By Parnell McCarter


I have recently been in discussions with some in the RPCNA regarding denominational affiliation.  One very practical question each of us should ask is whether we should join a church body with an erroneous confession of faith and a faulty manner of confessional subscription and seek to improve the situation in it, or whether we should join a church body with a true confession of faith and full confessional subscription to it.  The scripture is not silent on this question, for it asserts that the church is assigned the role of “pillar of truth” (I Timothy 3:15), and not merely individual Christians.  It is important for the testimony of the Christian faith that the church body we join proclaim a true confession to the world, so that the world may know the truth.  And church officers especially, but even church members, are called to defend the true ecclesiastical confession of faith (Titus 1:9), which means they must believe it themselves. 


I have heard some object that my position is contrary to the writings of theologians such as Durham and Rutherford.  They assert theologians like Rutherford would have thought it good and advisable to be joined with the RPCNA.  But Rutherford's own actions contradict such an interpretation of what he has written.  Here is how one partisan has described it:

" The first crucial juncture was when the majority of ministers (i.e., the Resolutioners) forsook the Covenants that they had solemnly vowed to uphold and, thus also, when they scornfully abandoned the true Church of Scotland (i.e., the Protesters, who were led by Samuel Rutherford, Patrick Gillespie, James Guthrie, Hugh Binning, James Fergusson [N.B. the quote on the "Ye who love the Lord, hate evil" booklet] and 21 other Covenanters). The covenant-breaking of the Resolutioners, their tyrannical deposing of sound and godly Covenanter (i.e., Protester) ministers, and also their hostile and vitriolic attacks against the genuine Church of Scotland (again, the Protesters); led Samuel Rutherford and the other Covenanters correctly to call the Resolutioners "a pretended assembly." In addition, viewing the wicked compromise, defection, and tolerationist policies of the Resolutioners; Samuel Rutherford and the other Protesters tearfully prayed for the salvation of the covenant-breaking Resolutioners."

I personally agree with James Durham's conduct in this controversy more than Rutherford's.  As noted at http://www.electricscotland.com/history/other/durham_james.htm :

"In the divisions which took place between the resolutioners and protesters, Mr Durham took neither side. When the two parties in the synod of Glasgow met separately, each elected him their moderator, but he refused to join them, until they should unite, and a junction fortunately took place."

My interpretation of James Durham is that he believed so long as a church adhered to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the Westminster Standards and reasonably sought to implement those standards, one should not separate. I think Samuel Rutherford believed the same, but at different points in his life gave more or less leeway and patience, depending upon historical context.


"An orthodox Church divided in itself in some circumstantial truths (to speak so) or contrary practices and actings, when still agreeing in the fundamentals of doctrine, worship, discipline and government, and having mutual esteem of the integrity one of another, what, I say, such are called to do for the healing of that breach?"

According to context, Durham meant by "the fundamentals of doctrine, worship, discipline and government" to be the Biblical positions outlined in the Westminster Standards.  He was then saying, *if* people are agreed in these (ie, the positions outlined in the Westminster Standards concerning doctrine, worship, discipline and government), then they should not separate, even if there are differences on circumstantial truths or some contrary practices.


Rutherford and Durham believed in patience with the established Churches of England and Scotland before the years 1638-1650 because both churches had come out of the Church of Rome, adopted Protestant confessions, and were engaging in struggle within themselves between their puritan and less puritan elements.  They did not believe it was right to prematurely abandon such churches in flux, which had not so clearly rejected and separated themselves from sound positions.  That is different from a denomination which has been separately formed- leaving a denomination of sound confession - because it definitively disagrees with the Biblical positions outlined in the Westminster Standards, as the OPC, PCA, RPCNA, etc. have done.


So my overall interpretation of Durham and Rutherford is that they believed we should be united upon the Biblical doctrines, worship and church government outlined in the original Westminster Standards. The reason such painstaking efforts were taken to compose and adopt the Westminster Standards was so there could be a sound basis of church union and affiliation. I question an interpretation of their writings that would suggest that it is now all right to join denominations which in multiple ways in doctrine (e.g., denial of Establishment Principle and allowing marriage within degrees of affinity), worship (e.g., toleration of Christmas and Easter observance), and church government (e.g., female deacons) reject the original Westminster Standards, after such painstaking efforts had been made, and not join with a denomination that does adhere to the doctrines of the Westminster Standards.

I have heard some rebut that the public worship in the RPCNA is adequate to join.  Regarding the liturgy and public worship of RPCNA churches, here are a sample of issues that come to mind:

- tolerating and often having holy day (like Easter and Christmas) observance
- tolerating and often having women communicant members without headcoverings in public worship
- tolerating and often having preaching where doctrines are taught from the pulpit which are contrary to the Biblical doctrines outlined in the original Westminster Standards
- tolerating and often using Bibles from the pulpit based upon the critical text and not the Received Text, thus undermining the providential preservation of scripture

- constitutionally allowing Arminians and others who disagree with Biblical Reformation doctrines to communion
- financial support of a denomination whose official college chapel allows all sorts of worship deviations

While I realize each of the above are not present in every local church in the RPCNA, it is certainly true with many, and at various RPCNA conferences.

If it is all right to be joined to a church with an admittedly erroneous confession (that is not even fully subscribed to by officers or members and where it is really not clear that the Reformation doctrines are fully subscribed to as a church), and with worship practices I note above, then I am at some loss to understand why the Church of Rome cannot be joined.  If a denominational church body has effectively already conceded that the Bible is not clear enough to hold everyone to some church confession, and that it is not even clear what the Bible text is (critical text or received text), then what becomes of the fundamental Protestant doctrine of scripture, not to mention the doctrines of grace, etc? 

And are we not enabling compromise in doctrine and false methods of church unity if we join a church denomination which clearly rejects the doctrines of the original Westminster Standards instead of joining with one that adheres to them?  If we go around trying to convince people not to join a church denomination which adheres to the original Westminster Standards but instead to join one that disagrees with the original Westminster Standards, how is that helping to build a church unity based upon the doctrines of the original Westminster Standards?