The ARP has a rich and storied heritage in the faith. This blessed heritage is a direct result of the faithfulness of God, which he has demonstrated time and time again to us over the past 200+ years. He was present with our Scottish forefathers as they sought the reformation of the church in Scotland. He strengthened and upheld our covenanting forefathers as they fought to maintain the rightful place of Christ as the head of his church
Along with one of our ruling elders, I had the privilege of representing our congregation at the 209th meeting of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held from June 10-13, 2013. Synod was great, and we had a wonderful time. As usual it was an opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Also, for the first time in five years there was joyful, encouraging, and fraternal spirit among the delegates. As we concluded Synod with the singing of our traditional version of Psalm 133, I felt that I could sing with gusto the words, “Behold how good a thing it is, and how becoming well, together such as brethren are in unity to dwell.”
As I have reflected on the meeting of Synod and the current condition of the ARP Church, I am reminded of the sustaining and reforming grace of Christ at work in our denomination. I am greatly encouraged and thankful for the effects of this grace that I have witnessed in recent years. At the same time, however, I am concerned about our future. We face some significant challenges, and these challenges aren’t simply external. The challenges which the increasing secularization of western culture present are compounded by some significant challenges we face within our denomination.
The ARP has a rich and storied heritage in the faith. This blessed heritage is a direct result of the faithfulness of God, which he has demonstrated time and time again to us over the past 200+ years. He was present with our Scottish forefathers as they sought the reformation of the church in Scotland. He strengthened and upheld our covenanting forefathers as they fought to maintain the rightful place of Christ as the head of his church. He buttressed the Marrow Men who led the charge against hyper-Calvinism to reclaim the free offer of the Gospel of Christ in the Church of Scotland. He provided a way for the Associate Presbyterians and the Reformed Presbyterians in America to merge and form the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He, then, led the newly formed denomination to organize a separate Synod of the South in 1803 that later became the General Synod of the ARP Church that we know today. The Lord has indeed been faithful to us, and we are a thankful people.
This historical faithfulness of God is a great encouragement to us because the reality of God’s past faithfulness in Christ is the guarantee of the fulfillment of his future promises. The security that is ours as a result of this truth should motivate us to further faithfulness and collective repentance unto the Lord. And, we’ve recently witnessed some of that in our denominational life.
A Renewed Commitment to Being Confessional
The ARP Church is a confessional church. We have as our doctrinal standards the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Every member of an ARP congregation is asked to affirm his/her belief that these doctrinal standards are agreeable to and founded upon the Word of God. Further, every officer of the congregation, including deacons, elders, and ministers, are asked to affirm his conviction that the WCF and Catechisms are founded upon the Word of God and are an expression of his own faith. In addition, he is asked to pledge his adherence to these doctrinal standards. Such a requirement for those involved in ARP congregations, especially for the officers, would lead one to believe that the WCF has a central place in the life of the ARP Church. But, that has not always been the case.
A report from Synod’s Special Vision Committee in 2006 found a significant “lack of theological unity, a tolerance for mediocrity, a crisis of biblical instruction, and a tendency towards ‘moralism'” within the ARP Church. How can this be for a denomination that not only has, but also requires adherence to, a confessional standard as thorough and rich as the Westminster Confession of Faith? Think about it. Why is there a lack of theological unity if we have a standard of theological doctrine to which we require adherence? Why is there a tolerance for mediocrity if our doctrinal standard holds that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WCF SC #1)?
Everything we do should be done to the glory of God; therefore, it should be excellent. Why is there a crisis of biblical instruction when the WCF begins, “…[T]he light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God…yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation…[a fact] which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary” (WCF I.1)? And finally, why is there a tendency toward moralism when the doctrines of total depravity and substitutionary atonement permeate our confession of faith? There is only one explanation: we have, at times in our history, failed to take our commitment to the WCF seriously.
But, I am encouraged by the fact that in recent years there has been a renewed commitment to our confession and to being a confessional denomination. In 2012, we adopted a statement affirming the historicity of Adam and Eve, and this year we adopted a motion to study the theological consistency of our current version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which contains two chapters – “Of the Holy Spirit” and “Of the Gospel” – that are not original to the confession. These intellectual commitments are much needed. We have also witnessed some signs of a more biblical confessional adherence, which is an intellectual adherence to the truth that is rooted in gospel-transformed hearts. Peter instructs his readers to “regard Christ the Lord as holy [in your hearts], always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience…” (1 Peter 3:15-16, ESV). Here Peter calls us to “a reasonable piety,” which is the preservation of holy hearts along with a reasonable defense of the hope that is in them. The ARP Church as a whole, I believe, is moving in this direction, and it is a good thing.
