ARP and RPCNA Synods Meet Concurrently

The Synods met concurrently at the ARP Bonclarken conference grounds in Flat Rock, NC

I like to think of our goals in two areas. First, we have a goal of celebrating the unity that we already have in Christ. And second, we have a goal of furthering our relationship with the ARP church by promoting dialogue and interaction on a variety of levels. To be clear, this is not a proposal that the two denominations merge. Rather it is an acknowledgement that we share many things in common and that it would be beneficial for us both to develop a closer bond.

 

When the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) Synod met in the summer of 2014, we accepted an invitation from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) Synod to hold our respective 2015 meetings concurrently at the ARP Bonclarken conference grounds in Flat Rock, NC. This invitation came after ten years of patient efforts between our two denominations. Over that time we have been in the process of becoming more familiar with each other as sister churches, and working to strengthen one another.

For instance, over the last decade, we have invited an ARP pastor to preach at a devotional service during our synod meeting. We have been encouraged from God’s Word by pastors like Sinclair Ferguson, Mark Ross, Frank VanDalen, and Jeff Kingswood.

We have also invited representatives from different ARP ministries to introduce us to the work God has placed in their hands. We have learned about their Global Missions, especially in Pakistan. We have learned about their Home Missions, their higher education at Erskine College and Seminary, and their publications. In similar fashion, RP ministers have been invited to preach to the ARP Synods, and we have sent men that have experience in the vital ministries that God has placed in our hands. We have also collaborated together, producing a Psalter that the ARP now use in their worship, and sharing study from our recent revision of the Directory for Church Government. So when the ARP invited us to have concurrent Synods next summer it reflects many years of intentional effort to draw closer together relationally.

What has motivated this deliberate dialogue?

Ultimately, Christ and His mediation motivate us to work hard at the unity of the church. Let me confess here my own sense of inadequacy to say anything new about the endeavor to see the unity of the church worked out in tangible ways. I know that Jesus has prayed that we would be one even as He and the Father are one. But practically speaking, it is hard to imagine a way forward. I have sometimes thought of this effort as a Gordian knot. Just look at the history of Presbyterianism and you will see the snarl of which I speak. The way Presbyterian churches relate is a tangled pursuit of doctrine, of differing cultures, and often of sinful divisions. The prospect of seeking unity in the church can seem hopeless. Moreover, this difficult process tends to lead to despair and apathy in the face of what seems to be a trackless, unsolvable labyrinth.

So when the RP Interchurch Committee considers the work of seeking out the unity of the church, we are very conscious of all the things that stand in the way of the unity of the church. In addition, we remain committed to the distinctives of the church, even though we recognize that they often throw up an immediate obstacle in the process of seeking unity.

For instance, let me tell about our early efforts with the ARP. In 2002-2003 our Interchurch Committee began to think carefully about reaching out to one of the Reformed and Presbyterian denominations that already exist, thinking about each one from a perspective of doctrine, worship, and church culture. We were led to consider reaching out to the ARP because of a certain sense of kinship. Our respective histories in the United States have similarities, even tracing back to related roots in the Reformation in Scotland and England. We also share a common commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechisms. And when you visit the ARP Synod you find a similar ethos of family heritage. In addition, the ARP had also been a Psalm singing denomination until the early twentieth century. But since they had decided to change their practice to use hymns in worship, we foresaw an immediate obstacle. In fact, that very issue came out in our first meeting with a delegation of the ARP. “We sing Psalms.” “We sing hymns.” Stalemate. Our Committee walked away from that meeting deflated, with a sense of despair and apathy building. How can there be any progress when we will inevitably come up against these important convictions?

Nevertheless, Christ has prayed for the unity of the church. Over the course of the next several months our Committee mulled over our meeting with the ARP. When we came back together we acknowledged the truth of where we were, but then concluded that we were not satisfied to just let the matter drop there. We could have walked away and said, “Well, we tried our best.” Instead, we began to talk about other ways that the church at large demonstrates unity and how we might benefit from a closer association to the ARP. Whether or not our two churches merge is not the question of the moment. We believe that there are measurable and achievable goals that would bless us both now. We believe that those goals are worth the cost and effort of sustained, intentional relationship building. And we believe that since it is Christ’s prayer that we be one that we ought not turn away quickly from the hard work of pursuing the visible oneness of the church of God.

