Questions about the RPCNA

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) is the largest of the Psalm Singing denominations in our country (USA). We here at the EP website have a great respect and love for the RPCNA and we try to promote their churches and events whenever possible.

As someone looking at the RPCNA from the outside, I am curious to get some feedback on the current state of the RPCNA. I would like to know what the greatest weaknesses of the denomination are (perhaps women deacons, etc.) and its greatest strengths (perhaps missions, worship, etc.).

Is the denomination secure for the next 10-50 years? Is it growing or shrinking? Will the denomination make a change over the issue of women deacons? How strong theologically is the RPCNA? What are the current movements or debates going on within the group? Are there ministerial opportunities out there? Is the denomination struggling to find ministers who are EP? What has been the feedback on the new Psalter recently put into use?

Please help us know more about our Psalm singing brethren in the RPCNA.


27 thoughts on “Questions about the RPCNA”

  1. Venkatesh, That is a great link and the type of thing I was looking for regarding church planting and the future of the denomination. I have a real heart for church planting so this is great to hear. Very encouraging! We might think that our views on Psalmody would have a negative impact on our church planting prospects, but we need to be reminded that the people around us need the gospel and they need to be loved by God’s people as well.

    I am also wondering about the general opinion on the RPCNA Testimony. What is the general consensus of that document’s impact upon the denomination? Has it been helpful to the RPCNA over the years?

  2. Mark,

    I think I do not have the capacity to answer your questions. My links with RPCNA is mainly through my friend who is an elder in an RP Church in Indiana. They visit us often and that’s how I get to hear from them. I have gone through their Testimony document. All I can say is that despite being a 200 year old denomination they have been remarkably stable. This is what I like most about them.

    Hopefully there would be a RP church in India soon 🙂

  3. Tom, my apologies for letting my editorial comments interfere with the post. I was looking more for comments and opinions from others who are interested in the growth and stability of the EP denominations. I gather from your comment and link that you are in favor of women deacons. Thank you for providing us with the other side of the argument.

    Regardless of one’s individual view (for or against), many conservative EPers are not in favor of women deacons, or rather they do not believe there is scriptural support for the practice. In fact, from most of my contacts it seems that the RPCNA is divided pretty evenly on the issue. My reason for bringing it up in the first place is to see discussion on whether or not the issue has hurt the RPCNA. If my own observation is correct, the RPCNA has grown smaller in recent years? (Not really sure on that) So the practice of allowing women deacons in this case has a direct impact on the subject of exclusive Psalmody. I am concerned for the “success” of the RPCNA because I share with them a concern for biblical worship.

    I suppose we could discuss the merits of deaconesses, but I think we already have our minds made up on the issue. I would rather talk about the impact of the debate on the practice of Psalmody.

  4. Hi Mark,

    On the question of whether permitting women deacons has “hurt” the RPCNA numerically, I doubt that there is anything more than conjectural evidence available. The last debate on the topic that I can recall at the Synod level was in 2002, and it was resolved in favor of the same position that we have had since the 19th century. I did not come away from that meeting with a sense that we were “evenly” divided, but I could be mistaken.

    I’m not certain what leads you to believe that the denomination has been growing smaller. The numbers for total membership from minutes of Synod statistics that I have handy are (1987) – 4,912 total members, (1991) 5,186, (2002) 6,022, (2007) 6,403. These are North American membership numbers and do not include the Japan Presbytery. You would see the same trend if you looked at communicant membership or worship attendance. The membership numbers last “bottomed out” around 1980 or so; as far as I am aware, the RPCNA continues to experience numeric growth by God’s grace.

  5. “I’m not certain what leads you to believe that the denomination has been growing smaller.”