A Need for Further Commitment to the Great Commission
I am also tremendously encouraged by what appears to be a growing sense of commitment to fulfilling the mission of the church within our denomination. This is a perfect balance to our renewed commitment to being confessional. In fact, we may even say that the two go hand in hand, that they are complementary. And, we would be right. As Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure from the earth, he commissioned them to go into all the world to make disciples of all peoples on his behalf and in his authority. This mission on which he sent them is two-fold. First, they were to go to all the peoples of the world so as to engage them for Christ and to make known his glory. Second, they were make disciples of these peoples to whom they went. The making of disciples involved evangelizing them, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ has taught his disciples. This is a mission of multiplication. Jesus made disciples, and his disciples were to make disciples as well – not of themselves, but of Jesus. Here is the confessional connection. We have a confession of faith that has systematized the eternal and absolute truth of God, and we have divinely appointed mission to go to those who need the truth of God without which they have no hope. We take this truth to them through the message of reconciliation that is the proclamation of what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is essential to the life of the ARP Church for several reasons. First, Jesus commissioned his church to be about his business until he should return. He has not yet returned. Therefore, being committed to the Great Commission is a matter of biblical faithfulness and obedience. Second, it is a matter of the love of God. As God’s people we are called to love the things and the people that he loves. As we grow in grace and become more like Christ our hearts should overflow with the love and mercy of Christ for those who know not their ways. Commitment to the Great Commission is a matter of Christian maturity. If we are to be a denomination of mature disciples of Christ, we must be committed to the mission of God. Therefore, I pray that the Lord will bring this growing sense of commitment to his mission into full bloom so as to make us into a church that is fully committed to fulfilling mission that Christ has given us.
A Loosening Connectivity
Now that I have shared these two great encouragements, let me turn my attention to a couple concerns I have for our future. One of the hallmarks of any strong Presbyterianism is its connectional relationship between the local congregations and between the presbyteries within the Synod or General Assembly. This connectional relationship has certainly been a strength of the ARP Church throughout our history. But, I am afraid that the connective bonds between our congregations and presbyteries are weakening. At Synod, a report of the Board of Stewardship contained the troubling statement that close to 1/3 of our congregations did not contribute to Denominational Ministry Fund in 2012. (This fund is used to support the work of the denomination. It’s important to note congregations who contribute or do not contribute to this fund do so voluntarily.) My concern is not over the amount of money contributed or not contributed to the denomination. It is that the number of congregations not contributing to the fund continues to grow year by year, and I believe this is symptomatic of a greater problem.
Congregations do not see the value of building and maintaining the relationships they have with one another. To me, this is evidence that the individualism of our culture is being absorbed at the congregational level. This is troublesome because Christ came to build for himself a people, a body, a family who lives under his direction to accomplish his purposes. When a congregation who has the resources to give intentionally withholds its resources from the common work of the Church, it is, in most cases, doing one of two things. It is either exerting its independence from the denomination and so becoming more and more individualistic in its understanding of its life and ministry (i.e., my bills, my ministries, my programs, my building maintenance, etc. are most important). Or, it is withholding its resources in an effort to exert control or influence over the Synod and her agencies. Both of these ecclesial philosophies are detrimental to the life of the denomination and local congregations, and I believe are very present in the ARP Church today.
Because unity and trust are relational virtues, the net effect of this loosening connectivity is a growing sense of disunity and distrust within our denomination. As informal relationships begin to breakdown, ministers, elders, congregations, and presbyteries become guarded in a effort to survive rather than flourish with the other members of the denomination. Unless this troublesome trend is addressed by God’s unifying grace it will cause the further fragmentation of our denomination.
A Longing for a Clear Kingdom Vision
I believe the problem of this loosening connectivity is compounded by the fact that we do not have a clear, God-sized Kingdom vision. What I mean by this is quite simple. We don’t have a clear-cut picture of what a confessional, connectional denomination that actively seeks to fulfill the Great Commission looks like. That is not to say, however, that we have not done any work to develop a vision. Indeed, we’ve done a lot. I referenced a Vision Committee report earlier. This committee did a great job assessing our current strengths and weaknesses. We’ve also had a Strategic Planning Committee working for a number of years to develop a strategic plan for our denomination. The committee did some good work and identified some ministry emphases and criteria for the ARP Church in the coming years. And so, we’ve been diligently working to address the necessity of purpose, mission, and vision as the Church moves forward in the 21st century. But, the efforts of this work have not resulted in a comprehensive vision that focuses on the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom to the ends of the earth by making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded us. Solomon wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people will perish” (Prov. 29:18). Thus, I believe the long-term health and life of the ARP Church depends on the development of a clear, God-sized Kingdom vision of which people can grab a hold, in which they believe, and in which they willingly desire to invest their time, talents, and resources.
There is much for which to be thankful for those of us in the ARP Church. The Lord is doing a great work of renewal in our midst. We are encouraged that his grace is still at work through his Spirit. And, along with that great work of grace, we also face some significant challenges. But, though these challenges are ominous, they do not thwart the work of God. For his promise is sure, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Therefore, we are not disheartened; we are encouraged.
The Psalmist says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). The ARP Church is thankful to our faithful God, and we charge ahead meeting our challenges head first trusting always in the providential grace of our Savior.
Clint Davis is Pastor of Chester ARP Church in Chester, S. C.