If our United Presbyterian Church is to pay retired ministers a pension that will enable them to live decently; if it is to maintain its position by helping to finance churches in thousands of new community centers all over this country; and if it is to do its fair share in missions and in education—then the corporate church could spend at least twice as much money as it now receives.

Why does our church receive so little money for these purposes? It is generally conceded that there is more wealth represented in our denomination than there is in any other; and yet there are 26 denominations whose benevolences per communicant greatly exceed ours. In fact, one of these, a tenth our size, receives more money for benevolences than we do. Of course, these denominations are much smaller than ours; yet are we to be excused for not raising our share simply because we have more people to deal with?

In order to find an answer to these questions, I have had discussions with many men in business and in the professions who are dedicated Christian members of our church. Many of these men could afford to give far more than they do. Most of them give liberally to charity, moderately to their local churches, and nothing at all to the corporate church. A few will give when we demonstrate the needs; but on the part of the majority there is strong opposition to much of what the corporate church is doing. These members cannot understand how our corporate church could tolerate such statements and pronouncements on social issues as they have seen in the press. They feel that the corporate church should not go into politics, that it has no mandate to meddle in secular affairs. They know that the National Council of Churches is composed of representatives from the denominations, and therefore is a creature of the denominations. When the National Council makes a statement, they naturally assume that if our denomination does not repudiate that statement, it must be in favor of it. They feel that many of those who are primarily responsible for these statements have neither the knowledge nor the competence to make them. Furthermore, they know that these pronouncements frequently coincide with Communist objectives.


Let us take a look at some of the statements that have stirred up so much controversy. A case in point was the so-called World Order Study Conference, widely publicized in the newspapers throughout the United States. Typical of this publicity was the news story carried in The New York Times: “Cleveland, November 21. Leaders of American Protestantism voted unanimously today in favor of United States recognition of Communist China and its admission to the U.N. The vote was taken at the end of the four-day World Order Study Conference sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The Council represents 27 major Protestant bodies and 6 eastern orthodox groups.”

Article continues below

Here we have it in so many words that American Protestantism throughout the length and breadth of our land favors recognition of Red China. Not a word in the entire news story indicates that the Conference spoke only for its individual members, although the National Council of Churches assures us that this was the case.

It is pretty generally agreed that ethically no organization should permit any Committee, Council, or Conference which it may set up, to publish its report unless it is first approved by such organization; otherwise the public erroneously concludes that such a report expresses the convictions of that organization. In this case, the National Council of Churches did not approve the report of its Conference. Reliable polls subsequently taken revealed the fact that even 85 percent of the ministers opposed recognition of Red China. Thus the Conference, instead of speaking for Protestantism, represented but a small percentage of its constituency.

Last May our General Assembly met and opportunity was afforded to make amends for misleading the public by repudiating the report of the World Order Conference. Our church not only failed to avail itself of this opportunity, but it endorsed the report of its Social Action group which stated (in reference to the World Order Conference): first, that its delegates and conferences spoke only for themselves; second, that it has provoked not only responsible discussion, but irresponsible censure; and, third, that the immediate recognition of Red China may not be feasible.

When the delegates to the General Assembly approved this report, did they realize that they were in effect accusing 80 percent or 90 percent of the members of our church as being irresponsible? I think not, because these delegates were interested in building up our church, not tearing it down. Has our Social Action group then led us into a position that is unworthy of our church?

Other statements about which there is wide difference of opinion concern collective bargaining, capital punishment, alcohol, planned parenthood, segregation, international trade and other international relationships, public housing, public education, United Nations, dictating to government its policies on agriculture, natural resources, and all manner of relationships that exist between government and people.

Article continues below

Now I am an old man. For 60 years most of my time and energy have been devoted to the oil industry. It might be possible for me to give an intelligent answer to 10 per cent of the problems incident to petroleum. Petroleum represents but a small segment of industry—industry but a segment of our economy, and our economy but a part of human relationships. Is it possible for this social action group, or any other group of men, to have the knowledge and competence to pass judgment on the whole gamut of human relationships? Calvin thought not; the Westminster divines thought not; our Founding Fathers thought not; may I humbly state, I think not.

