Does your church entertain, but not instruct?
Is it faithful to the Word of God, or does it teach from the pulpit trendy cultural innovations and the traditions of men?
Does it spend too much time, effort, and money expanding and adorning the building, and tacking on new programs that have little to do with godliness and everything to do with growing and pleasing the membership?
Does it ever leave you wondering what, exactly, your church and its leaders stand for? Does it leave you wondering what you believe?
For many Christians in America, the answer to all these questions is “yes.”
But there’s at least one denomination that’s trying to “do church” differently—to do things God’s way, as taught in the Bible and explicated in the founding documents of Presbyterianism.
“When the church fails, the culture declines,” said Rev. Joseph Morecraft III, one of the founders of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS) and pastor at the Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming, Georgia. “Now is the time to start working on building a second Christendom.”
The founding of a new Christendom may seem a tall order for a denomination that lists only a dozen churches on its home webpage (www.rpcus.com); but all Christians know the parable of the tiny mustard seed that grows into the biggest tree in the field.
“We are confident in the power of the Holy Spirit,” Rev. Morecraft said.
A “Distinctive” Denomination
The RPCUS came into being in 1983 when Rev. Morecraft’s Chalcedon Presbyterian Church congregation voted to separate from the Presbyterian Church in America.
“We believe that as Reformed churches we are to preserve Biblical Christianity, as understood by the Westminster Standards,” said Rev. John Otis, pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Mission, Corpus Christi, Texas. “We’re obviously not the only ones who do this. But it was for this purpose that we came together in the first place.”
The “Standards” are the Westminster Confession of Faith, with Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, and the Directory for Public Worship of God. English and Scottish Puritans, against the background of the English Civil War, drew up the Confession in 1646. This and the other documents have been “amended” several times since then, Rev. Morecraft said.
“The effect of those changes, over time, is to dilute the strict Calvinism of the Confession,” he said.
How did the RPCUS try to return to original Calvinism? Rev. Otis, who was the denomination’s moderator in 2005, explained.
“We have four ‘distinctives’ that make us different from other Presbyterian denominations,” he said. “Furthermore, we expect all our officers—pastors, elders, deacons—to give allegiance to every chapter of the Westminster Confession.”
Persons wanting to join the RPCUS, he added, only have to make “a credible profession of faith” to be accepted for church membership. Only officers have to subscribe to every detail of the Confession.
“I think our people like knowing exactly where their leaders stand and what they believe in,” he said.
The decision to form a new denomination, and the crystallization of the four distinctives, “happened pretty much simultaneously,” he said. “One inspired the other, and vice versa.”
Rev. Otis has written an article, “RPCUS Distinctives and the Westminster Standards,” about the four “distinctives” that make the RPCUS … well, distinctive.1 They are:
1. A commitment to presuppositional apologetics. Simply, this means that the Christian must presuppose the existence of God and the total authenticity of Scripture. “The Christian’s ultimate starting point is self-attesting Scripture,” Rev. Otis writes. This means that God’s Word, not man’s subjective feelings or imperfect reasoning, is the foundation of all truth, and all Christian reasoning must flow from it.
2. A commitment to God’s law. The RPCUS is a theonomic denomination: that is, it assumes and teaches that God’s laws, as given in the Bible, still apply today in every aspect of human life: “[T]he underlying principle of the case law is what is obligatory upon us today.”
3. A postmillennial eschatology. Postmillennialists believe that the Bible preaches the ultimate victory of the gospel of Jesus Christ in this world, in this age. God will make Christ’s enemies His footstool, as proclaimed by Psalm 110, and all nations will be converted to Christianity.
4. Only males to exercise power in the church. Only male heads of households vote in RPCUS congregational meetings, hold church offices, or confirm church officers. This is according to the Bible’s teachings on the respective roles in the church for men and women, Rev. Otis said.
“These distinctives are what sets us apart,” Rev. Morecraft said. “Certainly, the ultimate authority for anything we do is the Word of God. We believe that historic Westminster Calvinism, unedited and original, accurately explicates the Scriptures.”
Presupposing the Truth of Scripture
Sometimes there is a disconnect between theology and the people in the pews. Ordinary church members may wonder what a technical term like “presuppositional apologetics” has to do with them.
RPCUS pastors, Rev. Morecraft said, take pains to instruct their congregations.
“We run to longer Sunday services than most churches—up to two hours with the music—because there’s such a need for instruction and empowerment of the Word of God,” he said. “The purpose of our sermons is to explain, clarify, and expound on what the Bible teaches. And then we apply it to the context of how people live.”
