Whither or Wither?
May 19, 2010
The Trials and Tribulations of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) is one of the smaller and lesser known Presbyterian bodies in North America. With a stated membership of around thirty-five thousand, the ARPC is one of the larger denominations in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), but is dwarfed by the largest church in that body--the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--which is over ten times as large as the ARPC. The size of the ARPC, however, means that it is large enough to be interesting and yet small enough to analyze in some meaningful fashion.
Currently the ARPC faces pressing challenges. While the ARPC has surmounted great difficulties in the past, these current challenges are occurring at a time of great change and dislocation in the broader context of American Christianity, and thus the stakes are raised. This article will survey the current situation of the ARPC and then explore what the future may hold.
THE PROBLEM OF IDENTITY
The result of a late eighteenth-century confluence of the Scottish Covenanter and Seceder traditions in America, the ARPC has maintained a distinctive identity for much of its history. Historically centered in the southeastern United States (a Synod of the South was formed in 1803, and that Synod separated from the northern Associate Reformed Synods in 1822), the ARPC's identity was historically defined more by practice than theology. While valuing orthodoxy and attached to the Westminster Standards, ARPs historically have had limited patience for theological abstraction, and heresy trials have been rare. Rather, the ARPC was traditionally distinguished by praxis considerations--strict sabbatarianism, close communion, non-instrumental worship, and exclusive psalmody--but by the mid-twentieth century adherence to these distinctives had in great measure broken down, and the church was faced with the challenge of justifying its separate existence over against the "General Assembly Presbyterians" (in contrast to the ARPC's "General Synod" meetings). Answers to this question have not come easily or quickly, and thus an uneasy relationship with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and its successors the PCA and the PC(USA) has been a fact of ARP life for more than a half century.
The ARPC has also been characterized by a "churchly" or "ecclesial" sensibility that has often proven quite winsome to those who come to the ARPC from other groups. While ARPs have limited patience with theological precision, they care deeply about the church and its ministries. Along with this ecclesial concern, especially when it is combined with genteel Southern American culture, comes a propensity for a "niceness" which seeks to avoid overt conflict, especially when such conflict concerns the institutions and agencies of the church.
In a context where an internal reason for existence has been elusive, ARPs have in recent decades tended to define themselves over against other churches, especially the PC(USA) and the PCA. Over against the PC(USA) with its doctrinal and moral declension, ARPs think of themselves as orthodox and "non-liberal." Over against more conservative groups such as the PCA and OPC (both of whose identities were forged in the heat of bitter twentieth-century ecclesiastical conflict), ARPs view themselves as "nice" and non-pugnacious. But this identity is largely negative rather than positive. That is, the ARPC defines itself more in terms of what it is not, and the question remains as to what the ARPC stands for.
One thing the ARPC has stood for with some tenacity is the authority of Scripture. Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century the ARPC (then known as the Associate Reformed Synod of the South) sought to position itself in the broader context by identifying with the consensus among "Evangelical churches." When PCUS Neo-orthodoxy became pervasive at Erskine Seminary in the 1960's, there was a period of conflict in which ARP conservatives championed the Evangelical doctrine of inerrancy and the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy." This era of conflict receded beginning in 1980 when the General Synod reaffirmed that "the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches." However, in keeping with the "niceness" of the body, no concerted attempt was made to exclude those who disagreed with this statement (opposition coalesced in the 1980 "A Covenant of Integrity" signed by many prominent ARPs), and they were, in essence, "grandfathered."
But the question of identity remains, and the current situation reflects some clear divisions among those who have given thought to the matter. On the one hand, there are many who have continued in the traditional ARP path of "experimental Calvinism." They prize evangelical Christian experience along with Reformed doctrinal integrity. But this group is somewhat divided over questions of worship style and Reformed ethos. On the other hand, there are those who have moved in the direction of mainline-church Kulturprotestantismus (culture Protestantism). They think the ARPC should look more like the PC(USA), albeit without that group's embarrassing fixation on sexuality issues. Many of these espouse a synthesis of middle-class culture and ARP identity--they are more open to the ordination of women to all offices and to Barthian views of Scripture which allow them greater flexibility to follow the dictates of the broader culture. In essence, they are tracking the broader culture but ten to twenty years behind it. This latter group has also rallied around Erskine College and Seminary, and recent events suggest that their loyalty is to Erskine rather than to the ARPC (more on this below). Or to put it in slightly different terms, the ARPC now consists of two rather different churches trying to coexist under a single ecclesiastical roof, though the boundaries between the two groups are often muddied by personal and family relationships.
For a similar analysis of these matters, see the 2007 "Report of the Vision Committee" (http://www.arpsynod.org/pdf/Report%20of%20the%20Vision%20Committee.pdf).