    I am thinking too far back. The RPCNA has had a number of declines in membership and size but, as you reminded us, has experienced growth since 1980. The following is from wikipedia:

    “After sixty years of nearly constant growth, the denominational split in 1891 led to a denomination-wide downturn. Although the departure of twelve hundred members in the split still left over ten thousand communicant members, nearly constant loss led to a total of just 3,804 communicant members by 1980. During this time, the large congregations in the big cities of the East gradually withered: while in 1891, there were two congregations in Boston, Massachusetts, five in New York City, three in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one in Baltimore, in 1980 there were only four in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia combined. Settlement and growth in the western United States continued for a time, with new presbyteries being organized in Colorado, the Pacific Coast, and the Prairie Provinces of Canada. However, the countryside congregations also dwindled, from eighty-three in 1891 to twenty-five in 1980. Presbyteries, too, were disorganized and combined, with only seven presbyteries remaining in 1980. Perhaps the most drastic examples of both congregational and presbyterial decline involve New York: by 1980, four presbyteries (Philadelphia, New York, Vermont, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) had been combined into the New York Presbytery (since renamed Atlantic), while five New York City congregations with 1,075 communicant members had been reduced to one congregation of only about forty people. Although large numbers of losses were due to individuals leaving for other churches, some departures involved many people at once. For example, over 100 communicant members left First Boston congregation when their pastor left the denomination in 1912, while Craftsbury (Vermont) and Second Newburg (New York) congregations left the denomination as entire congregations, in 1906 and 1919 respectively. After the mid-1910s, even the founding of new congregations was uncommon, with only three each in the 1920s and 1930s, and no new congregations at all between 1937 and 1950.”

    And of course, the good news is an upturn since 1980:

    “Since 1980, the denomination has experienced growth, seeing an increase of approximately 25% in membership and 11% in the number of churches. This growth has not been uniform, however; many churches have been started in urban areas, while many older congregations, especially in rural areas, have continued to decline. As of 31 December 2007, the RPCNA had 6,334 members in 75 North American congregations, along with 238 more members in four congregations in Japan.[5] The “stronghold” areas of the denomination are in northeastern Kansas, central Indiana, and western Pennsylvania.”

    Thanks for pushing me to find more accurate information!

  6. Venkatesh,

    Our denomination used to be known for much more than just unaccompanied exclusive psalmody. Such principles as political dissent from unscriptural civil constitutions, close communion, and public social covenanting (with other doctrines and practices, as well) used to distinguish us from most other Presbyterians. Our position on political dissent was gradually softened and then finally abandoned in the 1960s (although the Testimony still sets forth a modified form of the doctrine); our denominational adherence to close communion was abandoned in the 1970s (although church sessions may still practice this, and it is arguably more consistent with the Testimony and Directory for Church Government); and our position on covenanting underwent revision in the 1970s, to the point where none of our standards now identify us as bound either by the British Covenants, or even by our own Covenant of 1871. But again, some in the RPCNA (myself included) are dissatisfied with such changes, and wish for a return to our historic principles.

    I hope that the materials provided on my blog will serve to illustrate and clarify some of these things. Not that these are the only points I will be addressing; I hope in the future to provide items touching on our other principles, both more and less distinctive (as well as concerns of common Reformed Christianity).

  7. Also, two things relating to the above:

    1. Is it not interesting that our denomination was at its largest and most influential when we still retained our historic distinctives? So many claim that our downward slide was a result of our adherence to our distinctive principles (especially political dissent); but the fact that we increased in membership steadily after the Division of 1833, while maintaining a position of strict dissent from the U.S. Constitution (even having a communicant membership over twice what it now is), should demonstrate the fact that these principles were not our weakness, but our strength. The downward slide in membership of the early to mid 1900s also seems to coincide with the weakening of our historic positions (adoption of Explanatory Declarations, refusal to discipline for occasional hearing, the loss of our Scottish communion services and seasons, the abandoning of the fellowship meetings, etc.). Without our distinctive principles — the reasons for our distinct existence as a denomination — is it a wonder that so many have continued to leave us?

