by John M. Frame
Note (2007): This paper was published in New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, (June-July, 1989). In 1986, the OPC General Assembly had rejected an opportunity to unite with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I and others were disappointed with this action, and some of us (including some congregations) left the OPC (with permission of their presbyteries) to join the PCA. Some OPC people believed that this sort of “realignment” was unbiblical. Below I make the biblical case in favor of realignment. This paper can be read together with my 1991 book Evangelical Reunion and my paper “Guidelines for Church Union,” both available at this web site.
On Jan. 15 of this year, New Life Presbyterian Church (OPC) of Escondido, California, took its second and deciding vote to leave the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for the Presbyterian Church in America. I serve on the session of that congregation. Our reason was as follows: Our congregation has gifts from God, a strategic location, a burden and, we believe, a calling, to plant churches in San Diego County. For various reasons (space precludes details) most of the more gifted potential church planters in this area have preferred to work in the PCA rather than in the OPC. Thus we believed that we had good reason, indeed a divine mandate of sorts, to switch denominations.
For this decision we have endured much criticism. Words like “disloyalty,” “betrayal,” “abandonment,” even “schism” have been used to characterize our action. Nevertheless, I believe that our decision can be justified biblically.
The term “schismatic” was used in the early centuries of the church to describe groups such as the Novatians and the Donatists who rejected the government of the one true church to begin their own “churches,” in effect, the first denominations. Jesus Christ had established a single church, one in organization as well as spirit. To break away from that body was to despise the leaders God had provided, rather than to “obey” them as scripture required (Heb. 13:17). Schismatics were people who wanted to obey only the leaders of their own party (cf. I Cor. 1:10-17, 3:1-23). They wanted to be their own bosses.
On the other hand, there was evidently no problem at all, in the NT period and later, when people wished to move from one part of the church to another. Priscilla, Aquila, Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Mark and many others often moved from place to place in their missionary labors. Though there were some sad partings (as Acts 20:36-38), the missionaries moved on to spread the word.
Now today we live in a rather different situation. The church today is not organizationally one as in the first centuries, but is divided into many denominations. Often today, in order to “move from one part of the church to another,” i.e., to work with other groups of Christians and benefit from their gifts, we must cross denominational barriers. That is how it is in our case. We want to work with some Christians who have developed an effective vision and plan for church planting; but we cannot work closely with them without crossing a denominational barrier. Is that “schism,” or is it merely “moving from one part of the church to another?”
In some cases, such a move might be schismatic. Even today, it is possible that a church might want to switch denominations because of contempt for the government of his own denomination. Sometimes churches leave denominations and either become independent or start their own new denominations out of little more than a prideful desire to be their own bosses.
On the other hand, there are many situations where changing denominations is clearly not sinful. Church members often transfer from OPC to PCA and vice versa for many reasons: geography, better use of gifts, etc. Ministers of the one group have often accepted calls to the other group in order to follow God’s calling and to make best use of their God-given gifts. When individuals make such transfers, no one ever seems to complain that they are being “schismatic,” “disloyal” or whatever. It is well understood that these people are simply “moving from one part of the church to another” even though such a move involves crossing a denominational barrier.
But when a congregation moves, the response is often very different. People in the original denomination sometimes get very critical, even angry. But why should congregations be any different from individuals? Congregations, like individuals, have God-given gifts and God-given callings.
I honestly believe that New Life’s action is not motivated by any contempt for the government of the OPC. Our action is provided for in the OPC Form of Government, and we are following that provision very carefully. In the very act of withdrawal, we are seeking to be subject to our OPC brethren. We have no desire for autonomy, to be our own bosses; on the contrary, we are joining another Presbyterian denomination which, just like the OPC, requires obedience to its standards and to its courts. Indeed, we have no real desire to be apart from our OPC brethren. Our fondest wish is that one day that denominational barrier (which, I believe, exists contrary to God’s will) will be gone, and we will all be together in a united church. But until that happens, we must, in order to profit from the gifts of God’s people in the other body, cross that barrier from time to time. But this is nothing more than “moving from one part of the church to another.”
I earnestly hope that we will learn to take that denominational barrier less and less seriously until it disappears altogether. Certainly you who stay in the OPC have no right, in the absence of compelling evidence, to judge the motives of those who wish to cross that barrier. Let God’s word temper your initial emotional reactions. There is no need at all for realignment to cause bitterness between us. We continue to love you, and we treasure your love and faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray that that love and respect will be mutual.