THE PROBLEM OF DEMOGRAPHICS AND SMALL CHURCHES
A truism of ARP history is that the ARPC "never made it into the city." To this day, the ARPC has a large number of rural churches, many of which have dwindled precipitously in numbers as the population has shifted to the cities and the broader culture has become more secular. Thus the membership of many ARP churches is aging, and soon many of these rural churches will be closed because the younger generation has moved away and the older generation has entered the "church triumphant." Northern retirees who move to the rural retirement meccas in the Sunbelt are more likely to be found on the golf course or at the lake than in church on Sunday morning. ARP efforts to plant churches in urban areas have met with only modest success, and thus the ARPC continues to have a rural center of gravity, but with little potential for growth there. Thus, the ARPC may aptly be characterized as an evangelical church with a mainline-church demographic problem.
Not surprisingly, ARP congregations tend to be small--in fact, very small! According to statistics based on 2006 data provided to me by the General Synod's Parliamentarian, only 12 percent of ARP churches had more than 200 active members (32 churches out of a total of 268 congregations), and yet these 32 churches reported 49 percent of the active membership for the denomination. On the other hand, 149 congregations (48%) reported an active membership of under 50, and 107 churches (40%) reported an active membership of between 50 and 200. If we take the 100-150 member level as a rough indicator of economic viability in the current environment, then the conclusion emerges that the majority of ARP congregations are struggling.
THE PROBLEM OF RESOURCES
While ARPC members have a well-deserved reputation for sacrificial financial support of the denomination, the church is attempting to maintain a remarkably broad range of ministries--a denominational magazine, a college, a seminary, a conference grounds, a foreign missions arm, a domestic missions agency, health insurance and retirement plans, and so on. In fact, no other Reformed denomination is trying to do as much with similar resources. But without real numerical growth such efforts will be impossible to sustain. Public statements coming from the ARP Board of Stewardship at the 2008 meeting of the General Synod suggest that difficult choices regarding resource allocation must be faced soon. Spirited competition for scarce resources will increasingly become the rule, and the bottom line is now clear--without significant growth in numbers and giving cherished ministries of the denomination will be curtailed.
THE PROBLEM OF INSTITUTIONS
Most of the agencies of the General Synod have fallen into line with the conservative theological center of gravity of the denomination that was in place by 1980. The striking exception to this has been Erskine College and Seminary. Beginning in 1977 with the "Statement on the Philosophy of Christian Higher Education," the General Synod has tried to bring Erskine into line, but with limited success. In short, the General Synod's relationship with the Erskine institutions has been characterized by good intentions, relatively clear directives, and little real accountability. Despite over thirty years of effort and angst on the part of the ARP denomination, it appears to many that evangelical faculty at Erskine College remain a minority. At Erskine Seminary a shift to the right was evident during the period of 1998-2002, but that institution has again veered leftward in a pragmatic effort to appeal to the culturally conservative but theologically fuzzy "Confessing Church" wing of the PC(USA).
An obvious question presents itself: why has the General Synod been unable to bring Erskine more into line with the denomination? The answers to this question are complex. One is the hard reality that "money talks." To be sure, the ARPC has influence at Erskine through its appointed trustees and significant annual financial contributions, but at the same time the ARPC is too small to provide sufficient financial resources and numbers of students by itself. Thus Erskine has sought out a range of constituencies, some of which are none too comfortable with the theology and praxis of the ARPC, and these diverse constituencies have been given a place at the table.
Another part of the puzzle is the makeup of the Erskine Board of Trustees, which in recent decades has been dominated by an informal alliance of moderate to left-leaning ARPs and alumni/ae. Although each new class of Board members must be approved by the General Synod, the Erskine Board has in reality been essentially self-perpetuating. A major reason for this is the fact that the Erskine Board itself presents a slate of nominations each year, and these Board nominations are more often than not endorsed by the General Synod's Nominations Committee, which operates with limited knowledge of institutional dynamics and the personalities involved.
Within the Board itself control by the ruling coalition has been carefully maintained. Most issues of any importance are vetted by the Executive Committee of the Board, which is named by the Board Chairman. A variety of social-control mechanisms are used to keep conservatives in line. Those who demonstrate a willingness to work quietly within the system are rewarded with appointments, while those who prove obstreperous in their calls for missional integrity are marginalized within the Board context. Under such circumstances, many well-meaning individuals find it easier to, as the old Southern saying puts it, "go along and get along," and some ARP conservatives become so invested in the system that they become defenders of it.
