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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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