This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in America, or the PCA. In order to celebrate, members from all the PCA churches in the Philadelphia Presbytery, including the Tenth Presbyterian Church, met this afternoon for a special worship service.
On this occasion, the words of Psalm 145 seem appropriate:
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation will commend your works to another;
they will tell of your mighty acts.
They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They will tell of the power of your awesome works,
and I will proclaim your great deeds (Ps. 145:3-6).
The psalm speaks of the necessity for each generation of the church to pass its faith on to the next generation. Christians must remember and repeat the mighty acts of God in history.
When the psalmist speaks of “mighty acts,” he especially means the acts of God in saving his people from sin and judgment, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is also a place for remembering and repeating what God has done in the life of an individual, or a family, or a church. So it is good for us to remember the faithfulness of God in the establishment and growth of the PCA.
The Presbyterian Church in America originated in the South. As early as the 1940’s, Reformation Christians became concerned that the gospel of Jesus Christ was no longer being clearly proclaimed in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). Over the years, a number of organizations were started to counter this growing theological liberalism. These organizations included a journal (The Presbyterian Journal, first published by Dr. L. Nelson Bell in 1942), an evangelistic society (Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship; Rev. Bill Hill; 1958), a lay renewal movement (Concerned Presbyterians; Kenneth Keyes; 1965), and an association of ministers (Presbyterian Churchmen United; Paul Settle; 1968).
Each of these organizations was committed to keeping the church faithful to God’s Word, steadfast in the doctrines of the Reformation, and obedient to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Among the liberal attitudes which concerned conservative presbyterians were the following:
1. The erosion and abandonment of central doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
2. A permissive attitude toward divorce.
3. The promotion of abortion on demand.
4. The widespread ordination of women to the office of elder.
5. A push for social action without an evangelistic commitment to turning people away from sin and towards Jesus Christ.
Behind all these issues, however, lay the issue which was really the issue: the authority of the Bible. Since the time of the Reformation, presbyterians had always affirmed the infallibility and inerrancy of the Old and New Testaments. The theological decline of the Southern Church began with its gradual departure from an orthodox doctrine of Scripture.
Despite these concerns, it was never anyone’s intention or desire to form a new denomination. For many years it was hoped that the denomination could be rescued through prayer and persuasion. But eventually it became clear that, humanly speaking, the purity of the Southern Presbyterian Church could not be recovered. In May of 1973, representatives from several hundred churches met for a “Convocation of Sessions” in Atlanta, Georgia.
At the convocation, Dr. Morton H. Smith called for “a genuine, biblically-based reformation in which we individually and as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ are continually reforming ourselves in accord with the Word of God.” In December the churches met again at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to form a new denomination, eventually called the Presbyterian Church in America.
Tenth Presbyterian Church did not officially join the PCA until 1982. But the issues which led to Tenth’s departure from the Northern Presbyterian Church (UPC) were similar, if not identical, to the issues which led to the formation of the PCA.
The United Presbyterian Church had begun to ordain ministers who denied the deity of Jesus Christ. It had also begun to force local congregations—against their wishes—to ordain women to the office of elder. Indeed, it was for this reason that our own presbytery initiated procedures intended to remove our elders from office, including our esteemed minister (Dr. James Montgomery Boice). In order to worship in a biblical, evangelical and Reformed church, it became necessary for Tenth to join a new denomination.
The reason for this history lesson is that where we have been tells us something about who we are. We are “People of the Book,” committed to reading, teaching, learning and obeying the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The gospel, understood according to the sound doctrines of the Reformation and preached for the salvation of sinners, is somewhere close to the heart of every activity that goes on in Tenth Presbyterian Church. And the Bible is somewhere close to the heart of every church in the PCA.
It is hard to know what the future will hold for our denomination. Some of the signs are extremely positive. We now have over a thousand missionaries serving worldwide, up from only 13 when the PCA began. As a result of planting new churches, we are still the fastest growing presbyterian denomination in the country, with more than 300,000 members in some 1300 churches.
Yet there are warning signs as well. The growth of the denomination has begun to slow, particularly when it comes to conversions, which is the kind of growth which matters of all. Some newer churches give the impression that they are less strongly committed to the core doctrines of the Reformation or to a distinctively biblical theology of worship. American culture is changing as well. There is more hostility to the message of salvation in Christ alone than there has ever been.
Given all these obstacles, it will be remarkable if there is as much to celebrate 25 years from now as there is today. The future of the PCA depends upon our prayerful reliance on God’s sovereign grace. If we will have anything to celebrate at all in days to come, it will not be because of what we have done; it will be to praise God for his mighty acts in the church.
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