Friday, February 10, 2006

Hart and Muether on the PCA

Historians D. G. Hart and John Muether have been writing a series of articles on "turning points" in American Presbyterian history for the OPC magazine, New Horizons. In the February 2006 issue, they profile the founding of the PCA. I found the article generally accurate and their concluding observation fair.

The only real historical "mistake" was their linking Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship directly to foreign missions at its founding in 1964. The story is a little more complex: PEF was started by Bill Hill as a fellowship of Presbyterian evangelists who did itinerant ministry in the South; in 1971, the leadership decided to start the Executive Committee on Overseas Missions [ECOE], which would eventually morph into Mission to the World when the PCA started.

I think the article raises the important point--do church members in the PCA see themselves as Presbyterians? Or do they simply see themselves as evangelical Protestants who happen to go to a PCA church (but who could, just as easily, go to an Evangelical Free church)? These questions have a great deal to do with whether the PCA will represent a distinctively Presbyterian witness in the coming generation. And these questions motivated me to write my book, On Being Presbyterian, which will release (Lord willing) in April.


Nathan said...

This is an interesting question. In my circles, we joke about the number of Calvinistic Baptists who join PCA churches but still wince on the inside every time a baby is baptized. You talk to some of them, but they are still convictional Baptists--they just prefer Presbyterians worship, so they take a mulligan on Baptism and polity differences.

On the other hand, I have recently seen the other side of this. We are members of FBC Durham, which is an openly Reformed SBC church. Of the 400 or so regular attenders, I would guess at least a couple dozen are actually Presbyterians. They won't join the church because of the baptism requirement, but they like the way we "do church" more than the large PCA church in town (which for the record, is a very strong church). If our church voted tomorrow to allow paedobaptists into membership without requiring immersion, 25 people would join next week.

Whatever happened to ecclesiastical identity?

Sean Lucas said...

I think you are right, Nathan: ecclesiastical identity is hard to come by. Unfortunately, in some circles, identity is enforced by way of denominational perks and coercive threats (e.g. in the old PCUS it was this way).

What I've been thinking about is how to foster a genuine sense of identity in which beliefs, practices, and stories provide a sense of belonging to a particular group without being coercive. Or to put it differently, can one be a "big tent" church (like the PCA, for example) and still maintain Presbyterian identity. Hart and Muether (and the OPC historically) say no; I say I hope so.