The Five Stages of Denominational Development

William O. Brackett, Jr., in two articles in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society entitled “The Rise and Development of the New School in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to the Reunion of 1869” (Vol. 13, No. 3 (September, 1928), pp. 117-140; and Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 1928), pp. 145-174), argues that denominations often pass through five stages/phases of development: 1) revival; 2) increased membership and demand for ministers; 3) disagreement as to the education of ministers and the standards of doctrine and church polity; 4) division; and, finally, 5) reunion in the face of common spiritual need, followed by renewed spiritual interest and revival. He illustrates this process with the schism between the New Side and Old Side of the pre-Revolutionary Presbyterian Church in 1741, as well as the Old School-New School split in the Presbyterian Church in 1837.

If the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) follows a similar trend, then it seems we have been in the third stage for some time now, and we shouldn’t be surprised if some sort of division happens in the next decade or so. There have been individual teaching elders and churches that have left the PCA over the years, to the right and to the left, but to this point we’ve been able to stave off any large scale separation over issues such as women’s ordination, views of creation, subscription to the Westminster Standards, or discipline (or the lack thereof). At some point, however, the center will possibly not be able to hold, and churches will be forced to decide to which side/school they belong. By God’s grace this will not happen, but if history and the depravity of man is any guide, we shouldn’t be caught unawares by the processes of division that might occur (and indeed are already occurring). If we do divide, let us not lose heart, but take comfort in the fact that the last stage of denomination development is reunion!

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