The RPCUS provides an interesting case study for our view of the holy catholic church, for here we have a break-away denomination zealous for orthodoxy, which yet seems to have avoided at least two of the fatal errors made by groups like the FORC & CREC: namely, they have a confession with teeth, and they are not self-ordained. However, appearances can be deceptive.
The magazine Counsel of Chalcedon wrote up what had just happened: Rev. Joe Morecraft’s congregation voted to secede from the PCA. It was 1983, plus or minus. The threat was that Presbytery was going to move in, expel the Session, and seize direct control of the church. It had already happened to another church, they said. It might could be resisted by appeal and complaint, but that would likely cost two years — and who has two years for stuff like that? Better just to part ways now.
Three decades later, I am bursting with questions.
- Did Presbytery have some valid concerns, even if mingled with impure elements?
- Did Chalcedon go to the mats defending the “other church” that was allegedly pirated? Did she enter negative votes into the minutes, and lodge complaints and appeals? Or was it just a tut-tutting on the sidelines? It seems like the people that were there have no idea what the answer is, nor any recollection of ever knowing: meaning this aspect was not considered important one way or the other.
- If the bad stuff could have been fended off for two years, possibly at the end of which time things would have been permanently settled for the good (and if not, the vote to secede could still have taken place), what is so bad about Presbyterian justice taking two years? What’s two years in the life of the church, if an important precedent can be set? Or even, if one might develop a little patience through the ordeal, while doing one’s duty as a churchman?
- Finally, was there no other denomination in Christendom that Chalcedon could have realigned with? For example: was the OPC so out of bounds?
The OPC itself might be criticized along similar lines, for not having attached to, say, the PCUS in 1936. However, there is also an important difference. Machen and those that stood alongside him for orthodoxy were kicked out; they did not leave. Since their consciences were clear before God, despite the earthly verdict, they could (and did) model their action as simply continuing the church they had always been in, rather than realigning. So one can think of the OPC as the northern Presbyterian church, continuing. It is not possible to think of Chalcedon as the southern Presbyterian church, continuing. You have to first act like a Presbyterian to get that consideration.
Perhaps the “issue” was that the OPC has history devolving from the northern church, while Chalcedon prides itself on its southern heritage. The RPCUS views itself as a “denomination in the great tradition of Southern Presbyterianism,” it says on their webpage. Two comments should suffice here.
First, in a strange twist of history, the OPC follows an ecclesiology that is closer to Thornwell’s model, while the PCA one that is closer to Hodge’s. For example, the PCA has commissions; the OPC does not. So Chalcedon would have been “going south” by “going north” in that instance.
Second, the RPCUS is loudly, persistently, and prosecutorially anti-racist. This creates an embarrassment to their simultaneous extolling of Dabney and the rest of the Southern Presbyterians. Dabney opposed miscegenation. Dabney opposed predominantly white churches having negro elders. Today, some men in the RPCUS — perhaps all — say such views are, not just wrong, but a denial of the gospel.
Does this mean that they concede to his opponents that Dabney was an anti-Christ? Not exactly. They would not ordain him today if he still held those views. But with an audacity that is breath-taking, they think that Dabney, if today he came back from the dead, would be convicted by our enlightenment, and change his views! Whereas the reality is that that great sage would remind them that he predicted most of the debauchery that we see all around us — except that things are even worse than he predicted. In fact, in Dabney’s time there already existed well-dressed, articulate, religious men advocating the same racial philosophy extolled by the RPCUS: men known as the Abolitionists. Dabney was well aware of their philosophy, and opposed it self-consciously.
However, let’s keep on track. The point is, the RPCUS’s hysterical anti-racism would not be despised in the OPC, at least publicly. In at least one family of issues, RPCUS is closer to the northern view.
So far, I have shown that the origin of the RPCUS was un-Presbyterian, and the southern pretension is just that — a pretension. There was no good reason not to align with an existing denomination. Next, I will show that their specific, peculiar “zeal” for unity around orthodoxy paints the RPCUS into a corner from which there is no exit.
A Peculiar and Self-Defeating Concept of Being Confessional
In addition to the Westminster Confession (original form), all officer candidates must now affirm some half dozen additional postulates: rejection of public education, affirmation of theonomy, six day creation, post-millennialism, vantillianism, and maybe one or two other things such as nouthetic counseling. (Only four of these are discussed on the webpage; others have evidently been added since the webpage was updated.)
