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.