Contending for Christ's Bride
The PCA has problems, but it's not time to abandon her.
The PCA is at a crossroads; in many ways she is in a spiritual crisis, but I do not believe now is the time to depart the denomination (I explain more here). Instead, we must make a realistic assessment of our situation and stand firm to ensure the PCA enters her next half century as a Reformed and Confessional Protestant denomination for generations to come.
Standing firm in the PCA during this season of heavy debate will involve both difficulty and sacrifice; I give some advice for how to proceed during this season here.
We are currently debating what sort a denomination we will be. If conservative and confessional elders stay the course, participate in presbytery meetings and General Assembly, and prayerfully seek the Lord’s Spirit for blessing and reformation, I believe the PCA will be characterized by vibrant, warm confessional integrity and joyful, beautiful biblical fidelity for generations to come.
In the meantime, there will be calls for conservatives and confessional members and congregations to give up on the PCA and reaffiliate. But I think now is the worst time to do that.
V. Assessing Reasons for Departure
I am sympathetic to those who desire to leave the PCA, and I share many of their concerns. But here is a short summary of some common arguments for leaving followed by a short evaluation.
The argument goes something like this: “If we leave the PCA, we can align with churches and elders who have not been influenced by a Postmodern view of language, who share our commitment to the Westminster Standards, to Reformed piety, worship, and polity. This will free up resources currently devoted to battling over basic matters of what it is to be Presbyterian. This will be good for everyone’s blood pressure.”
This is attractive, but consider what the New Testament church was like. Also consider the reasons people left either the PCUSA in 1936 or the PCUS in 1973.Those with whom we disagree in the PCA still claim to affirm inerrancy and the PCA has not altered the Westminster Standards from their 1788 form.
It is time to obey the command of Christ to contend for the faith and do the hard work of holding elders and churches to the Standards, not retreat because of a concern many do not sincerely embrace those Standards.
B. The Church Judiciary
1. The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC)
For many years there have been questions raised over the way the PCA’s SJC has functioned as the final court of appeal. People have argued the SJC focuses too much on procedure and not enough on substance to decide matters. As a result, it is claimed, the SJC has been unable or unwilling to hold men accountable for deviant theological views. The question has been raised whether the PCA is able to exercise church discipline. Others claim the progressives have managed to take control of the SJC.
The recent decision regarding Missouri Presbytery (MoP) has served to support these claims. Some, by the way, have referred to this as the “Johnson Decision;” such a designation is inaccurate and misleading. There was no one named Johnson who was a party to this case; it concerned a complaint against MoP by TE Speck. No one named Johnson was on trial nor was anyone named Johnson vindicated or exonerated by that recent decision.
Nonetheless there were clear procedural anomalies in that SJC decision, which raise additional questions about the operation of the SJC.
But the decision to vindicate MoP, was not decided along progressive versus confessional lines. So don’t give up on the SJC; even those SJC members who sided with MoP acknowledged “serious concerns” regarding TE Johnson, his lack of clarity, and even his “tone-deafness.”Far from exonerating TE Johnson, the SJC has signaled he must be far more circumspect and precise in the way he speaks and ministers.
2. The Weaponization of the Church Courts
A number of men who have recently departed have reflected on their experiences in which the judicial processes of their particular presbyteries were allegedly used in attempts to silence critics or punish opponents (e.g. here and here). The procedures set forth in our “Rules of Discipline” are designed to prevent such destructive usage of the church judiciary (cf. e.g. BCO 27-3, 27-4, 31-8), but the system is not yet perfect.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of threats and promises to get my presbytery to bring me up on charges, this argument sounds almost persuasive. But even if certain men will abuse the judiciary to serve their own agenda rather than for the glory of Christ, I do not believe it is time to depart the PCA en masse.
C. Presbytery Situation
There are 88 presbyteries in the PCA. Some congregations feel isolated from or out of step with their respective presbyteries because of their own commitments to the Westminster Standards, philosophy of ministry, and/or the Spiritual Mission of the Church versus the commitments of their respective presbyteries.
If disagreements with presbytery result in an individual church functioning more congregationalist than presbyterian, then that may be a reason to consider realignment.
However, if you depart the PCA, will you truly be able to function as a presbyterian in your new presbytery? Or will you still be 100 miles or more from the nearest congregation that shares your convictions?
If leaving the PCA will not enable you to embrace more local and regional ecclesiastical fellowship, then I suggest you remain in the PCA for now and participate as much as you can at the presbytery and General Assembly levels than depart and be just as isolated. In the meantime, use the networks and technology available to foster greater connection with others in the PCA with similar commitments and experiences.
Others suggest departure will enable affiliation with a leaner denomination more focused on biblical church planting and discipleship.
Many find the oversight of a college and seminary unwieldy and distracting. This may come as a surprise to those who feel a kind of prestige from association with a denominational college and seminary. Others are distressed by the perceived agenda advocated by some faculty or administration associated with those institutions.
