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What We Can Learn from “For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America”

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As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I’d been wanting to read Sean Michael Lucas’ book For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America for some time. Like much of history, the story of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) is filled with items (particularly racism), that are now embarrassing and regretful. The southern Presbyterian denomination, existed from 1861 to 1983, and was the conservative Presbyterian denomination, as opposed to the liberal northern Presbyterian denomination, known as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American (PCUSA).
Lucas’ book is detailed, thorough, and heavily footnoted. It’s certainly not light reading. If I were to briefly summarize the story, as early as the 1920’s, a progressive element of the PCUS was starting to take shape. The progressives were spreading their message through the churches, seminaries and publications. This message included a move away from the Biblical authority (inerrancy, for example), to a social gospel, a lower view of the confessional standards of the church (Westminster Confession), evolution, women’s ordination, universalism, secularism, etc. The overall goal of the progressives was a reunion with the northern church.
By the end of the 1960s, southern Presbyterian conservatives had seen their denomination move significantly to the left. Despite the efforts of many conservatives over the years to reform the church, the progressive movement would eventually lead many of the conservatives to form a new denomination (the PCA) in 1973. The remainder of the PCUS would merge with the northern church (PCUSA) in 1983.
After I finished the book, I asked myself what can I learn from this history of my denomination? Though I believe the PCA to be a good denomination, no denomination on earth will ever be perfect. There is certainly a progressive wing of the denomination today as we see certain churches and presbyteries pushing the limits on important issues such as sexuality (Revoice Conference) and women’s roles in the church (Deaconesses). Is it possible that we will also see some churches caving on other issues, such as abortion, the inerrancy of scripture, etc.?
Over the past few years we have seen a number of “celebrity” pastors fall. As I write this another founding pastor (non-PCA) has been fired. What I appreciate about the PCA is the organizational structure that should make doctrinal error and a move to the left more difficult (though the history of the PCUS shows that it is certainly possible). At the local church level, pastors (teaching elders) work closely with ruling elders to rule and shepherd the church. Local churches are a part of a group of area churches called presbyteries, and elders from all churches attend an annual General Assembly. In other words, there is much more accountability in this organization than might be found in an independent church.
We need to be able to learn from the history of the PCUS that led up to many of the conservatives leaving to form the PCA, so as not to repeat it. I have four simple take-aways for you, no matter what church or denomination you are in. They are:

  • Pray for your leaders (Pastors, Elders, Deacons). Pray that they would be faithful to the scriptures as they lead and shepherd the church. Pray that they would be open and humble to correction if needed, to preserve the peace, purity and unity of the church.
  • Pray for the seminaries that are training the leaders of the future. Pray that the professors would be faithful as they teach seminary students so that they can faithfully lead their churches in the future.
  • Be like the Bereans, who we are told in Acts 17:11 “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
  • Demonstrate leadership courage. If we come across teaching in our churches, presbyteries or denominations that is not in accordance with the Scriptures, we need to demonstrate courage as we work through the appropriate channels to address this error.

Reading church history is informative and can be interesting. However, we need to read it with a goal as to not repeat the errors of those who have gone before us. What would you add to my list of things you can do to preserve your church or denomination?

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Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence ~ married to my best friend for more than 39 years and a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Before retiring I served as a manager at a Fortune 50 company; I'm a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary and in leadership at my local church. I enjoy speaking about calling, vocation and work. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people develop to their fullest potential and to utilize their strengths more fully. I am an INTJ on Myers-Briggs, 3 on the Enneagram, my top five Strengthsfinders themes are: Belief, Responsibility, Learner, Harmony and Achiever, and my two StandOut strengths roles are Creator and Equalizer. My favorite book is the Bible, with Romans my favorite book and 2 Corinthians 5:21 my favorite verse. Some of my other favorite books are Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul, The Prodigal Son (originally titled A Tale of Two Sons) by John MacArthur and Crazy Love by Francis Chan. I enjoy Christian hip-hop/rap music, with Lecrae, Trip Lee and Andy Mineo being some of favorite artists.

2 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from “For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America”

  1. My home church, First Pres Weaverville NC was one of the centers of early efforts. Founding pastor HB Dendy started the Presbyterian Journal with L Nelson Bell as a conservative voice for the drifting denomination. Also, I remember as a child the gathering of the saints each summer to pray, share and contend for the faith

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