Deep Divides Remain on Abortion and Sexuality among Presbyterians

on June 6, 2019

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.

  1. Comment by JoeD on June 7, 2019 at 10:42 am

    Why do you not include ECO Pres?

  2. Comment by Loren Golden on June 7, 2019 at 11:32 am

    Probably because he was also comparing membership statistics, and the ECO does not annually publish theirs.

  3. Comment by Lee D. Cary on June 7, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    Perhaps there’ll be an article structured like this that will profile the various factions resulting from the break-up of the UMC, down the road.

    Gary North wrote the consummate history of what happened to the Presbyterians, mainly during the first three decades of the 20th Century when it yielded to modernism. “CROSSED FINGERS: HOW THE LIBERALS CAPTURED THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH. The parallels to what’s underway in the UMC are obvious.

  4. Comment by Loren Golden on June 7, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    Actually, Theological Liberals did capture the Methodist-Episcopal Church in the first few decades of the 20th Century, as they did the PCUSA and the PCUS.  However, the Theological Liberals in the UMC made a mistake (according to their hegemonic agenda) that I wish Theological Liberals in the PC(USA) had made, in inviting Theologically Orthodox churches of the same school of thought in the Global South to become full participant members in what was theretofore an exclusively American denomination.  Thus, the UMC is in a position whereby, by the grace of God, it can regain its status in the US as a Biblically faithful Protestant denomination.  After spending 19 years (1991-2010) in the PC(USA), I really don’t see much hope for that denomination to turn itself around.

  5. Comment by Lee D. Cary on June 10, 2019 at 7:57 am

    “Thus, the UMC is in a position whereby, by the grace of God, it can regain its status in the US as a Biblically faithful Protestant denomination.”

    That’s a long and winding road, Loren. And does it not assume that the progressive LGBTQXYZ activists will eventually detach?
    If so, I find that so unlikely as to be not forthcoming. The American Culture war goes on.

  6. Comment by Loren Golden on June 11, 2019 at 12:58 am

    Please note that I did say, “by the grace of God, it can,” not “on its own accord, it can,” or “if the enemies of Biblical Christianity do such-and-such, it can,“ nor even “by the grace of God, it will.”  Theological Liberals are entrenched in positions of power in the UMC, just as they are entrenched in positions of power in the PC(USA) and all the other formerly “Mainline” Protestant denominations in America, and in this most recent battle, even the ones like Willimon, who pretended to ally himself with Traditional Methodists, have shown their true colors.  They are entrenched in power—they control nearly all the bureaucratic offices (at least Stateside), and they control all the denomination’s institutions that prepare future pastors for ministry—and they will not willingly surrender that power.  And I am under no illusions that the road for the UMC to “regain its status in the US as a Biblically faithful Protestant denomination” will be an easy one.
    However, they do not control the General Conference, they do not control the growing Conferences in the Global South, and most importantly, they do not control God.  Control of process can only get them so far.  Now is the time for Traditional United Methodists to covet the prayers of their brothers and sisters in other denominations and in non-denominational churches.  Now is the time for Traditional Methodists to stand firm (Eph. 6.13), rooted in the faith, unwilling to compromise with those whose compromises have blurred the Mainline Church’s vision of right and wrong, of what is of God and what is of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, leaving ruin and destruction in their wake.  The enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Pet. 5.8), and although it is unwise to underestimate him, it is unfaithful to make him so large in our imaginations as to think him so entrenched in power that the One who is All-Powerful cannot depose him.  Is not “the king’s heart…a stream of water in the hand of the LORD”?  Can He not “turn it wherever he will” (Prov. 21.1)?  Does He not “have mercy on whomever he wills, and…harden whomever he wills” (Rom. 9.18)?  Does not “the prayer of a righteous person have great power as it is working” (Jas. 5.16)?  Does the Word of the Lord “that goes out from (His) mouth…return to Him empty,” or does it “accomplish that which (He) purposes, and…succeed in the thing for which (He) sent it” (Is. 55.11)?  “Is the LORD’s hand shortened?” (Num. 11.23)  “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear” (Is. 59.1).
    “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.” (Eph. 3.20-21)  And as we Presbyterians confess, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1)  So then, is God glorified by a United Methodist Church that continues “limping between two different opinions?” (I Kg. 18.21)  Is God content to share His praise and His glory with the idol of sexual immorality?  “By no means!” (Rom. 6.2,15)  “You shall not bow down to (idols) or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Ex. 20.5).  “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Is. 42.8)  Did He not say to the Church in Thyatira, “I gave (that woman Jezebel) time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality; behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead” (Rev. 2.21-23)?  A great reckoning is coming, for the Lord will not hold off His judgment forever.  He calls His Church to stand strong in the faith, but the Lord Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18.8)
    Now is the time to call the faithful in the United Methodist Church to repentance.  “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do” (I Pet. 4.3).  The United Methodist Church is not for them to take back; it is God’s, as are all the Churches.  It is for them, however, to beseech the Lord to deliver them from their Egyptian taskmasters, as the Lord delivered Israel “with a strong hand, … with an outstretched arm, and with great acts of judgment.” (Ex. 6.1,6)  To thus beseech the Lord and to be available to minister as the Lord commands, in whatever capacity He wills.
    “Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.’” (II Chron. 20.15)

  7. Comment by Kevin Davis on June 8, 2019 at 10:10 am

    For what it’s worth, there’s no such thing as “Dutch Reformed Presbyterian,” and both Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed would find it a curious expression. They are both part of the larger Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, but “Presbyterian” as the preferred denominational name is a Scottish thing, which is why it’s found in areas where Scots (and Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and English Presbyterian) settled, such as North America and Australia. On the continent of Europe, the preferred name is “Reformed,” hence Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Swiss Reformed, and French Reformed. The reason the Presbyterians in Great Britain preferred “Presbyterian” was to distinguish themselves from the Episcopal form of government, namely the C of E, whose bishops were/are in league with the Monarch. In terms of theology, Presbyterians historically hold to the Westminster Standards, whereas the Dutch Reformed hold to the Three Forms of Unity, which includes the beloved Heidelberg Catechism. The theology is substantially the same, but there are some differences in how both traditions — Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed — have expressed their theology.

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