. But apparently they don’t read a lot of Machen, so they aren’t convinced.

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  6. Alexander: I think the answer to the first question is members of either Free Church would be “allowed” to take communion because the general stance in the OPC is a verbal fencing and invitation. Folks who are (already) communicant members in good standing of an evangelical or reformed church are invited to celebrate the Supper. There may be some variation on how that’s said, but there is, as far as I know, no reference to a master list, approved list, of acceptable or allowed church communions. In practice nothing is said to place members from the Corresponding relationship in a different light or category from those from ecclesiastical fellowship. And certainly nothing is said to imply a Lutheran or other is not welcome. The visitor is left to examine his own heart, his own definition of the invitation terms, and participate or not.

    I don’t think transfer of membership is as uniform across the OPC. I’m a brand new stated clerk ( since April). I’ve already discovered there’s variety in handling of communicant member transfers with different PCA congregations. One (rather large) PCA church did not want me to send a letter requesting them to receive a member from us. The person has to go thru a 12-week members class, after which, presumably, they contact me regarding status and I assume transfer. Another PCA church did simple exchange of letters and acknowledgments and so they joined us, or they joined that PCA church by transfer, not profession or reaffirmation of faith.

    If large PCA church insists a communicant member of my church is only received by profession or reaffirmation, I would take very poorly, shall we say.

    Would like to hear from other clerks familiar with the ins/outs of membership migrations. It’s not something I’ve paid a lot of attention to in the past.

    -=Cris=-

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  7. Michael: [chuckle].

    In seriousness, that was a huge thing at the beginning of the OPC. We all know that huge numbers did not leave the old church and join with the OPC. What we heard at the 75th anniversary GA was that only 3 churches came out with the property in 1936. And the 3rd counts only after the legal wrangling was resolved after close to 10 years. So you might see that 2 out of 48 kept their property or 3 out of 48 (or was it 43?).

    Also learned Church Planters were sent out with promise of 3 months salary of $100.00 for a married man and $50 for a single man – and many never got that full amount from the new denomination.

    I think many voted with their wallets or pensions to stay in the PCUSA (cough)(Clarence McCartney)(cough)

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  8. Cris, I see two prominent principles in receiving a member by transfer. The first is the power of a session over its membership. The second is the principle of ecumenicity.

    The principle of ecumenicity is embedded in the fact that we receive some members by transfer rather than treating them as outsiders to the Church of Christ. The OPC does require a public profession of those from churches of “like faith and practice,” but prefaces that profession with something like the following:

    “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, we thank our God for the grace that was given you, in that you have accepted God’s promise of salvation and publicly confessed your faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ. We praise him that he brought you into communicant membership in a church of like faith and practice with this congregation. We rejoice that God, in his gracious providence, has now brought you here and given you a desire to unite with us, and that your former church has committed you to our fellowship and oversight. We ask that you testify before us to the faith that you profess by giving assent to the following questions.”

    The inclusion of this introduction is important. It recognizes the validity of the person’s prior profession and, I think, makes this new profession more akin to edification for the congregation than a disdain for any prior denomination. It is also important that the new member affirm the particular elements of the OPC profession.

    Getting back to the issue of whether this new member should have to go through some kind of introductory class, I think the principle of ecumenicity requires that we do not treat the one coming from a “church of like faith and practice” as if they had been previously unchurched. Normally, it is sufficient for the session to talk with the membership applicant. If, for whatever reason, the prospective member is extremely problematic in some regard, the principle of sessional authority may become more prominent so more extensive instruction may be in order.

    The principle of ecumenicity (consistent with the above supplied by dgh) also affects our church planting, or at least it should. Several times I have heard presbyters inquire as to the level of contact and cooperation with other area churches of like faith and practice when there is an OPC congregation being planted. I believe a committee uniformly considers that issue prior to those questions from the floor. I realize someone may have an anecdote to the contrary, but this is the way it should go.

    As for the nuts and bolts of receiving members, sometimes OPC procedure doesn’t perfectly mesh with that of the former denomination. In those cases there has to be communication with the former church to somehow make it happen.

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  9. Cris,

    The OPC shed street cred when it came out of the old PCUSA.

    Au Contraire, through all the failed humor of my initial comment, I think this is where the OPC earned its ‘street cred’, in terms of historically Reformed credibility. As a member of a PCA church, I certainly respect the reputation that the OPC has made for itself as distinct from other evangelical denoms.

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  10. Jed – I meant hipster street cred, or the “cool factor” that is attributed to some evangelical celebrities or celebrity churches. If the OPC is appreciated for its attempt to be faithful to Scripture in theology and practice, that’s good to hear. I just don’t want to sound like I’m patting myself on my back (patting my denomination on its collective back) in some self-congratulating way.

    Michael – good points. We do re-ask the membership questions publicly even when receiving someone by letter of transfer – the new member and the rest of the congregation are thus mutually reminded of their common, shared commitments to one another and the Lord.

    -=Cris=-

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  11. Jed, we were hoping that Mark Driscoll might be the fraternal delegate from Acts 29 or Gospel Coalition or Redeemer City to City — so many parachurch organizations, so few celebrities — but the OPC apparently does not have a category for such “ministries.”

