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What’s the Difference between the PCA and the OPC?

Occasionally, I am asked about the difference between the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and my denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I’ve had different thoughts about this during my brief sojourn as a member of the latter. It’s a question that can be answered from several different angles.

The PCA was founded in 1973 after many conservatives left the progressive Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which is often called the “Southern Presbyterian church.” The OPC was founded in 1936 out of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the mainline Presbyterian body of the north. The PCA and OPC share the same doctrinal standards, but other factors give rise to denominational differences. The PCA is roughly ten times larger than the OPC, and perhaps because of the size, demonstrates a greater diversity in several theological matters and worship style. I haven’t seen any empirical studies to substantiate this claim, but some contend that the OPC is generally more uniform among its congregations.

The two bodies also have slightly different ways of organizing and governing their work. The OPC, being founded immediately as a result of a controversy over foreign missions, has taken a specific approach to the foreign mission field. Whereas other missions organization focus more broadly on social justice and humanitarian efforts, the OPC is particularly focused upon planting and raising up indigenous churches. The OPC has sent many ministers along with elders and deacons to the field to support the work of the Great Commission. The OPC calls these ordained men to the work and funds them entirely and directly. Like most other missions organizations, the PCA’s Mission to the World often requires its missionaries to raise financial support. Many argue that this is more effective and leads to a greater number of missionaries being sent to the field. Others view the practice critically, believing it effectively makes “fundraiser” one of the qualifications for ministry. Regardless, the PCA and OPC partner with one another in several mission fields, encouraging one another and recognizing each other as co-laborers in the harvest.

There are other slight differences. For example, all ministers are invited to attend and participate in the PCA’s General Assembly. In the OPC, each presbytery is given a specific number of seats depending on its size, and a minister must be elected and sent by his presbytery to become a commissioner. As you’d expect, this changes the dynamics of the assembly and its related activities.

But are these matters really substantive, at least to the point that they should be a barrier to ecclesiastical union? It’s an important question that was asked and answered over forty years ago. Why didn’t the conservatives who left the PCUS join with the OPC or other churches of like faith and practice? I believe Sean Michael Lucas identifies the reason:

While many in the Machen cohort that led the OPC in its early days sought to maintain a confessional Presbyterianism for its own sake, the majority of those who helped to develop the PCA were less interested in arguing over secondary theological issues that would distract from the larger goal of evangelizing and renewing American culture. In fact, it appeared that conservatives within the PCUS were influenced more strongly by the rising “New Evangelicalism” and its luminaries, particularly Billy Graham, than by leaders or emphases from the OPC. . . . Thus, rather than link arms with smaller, separatist northern Presbyterian bodies, the founders of the PCA forged a body that would emphasize conservative doctrine for the purpose of renewing American culture (Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, pp. 3–4).

Lucas continues:

The PCA has sought to be evangelical Presbyterians and Presbyterian evangelicals, which has given the church a voice to the broader culture. Holding the church together has not been easy. For some, frustrations have arisen from the church’s tendency to opt for an identity that is more comprehensive than pure. Others are disappointed that the church often spends a great deal of time on relatively fine points of Reformed doctrine instead of focusing on mission, cultural engagement, or evangelism (Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, p. 11).

I’m sure many in the PCA would agree with Lucas’s assessment while others would cast the issue differently. Answering the question of identity with relatively diverse groups of people must be reductionistic to a degree. Lucas, however, has identified an important feature of the PCA. In comparison, a prevailing view of the OPC is that it espouses a pilgrim—rather than an evangelical—mentality. Charlie Dennison, one-time historian for the OPC, reflects on this issue:

While everyone in the OPC understands our opposition to liberalism, some have had trouble understanding the aversion that others have to evangelicalism. They have been unable to accept the conclusion of Cornelius Van Til and others that evangelicalism, as a system, is Arminian. They have been unable to accept the criticism that modern evangelicalism’s view of regeneration is subjective, incapable of rising above a personal experience of sin and grace to the level of the covenant and the federal headship of Adam and Christ. Further, they have been unable to accept the growing historical and social evidence that contemporary evangelicalism is worldly, individualistic, and adolescent, craving acceptance and desperately wanting to make an impact (Charlie Dennison, “Some Thoughts about Our Identity” in History for a Pilgrim People, p. 204).

