The Rise & Fall of the Presbycrats
Why the trajectory of the PCA was what it was and why it is shifting.
Despite voices warning the PCA was slipping down a progressive slope, for the most part confessional churches (now referred to by the chic as “Neo-Fundamentalists”) and progressive congregations (are they the “Neo-Liberals” according to the new chic nomenclature?) got along well enough until recently.
While they had concerns regarding some currents in the PCA, many small-and-medium-sized confessional churches were content to leave the work of General Assembly largely to others. As a result, the PCA lurched slowly, yet steadily in a broad, progressive direction until about 2019.
The 2019 and 2021 Assemblies represented a clear rejection of the broad, progressive, wing of the General Assembly. And elders at the Assembly took heed to the warnings about the slippery progressive slope.
I. Changing the PCA Trajectory
The recent unveiling of a series of emails from the once-secretive National Partnership (NP) reveals the alarm of the Progressives regarding the new trajectory of the General Assembly beginning in 2019. A member in the NP sent this email as voting was about to begin in Dallas:
After the votes were taken that same NP coordinator summarized his goals for the 2019 Assembly as follows:
While the Study Committee on Abuse was approved after receiving widespread support in the Assembly, the Assembly rejected an attempt by the NP and its allies to dilute the PCA doctrine of ordination by permitting unordained people on the committees of the General Assembly.
Even more tellingly, the Assembly resoundingly approved the Nashville Statement (NS) as a faithful summary of biblical doctrine regarding gender and human sexuality. These were two significant defeats for the progressive agenda in the PCA. For more assessment of the NP agenda, read the Session report from First Presbyterian Church.
After the approval of the NS, one of its vocal opponents took to Twitter to prophesy the ultimate victory of a progressive vision for the PCA and a defeat for those in favor of the definitions in the NS:
The 2021 GA in Saint Louis was an even more decisive defeat for the NP and the broad/progressive wing of the PCA. The PCA almost unanimously approved its solidly biblical and remarkably concise Study Report on Human Sexuality. The 2021 Assembly also delivered several other items long sought by confessional and conservative elders in the PCA:
The Assembly rejected a latitudinarian impulse on the Review of Presbytery Records Committee.
The Assembly prohibited Mission to the World from having unordained women and men in line authority supervising missionary pastors or ruling elders.
The Assembly overwhelmingly passed two overtures (23 and 37) that clearly bar anyone identifying as a Gay Christian or enslaved to other scandalous sins (e.g. racism, pornography, violence, etc.) from church office.
The Assembly largely rejected the (secret) NP slate of recommended candidates for the permanent committees, agencies, and Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA.
An organizer in the NP graciously and realistically noted the goals of the NP and their progressive colleagues were clearly not accomplished at the 2021 Assembly and they would need to take stock of their “place” in the PCA:
II. The Significance of the General Assembly
While many celebrated (or lamented) the passage of Overtures 23 and 37 (Item Three above), they are not the most significant result of the Saint Louis Assembly. Nor are they the only reason to be hopeful about a confessional renaissance in the PCA.
Item Four is the most significant because it is the permanent committees who oversee the daily operation of the PCA and recommend to the GA the hiring and firing of senior staff who set the agenda for the PCA. A few more Assemblies like Saint Louis (and to a large extent the 2019 Dallas Assembly as well) and the character of this denomination will reflect a clearer commitment to biblical fidelity and confessional integrity.
If conservative and confessional elders stay engaged and active at the General Assembly and presbytery level, we will be able to elect men to those committees and the SJC who will plot a course for the PCA within the Old Paths of the Reformed Faith, who will not prioritize “the culture’s view of the church over the church’s faithfulness to the unvarnished, countercultural, and often offensive proclamation of God’s truth,”and who will enable the courts of the PCA to uphold the Standards all her elders have subscribed.
That’s a big if; do confessional and conservative churches have the numbers to send elders to the General Assembly in 2022 to build on these successes from 2019 and 2021? I believe they do.
III. General Assembly Composition and “Packing” Committees
By contrast some progressives assert the Confessional wing lacks the votes, but simply packs committees to impose its will upon the PCA by means of the Committees of Commissioners. For example, in 2020 one emailer on the NP list alleged the following:
The author of the statement above seems to believe the main hinderance to a progressive, NP trajectory in the PCA was that conservatives were able to ‘tactically’ get themselves on committees and gum up the works even though they are a minority.
But the results of the 2021 General Assembly revealed it was not simply that the conservatives were the first to sign up at their presbyteries. The actions of the 2021 Assembly were the result of congregations and elders being deeply concerned about the trajectory of the Church they loved and then showing up at GA in larger numbers than ever before.
But still this was not clear enough; one vocal member of the NP tweeted recently to allege the acts and deliverances of the 2021 Assembly were the result of ‘stacking’ the court.
When questioned on this he doubled down on his claim of stacking and asserted that Overtures 23 and 37 failing to receive ratification by 2/3 of the presbyteries was evidence the court was “unquestionably stacked.”
When asked to elaborate on his assertion, TE Sauls was kind enough to do so, explaining he prefers “fair representation over wide participation.”
In a podcast leading up to the 2021 GA, Carl Trueman described the PCA GA as essentially an arms race: whoever shows up with the most elders wins! So TE Sauls’ point about equity is worthy of consideration at another time.
With the exception of the first General Assembly in 1973, every subsequent General Assembly has been dominated by teaching elders (TEs). Is that an equitable or fair representation of the Church?
IV. The Rise of the Presbycrats
I believe the trajectory of the PCA has shifted back toward a conservative and confessional direction. Why am I so confident? Because of the rise and fall of the presbycrats.