This reminds us of the schoolmaster in the “Deserted Village” of whom Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

While words of learned length and thundering sound

Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;

And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew,

That one small head could carry all he knew.


Now, there are certain right and proper functions which the corporate church should perform without compromise and irrespective of the interests of any group. I have not heard these business and professional men seriously criticize the operations of our local churches. They do, however, complain that the church has erred on three counts: first, that many of these statements are contrary to both natural law and the freedoms and rights guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights; second, that the corporate church had no mandate from its members to make these statements; third, that many of these statements clearly violate the constitution of our church and the basic tenets of Protestantism.

As to the first point, these men believe that American enterprise, as presently practiced and commonly referred to as the capitalistic system, has been the greatest material boon to mankind ever devised in the history of the world. They believe that capitalism can exist only in an atmosphere of freedom; that freedom is a Christian concept; and that one of the cornerstones of Christianity is morality. Many of them understand and believe in the philosophy that inspired our founding fathers to write the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

Article continues below

Our founding fathers were a strongly religious people, over 60 percent of them being of Calvinistic stock. They knew that one of the first things Christianity teaches us is that man must so discipline himself that he will govern his life in accordance with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.

They knew, too, that every government down through the corridors of time usurped increasing power over the lives and activities of the people until the latter had been reduced to a state of serfdom. They recognized that some government was necessary if order was to be maintained; but they were also convinced that the more divine authority the people would accept as a rule for their conduct, the less governmental authority would be necessary. And so they set up a pattern to live by in which Christianity, morality, self-discipline, freedom, and limited government played an important part. The wirings of our forebears are replete with this philosophy. George Washington in his farewell address said, “Religion and morality are the indispensable supports of freedom.”

And so these members of our church have concluded that, inasmuch as many of these statements and pronouncements violated their individual freedoms, the church was acting outside of its proper sphere.

As to the second point, they contended that the corporate church should not make such sweeping statements because they do not represent the views of their constituency.


Over the third point, I talked to and corresponded with many ministers in our denomination. A number of them quoted John Calvin as follows: “Our Lord intended to draw a distinction between the political kingdoms of this world and the government of His church; because He had been appointed by the Father to be a Teacher, but was not a magistrate to divide inheritances.… Let us hold by this rule that everyone keep within the limits of the calling which God has given him.”

One minister wrote to me as follows: “From the beginning of Presbyterianism, the separate jurisdiction of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities was a distinction firmly grasped and clearly expressed by our Reformed Fathers. In the Second Book of Discipline, agreed upon in the General Assembly of 1578, six years after the death of John Knox, it is expressly declared that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the Assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction.”

And many ministers called my attention to Chapter 31, Section 5, of the Westminster Confession of Faith (written in 1641 and which is still a part of the constitution of our church) which states: “Synods and Councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the Commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

Article continues below

Presbyterian ministers also called my attention to the Form of Government which was first drawn up by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia in 1788. This document states in Chapter 8, Section 3: “These Assemblies ought not to possess any civil jurisdiction, nor to inflict any civil penalties. Their power is wholly moral or spiritual, and that only ministerial and declarative. They possess the right of requiring obedience to the laws of Christ; and of excluding the disobedient and disorderly from the privileges of the Church.” The same limitation of jurisdiction is expressed in similar words in the Form of Government, Chapter 5, Section 3, as enacted by the recent 171st General Assembly.

Another minister called my attention to the inaugural address of Philip Schaff, the eminent historian, who, when installed as professor of church history in Union Theological Seminary of New York in 1887, stated: “The Church exhorts, and uses moral suasion; the state commands, and enforces obedience. The Church punishes by rebuke, suspension and excommunication; the state by fines, imprisonment and death.… Secular power has proved a Satanic gift to the Church, and ecclesiastical power has proved an engine of tyranny in the hands of the state.” In the same address he said: “Liberty is impossible on the basis of a union of church and state, where the one of necessity restricts or controls the other. It requires a friendly separation, where each power is entirely independent in its own sphere. The Church, as such, has nothing to do with the state except to obey its laws and to strengthen its moral foundations; the state has nothing to do with the Church except to protect her in her property and liberty; and the state must be equally just to all forms of belief and unbelief which do not endanger the public safety.”

