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First Quarter 2008
Church Life in a
Large Family
By Dr. Roy Taylor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Roy Taylor is the Stated Clerk of the PCA. He presented this material at the September 2006 Christian Education and Publications Women in the Church Conference in Atlanta. We asked him to adopt it for Equip to Disciple as part of its ongoing feature on the church.

The Kyzer family reunion was an impressive experience for me as an eight-year-old child. My mother’s side of the family, the German side, had gathered at a park in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a picnic and reminiscences. I knew I had a lot of cousins, sixteen to be exact; but at that gathering I began to realize my family was much larger than I had previously thought, with four generations of people who looked, thought, and behaved like each other to varying degrees. Then, when there was talk of ancestors long dead, I knew I came from an even larger family with deep roots.

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the second largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA and relatively young as far as denominations go, begun in 1973. Overall, Presbyterians are a small minority of Christians in America. We need to realize, however, that we are part of something bigger than we usually think.

Our church family has deep roots, not only back to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, but back to the early church and even into the Old Testament era as well. It is our understanding from Scripture that the church is composed of all the people whom God has chosen to call unto Himself. Our Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.”1 The church then is not just New Testament believers only, but all who are saved by Christ, both before and after Christ’s incarnation and redemption.2 Key biblical texts on this issue are Romans 4 and Galatians 3 where the Scriptures teach that all believers (both Old and New Testaments) are justified by faith alone in God’s Anointed Redeemer and that all who trust in Christ are spiritual descendants of Abraham. This deep-roots understanding of the church has several significant implications. It is why we prefer to speak of a “biblical church,” spanning and based upon both Old and New Testament, scriptures rather than a “New Testament church,” not beginning until the New Testament and based on New Testament scriptures only. This means that the whole Bible, not just the New Testament, is for us. Covenant Theology may simply, perhaps simplistically, be expressed by the statement, “In the Old Testament, God was faithful to his people as families, not just as individuals; in the New Testament God is still faithful to his people as families, not just as individuals.” That is why we practice covenant baptism of our children. Moreover, we see continuity between the Passover of the Old Testament and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. So, the rites of our family have deep roots.

We call ourselves “Presbyterians” because we have a representative and connectional form of church government in a church governed by elders (presbuteroi). Collegial leadership by a plurality of elders began in the days of Moses (Numbers 11), was enhanced in the synagogue movement beginning in the sixth century BC, continued in the New Testament (Acts 14:23) as the apostolic practice, continued until the mid-second century AD, and was restored by John Calvin and John Knox in the Reformation of the sixteenth century.3 So the system by which our family is managed has deep roots both biblically and historically.

Just as there are strong physical resemblances in extended families, there are certain beliefs held by all branches of the Christian family. These common beliefs are expressed in such ancient creeds as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. When we confess our faith in common worship by affirming these creeds in congregational unison, we are confessing the beliefs of the extended family for millennia.

All families have illustrious members and black sheep, members of whom we are rather proud and others we would prefer not to discuss. The visible church has always been a mixture of true and false professors, truth and error. Our family did not begin in the sixteenth century Reformation. Our deep-roots view of the church means that all of the history of the church is our family’s story. We may proudly claim church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Tertullian, Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius, and others as “our folks.” Since the church has never been pristinely pure, as evinced by the errors and divisions Paul often addressed in his epistles, our family has had some heretics and rogues in our ranks over the millennia, which we sadly acknowledge. The church has to struggle in every generation to maintain purity of doctrine and holiness of living.

Not only does our family have deep roots, our family also has several separate branches. Though for a thousand years there were smaller and more short-lived divisions in the church, there was not a formal division until the Great Schism of A.D.1054 between the eastern and western churches. The eastern churches developed into the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the western churches developed into the Roman Catholic Church. Our spiritual predecessors were part of the western branch.

As the doctrinal aberrations and moral laxity increased over the years in the Western church, the Protestant Reformation came as a “tragic necessity” in the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Coming out of the Reformation several family clans developed, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican,4 and Anabaptist. Our branch of the family is the Reformed branch influenced by such leaders as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and Francis Turretin. Reformed folks affirm that God is actively sovereign, sin has adversely affected the entire human personality, the Bible is the supreme rule of what we believe and how we are to live, and God is gracious to His people as families from one generation to another, not simply to individuals. We are part of Evangelicalism (high view of Scripture, emphasis on individual conversion, evangelism, missions, etc.) that arose due to the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century and the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, the conservative side of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy between World War I and World War II, and the evangelical post World War II movement.

There have been disagreements and reconciliations that have occurred within our family over the years that resulted in several denominational-level divisions and reunions. In 1741, there was a division, the Old Side/ New Side controversy over the First Great Awakening; but a reunion took place in 1758. In 1837, there was a division over doctrinal subscription, the Old School, taking the firmer position. In 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States was formed when the Old School General Assembly required allegiance to the Federal Government of the United States. In 1865, the name of the Southern Church was changed to the Presbyterian Church in the United States; and the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri joined. The Southern Church was not as quickly affected by theological decline, laxity in discipline, and a trend toward a more hierarchal type of Presbyterian polity as was the Northern Church; but eventually, such unhealthy beliefs and practices took root. After several decades of ineffective efforts to counteract those trends, the PCUS conservatives faced a crossroads in the early 1970s. Some conservatives decided to remain in the PCUS to bear witness to evangelical truth. Others concluded that time, effort, and resources could be better channeled into positive efforts by forming a new denomination. The PCA founders “in much prayer and with great sorrow and mourning . . . concluded that to practice the principle of the purity of the Church” they “reluctantly accepted the necessity of separation” and severed their ties with their Mother Church “with deepest regret and sorrow.”5 The PCA could be rightly described as “reluctant and grieving separatists.”

