But Gerstner declares UPCUSA to be no longer “apostate.”
The moment of truth for the group Concerned United Presbyterians came June 11 at their meeting in Pittsburgh’s Airport Ramada Inn.
CUP formed two years ago to oppose church legislation requiring that pastors ordain women elders and pastors. Its members had vowed not to leave the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. if they could get constitutional relief. Because they have not gotten it, many have left.
But ironically, it was the celebrated Kaseman affair, not the women’s issue, that brought the rest of the CUP members to the brink of separation, and to the Pittsburgh meeting, CUP’s most influential theologian, retired Pittsburgh Theological Seminary church historian John Gerstner, had declared the UPCUSA apostate after its Permanent Judicial Commission last January upheld Pastor Mansfield Kaseman’s ministerial status despite Kaseman’s refusal in a presbytery examination to answer explicitly that Jesus is God.
Anxious to stem further defections by conservative evangelicals—people like CUP members—the recent general assembly in Houston assumed a conciliatory position. It approved two motions designed to produce comfort and healing. One declared Jesus to be “the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity … truly God and truly human.” It did not, however, specify Jesus’ “sinless life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection,” as requested by evangelicals, choosing “to restrict itself to the issue of the person of Christ” since “these and other truths are [already] embodied in the Confessions of the church.”
The second motion, to be submitted to the presbyteries for approval or rejection, would significantly strengthen the covenant required of ordinands. It asks ordinands not merely to be “instructed and led by” (the current wording) but to “affirm the Confessions of our church to be authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture by the Holy Spirit leads you to believe and do.”
CUP leaders called the Pittsburgh meeting to discuss strategy in the wake of the assembly’s actions. Were these enough to recover the UPCUSA from its alleged apostasy?
As the June 11 meeting opened, Gerstner was the first to respond when David Dorst, a Pittsburgh pastor and chairman, asked, “Did the general assembly repudiate apostasy?” Gerstner said he believed so, adding, “I can’t tell you how incredibly happy I am.”
At a February CUP meeting in which he had pronounced the UPCUSA apostate, Gerstner promised to abide by the will of the majority if the members voted to secede. At the conclusion of his speech he renewed that pledge: “If this group today votes to leave, I will go along as promised—but leave heartbroken and not charging apostasy.”
A young pastor moved to release Gerstner from his commitment, but the latter declined. To renege, even with the permission of the group, Gerstner said, would be a breach of faith.
“Even if the UPC repudiated apostasy [to the satisfaction of all CUP members],” he added, “it would still be a very, very, very imperfect church. But I am a very, very, very imperfect Christian. In a sense we deserve each other.… We’ve not arrived, but we have turned a corner.
Frank Kik, senior pastor of the East-minster United Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas, shared Gerstner’s enthusiasm: “I am very, very pleased with the statement on the deity of Christ.… Now once again we are a confessional church.… We asked … the church to take a different direction. It has.… If we pull out at this point, liberals will have every right to say, ‘We tried to accommodate you, but still you are not satisfied. You seem to have lost your integrity!’ ”
Observers had supposed that Gerstner, as CUP’s guru, would carry the day, and that the troops would rally to his call. Many anticipated, therefore, the meeting would be brief. But it was soon clear that his fellow evangelicals were not about to let Gerstner do their thinking for them.
As speeches alternated pro and con, two mentalities emerged: the optimists, typified by Gerstner and Kik, and encouraged by the assembly’s actions; and the pessimists, who evidently viewed the assembly’s concessions to evangelical criticism as tokenism, assuming an “all or nothing at all” stance toward CUP’s agenda of demands.
An example of the latter was Pastor Donald Crowe of Washington, Pennsylvania. Crowe objected that there was no expression of “true repentance” at the assembly, no acknowledgment of “sin or error.” It appears, he continued, that “the church cannot ‘endure sound doctrine’ but will endure ‘another gospel.’ ” Westminster College (Pennsylvania) philosophy professor Thomas M. Gregory wondered if the terms “heretical” and “apostate” still have significance in the UPCUSA. “How much meaning have orthodox affirmations when liberation and process theologians interpret them in the light of their heterodox perspectives? Can we Reformed evangelicals remain in such a church?”
After prolonged discussion, ruling elder James Thompson of Ligonier, Pennsylvania moved “that we find that the actions of the one hundred ninety-third general assembly … give insufficient evidence of repentance of the Kaseman decision and fall short of strengthening ordination vow number 3, and that therefore the denomination continues to be in a state of apostasy.…”
At this point CUP members went into executive session, with 44 persons, representing about 20 churches. All visitors, those who had already left the denomination, and even CUP members who had not judged the church to be apostate before the general assembly, were asked to leave the room. An hour and a half later, the 45 or so people waiting in the lobby were readmitted.
In an electric silence, chairman Dorst prepared to announce the verdict. It had been agreed that the actual count would not be released, but reportedly the vote was decisive, CUP decreed that the United Presbyterian Church “continues to be in a state of apostasy.” There was no vote on the matter of separation, the decision to leave or stay being left up to each individual.