Dennison continues:

Modern practical theology, however, has moved in a man-centered direction, having adopted a worldly agenda for remedial goals and perceivable gains. Growth and year-end statistics have become gods. Christian maturity is confused with the mastery of methods, managerial skills, and the ability to cope. Modern practical theology trivializes the biblical vision by exalting incidental matters to the level of greatest concern. This is usually done, sometimes unwittingly, through a blend of social sciences, religious technology, and commercialism. In its more tragic expressions, it is ridiculous. (Charlie Dennison, “Some Thoughts about Our Identity” in History for a Pilgrim People, pp. 205–206).

I suppose your reaction to these statements would disclose whether you’re more of the PCA or OPC persuasion. If you’re offended by Dennison’s remarks and feel that this is a pessimist and short-sighted view of ministry, you may be more of an evangelical. If you feel that Dennison is speaking to some deep part of your soul, giving voice to latent eschatological purpose, you may be a pilgrim. It’s a matter of heritage, disposition, philosophy of ministry, and eschatology. I believe Danny Olinger captured it well when he spoke of John P. Galbraith in our recent “documentary” on his life and ministry. Galbraith understood his ecumenical work within the context of a separatist church that nevertheless was not isolationist. He was an engaged pilgrim.

There are meaningful differences between the PCA and OPC, but we shouldn’t overemphasize them. The two ecclesiastical bodies are united ecumenically as closely as our polity allows. We often share pulpits among our sister churches, and many of us have been members in both denominations. We join together in substantial unity wherever and whenever we can, even while we continue to labor as two distinct ecclesiastical bodies under the same head, Jesus Christ.

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jason

3 years ago

There are a couple other differences between OPC and PCA: Similar to foreign missionaries, the OPC fully funds church plants whereas the PCA church planters need to fund-raise. The role of deacons is different as well. The OPC Deacon’s role is that of mercy ministries. In the PCA the deacons handle finances in addition to mercy ministries. In the OPC there can be at-large trustees who are men (and in some churches woman) elected from the members of the congregation who handle the finances of the church (alongside the deacons and elders who are all also trustees). Another difference is the OPC does not allow assistant pastors.

joel

3 years ago

jason, can you provide a source for the OPC not allowing assistant pastors? My OPC congregation has had several assistant and associate pastors over the years.

jason

3 years ago

To clarify, I am speaking about assitant pastors – pastors who are not called by the congregation but instead by the session, and who do not serve on session, not associate pastors.. This position is mentioned in many places in the PCA BCO, even outlining what should be said when they are ordained/installed. The OPC never mentions Assistant pastors and in teh BCO when it talks about pastors it says: “Christ’s undershepherd in a local congregation of God’s people, who joins with the ruling elders in governing the congregation, is called a pastor.” It also states that ministers are only called by the congregation if they are serving the congregation (ministers can be called by presbytery or general assembly ” for work not related to any one particular congregation” (FOG 12.1) To me this makes it clear that it is not allowed, while the PCA specifically makes rules to allow it.

Cris Dickason (RE, Hatboro, PA)

3 years ago

Jason: I think you are seeing a ban on a particular function in the OPC FOG (form of government), just because it is not called out in a specific manner. The OPC allows for assistant pastors and associate pastors. But it only happens in churches where the funding is sufficient. No one serves a ministerial or pastoral role (teaching elder/minister) without a call from an appropriate body, either a congregation or a Presbytery. Presbyter does not impose ministers. Presbytery is not a corporate bishop or bishop by committee (as a Roman or Anglican bishop). Presbyteries are required to examine the provisions of the call to make sure there is sufficient salary and benefits to provide a living for the minister (and his family!). In some cases you may have a man called to serve some capacity, such as at local church, in a part-time capacity, because he has a fully funded FT position.
The function and make of a given church’s trustees depends on that church’s Bylaws. Some churches incorporate, some don’t – depends on the benefits, drawbacks and or legal rules that differ across the 50 states.

