Machen on Missions: What the URCNA can learn from the OPC

In order to fulfill its mandate from Synod 2010, the Synodical Study Committee on Missions researched the mission policies of our fellow NAPARC denominations, namely, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CanRC), the Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRCNA), and Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The Committee made evaluations of these policies in light of the URCNA mission report of 2001, known as the Biblical and Confessional View of Missions (BCVM), the polity of the URCNA, and the present challenges and deficiencies we are experiencing in our federation in our attempt to do missions and fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission. We recognized that most of these denominations had well thought-out mission policies and highly structured denominational mission committees. For example, the PCA has a denominational mission committee composed of fifteen elders: eight teaching (ministers) and seven ruling. They are elected by the PCA’s General Assembly to serve for five years, and serve as an “enabling” committee to encourage and enable the PCA at every level to function as a missionary church. Their primary task is to assist in the planting of confessional churches. They also assist in recruiting candidates for mission service, oversee missionary training, and keep the home church aware and supportive of their missionaries.

Likewise, smaller denominations in NAPARC, such as the RCUS and HRC, have established denominational missions committees made up of ministers and elders. The Foreign Mission Committee of the RCUS is responsible to provide reports and recommendations to each annual synod, and then to carry out the program and budget approved by that synod. Membership on the committee is for three-year terms, staggered in order to maintain stability.

As our Committee researched the various approaches to missions taken by NAPARC denominations, it became clear that we could learn a great deal from the missions work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While the OPC has a slightly different church polity from the URCNA, their coordination and cooperation in missions have so impressed us that we thought it would be important to provide at least a glimpse of their denominational infrastructure for missions.

The work of the OPC in missions is especially striking when one considers the origin of their denomination. In the early twentieth century, the corruption of foreign missions within the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) led J. Gresham Machen to establish an independent board for foreign missions. This culminated not only in his being deposed from the liberal denomination, but also in the eventual formation of the OPC, which has always maintained a vigorous witness to the world – and one that has not been hindered in the least but rather helped greatly by their denominational coordination. In other words, the OPC did not overreact against particular abuses in the PCUSA by ruling out or minimizing the importance of denominational missions committees. On the contrary, they have established denominational missions committees that have proven to be highly effective and efficient in the planting of churches at home and abroad.

The OPC has a plan for “Worldwide Outreach” that involves the work of three committees – the Committee on Christian Education, the Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension, and the Committee on Foreign Missions. For our purposes here we will take a look at the latter two committees. Both missions committees are composed of fifteen men (ruling and teaching elders) who are elected by the OPC General Assembly (akin to our synod), and accountable to that body for the work that they do. Committee members are elected to a term of three years and eligible for re-election indefinitely. Serving each of these two missions committees is a general secretary and an associate general secretary; all four men are ordained officers (teaching or ruling elders) and paid for full-time employment. The secretaries have no vote on their respective committees, are directly accountable to their committees, and serve at their committee’s pleasure. It is noteworthy that the OPC hopes to get about twenty years of service from these four secretaries.

The Committee on Foreign Missions has some oversight of all missionaries in their nine active mission fields (China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Japan, Quebec, Uganda, Ukraine, and Uruguay), but this oversight is very general and administrative – setting goals for the missions, providing financial support, encouraging missionaries on furlough, and visiting missionaries on the field. All pastoral/disciplinary oversight, however, is in the hands of a missionary’s presbytery. The Foreign Missions committee also gives instruction to the denomination in biblical missionary principles, formulates mission policy, and encourages each presbytery to develop their own foreign missions committee (most presbyteries have one).

The Committee on Home Missions & Church Extension has partial oversight of those church plants to which it gives financial aid. Church plants that are not financially aided by this committee rely on the local giving of their attendees and of the presbytery to which they belong. Each OPC presbytery (akin to our classis) has its own home missions committee as well, which coordinates with the Committee on Home Missions for the work of church plants.

Funds for the support of all foreign missionaries and numerous domestic church plants, for the remuneration of the secretaries and administrative personnel who serve the two missions committees, and for the support of the Committee on Christian Education are provided by the regular monthly giving of OPC congregations to Worldwide Outreach. To meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach, most congregations simply make their contribution a line item in their own budget based on Worldwide Outreach’s suggested yearly amount for each communicant member. For 2012, the 3.5 million dollar budget of Worldwide Outreach translates to a suggested amount of $162.66 per communicant member for the year. Each congregation also takes an annual Thank-Offering (usually around Thanksgiving) which also helps meet the budget of Worldwide Outreach. Again, these funds support all three committees of Worldwide Outreach, but about eighty percent of funds collected for OPC missions go directly to the mission field. This is a denomination that makes it a priority to ensure that its missionaries and church planters are fully funded.

What prohibits the URCNA from adopting a similar structure for missions? With our close ecumenical ties to and warm fellowship with the OPC, why can't we learn from our brothers a better way of fulfilling the Great Commission? Is there any good reason for maintaining our present approach of applying consistorialism (if not congregationalism) to missions?