The Purity and Peace of the Church
The PCA can have no peace until she contends for purity.
I grew up in a city with a Presbyterian seminary where breakfast tacos are renowned. But I wasn’t a Presbyterian; I was reared Lutheran.
However, and through no fault of my parents, I became a Dispensationalist through the television ministrations of one wealthy former presidential candidate. He urged viewers like me to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” with the assurance that as I sought the blessing of the Jews in “their” city, I too would be blessed.
But in college, through the ministry of Rev. Irfon Hughes and the other elders at Hillcrest Presbyterian Church, I was introduced to a better, fuller way to understand the Scripture. Instead of trying to understand the Bible through the lens of current geopolitics and the news, I learned to see the Scripture as centered on God and His glory as He redeemed His Church through the blood of His Son.
This changed my whole understanding of the Scripture and, of course, my life.
I. Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem
Psalm 122 is not about praying for the Jewish ethnic group to hold a certain town, but rather the peace that flows from God’s love for, blessing in, and reign over His Church: the place where He meets with His saints.
There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!” (Psalm 122:5–7)
The PCA is troubled and not characterized by peace within her courts despite our vows placing a premium on peace. Both for members:
Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
And especially for officers:
Do you promise to strive for the purity, peace, unity[,] and edification of the Church?
I believe the absence of peace in PCA courts is the product of a lack of purity; we don’t agree on core matters of what it is to be a Reformed Church.
Note how Psalm 122 marvels at the “thrones for judgment…of the House of David” set in Zion immediately before calling the saints to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
Right judgment must be established in the Church before the Church can have peace. To put it another way: purity must be secured before peace can be enjoyed; until the PCA unites to work for the purity of the Church, she will not have peace.
Our Confession reminds us there will be no completely pure church until Christ returns:
Particular churches…are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25:4)
Westminster gives three marks of the Church, which together are a superb measure of church health:
The Gospel Rightly Preached (biblically)
Sacraments Rightly Administered (biblically)
God Rightly Worshiped (biblically)
Those three issues are at the core of our disagreements in the PCA.1
II. Confusion in the Marks of the Church
A. Biblical Worship
In a recent episode of the most influential and significant podcast within the PCA, Elder Doug Sharp noted the difficulty of recommending a PCA church to travelers because of the broad diversity reflected in our congregations, which is nowhere more pronounced than in worship.
1. What is Worship, and Who Leads It?
Recent events suggest there is not agreement on what public worship is in the PCA. A prominent congregation in New York featured a purportedly ordained woman “teaching” in the worship service (or was it just an event that looked like a worship service; the church website lists it under “sermons,” but the page itself says it was a “BIBLE STUDY”?).2
Whether the event was understood to be a bible study or a service of public worship remains ambiguous, but what is not unclear is that the Lord’s Supper was observed during this event, which raises another issue: the propriety of observing the Lord’s Supper without the preaching of the Word. It seems there is no unity of understanding in the PCA regarding the distinction between public worship and other activities of the Church.
The example of an Episcopalian priestess preaching (or was it teaching?) in a PCA congregation may be something of an extreme, but not unique. One former Covenant Seminary administrator even took to social media to celebrate his daughter the preacher at an event in another faith communion:
Other less brazen abnormalities are more troubling because they are more common. In many PCA congregations, women and non-ordained men are leading (i.e. exercising authority over) the congregation as they read the Scripture and offer prayers on behalf of the congregation in public worship. This not only deprives the congregation of leadership and ministry by her ordained officers, but also places the congregation under the authority of women and men whom they have not chosen - elected - as their leaders, i.e. ordained officers.
2. Return to Medieval Worship
Reformed Worship restored the biblical pattern of dialogical worship in which God speaks to His people and His people respond (cf. Exod. 19-20); Reformed Worship is participatory. But the worship of many PCA congregations is regressing in appearance and form to resemble Pre-Reformation Medieval worship.
In many PCA congregations, public worship takes place in a dark room with trained professionals doing everything (singing, music, etc.), while the congregation stands mute and idle even for the so-called “congregational singing.” Instead of singing, the congregation simply sways to the music until the sermon comes. Note: this isn’t a danger only to “contemporary churches;” organs and choirs can be so loud and music so technical that the congregations in “traditional churches” can be likewise excluded.
In some PCA churches, there is little or no congregational participation and thus no dialogical or covenantal structure to the worship. They have taken their cues from mainstream / megachurch evangelicalism, which at its essence reflects a medieval understanding of worship: the trained professionals work on behalf of the people, and the congregation simply watches until it’s time for the offering.
When we do not agree on what public worship is, who may lead it, and what it entails, we cannot have peace; these are issues striking at the core of what the Church is to do. Until we have judgment resulting in greater purity of worship, there cannot be peace in the PCA.
B. Sacraments Rightly Administered
Recently the PCA endured the Federal Vision controversies, which were decisively inconclusive. Some alleged proponents of the Federal Vision heresy left the PCA. The grave errors regarding sacraments, covenants, and ecclesiology represented in the Federal Vision are a subject for another discussion.
Other issues persist. There are PCA Sessions continuing to subvert the Book of Church Order (BCO) and presuming to observe the Lord’s Supper by the innovative means of “intinction.” Rather than two distinct elements (bread and wine) as required by the BCO and Westminster Standards and witnessed in the Scripture (BCO see 58-5, WCF 29:3; cf. e.g. Matt 26:26-27), the communicants receive some sort of sacramental mush of mixed bread and wine.
The problem of intinction in the PCA is twofold. First, it misunderstands the Lord’s Supper and displays a craving for innovative and unbiblical methods for doing “churchy stuff.” Second, it reflects a refusal of such congregations (i.e. Sessions) to submit to the BCO.