So we have pursued such a course, a course to build a closer connection to the ARP. In God’s providence, through these efforts we have come to know our brothers and sisters in the ARP better. And in the process we have come to love them more deeply, too.

What do we hope to achieve by this concurrent Synod?

I like to think of our goals in two areas. First, we have a goal of celebrating the unity that we already have in Christ. And second, we have a goal of furthering our relationship with the ARP church by promoting dialogue and interaction on a variety of levels. To be clear, this is not a proposal that the two denominations merge. Rather it is an acknowledgement that we share many things in common and that it would be beneficial for us both to develop a closer bond.

First, celebrating the unity that we already have in Christ – In 2015, the full Synods of the ARP and RPCNA will meet concurrently at Bonclarken. The meeting itself is both a goal and an expression of unity. It represents an important step beyond the current stage of merely sending representatives back and forth. The two bodies will meet in person. It could be said that the primary measurable goal is this “reunion” itself. While each Synod will devote time to concentrate on its own business, we will also schedule times together. I personally look forward to having joint sessions for worship. We celebrate our unity in Christ most significantly in worship. By the way, the ARP has already committed to sing just the Psalms in our times together. In addition, we plan times to pray with and for each other in smaller settings. Here we can lift up our voices together to uphold the kingdom work of Christ that we are each doing.

Second, furthering our relationship with the ARP church – At the concurrent Synod, we have crafted a schedule that will be conducive to interaction with each other. This includes an afternoon period when our major boards will present a series of brief seminars with the corresponding ministries of the ARP with a view to inform and learn from one another. This will include four major areas where parallel work is going on: Global Missions, Home Missions, Education/Seminaries (e.g. Geneva College, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Erskine College and Seminary), and Publications. We’ve left the content up to each Board to determine, but we imagine working together to answer questions like: How do you understand your mission? What is your vision? How do you seek to accomplish it? What obstacles do you face? What successes have you had? What would you like to see come out of this joint meeting? What next steps might be valuable for ministry cooperation, etc? Each seminar will be offered three times, giving delegates opportunity to circulate through the different presentations. The point is that we have vision and experience to share with our brothers. And we can learn from their vision and labors. It may be that other collaborative efforts would grow out of these steps, too. Even now representatives from the different Boards are in dialogue with each other about their work and about the upcoming meeting.

Then we envision that meeting concurrently will further relationships in many intangible ways. The agenda includes time for informal fellowship over meals and breaks, and recreation among ARPs and RPs. As happens in our own Synod meetings, delegates often enjoy renewing friendships, developing new ones, sharing needs, praying for one another, etc. For this to happen we need to be in the same place.

In conclusion, let me suggest a couple of ways that you can participate in this effort. Please be praying for the upcoming concurrent Synod meeting with the ARP this summer. The advancement of the kingdom of Christ comes at the cost of the enemy and the enemy is not passive. Pray for peace and unity in heart and words and actions among the delegates meeting.

Get to know our ARP brothers. Read about their history. Become acquainted with their authors, their ministries, the men and women who service Christ in a variety of capacities. Check out their website (www.arpchurch.org) and their book store (www.arpbookstore.com). If you travel in the south where there are few RP congregations, make it a point to connect with an ARP congregation on the Lord’s Day. Enjoy worship and fellowship with a sister church. (Here is a directory of their churches: www.arpchurch.org/arp-church-directory)

Finally, I urge you to remember that Jesus has prayed that the church would be one. If we adopt a Gordian knot perspective, we would be justified in throwing up our hands in despair over the fractured nature of the church. But in doing so we would implicitly turn away from the doctrine that Christ loves and cleanses His church. We would be denying the very thing that Jesus prays for. Instead, may His prayer and His mediation give you hope for the day that divisions will cease. May we pray fervently for such reformation of the church and then labor toward this great end.

Bruce Parnell is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and is pastor of Stillwater Reformed Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, Okla.

×

Aquila Report iOS and Android smart-phone apps are available Download Now