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It's Not Time to Leave
The PCA is at a crossroads deciding which direction to take. Now is not the time to rush the exits.
As we wait to see whether attempts to amend the Book of Church Order to explicitly prohibit the ordination of a “Gay Christian” will succeed, I remain optimistic about the PCA regardless of the outcome on this issue. I do not believe now is the time to consider leaving the PCA. Now is the time to make sure to be involved in the church courts especially the presbyteries.
The PCA is at a crossroads, which is a good thing; issues that have been under the surface are now coming to the forefront. We are deciding which way to go, and that takes time.
I. Historical Context for the PCA
A. Trajectory of the Presbyterian Church in America
The PCA was founded by churches leaving the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) because of the stranglehold of Liberalism within that denomination. That Liberalism was rooted in the PCUS seminaries, which stunted the Reformed witness of even the best churches in the PCUS.
While the PCA has always been a confessionally Reformed communion, in the last generation she has experienced a renaissance of Reformed faith, piety, and worship thanks in no small measure to the founding of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson.
I witnessed on a small scale the fruit of the patient efforts of RTS Jackson in transforming the churches of Mississippi into vibrant, warm centers of Reformed faith, piety, and worship.
Since that time more seminaries have come to serve the PCA such as “the Westminsters” and Greenville. Faithful professors there have built on the foundation laid at RTS Jackson to educate men in the heritage of the Puritans and Old School Presbyterians.
Those old paths - so neglected even by the best churches and seminaries of the PCUS during the 20th Century - are celebrated by the institutions training ministers for the service of Christ and His Church in the PCA. And God’s Spirit is doing a mighty work throughout the PCA.
There is a growing number of churches of the PCA that are distinctively devoted to the Reformed Faith as summarized by the Westminster Standards. Over the last 50 years, the churches of the PCA have become more obviously Reformed in character than they were in 1973.
The trajectory of the denomination is not one that is trending toward Liberalism or even progressivism. To consider leaving now, risks discarding the slow and winsome work of a generation that is long been flowering in the churches, which is now bearing abundant fruit throughout the PCA.
Let us be patient and active in the PCA. By the blessing of the Spirit, the ongoing work of faithful Reformed seminaries, and the slow, quiet work of countless elders in many congregations, the future is bright for those in the PCA committed to the historic Reformed Faith.
B. Study the Lutherans
Too many presume an inevitable confessional or conservative retreat to form a new denomination because of what happened with the OPC in 1936 or the PCA in 1973. But that neglects truth’s victories over error in recent decades (and misdiagnoses the PCA’s condition).
There are recent instances of beating back liberalizing (or Barthian) trends in other denominations (e.g. the in ARP). The best example of this is probably the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Seminex.Like the PCA, the LCMS is a confessional, Protestant denomination that was battling worldly influences.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy simmered longer for the Lutherans than it did for the Presbyterians, but by the 1960s it came to a head. The denomination suspended the liberal president of their flagship seminary, Concordia Seminary Saint Louis, which prompted a walkout by the liberal faculty and students in 1974.
The denomination held its ground against the vocal complaints of aggrieved liberals. But the liberals left for good; several hundred congregations left the LCMS and the liberals faculty founded a new (but quickly defunct) seminary called Seminex.
Because the Lutherans stood their ground, the vast majority of the congregations stayed loyal to the denomination and the LCMS continues as a faithful, confessional, Protestant denomination with nearly two million members today.
While there are no Theological Liberals in the PCA, TE Harry Reeder has ably shown the progressivism plaguing the PCA is “cut from the same bolt of cloth.”I believe the LCMS experience with Seminex is instructive for the PCA. Rather than leave the PCA, we can and should hold our ground and hold progressives accountable to our confessional standards (the ones they too profess to embrace).
II. Reasons to Stay in the PCA
A. The Gravity of Departure
We have all taken vows pledging our worship with and service to the PCA. Leaving the PCA at this point is premature. Yes, there are troublesome ministers and troublesome presbyteries. But there are no errors tolerated in the PCA of the magnitude that J. Gresham Machen or Morton Smith battled.The time to leave has not yet come. However grieved and saddened we are by some actions and developments, we must remember the church courts move slowly. Let us not splinter off prematurely, which will weaken the conservative, confessional core of the PCA which needs every elder, every member present and informed.
B. The Presbytery Votes
Even if the required 67% of presbyteries fail to approve the critical BCO Amendments this year, I remain optimistic about the health of the PCA. If the amendments are not approved, that doesn’t mean the PCA has sided with progressives, post-modernists, or the Gay “Christian” movement.
Consider the votes within the presbyteries, for example. Each Presbytery receives one vote regardless of its size. The raw data available reveal a good number of the presbyteries rejecting the amendments are extraordinarily small in terms of number of churches and elders.For example, one presbytery voting against these amendments had only 14 elders present and that presbytery’s vote counts just as much as a presbytery with 100 or more elders.
C. The Results of General Assembly
The last two General Assemblies (2019, 2021) have witnessed increased participation especially by Ruling Elders, and those two Assemblies delivered critical victories for those seeking greater confessional integrity in the PCA.
