By Peter J. Wallace (Fall, 2007)
What are the real differences between the OPC and the PCA? Most of the stories told in the OPC are told by ex-PCA’ers who had a bad experience in the PCA. And most of the stories told in PCA are told by former OP members or ministers who were frustrated in the OPC. And so the stereotypes grow!
Alternately, someone with experience in two or three OP churches generalizes from that to the whole OPC (or vice versa, with the PCA).
My own experience is somewhat
limited, but I have had the advantage of serving for the last six years as the
OPC pastor of a PCA church. Since I have the privilege of attending both sets
of presbytery meetings, I have widespread familiarity with the Great Lakes
Presbytery of the PCA, and the Presbytery of Michigan and
It is notoriously difficult to find any actual difference in doctrine between the OPC and the PCA. In recent years the OPC and PCA have issued substantially similar reports both on the Creation Days and the recent debates about Justification and Federal Vision. Official study papers contain virtually identical positions on social issues such as Women in Combat, Freemasonry, and Abortion.
The only significant place where the two denominations have diverged somewhat is in the matter of charismatic gifts. The OPC has emphatically maintained a strict cessationist position, while the PCA permits presbyteries to ordain non-cessationists if they do not believe that ongoing gifts are revelatory and they promise not to teach their distinctive views. (But many presbyteries in the PCA would refuse to ordain such a man).
The key to understanding the
differences between the
From reading the blogs, it appears that there is a perception out there that the PCA is dominated by contemporary worship, while the OPC is dominated by traditional worship. Others in the PCA perceive the OPC as hostile to anything resembling liturgy. In fact, many PCA churches are still hymnal-based, while a significant number of OPC congregations have developed songbooks for “blended” worship services. An increasing number of churches in both the OPC and the PCA have experienced a revival of classical Reformed liturgy (both in churches using “traditional” and “blended” music styles – and even some in the contemporary wings of both denominations). Very few churches in either branch practice exclusive psalmody, though appreciation for the Psalms is growing in many portions of both denominations.
The chief difference with respect to worship is that the PCA tends to permit more variety in practice (e.g., drama and liturgical dance). The PCA has also never adopted a Directory for Worship, while the OPC has been vigorously debating its revision for a number of years. But again, the operative statement is: some PCA presbyteries will permit things that most OPC presbyteries would not.
Here is where the rubber meets the road. Perhaps the biggest roadblock to union is found in a triumvirate of issues:
1. General Assembly
The OPC General Assembly consists of 150 commissioners, meets for one week, and carefully deliberates over all matters presented to it.
The PCA General Assembly potentially consists of every minister in the denomination and a roughly equal number of ruling elders (around 6,000). In fact the PCA Assembly usually has 1200-1500 commissioners, meets for less than four days, and moves very rapidly through its business. (And due to its size, and the sheer volume of appeals and complaints, the PCA has established a Standing Judicial Commission to handle judicial appeals).
2. Foreign Missions
The PCA requires its missionaries to raise their own support, and tends not to work with indigenous Reformed churches on the mission field.
The OPC handles support-raising through its denominational committee, and tends to work closely with indigenous Reformed churches on the mission field.
*Note on Missions
The PCA has one foreign missionary for every 442 communicant members, while the OPC has one foreign missionary for every 588 communicant members. What this means is that the PCA has one foreign missionary for every three congregations, while the OPC has one foreign missionary for every nine congregations. In other words, with three 164 communicant member congregations, the PCA can support one foreign missionary; while with nine 63 communicant member congregations, the OPC can support one foreign missionary.
It all comes down to economies of scale. With larger churches and larger budgets, the PCA is able to afford more missionaries. A survey of the missions’ giving of those OP congregations that average 200 members reveals that there is no noticeable difference between the two denominations in terms of actual missionary support.
3. Home Missions
The OPC handles home missions funding through its presbytery and General Assembly committees, and seems to favor the “mother church” model of overseeing mission works.
Most PCA church planters must raise their own support, and the PCA has increasingly turned to the use of “networks” of like-minded churches to fund church plants that are also like-minded, thereby effectively bypassing the presbytery. The PCA also frequently uses the “evangelist” model of church planting where the evangelist (under the general oversight of the presbytery’s home missions’ committee) has the powers of a session in his own person.
may wonder why I have not discussed the issue of subscription yet. The reason
is because the basic difference between the OPC and the PCA has to do with size.
The OPC has survived without a subscription controversy largely because of its
size – and because, for a long time, a large majority of our ministers were
trained at the same institution – Westminster Theological Seminary in
This account has not attempted to understand the historical and cultural factors that go into these differences. The southern roots of the PCA have been tempered somewhat by the influx of the RPCES, but the northern roots of the OPC have also been tempered somewhat by the influx of Dutch Reformed folk ever since the days of Van Til and Kuiper. A full understanding of why the OPC and PCA are different would need to understand the PCA’s experience in the PCUS, as well as the OPC’s experience in the barren and rocky soil of the north in the middle decades of the 20th century.