The OPC FOG offers/protects various freedoms for the local church and its session

eric

3 years ago

I’m new to the OPC and I’m finding the polity to be very rigid. I’m really okay with the structure of Sunday worship, but there’s an issue I’m struggling with.

I came into this region from a Reformed Baptist congregation which was ‘called out on the carpet’ by a representative of the Southern Baptist Convention for having chairs, rather than pews, in their sanctuary, along with other fairly trivial issues. Never mind that the incredible expository teaching of our pastor, speaking the hardline truth, in love (albeit on occasion ‘tough love) which was fostering spiritual growth and an unusually high percentage of church ministry workers.

Some time ago, working back east and new to the region, I “visited” a Baptist church. When I parked my car I looked around at the families entering the sanctuary… men and boys dressed in slacks, wearing ties. Not wanting to command center stage in my jeans and western footwear, I slinked out of the parking lot to find another church. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but I was poor at the time and couldn’t afford to follow suit.

In the OPC I’m attending, the powers that be allow flute, trumpet and piano for worship, but heaven sakes, not a guitar! (Reflecting on someone’s comment below.) And there will be no choirs or special music, regardless of how appropriate (kids’ Sunday school specials are the exception). Okay, I’ll acquiesce, because the teaching and worship music is scripturally sound. There is however one formality I’m having difficulty accepting. Prior to our weekly communion, along with 3 other understandable criteria that should exist in a believers life, it is emphasized that attenders have to be a member of a Bible believing church in order to receive communion. To become a member here, there is a time span from a person’s 1st visit, extending through a period of appropriate pastoral instruction (whether formal or informal) that could last 2-3 months. This could leave a Bible believing visitor to experience a range of negative feelings and spiritual isolation. (I myself would have left.)Q: is there a scriptural mandate for such a rule?

Although having been qualified form membership for several months now, I have chosen to “ride” on the membership in my former church which, under my circumstances, my former pastor is keeping inactive until I request removal from the roll. As such I have been receiving communion. This is not a good situation and I’m reluctant to bringing it up, considering the formality of the leadership.

In summary I will be moving out of the region soon, yet, with all due love and respect for the truly wonderful church family and loving leadership here, I really don’t feel comfortable seeking out the OPC in the area I’m relocating to. I’m not against formal polity, when it is consistent with scripture, however I’m left with the feeling that OPC might be over emphasizing structure and/or process at the cost of something greater. – Your thoughts?

Jim Stevenson

3 years ago

I would agree with Danny Olinger’s assessment of John P. Galbraith and he would certainly have more knowledge of Rev. Galbraith than I. However, I would also add something based on the address Rev. Galbraith gave at the age of 98 to the 78th GA of the OPC, which was the 75th anniversary of her birth. Rev. Galbraith exhorted the GA to be wary of the rampant inclusivism in much of evangelicalism. In general, the OPC has been and is more sensitive to that which concerned Rev. Galbraith.

Of course, there are exceptions in both the PCA and OPC on the matters presented. Trying to compare both denominations is indeed difficult without some generalizing.

Neo

3 years ago

What I greatly appreciate about the OP is the uniformity: you always know what you’re going to get with strong liturgical structure and Scripturally-solid teaching and the trinity hymnal. I honestly can’t think of a time I’ve visited an OP church and not found that to be the case.

With PCA it’s usually the opposite: lax structure, illustration-heavy topical teaching. And guitars.

Robert

3 years ago

I loved the way you ended your comment…”and guitars”. I got a laughed out of that one. 🙂

jason

3 years ago

A couple of the OPC churches in my presbytery have guitars and do not use the hymnal, and I know of OPC churches in other ares that are the same. I would agree with the first two points of you know what you get, with the middle point (scripturall-solid teaching) being the most important one.

