Among the denominations that make up the Christian movement in America since its beginning are the Presbyterians. Though Presbyterians can be found throughout the world through various affiliations, we will focus this article on the two major Presbyterian denominations prevalent in the United States today.
History of PCA and PCUSA
Taking its name from a form of government called presbyterianism, the movement can find its origins through the Scottish theologian and teacher John Knox. Knox was a student of John Calvin, a 16th century French reformer who desired to reform the Catholic Church. Knox, himself a Catholic priest, brought Calvin’s teachings back to his homeland of Scotland and began teaching reformed theology within the Church of Scotland.
The movement took off, quickly bringing influence into the Church of Scotland, and eventually into the Scottish Parliament, which adopted the Scots Confession of Faith in 1560 as the creed of the nation and bringing to full speed the Scottish Reformation. Following in its footsteps was the publication of the First Book of Discipline based upon Reformed ideologies which shaped the doctrine and the government of the Church of Scotland into presbyteries, a governing body made up of at least two representatives from each local church body, an ordained minister and a ruling elder. In this form of government, the presbytery has oversight over the local churches from which they are represented.
As its influence spread across the British Isles and into England in the 1600’s, the Scots Confession of Faith was replaced with the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms, or a teaching methodology for how to be discipled in the faith.
With the dawn of the New World and many escaping religious persecution and financial difficulties, Scottish and Irish Presbyterian settlers began forming churches where they settled, mainly in the central and southern colonies. By the early 1700s, there were enough congregations to form the first presbytery in America, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and growing into the first Synod of Philadelphia (many presbyteries) by 1717.
There were varying responses to the Great Awakening Revival within the early movement of Presbyterianism in America, causing some divisions in the young organization. However, by the time that America had won its independence from England, the Synod of New York and Philadelphia proposed the creation of a national Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, holding its first General Assembly in 1789.
The new denomination remained largely intact until the early 1900’s, when enlightenment and modernity philosophies began to erode the unity of the organization along liberal and conservative factions, with many northern congregations siding with a liberal theology, and southern congregations remaining conservative.
The rift continued throughout the 20th century, splitting off various groups of Presbyterian churches to form their own denominations. The largest of the splits occurred in 1973 with the forming of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), maintaining conservative doctrine and practice from its former Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA), which would continue to move in a liberal direction.
Size difference of PCUSA and PCA churches
Today, the PCUSA remains the largest Presbyterian denomination in America, with approximately 1.2 million congregants. The denomination has been in a steady decline since the 1980s, where in 1984 they recorded 3.1 million congregants.
The second largest Presbyterian denomination is the PCA, with nearly 400,000 congregants. By comparison, their numbers have steadily grown since the 1980’s, doubling their size since a recorded 170,000 congregants in 1984.
Both denominations claim the use of the Westminster Confession of Faith, however, the PCUSA has modified the Confession a few times, specifically in 1967 and then again in 2002 to include more inclusive words.
Though each holds to some version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, their theological outworkings are very different in some of the core tenets of Christianity. Below are some of the doctrinal positions each hold:
View of the Bible between PCA and PCUSA
Biblical Inerrancy is the doctrinal position that states that the Bible, in its original autographs, were free from error. This doctrine is consistent with other doctrines such as Inspiration and Authority and without Inerrancy, both doctrines cannot hold up.
PCUSA does not hold to biblical inerrancy. While they do not exclude those who believe in it from their membership, they also do not uphold it as a doctrinal standard. Many in the denomination, both pastorally and in academia, believe that the Bible could have errors and therefore can be left open for different interpretations.
On the other hand, the PCA teaches biblical inerrancy and upholds it as a doctrinal standard for their pastors and academia.
This foundational difference of conviction on the doctrine of Inerrancy between the two denominations gives either license or restriction to how the Bible can be interpreted, and thus how the Christian faith is practiced in each denomination. If the Bible contains error, then how can it be truly authoritative? This breaks down how one exegetes, or doesn’t exegete the text, impacting the hermeneutics.
For example, a Christian who holds to Biblical Inerrancy would interpret scripture in the following way: 1) What does the Word say in its original context? 2) Reasoning with the text, what is God saying to my generation and context? 3) How does this impact my Experience?
Someone who does not hold to Biblical Inerrancy might interpret scripture in the following way: 1) What is my experience (emotions, passions, events, pain) telling me about God and creation? 2) Reasoning my (or others) experience as truth, what does God say about these experiences? 3) What support can I find in God’s Word to back up my, or others, truth as I experienced it?
As you can see, each method of Biblical interpretation will end up with vastly different results, thus below you will find many opposing views to some of the social and doctrinal issues of our day.
