At its annual meeting on Wednesday, the Presbyterian Church in America voted to leave the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which it has been connected with since the denomination’s founding in 1973.
Presbyterian elders voting for the breakup cited the NAE’s increasing political advocacy, which sometimes conflicted with more conservative Presbyterian churches. Elders mentioned the NAE’s advocacy on climate change, immigration, the death penalty, and COVID-19, among other issues.
Elders who wanted to remain with the NAE argued the groups had a historical bond and that in a culture increasingly hostile to Christianity, churches across denominations needed to work together on issues of common cause. The vote to leave was about 60 percent to 40 percent.
The NAE represents 39 denominations, from Free Methodist USA to the Foursquare Church, as well as nonprofits, schools, and individual congregations. It was founded in 1942 as a response to the mainline National Council of Churches and the fundamentalist Presbyterian Carl McIntire’s American Council of Christian Churches. In representing evangelicals in various spheres, it issues statements on political issues, files Supreme Court briefs on church-related cases, and generally connects evangelical groups to work together.
The head of the NAE since 2020, Walter Kim, is a member of the PCA and a teacher-in-residence at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. (He is also on CT’s board.)
“It is a little awkward,” said David Coffin, a PCA pastor who supported the measure to leave, about Kim leading the NAE. An NAE spokesperson said the group does not comment on denominational decisions.
Roy Taylor, the former and longtime stated clerk of the PCA, was strongly in favor of remaining with the NAE, where he has served as chairman of the board. He filed a protest against the vote, which he had never done before. In the PCA, filing a protest is like a Supreme Court justice dissenting from a majority opinion, explaining why a decision was wrong.
The PCA’s ties to the NAE have been controversial since its founding. The denomination’s mission arm joined the NAE in 1973, and the full denomination joined in 1986. In 1974, at the PCA’s second general assembly of its existence, a number of overtures (essentially legislation) demanded that the new denomination avoid affiliation with any ecumenical organizations. One overture called for a termination of the PCA mission’s agency’s relationship with the NAE, which the fledgling denomination rejected.
After four hours of debate at its 1974 general assembly, “the assembly set the pattern that will no doubt become a general operational philosophy in all areas: Presbyterian and Reformed, open to cooperation with evangelical bodies, searching the Scripture for further light,” according to a 1974 report from one of the PCA’s founders and editor of the Presbyterian Journal, G. Aiken Taylor.
Taylor described the new denomination after that meeting as “a city open to the world rather than a community needing the protection of massive walls labeled ‘Reformed.’”
In the past, the denomination had considered two other measures to leave the NAE and rejected them.
The presbytery who put forward this overture to leave the NAE cited, among other things, the NAE’s advocacy for political measures like the Fairness for All legislation, an attempted compromise on gay rights and religious freedom. But many different issues have nettled Presbyterians for decades, like statements of cooperation with Muslims and Mormons, as well as a press conference that publicly rebuked Franklin Graham. But the NAE has maintained politically conservative positions on a number of issues, like abortion.
Those arguing in favor of remaining pointed to the PCA’s outsize influence at the NAE as well as the historic ties between the groups. Pastor Ken McHeard, who is the chair of the PCA’s Committee of Commissioners for Interchurch Relations, argued on the floor that the PCA, through the NAE, had brought “the most reformed influence, perspective, and leadership to our nation’s evangelical movement for the last two decades.”
McHeard continued: “Now is the wrong time to be breaking ranks with other Bible-believing churches that are standing with us on most issues, and can provide resources greater than ours for addressing the sanctity of life, biblical racial reconciliation, …biblical marriage, and for providing the judicial expertise and legislative influence that is needed to preserve each.”
On the other side, PCA pastor Carl Robbins, speaking in favor of leaving the NAE, called the membership in the NAE a “a misplaced ecumenism,” and said the PCA could join more like minded groups like the International Conference of Reformed Churches.
“Those of us who wish to depart from the NAE have no problem with fellowshipping with Christians who are not like-minded,” he said. “We all do that in our communities…What we do have a problem with is other churches speaking for us.” Robbins added that the PCA’s participation in the NAE was infringing on the “Christian liberty” of churches that didn’t agree with the NAE, which he said is “usually a source of confusion or embarrassment to most of us.”
Opponents also mentioned that the annual dues to the NAE were $20,000.
Coffin, another prominent and longtime supporter of the decision to leave, said he understood the good motivations behind the arguments for remaining in the NAE.
But he said his own opposition to being part of the NAE was rooted in the PCA’s general avoidance of specific political advocacy. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which the PCA follows, says church councils should not “intermeddle with civil affairs.”
Coffin, for example, worked on the Potomac Presbytery’s overture on opposing political violence, where the crafters were careful not to make a specific political argument but speak from a moral standpoint on the importance of peacemaking.
“It’s not because my politics are different from the NAE, but it’s because the PCA doesn’t believe in general that the church has any proper role in strictly political questions,” said Coffin. But he acknowledged that the majority voting to leave the NAE probably contained his viewpoint as well as those who simply opposed the NAE’s political positions.
Individual PCA churches can still join the NAE.
This article was changed to clarify the PCA’s relationship to the NAE in 1973.