Debbie Doerfel

3 years ago

There was quite a presence of more informal atmosphere congregations in the OPC prior to the mid-’80s. Several churches, the names of most of which begin with “New Life,” started out as OPC. They are much more lax in presentation/atmosphere, don’t use the Trinity Hymnal (though will sometimes sing hymns), and have guitars (and sometimes worship bands). Granted, when “J&R” (Joining and Receiving) provided the opportunity first for the RPCES and then the OPC to join with the PCA and the OPC declined, not only (as Sam Logan commented) did many OPC pastors choose to switch to the PCA but the New Life and other OP churches did as well. (Sam Logan made further comments about “J&R” which I also appreciated.)

Sean Lucas

3 years ago

Thanks for this, Camden. One other anecdote on this line: several years ago, I wrote an essay for the WTJ in which I focused on Machen and Stonehouse and their relationships with the larger evangelical world. I was specifically engaging Charlie’s essay, *Ambivalence, Tragedy, and Hope,” where he talked about this. For Charlie, ambivalence was Machen; tragedy was Stonehouse; hope was Van Til. For me, Machen and Stonehouse were hope and Van Til was not. That’s when I realized that I wouldn’t fit in the OPC.

Camden Bucey

3 years ago

Sean, thanks for mentioning the article. I enjoyed reading it. The quandary of ecumenism is significant, and I believe conservative Presbyterians need to devote more time and energy to meaningful ecclesiastical relations. I also appreciate your thoughts on Charlie’s taxonomy. Dennison was the OPC’s historian, but of course he doesn’t speak for everyone. Nevertheless, many of us find him to be a kindred spirit. Whether these dispositional differences can be overcome by a commitment to shared confessional standards is a question that has been asked and answered several times already. Perhaps there can be a day when it will be asked again.

For the others who may read this, Dennison identified the early era of the OPC and Machen as tragedy given the battle with the fundamentalists just after the formation of the OPC (then the PCofA). The era of the 1940s was “hope” because of the “remarkable but narrow victory in the 1940s over the visions of cultural Protestantism, championed by figures like Edwin H. Rian and Gordon H. Clark” (History for a Pilgrim People, 94). Stonehouse’s was the era of ambivalence because of a failure to act decisively to the subjectivism of the Peniel Controversy. It’s worth noting that Dennison includes Clowney and his evangelical and practical concerns in this era as well.

Reference: Sean Michael Lucas, “J. Gresham Machen, Ned B. Stonehouse, and the Quandary of Reformed Ecumenicity,” WTJ 62 (2000) 197–222.

Ronald Pearce

3 years ago

Thanks for the excellent article. One thought I would add as a difference between the two denominations is, that the PCA does not require subscription to the Directory of Worship as we do in the OPC in our ordination vows for church officers. Because the Directory is not mandatory in the PCA, may be one reasons there will be greater latitude and differences in the worship services from one PCA congregation to another.
I would be quick to say that we have a warm relationship with the PCA down the road from us. Our congregations have joint worship services twice a year and I get together with the PCA minister for breakfast and prayer on a regular basis. We are certainly more similar than dissimilar and I would pray for our churches some day to work through the issues that separate our communions.

Robin McLain

3 years ago

Found this site from a link on the Aquila Report. Am I correct in assuming from this article that the OPC is TR?

