The atmosphere was intense. An auditorium of leaders debated whether they would vote their denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES), out of existence. Before them was a dramatic proposal that their entire church join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) through a process people were calling “J&R,” an abbreviation of “Joining and Receiving.” One participant would later describe J&R as a plan for denominational hara-kiri – ritual suicide. Why would these men want to end their thriving denomination?
It was May, 1981. Commissioners for the annual synod of the RPCES were gathered high atop Lookout Mountain, Ga., on the campus of their school, Covenant College. That first vote on J&R succeeded, but three more were needed – two by the RPCES, one by the PCA. Over fifteen years of ecumenical and evangelical ferment was nearing a climax. Already the RPCES had experienced a merger (1965), the PCA had been formed (1973), the RPCES and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) had nearly merged (1975), and leaders of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches had formed a joint council, NAPARC (1976).
What exactly was J&R? As a young denomination, the PCA was not ready to negotiate about its new identity. Older churches like the OPC and the RPCES knew mergers were thorny. What if one or more of the older yet smaller denominations simply joined (and were received by) the larger PCA? Leaders motivated by passages such as John 17 and Ephesians 4 created the surprising J&R plan.
The PCA originally invited the OPC, the RPCES, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA, the Covenanters). By the spring of 1982, only the RPCES remained as a willing and viable suitor. When a sufficient number of RPCES and PCA presbyteries voted in favor of the J&R plan, the RPCES proceeded to take a final vote at its synod of 1982.
Adding to the drama, the PCA and RPCES held concurrent annual meetings in Grand Rapids in June, 1982. When the RPCES synod voted in favor by over 78%, at least part of the J&R dream was achieved. Two days later, June 14, the PCA officially received the RPCES. Soon after, an unexpected event happened in the PCA’s Ascension Presbytery. The RPCES presbytery in the region had strongly opposed J&R. Soon after J&R went through, the leader of that opposition initiated a get-acquainted meeting at his church for the area presbyters of the newly united churches.
What has happened in the decades since J&R? The PCA re-invited the OPC to join them, but the 1986 vote by the OPC came as they were celebrating their 50th anniversary. Few were surprised that the vote failed. After that, enthusiasm for getting together cooled as the OPC preferred to discuss merger and the PCA clung to the J&R process.
Some cooperation can be found – Great Commission Publications, a joint venture of the PCA and OPC — is a shining example. However, limited formal and informal contacts can’t hide the lack of creative exploration at national, regional, and local levels. The spirit among many Presbyterians seems to be, “There is little chance for further joining in our lifetime, so why try more than the status quo?”
Overtures inspired by the 30th anniversary of J&R will be discussed at this year’s PCA General Assembly in Louisville June 19-22. They urge the PCA to remember her J&R history and renew efforts to engage other biblical Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, their presbyteries, and their congregations in active, meaningful, creative interchurch relations.
How might this be done? Churches with a NAPARC neighbor can seek fellowship, joint worship, and even joint ministries. Churches without such neighbors should learn to be better connected to PCA neighbors. Presbyteries can exchange fraternal delegates with overlapping NAPARC regional bodies. Assemblies could return to the practice of holding concurrent meetings at the same location and look for new ways to collaborate. Knowledge and love should replace ignorance and stereotypes.
In 1980 James Boice’s Philadelphia congregation was leaving the liberal northern Presbyterians and struggling over which conservative church to join. Boice asked Ed Clowney if there was any hope those churches might get together. Clowney replied, “Humanly speaking, there is hardly a chance in the world. But I believe the merger will occur because God requires it.” J&R offers a lesson for all who love the larger church and wonder if the PCA can experience more fully the unity she shares with others: Follow the leading of Christ, the Lord of the church – He loves to surprise us!
Dr. Bill Johnson is a PCA teaching elder currently ministering to seniors as a chaplain in Pittsburgh, Pa. He writes about interchurch relations at ephesians4v3.blogspot.com.
A final note: Those who would like read more about the history of Great Commission Publications might want to read “By the Grace of God It Was Done,” by the PCA’s Tom Patete. A chapter was published in the OPC 75th anniversary volume, Confident of Better Things, which can be ordered here: http://www.opc.org/historian.html