Our convictions to preserve the purity of the church led us to separate ourselves from what we believed to be an irreparable situation from the human perspective. On the other hand, our theological convictions of the connectional nature of the church and Christ’s desire for visible unity compel us to seek union with other churches of the same doctrinal convictions and representative form of church government. Therefore, the PCA was involved in the formation of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council in 1975. For a time there was an effort to effect a four-way merger of the PCA, the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. The four-way merger did not come about, but there was a “Joining and Receiving” that took place in 1982 when the RPCES was received as a body into the PCA. The merger added churches in the Northeast, Midwest, and West to make the PCA a national denomination and added Canadian churches as well to make the PCA an international denomination. Meanwhile, with vigorous church planting efforts, the PCA continued to grow.

Just as some families have common recognizable physical characteristics and patterns of behavior, the PCA has its distinctives as well. Our brand of Presbyterianism has been called non-hierarchal Presbyterianism, democratic Presbyterianism, or grassroots Presbyterianism. Our connectionalism is spiritual. Our churches, presbyteries, and General Assembly are separate civil entities that voluntarily bind us together. We are bound together by three mutual commitments of Presbyterian connectionalism: Doctrinal Fidelity through a binding theological standard (Westminster Standards), Accountability through connectional church courts and discipline, and Cooperative Ministry (we should minister together and can accomplish more together than independently).

We seek to relate to other Presbyterian and Reformed churches, as well as to other Christians through various means. We are part of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council composed of Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in North America who hold to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. Early on, the PCA became part of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) composed of evangelical denominations, local churches, institutions, individuals, and ministries who subscribe to the NAE Evangelical Doctrinal Statement, representing the evangelical community in the USA. Through its participation in the NAE, the PCA has contacts with other evangelical Christian denominations, organizations, individuals, and ministries; shares in the mercy ministries of the World Relief Commission; participates in world evangelization; and has a greater voice and influence in civic engagement through the NAE Office of Governmental Affairs in Washington D.C. We are part of the World Reformed Fellowship (WRF) composed of evangelical denominations, local churches, institutions, individuals, and ministries who subscribe to the WRF doctrinal standards, forming a fellowship as a resourcing community for ministry worldwide. Moreover, many PCA local churches, individual members, officers, and ministers partner with other Christians in their own communities for evangelistic and mercy ministries through word and deed.

The Lord has richly blessed the PCA in its brief history with notable growth and an influence far beyond our relatively small size in comparison to the largest Protestant denominations in North America. We now have 76 Presbyteries, ±340,000 members, ±1,600 churches, ±100 campus ministries, and ±600 career missionaries. As far as denominations go, we have grown significantly. And so we remember our Lord’s words, “unto who much is given, much is required.”

As Christians we are part of the church universal that transcends denomination, class, culture, economic status, political persuasion, ethnic origin, gender, or any other distinction that separates people. We are part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” as we confess in the Nicene Creed. The church universal is the Body of Christ composed of all Christians. Christ promised that the church will eventually be triumphant, that the very gates of hell will give way to the gospel-bearing church (Matthew 16:18). That promise is to the church as a whole, not to any one single branch of it.

Each time we receive communion we are reminded of the present, broad extent of the Christian family, the church universal, the “one loaf,” “we who are many are one body” (I Corinthians 10:17); and we look forward with keen anticipation to the ultimate family reunion, the lavish banquet prophesied by Isaiah (Isaiah 25:6-12), the great feast promised by our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 13:29; 14:15; 22:16), the marriage supper of the Lamb envisioned by John (Revelation 19:7-10) to be celebrated when Christ returns. Think of it! As a Christian you are part of a huge family, not just a few hundred thousand, but billions of Christ’s people; not just part of some relatively recently established family, but one with a spiritual ancestry that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve; not some family that has little or no influence, but one that will successfully assault the gates of hell. May God give us grace to live and serve in accordance with the family name. . . Christian.

 

1 Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 25-1; see Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32).

2 Presbyterian-Reformed Christians believe that the Church includes believers of both the Old and New Testaments for several reasons: (1) Believers of both the Old and New Testaments have the same Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; (2) Believers of the both the Old and New Testaments have the same destiny – heaven; (3) Believers of the both the Old and New Testaments are saved on the same basis – the grace of God, and (4) Believers of the both the Old and New Testaments receive eternal life by the same instrumentality – faith. See also WCF 7-5 on the administration Of God’s Covenant with Man in the Old Testament and New Testament being one covenant of grace differently administered. For a fuller discussion of the continuity of the Church from Old Testament into the New Testament see my comments in Who Runs the Church: Four Views on Church Government. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. Steven B Cowan, editor.

3 For a well-documented essay on the assertion that the early church until mid-second century was led by elders see J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 181-269. Lightfoot, a New Testament and Patristics scholar at Cambridge University, later became Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. For an explanation of the historical factors that led to the development of Episcopal church government see my comments in Who Runs the Church: Four Views on Church, 86-90.

4 Some Anglicans consider themselves “Reformed Catholics,” others regard themselves a definitely Protestant with Lutheran or Reformed theological positions.

5 This is evinced in the “Message to All Churches” adopted by the First General Assembly (see Minutes of the 1st General Assembly, 1973, pp.40-42).

 

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