Sam Logan

3 years ago

I have found the previous comments about this issue extremely good and helpful. Thanks especially to Camden and Sean. I have been an OPC Teaching Elder for 38 years; I have, with the knowledge and permission of my OPC Presbytery, worshiped in a PCA congregation for 35 years; and I worked for 27 years at a school which sought to serve both the PCA and the OPC. With that background, I would suggest several specific events/positions which help to provide an understanding of the difference between the OPC and the PCA. First, in 1982, the RPCES voted to “join” the PCA while, in 1986, the OPC declined to do so. [Although a majority of the OPC elders voting favored joining the PCA, that majority did not reach the required level of two-thirds. As a result of this 1986 vote, numerous OPC ministers who had supported “J&R” left the OPC and personally joined the PCA. Among them was Edmund Clowney.] Second, the PCA , as a result of an official action at its 2015 General Assembly is in a “Corresponding Relationship” with the EPC. The OPC has no official denominational relationship with the EPC. Third, the PCA was one of the founding members of the World Reformed Fellowship and is more heavily represented on the WRF Board than any one of the other 71 denominational members of the WRF. The OPC specifically declined to join the WRF even though, at the time it voted, one of its ministers was the CEO of the WRF and urged the OPC to join. I will leave it to others to interpret these events/positions but I do think they communicate some of the significant differences between the two denominations.

Debbie Doerfel

3 years ago

This article and all the comments are very helpful. I never could give an educated answer about the differences between the OPC and the PCA. Perhaps that’s why I was never quite sure why the OPC didn’t join the PCA during the time of “J&R” (and wasn’t quite sure which position to hold at the time). I knew that many of the OPC pastors and several OP churches joined the PCA after the OPC declined to do so.

Don

3 years ago

There are quite a few conservative PCA churches in the South.

Matt

3 years ago

Lucas’ phrase of the PCA mindset in the early 70’s of the OPC — a “…smaller, separatist northern Presbyterian…” church — gets near the heart of the cultural divide that kept future PCA folks from considering the OPC in ’73. There was still too much ‘southern blood’ in the PCA…and too much distrust of their Northern counterparts.

Then there is this quote from VanTil about his former student, EJ Carnell: “I fear I shall again have to appear ungracious in dealing with it. Perhaps I was brought into the world to be a nuisance to others.” Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, that explains a lot of the ‘ethos’ pervading the OPC. VanTil’s fingerprint is all over the OPC still; the OPC views evangelicalism as a ‘nuisance’!

John Muether

3 years ago

Sam Logan’s partial account of the OPC’s ecumenical initiatives may give a misleading picture. Yes, the RPCES voted to join the PCA in 1982, but so did the OPC (it was rejected by the PCA that time). Moreover the 1975 OPC-RPCES proposed plan of union was accepted by the OPC GA but rejected by the RPCES GA. So let’s not leave the impression that the OPC finds it uniquely hard to get along with others.

Also, it is true that the PCA is a member of WRF and the OPC is not. But the OPC is a member of the International Council of Reformed Churches while the PCA is not. We can debate which is a more robust expression of international Calvinism, but it is not fair to suggest that the OPC is ecumenically isolationist.

John Muether

3 years ago

PS — Edmund Clowney did not leave the OPC in 1986 in the wake of the J&R vote. He transferred to the PCA two years earlier, in 1984, after his retirement from WTS-P in order to serve on the staff of Trinity PCA in Charlottesville, VA.

Robert T.

3 years ago

John Muether, thanks very much for providing balance to Sam Logan’s comments.

Vicki Sue

3 years ago

I wish I would have read this before I wasted my time going to an EPC. They claimed to be “reformed” and I thought maybe this might be the one!
I even came after the service the first time to talk to someone; I said I was a reformed Calvinist. They invited me to attend a Bible study on the Millennial using an R.C. Sproul Video. I was thrilled! (I’ve been a partner since 2010)
I thought I was home free. But when I returned I discovered Women elders and one of the worst sermons I have ever heard! I spent the whole sermon reading my reformed Bible.
Ironically, R.C. Sproul says if you have a Woman Pastor or Elder then you don’t have a Church!
A little leaven …………….
I will not go to any Presb. church or Methodist or Assembly of God or Church of God or Adventist the list goes on! I have been to eight or more. It can’t really be this bad, can it?

