How Orthodox Presbyterians Became PCA

Considering what happened to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) after the failure of union between the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the OPC.

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 understanding of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

 

Another way to supplement Chris Gordon’s post about the demise of confessionalism in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and lessons for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is to consider what happened to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (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 understanding of the church were factors in the witness they embraced.

  1. G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article is used with permission.