The recommendation in 2019 of the Nashville Statement sent a clear message that those who embrace “Side B”/ Gay Christianity are clearly a minority. The 2021 Assembly overwhelmingly followed up with proposed BCO changes and an unambiguous study committee report on this matter.
Additionally, the 2021 Assembly rejected the secret slate of progressive candidates and instead elected men who have demonstrated an unabashed love for the Reformed Faith and the Westminster Standards. There are strong indications the 2022 Assembly in Birmingham will see even greater participation by ruling elders, which will help to solidify the composition of the permanent committees. In just a few years, it is possible to completely change the leadership of the PCA. But that will not happen if the PCA’s confessional churches depart prematurely.
D. The PCA is Worth Fighting For
1. The Difficulty of Constitutional Changes
If the BCO changes fail this year, that would be disappointing, yet not decisive. It is good that it is difficult to change the Book of Church Order.
The proposed amendments will almost certainly receive well over 50% approval. So if they fail, we need to simply send them up again with perhaps even better language. We should take a long view and patiently press on.
2. Have We Fought for the PCA?
Many conservatives and confessional presbyterians had not participated in the higher courts of the church with any regularity until recently. Many congregations sent a ruling elder to General Assembly for the first time in 2021. Many confessional and conservative congregations are only now beginning to participate in the courts of the church.
The group seeking to alter the character of the PCA has been laboring quietly in secret for a long time, and they achieved limited success while their activities went largely unnoticed. But when elders recognized the denomination was being pulled in the wrong direction, they started showing up in greater numbers and voting!
As a result, for the first time in a while conservative, confessional presbyterians started seeing success on the floor of the Assembly; let’s not be discouraged even if the amendments are not approved this year. Let us commit to continuing the confessional renaissance in the PCA even to the point of being maligned as an “agitator” or a “disaster” by those who do not share our commitment to the Westminster Standards.
3. “We Are the Majority”
But being the “majority” doesn’t matter. What matters is our obedience to the Scripture, our faithfulness to the Standards to which we have subscribed, and our prayerful devotion to Christ the King. The results of the last two General Assemblies are strong indications this is not the time to leave, but rather the time to become more engaged.
Why leave if it seems we will be able to prevail at key GA votes? Why leave without seeing if again this year we can elect more men to the permanent committees whose “views on subscription, confessionalism” reflect a joyful, beautiful devotion to our Reformed heritage?Why leave if it appears a majority of the presbyteries are opposed to having a “Gay Christian” as an officer in the PCA? Leaving now is needless; we saw in 2021 and 2019 what happens when our men show up and “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
The likely failure of the BCO amendments is a setback; this is not a victory for the Gay Christian movement or the progressives within the PCA. We should stop acting like it is.
4. The Westminster Standards
The PCA is a confessional denomination and our Standards are a faithful summary of the Scripture. We need to do the hard, unpopular work on the Session and Presbytery levels of holding men accountable to them (as TE Jon Payne has argued here).We need to start asking hard questions on the floor of presbyteries when men come for examinations; this means reviewing a candidate’s exams before the day of presbytery. We must be ready to require men to defend any differences they have with the Standards. We must be ready to speak against approving some differences and be willing to do what is perhaps not popular in our presbyteries, but do it in a joyful, kind, loving, and beautiful way.
Our Standards faithfully summarize the Scripture; we should start enforcing them. Men who disagree with our Standards should have the integrity to seek ecclesiastical fellowship elsewhere rather than disturb the peace of the PCA. Holding men accountable to the Standards is how we create a healthier, more beautiful, more biblical PCA.
5. The Bride of Christ
The PCA is not just any voluntary organization. She is part of the bride of Christ. Why would we abandon her to the progressive wing with barely a fight? Perhaps we will feel a sense of relief if we depart with our buildings and our bank accounts and leave a bunch of frustrations behind. But is that what we ought to do?
No; this is not the time to shrink back from hardship. We must still stay and contend for the glory of Christ and the purity of His bride here in the PCA. Not only is there too much at stake for us to leave now, but there are too many indications the Lord is blessing with success our efforts to bring the PCA to a place of greater confessional integrity and unity than ever before. Now is the time to stand.
In a subsequent post, I’ll address some of the reasons in favor of leaving the PCA and why I find them largely unpersuasive and give suggestions for how to proceed while we are at this crossroads.
Yes, I realize WTS was founded well before either RTS or GPTS, however it was not until the founding of the PCA that ministers in the Southern Church could obtain degrees from WTS. I recall Rev. Prof. Morton Smith telling the class how he considered obtaining a degree from WTS in Philadelphia, but was counseled that if he wanted to minister effectively in the PCUS, he needed to graduate from one of her seminaries. The founding of the PCA opened up a wide range of training options for her ministers.
Let us not forget Machen did not leave the PCUSA until he was forced out. The PCUSA at that time not only ordained women (as deacons), but also tolerated ministers who rejected the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and even the atonement.
“ALL_NPP_Emails…” p. 319.
ibid., p. 335.
Ibid., p. 319.