    2. According to one of my sources, having females in the diaconate was protested at the 1986 Synod, four members of Synod registering their dissent. In 2002, Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery petitioned Synod to discontinue female deacons. The practice was continued, but with forty members of Synod registering their dissent, including a majority of our largest Presbytery. Some of us are hopeful that this evidences a trend that may bear fruit in the return of the diaconate to only males, in the near future.

  8. My understanding is that the RPCNA denies three parts of the Westminster Confession, including that the Pope is the anti-Christ.

    Because of this I’d say they are definitely weakening. Their ministers wouldn’t even get induction to their own sister church in Scotland with these compromises.

  9. David,
    That is the feeling I got when I read through the RPCNA Testimony, a long list of denials and “rewordings”. I am sure the Testimony was penned with good intentions, but it leaves you with a very real sense that the denomination is unhappy with the WCF as it was written. This is what is so dissappointing. The WCF is a powerful, accurate and carefully worded document put together by some of the most learned men in history. Can we really improve it as much as the Testimony assumes? Many of the sentences placed beside the original WCF are grasping at something that you can’t quite put your finger on. Are they attempting to appeal to more modern ears in a sincere and thoughtful way? or are they desiring to appeal to those not convinced of the faithfulness of the WCF?

    I am glad the RPCNA has made a stand on certain issues, but the insistence upon the Testimony is doing the denomination no favors when it comes to attracting strong Confessional minded ministers who are looking for an RP denomination that upholds the RPW. You may get the RPW, but you have to put up with some things that leave a bad taste in your mouth.

  10. With all due respect, the last two comments suggest to me that the commenters do not understand what the RPCNA Testimony is intended to be. It does not replace the WCF; it is an attempt to apply the doctrines taught in the WCF and to address issues that simply were not on the radar screen when the original WCF was written.

    I assume that both of you are aware that most conservative US Presbyterian denominations use an “American” (1789) version of the WCF that changes the doctrine of the original identifying the Pope as anti-Christ and also changes the specific teaching of the 1646 version of the WCF on the role of the civil magistrate. Our approach is to use the earlier version and then state our rejection of them. Similarly, we reject the portion of the original WCF that says that a “man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own, etc.”

    It remains to be demonstrated by the commenter that these rejections show that we are “definitely weakening” and that our ministers would be unwelcome in the RP Church of Scotland. As they stand, these statements seem to be little more than canards.

  11. TFish,

    My comments were not meant to be negative toward the RPCNA in general. I greatly value and love the denomination. I was making an observation about the intent of the Testimony, and I was careful to give a nod toward the good intentions of the authors. Yes, I understand what it is and what it was intended for. Though you state that the Testimony does not replace the WCF, the fact is that it has the same authority as the WCF in the church. I don’t care for that marriage of WCF and Testimony, because it is a marriage that is not warranted. Why not accept the Confession as it is with no changes?

    Yes, I am aware that most Presbyterian denoms have an updated version of the WCF. I don’t like that either. I accept the WCF in its original 1647 form, as does my denomination, the RPCGA (Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly, not an EP denom by the way.)

    I love the RPCNA, what I dislike is the need to “update” the WCF. I don’t really know who would be “accepted” or where from the RPCNA. My comment was that by adding the Testimony, those of us who to hold the pure original 1647 Confession are less likely to migrate into the RPCNA. Instead of the RPCNA being a strong safe haven for those of us who love the RPW and the Psalms, it is instead a mixture of both the good and the “it remains to be seen”. It also sends a message to future generations, that the WCF is out of date and in need of revision.

    Thank you for your comments, I share your passion for the RPCNA.

    1. Mark,

      Firstly, I want to start by saying that I have a personal interest in RPCNA for reasons I cannot be mention online.

      I have 2 questions on your comments

      1) While I share your high view of WCF ( I am studying it myself now), I am very open to the thought of having a new confession for the 21st Century Church. While this does not mean setting aside WCF and starting from scratch, we must nevertheless build upon the WCF itself. WCF may have left some areas untouched which are pressing issues for us now. Even a conservative Scholar like R Scott Clark seems to advocate this in his writings. Let me know your thoughts

      2) I am yet to read the Testimony of RPCNA. But I have always felt that it was a commentary/additions on WCF. Do you think the Testimony alters significant portions of WCF whick keeps you from “migrating” to RPCNA.


