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Question and Answer

Withdrawing from the OPC

Question:

I would like to know where I can find out the legislative history of FG XVI, 7 regarding dissuasion. I thank you in advance for your handling of my question.

Answer:

Your question is a good one. I'm unable personally to give a history of the item in the OPC Form of Government [FG XVI, 7], but I can explain the background for its being a well-laid-out part of required procedure.

First, the OPC was formed officially on June 11, 1936, of churches which in whole of in part had left the parent denomination—the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). All such congregations, with one exception, lost their church buildings and all associated property. That is possibly the reason why the number of exiting congregations was so disappointingly few.

The one exception was the Second Parish Presbyterian Church in Portland, Maine, which had been formed through a merger between a Congregational congregation and a Presbyterian one. Because the physical property had never come under the legal ownership of the PCUSA, the congregation was able, after a court battle, to keep its property. I was a member of that church almost from the beginning of the OPC till my marriage and later ordination in 1938.

Historically, in the PCUSA the presbytery held title to the church property and had the power to grant or deny any of its congregations the privilege of separating from the denomination. Our biblical reasons for separating from the PCUSA put us into an adversarial situation with the parent denomination so that the PCUSA went to court to retain control of church properties—even Second Parish Church—in contravention of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

I'm unable at the moment to put my hands on our previous Form of Government, but our policy was from the beginning against the PCUSA practice of using legal ownership of property to dissuade unhappy congregations from leaving the parent body.

Our reasoning was that membership in any church is voluntary. And just as we have in our Book of Discipline spelled out ways a member may or may not separate from his church without reproach, the same applies to individual congregations. So we have from the first refused to use ownership of property as a club against congregations wishing to leave us.

That determination came to an early test in 1937 when the OPC was just a year old. The original Bible Presbyterian Church was formed from a number of dissenting congregations who, for both doctrinal and ecclesiastical reasons, left the denomination. It was a grievous time, but the continuing OPC (though it was named The Presbyterian Church of America at the time) let them go.

It took over three decades to come up with a thoroughly revised Form of Government (FG). It was finally adopted by the General Assembly of 1978. I am not sure whether FG XVI #7 in its present form is un-amended from that time, but it stands as a reasonable process for separation.

Only one church that I know of has by-passed the process. It did so by mass resignations and joinings of the denomination of which they are now a member, though the continuing minority has retained its physical property. But, just as a session is obliged to attempt to dissuade a member from leaving the church, so a presbytery is obliged to use its powers of dissuasion against a congregation's leaving. And as long as that congregation is under the immediate oversight of its presbytery as a congregational unit, some open process must be provided. This FG XVI #7 does. And in case there is a minority of members opposed to leaving, the OPC has the duty to make provision for their continuing in the OPC with constitutional oversight as paragraph c provides.

I've not expounded the provisions of FG XVI #7 to you. They are quite clear. But, in sum, this provision uses nothing beyond the power of persuasion. Many congregations have used this provision to unite with other denominations, or to become independent. Conversely, a good number of whole congregations have joined the OPC with equal ease. We do not attempt to "steal" congregations, nor do we encourage such to leave our fold.

Schism is a serious sin. This is not to say that ALL separating congregations are thereby declared guilty of sin against the unity of the visible church (whose unity is disunity is very evident in the church's present state on earth). but we take seriously John 13:34-35 and 17:20-21 as applying to the visible church as well as the body of Christ invisible. We recognize divisions in the visible church as being necessary due to remaining sinfulness of saints on earth. We do not, however, want to exacerbate her divisions, but rather promote her unity insofar as we are able.

I hope this is an adequate answer to your question.


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