And, finally, I quote another clergyman as follows: “There seems to be one overall principle assumed by the United Presbyterians’ social action pronouncements, namely, that the Church’s being the Body of Christ gives it the prerogative to speak originally in the name of its Head. This is essentially the Roman Catholic view. But the Church must never forget that its relation to its Head is that of a Body only. The Head does all of the talking and the Body can never speak authoritatively for the Head. It is only a Body and its place is to hear and obey its Head, not hear and obey itself. ‘What does Christ say?’ is the Protestant principle. ‘What does the Church say?’ is the Roman.

Article continues below

“But the United Presbyterians have gone the limit and affirmed that what the Church says is what Christ says. Thus these deliverances are presumably from God Himself.”

Then he goes on to point out that our Committee on Social Education and Action has in effect declared that God wants the 86th Congress to establish a permanent civil rights commission; that the will of God is expressed against right-to-work laws, and in favor of birth control; that God would have the Federal government exercise more control over the states; that the Holy Spirit directs the United States to recognize Red China, and has decreed that collective bargaining must be employed to solve labor disputes.

These ministers would resolve the third point in the negative; that the corporate church should not speak outside its ecclesiastical sphere.

Many of our business and professional men do not realize that the very freedoms to which they aspire can exist in a country only where the people generally accept the attributes of Christianity as a rule for their conduct. And so, if they would have these freedoms, they must support their church. If there are some things about the church they believe to be wrong, they should help to correct them. But they must work from the inside. Only thus can their efforts be effective.

Ours is a church divided against itself. As the church is the only institution that can save the world from communism, it would appear vitally important for these differing groups to meet in a spirit of brotherly love, and then quietly and prayerfully come to an understanding of the principles clearly enunciated by Jesus Christ and clearly stated in the Holy Bible.


The Presbyterian Church is the finest example of a republican form of government ever conceived in the minds of men. In 1787, within a few blocks of each other, two groups were simultaneously working on constitutions—one group on the Constitution of the United States, and the other on the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. A study of the two documents must convince the impartial reader that the latter was by far the greater achievement. John Witherspoon and his contemporaries did a magnificent work. The constitution of the Presbyterian Church is, as you know, divided into five sections: The Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechism, the Form of Government, the Book of Discipline, and the Directory for the Worship of God. I personally hold that the Presbyterian Church has been the finest organization one could be associated with. Every institution has its ups and downs, but in the long run any man who believes in freedom can find no better refuge than in that of our church.

Article continues below

I believe in the Presbyterian Church and in the concepts upon which it was builded. I believe that as one of the great uplifting forces in our society, it will survive not only this generation but many generations to come. I believe also that in coming years, its influence for good will ever increase, and that it will ever contribute to the greater glory of God and to the redemption of mankind.

The Last Judgment

The outer darkness!

Grim travail and woe pertaineth thereto.

Woe, ah woe, the woe

Of that immeasurable place of loneliness,

Of fearful quiet, and of frightening echoes!

God maketh man to live,

Yet man hath made himself so often

A thing of fetid darkness,

Rebellion ’gainst the sovereignty of heaven.

Ah that place! that place where light is darkness, darkness light!

Where loneliness becomes an atmosphere,

Where souls awaiting dissolution

Wring their hands, and shriek collapsed

Upon the marshy earth!

Ah, darkness!

God’s curse, God’s last condemning word

To those who scorned the pattern of creation;

To those who hated love;

To those who could not even love themselves

Because their selves had ceased to be

Aught else but impudence, impertinence,

Determination to be rid of God,

Of self,

Of being.


Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.