It should be mentioned in passing, that despite the conceit of “original confessionalism,” they are dogmatic that the Confession requires that it be permitted to sing hymns of human composition, if not that it requires them outright! A couple of psalm-singing pastors have grudgingly been admitted to the ranks of the RPCUS in the past, but they were kept in the basement with one leg shackled to the floor. Either this stance betrays willful ignorance of the Reformed Church’s position on this matter during the first two hundred years, or animus imponentis governs with a vengeance after all. The RPCUS are men that take their “original intent orthodoxy” very seriously, even when it is a figment of their own imagination.
However, let’s get back to the list of extras that elders must agree to.
Say I am a sheep overseen by five elders. One of them is not postmillennial. So the other four drive him off the Session. Now, how am I better off as a sheep?
I have yet to get an answer to that question that makes sense.
Same with vantillianism. I am of that school of thought. I’m even willing to say, that any pastor that is not vantillian today is either ignorant about modern philosophy, apathetic, or apostate. Naturally, we should give the judgment of charity and assume they are ignorant. But now, same question as above. By driving the non-vantillians off the Session, how am I better off as a sheep?
Mind you, I don’t argue for complete latitude here. Clarkians should be excluded from the eldership. I don’t regard Clarkism as a form of Christian thought. Its teaching can indeed do harm to the soul. It must be firmly resisted.
But the idea that a man following the epistemology of the successors of Rutherford and Gillespie cannot be ordained is simply going too far.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to apply this form of criticism to all the other distinctives that the RPCUS has set out for itself. (Six 24-hour day creationism adds another wrinkle: a characteristically Reformed smug rationalism. They [like everyone else] don’t know what time is. Yet they “know” what it means for the timeless God to act in 24-hour intervals.)
So far, the only answer to these questions I have been able to coax out of one bright defender of RPCUS praxis was this: we can require affirming these distinctives because they are true.
At a gut level, I’m pretty sure he nailed it. There is something nearly irresistible for a band of brothers to find something new to rally around: here, to find a new distinctive that they agree is true, and turn it into a requirement. We should expect another one to be added to the list every five years or so.
When you combine this principle of maximal truth affirmation with the easy separationism of its origin, it can easily be seen that the RPCUS is predestined to splinter again and again.
Say all the ministers on earth at one moment had parity of insight into the Scriptures. Then one day, one of them sees a little farther. But he can’t convince anyone else right away. So he should separate his church.
Why would that be wrong, if it’s okay for any subgroup of men to establish their maximal conjunction of true beliefs as a standard for admission? Doing so establishes the principle that those that are one step behind in the penetration of their vision through the fog may not be admitted. How does that differ from separating, once your vision extends yet a few feet further yet?
Perhaps it is worth backing up for a moment to reflect on what we can learn about proper confessionalism, using the evident errors of RPCUS as a foil. For, an a priori approach to such questions is not always necessary. Sometimes we “see” aspects of the truth by way of reaction from an empirical abuse.
1. Confessionalism makes but little sense for a single congregation. A single confessional congregation makes the same mistake as popery. Popery also has confessions. But no one need bother reading them, for the right way to interpret them will always ultimately come down from pope himself, unilaterally. Only in a “conciliar” context where free debate along historical-linguistic lines can take place is having a confession helpful.
2. Generally the promulgation of a confession has been either for the purpose of consolidating the de facto position of an existing settlement (as, the Augsburg, and the ecumenical creeds), or done for the purpose of authoritatively bringing about just such a consolidation (Westminster, though the intended consolidation failed). What confessionalism is decidedly not is simply some smart man hoisting a list of doctrines up the flagpole in the hope that individual congregations acting autonomously will flock over and attach for the sheer joy of seeing their already-formed opinions ratified. This model presupposes that the organic unity of the church is nominalistic because formed by acts of will of churches that were already properly constituted as floating individuals. The model suggests that organic connection is not essential, but simply “nice work if you can get it.”
3. The Confession should institutionalize a wide consensus that is already formed, in order to protect the boundaries, not give what some men find to be the best solution, in hopes the others will eventually come around. By separating themselves with an ever more comprehensive ring of pickets, the RPCUS cuts itself off from the ability to persuade others.
4. Ironically, the RPCUS high view of confessionalism ends up just as bankrupt, from the opposite direction, as that of the FORC & CREC, coming from a very low view. The main difference is that the founder of the RPCUS has a valid ordination, while that of the CREC does not. That is not a trivial difference of course. (There are additional defects of the CREC, both in their view of Confession and other matters, that do not apply to RPCUS.) However, our reflection leads us to yet another insight, namely, that ordination cannot be regarded as license to go off and form around oneself a new branch of the church. Ordination is (among other things) the organically-constituted church granting executive power to a man to speak and act in the name of the church so constituted. It is not the equivalent of getting an MBA, after which a man may either, as it suits him, join a corporation or start his own business.
