This past Sunday, the several thousand member Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas voted to leave the PC(USA) by a 90% landslide margin. Now the congregation begins in earnest the battle to retain their their 30 million dollar property and keep it out of the hands of the presbytery and denomination. The PC(USA) has a long history of stepping in to claim ownership of property bought and built by local congregations. Departing congregations are either expected to start over, pay exorbitant ransoms, or fight court battles to retain their property. While some presbyteries make the process easier than others, any presbytery that extorts money from congregations to allow them to keep their property or reduce court hassles is smiling through its teeth. The PC(USA) justifies these battles by contractually stipulating that congregations only hold their property in trust for the denomination (Book of Order G-4.0203). Churches of the Presbyterian Church in America faced these battles 40 years ago when they mass exited the PC(USA) to form their own denomination. As a result, the PCA made very clear in its own Book of Church Order that each local church retains rights and privileges of ownership over its own property (Book of Church Order 25-8). Therefore, the denomination will never try to take over a local church’s property.
So how does the PC(USA)’s ecclesiology support this? A nuanced foundation is in the language of their Book of Order. The Book of Order rightly affirms one Church, with Christ as its head and the Church as the body. However, the document consistently and obviously refers to local and particular iterations of this larger church only as “congregations.” According the the language of the PC(USA)'s Book of Order, the denomination is made up of congregations, not churches. Some may think the difference inconsequential, but by refusing to think of these congregations as individual, distinct churches, the PC(USA) reserves for itself a federal authority that is consistent with its grab and ransom threats and practices.
PCA: Particular Churches
On the other hand, the PCA makes very clear in its Book of Church Order that each congregation is in fact a “particular church” of the larger church body. The BCO is very obvious and consistent in this difference, making me wonder if the language is quite intentionally “in the face” of the PC(USA). The founders of the PCA experienced these abuses and wanted to protect future congregations from the same experience.
Which is Biblical?
But the word choice of “particular churches” over “congregations” was not merely pragmatic. It was a reflection of a more Biblical ecclesiology. Yes, there is only one church, but according to BCO 2-3, “it is according to scriptural example that the Church should be divided into many individual churches.” What Scriptural example is this referencing? Three points of evidence serve to demonstrate the localization, individuality, and plurality of the visible church.
- The Epistles of the New Testament were written to “churches” across cities or regions.
- The seven letters of Revelation were written to particular “churches” within cities.
- Several verses of Scripture specifically refer to a further subdivision of churches within cities and regions—a plurality of individual, local churches:
- Romans 16:3-5—Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.
- Colossians 4:15-16—Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
- I Corinthians 16:19—The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.
- Philemon 1:2—To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.