Another factor in the persistence of what some have termed "Olde Erskine" has to do with administrative leadership. The seven-year presidency of John L. Carson (1998-2005) saw some success in moving the public image of the schools to the right (with a corresponding up-tick in College enrollment), but with a few exceptions Carson was unable to achieve much real ideological change. After the nomination of a United Methodist candidate for the presidency failed to win approval by a bitterly divided Board of Trustees, Carson was finally replaced in 2007 by Randall T. Ruble, the now seventy-seven-year-old former Dean of Erskine Seminary. Ruble is, in many ways, representative of the moderate wing of the ARP Church. He signed the 1980 anti-inerrancy manifesto "A Covenant of Integrity," and during his time as Dean of Erskine Seminary Ruble expanded the student body by a strategy of low tuition, open admissions, and appeal to a broad range of denominational constituencies. In fact, under his leadership the largest single denominational student representation came from the United Methodist Church. As President, Ruble has proven to be an able financial administrator, but his tenure has been marked by increasing tensions between Erskine and the ARP Church.
These tensions culminated in actions taken by the ARP General Synod in a March 2010 emergency meeting, where a sizeable majority of the Synod voted to replace the Erskine Board of Trustees with an Interim Board. Almost immediately, however, Board members and Erskine employees unhappy with the Synod's action filed legal actions and were granted a restraining order against the Synod. Thus the future of the Erskine schools is now tied up in litigation.
THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE
After a quarter-century of relative calm in the ARPC, the church has entered a new period of conflict. At the 2007 meeting of the General Synod there was lively and contentious discussion of Erskine College, and at the 2008 meeting action was taken to strengthen the ARPC's commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and to require that inerrancy be affirmed by teaching and administrative agency employees. In context, these efforts were clearly a response to developments at Erskine Seminary (see http://www.reformation21.org/articles/not-an-ordinary-meeting-of-synod.php). In 2009 a Memorial to appoint an Ecclesiastical Commission to examine the work of the Erskine Board of Trustees was approved, and that Commission was to report its findings and recommendations at the next meeting of the General Synod. Ironically, the issues under debate--especially the authority of Scripture and the fidelity of Erskine College and Seminary--are almost identical to the issues debated in the 1970's, and even some of the dramatis personae are the same. The more things change in the ARPC, the more they stay the same!
Most recently, that Ecclesiastical Commission concluded that "the oversight exercised by the Board of trustees and the Administration of Erskine College and Seminary is not in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church and the synod's previously issued directives," and that an emergency situation existed. They further requested a called meeting of the General Synod to deal with these issues. The General Synod then met on March 2-3, 2010 and decided by significant margins to replace the Board of Trustees with an Interim Board. The following week, a lawsuit was filed by the Chairman of the Board on behalf of Erskine College, and though that suit was ultimately withdrawn (immediately upon which a bridging action was brought by three Erskine Seminary employees and the President of the Alumni Association in order to keep the restraining order in effect), a similar legal action against the General Synod was filed on March 15, 2010 by a group of Erskine alumni, including two Trustees who are also ARP ruling elders. As of this point, the situation is highly conflicted and unclear.
But these important theological and practical debates are taking place in a different external context than the 1970's, and the stakes are considerably higher as a result. The first external factor is the doctrinal implosion of American Evangelicalism. While ARP conservatives in the 1970's could appeal to a relatively firm consensus among Evangelicals regarding the authority of Scripture, that consensus has eroded considerably. Today it is difficult to name a single doctrine of the faith--the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the immutability and omniscience of God, and so on--that is not being questioned in so-called "Evangelical" circles. The bleak picture of the state of Evangelical theology presented by David Wells in his No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) has been largely confirmed by subsequent history. This means that the external evangelical resources available to ARP conservatives are more ambiguous than they were in 1980. In addition, the conservative Reformed world is less united than it was thirty years ago. Here, of course, the ARPC's lack of an internal compass and sense of identity only compounds the problem.
Another important external factor is the "grand realignment" that is currently taking place in American Presbyterianism. Church historians have long anticipated such a restructuring in the American Reformed context and the outlines of it are now emerging with some clarity. The PC(USA)'s experiment in "big-tent" Presbyterianism must now be judged a failure. A church with little or no doctrinal and moral agreement cannot sustain itself. "Diversity" by itself is no basis for church life, and we may expect the PC(USA) to continue to lose members at a rate of 40-60 thousand members per year for some time. At this point it appears that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) with its non-geographical "New Wineskins" presbytery is poised to pick up former PC(USA) congregations and members who are leaving because of doctrinal declension and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the PC(USA). Thus the center of gravity in American Presbyterianism is shifting to the right from the old "mainline" to two more conservative groups--the PCA and the EPC.
Interestingly, this realignment is resulting in one group that is more "Reformed" and doctrinally precise in its orientation (the PCA) and one that is more "evangelical" and doctrinally tolerant (the EPC), thus mirroring the nineteenth-century split between "Old School" and "New School" Presbyterians. This would seem to confirm George Marsden's thesis that much in American Presbyterianism can be understood in terms of these two contrasting Presbyterian impulses (see his The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience [New Haven: Yale, 1970]).