  12. Tfish,

    Maybe you’re not aware of the difference between the RPCNA and the RPCS. This is taken from the RPCS constitution,

    “To secure integrity, subscription to the Confession of Faith must always be carried out without qualification or mental reservation and no office-bearer of the church is at liberty to continue in office if he ceases to believe in any part of the doctrine of the Confession or teaches contrary to it.”

    Full subscription to the WCF is absolutely required, no rejection of any part is allowed.
    “Definitely weakening” is my opinion, as one who does subscribe in full to the WCF. That is with me assuming that the RPCNA once subscribed in full to the WCF, maybe I’m wrong there I don’t know the history.

  13. So the Scottish Presbytery does not accept the Confession and Catechisms *as they were approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland*? If so, this is innovation from the Second Reformation itself, and rather a surprise to me. The 1647 “Act Approving the Confession of Faith” had qualifications. First, it said that the total absence of speaking about church officers and assemblies was no prejudice against them. This omission by the Westminster Assembly was a purposeful attempt to avoid perturbing Independents. The Second Reformation CoS General Assembly would have none of this. Second, there were distinct qualifications, an updating, if you will, on 31.2. These modified some overly strong language, tending to Erastianism, in 31.2, as written. I can hardly believe that the RPCS means to hold to the Confession *as written* by the Westminster Assembly. This, to me, seems to be a slight weakness in several of the Micropresbyterians here in the USA, too. With their altogether godly desire to be fleeing loose subscriptionism, they have gone to something that even Second Reformation worthies were just a titch edgy about.

    I’ll add that the statement quoted seems, to me, to put our Scottish Presbytery in somewhat of a conflict with its Testimonies emitted in 1761 and in 1839, as well as the renewal of the Covenant in 1712 at Auchensaugh.

    The RPCNA is not perfect, nor what it should be. With much of what Old Light Covenanter writes I am in agreement or sympathy. However, the very fact that many younger men are more gravitating toward and interested in the older, and largely more Scriptural positions, seems to me to be a good thing.

    1. I don’t know why you say we don’t accept the confession as approved by the CoS. We haven’t changed anything. We simply subscribe the the Westminster Confession as it is.

      I don’t know your dates but I think you are being very harsh to us when we haven’t changed anything. All reformed Presbyterian denominations in Scotland subscribe to the same Westminster Confessions with no qualifications. I don’t understand why you criticise us.

      Qualificiations, even as made by the RPCNA, are in my opinion dangerous and potentially divisive.

      1. Moireach — I was responding to David, who *seemed* to be saying that the RPCS now does not hold to the WCF in a qualified manner, as the Church of the Second Reformation did. If they do, well, indeed. But it did not seem to me that he was saying such. Certainly I was not meaning to be harsh, no, not whatsoever. Indeed, I rather think that the RPCS has been misunderstood or inadvertently misquoted by our brother here, for surely they *must* hold to the Confession *as received by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647*, with every single qualification mentioned by that godly Assembly.

        Our Synod has differed from the Confession in only three areas by means of our Testimony. It is not some wholesale repudiation, or even close. We deny that the Scriptures forbid marriage to a man’s deceased wife’s sister. We deny that the Papacy is *the* Antichrist, although we are happy to say it is A great Antichrist. Lastly, we take exception to some things in WCF 31.2, the same place that the faithful and reforming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland did in 1647. Our exception is a little more extensive, but there is room in it for maintaining a position of Establishment.

