This week, the highest courts of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church met concurrently in Flat Rock, North Carolina at the Bonclarken Conference Center. The RP and ARP courts are both called “synod” – distinct from the term “general assembly” used by most other Presbyterian denominations. A general assembly is historically seen as the highest court, with a synod being lesser. In seminary, I was taught that our denominations have chosen to keep synods, in part, as a reminder that the visible church is yet fractured due to sin. Until there is biblical union, a general assembly cannot truly be convened.
The essential difference between our two cousin denominations involves christology. We understand Christ’s office as king slightly differently which is evidenced more visibly in areas such as the content and manner of song and music in worship. Our differences are such that merger or formal union was not the purpose of this concurrent meeting, though we do pray with Jesus that we might be one ecclesiastically.
This meeting served as something of a family reunion of churches that have been separated as they are since 1782. We have rich theological similarities, a shared history (evidenced by many shared surnames), and similar visions for ministry that tie us more closely than other denominations. Most of all, we have an organic union in Christ that transcends any organizational unity that might be forced. Jesus will one day unite his church perfectly, and we rejoice to have that shared future.
The two synods held their own meetings this week, and then we enjoyed times of worship and informal fellowship. Seminars through the week highlighted the ministries of each denomination and how we might labor together in this organic unity. Opportunities abound for us to work together in education, missions, conferences, and more. We are most grateful for the hospitality of the ARP this week which was no insignificant ministry.
Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregations are concentrated in the southeastern United States, and congregations were encouraged to invite RP pastors to preach in conjunction with synod travel. The First ARP of Lancaster, South Carolina graciously invited me to preach; it was a wonderful experience. Their pastor, Kyle Sims, has attended our meetings in past years as a fraternal delegate and has become a good friend. After picking me up at the airport, he and his sons took me to dinner for Carolina BBQ. “Ecumenical relations done right!” was the Facebook comment of a brother on a picture Kyle took of me with a pile of BBQ on my plate – and how right he is! Times of fellowship at the dining room table, in living rooms, over the road, at conferences, in prayer, and in worship build relationships and trust. They also become friendly forums to discuss differences and to sharpen our thinking.
Because of the way Jesus works, it was not surprising to find multiple people in the Lancaster congregation with mutual friends, some as far away as Africa. In the evening, we worshiped the Lord at the historic First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Kyle Sims introduced me to many brothers, mutual friends were discovered, and in a few short minutes opportunities to co-labor in theological training, missions, and other ministry possibilities developed organically. Most of all, I entered into new relationships with brothers and sisters that will extend through eternity in the presence of the Lamb.
The following day, our journey to Bonclarken took us past historic ARP church buildings and new church plant locations, and past general locations of RP churches that later moved to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. We also toured battlefields of the Revolutionary War in which our ancestors fought together. Descendants of the chiggers that plagued our forefathers on these sometimes-remote battlefields may or may not have found the ankles of everyone on the tour. Even shared suffering strengthens the ties that bind. Upon arriving at Bonclarken, I began meeting the men who shepherd the churches we passed on our way. Organic relationships grow exponentially through shared experience and familiarity, and so I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have preached in Lancaster and seen the Lord’s work in the area.
We then entered into praise to God together that opening night with a joint Psalm sing which set the tone for the week. Time would fail me to tell of the common ministry and personal connections that the Lord has revealed and deepened through the week. And we look forward to a closer relationship of love and shared service to the Lord that will carry into the future.
Behold how very good it is,
A pleasant thing to see;
When brothers join to live as one
In peace and unity.