A PERFECT STORM?
What are the implications of all this for the ARPC? If the current trends in the ARPC continue there will be increasing theological conflict accompanied by numerical decline. This numerical decline will place increasing stress on the ministries of the church. Soon the question of defunding historic ministries and institutions of the church will be faced. Stark choices will have to be made, and those choices will be especially painful for the ARPC with its churchly sensibility and deep love for the ministries of the church. The only realistic way to preserve some of those ministries will be merger with another denomination. But then the question is: which other denomination?
The prospects for merger are not promising among the smaller denominations. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is a bit smaller than the ARPC, but the cultural gulf is likely too great to be bridged. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA) has initiated inter-church talks with the ARPC with a view to closer relations, and there are remarkable similarities between the two churches--with their Covenanter backgrounds the two churches seem to share in common much ecclesial DNA. But that body has its own institutions (a college, a seminary, a magazine, etc.), and there is the question of the exclusive psalmody and non-instrumental worship that the RPCNA staunchly affirms but that the ARPC has left behind.
That leaves the two larger bodies--the PCA and the EPC. For various reasons, some of them not particularly good, an ARPC merger with the PCA is unlikely. The PCA already has a full range of institutions by virtue of its 1982 "Joining and Receiving" process with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), and a compelling argument for maintaining both the Erskines and the Covenants, Bonclarken and Ridge Haven is elusive. In addition, the PCA and the ARPC are both centered in the southeastern United States and there is a legacy of tension resulting from competition in that region of geographical overlap. Finally, there are some persistent cultural differences between the two churches that pose ongoing impediments.
On balance, there is more of a practical case to be made for merger with the EPC. The EPC is a national church with a northern center of gravity. Some of the EPC churches were formerly part of the old United Presbyterian Church in North America (UPCNA), which included the nineteenth-century northern wing of the Associate Reformed Church. The EPC is a younger denomination without a fully developed institutional infrastructure, and so there is less institutional overlap. In addition, the EPC will likely soon be larger than it is at the present time. Of course, there would be some complications. ARPs would have to reconcile themselves to the ordination of women to ruling offices and to the significant charismatic presence in the EPC. Some ARPs would probably find the EPC too conservative for their liking, and prominent ARP moderates would also have to reconcile themselves to being smaller fish in a much larger pond.
To cut to the chase, a plausible scenario looks like this: within ten to fifteen years (perhaps sooner) a significant group within the ARPC will promote merger with the EPC, and seek to take the ARPC agencies and institutions with them. But many more conservative ARPs will not countenance such a union, and they will then seek to go into the PCA. The fate of the ARPC institutions will hang on which of these groups is in the majority. Thus an experiment dating back to 1782 of merging two of the lesser Scottish Presbyterian traditions (the Covenanters and Seceders) will come to an end. It will end in much the same way (through merger) that these traditions largely faded earlier in the northern United States.
As a personal addendum, I must add that I fervently hope and pray the story does not play out as I have outlined here. And just to be clear, I say this not to criticize the PCA or the EPC. Both are seeking faithfully to implement responsible visions of Reformed identity. Rather, I say this out of a conviction that the ARPC still has something distinctive to offer to American Christianity. I have come to love and value the ARPC, even as I grieve deeply over her current "trials and tribulations," and, for the sake of the richness of the American Presbyterian experience, there needs to be a viable alternative to the Old School and New School Presbyterian options. But, alas, history has a way of imposing its logic, and only time will tell if this author has read the tea leaves correctly. And of course, in the providence of God, the windings of history are also endlessly surprising. Thus I am convinced that this scenario need not be so. Much will hinge on the emergence of new leadership to chart a healthy course for the denomination and its institutions. The long-term success of that new leadership will, in turn, depend on its ability to lead the church in addressing the fundamental problem of identity discussed above. The problems at the schools are in large measure but reflections of this deeper problem of identity.
A compelling vision of ARPC identity must not seek merely to imitate other churches such as the PCA or a more conservative version of the PC(USA). In addition, the ARPC would be wise not to hitch its wagon to the now-tired horse of American Evangelicalism--that would result in even greater fragmentation and incoherence. Rather, the ARPC must recover the riches of its own heritage--a winsome ecclesial sensibility, a commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ over his church (the Covenanter legacy), and to the free offer of a gracious gospel (the Seceder legacy). Now that would be a potent antidote to the disunity, malaise, and flaccid Kulturprotestantismus that currently saps the energy and witness of the ARPC!
Dr. William B. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College. He served as Moderator of the General Synod of the ARP Church in 2005, and he currently is a member of the Strategic Planning Committee for the General Synod. From 1996 to 1999 he chaired the Inter-Church Relations Committee of the ARPC.