The PCUSA and PCA view of homosexuality
The PCUSA does not stand on the conviction that Biblical marriage is between a man and woman. In written language, they have no consensus on the matter, and in practice, both men and women homosexuals can serve as clergy, as well as the church performing “blessing” ceremonies for gay marriage. In 2014, the General Assembly voted to amend the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between two people, instead of husband and wife. This was approved by the presbyteries in June of 2015.
The PCA holds to the conviction of Biblical marriage between a man and a woman and views homosexuality as a sin flowing from the “rebellious disposition of heart”. Their statement continues: “Just as with any other sin, the PCA deals with people in a pastoral way, seeking to transform their lifestyle through the power of the gospel as applied by the Holy Spirit. Hence, in condemning homosexual practice we claim no self-righteousness, but recognize that any and all sin is equally heinous in the sight of a holy God.”
The PCUSA and PCA view of abortion
The PCUSA supports abortion rights as declared by their 1972 General Assembly: “Women should have full freedom of personal choice concerning the completion or termination of their pregnancies and that the artificial or induced termination of pregnancy, therefore, should not be restricted by law, except that it be performed under the direction and control of a properly licensed physician.” The PCUSA has also advocated for the codification of abortion rights at the state and federal levels.
The PCA understands abortion as the termination of a life. Their 1978 General Assembly stated: “Abortion would terminate the life of an individual, a bearer of God’s image, who is being divinely formed and prepared for a God-given role in the world.”
The PCA and PCUSA view of divorce
In 1952 the PCUSA General Assembly moved to amend sections of the Westminster Confession, eliminating “innocent parties” language, broadening the grounds for divorce. The Confession of 1967 framed marriage in terms of compassion rather than discipline, saying, “[…]the church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by society when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.”
The PCA holds to the historical and Biblical interpretation that divorce is to be the last resort of a troubled marriage, but is not a sin in the cases of adultery or abandonment.
In 2011, the PCUSA General Assembly and its presbyteries voted to remove the following language from its ordination clause of the church’s Book of Order, that ordained ministers would no longer be required to maintain: “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness”. This paved the way for the ordination of non-celibate homosexual pastors.
The PCA holds to the historical understanding of the office of pastor in that only heterosexual men can be ordained into Gospel ministry.
Salvation differences between PCUSA and PCA
The PCUSA holds to a Reformed view and understanding of the atoning work of Christ, however, their reformed understanding is weakened by their inclusionary culture. The 2002 General Assembly endorsed the following statement regarding soteriology (the study of salvation) which points to a denomination that is not fully committed to its historical Reformed roots: “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. . . . No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
The PCA holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith in its historical form, and thereby a Calvinist understanding of salvation which understands that humanity is utterly depraved and unable to save itself, that God through Christ gives unmerited grace through salvation through the substitutionary atonement on the Cross. This atoning work is limited to all who believe and confess Christ as Savior. This grace is irresistible to the elect and the Holy Spirit will lead the elect to persevere in their faith unto glory. Thus the ordinances of baptism and communion are reserved exclusively for those who have professed Christ.
Similarities on their view of Jesus
Both PCUSA and PCA hold to the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, the Second Person of the Trinity, that through Him all things were created and all things are sustained and that He is the Head of the Church.
Similarities on their view of the Trinity
Both PCUSA and PCA hold to the belief that God exists as One God in Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
PCUSA and PCA views on baptism
The PCUSA and the PCA both practice Paedo and Believer’s Baptism and both do not view it as a means for salvation, but as symbolic of salvation. However, there is a difference between how each views baptism with regard to the requirements for church membership.
The PCUSA will recognize all water baptisms as valid means for membership into their congregations. This would also include Catholic paedo baptisms.
The PCA wrote a position paper in 1987 on the issue regarding the validity of other baptisms outside of a reformed or evangelical tradition and made the determination to not accept baptisms outside of this tradition. Therefore, to become a member of a PCA church one must either have been baptized an infant in the reformed tradition, or have undergone believer’s baptism as a professing adult.
As you can see, there are many similarities and differences between the PCUSA and the PCA. The main differences display themselves in how each one practices their theology. This is consistent with the idea that one’s theology will shape their praxeology (practice) which in turn also shapes their doxology (worship). Differences in social issues seem to be impacted the most, however the underlying difference is truly in one’s understanding and conviction on Scripture as the Authority for all rule and life. If the Bible is not held up as an absolute, then there is little or no anchor for one’s praxeology, except what they perceive to be truth based upon their own experience. In the end, there is more than just impact on social issues at hand. There are also deeper issues of the heart, of what defines rebellion against God, and what defines love. Without an absolute rooted in immutability, a church or a person will exist on a slippery slope.