April 21, 2003 Q & A

Reformed Church in America


Can you tell me about the Reformed Church in America? Are they liberal or conservative? How do they differ from the OPC?


I'll try to answer your questions on the basis of my own personal experience and expertise, but it should be understood at the start that what I write should be taken as simply my own perspective as an individual minister rather than as any sort of "official" statement of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

First, let me say something about my own background. I was baptized as an infant in the Reformed Church in America (RCA), grew up in that denomination (taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, etc.), and in fact was ordained in that denomination (I was proud to have the late Dr. John Skilton of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, speak at my ordination), serving for approximately ten years as Pastor of Talmage Memorial Fourth Reformed Church, Philadelphia, a congregation that is now Pilgrim Orthodox Presbyterian Church (more about that later).

Is the Reformed Church in America liberal or conservative? If we consider the denomination's history, that is not a simple question to answer, unless one answers it, "Yes," or, "It may depend partly on where you live."

I say that because in the past (for example, this was largely true in the 1960's, while I was a student at Westminster Seminary), the RCA was in many respects not one church, but two churches, divided geographically. This is an oversimplification, but essentially the East was "liberal" and the West was "conservative," and each had its own theological seminary (if you were "liberal," you went to New Brunswick in the East; if you were "conservative," you went to "Western" in the West).

It was not a homogeneous situation in either geographical area, but congregations in the East tended to be similar to the more liberal mainline denominations (such as what was then known as the United Presbyterian Church), while those in the West tended to be similar to the more conservative Christian Reformed Church (except that the CRC placed more emphasis upon Christian schools than did the RCA).

Incidentally, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Christian Reformed Church were both "conservative" and very close in theological perspective (although the CRC has changed in recent years). The Reformed Church in America was a mixture of "conservative" and "liberal," although in certain geographical areas (Michigan is a typical example) the RCA was almost as "conservative" as the CRC.

Associated with the RCA (at least in the West) was an evangelical radio ministry earlier called "Temple Time" (Dr. Henry Bast was the radio preacher 1952-1972) and later called "Words of Hope" (Dr. William Brownson was radio preacher 1972-1994, followed by the Rev. David Bast). In viewpoint, the ministry was close to that of the "Back to God Hour" of the CRC (with long-time radio preacher Dr. Joel Nederhood), but there was an important difference: the "Back to God Hour" was officially supported by the CRC denomination, whereas "Temple Time"/"Words of Hope" was supported primarily by a particular geographical area of the RCA (i.e., the West).

In the process of time, New Brunwick Seminary became somewhat more "conservative," while Western Seminary became more "liberal," so there is currently less of a theological difference not only in seminaries but also in geographical areas. As far as general theological stance is concerned, most people would consider the RCA to be definitely on the "liberal" side (ordination of women to the ministry is supported, the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis is questioned, etc.).

We come now to how the Reformed Church in America differs from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In terms of doctrinal standards, the RCA officially holds (as does the CRC) to the "Reformed Standards of Unity," i.e., the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort (wherein are found the "Five Points of Calvinism"). The OPC officially holds to the Westminster Standards the (Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms).

The theology of these two groups of documents is essentially the same. The important difference between the RCA and the OPC is that the RCA tends to see its standards as historical documents defining the denomination's beliefs at an earlier stage in its history, while the OPC sees the Westminster Standards as documents that—now as in the past—represent an accurate presentation of the system of doctrine in Holy Scripture.

Yet even more important is that the OPC affirms the Bible as the infallible, inerrant Word of God, whereas it is unlikely that many ministers or congregations in the RCA would make this affirmation. And the OPC holds without compromise to the historic Reformed faith (including the radical fallenness of man and man's radical need of God's grace), while some of the best-known preachers of the RCA—men like Norman Vincent Peale ("positive thinking") and Robert Schuller ("possibility thinking")—have replaced these Reformation views with a faith in the potential of man.

It is because of such differences that Talmage Memorial Fourth Reformed Church (the last RCA church in the city of Philadelphia) reluctantly came to the conclusion that for the sake of the congregation and its continued ministry in the city, it must become united with a denomination (the OPC) fully committed to the gospel of God, the full trustworthiness of the Scriptures, and the historic Reformed Faith.

Although the congregation knew that to do so would mean the losing of all material possessions (church building, Sunday School annex, parking lot, parsonage, money in bank accounts, etc.), they voted unanimously to become part of the OPC and thus became Pilgrim OPC, confessing that "they were strangers and pilgrims on this earth" (Heb. 11:13). They have not had occasion or reason to regret that decision.

One final thought: I am not saying (nor was the congregation saying) that there are no Bible-believing individual ministers, members, or even congregations in the Reformed Church in America. They may be in the minority (as in other so-called mainline denominations), but that is not to say they do not exist.

One significant feature of the OPC, however, is that if you attend an OPC worship service at random, you will not have to wonder whether you will hear the gospel of God or "another gospel" being proclaimed. Rather, you can rest assured that you will hear the gospel of God based on the Word of God.

Well, that's my personal attempt, "warts and all," at answering the question. If you would like a more "official" answer concerning the OPC's present relationship with other denominations, you may want to contact the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations.



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