The large number of teaching elders not attached to a local congregation or members of sessions, but instead employed by the bureaucracy created by these institutions and other agencies is problematic.
One estimate suggests typically 200 teaching elders attend General Assembly each year who are not affiliated with any congregation. This is often more than 10% of the Assembly’s commissioners.
Long ago, Thornwell warned us about the danger of ecclesiastical tyranny when pastors wield too much power.The warning is more serious when the “pastors” in view are not actually pastors attached to a congregation and a Session. The concern is amplified now as it appears Teaching Elders seem to be disproportionately pulling the denomination in a progressive direction (as Brad Isbell’s work has suggested); in contrast ruling elders seem more inclined to favor the Old Paths of the faithful who have gone before.
Instead of withdrawing from the PCA over this concern, send more pastors of churches and additional Ruling Elders - and especially More Orthodox Ruling Elders - to presbytery and General Assembly.
Worship in the PCA is the most serious problem; we have acapella Psalm singing, rock concerts, liturgy that is Anglo-Catholic (complete with altars and ashes), and everything in between. The inconsistency is troubling, and not all of those can be accurately characterized as Reformed worship.
If we cannot worship rightly, we cannot be rightly edified or witness properly. If we cannot agree on what Reformed worship looks like, how can we witness together or pursue edification with unity?
There is no issue more pressing than worship. But leaving the denomination right now is not the way to address the problem. There are many churches committed to Reformed worship in the PCA.
Additionally there are movements and conferences aimed at supporting a renewal and renaissance of distinctively Reformed Worship in the PCA. Now is the time for concerted and deliberate churchmanship not splintering off.
F. The National Partnership (NP)
NP members have boasted of their influence in the PCA: “we are the majority”and “we can win every vote,” and they did enjoy some limited successes from 2012 to 2018, which has caused some to doubt whether the trajectory of the PCA can be altered.
But the two recent General Assemblies have demonstrated the boasts of NP strength were greatly exaggerated and the progressive trend of the PCA has been curtailed. We simply need to stay involved and focused. For a more detailed analysis of the NP activity and influence, please read the report on their activities written by the FPFO Session.
In urging churches and Christians to continue as part of the PCA, I do not intend to deny or minimalize the very serious and valid concerns about the health of the PCA. I understand these concerns and share many of them, however we remain at a crossroads. We are not at a point of inevitable descent into an abyss of worldliness and irrelevance like so many mainline faith communions.
The PCA was formed at great sacrifice 50 years ago. I agree it would be easier and pragmatically preferable to splinter off and reaffiliate with other confessional and Reformed communions. But to do so is giving up too much that was purchased and built at too great a cost. We must remain and contend for the PCA.
If conservative and confessional congregations leave the PCA now, this beloved and faithful communion will indeed fall into the abyss of compromise, accommodation, and Postmodernism. Let us stay together and ensure the PCA enters her next half-century “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.”
In my next article, I will suggest some non-negotiables that I believe would be reasons to leave the PCA.
Remember, Machen had to be thrown out and the writing was on the wall in the PCUS; the conservatives had suffered a series of defeats at the General Assembly and the denomination was on the fast track to become a petticoat church just like here larger sister up north. The situation in the PCA is quite different. We have had two consecutive assemblies that yielded strong encouragement to those seeking maintain confessional integrity.
It is true and a valid concern that the adoption of so-called “Good Faith Subscription” has made it unnecessary to require those with deviant theological views to do the difficult work of revising the Westminster Standards.
E.g. see here https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2021/12/22/family-holidays-god-patience-compassion/6496994001/?gnt-cfr=1 or without a paywall here: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/opinion/im-a-gay-celibate-pastor-of-a-conservative-church-heres-a-trick-for-de-escalation/ar-AAS3qR2 or here too: https://lauriekrieg.com/podcast/the-church-wasnt-always-so-terrible-at-the-lgbtq-conversation-with-greg-johnson/
This is not intended as a criticism of the men whose articles are referenced above and who subsequently departed the PCA because they and their sessions considered themselves targets of punitive actions rather than the subjects of sincere pastoral and spiritual concern in discipline matters.
Thornwell, Collected Writings Vol. 4, pp. 64-65. Yes, I know Thornwell lived during the 19th Century and was a sinner, wrote and said things that were out of accord with Biblical truth, and/or sinful. But that’s the beauty of the gospel: God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines.
Worship in the PCA is arguably better and more Reformed than it has ever been. Let us not forget the 1976 General Assembly Worship Service featured a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the Civil Magistrate and other innovative elements that might have even made Gardiner Spring blush. That worship service was hardly Reformed. My point is this: worship in the PCA is getting better, more distinctively Reformed, and less broadly evangelical. For further evidence of this consider the worship service at the founding of Ascension Presbytery. https://presbycast.libsyn.com/time-capsule-1975-rc-sproul-preaches-at-the-founding-of-ascension-presbytery.
“ALL_NPP_Emails…” p. 355.