A Plea for Patience in the PCA (2)
The future of the PCA is one of confessional integrity and biblical fidelity.
This is the second of a two-part series. Part one was published be published on Friday, March 3, 2022.
The trajectory of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) seems to have shifted beginning in 2018. Since that time, the General Assembly has delivered several tangible actions indicating greater commitment to the PCA Constitution (Westminster Standards and Book of Church Order).
Despite the encouragement, there remain numerous causes for concern throughout the PCA. In my previous article, I noted several areas creating trouble within the PCA including church-officer-impersonation, women in pulpits, and sacramental innovation, but I do not believe it is yet time to despair over the PCA. Instead, now is the time to continue to contend for the faith and uphold the PCA Constitution
It is clear there are serious deviations of practice from the teaching of Scripture as confessed by our Church. This creates disunity and robs us of the peace we should be able to enjoy when we come together at General Assembly. Additionally, the dissonance between what we confess together (i.e. what we vow to uphold) versus what is practiced sows confusion, which is problematic since our God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
Calvin encourages us toward patience (see his comments on John 10:31). The deviations in the PCA are not nearly so significant as those encountered by John Calvin in Geneva; we should be able to exercise patience.
Now is not the time to leave the PCA or wring our hands because of these innovative practices. Rather, this is the time to zealously cling to our Saviour, proclaim His truth, and make disciples by teaching the nations to observe all He has commanded.
We should recognize that the work of confessional renewal and reformation takes time. Patterns and habits are in place that must be confronted, in some places church culture must be changed to prize consistency and fidelity rather than latitude and contextualization, and brothers need to be corrected and taught with loving clarity and firmness.
All of these things take time, and we should be willing - even as we hold them accountable - to bear with our brethren as we work toward the goal of purity and peace.
Patience does not mean we simply tolerate deviant practices that violate our church constitution. We must continue to highlight these public actions and compare them to what we have confessed as a Church and agreed to uphold.
As we do this, we should pray all our brethren will live with integrity before God and man and likewise fulfill their vows to the Scripture, to our Doctrinal Standards, and to our Form of Government and Discipline (BCO 21-5, 24-6) as we minister together in the PCA.
The future of the PCA is not one of a tiered, latitudinarian approach to the Standards and teaching of Jesus, but of confessional fidelity.
C. Confessional Subscription
Some have argued the source of the problem is “Good Faith” Subscription, but I don’t believe “Good Faith” Subscription is the issue. The issues most disturbing the PCA presently are not issues on which we can disagree in good faith.
Charles Hodge noted some years ago regarding confessional subscription that a candidate:
…has no right to select from all possible meanings which the words may bear, that particular sense which suits his purpose, or which, he thinks, will save his conscience.
Professor Hodge has anticipated what is at the core of so much disruption in the PCA. We have permitted a post-modern, reader-response view of subscription to reign in the PCA. In practice in the PCA, the propositions in the Standards are allowed to mean whatever a man feels they mean to him even if it has no relationship to the historical and theological interpretations of the Standards. This is not something of which only Progressives are guilty.
I recall many years ago attending a presbytery meeting before I was ordained. There were seven or so men being examined on their views. All but one of them stated he had “no differences” with the Westminster Standards and all but one of them claimed a “strict subscription” position.
I knew a good number of those men, and I respect them; some of them were dear friends. Yet at the time I also knew some of them played sports on the Lord’s Day (after worship) and would occasionally order food from restaurants on the Lord’s Day. Now I’m not necessarily arguing those should not be allowable differences with the Westminster Standards, but those activities do nonetheless reflect differences with both the teaching of the Standards on the Christian Sabbath and with what would be considered strict subscription.
The only candidate at that meeting who received any significant pushback on his views was the poor fellow who stated he believed in “Good Faith” Subscription and stated some differences with Westminster.
In my view, the problem is not so much the Boogeyman of “Good Faith” Subscription. The problem is a lack of clarity on what our Standards teach and a lack of insistence that men subscribe to what the words have historically been understood to mean or to clearly and cogently state their differences with the historical meaning.
We need to promote a culture in the PCA of rigorous - yet pastorally tender - ordination and licensure examinations in which men are not simply asked to affirm or reject scripted propositions. Instead, we must insist our examination committees probe a candidate’s thought process and understanding of the system of doctrine taught in the Scripture (and summarized in Westminster).
All this takes time and requires patience and perseverance.
D. Church Courts
Our Constitution and Confessional Standards are robust and strong. There is no reason to despair over the PCA. We need to patiently and firmly hold men accountable to the PCA Constitution we all vowed to receive and adopt.
Indeed, working through the church courts is time-consuming and laborious. The crucial work of Presbytery is often carried out by men whose primary ministry and calling is to the local church, which also helps to slow down the process at Presbytery.
But this slowness is a feature, not a bug; it is a “holy slowness.” The slow, deliberate process of Presbyterianism allows cooler heads to prevail, allows matters driven by mere enthusiasm, personality, or emotion to fizzle out, and promotes justice for all parties.
Allowing the Church Courts to run their course is what we see in Acts 15. The First General Assembly convened in Jerusalem because of controversy in the churches because “some men came down” and started teaching new and innovative doctrines they had contrived, which deeply troubled the congregations and threatened the unity of the Apostolic Church.
But rather than divide in two (e.g. the Hebrew Church and the Gentile Church), the elders and apostles assembled to settle the matter together. And the judgment they delivered promoted unity and peace in the Church:
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement (Acts 15:30–31).
While we should not be contentious, there is a reason Jude commanded the beloved to contend for the faith once for all delivered. The purity and peace of the Church are worth contending for; the PCA is worth fighting for.
Our doctrine, theology, and ecclesiastical heritage are all worth preserving. We must enforce what we have agreed is our standard and we must faithfully observe all the Lord Jesus has commanded us.
Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18–20).