How Orthodox Presbyterians became PCA

Another way to supplement Chris Gordon’s post about the demise of confessionalism in the CRC and lessons for the PCA is to consider what happened to the OPC after the failure of union between the CRC and the OPC.

The merger that the OPC and CRC contemplated between 1956 and 1972 never took place but at roughly the same time that those negotiations died, the PCA was born and for the next twenty years became the chief player in ecclesiastical mergers-and-acquisitions. First the PCA acquired in 1982 the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (an earlier merger of revival-friendly Covenanters and dissident – read agreeable – Bible Presbyterians of the McIntire variety) and then the PCA almost in 1986 absorbed the OPC (a majority of Orthodox Presbyterians voted in favor but not by the two-thirds majority required for sending the plan to presbyteries for ratification). In the aftermath of that failed plan for Joining & Receiving, congregations in the OPC and PCA had the liberty to re-align if they chose. This was opening for a number of New Life churches (among them the Glenside congregation where Tim Keller learned the ways of New Life Presbyterianism) to join the PCA during the late 1980s.

Again, a piece of OPC history (self-promotion alert) that fills out Gordon’s observations:

In 1988 the effects of the OPC’s change of direction were still visible but not altogether clear. Again the church experienced a growth numerically, rising to 19,422 members but it also lost two more congregations to the PCA, one (New Life) in Philadelphia and one in Southern California. Only in 1989 did the OPC’s statistician start to notice these numerical changes as part of a “step backward.” That year was the peak of membership and congregational loss. The church’s total membership decreased by 3.5 percent to 18,689. [ed. no snickering] Meanwhile, five congregations transferred to the PCA, among them New Life in Escondido, California. This was the same year that the Assembly’s decisions about Bethel church took their toll. A majority of the Wheaton congregation (162 out of 301) left the OPC to form an independent congregation, which eventually affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In 1990 the “step backward” statistically lengthened. The OPC lost another 546 members and three congregations; among them New Life, Glenside, joined the PCA. Only by 1991 did the hemorrhaging stop and membership begin to rise again. In 1992 the OPC added 525 members and total membership increased to 18,767.

The movement of OPC congregations into the PCA was the occasion for a exchange between John M. Frame and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. in New Horizons on realignment at the same time that statistics were revealing the consequences of congregational transfers. It was a telling exchange because it revealed an important aspect of Orthodox Presbyterianism that after the semi-centennial was beginning to reassert itself within the life of the communion and causing sufficient discomfort for others to look for another denominational home. That characteristic of Orthodox Presbyterianism was the Reformed doctrine of the church in which membership in particular communion was not a supplement to Christian identity but its embodiment. As Gaffin explained in this exchange, the OPC was not merely a denomination; “it is a church, a church that exists by divine warrant.” As such, he added, “Biblical presbyterianism has no place for loyalties torn between the denomination and the local congregation, or for greater loyalty to either one.” In contrast, Frame, who was then an associate pastor of the New Life congregation in Escondido that had realigned with the PCA, explained that the reason for transferring was to partner more effectively with other church planting efforts in southern California. Denominational affiliations for him were at best accidental, at worst sinful. Either way, he hoped that denominational “barriers” would become less important and that Orthodox Presbyterians would understand that transferring to the PCA was not a sign of disloyalty or contempt. The move was simply practical.

Clearly, Frame did not see the switch to the PCA as the serious risk that Gaffin said it was. Gaffin believed such transfers were dangerous because they nurtured a mind set that increased divisions in the church, not along lines of biblical witness, but according to personal preferences or styles of ministry. As such, Gaffin was expressing a doctrine of the church that had deep roots in American Presbyterianism reaching back to Old School Presbyterianism and even to the Old Side Presbyterians of the colonial era. Frame, in contrast, was more typical of a view of the church characteristic of New School and New Side Presbyterians, where the formal work of ministry was supplemental to the religious endeavors of all believers. In other words, whether Frame or Gaffin acknowledged the history of American Presbyterianism in their reflections, they spoke volumes about Orthodox Presbyterianism and how it emerged and developed in relation to its Presbyterian past. Among the many convictions for which the OPC had stood historically, the doctrine of the church as part of biblical teaching and necessary for faithful witness was one of the hallmarks of Orthodox Presbyterianism. During the 1970s and 1980s that ecclesial conviction had begun to wane if only because it was not producing the size and influence that some Orthodox Presbyterians desired. But as the OPC began to take stock of its past, it also recovered one of its most noticeable features. Furthermore, just as that commitment to biblical Presbyterianism had been a source of frustration to Bible Presbyterians in the 1930s, neo-evangelicals in the 1940s, and more generally to Orthodox Presbyterians like Edwin H. Rian who had hoped the OPC would turn out to be a conservative version of culturally established and respectable Presbyterianism, so in the late 1980s as the OPC recovered its doctrine of the church some felt compelled to look for better, friendlier, or less restrictive expressions of American Presbyterianism than the OPC. (Between the Times, 316-18)

In other words, the consequences of Reformed ecumenism from the 1970s and 1980s were having consequences for all of the players — the CRC, OPC, and PCA. Where Presbyterians went, their forms of association, and their understand of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

Still Smokin'

In an effort to make back issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal available on-line, readers may be interested to see that volume one of the journal glorified newsletter has been added to our page of back issues. (Please beware that the PDF versions will not capture the original layout in WordPerfect.) To tempt readers to take a gander, here is an excerpt from the lead article, “Calvinism, Ethnicity, and Smoke,” from issue number 2.