        What our Testimony does, overwhelmingly, is to apply the wholesome and Scriptural doctrines of the Confession and apply them to modern situations. Our Covenanting forefathers hadn’t to do with the nastiness of abortion. We must. They did not have to do with secularised “education”. We must. They did not have to do with modern economic fallacies. We must. This is why we have our Testimony: to clarify where others have twisted the meaning of the text of the Confession, or where a fuller testimony for eternal truth must be applied to new castings of sin.

        Where we would have a bit more substantial differences come from our Directory for Worship and our version of the Form of Church Government. These are where things like ecclesiastical “holidays”, women serving as deacons, and some other differences have come in. Not in our Testimony or our adherence to the Confession and Catechisms.

  14. These are good recent comments. I have enjoyed them, especially since I am still learning about the RPCNA. Unfortunately, I don’t have any knowledge of the difference between the American RP and Scottish RP churches. If anyone could provide more information on specifics, that would be helpful.

    I wanted to add that since the original posting I have gained a much greater appreciation for the idea of Testimony in addition to the WCF. I have been reading the church documents since the Second Reformation and I now see the purpose of these documents. My only real issue with them now is where they differ from the original 1647 WCF.

    moireach, I don’t think anyone has spoken out of place about the Scottish RP church. If so, my apologies.

  15. Another thing to add regarding departure from the Westminster Confession is that for the Covenanters all of the Westminster Standards were part of the package deal. Today, we might boast of holding to the Confession with no exceptions, but what about the Solemn League and Covenant, the Westminster Directory of Worship, etc.? As mentioned above, the RPCNA no longer requires adherence to these Standards held by the Covenanters. This seems to be an obvious departure from the Second Reformation.

    What is the position of the Scottish RP church on the SLC?

    1. The USA and British North American dominions were never under the SL&C. As a *church* we continued it until we developed our own _Covenant of 1871_ that specifically takes up the obligations of the SL&C as applicable in our own land, and further makes application to North America.

      Taking up new documents not done by the Westminster Assembly whilst holding to the Scriptural substance of what they taught is not departure. Nor is a closer adherence to Scripture teaching, where that has happened. Any departure from Scripture truth we may have made, of course, is a departure not only from the Covenanted Uniformity but from the pattern of sound words.

      Again, all the Reformed Presbyterian Church has made statements, clarifications, defences, and testimonies for the truth when circumstances demanded. This is why the Covenant Renewals in Auchensaugh in 1712 and at Crawfordjohn in 1745, both in Scotland. This is why the Reformed Presbytery had a Testimony emitted at Ploughlandhead in 1761. This is why the RPC of Scotland, the RPC of Ireland, the RPC of NA, the RPC of Australia, and others, all have ongoing testimony bearing and Covenant Renewal. All consider themselves part of one denomination, in coordinate bodies, with differing details at isolated points due mostly to differing circumstances.

      1. I actually am David and Moireach, I didn’t mean to appear under the two names I just signed in to something.

        It was the 1647 WCF I was referring to Phil. You are going in to details I don’t understand, I just know that we do not allow qualifications to the 1647 WCF. This is not a departure from the position of the CoS. We hold the same position on the WCF as all other Reformed Scottish Presbyterian denominations. Bringing in qualifications here and there would bring further division among our denominations over here. At the moment very little separate some of us.

        I can only personally comment on the RPCNA qualification regarding the Pope and I think that was most certainly a mistake.

        Regarding these other matters you have mentioned I also hope the RPCNA backtrack over them and return to full unity with us on these doctrines.

    2. The RP Church of Scotland still holds to these documents. Clarifications of interpretation are made of the Directory of Public Worship.

  16. I would say the biggest weakness is Replacement theology and the resulting anti-Israel anti-Zionist stance of the RPCNA (and most other Presbyterian groupings). It makes Presbyterians basically irrelevant to what is happening.

  17. Wally, are you a premillennialist/dispensationalist, then? Is not true Israel those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? If they deny Christ, then are they not the “synagogues of Satan” to be accorded no special place different than any other unbeliever? If holding your view is the only way for Christians to be “relevant”, then I pity you for your definition of Christian.

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