Last week NBC news reported that the “top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church in America” voted to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in their church constitution. The news report, which was quickly corrected, was confusing the Presbyterian Church of the USA—whose general assembly was meeting in Detroit, Michigan—for the Presbyterian Church in America—whose general assembly was meeting in Houston, Texas.
With two Presbyterian denominations with similar names meeting on the same dates it’s easy to understand how a reporter could get them mixed up. So what exactly are the differences between the two? Here are several key differences between these two distinctive Presbyterian denominations.
Throughout the twentieth century, various Presbyterian denominations arose, merged, and split into various break-away groups.
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.
In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) separated from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in “opposition to the 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 PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. PCUSA has approximately 10,038 congregations, 1,760,200 members, and 20,562 ministers. The denomination has been steadily losing members and churches since 1983, and has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992.
The PCA is the second largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. The PCA has approximately1,808 congregations, 367,033 members, and 4,416 ministers. The denomination has been one of the faster growing denominations in the United States, growing tenfold since 1983.
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.
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 University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.
The PCA maintains affiliations with one seminary in the United States: Covenant Theological 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.”
PCUSA: Does not teach that Scripture is inerrant.
PCA: 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.
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. (e.g., “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.”)
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.
PCUSA: In 2010, the General Assembly expressed that “The PCUSA has no consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on issues of same-sex practice.” Currently, homosexuals (both celibate and non-celibate) can serve as ministers and the churches endorses same-sex “blessing” ceremonies. Recently, 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. That amendment will require the approval of a majority of the presbyteries before it will take effect.
PCA: Teaches that homosexual practice is sin.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.