American Presbyterians have seen a series of splits and mergers for the past century that have resulted in a multitude of smaller denominations with different interpretations of the Bible and the Creeds. Issues of gender identity, sexuality, and abortion have contributed to divisions in these denominations. Here is a quick overview of the five largest Presbyterian denominations in the United States and where they stand on key issues of abortion, sexuality, marriage, and the persecuted church.
Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church split from the United Presbyterian Church (a predecessor to the PCUSA) in 1981. The EPC strongly opposes abortion in all cases, though it does make an exception if the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Changes made at the 33rd General Assembly of the EPC made clear that only the most extreme circumstances are meant by this exception and simultaneously eliminated other exceptions that were present. The official position paper of the EPC states that the church will “…teach against and refuse to condone or participate in any sinful form of sexual practice.” Listed examples include extra-marital sex, homosexual conduct, and same-sex union and marriage. Furthermore, the EPC disallows divorce for frivolous reasons, instead limiting valid reasons to divorce and willful desertion that the church cannot remedy. In support of the persecuted church worldwide, the EPC regularly participates in the International Day of Prayer and has many outreach-focused events scheduled at their general assembly.
Active membership in the EPC seems to be holding steady at between 140,000 and 150,000 members. While there has been some encouraging growth over the past few years, the most recent (2017) reports of membership showed a 2.6% decline. However, with only one year of data it is impossible to tell if the is the beginning of a decline or an outlier in a larger trend.
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
The Presbyterian Church in America is known to be the one of the larger and more conservative Presbyterian denominations in the United States. The PCA explicitly condemns abortion and amendments to their official report on the subject state that even when the life of the mother is in danger, abortion should not be the first option but that labor should be induced and the life of the child saved if possible. Similarly, the PCA also condemns extra-marital sex and homosexuality. Their official position paper also suggests that practicing homosexuals are ineligible for church membership and ordination into leadership roles. Insofar as divorce is concerned, the PCA only accepts adultery and willful desertion as grounds for divorce. In their Actions of the 46th General Assembly, a summary of the major decisions of the General Assembly, the PCA established November 2018 as a special month of prayer for global missions. Additionally, they established November 4th, 2018, as a Day of Prayer for the persecuted church worldwide.
Official statistics suggest that the PCA has been growing steadily over the past few years. Though steady, growth has also been fairly slow, averaging only 1.6% growth in communicant members year-on-year. In 2018 the PCA surpassed 300,000 communicant members in the annual report of their General Assembly.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the largest Presbyterian denomination. The PCUSA’s status as a mainline Protestant church is reflected in their stances on social issues. While their official documentation does not recommend abortion, it does permit abortions for any reason. This being said, there are a series of caveats included that in effect state that abortions should only be undertaken when necessary, but again this does not change that abortions are broadly permitted within the PCUSA. The PCUSA is also supportive of homosexuality and same-sex marriage without reservation. In 2011, their Book of Church Order was changed to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals to church office, including to elderships. While the PCUSA does formally remember and support the persecuted church around the world, they primarily do so in the context of supporting other persecuted groups as well.
Membership within the PCUSA is currently in free fall and has been for the past several years. In many cases they lose more than 50,000 members per year. These would be massive losses for any other Presbyterian denomination. However, it only represents a 4.9% decline in membership per year. The PCUSA currently has approximately 1.3 million active members so these losses do not immediately threaten the life of the church. However, if this pattern continues, the PCUSA will cease to be the largest Presbyterian denomination when the PCA surpasses it in 2041.
Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA)
The Christian Reformed Church in North America is the more conservative of the two major Dutch Reformed Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Membership in the CRCNA has declined somewhat from 172,447 total professing members in 2016 to 161,280 professing members in 2019. Abortion is specifically condemned by the CRCNA, though they do make an exception when the life of the mother is at serious risk. Additionally, the CRCNA emphasizes compassion when dealing with mothers of unwanted pregnancies. The CRCNA explicitly states that homosexual practice has no place in the church and that it is a sin that must be repented from. However, like many other churches, they do urge compassion towards those afflicted with homosexual tendencies. The CRCNA regularly participates in the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church. Furthermore, their Office of Social Justice lists a series of resources on the persecution of both Christians and other religious minorities worldwide.
Membership in the CRCNA has declined somewhat from 176,683 total communicant members in 2016 to 161,280 professing members in 2019. Data from previous years suggests an average decline in communicant membership of 1.8% each year.
Reformed Church in America (RCA)
The Reformed Church in America is the more liberal of the two major Dutch Reformed Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Though they began more conservatively, the RCA has shifted in a much more mainline direction since. The RCA formally came out against abortion in 1973. However, they did add the caveat that exceptions could be made for certain circumstances. While the RCA adopted the position that homosexuality is a sin in 1978, their position has softened since then. Though they have maintained their nominal disapproval of it, they have emphasized compassion and understanding more and more in General Synod pronouncements since 1978. Furthermore, organizations such as Room for All, accept and affirm homosexual members while being officially affiliated with the RCA. The RCA does not appear to mention anything about the persecuted church in its official documentation.
Membership in the RCA has been decreasing at a rate of 1.7% each year. At the time of the 2018 census of the church, communicant membership had dropped to 129,226. It appears to be decreasing in parallel with the other major Dutch Reformed denomination, the CRCNA, which suggests a fall in the popularity of Dutch Reformed churches in general.