When Confessional P & R Congregations Do Not Exist Or Disappoint

A reader writes: “I’ve followed your blog and podcast for a while now. I have not been a Reformed/Presbyterian for very long, but I do know that I want to be a part of a specific congregation that is committed to confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice…[but] there’s one main problem:…I cannot find any within a reasonable driving distance that take seriously confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, or at least to the degree that I’d like. What advice would you give to someone in my circumstances?”

Hi,

Thanks for the encouragement. Let me address two problems at the same time.

First, what to do when there is no confessional Presbyterian or Reformed (e.g., NAPARC) congregation nearby? This is a complex problem because it might pit our spiritual welfare against our economic welfare. The USA is a large place. We live in a highly mobile society and time. Employers frequently move employees. Particularly early in one’s career, it may be necessary to move repeatedly. Students of such things tell us that we may not expect to get and keep a job for life any longer. Indeed, we are told that, in the new economy, we will likely have to change careers more than once. All of that leads to instability for the family and it makes finding a staying in a confessional P & R church difficult.

It can be difficult to find a P &R church simply because, relative to other sorts of congregations, there are not many of them. In my home state of Nebraska, there are few west of Lincoln. Most of the 12 P & R congregations (not all of which are pictured in this map) are in Lincoln or Omaha. Someone in Scottsbluff may have to drive to Cheyenne to find a confessional P & R congregation. That’s a 90-minute one-way drive.

What to do when there is no confessional P & R within a reasonable driving distance? What is a reasonable driving distance? That will vary by circumstances. A young family with small children will not likely be able to drive as far as a retired couple. Still, in most instances 30 minutes one-way is nearing the outer limits of what can be reasonably expected, especially if a family is commuting to church twice each Lord’s Day. That is 2 hours on the highway every Sunday. That’s not very restful.

In the absence of a P & R congregation within reasonable driving distance, here are some questions and options:

  1. Pray. We can think about strategies all day long but our future and the future of his church belongs to the sovereign Lord. Who knows what the Lord might do, what doors he may open?
  2. What is the priority? Obviously, ordinarily, all things being equal, if we do not work, we may not eat (1 Thess 3:10). Thus, work is a practical and moral necessity but must we do what we are doing now? Are there any alternative jobs that would allow us to be within reasonable driving distance of a confessional P & R congregation? I have known families who have moved to a new city, taken a new or different job for the sake of being near a confessional P & R congregation. This is an especially pressing question for those with children that need to be baptized and catechized. The spiritual well being of a family is more important than its material well being (Mark 8:36).
  3. If a new location and job is impossible, where is the nearest confessional P & R congregation? Is it possible to unite with that congregation in some way so as to have some accountability and some access to the ministry of that congregation even as you find another congregation in which to worship temporarily? Perhaps it might be possible to travel once a month to that congregation for the weekend for worship and fellowship? Perhaps it is possible to watch a video of the service in the afternoon, after returning from your local, temporary congregation.
  4. In God’s providence it may be that your circumstances present an opportunity to plant a new congregation. Again, this should be explored in collaboration with a pastor and session/consistory of a P & R congregation. You may not be the only family in the area looking for a confessional P & R congregation. In any event you will likely have neighbors and co-workers around you who do not believe and who need to hear the gospel. Should the Lord bring some of them to faith, they will need a place to gather. Is it possible to start a Bible study in your home with an eye toward planting a congregation in a few years?

Second, what to do when the available P & R congregations do not seem to be living up to their confession? Again, this question presents real difficulties. Here are some thoughts and questions that might lead to greater clarity:

  1. Pray. The church belongs to the Lord. We are his members and members of one another. We cannot do the work of the Spirit in the church. Any work toward Reformation in the church can only begin with prayer.
  2. Listen. What is it about the ministry of a given congregation that leads you to believe that they are not sufficiently confessional? Are your priorities those of the confessions? Sometimes people write to complain that a congregation is not teaching or emphasizing their pet idea or practice, even though it is not something the churches confess. We may only hold them to what Scripture teaches as we confess it.
  3. We live in a fallen world and there are no perfect churches this side of heaven. In every congregation there is going to be something or someone who disappoints. We must prioritize. If a minister is not preaching the law and gospel purely or should he be corrupting the administration of the holy sacraments, those are very serious problems. In such a case, the session/consistory needs to act to preserve the ministry of the church. If they are failing, then the presbytery/classis needs to intervene. In short, pick your battles. Decide what is a matter of principle and conscience normed by Scripture and what is a preference. Does the congregation have what Belgic Confession calls “the marks of the true church” (art. 29)? If so, then everything else is secondary, though not to say unimportant. If a congregation, however, lacks those marks, then we must question whether it is really a member of the true church.
  4. What is the history of the congregation? In every congregation, things are as they are for a reason. What is that reason? Is it tradition? Is it perceived necessity? Is it financial pressure? Pragmatism? Undue influence by the surrounding culture? Lack of awareness? Each of these is a different set of circumstances suggesting a different response. A combination of these problems will require a complex response, which will take time to discover and address.
  5. Have you talked to the pastor and to the session/consistory? It may be that they are aware of the challenges you noticed and they have a plan to address them but unless and until you talk to them, you will never know.
  6. Let us assume that the problems are substantial. Is Reformation a possibility? Mike Brown, Brian Tallman, and I discussed the process of bringing Reformation to a congregation in this episode of the Heidelcast. It may be that, for whatever reason, they are unaware of the ways in which they are failing to live up to what we confess but that the desire to practice the faith as we confess it. In all events, be patient. Reformation takes years, not days or months. The original Reformed pastors lived with serious defects in the ministry of the churches for years even as they sought to reform them according to God’s Word as we confess it.
  7. If, after due diligence, Reformation is not possible and if all of the nearby NAPARC P & R congregations are irreformable—a circumstance that seems unlikely—then we are back to the first question. What to do when there is no P & R congregation nearby.

Your question suggests that this is a matter of degree. If so, what is wanted here is graciousness and patience. You may not be alone. Perhaps God has placed you near a congregation to serve them. Perhaps you see these problems because  God is working within you a desire to help bring the Word to the churches more broadly? If so, I need a good place to prepare for ministry.

Please stay in touch and let me know how things go.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. I think the above is a minor problem because there is a major problem. If we solve the major problem the minor problem will automatically get fix.

  2. It would also be helpful for those searching for a confessional P & R church, like the one in the letter above, to mention that some Presbyterian denominations and individual congregations that are also seeking to take seriously their confessions are not associated with NAPARC, e.g. Bible Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian and unaffiliated congregations like Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, Christ Church of the Carolinas in Columbia, SC and even my own in Burlington, NC, as well as others. This may help those seeking to find a local congregation be able to expand their search and hopefully find a church home.

    For the good of Christ’s Church,
    Joel

    • I remember that the Bible Presbyterian Church is four-point Calvinistic and holds to Premillenialism. That would make them only partially confessional.

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