The second problem is perhaps more significant than the first. How can Sessions in the PCA work together in peace if some Sessions are willing to flout the BCO if their desire for spiritual novelty demands it? We are not Congregationalists, but confessional Presbyterians with Standards.
The pure administration and observance of the sacraments is integrally linked to the faithful exercise of church discipline. We cannot have peace in the PCA until we come to right and pure judgments on the Sacraments together.
C. The Pure Gospel
I rejoice there is still widespread agreement on the gospel in the PCA. While the unbiblical worship and improper observances of the Sacraments may obscure the gospel, I think at its core the vast majority of PCA elders agree on the gospel.
Nonetheless, there are threats to the right, pure, and plain preaching of the gospel. Woke ideology and Revoice are direct challenges to the gospel because they undermine both repentance and sanctification.
If we lose the doctrine of repentance, we cannot rightly appropriate the gospel; repentance is how is Jesus commanded people to respond to the good news:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)
Likewise, sanctification is the evidence of the Spirit’s work; it is not the gospel, but those who have received Christ and responded to the gospel are sanctified - enabled to grow in holiness - by His Spirit:
and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:23–25)
1. The Woke Distortion
Throughout the history of this nation countless horrific and wicked acts have been committed against the vulnerable. However in some quarters of the PCA, correcting social wrongs and signaling sorrow for injustices have usurped the proclamation of Christ and His gospel.
One - hopefully extreme - example of this was a PCA church in which the congregants were led in a corporate prayer of confession and lament regarding their sins (or those of their ancestors) of genocide, exceptionalism, and for silencing “Native cultures,” etc.
Such confessions of sin distract from the actual sins and sinful desires of those in the congregation. It is far easier to confess the sins of other people long dead than to confess our own sins of greed, gossip, laziness, envy, arrogance, sabbath breaking, and lust and then to mortify those sins.
When woke ideology gets hold in a congregation it suffocates the true gospel. It shifts our attention from Christ’s sufficiency to cover our own sins with His grace and instead directs our attention to the sins of other people, but rather than calling them to repent, they are commanded to make reparations.
We cannot have peace in the PCA when the pure gospel is threatened with a woke distortion.
2. The Revoice Downgrade
I have heard the rejoinders criticizing those of us who raise alarm regarding Revoice demanding we articulate what “Side-Bism” or “Revoice Theology” is. I am, however, encouraged lately that even some who previously criticized those expressing concern over Revoice have come to regret their own failure to “critique and correct” publicly regarding “Revoice and some of Greg Johnson’s public statements.”3
I’m not going to attempt to define Side-Bism or “Revoice Theology,” since they are moving targets. But some quotes will help to see the threat Revoice poses to the pure preaching of the gospel.
In an interview regarding this conference geared toward those experiencing unnatural lust, one prominent and well-educated officer in the PCA rejected the idea that all people must repent even of their unchosen, non-volitional sinful desires. As the hosts pleaded with him to call the attendees of Revoice to repent because their vile passions are shameful and degrading, the PCA elder stated:
What I hear is that you are judging brothers for not repenting of something that cannot be repented of.
Later the pastor announced to the General Assembly:
My orientation has not changed and for those who are exclusively same-sex attracted who are men, we don't know for certain of even, I've talked to every head of every ministry and can't find a single instance of same-sex attraction going away.
But anecdotes and personal experience do not make our theology. The Scripture teaches we must repent not only of what we do, but what we desire to do whenever those desires are sinful, unnatural, and/or shameful. This is hard, but Christ by His Word and Spirit “makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
In a recent interview with the local affiliate of National Public Radio he stated,
My constant fear is that somebody's going to tell their kid, ‘Why can't you be one of the good gays like Greg Johnson?’” he said. “I don’t want that, because they're gonna have to come to their own conclusions about what they believe and how they want to live their life.”
Is this where we are as the PCA now: simply encouraging people to draw their own conclusions and live their own life? Have we lost the gospel, which calls all people to forsake and mortify every sin, to receive new life and spiritual power, mercy and acceptance from God in Christ? God forbid! We must proclaim the whole counsel of God in all the saving and healing power of the gospel as we sing:
He breaks the power of reigning sin, He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.
There can be no peace in the PCA if we allow these ideologies to distort our repentance and downgrade our expectations of the Spirit’s sanctifying power and influence to continue to fester in the PCA.
III. Concluding Thoughts
The problem of lack of peace in the PCA is because we disagree regarding matters so essential as the three core marks of the Church (WCF 25:4, Worship, Sacraments, Gospel). If we disagree on these essentials, we will not agree on a united vision on the mission of the Church. These are not mere semantic disagreements.
In order to have peace in the PCA, her officers must be united around the truth of Scripture, which is summarized in the Westminster Standards that we all subscribed. We must have the integrity to further the peace of the church by preserving and strengthening her purity regarding worship, sacraments, and the gospel.
There thrones for judgment were set...Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
While many prefer the three marks of the church as articulated in the Belgic Confession (Article 29), I believe the marks articulated in Westminster are superior indicators of church health not only because I am a Confessional Presbyterian, but because they provide three distinct metrics for consideration. If the sacraments rightly are administered, then church discipline is being done properly, so in my view the second and third marks of the Belgic Confession overlap too much. The Westminster Assembly was able to benefit from and improve upon the work of the Continental Reformed churches.
see here: https://www.davidpcassidy.com/blog/affirmations-and-an-appeal-for-peace-in-the-pca; TE Cassidy is to be commended for his humble acknowledgment of this oversight.