A Great Divide: The Fundamental Difference Between the PCA and PCUSA1
One of the questions that I routinely get asked as the minister of a Presbyterian Church is this: “What is the difference between your church and the Presbyterian Church down the road?” I have found that simply asserting that we are part of the PCA and the other Presbyterian Church is part of the PC(USA), only leads to “What is the difference between the PCA and the PC(USA)?”
I never know quite how to respond this question, as there are so many possible ways one could answer. I could point to the decision last year to by the PC(USA) to change their book of church order and redefine marriage. I could also point to the most recent 2016 PC(USA) General Assembly, in which a Muslim man opened the plenary session with a prayer to Allah:
“Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad,” and so went the prayer offered up by Wajidi Said, from the Portland Muslim Community, as part of the “first order of business” during the opening plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Both of these recent events illustrate the vast and growing chasm between the PCA and PC(USA). The official endorsement of the prayer to Allah on the floor of the Assembly in particular demonstrates some of the huge theological differences over foundational doctrines of the Christian faith such as the identity of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the way of salvation. But as big as these differences are, they are still merely consequences of a still more fundamental division, of an even greater divide, between the PCA and PCUSA.
What is this Great Divide?
A little bit of PCA history is in order here. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) formed in 1973 when a group of churches left the Southern Presbyterian Church (PC US) after decades of fighting between theological conservatives and liberals for control of the denomination. While there were many points of disagreement between these two groups, the fundamental difference was stated succinctly in 1969 by Nelson Bell in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal. He wrote; “The basic divergence (between the theological conservatives and liberals in the PC US) has to do with attitudes toward the Bible--on the one hand the full integrity and authority of the Scriptures, and on the other, varying degrees of rejection, from belief that the Bible contains the word of God (but is not the word of God), down to the view point that the Bible is no longer relevant to today’s world.” The PCA was formed when the theological conservatives, those described by Bell has holding firmly to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, finally gave up the fight to change the denomination and left to form another. Ten years later, in 1983, the PC US would merge with the northern Presbyterian Church to form what we now know as the PC(USA).
So, what is the fundamental difference between the PCA and PC(USA)? What is the great divide between them? It’s the same as it was in 1969. Not much has really changed in the past fifty years. It’s whether or not the Bible is viewed as inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative, or not. There are lots of differences between the PCA and PC(USA), but every other difference is ultimately a consequence of this one great difference. And while there may be individual churches left in the PC(USA) that still hold the Bible as inerrant and authoritative, it is increasingly clear that the denomination as a whole does not.