Without putting the congregation through a seminary course, RPCUS pastors, in their sermons, apply a presuppositional apologetic to promote a Biblical worldview. “[I]t is pointless to argue endlessly with unbelievers about ‘the facts,’” Rev. Otis writes. “Rather, we must challenge the foolishness of the unbeliever’s philosophy of fact, his worldview.” Much of the sermonizing in the RPCUS deconstructs the secular view of life, exposing its fallacies, stripping away layer upon layer of assumptions made without God. Meanwhile, pastors teach their congregations to view all things through the lens of Scripture and reason out all things with the Bible as their starting point.
Rev. Christopher Strevel, pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Buford, Georgia, belongs to the first generation of pastors brought up and trained in the RPCUS. The church’s commitment to Biblical teaching, he said, makes the RPCUS special.
“I see this difference in the diligence with which our elders teach the various ages of Sunday school using the Shorter and the Larger Catechism[s],” he said, “in the resulting commitment to the Bible throughout the congregation, and the absolute lack of any feeling that it is necessary to modify or update the Bible to make it relevant. It is relevant because it’s God’s Word. We do not need to be hip or creative; we need to be faithful to what God has said.”
Children in the RPCUS, he said, attend the regular worship service “from their earliest age” instead of being shunted off to children’s services, as is the custom in some other denominations.
Does this commitment to teaching have the desired effect?
“As far as I know,” Rev. Morecraft said, “we do not have one member in our denomination who does not believe the world was created by God in six days about 6,000 years ago.”
“Although we’ve had our share of heartrending departures from the faith,” Rev. Strevel said, “the overwhelming majority of our young people are walking with the Lord. Most of the second generation has remained at Covenant Church, now raising their own families in the fear and admonition of the Lord.”
Theonomy in Daily Life
The RPCUS is a small denomination; but thanks to modern technology, the ministry reaches more listeners than one might think.
“Our influence is out of all proportion to our numbers,” Rev. Otis said.
“We don’t measure our success by numbers,” said Rev. Morecraft. “We plant churches wherever we can [one of these successful plantings has taken root in Ecuador], and meanwhile, our sermons on sermonaudio.com get us thousands of responses every month from all over the world.”
“We believe the numbers do matter at the end when the gospel takes over the earth,” Rev. Otis said. “Naturally, we’d like to see our numbers grow. But we won’t compromise to get there.”
For the time being, the denomination’s word gets out via the Internet, its own monthly magazine and newsletters, articles by RPCUS pastors published in other venues, and on the radio, too.
Pastor Jeff Black, at Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Wytheville, Virginia, hosts a thirty-minute radio show, which can be heard by anyone, anywhere, at any time, over the Internet.2 The show, “The Edinburgh Inn,” features “casual conversations about mere Christianity” with Rev. Black and his guests.
“With this program we are discussing basic Christian doctrine, following the section divisions of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Rev. Black said. (There are thirty-three chapters in the Confession.) The show’s archive offers twenty-four previous broadcasts, divided into two volumes of twelve each.
Some Christians bristle at the word “theonomy.” Non-Christians have tried to use it and terms like “dominionist” to conjure up visions of a faith-based tyranny on American soil.
But theonomy is one of the topics regularly discussed on “The Edinburgh Inn” under headings like “Is the Bible Sufficient for the 21st Century?” (Vol. 1, No. 11), and it’s unlikely these discussions will alarm anyone.
“We do use the Bible as the rule for our belief and practice,” Rev. Black said. “This is practically demonstrated by the in-depth and systematic teaching from the pulpit and the lectern.”
In their conversation, Black and his guests explain how God’s laws are to be applied to every phase of daily life today, even to such seemingly non-Biblical areas as driving a car or operating a nuclear power plant. “Not in those express words,” one of the guests adds, “but in the application of Biblical principles. For instance, the Bible teaches you to love your neighbor and to be careful of his person and his property. So you’ll have to drive safely and obey the rules of the road, etcetera.”
“We are quite aware of the controversy in the Reformed world over this point [theonomy],” Rev. Otis writes, “and we are grieved that this is even an issue.” The controversy is over “the continuing validity of the judicial or case laws of the Old Testament for our modern culture.” The RPCUS’ conclusion, quoting theologian Gregory Bahnsen, is that “we are now required to keep the underlying principle (or ‘general equity’) of these laws.”
“There is nothing new about our position on theonomy,” Rev. Morecraft said. “The source of all public and private morality is God’s law—and if not the law of God in the Bible, then what?
“Everybody, in his heart of hearts, knows sin is to be punished. We know that everybody suppresses the truth in unrighteousness; but Romans 1 teaches us that we already have the truth within us.
“Here is our teaching, as simply as I can put it. Only God can perfectly distinguish good from evil, and He does so in the Bible. Only God can define what is a criminal act, and He does so in the Bible. And only God can justly define how crime is to be punished, and He does so in the Bible. When man tries to do these things, guided by his own subjective standards, he is erratic and arbitrary.”
God’s laws, he said, are not to be imposed on American society.
