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Church according to the Bible


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Presbyterians gather in Memphis, TN for the 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America

Members of the Presbyterian Church in America at the 50th General Assembly in Memphis, TN Zoe Miller

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A golden anniversary.

Fifty years ago, the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, split off from the mainline Presbyterian church. Leaders in the movement created the new denomination with the goal that the church would remain faithful to the scriptures and reformed faith.

REICHARD: What was behind the split, and where is the PCA now? WORLD Associate Correspondent Zoe Miller fills us in.

ZOE MILLER, REPORTER: On December 4th, 1973, a small group of Presbyterian churchmen gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, for their first official meeting as a new denomination.

AUDIO: [1973 GA]

They had been concerned with how the Presbyterian Church of the United States—or PCUS—was shifting theologically. Here’s ruling elder Jack Williamson at that first General Assembly in 1973.

JACK WILLIAMSON: But her greatest deviation from her historic witness has been in her attitude toward the scriptures. The true church of the Lord Jesus Christ belongs to those who by the grace of God are faithful to the scripture.

As far back as the 1930s, some members of the PCUS were concerned with the church’s direction. But it wasn’t until 1965 that more Presbyterians started to catch on to the theological error in their churches.

Dr. Nick Willborn is a PCA pastor, seminary professor, and historian.

NICK WILLBORN: The issues that were on the table in the 1950s, and particularly as they matured in the sixties, those issues, everything from what is the Bible? How are we supposed to read the Bible?

The PCUS no longer required belief in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Instead, they saw it as a helpful guide to a religious life. The PCA’s founders opposed that view.

WILLBORN: They were very concerned that the seminaries were not teaching the right view of the Bible that was coming out into the churches.

The PCUS also began to identify the church’s work as supporting social movements of the day.

The conservatives felt that they needed to respond. They formed a group called “Concerned Presbyterians.” They issued literature on biblical orthodoxy and gathered to discuss a path back to the faith their church once held. Conservative laymen founded Reformed Theological Seminary as an alternative to the official seminaries. Their goal at the time was to shepherd the PCUS back into a state of Biblical faithfulness.

But in the end, they felt the only option was to separate.

In 1972, the PCUS established the General Executive Board, a body that exercised control over the entire church, down to each individual minister.

WILLBORN: So all of a sudden, this is hierarchy, this bureaucratic hierarchy has just taken control. That's when they realized they didn't have any, a Presbyterian church any longer in which they could function.

WILLIAMSON: We do so with tears, not with drums playing or flags flying. We go in humility at the task God has set before us.

The small group of conservative Presbyterians decided that there was no way forward with their mother church.

WILLIAMSON: Separation is the price for the principle. It has caused division and been heart wrending. It is only with much prayer and sorrow that we concluded that we had to separate.

When the PCA left the PCUS, they were forced to leave much of their money and many of their historic church buildings behind. But the founders decided that a body dedicated to the worship of Christ was worth it.

Though they united around biblical fidelity, the founders of the PCA held diverse views…so they had some initial differences about what the denomination should look like. Early on, issues hinged on whether the PCA would be a Reformed denomination with strict doctrinal and worship standards…or a denomination with more general standards. Those initial disagreements are still reflected even today as the PCA debates issues like women’s roles in corporate worship and human sexuality.

WILLBORN: We've had through our history in the PCA, a number of these areas where we agree at some very basic levels.

But then we've come to realize through the years, and this is what our general assemblies tend to circle around, are those areas where we're like, whoa, whoa, wait, we don't agree on this.


In recent years, the PCA has struggled to clarify an official position on pastors who are gay and celibate. This year’s General Assembly will vote on an amendment that would ban ministers who embrace a gay identity - or other sins.

WILLBORN: We should uphold the purity of the church. And out of that we can have a biblical peace, not just a peace, peace, when there is no peace.

Dr. O Palmer Robertson is one of the PCA’s founding fathers. He was one of the featured speakers at the very first PCA General Assembly in 1973.

ROBERTSON: The primary standard, and if we're ever going to have peace in the PCA, if we're ever going to come in perfect unity, it is on the basis of what does the Bible teach?

This week at its 50th General Assembly, Robertson reminded the PCA about the reasons for its founding: Staying faithful to the word of God.

ROBERTSON: We know of the painful remnants of sin that are within us as individuals and as a body. How can we possibly aspire to present the church, the PCA, to Jesus Christ as a pure virgin? My brothers and sisters, don't forget the power of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

Echoing that idea, fifty years ago, founder Jack Williamson says that all churches are bound to serve Christ.

WILLIAMSON: The Church must not claim our first loyalty - Christ has our first loyalty. And when the Lord Jesus Christ ceases to be Lord over an organization, it can no longer have our loyalty.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Zoe Miller in Memphis, Tennessee.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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