Old School Presbyterians who grew up within or on the edges of American evangelicalism — we write autobiographically — generally came to regard the Christian Reformed Church with awe for her robust expressions of Reformed piety. To be sure, Dutch-American Calvinists were never completely spared the piety of fundamentalism. But it was always a fundamentalism with a difference. While they may have frowned on such worldly amusements as card-playing or the theater or the dance hall, they continued to drink and smoke. “Sin came from the heart, not the environment,” they generally insisted, and they were usually right. So when you walked into the Calvin College coffee shop twenty years ago, it was not coffee that you smelled, but the pervasive scent of burning tobacco. Then there was the habit of the elders of the Wheaton CRC who smoked on the church lawn after Sunday morning worship, conveniently applying a jolt of nicotine to bus loads of stunned evangelical college students who were returning from church and knew next to nothing about Dutch ways, let alone Calvinism.

This brazen dismissal of artificial morality seemed so, well, healthy. For between puffs these elders could readily produce sound and sophisticated theological arguments on Christian liberty, the true nature of Christian virtue, and serving God in all walks of life. Yes, healthy, and more than a bit intimidating. Mark Noll well described the shock of seeing professing Christians smoke for the first time in his life, when he traveled to Calvin College as a Wheaton basketball player for his team’s annual “ritualistic slaughter.”

SUCH NICOTINE-STAINED PIETY, however, rapidly seems to be becoming a thing of the past. Visiting teams no longer suffer the effects of second-hand smoke on their travels to Grand Rapids. Recently the oldest college of the CRC held a “Great Calvin Smoke-Out.” Anti-smoking support groups have been launched, and smoking is now prohibited in all buildings on campus. (Though our spies report that some faculty are quietly practicing civil disobedience in the privacy of their offices.)

The new CRC morality was on graphic display in the January 6, 1997 issue of the Banner. In its “Worldwide” news column, the Banner reported on the combined efforts of the American Cancer Society and the National Jewish Outreach Program to encourage Jews in converting Saturdays into “Smoke-Free Sabbaths.” We are not persuaded that the pleasures of smoking are forbidden on the Lord’s Day. Still we would pause to commend the Banner at least for recognizing the increasingly quaint principle that some things are inappropriate on the Sabbath.

The Limits of Theology and of Those Who Use It

Our favorite theonomic pastor in the Christian Reformed Church has ranted yet again on the infection he diagnoses as the “radical 2k virus.” The good pastor’s comments are useful for showing what the two-kingdom view actually says and does not say, and also for showing the inherent weakness of those who overrealize Christ’s Lordship in this life.

The pastor in question is responding specifically to the claim made here that the teaching of history should differ little if taught in a class at a secular university or a Christian college. The point being that the standards governing historical scholarship do not come from Scripture – since the Bible as little to say about the use of primary and secondary sources or about the polity of nation-states and the relations among them – but from organizations like the American Historical Association.

The really right reverend comments:

Can Darryl be so thick as to miss the decided difference between the Marxists Charles and Mary Beard teaching a survey of American History and a R. L. Dabney teaching a survey of American History? Darryl assumes his position and then goes on to act as if the standards of “secular” history proves his position. Talk about circular reasoning! What Darryl has forgotten is that Theology is the Queen of the Sciences. Biblical Christians would insist that History is but Theology clothed in a different discipline, but this is not the way Darryl reasons. For Darryl, Theology resides in the Church and each compartmentalized discipline is Lord over its own realm. Talk about creating sacred and profane realms. By Darryl’s standards a student could become a Marxist historian, complete with all that implies, and still be a Christian as long as he could navigate the gross contradiction.

A couple of points show how convoluted this reaction is. First, hello! Robert Louis Dabney was not a historian and simply being a theologian does not grant proficiency or expertise in every single academic discipline, secular vocation, or square inch (Kuyper even knew this). If it did, then theologians would function in western society the way Imams do in Islamic societies – that is, as interpreters of God’s word they have authority over everything. So, I would likely trust the Beard over Dabney on interpreting American history – though I might give Dabney extra credit on the South.

Second, why does being a Marxist invalidate one’s credentials as a historian? Why even some very good Christian historians such as Carl Trueman have been known to have affection for Marx and the usefulness of Marxist analysis not only for secular but also church history. Our CRC pastor is apparently aware that sometimes Christian historians apply the insights of Marx but rejects outright the compatibility of Christianity and Marxism.

So as in all good circular reasoning, what goes around comes around. We trust the Pastor will not become so dizzy about two-kingdom theology that his mind explodes. Here’s the trick: take two aspirin (get it?) and keep your theology in the appropriate kingdom.