In a telephone interview, Harold E. Scott, general presbyter of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, who had attended the CUP meeting, commented, “I am disappointed.… The denomination has taken a strong forward step. To declare the church apostate is to say that the Holy Spirit is no longer at work in the church, and I strongly disagree with that assumption.”
Gerstner likewise was disappointed. “The reason the majority didn’t see it our way,” he said in an interview, is that they were looking for too much from the general assembly. The church had committed a grievous offense and they felt there should have been explicit repentance. There was, in fact, implicit repentance.” He said he was surprised as well as relieved that the majority did not vote to secede. “I can’t conceive of remaining in a church judged to be apostate, but some may feel that they can do so.”
Ten days after the Pittsburgh meeting, the Pioneer church in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, and its pastor, Robert Hopper, voted to leave. The Gerstner family, active in that congregation for years, now will seek another UPCUSA fellowship in the area, as will others who cast negative votes.
And where are the separationists going? Most have affiliated with smaller Reformed evangelical bodies, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), and the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The EPC professes tolerance of charismatics and of those favoring, and conscientiously opposed to, women’s ordination.
Presbyterian Church in America
Absorb Rather Than Merge: Pca Plan Advances A Step
Three hours of debate covered subjects ranging from world evangelization strategies to annuities to justification. But when it was all over, the Presbyterian Church in America was committed to another step in its unprecedented plan to unite with two other conservative Presbyterian denominations.
At the eight-year-old denomination’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida, general assembly, 697 commissioners (delegates) heard that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, had accepted the PCA’s invitation to join. Their national governing bodies in late spring had taken a first constitutional step and sent the proposal to their presbyteries (districts) for a vote. Now it was up to the PCA to take a constitutional vote and send the matter to its presbyteries.
Despite opposition from such well-known PCA pastors as Ben Haden (of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, and speaker on the nationally syndicated “Changed Lives” radio and television programs), the “joining and receiving” plan got overwhelming assembly approval. Favoring reception of the older and smaller denominations were such ministers as D. James Kennedy, pastor of the host Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and president of Evangelism Explosion International, and R. C. Sproul, of the Ligonier Valley Study Center and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.
Attempts to postpone reception got little support, and the assembly took a separate vote on each denomination. The tally for receiving the RPCES was 523 to 79. The count on accepting the OPC was 422 to 187.
The argument over the OPC was more complicated than the one over the RPCES since a group of commissioners led by Covenant Seminary (St. Louis) professor O. Palmer Robertson wanted to postpone action until some satisfactory resolution is reached in an OPC controversy over the doctrine of justification. Until last year, Robertson was on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, where the debate arose more than five years ago over formulations by Prof. Norman Shepherd. Westminster is an independent institution with no formal ecclesiastical ties, but Shepherd is a member of an OPC presbytery.
Westminster president, Edmund P. Clowney, an OPC fraternal delegate at the Fort Lauderdale assembly and one of the principal supporters of the “joining and receiving” plan, was asked to explain the case. He appealed to the commissioners to hear the “positive side of the Shepherd formulation and to understand that the seminary and the presbytery were continuing to work through the controversy.
“I don’t think the OPC has been irresponsible,” the seminary president declared. He asked the PCA not to exclude his denomination because “of the problems we’ve been struggling with.”
In an attempt to put the matter into “layman’s language,” the Miami lawyer who had been elected moderator earlier in the week left the chair to speak in favor of OPC reception. Kenneth L. Ryskamp identified himself as chairman of the board of West-Continued minster seminary and one of several PCA men who serve there.
“I’ve invested five years of my life in this issue,” explained Ryskamp. In one of the assembly’s dramatic moments, he said that he voted three times to terminate the professor. He added that he still believed the theology teacher did not speak clearly enough to hold that position. However, Ryskamp pointed out, the OPC church court, which is responsible for the man’s view, had devoted 10 Saturday meetings and other time to reviewing the disputed doctrinal statement. He suggested the PCA should “not penalize the whole OPC on the basis of this.”
The moderator’s speech was followed quickly by a vote against postponing action, and then by an affirmative vote to proceed with reception of the OPC.
If the necessary majorities are achieved in all of the courts of the three denominations, consummation of the union may come as early as next June. The national governing bodies of all three are scheduled to meet simultaneously on the Calvin College campus (along with the two other members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed councils—the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America).
The resulting denomination could have as many as 115,000 communicant members in more than 800 congregations. The PCA passed the 80,000 mark at the end of last year. The RPCES has more than 22,000 members, and the OPC about 12,000.
Commissioners in Fort Lauderdale approved a $7.1 million budget for 1982, providing for further expansion of the denomination’s work, particularly its overseas outreach. More than $4 million is for the foreign missions arm, Mission to the World, which plans to have 200 long-term missionaries by the end of next year. A new short-term volunteer missions program will send still other workers primarily into support work where a second language is not required. The denomination’s innovative approach to cooperative work with other evangelical agencies was also reaffirmed. The PCA now has agreements with 20 such organizations. More than half its missionaries work through these agencies in such specialized work as medicine and translation.
Emile Cailliet, 86, long-time Princeton Theological Seminary professor, a respected scholar of French apologeticist Blaise Pascal, and an early supporter of both Young Life and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship; June 4 in Santa Monica, California, after a long illness.
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