Dear Church Family,
Last week, I wrote about the birthday of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This week, marks another birthday of sorts. On December 4, 1973, 382 elders from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) gathered in Birmingham, AL to form a new, yet continuing Presbyterian denomination which came to be known as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Thus, this week marks the official 40th anniversary of our denomination.
It is good to remember and give thanks for who we are as a church and to remember our history. Paul G. Settle has written about the beginnings of our denomination in his essay, “The Presbyterian Church in America: A Brief History.” In answer to why these ministers sought to form a new denomination, Settle writes, “The answer is simple. They were there for the honor of Jesus Christ and the purity of His Church.” If you would like to learn more about the formation of the PCA, I commend this essay.
“Message to All Churches”
In that inaugural meeting of the PCA (originally called the “National Presbyterian Church”) forty years ago, those who gathered in Birmingham approved and published “A Message to All Churches.” The essence of that document has been summarized in what has become a descriptor of the PCA: “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, Obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.”
As Settle comments in the conclusion of his essay, “the PCA is not a perfect Church, but is a true Church of Jesus Christ.” As such, in our denomination there are unbelievable opportunities, as well as unbelievable challenges. Therefore, it is good for us to revisit and remember these three main core values of our denomination as they were put forth in that first message to all churches forty years ago.
Faithful to the Scriptures
Forty years ago, the founding fathers of the PCA made the following declaration,
First, we declare the basis of the authority for the Church. According to the Christian faith, the Bible is the Word of God written and carries the authority of its divine Author. We believe the Bible itself asserts that it has been given by inspiration, or, more literally, has been “God-breathed” (II Timothy 3:16). “No prophecy ever came by the will of man; but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). We declare, therefore, that the Bible is the very Word of God, so inspired in the whole and in all its parts, as in the original autographs, to be the inerrant Word of God. It is, therefore, the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.
In keeping with the motto of the of the Reformation, Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the church is always to be reformed”), the understanding and adherence to this declaration that the Word of God is the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice is an important one. The Church of Jesus Christ is in a constant war with enemies both within and without her walls. Thus, the Church must always be seeking to test, refine, and recommit her teaching, worship, and life – according to the Word of God.
The Bible as the Word of God has always been attacked by the non-Christian world. Yet, it has become increasingly popular for even some professing Christians and denominations to call into question the veracity of the Scriptures. Whether it be on the basis of scientific study, cultural development, or literary criticism, adherence to the Bible as the Word of God is perhaps a minority position in the world. Yet, it is one to which we must tenaciously hold if we are to remain faithful to the King of kings and Lord of lords.
True to the Reformed Faith
In keeping with our denomination’s declaration and adherence to the Word of God, the founding fathers of our particular branch of the Church of Jesus Christ also declared,
We declare also that we believe the system of doctrine found in God’s Word to be the system known as the Reformed Faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed Faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. It is our conviction that the Reformed faith is not sectarian, but an authentic and valid expression of Biblical Christianity. We believe it is our duty to seek fellowship and unity with all who profess this faith. We particularly wish to labor with other Christians committed to this theology.
It is unfortunate in our day that some Christians and denominations view the doctrines of the Reformed faith as set forth in the Westminster Standards as divisive or sectarian. Though obviously not infallible like the Scriptures are, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were originally written in the 1640s in an effort to unite the various Protestant Churches of England and Scotland and have become the confessional standards of many (Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian) churches throughout the world.
Again, there has been a growing suspicion of man-made creeds and confessions, not merely in the world, but even among professing Christians and denominations. To say that one has “no creed but the Bible” is to equate one’s personal interpretation of the Bible as the standard interpretation. But, as a confessional church, we receive and adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
Obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ
Finally, the elders at that first meeting forty years ago affirmed,
We declare that the ultimate purpose of the Church is to glorify God. We believe this includes giving top priority to Christ’s Great Commission. We reaffirm the substance of the position taken by the founding fathers of our former Church regarding the mission of the Church:
We desire distinctly and deliberately to inscribe on our Church’s banner, as she now unfurls it to the world, in immediate subservience to the authority of our Lord as Head and King of the Church His last command: ‘Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ We regard this as the great end of our organization, and obedience to it, as the indispensable condition of our Lord’s promised presence. It is the one great comprehensive objective, a proper conception of whose grandeur and magnitude is the only thing which, under the constraining love of Christ, can ever sufficiently arouse our energies and develop our resources so as to cause us to carry on with that vigor and efficiency, which true loyalty to our Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to our internal growth and prosperity at home.
In the recent history of the church – particularly in the 20th century – some professing Christians and denominations have muddied (or even completely disregarded) this Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. Though undergirded perhaps by proper motives to show mercy and help people in their distress through an emphasis on addressing social, political, or cultural needs, some have lost sight of the importance of evangelism and missions.
While the church is called to minister to the physical needs of people (beginning with her members and over-flowing into the world), her primary task to glorify God in worship and make disciples of all nations. As His ambassadors, Jesus Christ has commissioned His people to preach the good news of salvation in Him and to send preachers out into the world (Romans 10:8-17).
If you would like to read the entirety of this inaugural “Message to All Churches,” you may do so here: http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/message.html. May God protect and prosper our denomination and our local church as we seek to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ.”
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch