The End of the Beginning
Now is the time for ordinary, small-time elders to increase their sacrificial participation in the courts of the Presbyterian Church in America.
The PCA has been at a crossroads for some time as we debate what sort of denomination the PCA will be.
Will the Presbyterian Church in America be a denomination that is “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission,” where officers and church courts uphold the Constitutional Standards of the PCA with integrity and sincerity? Or will the PCA be a denomination characterized by latitude and leniency with regard to the Standards?
Up until recently, the General Assembly of the PCA tended to issue actions and deliverances that favored that latter course: one of latitude and leniency. As I’ve written elsewhere, the presbycrats were largely allowed to run things.
But lately, attendance at the General Assembly has seen marked increase, especially since 2018 when it was so difficult for the General Assembly to grant constitutional authority to the chapter on marriage in the Book of Church Order. And a year later attendance skyrocketed after many in the PCA were scandalized by a speech in which TE Greg Johnson, PhD reflected on his unnatural lust on the floor of the Assembly.
I. Hoping for Repentance
Many throughout the PCA were shocked that a minister of the gospel would attempt to wax eloquent about his vile affections in hopes of swinging a vote against an overture. Further grief flowed seemingly every time that minister spoke publicly. During one now infamous podcast, he even seemed to go so far as to assert that unnatural affections are not within the scope of repentance:
What I hear is that you are judging brothers for not repenting of something that cannot be repented of.
From many corners of the PCA, individual elders and church courts wrote both to TE Johnson and to his presbytery urging him to repent of his views, actions, and statements. The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) even took the unprecedented step of re-opening a case before it to provide additional opportunity for clarification and corrections by TE Johnson on what he meant.
Despite the clarifications when the SJC re-opened the case, members of the Standing Judicial Commission nonetheless issued a blistering concurring opinion expressing concern regarding his “lack of clarity” and “tone-deafness” on matters of homosexual lust and other issues.
Further corrections and clarifications followed. But in addition to corrections and clarifications, TE Johnson engaged in additional speaking and writing on the subject of vile affections, which further troubled the Church.
For example, Ascension Presbytery reported on Johnson’s 2021 book Still Time to Care and noted not only grave concerns with the way TE Johnson “misuse[d] identity in Christ” but also and his “aberrant views on sexual orientation, his disregard of the confessional teaching on the heinousness and various aggravations of different sins, and his lack of interaction with the confessional understanding of the gift of continence.”
Further attempts were made to bring TE Johnson to repentance; letters were sent to his presbytery, dialogues on various media platforms, reviews of the book were written highlighting troubling aspects in Johnson’s views and ministry paradigm.
Johnson’s teaching, speaking, and writing on the issue of unnatural lust has deeply troubled the PCA. For example, two Covenant College faculty members noted a troubling lack of focus on the need for sanctification in his book:
[W]e’ve registered two substantial reservations, raising a worry about Johnson’s treatment of sanctification with respect to concupiscence and questions about the notion of sexual orientation as a fixed propensity that’s taken for granted in this book and by most participants in the broader debate. Since these themes are central to the book’s overall argument, they end up weakening his case for a paradigm of care. In our opinion, the paradigm of care is inadequate without a complementary devotion to sanctification.
The defects in his theology and practice have been noted across the spectrum of the denomination from GRN Council Members such as Jonathan Master, the aforementioned Covenant College professors, and even the Stated Clerk called the way he speaks about his unnatural desires, “highly imprudent.”
Despite all this, TE Johnson and the Session with whom he serves have refused to give heed to the concerns of the wider church on this matter. Memorial Presbyterian Church (MPC) continues to welcome transvestites to perform in its chapel as the church supports these folks earning a living from their “arts.”
II. Departing the PCA
Missouri Presbytery (MoP) has patiently attempted to shepherd MPC and TE Johnson these recent years. But despite the efforts of MoP to serve MPC, this October the MPC Session called a congregational meeting for November 18, 2022 to vote on whether to depart the PCA. In a series of letters, the Session of MPC highlighted some reasons they are recommending their congregation leave the PCA. These include:
A change in the composition of the SJC: “moving the court in a less gracious and less gospel-centered direction.”
The likelihood that Missouri Presbytery’s “concern for the peace of the denomination” would result in presbytery prohibiting MPC from hosting in their “Chapel arts venue” such events as described above.
The calls for repentance from across the denomination have driven their pastors to “anti-anxiety drugs, heart medication…professional counseling.”
Potential new cases before the church courts regarding new publications and activities of TE Johnson since the conclusion of his presbytery’s investigation of him.
That final item indicates they are aware that while TE Johnson’s presbytery concluded in 2020 there was no “strong presumption of guilt” regarding his actions, theology, and writings, TE Johnson has since become more vocal and flamboyant regarding his views. With all the new evidence TE Johnson produces, a new investigation by MoP or the SJC would not necessarily yield the same result as in 2020.
The letters from the MPC Session paint a lamentable picture. They attempt to portray the congregation as being forced out of the PCA by the “fundamentalist wing of the denomination” deliberately targeting them.
But there is another way to see what has transpired. People from all across the PCA - from the “Confessionalists, Doctrinalists, and Progressives” have finally started to speak up regarding the trouble TE Johnson and Memorial are causing the Church. TE David Cassidy humbly noted months ago the need for folks “on [his] side of the PCA” to be more proactive at highlighting the problems with Revoice and “Greg Johnson’s public statements.”
If MPC departs and TE Johnson with her, that will be a cause for lament. My hope and prayer is that MPC and TE Johnson will act like faithful presbyterians and stay in the PCA to defend their doctrine and practice in the church courts or repent of their views and practices that have so troubled the church. I sincerely hope they do not slink off to another denomination or independency and ignore the pleas from across the PCA to speak clearly and faithfully and consistently with the theology of the Westminster Standards on sexuality and sanctification.
III. Vigilance in the PCA
If MPC leaves the PCA, that is not cause for rejoicing. It means MPC and TE Johnson were able to leave without answering the questions raised about their character, actions, and views by such church courts as Ascension Presbytery and very recently Tennessee Valley Presbytery.
But even if MPC and TE Johnson leave the PCA, that does not mean there is widespread agreement on human sexuality within the PCA. Nor does it mean Johnson’s theology has been purged from the PCA.
A leader in the once-powerful National Partnership recently reflected on how “crucial” Johnson’s theology was to his addressing the issue:
The letters from the MPC Session also indicate their awareness many in the PCA are sympathetic to their views:
We hope that Memorial's withdrawal from the PCA will strengthen the hands of our friends within the denomination...we can now remove Memorial from that equation. Critics will have to find some other cause with which to rally their troops. Lord willing, that will help our friends in the denomination as they work hard to once again take leadership to ground the denomination in a humble, winsome and missiological grace.
It seems among MPC’s motivations for leaving is a desire to strengthen the hands of the progressive wing of the denomination. They imagine TE Johnson is simply a “wedge issue” and their departure will help Johnson’s allies “retain control over the denomination and its agencies.”
While some from the progressive wing have begun to note there may be some problems with Revoice or TE Johnson’s theology, many of them seem to still be sympathetic toward him.
A recent tweet by former Covenant Seminary student Grant Hartley was “liked” by not a few PCA elders:
Sadly, for some PCA elders, the calls to repent and letters highlighting dissonance between the Westminster Standards and the statements or actions of TE Johnson and the MPC Session represent wicked, despicable harassment.
The letters from the Memorial Session highlight the need for continued vigilance and sacrificial participation in the Church courts. There are still those in the PCA who find little troubling about what has been happening in Saint Louis. It is no surprise then that part of MPC’s reason for leaving is to strengthen the hand of their allies in the church courts who seem to share - or at least tolerate - their views on such things.
Memorial’s leaving (or repentance!) would not mark the end of trouble in the PCA. It would certainly be a significant event that perhaps might mark - to borrow from Sir Winston - “the end of the beginning” of the recent struggle for purity and peace, confessional integrity and biblical fidelity in the PCA.
But regardless, whether MPC and her elders repent or flee into independency, elders across the PCA must remain vigilant. The MPC Session’s letters express a desire that their departure will somehow empower their allies who stay in the PCA to “shift the culture of the denomination.” One wonders after reading their letters: is it the MPC Session’s desire to leave and then come back after their allies have made the PCA culture suitable for them?
That is a real possibility. We must not go down this road of sexual confusion any further, but must turn back and diligently work toward restoring purity and peace to the PCA.
Great progress has been made in the courts of the church over the last few years at strengthening our denomination’s commitment to the gospel and the historic Reformed faith. We must not think recent news out of Saint Louis is cause to slacken or pause. News from Saint Louis should stir us to remain vigilant against any who would erode the freedom of the gospel: freedom from the penalty of sin, freedom from the power of sin, and one day freedom from the presence of sin.
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Is it your hope that MPC's departure from the PCA will, in some way, dissuade the Scott Sauls ect. from intensifying their efforts to fundamentally change the denomination? Even if MPC departs, isn't it possible that those in his frame of mind will seek to find another "poster boy" to foist upon an already weary population.
Win by attrition, the narrative must survive (see Mr. Johnson's "war" quote).
The progressives in the PCA have shown themselves to be ready, willing and able to cloak themselves in the mechinations of the secular political left.
By way of PCA history, it only took 100 years to come full circle to the H.E. Fosdick/J.G. Machen controversy and, more recently, the definition of concupiscience.
I've already determined that the TE of the PCA church I attend is certainly of this frame of mind when he said, quite forcefully, that Mr. Johnson is "a Christian and a Godly man." Honestly, I could not believe what I was hearing, but I knew exactly where he was coming from, his definition of concupiscence.
Please keep writing, Ryan. Your words are not wasted.
Excellent commentary. Encouraged to see your analysis.