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  12. Alexander, most OP congregations where I have worshiped would allow anyone who is baptized and a member of a gospel preaching communion to partake of the Lord’s Supper. That includes the Free Church (continuing or remaining), Lutherans, and Baptists. When it comes to membership, a person in a communion in an ecclesiastical relationship would be able to transfer by a simple letter from the person’s session or consistory instead of having to reaffirm their faith.

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  13. Was it geeky of me to speak so fondly about procedure? Yeah, probably.

    On the other hand, I could also sing the praises of Roberts Rules, move to amend other postings, offer perfections, and seek common consent if you ask nicely.

    Good order is so, so cool.

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  14. Darryl, have you looked at the DPW lately? There are some changes. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe my above description is accurate .

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  15. Never mind – you correctly said they don’t re-affirm. They do profess now, and that’s what I was thinking.

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  16. DGH,

    Jed, we were hoping that Mark Driscoll might be the fraternal delegate from Acts 29 or Gospel Coalition or Redeemer City to City

    Your disappointment is so palpable I can almost feel it here on the west coast. I can’t feel it though because I gave up “feelings” upon becoming a Presbyterian.

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  17. Jed, as sarcastic as my comment may have seemed, one of my great disappointments at GA was that the original fraternal delegate from the PCA — Craig Higgins — was not able to speak. GA finished early and so the scheduled time for Craig came after adjournment. Craig, in case you don’t know, is pastor of one of the Redeemer NYC daughter churches, provided refuge for Pete Enns as a scholar-in-residence, and has tried to fashion a hybrid Presbyterianism that is less critical of Rome and its churchly practices. It was an odd choice for a fraternal delegate, and the occasion of the 75th made the selection even odder. But I would have loved to know what he was going to say on behalf of the PCA. (My great prize in the memorabilia contests is owning Higgins’ unused name tag.)

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  18. DGH,

    Interesting, I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall when Higgins spoke. How does the OPC set the agenda for fraternal delegates addresses to the GA? I am very curious as to how Higgins name came up, much less was selected. Would there have been any discussion between OPC representatives and Higgins on an official capacity? Any comments regarding some of his more questionable practices?

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  19. Jed, it’s up to the fraternal communions to send their delegates, so the OPC has no say in who comes. Our only rule is that a fraternal delegate only gets 10 minutes, then the booby hatch opens up and the next delegate speaks.

    I wonder if Higgins drew the short straw.

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  20. For a couple weeks I’ll have no computer, no television, and no cell phone coverage. I’ll be face-to-face with all the people in my life, except for a few guys like Blind Lemon, Blind Willie, Leadbelly, and Lightnin.’

    Otherwise, the sounds I hear will be the lake lapping the shore, children shouting as they jump off the pier and ducks who will alternate between scolding us and begging for bread.

    At least that’s what I’d like to think. Realistically, there will also be kids screaming about random acts of violence among themselves. But I’m really good at ignoring that stuff on vacation; the parental court will only prosecute familial felonies; sibling justice will be the law on all misdemeanors.

    So, if I don’t respond to something that’s why.

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  21. Dr. Hart –

    Good points about the lack of ecumincal ties to parachurch organizations. How can a denomination have “ecclesiastical” ties to an entity that isn’t a church? And I agree that it’s hard to separate the terms “Reformed” and “church.” Seems illogical to pair Reformed with any other term, including individuals.

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  22. Let me get this straight, Darryl… you’re swiping unused name tags from OPC GA? I don’t want to know what else you have in your collection.

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  23. From the perspective of the pew, I’m not sure that such fraternal relations mean much of anything.

    I will convey two examples.

    About 10 years ago, I spent a year working as a visiting scientist at a Midwestern university. I was a member in good standing of an OPC church. In this town, there were several CRC churches and an RPCNA. I opted for the RPCNA church. When I attempted to take communion at the RPCNA church, I was denied. I attended a very good PCUSA church (now an EP church) for the remainder of the year.

    Currently, I am working for several years in a mid-sized Southern city. I am still a member in good standing of an OPC church. My local PCA church does allow me to take communion. But they will not allow me to transfer membership because I will not agree to join a small-group Bible study. (Apparently, that’s a requirement of membership in the PCA?) To avoid this silliness, I have again fled to a PCUSA church (whose preaching is surprisingly more orthodox and less namby-pamby moralistic than the preaching at the PCA church.

    Maybe I should give up and just join the PCUSA. 🙂

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  24. Sorry to jump in so late, I’ve been experiencing serve bouts of vertigo the last two 1/2 weeks, I’ve been barely posting on my own blog.

    I was surprised to read that PCA sent a delegate, after all.

    Day 2 of 39th GA of the PCA

    2:00 p.m. – We heard the report of the Interchurch Relations Committee. This included hearing from representatives of other churches such as the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, the Reformed Church of Quebec, and the OPC. The last is particularly interesting because, in spite of the diligent efforts of our Stated Clerk, we were unable to find someone to represent us at the OPC’s General Assembly.

    http://www.weswhite.net/2011/06/day-2-of-the-39th-general-assembly-of-the-pca/

    PCA must of have decided to send a delegate Post their GA

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  25. From the linked PCA GA notes:

    “It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly
    6 men and women of the congregation, to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the 7 widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need. These 8 assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church (BCO 7-2) and, as such, are not 9 subjects for ordination (BCO 17).”

    I love how footnotes transform the BCO into an allegory with bad math.

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