Before leaving this last point, a quick comment on the RPCUS statement against Federal Vision is in order. In one sense, RPCUS should be praised for being the first to alert the world about the dangers of that heresy, as early as 2002. On the other hand, the very first thing they should have pointed out is that most of the men in that movement were not even part of the holy catholic church, let alone the “Reformed” branch thereof. Missing this point is further evidence that the RPCUS is not oriented toward thinking about such matters very prominently. The tendency is to simply jump to an abstract level, where doctrines are discussed amongst autonomous men of equal standing. For them, inclusion in the church is purely and solely determined by belief; there is no sacramental or signatory aspect that needs to be mentioned at all. The very rebuke of the FV heresy simultaneously reinforced those men in their adoption of an autonomy-principle that is outside the bounds of the catholic church.
What we learn from these insights is that confession-writing and confession-imposing only make sense in the context of the holy catholic church. (1) Write only that which the holy catholic church, in a legitimate settlement thereof, “ought” to subscribe to. This means that many hobby horses and idiosyncratic convictions should be left out, pending persuasion of the rest of the church, even if the current assembly could muster a majority vote to adopt. Doubtless, it takes great self-discipline to follow this when one has power. And one can always “have enough power” if one is allowed to reduce the circle of persuasion arbitrarily small — ultimately, a circle that includes only oneself. (2) Only write from the matrix of organic, pre-existing authority.
What is said about “writing” also applies to “adopting.” Adopting is a variant of writing.
The One and the Many
For these reasons also, it is utterly impossible even theoretically for the RPCUS to build up on a parish model. The constitutional principle is something other than “local Christians.” I understand that the OPC and indeed every denomination is vulnerable to this critique at some level. But there is a subtle yet looming difference. The OPC has always been hungry to establish principled fraternal relations to the maximum extent possible. The RPCUS has no such hunger. After all, they already have the maximal truth. The world should beat a path to their doorway. There is no reason to waste time looking around at all the stragglers.
A group like this will never be received into NAPARC, nor do they show the slightest bent of desire in that direction anyhow, despite the statement on ecumenicity on its web page.
I haven’t mentioned the fact that the congregation, drawn from such a large distance, will naturally tend to be drawn in terms of exactly the same distinctives required of officers, even if only officers must affirm them. Naturally, there will be exceptions. But they can only stay exceptions if either they are not very curious, or if there are other more powerful draws to compensate. The curious will eventually start making enquiries, and the distinctives will then either have to be covered up, or the member will need to start coming to terms with it; the ones that don’t accept the distinctives will start to feel the pressure to look elsewhere for something more in agreement, especially when they realize the distinctives are only shared by a half dozen other congregations, spread out across the continent. For others, family connections or friends or special interests (“I finally can trade notes with other home-schooling moms”) will trump the normal biographical development at this point.
I call this Confessionalism Type B. It is Confessionalism that has become anti-Confessionalism. I present it as my case example, as a scare-crow for the true church going forward.
A post-script for those in the RPCUS
None of these insights should be taken to lay a guilt trip on any current member. There is also something commendable about being drawn to a church that seems to “take a stand” for Jesus and the Bible. And in a nation of ecclesiastical scrambled eggs, the best thing for your soul, for a time, may be to be ministered to within a highly defective situation. There is a situational aspect even to churchmanship.
Likewise, nothing in this should be taken to offer shelter to anyone that might have left the RPCUS for improper reasons. Such persons (if there are any) might need to apologize and return, despite the problems outlined in this short essay.
There is culpability, but the degree of culpability varies widely from one individual to another, from zero to the maximum. Let everyone examine his own conscience!
Nevertheless, it also does not mean that things can go forward as they have been. The RPCUS needs to be disbanded, but not the congregations. Moreover, there is no need to realign “as a denomination.” The best solution may be different for different congregations. Instead, elders and laymen alike need to work on finding the best path back to a true church that is also well constituted. This will almost certainly require composing some kind of apology to the PCA for the manner of leaving, and also an apology to the OPC for not having tried in a humbler spirit to align with them before. Next, each congregation should vote, after doing proper diligence, on which denomination to align with.
The tendency, I know, is for men that have painted themselves into such a corner to become hopeless, and to let this hopelessness become masked by a cheerful martyr complex that justifies complacency. “They would never take us anyway.” Not even after a truthful exhibition of humility and teachableness? Of course, it also will do no one any good to go into another denomination with the full intent of behaving just as willfully as what led to the problem to begin with.
It won’t be easy nor something that happens overnight. It might be more like the two year process that was ducked out of at the beginning. This is the divine humor. We can’t really shirk, in the long run.