The Presbyterian Church of North America was founded in Philadelphia 85 years ago this week. The creation of the new denomination was primarily due to the efforts of J. Gresham Machen, one of the most important conservative Protestant thinkers of the first half of the 20th century. Machen died less than seven months after founding the denomination, and so didn’t live to see the trend that would carry on for the rest of the century: Presbyterian denominations arising, merging, and splitting into various breakaway groups.
Those of us outside the Presbyterian camp are often unclear about the differences between the denominations. Confusion arises in part because throughout their history they have almost all included some form of the words “United States” or “America” in their names. Often the distinction in name is based on a preposition: the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1861–1983), the Presbyterian Church of America (1936 until a name change in 1939), the Presbyterian Church in America (1973–present), and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1958–83). Adding to the confusion are various Korean-language denomination that are sometimes affiliated with these denominations and have similar-sounding names, such as the Korean-American Presbyterian Church (a conservative denomination) and the Korean Presbyterian Church in America (a progressive denomination).
There are a wide variety of Presbyterian denominations in the United States, but to give you an idea of the key differences we’ll look at four: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Each of the four denomination either combined with or broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (often abbreviated as PCUSA) was established by the 1983 merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were located mainly in the South and in border states, with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every state.
Because of a perceived drift away from orthodox faith by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (such as denial by some leaders that the Bible was without error and belief that such doctrines as Christ’s substitutionary atonement were not essential), a group of 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in 1936 to constitute the Presbyterian Church of America. Because of a lawsuit brought by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, the name of the new church was changed in 1939 to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) separated from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in “opposition to long-developing theological liberalism, which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.” In 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, joined the Presbyterian Church in America.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) formed in 1981 when leaders from both branches of mainline Presbyterianism became “increasingly distressed by theological liberalism and institutional resistance to change in their denominations.” The split occurred primarily because of differing views on women’s ordination (which they considered non-essential) and orthodox teachings on the nature of Christ (which they considered essential).
The PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. As of 2020, the PCUSA had approximately 8,925 congregations and 1,245,354 active members. The denomination has been steadily losing churches since its founding in 1983 (11,596) and has lost 67 percent of its membership since the peak in 1993 (3,796,766).
The PCA is the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. As of 2020, the PCA had approximately 1,580 congregations and 383,338 members (communicant and non-communicant). It has been one of the faster-growing denominations in the United States, growing tenfold since 1983.
As of 2019, the EPC had approximately 625 churches and 145,210 members.
As of 2018, the OPC had approximately 282 congregations and 31,043 members.
PCUSA: The Bible and the Book of Confessions, which includes the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, the Larger Catechism, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith.
EPC: The Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith, (with minor revisions) together with the Larger and Shorter Catechism.
OPC: The Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith (with minor revisions), together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The PCUSA maintains affiliations with ten seminaries in the United States: Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, San Francisco Theological Seminary, Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.
The PCA maintains affiliations with one seminary in the United States: Covenant Theological Seminary.
The EPC does not have denominational schools or any special affiliations with seminaries.
The OPC does not have a denominationally affiliated seminary and does not require attendance at any particular seminary.
PCUSA: Allows for the ordination of both men and women, including non-celibate homosexuals.
PCA: Only ordains men in “obedience to the New Testament standard for those who rule the church and teach doctrine.”
EPC: Does not believe that the issue of the ordination of women is an essential of the faith. Has chosen to “leave this decision to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as elders and deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as ministers.”
OPC: Only ordains men based on 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:7–9.
PCUSA: Does not teach that Scripture is inerrant.
PCA: Teaches that Scripture is inerrant.
EPC: Teaches that “All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life. The infallible Word of God, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.”
OPC: Teaches that Scripture is inerrant.
PCUSA: Church property belongs to the denomination.
PCA: Church property belongs to the local congregation without any right of reversion whatsoever to any Presbytery or General Assembly.
EPC: The congregation has the exclusive, irrevocable right to own and control its own property.
OPC: Church property belongs to the local congregation without any right of reversion whatsoever to the denomination.
PCUSA: Teaches that abortion can be “morally acceptable” though it “ought to be an option of last resort.”
PCA: Teaches that all abortions are wrong (“Abortion would terminate the life of an individual, a bearer of God’s image, who is being divinely formed and prepared for a God-given role in the world”).
EPC: Teaches that abortion is morally wrong: “the Bible does not distinguish between prenatal and postnatal life. It attributes human personhood to the unborn child. This extends to the unborn child ex utero as no less a human being than the child in the mother’s womb.”
OPC: Opposes abortion.
PCUSA: In 1952 the PCUSA General Assembly moved to amend sections of the Westminster Confession, eliminating “innocent parties” language, broadening the grounds to include no-fault divorce.
PCA: Teaches that divorce is a sin except in cases of adultery or desertion.
EPC: Teaches that divorce is a sin except in cases of adultery or desertion.
OPC: Teaches that divorce is a sin except in cases of adultery or desertion.
PCUSA: In 2010, the General Assembly expressed that “The PCUSA has no consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on issues of same-sex practice.” Homosexuals (both celibate and non-celibate) can serve as ministers and the churches endorses same-sex “blessing” ceremonies. The General Assembly amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between two people rather than between a man and a woman and allows ministers to perform any legal marriage between two people.
PCA: Teaches that homosexual practice is sin.
EPC: Teaches that homosexual practice is sin.
OPC: Teaches that homosexual practice is sin.