What is a presbycrat? It’s a portmanteau of presbyter and either technocrat or bureaucrat (or maybe both). I define it as a teaching elder who is associated with and employed by the bureaucracy of the PCA’s committees and agencies (e.g. MNA, RUF, etc.) and/or a parachurch ministry (e.g. RTS, WTS, etc.).
This is in distinction from a TE who pastors a particular church and labors alongside Ruling Elders (REs) to shepherd the flock of God in congregations of His people. Our polity allows any TE to attend General Assembly and presbytery regardless of whether he is associated with or attends a local PCA congregation.
For many years these presbycrats made up a huge proportion of the GA because of the benign neglect of the GA by many conservative and confessional congregations. They were mostly content to let the presbycrats lead the denomination. At some Assemblies 20% of all TEs were not called by any PCA congregation.
While the presbycrats certainly don’t vote as a bloc, there is an historic tendency for TEs - and especially TEs who are not accountable associated with a local congregation - to pull the denomination in a progressive direction.
V. The Fall of the Presbycrats
The influence of the bureaucracy and parachurch on the GA is waning. This is not necessarily because fewer presbycrats are attending the GA, but because their influence has been diluted by commissioners from Sessions and pastors of local churches.
Both the 2019 and 2021 Assemblies were attended in record numbers not just by any sort of elder, but pastors of churches and ruling elders. Those Assemblies began to turn the trajectory. There are hopeful signs for the 2022 GA as well: many of the “official” hotels sold out within hours of registration opening. This indicates even more churches are planning to send their elders to contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.
The influence of the presbycrats is declining, because the presbyters from the particular congregations comprising the PCA are coming to serve her in her courts. Recent PCA history shows us when more elders (TE or RE) participate in the work of the Assembly, the acts and deliverances of that particular assembly reflect a decidedly conservative and confessional vision for the PCA.
VI. The National Partnership was Right
I am not discouraged by the failure of Overtures 23 and 37 to receive a supermajority from the presbyteries. Yes, there have been some prominent people seemingly rejoicing over the failure of these amendments. But the progressives have not “won” here nor has a gay Christian movement “won” in the PCA.
The vast majority of presbyteries ratified at least one overture barring a “gay Christian” from church office. This gives strong reason to believe the elders showing up in Birmingham this June will be ready to contend for the Reformed Faith, the Westminster Standards, and biblical fidelity in the PCA especially related to sanctification and sexual ethics.
If these trends are accurate, that will enable the Assembly to adopt new overtures with even better language for the BCO that will prohibit men identified by their sins from holding church office.
But even more important than passing overtures and amending the BCO, if conservative and confessional elders continue to show up in large numbers to the Assembly, they can continue to elect confessional men to the permanent committees who will uphold our Standards and ensure the agencies of the PCA are in compliance with them. And they can elect men to the SJC who will hold men accountable when they speak of themselves “in ways that have troubled and disturbed the church” (to quote from a faithful and beloved presbycrat and a faithful and beloved RE).
The ratification of the overtures would have been helpful and a key victory, but largely symbolic. In this sense the National Partnership was right: Overtures 23 and 37 are unnecessary (but they are neither unclear nor unloving).
Everything required by these overtures is already set forth by the Westminster Standards. The problem has been an unwillingness in some presbyteries and agencies of the PCA to uphold the Standards or to interpret them according to their historic meaning. Only the permanent committees and SJC can address those issues.
It would be easy for confessional churches discouraged by the outcome of the Overtures to leave and join another communion. But instead of leaving the PCA, I urge confessional elders and congregations to be patient, to send elders to GA and presbyteries, and let us slowly fill the permanent committees with men who will hold the line on confessional integrity and biblical fidelity.
It may take a couple more years of wrangling and contention at GA, but the PCA is worth it. Let us not abandon the PCA in this season. We must press on and serve in Birmingham.
One notable exception to this is the Greensboro General Assembly in which the confessional wing of the PCA succeeded in having Northwest Georgia Presbytery cited with an exception of substance for including a purported image of the Second Person of the Trinity in their worship order in violation of WLC109. The reason for the confessional success later was revealed by documents containing the NP Correspondence: the members of the NP didn’t know this was happening and were “taken by surprise on the floor of the Assembly” (p. 255). I guess many of them didn’t read their Commissioner Handbooks to know they should be on the floor for this. This was the debate in which the Assembly was told pictures of “Jesus” should be allowed because “we all have pictures of Aslan in our office.”
“ALL_NPP_Emails…” pp. 431ff. While some NP recommended candidates were elected by the Assembly, the compositions of these committees and the SJC took a decidedly conservative and confessional turn after the 2021 GA.
No, this is not a call for a study committee.
I am aware not all TEs associated with the PCA bureaucracy or parachurch ministries vote as a bloc, and I am not implying there is such. But the instances in which progressives made their votes or sentiments known (e.g. the protest against TE Warhurst’s biblical language as “intemperate”, recorded “no” votes again O23, O37) do indicate a trend. (Cf. https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/47th_pcaga_2019.pdf, https://pcahistory.org/pca/ga/48th_pcaga_2021.pdf )
I am not advocating that elders not attached to a local congregation be barred from participation in the church courts. I advocate for wider participation in the church courts by elders of all sorts (cf. Prov. 11:18).
Drs. Guy Prentiss Waters and Jay Neikirk, “Concurring Opinion in Case 2020-12,” p. 4.
Excellent post, thanks Ryan.
Ryan, thank you. Very good analysis