Debra Marlana

2 years ago

Yes it can…I see your post was months ago…but I am in same situation..I live in Central Texas in small town w/ 46 churchs …mostly Pentecostal/Baptist/Church of Christ & Charismatic…..I am spoiled from all the wonderful gifted pastors on Youtube…R.C Sproul/Derek Thomas/Ligon Duncan etc and cant hardly make myself go to the small fellowship of some Canadian ?…don’t really know what they are ? I ask when I first attended and they said…’well we just call ourselves Christians’??? They do however believe in election but do not hold to any confession of faith or creed? I love the all the people but there is NO pastor…everyone just meets and sits in Sanctuary reading verses in Bible aloud and then only the men can comment etc..which I am against women teaching men as well.! but when some young fellow makes a comment that is very unscriptural…no one says a word..totally ignore it and go to the next person reading aloud..+ it bothers me very much that in the sanctuary during this Service everyone is drinking coffee…which I believe is a disrespectful to the House of God….I want to belong to a Body of Believers in a Church but ???? not seeing one anywhere in my location or 100 miles….

Thomas Trotter

8 months ago

I’m afraid it is that bad.

Vicki Sue

3 years ago

All these acronyms remind me of the Church of Scientology. I volunteered for them before I was saved. As a receptionist, i would take these ridiculous phone calls from other “Churches” and they would never us a persons name. They would say something like “this is the “OPC” calling for the PCA” and I would get so irritated! I wanted to say; JUST TELL ME THEIR STUPID NAME YOU JERK! Even as a lost pagan, I was able to figure out it was a cult! 10 years later they are still sending me mail!

Yvette dillman

2 years ago

Thank you for taking the time to write this. Do you believe a follow of Christ should hold both a pilgrim and an evangelist view. I believe a Christ centered view is “we are called out as pilgrims on a mission”.
I thank God for the reforming work He is doing on the hearts of so many followers of Christ and the impact it is having on the visible church. Thank you for your ministry. May God continue to make His name great among the nations. Thank you for keeping the dialogue going! Blessings, fellow sister in Christ.

Karen Johnston

11 months ago

I left the church because of the shift to what feels to me, too much like marketing. Pandering to a new generation with rock bands and giant video screens may be viewed as a requirement in order to “compete” and to attract the youth population but I find it enormously distracting and lacking in substance. Just one person’s opinion.

Greg Linse

7 months ago

Karen,
Please do not give up on the Church. While our sin has corrupted it in many ways, God is still building it and there will always be a remnant as the Lord has promised. I’m not saying this in judgement of the PCA, but I say this, that most OPC churches worship in a simple, scriptural and meaningful way: Confession, reading the Word, prayer, preaching the Word and sacraments, all of which there is no marketing or pandering to a new generation. In fact, we have many young couples in our church plant here in Oshkosh, WI and are grateful that the Lord continues to mercifully and graciously grow us into a congregation that loves Him and glorifies Him. Don’t stay home or give up on what the Lord is doing! Be a part of it! Not only are you missing out on fellowship and growth that the Lord wants to give you, but you are losing out on the rest and look to heaven that the Lord wants to give you on the Lord’s day!

Thomas Trotter

8 months ago

This article was enlightening. Thank you for writing it. I see that I have been gradually becoming more pilgrim as I’ve aged (and nearing 52).

Allen L> Willey

4 months ago

I am a pass member of Village PCA and PCA church near broad moor in Colorado springs. I now live in flint Texas. I hAve been thinking of changing my membership to the tyler PCA, but have not done so as yet. would to know more about the OPC churc in flint texas.

Ricky Parham

2 months ago

Hi, Camden, my name is rick parham. I attend Hope PCA church in Hot Dprings AR.

I came to reformed theology late in the game of life as it were. I came to the Lord in Pentecostalism, but Christ has been so Gracious as to bring me into reformed faith.

That being said, I love reformed forum, very insightful. But reading this article on the differences between the OPC & the PCA & always learning new terms of the reformed faith, can you tell me the differences between evangelical & pilgrim theology in our approach to gospel preaching & witness?

Thanks so much.

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