On Comity And Mission

Comity between churches is a topic that few in NAPARC dare raise. Darryl Hart, however, wrote this piece doing just that. Many are reluctant to talk about the comity agreement because it is not always observed—likely few church planters or pastors even know that there is a comity agreement that should inform our church planting endeavors. The Oxford American Dictionary defines comity as:

1. courtesy and considerate behavior toward others.

2. an association of nations for their mutual benefit. comity of nations the mutual recognition by nations of the laws and customs of others.

ORIGIN mid-sixteenth-century Latin comitas, from comis ‘courteous.’

The NAPARC Golden Rule comity agreement says:

Comity has meant different things to different people. We representatives of the home missions agencies and committees or boards of our denominations resist territorial statements on comity in the light of the social and cultural complexity of North American society and the great spiritual need of our many countrymen who are apart from Jesus Christ. Out of a concern to build the church of Jesus Christ rather than our own denominations and to avoid the appearance of competition, we affirm the following courteous code of behavior to guide our church planting ministries in North America: We will be sensitive to the presence of existing churches and mission ministries of other NAPARC churches and will refrain from enlisting members and take great care in receiving members of those existing ministries. We will communicate with the equivalent or appropriate agency (denominational missions committee or board, presbytery missions or church extension committee, or session) before initiating church planting activities in a community where NAPARC churches or missions ministries exist. We will provide information on at least an annual basis describing progress in our ministries and future plans. We will encourage our regional home missions leadership to develop good working relationships (emphasis added).

Does the relative obscurity of this agreement say something about the state of NAPARC itself? The PCA is the largest NAPARC denomination, and has arguably been most aggressive in planting churches. It been my experience that the PCA is most likely to be involved in questions about comity. The PCA is not, however, the sole offender. I have seen smaller sideline denominations blatantly poach sheep from sister denominations in breath-taking ways.

The comity agreement is not without inherent difficulties. In one church plant work with which I was heavily involved, we faced the challenge of complying with the comity agreement in the early days of our congregation because there was a NAPARC congregation nearby that was in its last days. Further, some of those who helped found our congregation had either attended or been members of that congregation. To add another layer of complication, the existing congregation had been intentionally planted with the conviction that they did not want to be identifiably confessional. I think we communicated with them before we began—it was twenty years ago. By the time we began, those members had transferred to our mother congregation so that the process was reasonably orderly. The fact that I cannot remember performing due diligence to the comity agreement says something.

Some years ago, another NAPARC denomination planted a congregation not far from an existing church planting work with which I was involved. When we learned about their work, we contacted them,  and they assured us that they were not aware we existed. Perhaps that says something about the visibility of the URC church planting work in the community—or their diligence and research skills. It also says something about the relative visibility of the NAPARC comity agreement.

I am not saying that they should not have planted a congregation. There are hundreds of thousands of people in that area who are not attending any congregation, let alone a Reformed congregation. There are thousands upon thousands who need to hear the law and the gospel preached faithfully. Over time, our two congregations have developed a fairly good working relationship. There are inherent differences between the two works. This new congregation is some distance from the URC work.

Further, I understand that they are taking a different approach to worship than we are. The URC congregation was planted with the hope of reaching unchurched folk. It was imagined that baby-boomers with experience in megachurches and liturgically progressive evangelical congregations would not be much interested in historic Reformed worship, and experience has borne out this expectation. Young people and those with limited or no church background have responded well to a more reverently joyful, historic, dialogic, approach to worship.

Nevertheless, I have had heart-rending conversations with faithful, pioneering Reformed congregations who labored in obscurity and poverty to plant confessional congregations in areas where there is no Reformed witness and few faithful witnesses to any Christian tradition. These conversations were troubling because, in them, pastors confessed their fear of what would happen when the PCA came to town with buildings, bodies, and budgets. One of the difficulties confessional Reformed church planters face is that they are counter-cultural. They are not individualist, they do not look or sound like prevailing evangelical congregations in theology, piety, and practice.

The impression this fellow had, and the impression that many have, is that Mission to North America (MNA) is more willing to plant congregations that are less identifiably Reformed, and to do so at the expense of existing Reformed works that are regarded as unsuccessful. I do not think I am “talking out of school,” as Grandma used to say. This is something about which PCA members have mentioned to me for many years. I am aware of more than one PCA church planter who has intentionally defied what he perceived as the MNA approach to church planting.

The benefit of the more generically evangelical approach to church planting, going all the way back to Robert Schuller’s late Crystal Cathedral, is that the such an approach is more palatable to those without a Reformed background. The cost of this approach however, is that, to paraphrase the words of Jim Boice, “What you use to get them in, you must use to keep them in.”  There is no evidence, of which I am aware, that the Crystal Cathedral ever made good on their pledge to get people into church with showbiz on Sundays and to teach them the faith on Wednesdays. For one thing, such an approach carries its own death warrant. When people learn the faith on Wednesdays, they will soon discover that at least some of what is being done on Sundays is contrary to the faith. This knowledge, logically, should cause them to leave the congregation. Something like this problem surfaced in the Reveal study done by Willow Creek. The more spiritually mature folk in the congregation were the most dissatisfied with the Willow Creek approach to ministry.