“For one thing, the government does not have the authority to punish every sin. Only God has that authority,” he said. “We reject any wholesale, forced, coercive attempt to institute these laws. Rather, we want to see people joyfully, from the heart, try to bring themselves, their families, their churches, their businesses, and their governments under the law of God.”
The Victory of the Gospel
“Postmillennialism”—another one of those theological terms—is key to the RPCUS’ teaching.
The postmillennial position, as discussed by Rev. Otis in his article, is a belief in “the victory of the gospel in space and time during the present millennial age. The Great Commission of Christ in Matthew 28:18–20 will be accomplished in history prior to Christ’s Second Coming. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea … King Jesus will take possession of His inheritance as was promised Him by the Father.”
A postmillennial outlook makes a difference in a believer’s life and thought, Rev. Morecraft explained, and in his morale, too.
“People follow the news and lose heart. It seems the world is getting worse, not better,” he said. “But we are taught to walk not by sight, but by faith. I don’t base my faith on news reports, but on the Word of God. And we are to believe that Word in spite of everything we see.
“We are to be like Abraham. When God told this ninety-year-old man that he and his wife were going to have a baby, Abraham believed Him. But if he’d only gone by what he could see, he never would have believed.”
American Christians, he said, should not take their country’s problems as evidence that God will be unable to keep His promises.
“For America in the short run,” he said, “we can expect God’s judgment. But these setbacks are to prepare us for continuing victories in the future.
“Throughout history, we see many examples of what I call microcosmic postmillennialism—the conversion of whole nations to Christianity, the birth of new nations, and so on. But even if we saw no microcosmic postmillennialism in history, we are still to believe the Word of God.”
“A prayer for the kingdom of sin and Satan to be destroyed is a prayer for the victory of the gospel in the millennial age,” Rev. Otis writes. “Since prayer is a means ordained by God to bring about His sovereign decrees, would God have us pray for something that He does not intend to accomplish? Of course not!”
Farewell to Feminism
In our feminist-influenced age, it may seem strange or even wrong for a church to restrict voting to men and allow only men to serve as church officers. But that’s not the only unusual thing about the RPCUS.
“Our worship services,” Rev. Black said, “are determined by God’s Word. We make a serious effort to do only what God commands or demonstrates by example in His worship. If He hasn’t authorized it, we don’t do it. If He has forbidden it, we don’t do it.”
So not only will you find no female preachers or elders in an RPCUS church, but no rock bands, comedy routines, magic acts, goddess worship, altar dancing, Buddhist chanting, or multimedia extravaganzas either. The music used in RPCUS services, Rev. Morecraft said, is simple, based on the Psalms and other Scriptures, and traditional hymns. The church buildings themselves are simple and unpretentious: see the picture of the church on the Chalcedon Presbyterian Church website, www.chalcedon.org.
“It was the women in our church who demanded that our selection of elders adhere to the Biblical standard,” Rev. Morecraft said. “Without believing in the inferiority of women—which certainly I don’t—we are required to follow the Bible’s teaching. It is not oppression of women to follow the Bible and insist that elders be elected by male heads of households only. Those who are of the opinion that it is ought to consult the women in our church.”
Women in the RPCUS, Rev. Otis writes, “did not view this prohibition [on their voting] as an act of tyranny or as an attempt to control or subjugate women in the church. Some said that they viewed this prohibition as a blessing in that they felt relieved of the burden of responsibility that more properly belongs to their husbands … If your church is grounded in the Word of God, your women will desire faithful male headship in all areas of life … Regardless of what you think the response of women in your church will be, you must act Biblically. Be courageous, and the Lord will honor you.”
Or, to put it in the form of a question, would a woman rather belong to a godly church where she cannot vote, or a less-than-godly church where she can?
But America is a big country, and RPCUS churches are still few and far between.
“What to say to people who live in a part of the country where there isn’t any RPCUS church?” Rev. Black said. “Seek the strongest Bible-preaching church in your area, then supplement your teaching with good books and good sermons from www.sermonaudio.com. Of course, I would highly recommend Dr. Joe Morecraft’s sermons on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
“If there are several families somewhere that together desire to see an RPCUS church in their area, they should contact the stated clerk—which is me, Pastor Jeff Black—at www.thebiblealone.com.”
“We do not believe that we are the only legitimate Presbyterian denomination,” Rev. Otis writes, “but we do believe that God has raised us up to be guardians of a special treasure—the Westminster Standards … We do say to all our Reformed brothers, ‘Come, join us, and stand with us as together we champion the cause of King Jesus.’”
“In this hour of pluralistic compromise, fear, and secularist hatred of Biblical faith,” Rev. Strevel said, “I believe the RPCUS shines a bright light to its families, teaching them that compromise and synthesis are not necessary to preserve the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Be faithful to God’s Word, and He will take care of the rest.”
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.