The Reformed approach to missions, on the other hand, frequently caters to members who have relocated to new areas. Typically, a church plant needs a core group on which to build. Few church plants start from scratch. The problem too often is that some church plants really are not established with a view toward reaching and teaching the lost but rather in comforting the found. In some instances, congregations that have the means have simply refused to do the work of church planting, out of fear of losing members to the church plant. In such cases culture (family, friendships, etc.) seem to have trumped cult—the divinely-given imperative for the visible church to reach the lost for the glory of our Savior.

So we have two sets of problems here. There are methodological progressives who, in their zeal to expand the tent, seem to neglect the the tent stakes (Isa 54:2). There are also methodological and theological regressives, if you will, who really do fit the stereotype of the Reformed congregation as ingrown and inward looking. Both the progressives and regressives need to rediscover their roots: the biblical faith as confessed by the Reformed churches. The same people who gave us our confession, which faith we take up and confess in each generation, were neither progressive nor regressive. They were mission-minded but the mission was to reach the lost by planting confessionally Reformed congregations.

Assuming good will on everyone’s part, what is really at stake here is the existence of different visions for Reformed congregational ministry and church planting. Is being confessionally Reformed a sort of second blessing, is it like the luxury package to be chosen when buying a car, or is it essential to Reformed church planting and ministry? Is the mission to reach and teach the lost something to be left to others who are evangelical?  As a matter of Christian ethics do we have sufficient regard for the ministry of our NAPARC brothers and sisters to consult with them as we prosecute the mission of the church to plant congregations, to reach the lost with the gospel and to make disciples of those whom God allows us to reach?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. In 2019 a group of PCA members formed a small core group for the purpose of exploring forming an OPC congregation in our area. The PCA had three congregations in our county and was planting a fourth. This county had a population of 350,000 people at the time. Initially the OPC home missionary gave encouragement to the idea. Then when he investigated the PCA presence in our county he determined that the comity agreement would prevent the presbytery from planting here. The total membership in these three PCA congregations has actually decreased over the last four years. However, the population has increased by an estimated 33,000. I believe that the reason for the for the OPC’s hesitancy was not that it would compete with these PCA congregations for new members, but that they would actually draw from these congregation’s membership. I suppose this was admirable, but at the time we sure felt abandoned.

    • William,

      Did anyone come back to him to suggest that the question be revisited and the situation be re-evaluated? His concern for comity is as admirable as it is unusual—we may be sure that there are others (both on the conservative and progressive wings in NAPARC) who would have ignored comity altogether.

      Have you contacted the URCs to see what they think?

  2. Dr Clark,

    No, there has been no other communication with the OPC. They seemed very firm in their decision. We did not contact the URC. We are in the Southeast so I figured the URC would not be interested.

    • Wiliam,

      Please contact the Rev Dr Brian Lee, at Christ Reformed DC. You might also contact Pastor Zac Wyse at Westside URC in Cincinnati. They are planting in KY. Christ Reformed has been zealous for church planting. I don’t know what might come of it but it’s worth an email or two.

  3. It would also be great to have comity within the PCA. My church belongs to a presbytery that will allow new PCA churches to be planted only a few miles away from existing PCA churches. It seems to be a very entrepreneurial business.

    • Joel: About 10 years ago there was an acrimonious split in my PCA congregation. Those who left started a new PCA church in the same small town (pop. 26,000) without any dissent from the presbytery. I guess comity in the PCA means “the more, the merrier”.

  4. Bob and Joel,

    This is the result of the “Grass Roots” mindset in the PCA. The lack of a connectional Church. I’ve been privy to Joel’s context where the Presbytery parachutes a planting minister right into the midst of a bevy of PCA congregations without the support of the other congregations. Thus, he has no core group to start off with and his provisional Session is tenuous at best being made up of men who are not local. I’ve seen Bob’s context played out too. A young man grows up in one PCA congregation. He decides to go off to Seminary. With the ink hardly dry on his degree he comes back to his hometown to plant a new “Church” right across town with blessing of the MNA regime. Just not one like the one he grew up in.

    In both situations the problem is that folks in the PCA act like Baptists. They see their congregation as an independent “Church” rather than a congregation of the regional Church/Presbytery. They like to put PCA on their sign but when pressed they retreat to the foxhole and hold their own hill or die trying. The “A” in PCA informs the rugged individualism. Thus, in unintended Reformation strikes again. .

    • William: The prevalence of church planting within the PCA does not appear to be a grassroots phenomenon. I attend a small PCA church with about 140 communing members (about a third of whom are young children, but that’s another story). Out of the blue, the session announces that we are going to plant a new church about 15-20 miles away. I suspect that there is pressure on the pastor from denominational higher-ups especially at the nearby Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. The session has not gotten the congregation to buy into the plant so even with the lack of adequate resources, the session appears determined to go it alone. The chances of success seem slim. It seems that in the PCA they believe church plants can be manufactured according to a formula without any influence of the Holy Spirit.

    • There was a church in our presbytery that for many years followed the Tim Keller multisite model. They planted dependent satellite churches all over the region, irrespective of whatever regular PCA church might already be at a location.

Comments are closed.